Truth and Error, The Fall of the Church, and the Fathers

Well, it’s been a while; over 2 weeks.

So this will lightly touch on several subjects.

Email Rumors: Taking Things With a Grain of Salt

I had an email forwarded to me titled "Interesting Facts." It read:

This October has 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays, and 5 Sundays, all in 1 month. It happens once in 823 years. These are considered money bags months, based on Chinese fengshui.

That is interesting!

That isn’t true!

Think about this a minute. Why does October have 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays, and 5 Sundays, all in 1 month?

It’s because October has 31 days and starts on a Friday.

Do you really think that a 31 day month—there’s 7 of them each year—only starts on a Friday once every 823 years?

The last time a month had 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays, and 5 Sundays was January, 2010. That’s not quite 823 years ago.

The last time October had 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays, and 5 Sundays was 2004. That’s also a bit short of 823 years.

The day a month starts on goes forward one day of the week each year because a year is 52 weeks and one day long. Thus, next year, October will start on a Saturday.

The exception is a leap year, when the starting day jumps two days of the week forward. So, normally, October will have 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays, and 5 Sundays every six years right on schedule, except when a leap year makes it jump from Thursday to Saturday. In that case, it will be 12 years between such Octobers, making it average out to exactly once every 7 years, which is what you’d expect since there’s 7 days in a week.

Back to Christianity

I was told that I spread "vile calumny" because of my teaching on the fall of the church.

I’ve been asked what I mean by that a lot, so I wrote a page explaining myself.

That page has a "What To Do About It" section that might be considered a wee bit controversial, but seems to me to be the only logically consistent step. I think that those who long for the purity of the church already know that’s what needs to be done.

On the Early Church Fathers

There’s a bloke (I hope that’s just a general word and not insulting in anyway; my English is a little lacking) from England who is probably going to think at some point that he provides most of the material for my blog. Half the time he writes me, I write a blog on the subject.

The truth is that the majority of everything that I write is prompted by questions. The rest is prompted by news reports or teachings I hear.

For example, the page I link above was prompted by a question from an Orthodox bishop in Jerusalem. Normally it would be gratifying to know a Jerusalem bishop is reading my site, but since he compared me to Jews who insult Jesus, I probably shouldn’t get too excited.

Anyway, I hope none of you think I’m recommending following everything the early church fathers said as though they’re some sort of second set of Scriptures!

The idea is to get as clear a picture as we can of the faith as it was practiced in the apostolic churches.

We can claim all we want that all we need is the Bible, but that’s not Biblical and it’s clear to see in real life that it doesn’t work. Look around. Real Christians who really have the Spirit and really want to know the will of God end up not only differing on Bible interpretations, but even dividing over them.

I bolded that for a reason. Division will send you to hell (Gal. 5:19-21).

That’s one key area where we’re off Biblically. We divide from one another like there’s no consequences. Oh, too bad, we think.

Yeah, well, Biblically and historically, that’s like shrugging off adultery or bank robbery. You don’t shrug it off. You confess, repent, and do everything in your power to make it right.

Anyway, the point of knowing what the early church fathers taught is not to do or believe everything they say. It’s to get a good general picture of the faith as it was known in the apostolic churches.

For example, Ignatius of Antioch puts an extreme emphasis on the importance of the bishop in the churches he writes to. He has 7 letters that he wrote in either A.D. 107 or 116, just 40 to 50 years after Peter and Paul were executed for the name of Jesus.

His letters stand out because there’s nothing else like them in his time period. Had he written his letters in A.D. 207 rather than 107, they would not have stood out so much. If he had written them in 307, they would not have stood out at all.

Ignatius wrote at a time that the gnostics were still in the church, dividing it and spreading false doctrines. John’s Gospels and letters had probably only been written a decade or two earlier, and the letters address gnosticism directly. So do Ignatius’ letters.

Ignatius, however, had a different solution than John did, a solution that must have seemed obvious to him: stick to the bishop.

Why? Schools of that day were simply homes or shops with a shingle hung out front. Gnostic teachers easily set up their own schools, took in students, and taught what they wanted without supervision and accountability. Then the teacher and his students would mingle with other members of the churches and spread their heresies (which at that time did not mean false doctrines, but doctrines which divided Christians).

Ignatius solution? Don’t go to those schools unless the bishop tells you it’s okay. Definitely don’t go to a baptism unless the bishop has approved it, or you could wind up baptized by an non-Christian heretic!

So what do we learn from Ignatius?

I don’t recommend simply following his suggestion unless your bishop—that word just denoted the head elder of a church in Ignatius’ writings—is a man you ought to follow.

What I do recommend is learning. The church in Ignatius’ day was free! Church members baptized freely, it seems, or Ignatius would not have had to tell them to stop doing so without the bishop’s permission. People taught the Scriptures freely, and church members were free to attend each others’ teachings, or else Ignatius would not have had to tell them to make sure those teachings were checked out by the bishop.

This is the purpose of the early Christian writings. There are important global things to learn! Such as …

They had a rule of faith that was the limit of what Christians were required to believed. How much of the canon was developed? You may also be surprised to learn what their focus was.

I hope that’s clear. I don’t recommend just following whatever they say. Overall, I do think there was a couple things that crept into the church early. They had a negative view of sex in marriage and honored lifetime virginity in a way that seems clearly unscriptural to me. The authority of and emphasis on church leadership, and the divide between "clergy" and "laity," grew quickly, though that did not really even begin until the middle of the 2nd century.

Things the Fathers Taught

I do recommend knowing what the church was like, however. It’s worth knowing that no one believed in a purely symbolic communion or baptism for centuries after the time of Christ. Baptism was the point of conversion, not a sinner’s prayer, and the believers all thought they received grace and power from eating the fellowship meal.

They were exceptionally gracious in allowing variance of opinions on doctrines, they did not all speak in tongues, and they did not believe in taking lives …. even in war. Their emphasis was on behavior, not theological doctrines.

All those things are global things that the church, not just any individual fathers, taught, and those things are worth knowing.

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7 Responses to Truth and Error, The Fall of the Church, and the Fathers

  1. thisrestlesspilgrim says:

    > "They had a negative view of sex in marriage and honored lifetime virginity in a way that seems clearly unscriptural to me"

    I'd be interested to know on what you base this opinion. Didn't Jesus speak about "eunochs for the Kingdom" and didn't Paul affirm celibacy for the sake of Kingdom? (And quotes from Tertullian and John Chrysostom on romantic love and marriage usually make it into most of my congratulatory wedding cards)

    > "The authority of and emphasis on church leadership, and the divide between "clergy" and "laity," grew quickly, though that did not really even begin until the middle of the 2nd century."

    I'm quite surprised you say this given the constant refrain of Ignatius' letters is "Do nothing without the bishop". Clement's letter which pre-dates (c. 96 AD) even Ignatius' writings places great emphasis on the distinction between clergy and laity.

    > "They were exceptionally gracious in allowing variance of opinions on doctrines"

    Over some things, certainly, but over other issues they were as stubborn as any contemporary Christian you might find. You don't want to believe Jesus had a body? Sorry, that's required belief if want to be part of the fellowship…

    > "Their emphasis was on behavior, not theological doctrines."

    I think you're painting with a brush here that is somewhat too broad. The Early Church held that doctrine was extremely important. Ignatius fought the Docetists because of their doctrine. However, in fighting their doctrine he also pointed out their behaviour – lack of charity and abstention from the Eucharist, both of which flowed from their false doctrine.

    Anyway, there are a few thoughts. Coffee is now drunk. Back to work!

  2. thisrestlesspilgrim says:

    Hey brother, I've been meaning to comment on this post for a while, but as usual, time has been short. Still, I have a coffee, a keyboard and ten minutes, so here goes…

    > "bloke"

    Don't worry, this isn't a derogatory term to an Englishman. In fact, it's almost quite fraternal.

    > "Ignatius, however, had a different solution than John did"

    I don't think it's completely different. For example, 2 John 1:10 sounds very similar to Ignatius' advice to "avoid such people".

    > "…which at that time did not mean false doctrines, but doctrines which divided Christians"

    Could you explain what you mean by this a bit more? In the case of the Docetists, was this "false doctrine" or "doctrine which divided Christians"?

    > "I don’t recommend simply following his suggestion unless your bishop…is a man you ought to follow"

    How is one to determine whether or not he is a man who ought to followed?

    > "The church in Ignatius’ day was free! Church members baptized freely, it seems, or Ignatius would not have had to tell them to stop doing so without the bishop’s permission"

    I may be misunderstanding your point here, but I'm afraid I'm not really convinced by the logic presented.

    To begin with, Ignatius doesn't tell them to "*stop* [baptizing] without the bishop's permission", he tells them that such a thing is not lawful. To the best of my knowledge, the grammar here doesn't imply that this was something which had been going on which needed to be stopped.

    Also, should we then conclude that Polycarp was ignoring the troublesome disciples, lacking in zeal, inconsistent in prayer, neglecting of widows etc? Ignatius exhorts him in all these areas, but this doesn't necessarily mean that these were all areas in which Polycarp was falling short. Many times Ignatius warns his readers of something and then adds a comment saying that he knows they're not doing/believing this, but that he's warning them in advance. He often praises a church for its unity, and then exhorts them to it anyway.

    Next, even if some *had* been baptising without the bishop's permission, this doesn't mean that this was the widespread, standard belief and practice at the time. If my pastor speaks against abortion in his Sunday sermon I don't automatically conclude that my entire church is pro-choice. No, he is speaking to the few members of our congregation who hold a contrary view and exhorting the rest of us to hold firm.

    Most importantly, however, is that you say Church members baptized freely, but in the same sentence point out that Ignatius told them that they shouldn't do that! So if they did have this freedom (if one would consider this a "freedom") it would appear that Ignatius wanted to take it away from them. One can only assume that this had been standard policy in Antioch for the last 37 years of Ignatius' leadership.

    > "People taught the Scriptures freely, and church members were free to attend each others’ teachings, or else Ignatius would not have had to tell them to make sure those teachings were checked out by the bishop."

    Again, I'm not really sure of the logic here for the same reasons above. Ultimately, Ignatius warns them to avoid all contact the "noxious weeds" because of the dangers of false doctrine spreading. If indeed "People taught the Scriptures freely" (which Scriptures these would be would also an interesting question), it appears that Ignatius wanted to put a stop to that.

    • shammahbn says:

      I don't think John had different advice than Ignatius on avoiding gnostics. Paul, John, Ignatius, and everyone else was for dividing from the gnostics.

      John said that to avoid being seduced by the gnostics (your "docetists" is admittedly a more accurate term at that time), the church should together be led by the anointing into truth. Ignatius' answer was to adhere closely to the bishop. Those two things are different.

      The word "heresy" is from a Greek word meaning choice. It gets translated "sect" several times in Acts. Nowadays, "heresy" is a false teaching. At that time, it was a teaching that led to division. Tertullian discusses this some in his Prescription Against Heretics.

      As far as what Ignatius was speaking against, I think it's usually easy to tell the difference between general exhortations and a problem that's being addressed. No one can read Ignatius' letters and not see that there was a problem with gnostics in the church, baptizing apart from the bishop, and leading people into error. People were following false teachers. Surely, that can't be missed in his letters.

  3. John Michael says:

    (Cont'd…) I agree with George MacDonald when he says that if we actually trust God, not our thoughts about God, and live our lives doing what He wants us to do as best as we know how, that we are safe, because He will correct us, because I've seen it here. Love and unity: that's good doctrine! For, "Wherever two or more are gathered in my name (i.e.,really representing me), there I am, also."

  4. John Michael says:

    Wow! I've been meditating for a while on first part of this passage from Paul's letter to the Galatians (Gal. 5:14), where he says that the fulfillment of the law is summed up in loving your neighbor, leaving out the part about loving God, and the implications thereof. (That loving God is summed up in true love for your neighbor?) After reading the whole passage again, in the context you helped me see,it is obviously all about the contrast between using people around you selfishly, or loving people around you selflessly. The tendency I used to have, when reading scripture, was to examine the individual parts, like a scientist (as I was taught), rather than reading passages as a whole thought, as it is written. Thanks for helping me deprogram my brain some more.

    • shammahbn says:

      Learning to read Scripture in the context of Scripture rather than in the context of what we've been taught in the past is difficult. Most people are very, very possessive of their denomination's teachings. Individually, we can be prone to that at Rose Creek Village, but overall, that's one of the things I've always loved the village and about Noah (and now the elders in general), is that we were always open to looking at things differently.

      On the other hand, I'm not sure what you mean. What did I say about Galatians 5?

      • John Michael says:

        That division, not "wrong doctrine" (at least in the sense many modern evangelicals and others use the words), like many of us had been taught, "will send you to hell". I reread the whole passage, and it was all about taking care of each other (love and unity) vs. selfish fleshliness, which leads to disunity and shows a lack of God's love. Also, I recently, after reading what you wrote about heresy originally meaning teachings that divided, I looked the definition. I was meditating on this and the fact of the many missteps we made in our understanding, along the way, and that "perfect doctrine", in the modern sense, is not what led to what God has done here in TN, but, rather that, staying together to follow the living God, led to a greater measure of truth and more perfect doctrine because He causes those who diligently seek Him, in the way He says to do so, to find Him and be led in all truth. Cont'd…

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