Church History and Sects
A chapter from GROW! Meditations and Prayers for New Christians.
1. An Overview of Church History
The early churches experienced diversity: the church in Corinth was not the same as that which produced the Fourth Gospel, or another in Thessalonica. But there was unity-in-diversity; they were being persecuted, first by Jews, then by Romans, and many Christians in the first three centuries paid for their faith with their lives.
Why were they persecuted? Christians declared 'Jesus is Lord'; for loyal Romans Caesar was lord. Other religions lost devotees, and their temple priests and traders lost business. Christians opposed the cruel Roman sports, and so all kinds of accusations were leveled against them including cannibalism (because of their doctrine of the Lord's Supper) and subversion (the Roman authorities had a horror of 'secret societies).
But people began to admire Christians' courage and strong faith, and their numbers grew.
Enter Constantine. Dramatically converted at the Battle of Milvian Bridge (AD 312) he was the first Roman emperor to give Christianity protection by law. Temples were converted into churches; many harsh laws were 'Christianized'. The Christian church became the State church. Grants were made for new churches; church leaders accepted high government positions.
However, though peace ruled, spiritual decay set in. Promotion within the church often became a matter of selfish ambition, and bribery. Policy became increasingly determined by State officials and not by prayerful believers. Masses of half-converted people were added to the church.
Meanwhile, church leaders and conferences had to deal with various heresies, like
* Gnosticism - a mix of Christianity, eastern mythologies and pagan philosophy. God, they said, was unknowable and remote, with many 'emanations' between him and human beings;
* Monatanism - fanatics and ascetics who majored on 'enthusiasm', the gifts of the Spirit, and the imminent end of the world, and
* Arianism, which taught that the Son was inferior to the Father.
After 'barbarians' invaded the Roman Empire at the end of the fourth century popes became more powerful, and some of them were very evil. Priests and monks were often wealthy, living in luxury. Indulgences - the purchase of God's blessings with money - were commonly sold throughout Europe. Outward acts like masses for the dead, pilgrimages, and the veneration of sacred objects and places tended to replace inward faith. About 1000 AD the Orthodox churches broke away, and have continued as separate entities (like the Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox churches) ever since.
Yet some of the greatest Christians ever - like Francis of Assisi - lived in these 'Dark Ages'. The Protestant Reformation grew out of a disenchantment with the evils and errors of the medieval church. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenburg church door in 1517. Out of this Reformation grew the Lutheran churches (mainly in northern Europe), the Church of England, the Calvinistic (Presbyterian) family of churches, and the Anabaptists (forerunners of the Baptists and Mennonites).
Later there were to be movements which grew out of these, eg. the Methodists and later the Plymouth Brethren out of the Church of England.
According to one authority (David Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia, reported verbally at the Lausanne II Congress in Manila, 1989), there are 20,800 different Christian 'denominations' in the world today. Postscript: in 1996, the figure is likely to be nearer 26,000.
A bishop once wrote a pamphlet asking where the church stood. Someone responded that the church did not stand at all, but 'moves and pushes and slides and staggers and falls and gets up again, and stumbles on and presses forward and falls into the right position after all. That's what church history is all about.
2. Sects and Christian Deviations
In every church or denomination, there are good and not-so-good features. No church can legitimately point the finger of accusation at others. We are all in need of redemption.
However, the New Testament warns about false teachers, and they have always been with us. These are people who get a major doctrine (like the full deity and manhood of Jesus) wrong. They often have other wonderful qualities: they are very committed to the Lord, they may know their Bibles very well, and are sometimes very 'holy' people. But some key Christian tenets have always been non-negotiable.
Here we will not elaborate on particular 'sects' or 'cults' but look at the general picture. Someone comes to your door with a Special Message for you. They have mapped history from the Old Testament prophets and the Book of Revelation, and Armageddon is just around the corner. If you join their group you'll be saved. If not...
What drives these people? Cults and sects are strongest where the church is weakest. But everyone has a basic need for spiritual answers to life's great dilemmas. In modern society more people feel alienated and lonely. So these groups appeal to their converts' needs for acceptance and meaning, providing instant community. 'You can be someone special,' they say. 'The world - or your church - has hurt you. Join us for healing Even at Jonestown, where more than 900 died in a mass suicide, the people thought they had discovered a better way of life.
These new religions tend to form around a self-proclaimed prophet. These charismatic leaders insist on rigorous codes of conduct and behavior for their followers, complete sometimes with new names, new clothes, new hairstyles, even new birthdays. They tell their members the rest of the world is evil, and forbid contact with other groups which might contaminate the purity of their 'truth'.
When someone comes along and says 'I have the key to the cosmos, I know the answer,' it can be liberating at first for a confused person. They feel they've 'come home'. They belong. Everything now is so certain. They are offered free gifts, meals, or a free 'no obligation' lecture. Sometimes you'll be asked 'Are you afraid to hear another point of view?' Some sects have perfected the use of subliminal messages, conveyed through key words which are stressed in ordinary conversation.
Then the group will reinforce motivation by making the novice behave in a certain way. The new recruit will then be more likely to trust the leaders. 'Just trust me,' they will be told, 'you can ask questions later.' Sometimes disorientation due to lack of sleep, a heavy work schedule, deprivation of certain vitamins etc. heighten suggestibility. Privacy is taken away, and loyalty demanded.
But eventually most will drop out. The leader has feet of clay. The group promises more than it delivers. The prophet's forecasts (about the return of Christ in a certain year etc.) are proved false. They find better-put-together people in another group.
Advice from those who specialize in understanding these cults includes: record all names, addresses and phone numbers of people known to be associated with the cult; don't criticize your child's involvement, keep 'cool', avoid threats, and remain open for all communication. Don't send money or hand over original documents, and don't give up trying to get your children back.
If the cult is associated with the occult, and has seances, etc. don't get involved! If you once did, seek a pastoral counselor to get help.
The main lesson: many people will use their brand of religion to harm people. There are enough young people who have been harmed by cults to warrant a warning. Although your church may not be as exciting, stick with it, prayerfully asking the Lord how you can enhance its worship and witness.
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