The Way

Readable, accessible, and straightforward – these are terms not often associated with books on ecclesiastical history and evolution of doctrine in the post-Apostolic era. The doctrinal debates in which the “church fathers” engaged were convoluted and arcane. This means that many of the books which have sought to document these matters, while they might be erudite, are usually also tedious, complex and heavy going for most readers. That certainly was not the case with Losing The Way, a new book by Brother Laurence Lepherd, published recently by the Christadelphian Scripture Study Service.

In Acts, the gospel message preached by the Apostles is referred to as “the way”, reflecting the Lord’s statement that he was “the way, the truth and the life”. In his remarkably succinct book, Brother Laurence demonstrates how “the way,” as enunciated by the Lord and preached by the Apostles, became corrupted so quickly after the ascension of the Lord. Indeed, as the book acknowledges, that process of corruption commenced even during the lifetime of the Apostles, who sought to warn the early believers of the threats to doctrinal integrity that were emerging (e.g. Acts 20:29-31).

After an opening chapter entitled ‘The Way’, the author addresses several key themes where a decline in doctrinal purity can be observed in the first few centuries of the Christian era. In each of these chapters, he commences by summarising the teaching of the Bible on that theme before he quotes from early church writers to show how errors were introduced and promoted. A feature of the book is its reliance only on primary sources; the author makes his case using only the words of writers from the period rather than the views and interpretations of writers in later centuries.

Purity of the Gospel Degraded

Losing The Way shows very clearly how the purity of the gospel became degraded and false teachings such as the trinity and belief in an immortal soul evolved. It is, however, more than a history text documenting these developments. In the process of describing how errors arose in the first three centuries, the book has lessons that are very relevant to ecclesial life in the twenty-first century.

Bro Laurence shows that two key factors under-pinned a drift from apostolic doctrine to church error:

The emergence of a hierarchy which assumed responsibility for determining which teachings were sound and which were not, and the complicity of the lay members in allowing their leaders to do their thinking for them. The author adopts a balanced approach to the need for sound ecclesial leadership while avoiding a usurpation of the responsibility of individuals to “work out their salvation”. In this context, his comments about Hebrews 13:17 are well worth considering; and a tendency to over-define doctrinal issues and, in the process, deviating from the use of biblical language and introducing non-biblical terms, thus muddying the waters in relation to issues being debated. As the author says, “Early churchmen through over-explanation of simple principles, confused correct doctrine and became erroneous” (page 108). Our own community has been troubled by this same problem at times over the past 150 years.

A Reminder of the Need to Meet Doctrinal Challenges

The book notes the negative impact of dominant personalities in the creation of factions in the early ecclesias. Paul warned the Corinthians about this in 1 Corinthians 1:10, and the author quotes from later non-inspired writers to Corinth to demonstrate that this continued to be a problem long after Paul had died. There are lessons in this that continue to be applicable today.

Bro Lepherd’s book is a valuable contribution to the brotherhood’s literature and a timely reminder of the need to uphold Apostolic teaching in the face of threats posed by other philosophies. It is also a timely reminder of the need to meet doctrinal challenges when they arise in ways which do not compromise the soundness of the ecclesia in the longer-term.