It is believed that the Apostle John died at about the end of the first century. He was the last living link with the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit gifts would also have disappeared at about this time. From then on the disciples would have to rely on the written Word of God alone for the teaching of their Lord. This inevitably opened the way for interpretation as to the meaning of certain passages and consequently for disagreements as to their relevance for members of the ecclesia without the benefit of an authoritative voice to settle disputes.

It is evident from passages such as 1 John 4:1 that even before the death of John there were within the ecclesias individuals who were departing from the purity of apostolic teaching. And it is clear from passages such as 2 Thessalonians 2 and 2 Peter 2 that false teachers would arise and lead many astray in the post-apostolic era. We are not surprised, therefore, that apostolic teaching about the followers of Christ and their relation to the wider community was compromised at that time. In many ways differences of view in relation to this matter became a measure of the corruption of the ecclesia.

The uncompromising teachings of Christ and the apostles inevitably placed believers at odds with the Roman authorities. Edward Gibbon says of the first Christians that “their simplicity was offended by the use of oaths, by the pomp of magistracy, and by the active contention of public life; nor could their humane ignorance be convinced that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow-creatures, either by the sword of justice or by that of war” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 15). Over time this clear line of demarcation between believers and the state was blurred as the ecclesia itself apostatised into the Roman Catholic Church.

Apostasy corrupts the ecclesia

Under the first seal (Rev 6:1–2) from 96 to about 180AD the Roman world enjoyed a period of unparalleled peace and prosperity. This allowed the saints to preach the gospel widely; it also allowed (as similar conditions have in our own day) many believers to become wealthy and comfortable in the world in which they lived. The active preaching of the ecclesia attracted the attention of the authorities and on occasions the ecclesia was subject to severe persecution. While many remained faithful to the gospel there were some who either forsook the faith or perverted their beliefs to make themselves less hostile to the world about them.

The second, third and fourth seals (Rev 6:3–8) from 181 to about 303AD saw the Roman world convulsed by internal conflict and afflicted from time to time by famine and other difficulties as a direct result of the political chaos. The brotherhood was not immune to the impact of these sufferings. At the same time, the corrupting forces that emerged in the second century continued to infect the ecclesia and compromised adherence to apostolic standards by an increasing number of members.

When each of the first four Seals was announced, John was invited to “Come and see” the judgements to be inflicted on the Roman world, an institution to which he had no allegiance. The fifth seal (Rev 6:9– 11) needed no such invitation. Why? Because it is a judgment upon the household of faith: it marks the culmination of the corruption of the ecclesia which had been progressing steadily since apostolic days.

In the years from the apostles to the time of Constantine multitudes converted to Christianity. For many it appealed as a reasonable and decent faith. Sadly, many of the converts were only fair-weather friends of the gospel; when persecution arose they either returned to paganism or compromised their views to reduce the risk of conflict with the authorities. During the third century there were several periods of severe persecution. At times the authorities commanded believers to sacrifice to the pagan gods and renounce Christ or be executed. In many ecclesias the majority of members found it impossible to hold fast to the faith in the face of such persecution.

When these persecutions passed some who had recanted sought to return to the ecclesia. This created tension in the ecclesias. Some were reluctant to accept them back without question while others were willing to readmit them. Division over those who had recanted and later wished to resume membership reflected a wider division which was emerging in the brotherhood.

Doctrine and lifestyle

In his comments on the fifth seal in Eureka1 Brother Thomas quotes from a number of historians to illustrate the declension of the ecclesia in the postapostolic era. It is evident from these quotations that the doctrinal corruption of the ecclesias paralleled the increasing affluence of many of the saints. There can be no doubt that the two are linked. As members of the ecclesias became more affluent they would feel more affinity with the wider society and the cost of standing aside from the community would become harder to bear. Their affluence would also exacerbate the tensions that would arise between them and those saints who remained faithful to apostolic teaching and refused to compromise with the world around them.

James warned that tensions in the ecclesia would arise as a consequence of lust: “From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts” (James 4:1–3). So it was that tension arose in the ecclesia when some who were willing to compromise their faith rather than compromise their comfortable position within society sought to rejoin the ecclesia after a period of persecution. It is surely not coincidental that James’ very next point hits the nail on the head: “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (ch 4:4).

As members of the ecclesia became more and more comfortable in the world and more and more entrenched in the affairs of the society around them so they became less and less committed to the Kingdom of God. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” had been the apostolic catchcry, but this held little attraction for men and women who could indulge in the good things the kingdom of men could offer.

Having described the biblical hope of Eden restored in God’s Kingdom on the earth, Edward Gibbon comments on the change that took place in the centuries after the apostles: “when the edifice of the church was completed, the temporary support [ie the teaching of the Kingdom of God on earth] was laid aside. The doctrine of Christ’s reign upon earth was at first treated as a profound allegory, was considered by degrees as a doubtful and useless opinion, and was at length rejected as the absurd invention of heresy and fanaticism. A mysterious prophecy [ie Revelation], which still forms part of the sacred canon, but which was thought to favour the exploded sentiment, has very narrowly escaped the proscription of the church” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 15).

War with the saints

The ecclesia having corrupted into the Roman Catholic Church, that body gradually assumed control of the Roman Empire. As the Dark Ages progressed it became stronger and more arrogant. It ruthlessly persecuted the saints wherever it could reach them. This period is described in Revelation 13, where the corrupt system is said to “make war with the saints” (verse 7). Those who resisted either had to flee to lands beyond papal control or cower and worship in secret, in which case they were always in fear of arrest, torture and execution.

In western societies today, becoming a Christadelphian rarely has an adverse impact on the believer’s economic situation. There are rare exceptions such as soldiers and policemen who are obliged to change employment when they embrace the gospel, but most believers do not experience even that hardship. In the Dark Ages that was not the case. Standing firm for the faith of Christ often involved considerable hardship, even death. The Apocalypse records that: “he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads: And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name” (Rev 13:16–17). Those who were not Roman Catholics were unable to conduct normal business in areas controlled by the Pope. For example, William the Conqueror would not permit anyone to conduct trade in England who was disobedient to “the Apostolic Throne” (by which he meant the Pope).

We might think that such excesses were restricted to the Papacy, but even after the Reformation there were examples of similar intolerance in Protestant lands. In the 1640s, a period of great religious tension in Britain, a law was passed which imposed the death sentence on any person who denied the Trinity. The same law provided for imprisonment of any who taught that man has free will, the soul is mortal, the baptism of infants is invalid and that Christians may not bear arms. All of these doctrines are the subject of Christadelphian lectures and first principles classes on a regular basis today. Would we be willing to preach these doctrines if it meant imprisonment or death? There were many dissenters in the seventeenth century who were prepared to make this stand regardless of the cost.

Capital punishment for religious crimes was abolished in Britain in 1677, but criminal sanctions remained in place. Blasphemy was a criminal offence, and until 1813 a denial of the Trinity was regarded as an act of blasphemy in Britain. This is within the lifetime of some of our pioneer brethren. Awareness of the difficulties under which earlier generations preached the Truth ought to embolden us to redouble our efforts to preach God’s coming Kingdom today.

Sir Isaac Newton is well known as a great scientist but he was an even greater Bible student. His writings on Daniel and Revelation make it clear that he looked for the return of Christ and the restoration of God’s Kingdom on earth. These doctrines were not tolerated in his day and Newton found it necessary to conceal his religious views because admitting to them would have prevented him from occupying some of the prestigious positions to which he was appointed. If we are tempted to criticise such coyness we should remember that this was an era when dissenters were not tolerated as they are today. Rather than criticising Sir Isaac we might do well to ask whether, in spite of living in a much more tolerant age, we also sometimes conceal our religious views so as to fit in better with those around us.

Our brethren in earlier centuries often paid a high price for their faithfulness to apostolic teaching. We may yet face laws which seek to gag us in our proclamation of God’s Word – such laws already exist in some countries. The example of brethren in the past should strengthen our resolve to preach the gospel regardless of any personal embarrassment today and, should the need arise, regardless of any penalty we might face.