At another time, when he came to the city of Ephesus Paul called the elders of the church together and told them, "Take heed therefore unto yourselves and to all the flock , over which the Holy Ghost had made you overseers, To feed the church of God which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the clock. Also, of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them." (Acts20:28-30).
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints often point to these and other similar verses of scripture to show that before the Lord would return in glory there would be "a falling away" from the teachings of Christ and the way it would happen is that people in the church would "arise, speaking perverse things (i.e., teaching false doctrine) [who will] draw away disciples after them." In this way the doctrines of the church would eventually become corrupted and the church itself would fall away or apostatize from the teachings of Christ.
However, most Christian churches interpret these scriptures differently, saying they indicate that only certain individuals would fall away from the truth but that the church itself would always maintain the true teachings of Jesus. They point out that Paul warned the church leaders that people would attempt to teach false doctrine but that the elders were told to preserve the true teachings of Christ. For this reason they reject the LDS claim that there needed to be a restoration of Christ's gospel in order to restore those parts that had been lost when the church fell away.
While there are many people who interpret the Bible in various ways, nearly all Christians agree that those who wrote the Bible were inspired by God and that the prophecies they made are true. Therefore, by looking at history we can more clearly see whose interpretation of prophecy comes closest to what actually happened.
At the time Jesus lived on earth, the Jewish nation was under the rule of Rome but the Roman Empire was divided into two sections - the Latin speaking part in the West and the Greek speaking portion in the East. In Israel where Jesus lived, the Jews spoke Aramaic and Greek and, the New Testament was originally written in Greek, mainly because the gospel was primarily preached in the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. In fact, all three of Paul's missionary journeys were to Greek speaking people which included those cities located in Asia.
The reason why this is important to know is because most of the early converts to Christianity were Greeks and it was their culture that had the most influence on the teachings of the church. To understand why we first have to understand what Greek culture was like.
From 600 years before Christ, the Greeks had wise men known as philosophers, many of whom are still very famous today because of their contributions to human knowledge and thought, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. While there were several men who stand out in this field, the entire Greek culture was imbued with the idea of philosophy and each of the great philosophers had schools where they taught their ideas to throngs of people who were devoted to their teachings. These adherents were known as disciples.
Furthermore, the science of philosophy practically requires the debating of ideas which therefore spawned numerous debating societies who would regularly engage in disputes with one another. These argumentative contests became a national pastime which often took on the aura of a sporting event. As a result, the Greeks loved to debate and schools of debate where people learned the finer points of how to argue anything effectively, were extremely popular.
At the time Paul began preaching to the Gentiles, the Greeks loved having intellectual debates about anything and everything and for this reason they loved to hear about new things just so they could have something new to debate about. One day when Paul was in the Greek city of Athens, "Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks,(two different sects of philosophy) encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears: we would know therefore what these things mean. (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.) (Acts 17:18-21).
To the Greeks, Christianity was certainly something new but, while Paul had success converting some to Jesus, most of the population found this new religion strange and certainly different from their pagan beliefs in God. They considered Christians to be cannibals because it was reported that they ate the body and blood of their leader, Jesus. They were also viewed as being sexually immoral because it was reported that during their "secret" meetings they had a "love feast" (known as an agape) which was assumed to be some sort of lewd orgy ritual.
During the time when the apostles were alive, they appointed elders in each city where they had made converts and the duty of these elders was to watch over the Christians saints in their city. Their meetings were often held in someone's house but as the size of the congregation grew, the job of the elders was replaced by men known as bishops. While elders of the church were inhabitants of the city, bishops were men of great spiritual strength who had personally traveled as companions to the apostles. Timothy and Titus were two such men and were, in effect, thought of as assistants to the apostles.
But by 100 A.D. all the apostles had died and so the bishops took upon themselves the leadership role of the church but, with no central guidance and with no authority over anyone except those saints within the city in which they presided, the bishops operated independently from one another. When questions of doctrine arose or situations occurred which had never been addressed by the apostles, sometimes the bishops would informally get together and discuss what to do but the decisions they came to were not binding on anyone. It was merely a way for them to mutually agree among themselves on how to handle a particular problem.
Somewhere around 130 A.D. a Greek pagan philosopher, who went by the name of Justin, converted to Christianity at a time when Christians were being persecuted. However, in time he felt the need to defend his faith and he did so by using the debating skills he had developed. In 147 A.D. he wrote a letter to the Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, where he set forth the teachings of the Christian faith in an attempt to show that Christians were as good or even better citizens of Rome than any other group of people. Later he wrote another defense (known as an "apology") to the Senate as well as numerous other letters that still survive to this day. He was martyred in 165 A.D. and today we refer to him as Justin Martyr.
Soon other Greek converts began defending their faith in Jesus, and Christianity stopped being viewed as a strange and secret society but, in doing that, it now began to become the subject of philosophical debate among non-Christians. The problem this created was that Christians were now being forced to answers questions about their faith that they had never had to worry about and for which the scriptures provided no answers.
While Christians believed in a man named Jesus who they said was God, the scriptures also talked about Jesus having a father who was also God. Even though pagans believed in many gods yet the Christians claimed there was only one God so the question was raised by the Greeks of how this could be if Jesus and His Father were both God. With no apostles to give a definitive answer and with no clear explanation provided by the scriptures, the church had no unified answer, therefore each person attempted to provide their own explanation, of which there were many, and, over the years, this answer continued to change.
But there was another question that arose having to do with God, Himself. According to the teachings of Greek paganism, God was an immaterial being, made out of nothing, who could neither feel pain nor suffer. Therefore, to the Greek mind, they found it puzzling how Jesus - who was a man made of flesh and blood and who suffered pain - could be a divine God.
Furthermore, there were several Greek philosophies which taught that the material world was evil and that God abhorred it. Therefore, they taught that to be loved by God they had to forsake all worldly pleasures. Some taught that the soul of man was pure yet was trapped in an evil, material body but at death the soul was released and only then could it be united with God. To them, the idea that the body would someday be physically resurrected from the grave to live with God was impossible. If that was so, then how could Christians believe in a resurrection of the dead as the scriptures stated?
Again, Christians did not have a ready answer to these kinds of questions and, with no one with apostolic authority to receive divine revelation for the church, many saints began to put forth their own explanation of what they thought was the answer. Because of questions like these, by the end of the second century a new breed of Christians, known as theologians, began to come forth. These were people who applied reason and logic to the scriptures and, because of their great intellect, many members of the church began to depend on their words to answer these perplexing questions.
One theologian by the name of Tertullian put forth the idea that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit formed a trinity in much the same way that three people working together can form a business. It was this concept that first introduced the term "Trinity" to describe how three people can each be god and yet not be three gods but one.
However, far from bringing about a unity of the faith, these kinds of questions were beginning to divide the Christian church into more and more sects or denominations. For example, there were some Christians who taught that Jesus himself was nothing more than a mortal man but that God's Spirit was inside him so that the words he spoke were not his but that of God, and the same could be said of his miracles. In this way it could be said that God did not experience any pain or suffering while still maintaining that Jesus, the material man, was divine.
As different people continued giving different answers to the same questions, the Christian Church continued to split apart along different lines of doctrine . Since each city had their own bishop as the presiding officer, this raised the problem of what they were to do about people in their own congregation who were teaching different doctrines. Worse yet, even the bishops themselves were no longer unified in what they believed.
Worse yet, those who disagreed with the teachings of their own bishops broke off and started their own church and began "ordaining" themselves as bishops Now the Church was confronted with a series of difficult questions it had to answer. Not only did it have to determine which doctrine or belief was to be considered correct or orthodox and which were false, but who was to make that determination, what was to be done with those who didn't accept the final verdict, and what do to with unauthorized ordinations?
By this time the church had grown larger in size and yet each city had just one bishop. But some cities were larger in size and culturally more important than others, so the question began to arise as to whether all bishops should have equal authority, as had always been the case, or if the bishops of large cities had more authority than those of smaller cities while those of more important cities had more authority than those of larger but less important cities. Again, the scriptures didn't provide any clear answer, which only generated more debate.
By the end of the third century the Roman Empire had split into four sections, each ruled over by its own emperor, one of which was a man named Constantine who governed half of the western empire. In February 313 A.D. Constantine issued the Edict of Milan which recognized the Christian faith as a legally allowable religion thereby freeing it from persecution. In 324 Constantine defeated the last of the other three emperors and became the sole ruler over the entire Roman Empire. However, what he soon discovered was that the Greek Christians were bitterly fighting among themselves over doctrinal issues. The worst of these debates started between Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, and Arius, who was one of his priests.
As Arius understood the scriptures (the books of the New Testament as we know them today had not yet been formally decided upon), if Jesus was begotten of the Father, then the only logical conclusion was that there was a time when the Son did not exist, which also meant that the Son was subordinate to the Father in majesty, glory, and power. However, to Alexander, such an idea was blasphemous and he severely rebuked Arius.
But Arius was adamant about his position and pointed to numerous passages of scripture which verified his belief. Alexander was just as adamant about his position and this argument became so hotly debated that it threatened to split the Christian Church in the East in two. Constantine had just united the entire Roman Empire under his rule and the last thing he wanted was to see his empire fracturing apart from within by violent disputes among its citizenry. He first sent a letter to Alexander and Arius urging them to peacefully settle their differences but when that didn't work he issued an invitation for more than 300 bishops to meet in the city of Nicea where he would preside and listen to both sides of the argument.
That meeting was held in 325 A.D. but it quickly descended into a raucous and angry shouting match with both sides hurling insults and blasphemous charges against one another. Finally, someone suggested that the Father and Son were one because they were made "of one substance." The Greek word for this is homoousious (pronounced homo-ou-see-oos). Arius vigorously opposed this word on the grounds that it was not only unscriptural but in 268 A.D. a council of bishops meeting in Antioch had condemned the use of that word. However, by this time Constantine was getting weary of listening to the debate which had dragged on for days. He strongly urged the bishops to come to a conclusion, apparently voicing his support for the word homoousious.
It seems that the bishops, wanting to please the emperor who had granted them their freedom to worship, soon agreed to the use of this word. When Arius and several other bishops refused to sign the document, they were excommunicated from the Church, not so much by the bishops themselves but by the Emperor who was not even a baptized Christian at the time and certainly had no ecclesiastical authority in the Church. This was the first time in the history of Christianity that the State began to exercise influence over the way the Church operated or what it believed.
The document that came from this council meeting is known as the Nicene Creed and was to be the official statement of what Christians were supposed to believe about the relationship between the Father and the Son but a majority of Christians opposed it. Seeing that this caused more unrest and dissent within the Church, Constantine changed his mind and agreed with the position which Arius had defended. He then had Arius reinstated to his former position in the Church but when Athanasius, the new bishop of Alexander and the fiercest defender of the Nicene Creed, refused to admit him, Constantine had Athanasius excommunicated.
However, this did not end the debate and different sects of Christians continued to spring up, each with their own version of what the Bible taught, including several different offshoots of Arianism or subordinationism as it was called, as well as several different versions of the homoousian belief.
Furthermore, the Nicene Creed never used the word Trinity nor did it address the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son and so arguments arose over whether the Holy Spirit was a being or just some sort of supernatural force of God. If he was a being, was he as divine as the Father and Son or did he have a lower glory and was therefore subordinate to them? And if the Holy Spirit was a being then how did he come into existence seeing that the Son was the only begotten of the Father?
These and many other questions multiplied as Christians were able to freely discuss the philosophical and theological finer points of their beliefs and so the debates raged on. But with those debates also came extreme passion which often erupted in violence as opposing sects tried to intimidate or eliminate one another, resorting to such acts as disrupting meetings, stoning people, burning buildings, and even committing murder.
Bishops were now taking sides with various groups and using church politics in assigning bishops to certain cities with the objective of converting those congregations to a different belief. Such was the case with Gregory, bishop of Nazianzus. He was a strong supporter of the Nicene Creed but in 379 A.D. he was deliberately assigned to preach in the city of Constantinople where the majority of Christians there, along with their bishop, believed that Jesus was subordinate in power and glory to the Father.
Tensions increased and tempers flared as Gregory doggedly persisted in teaching his doctrine to unreceptive congregations, especially as he began to win over converts. Long before then, Constantine had died and two emperors had succeeded him but a third one by the name of Theodosius was now staking his claim to the empire.
For three years prior to this time Theodosius was struggling to repel hoards of barbarian invaders from Germany who were making deep incursions into the empire. By the time he managed to secure some semblance of peace along the border, he turned his attention to the warring Christian sects, determined to prevent his own people from tearing his kingdom apart internally.
A Christian himself, in 380A.D. Theodosius issued an edict which reflected his personal belief in the Nicene Creed. In it he declared that anyone who did not accept this doctrine was to be deemed as "foolish madmen" and "shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics." He went on to say that they will receive the "punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of heaven we shall inflict." Those punishments, inflicted by the authority of the State, included denying those churches who taught unauthorized doctrine the political and legal rights given to those who lawfully "assumed the title of Catholic Christians" as defined by the Emperor.
In 382 A.D. a council of 150 bishops meet in Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire at that time, to resolve the issue of the word homoousius but all those who attended this meeting were those who believed in the Nicene Creed. No other beliefs were represented. Not surprising, what they affirmed was to be the official doctrine of the Orthodox or Catholic Church was the very belief held by the Emperor, Theodosius.
In time, Theodosius also banned all pagan religions and then confiscated all property of those churches who taught anything different than that of the Nicene Creed, claiming as his authority the decision of the first Council of Constantinople. He then banned all those who taught heretical doctrines from preaching inside the walls of the cities. When they began setting up their own churches outside the city walls, Theodosius eventually made it illegal for them to preach anywhere.
He also oversaw the appointment of bishops, making sure that those selected believed in what he considered to be the correct doctrines of Christianity. Those who didn't hold correct views who were already bishops were removed from their position and replaced by others. Furthermore, in 409 A.D. the Emperor passed a law outlawing all heretical books and ordered them to be burned. Anyone caught possessing such books was subject to capital punishment.
By 385 A.D. the Catholic (meaning universal or orthodox) Christian faith, which had become an institution of the State, was the only religion allowed to be practiced. For all practical purposes, the State and religion had now become one, with the Emperor at its head. This also included the civil and church court system which worked together to stamp out heretical doctrines.
But this didn't end the debate. More questions arose such as, how could Jesus be fully divine and yet fully human at the same time? Was he still one substance with the Father while he was here on earth or did he put his divinity aside while he was human? When Mary gave birth to Jesus did she give birth to a man or to a God? And if Jesus was divine did he actually suffer thirst, hunger, and pain or did he merely appear that way to humans?
This time, however, it was the orthodox bishops who put forth various answers but their opinions were so strongly held that they began quarreling among themselves, accusing each other of teaching false doctrine. Many of these issues were decided by the Emperor who excommunicated bishops who did not succumb to his decision but who might be reinstated later when the Emperor changed his mind and then excommunicated the former rival. Thus, what was orthodox and what was heretical was often hard to define and was in a constant state of flux.
Some of the great theologian Church Fathers of the past, such as Tertullian and Origen, whose writings had been revered for centuries, were now being deemed to be heretical because their ideas were no longer compatible with the current orthodox teachings. And, because many of these new theological questions had no scriptural answers, arguments were no longer being supported by scriptural passages but were being based on carefully selected writings of past theologians, whose works were seen as being equal in authority to the scriptures. In addition to this, more councils of bishops were being called to resolve these disputes but these meetings were nearly as bitterly contentious as was the first council in Nicea.
From 397 A.D. to 430 A.D. a man named Augustine served as the bishop of Hippo. Although the Church had always believed that sin originated with Adam and Eve when they disobeyed God in the garden of Eden, Augustine was the first person to use the term "original sin" but he expanded this concept to mean that "all human beings are doomed to be mired in sin" and taught that everyone was destined to suffer in the fires of hell for eternity, including infants, unless God, and He alone, saved them. In fact, Augustine came to believe that man was so helplessly wicked that he had a hard time understanding why God would save anyone.
He also argued that man could not come to know God through the faculty of human reason and logic but only through faith in God alone. This led him to conclude that the use of reasoning was therefore incompatible with faith and, as such, was offensive to God. He went so far as to teach that the gaining of knowledge through rational thought was sinful, equating it with Adam's sin of wanting to eat from the tree of knowledge in the garden of Eden. This was especially true of secular knowledge which he said should be despised because, he argued, it would provide nothing of value and would take away time from contemplating things about God. Augustine even described the act of being curious about something as the "the lust of the eyes" and refers to curiosity as a disease.
From this he concluded that all scripture was to be interpreted in such a way that it agreed with what the Church taught. To do otherwise, he argued, was to have a lack of faith in those whom God had chosen to rule over His Church. He further taught that such a lack of faith was a sin which God would punish with eternal damnation. Thus, anyone who challenged his ideas was showing a lack of faith in the word of God as he understood it.
Since Augustine felt that man was inherently evil and deserving of hell, he concluded that it was the duty of the Church to force people to accept Christ in order to save their soul from God's wrath. This led Augustine to conclude that the State had an obligation to persecute heretics for the good of society. He further believed that since it is God who decides the fate of all men, then it follows that kings and emperors were chosen by God to their position. Since these men had a duty to preserve order and to insure the salvation of souls, Augustine taught they had the absolute right to rule authoritatively over their subjects, just as God absolutely and authoritatively rules over the nations. It was from this teaching that the concept of the divine right of kings was developed.
While there were many who disagreed with the teachings of Augustine, the Church accepted them as true and his writings greatly influenced the doctrines of the Church for centuries. Even the Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, incorporated many of Augustine's beliefs into his own theology.
A natural outgrowth of all of this was the argument that the Bible and other church writings were too sacred and too deep with meaning for the common man to properly understand or interpret, so the scriptures were made available only to the clergy. Because the Church was the sole possessor of the Bible, along with the writings of the Church Fathers, and with most other books being burned, the average person had no writings available for them to study. This lead to the spread illiteracy until the only people who could read or write were the very wealthy and the priests.
The result of all of this was that nearly a thousand of years of Greek culture had been crushed as all debate was now silenced and all learning was confined to just one way of thinking that was strictly imposed by both the State and the Church. While this had the effect of maintaining peace and order in the empire it also contributed to ushering in the Dark Ages.
For more than a thousand years the Christian Church vigorously persecuted anyone who dared teach anything different than that which was officially sanctioned. The most infamous of these efforts was the Inquisition. It wasn't until 1517 when a German monk by the name of Martin Luther was able to successfully proclaim a doctrine that didn't agree with the Catholic Church. Luther's claim was that his own church had strayed from the true teachings of Christ and that all he wanted to do was have them restore the doctrines he found recorded in the Bible but which were no longer being followed. Although the Church tried to silence him and his ideas, he had opened the way for others to begin debating theological issues again.
Even today the position of the Catholic Church is that its teachings have always been those that Christ and His apostles originally taught. If that is true then all Protestant churches have fallen away from the truth. But if what the Protestants say is true then it is the Catholic Church who has departed from the teachings of Christ.
When we look at the history of the Christian church after the death of the apostles to the time of Theodosius in 382 it becomes plain that there never was one officially held belief on various doctrinal issues but rather, over time, the church splintered into more and more disagreeing sects. It wasn't until all debate was outlawed that unity of belief was forced upon its believers.
Today, more and more different Protestants churches continue to arise, with each of them claiming to be teaching Christ's true doctrines. Since they all teach something different from one another, if what they say is true then, by their own admission, up until they came along there truly must have been a falling away.