As the apostle Paul was being led back to Jerusalem in chains, he spoke to those who were in charge of overseeing the flock of God, saying, "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears" (Acts 20:29-31).
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints believes there was an apostasy, or a corruption of the doctrines which the apostles taught that occurred after their death. As such, they believe that the true church of Christ was meant to be guided by living apostles who could provide continuous inspired counsel and direction as they themselves did. However, this view is not shared by most other Christian faiths. It is their belief that the reason why the apostles wrote what they did was to provide God's final word to mankind. They further believe that once the original apostles had passed away we no longer needed such inspired men because it is by adhering to the words they wrote as contained in the New Testament that the doctrines of Christ have remained pure and uncorrupted for nearly two thousand years. Thus they contend that, while there have been a few individuals here and there who have taught false Christian doctrine from time to time, overall there has been no general apostasy. In other words, it is their belief that the gospel of Jesus Christ which is taught today is nearly identical to that which the apostles taught immediately after the death of Jesus.
In contrast, the LDS church teaches that after the death of the apostles, the doctrines of the church began to slowly change and evolve over the next several centuries into something different than what the apostles originally taught. It is their claim that by the 1800's the doctrines of Christianity had become so corrupted that it required Christ to come once more and restore it again.
With two such opposing viewpoints, how can we determine which one is correct?
When we read the New Testament, we generally do so for the purpose of trying to understand its teachings about salvation. We look to see what it says about such topics as baptism, grace, works, the resurrection, the hereafter, etc. And it's because of this that, with the exception of the four gospels and maybe Acts, we tend to spend very little time reading the New Testament as a book of history. In fact, not many people are even aware of how much history is contained within the letters which Paul, James, Peter, and John wrote.
The impression that most people have today of what it was like to be a Christian back in the beginning days of the church is that the saints were a people filled with God's Holy Spirit, united in their faith of Christ, excited with an evangelical enthusiasm to share the good news with everyone they knew, and willing to lay down their life rather than renounce their religious beliefs.
It is true that there were many Christians that fit such a description, but when we read the New Testament as history, we find that there were many who had accepted Christ who did not fit this idyllic picture. And the larger the church became, the more problems there were among its members.
The first problem that arose was when the gospel was preached to the Gentiles, and that's because Jesus was a Jew and the Jews had always been taught that they alone were God's chosen people. They were the children of Abraham and it was with him that God had made His covenant, whose outward sign was evidenced by circumcision. As far as the Jews were concerned, the word "Gentile" was just another term for "pagan" or "heathen," and they believed that God despised such people.
In the beginning, the gospel was preached exclusively to the Jews, and Jesus was presented to them as their long anticipated Messiah, or Redeemer. As the Jews understood the Old Testament writings, the Messiah was going to defeat all of Israel's enemies (the Gentiles) and establish His chosen people as the supreme ruling empire of the world. So, it was nearly a blasphemous idea to think that the gospel of the Jewish Messiah should be shared with the Gentiles.
When Paul first began his ministry, it was his custom that whatever city he found himself in on the Sabbath day (Saturday) he would go into a Jewish synagogue and preach about Christ from the writings of the Old Testament (Acts 9:20; 13:5, 14-16). It was while he was in the city of Antioch in Pisidia that as he left the synagogue after preaching there, "the Gentiles besought that these words might be preached to them the next sabbath. Now when the congregation was broken up, many of the Jews and religious proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas: who, speaking to them, persuaded them to continue in the grace of God. And the next sabbath day came almost the [entire] city together to hear the word of God. But when the Jews saw the multitudes, they were filled with envy, and spake against those things which were spoken by Paul, contradicting and blaspheming" (Acts 13:42-45).
Although Paul and his companion, Barnabas, continued preaching the gospel to the Jews in their synagogues (Acts 17:1,10; 18:19; 19:8), he also included the Gentiles in his preaching (Acts 14:1; 18:4). However, there were many Christian Jews who were not pleased with this. They felt it was blasphemous behavior. Paul mentions that there were "false brethren" who had secretly "came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: [But] we did not give in to them, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you" (Gal. 2:4,5, see NIV). He further wrote how these Jews were "Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins always: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost" (1 Thes. 2:16).
Some of these Christians, who had been former Pharisees, eventually ended up having a not so small dispute with Paul and Barnabas over this, saying "Except these Gentiles be circumcised after the manner of Moses, they cannot be saved." So heated became the argument that it was decided they should go up to Jerusalem and present this question to the apostles and elders there. After listening to both sides of the issue, Peter responded by saying "Why tempt God to put this kind of a yoke around the neck of these Gentile disciples of Christ, a yoke which neither our fathers nor us were able to bear? We believe that it is through the grace of our Lord that we are saved even as these Gentiles are."(Acts 15:1-11). As a result of that decision, the Gentiles were not required to live the Jewish way of life as defined by the law of Moses. In part, that included such things as being circumcised, eating the proper foods, and keeping the Jewish holy days.
But this didn't really settle the matter. This issue continued to be a sore spot between Christian Jews and their Gentile brethren. And it was for that reason that Paul repeatedly addressed this problem in nearly every one of his letters.
Although most people today are aware of this particular dispute within the early Christian church, it was by no means the only one they had. The Gentiles themselves brought with them their own set of misconceptions about Christ that caused a considerable amount of difficulty for the church.
Most, if not all, of the Christian Gentiles came from a Greek culture which was heavily influenced by the worship of a multitude of gods that often required an offering of certain kinds of meats. Since Christians weren't supposed to worship idols, the question arose: Was there anything wrong with eating meat that had been offered to idols? Even though the apostles in Jerusalem had stated that Christian Gentiles didn't have to live the law of Moses, they nonetheless said that the Gentiles should abstain from eating meats offered to idols, and taking the blood of animals that were strangled as offerings to pagan gods (Acts 15:29). But, as with circumcism, that didn't really settle the issue for many. And it was specifically on this point that Paul felt it necessary to address the subject (1 Cor. 8:4-13).
To complicate this problem even more, there were many Gentiles who saw nothing wrong with outwardly appearing to comply with the customs of the day as long as in their heart they really worshipped Christ. It was argued that since Christians were saved by grace and weren't under the law, it didn't really matter if they went through the motions of paying homage to idols. Yet, there were other Christians, most notably the Jews, who felt this kind of behavior was hypocritical, and so the two sides continued to quarrel with one another over this point of doctrine.
So pervasive was this problem that Paul also took time to address it in nearly every one of his letters. Repeatedly he reminded the saints saying, "For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God" (Eph. 5:5). He further reasoned with them saying, "And what agreement hath the temple of God with the [temples of] idols?" (2 Cor.6:16).
But meat wasn't the only thing offered up in the Greek and Roman temples. The culture of that society considered what we call sexual immorality as normal behavior. There were no such things as private baths. Instead, there were communal pools where people went to bathe, which meant that men, women, and children would strip naked in public to wash themselves. As such, nudity was a very common feature of Greek/Roman life. As a result of this mindset, many of the pagan temples were like brothels where both men and women went to engaged in sexual promiscuity with one another as part of their pagan worship and homosexual behavior was widely viewed as a perfectly acceptable practice. In our modern-day society, we've passed laws to protect children from sexual abuse, but history records that it was common for Roman commanders to keep young boys with them for companionship when they went out on war campaigns.
This was the environment that the early Christian church found itself in. For the Jews, who were used to keeping the strict law of chastity as defined in the law of Moses, they regarded this kind of behavior as being abhorrent. But to many converted Gentiles, they felt that since the gospel of Jesus Christ freed them from the law it also left them free to indulge in the customs of Greek society. Since Paul had taught that they were saved by the grace of God, they felt that allowed them to engage in the sexual practices of the day. That is why the apostle Jude wrote "For there are certain men [in the church who have] crept in unawares, ungodly men [who are] turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness (sexual immorality), and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ" (Jude 1:4)
The apostle Paul preached against the sin of "fornication" more than any other sin because it had become a major problem throughout the church. He addressed this subject when he wrote, "This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind… Who have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness" (Eph 4:17,19). "Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9,10).
Yet, even when reminded of this, many Gentiles still had a hard time leaving behind their former way of living. In fact, Paul said that it was commonly reported about the church at Corinth that fornication was being practiced there among the saints in ways that was not even being done among the Gentiles. One such member of the church had committed fornication with "his father's wife." Worse yet, instead of the rest of the saints at Corinth being upset about this deed, they were puffed up in pride about it (1 Cor.5:1,2).
This is what Peter meant when he wrote, "For if after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein, and overcome, the latter end is worse with them than the beginning. For it had been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after they have known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered unto them. But it is happened unto them according to the true proverb, The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire." (2 Peter 2:20-22).
Yet, despite all of these pronouncements, there were Christians in the church who continued to teach that there was nothing wrong with sexual promiscuity.
But these weren't the only problems. There were others within the church who taught that that dead would not rise again, thereby denying that the physical body would be resurrected. When Paul learned of this, he was astounded. He wrote, "If Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching in vain and your faith is also vain" (1 Cor. 15:14,15). He then went on to counter this false idea that some in the church were teaching and in so doing gave us a fuller understanding concerning the doctrine of the resurrection.
Then there were people on the other side of the issue who were preaching that the resurrection had already occurred. Paul specifically mentions two Christians by name, Hymenaeus and Philetus, whom, he states, their words eat into the church like a canker, "who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some." Paul refers to this kind of talk as "vain babblings [that] will increase unto more ungodliness" (2 Tim. 2:16-18).
One of the main beliefs taught by the apostles was that Jesus would return to the earth again in power and glory. But Peter warned that "there shall come in the last days scoffers, walkers after their own lusts, and saying Where is the promise of his coming?" (2 Peter 3:3,4). Peter is specifically referring to people in the church who will deny that Jesus would come again a second time!
Then there was yet another problem which Paul had to address. To the Corinthians he wrote, "When ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you." Paul refers to these divisions as "heresies" And what were these divisions? He explained, "When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper. For in eating every one taketh before another his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not." (2 Cor. 11:18-22)
When the early saints came together to commemorate the Lord's last supper, they did more than just partake of bread and wine. They would eat a full meal which was known as an agape, or love feast. It was also know as a feast of charity (Jude 1:12). But what was happening at the church in Corinth was that the wealthier members were bringing an abundance of food and wine for themselves without sharing what they had with the poorer members. As a result, the rich would stuff themselves with food and become drunk on wine while the poor went hungry at the same meal! And this was how they were remembering Christ's atoning body and blood! Paul was outraged with such behavior and severely chastised the church members at Corinth for doing this.
John, in his first epistle, addressed a similar problem when he wrote, "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everyone that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. If any man say, I love God and hateth his brother, he is a liar. And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also" (4:7,8,11,20,21). Apparently, the reason why John felt the need to remind the saints of this doctrine is because the saints to whom he was writing were having a problem with showing love to one another, as did the saints in Corinth.
James wrote to a different group of Christians but addressed the same problem when he said, "Wherefore , my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: for the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God (1:19,20). He later went on to talk about the tongue of man saying "it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. Therewith we bless God and therewith curse we men which were made in the similitude of God. Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessings and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be" (3:8-10). As with John's letter, the reason why James felt the need to write this was because these Christians were quick to get angry with one another and curse at each other.
Paul addressed this very problem when he wrote, "Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust (i.e., the Gentiles) and not before the saints? I speak [about this] to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? No, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren? But [instead, one] brother goeth to [the] law with (against his) brother, and [worse yet, he takes him] before the [court of the] unbelievers. Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take [the] wrong? Why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded? Nay, [it is] ye [who] do wrong, and [do the] defrauding, and that [against] your [own] brethren [in the gospel]." (1 Cor. 6:1-8)
Paul also felt the need to remind the saints in Galatia, "For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh" (Gal. 5:14-16). "For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults" (2 Cor. 12:20).
What we see, over and over again is that, instead of there being love for one another in the church, it is clear that there was a lot of animosity among the saints towards each other. The fact that this subject was addressed in nearly all the letters written by nearly all the apostles is a clear indication that this was a widespread problem in the early church.
As though these problems weren't enough, we are told that there were "false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ" (2 Cor.11:13). Paul is talking about Christian preachers in the church who went about deceitfully claiming they were apostles but who were teaching false doctrine! That's why he wrote, "I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed" (Gal 1:6-8). "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them" (Rom. 16:17).
Most of these false apostles, prophets, and teachers in the church were Christian Jews who still maintained that the Gentile converts needed to be circumcised and keep the special holy days as prescribed in the law of Moses. To persuade people to their way of thinking, they resorted to undermining Paul's authority. One way they did this was by attacking his credibility. They accused him of not being a true apostle (1 Corinthians 9:2,3), or claim he was not living the gospel (2 Corinthians 10:2), or that he was the one teaching false doctrine (Galatians. 5:11). In this way they would persuade other Christians not to listen to him.
Paul addressed this when he wrote, "How is it that you are turning back to [these] weak and miserable principles [in the law of Moses]? Do you wish to be enslaved by them again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years [as required in the law of Moses]. I fear that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you… Those people [who are teaching you to do these things] are zealous to win you over [to their way of believing] but not for your good. What they want [to do] is to alienate you from us so that you may be zealous for them" (Gal. 4:9,10,17 NIV). He talked about those who were "puffed up, as though I would not come to you. But I will come to you shortly, if the Lord will, and [you] will know, not [by] the speech of them which are puffed up, but the power [of God that is in me]" (1 Cor. 4:18,19).
The apostle John faced the same problem. He said, "I wrote unto the church: but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, [will not] receive us (not have anything to do with us). Wherefore, if I come, I will remember his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words: and [he] not [being] content therewith, neither doth he himself receive (welcome, accept, approve of) the brethren [who come from us], and forbids (prevents from receiving)[even] those that would, and casts them out of the church" (3 John 1:9,10)
Not only did Diotrephes deny the authority of John but he kicked out of the church anyone who even welcomed someone sent by John! These false teachers were boldly arrogant and fearlessly defiant of the Lord's chosen apostles. Jude describes them as "spots in your feasts of charity when they feast with you, feeding themselves without fear." (Jude 1:12)
Paul described such people thusly: "Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: Their feet are swift to shed blood: Destruction and misery are in their ways: And the way of peace have they not known: There is no fear of God before their eyes. (Rom. 3:13-18). Paul told Titus that their "mouths must be stopped, [because they] subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre's sake (Titus 1:11)
One of the more popular heresies taught by these false teachers was the belief that Jesus hadn't really been born in the flesh. Their argument was that if Jesus was God then it was not possible for Him to die. And if He couldn't die, then he could not have actually existed as flesh and blood. Instead, they said, he only appeared that way. Furthermore, if He couldn't actually die, then it was not possible for Him to have died on the cross. Therefore, they either denied Jesus died for our sins or they taught a different concept of the cross than what the apostles had preached.
It was for this reason John wrote, "Beloved, believe not every spirit but try the spirits whether they be of God, because many prophets are gone out into the world. Hereby know ye the Spirit of God. Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God and every spirit that confesses not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of anitchrist of which ye have heard should come and now [has] already [come] in the world" (1 John 4:1-3). As strange as this doctrine may seem to us today, it persisted in the church from the earliest days in the first century and continued into the third century.
But there was an even greater heresy being taught in the church. The apostle John wrote, "I have not written unto you because ye know not the truth, but because ye know it, and that no lie is of the truth. Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son. Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father: [but] he that acknowledgeth the Son hath the Father also. Let that therefore abide in you, which ye have heard from the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son, and in the Father. These things have I written unto you concerning them that seduce you" (1 John 2:21-26).
Why did John make these comments? Because he was concerned that Christians were being seduced into denying that Jesus was the Christ! It's hard to imagine that people who called themselves Christians would not accept Jesus as their Savior, but that's what some in the church were teaching near the end of the first century when John wrote this letter.
He also wrote, "He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. These things have I written unto you that believe on the name of the Son of God; that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God. (1 John 5:12,13, emphasis added). Notice that John is specifically writing to those "that believe on the name of the Son of God." But the reason why he is writing this is to remind them that it is through the Son that they have eternal life. The fact that John felt it necessary to remind them of this strongly indicates that the Christians he was writing to were having difficulty accepting that doctrine. If this wasn't the case, then there would have been no reason for him to have made this comment.
This is verified by Jude when he wrote, "For there are certain men [in the church who have] crept in unawares, ungodly men [who are]… denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ." Peter likewise wrote of this problem when he said, "But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that brought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction" (2 Peter 2:1).
It was precisely because of these various unauthorized doctrines that the church found itself being split apart into different factions or denominations. That is why Paul wrote, "For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you: Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ" (1 Cor. 1:11,12).
The idea that the early Christians were united in love and doctrine with one another is a myth. There were deep divisions among them and they had to grapple with many problems. Then how did the church deal with them? Paul gave us the answer when he wrote, "And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive" (Eph. 4"11-14).
The church continued steadfast because of the apostle's doctrine (Acts 2:42). The apostles were the glue that held the church together, and then just barely. Nearly every letter that we have in the New Testament was written specifically for the purpose of countering some false idea or practice that was occurring in the church. And even then it was an uphill battle for the apostles to keep the saints on the strait and narrow path to salvation.
But, one by one, the apostles were dying, and with their death also went their authority to declare what was truth and what was falsehood. That's why Paul lamented, "For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears" (Acts 20:29-31).
It didn't take a prophetic vision from God for Paul to know this because he had spent his whole time as an apostle desperately trying to keep the "grievous wolves" at bay. During Paul's lifetime the false apostles, prophets, and teachers in the Church were already hard at work seeking to tear the Christian faith apart. He knew, with absolute certainty, that if the time came when there were no more living apostles to guard and protect the flock from flawed doctrine, there was no way to keep the Church from sinking into apostasy. He knew this from his own personal experience because, despite all the letters he had written, it continued happening even while he was still alive, and that knowledge brought tears to his eyes.
Those who say that the church fell into apostasy centuries after there were no more apostles are not entirely correct. The church had already started to fall into apostasy long before the death of the apostles.
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