Were the Apostles Failures?

21 07 2014




We are a bit schizophrenic when it comes to the disciples of the Apostles. We praise them for dying for their faith. We thank them and credit them for faithfully preserving the writings of Paul, John, Jesus and others. We proclaim it is their faithfulness God used to deliver to us what we now call our bible. We point to them when atheist and agnostics claim Christianity evolved over the centuries to control the masses. We point out that they were proclaiming the teachings of Jesus, the Gospels and the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus in their earliest writings, actually citing the letters of the Apostles – possibly while John was still alive – thus giving credibility to the very truthfulness of Christianity, and the veracity of scriptures. The early writers, I am told, cited what we call the NT scriptures over 35000 times in just the first generation of believers. This fact alone proves that the canon, in the form of letters and the Gospels was well established and circulated, although not officially called by any name, from the very beginning. You would not know that Matthew wrote Matthew unless the early church had recorded that history and others. Many of the titles of books and letters are not actually a title written in the text, but rather a title given to represent what the early church told us concerning who wrote what.

We are particularly impressed with the way they willingly went to die bravely at the jaws of the lions, and bears. They suffered torture, being burned alive and even crucifixion bravely and with great faith. Then we basically call them heretics. We love their lives, but we don’t like their theology.

You may see this as an odd topic. But, as many of you know, I am writing a series dealing with many topics I am frequently asked about. I realized that you may not understand my position on some things as they will be foreign to some of you that don’t understand the origins of many of my positions. Before I can explain to you about the basis of many of my beliefs, you need to understand some issues that may be unfamiliar to you.

We are told in the New Testament that the faith was delivered once and for all. But according to the theologians, the followers of Paul, Peter and John fell into error immediately upon their deaths. In fact some believe they fell into error before the Apostles even passed away.

One day, years ago, I was in a conversation with my pastor at the time. We were discussing some theological point and I mentioned that it would be great if we could talk to, or read about, the disciples of Paul and John. He then told me we had many of their writings but they were of no help as the disciples of the Apostles all quickly fell into error. I can’t express to you the surprise and disappointment I felt when I heard this. How could this be? Jesus handpicked the Apostles. He personallydiscipled them. He modeled the faith. He sent them out two by two with specific instructions. They listened to Him in person and they could ask Him questions in His own mother language. He then sent them the Holy Spirit to cause them to receive power to become effective witnesses. We are told the Holy Spirit would cause them to remember what Jesus taught. Clearly, they had the greatest advantages to conveying the truth successfully to others that has ever existed in all of the history of the Church.

Then these handpicked men, empowered by the Holy Spirit, were given the great commission, a Kingdom mandate to go and make disciples. So they obeyed and went into the world. They led multitudes to Christ. They personally discipled many, and appointed elders and bishops. Like Jesus, they personally taught the people and modeled Christianity. If there were questions, the disciples could actually ask the Apostles to explain. The first disciples grew up in the same culture and spoke the same language as the Apostles. Again, what a unique advantage they had! And yet I was being told that the church fell, almost immediately. This was disturbing.

I hope you find that view point disturbing too. You see Calvin has supporters today that still follow his tenets 500 years after his death. Luther, as well. Even cult leaders, without the power of either the Holy Spirit or the example of Christ and their disciples, have followers that have kept their particular brand of faith for almost 200 years. Also, see the Jehovah Witnesses, the Mormons, etc. You see it is no big deal for the cults and the world to convey their teachings and have them endure. If the men that spoke the language and lived in the culture of the Apostles could not understand and preserve the faith delivered once and for all, then how can we trust them to hand to us the scriptures accurately? If they could ask Paul about any topic they did not understand, in the language Paul was speaking, what makes us think, that 2000 years later from another culture, speaking a different language, we have any hope of knowing the truth?

Some people say, well we have the bible they didn’t. Sorry, but they had the guys that WROTE the bible, in THEIR original tongue, to THEIR context, addressed to THEM and the men that discipled them. Another told me, but we have the Holy Spirit. Really? If we are saying the church fell almost immediately after the Apostles died or maybe even before then, I assure you we are in big trouble on that account as well. Pentecost was a real and practical memory of the Apostles. The Holy Spirit was manifested in their ministries in miracles and signs. We are told the gifts of the Holy Spirit were active everywhere in churches. Paul is giving instructions in Corinthians about how to use them effectively. They clearly had the Holy Spirit in their lives.

So I asked, what error did they fall into? I was told they trusted in works and did not believe in eternal security. Guess what. Turns out they were not Protestants. Well, no wonder they were heretics! I began to read the early church writers myself. Some people call them the Ante-Nicene Fathers, the Early Church Fathers, etc. We have a huge inventory of the writings of the first few centuries. Some of these men were actually personally discipled by Paul, Peter and John. Others were discipled by the men discipled by the Apostles. At any rate for the first two hundred years we had a church that came straight from the men that were the direct descendants of the men trained personally by Jesus.
We have Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement of Rome and Tertullian. Some were contemporaries and knew the Apostle John. It is believed that Clement of Rome is the Clement mentioned by Paul in his letters. It is not lost on me that some of these men were the Bishops and leaders at Smyrna. You may remember that Smyrna was one of the only churches not warned and chastised by Jesus in Revelations. Speaking of which, I am told the church was falling into theological heresy. But when we read Revelations the churches were chastised and warned about their “deeds,” not their theology. They were warned by Jesus in Revelations, but what did He warn them about? Odd that we are told they were in theological error, but Jesus only dealt with their lifestyle and their deeds. That turns out to be salient to our topic.

What did the early church believe that was so different from what we call orthodoxy? What was so crazy wrong that we call the descendants of Paul’s disciples heretics? Well it turns out that they believed in what David Bercot, an expert on early church history and writings, calls an obedient love-faith relationship. They believed that faith divorced from a Godly lifestyle was no faith at all. Kind of like what James says when he says faith without works is dead. They believed in obeying the commands of Jesus in the sermon on the mount and elsewhere. You know, like when Jesus said that he who obeys me, loves me, and that anyone who hears My words and doesn’t do them is like a man building on the sand, but he that hears My words and does them is like the man that builds on a rock. They took to heart Jesus’ words that we would be judged on the last day by how we obeyed His teachings, and that those teachings came from the Father. John tells us that if some say they love Jesus, but do not obey Him, then they are liars. Seems the early church took this to heart.

One of the major differences between them and us (and the reformers) is they believed strongly in the two kingdoms: The Kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness, or of this world. They took very seriously staying separate from worldly influences. They did not attend the entertainment of the world: plays, circuses, or the coliseum. They stayed away from the athletic fields of the Greeks, did not participate in the local government and would not join nor accept anyone who joined the military into the church for the first 200 years. Even after the first 200 years a solider had to stay from violence or be removed from fellowship.

Where did the early church get these crazy ideas? Well, from Jesus. They took seriously His words to be in the world but not of the world. They believed Him and the Apostles when they lived a lifestyle radically different from the world. The women were modest, wore head coverings and did not braid their hair or wear fine jewelry. The church was known for its service to the poor, its sharing among the saints and its love for even its enemies. You see, when you genuinely love your enemies, love your neighbor and the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, this is how it looks!

How can you join the army and vow to your government to obey orders, knowing they may ask you to kill another, and obey Jesus commands to turn the other cheek? To love and bless those who hate you. Let’s be honest, you can’t.

That’s where the theologians come in. Now this may all sound strange to you if you are an American. Whether you have ever read or heard about “just war”, an idea proposed by the theologian Augustine and written about by Thomas Aquinas much later, it became the truth embraced by much of what we call the church. Whether you know anything about it or not, this was the first time Christians began to kill other Christians, pagans and atheists. Simply put, Augustine believed that you could murder, kill and maim others as long as you did it on behalf of the state and you had love in your heart for the victim. I am over simplifying to be sure, but at its core I am correct.

I mention this because it is a perfect example of understanding the Two Kingdoms and also of understanding the early church writers. We have to ask ourselves at this point and ask if the faith delivered once and for all was lost with the first century believers? The bible says it was indeed delivered to the saints once and for all.

But Augustine and the leaders under Constantine had a problem. No worries; enter the theologians! It was well known that the church had NEVER condoned killing in the military or otherwise under any circumstances. In fact you could not be in the church and be in the military. Later when solders wanted to come to the Lord, they had to vow to never do violence. They indeed turned the other cheek and trusted in the Lord to either protect them or give them the grace to endure pain, suffering and even death. Although Constantine is never said to have been recorded as repenting nor submitting to serve the Lord Jesus, he did stop the persecution of Christians and later made it the favored religion of the realm. Eventually he even outlawed all other beliefs. (Just for the record he did take a communion wafer on his deathbed, too weak to refuse).

For the first time, the Kingdom of God was being defended and promoted by the government of men. Or at least this is what was happening according to some. Rather than refusing the input of an unrepentant, secular leader and refusing to join the state, many in the church embraced Constantine. They convinced him that Christians should be in leadership and of course then comes the question, what do we do about the military? That is no problem for the theologians. Take a verse here, a verse there, run to the old covenant and borrow some stories, and voila! You can create a doctrine or a teaching that no one in Christianity EVER considered or even heard of. They actually began to compel unbelievers to convert. Yes, forced conversions! All you need if you are a theologian is the power of the state behind you and a verse or two. You may remember the stories Jesus told of the powerful ruler who gave a party and invited his friends. They all made excuses so he sent out his servants to “compel” the poor and the wayward in the highways and byways to come to the party. That is all Augustine needed. He erased three hundred years of people coming to Jesus voluntarily, in repentance and baptism, to just forcing them to come on pain of death or torture. See how easy that is?

With the power of the state, one kingdom joined another kingdom, and you now can take a few verses and basically create any doctrine you like, even if it is absurd when looking at the doctrines taught by Jesus and the Apostles. We go from come all who are weary and I will give you rest, to come or we will torture and kill you. We go from love your enemies and bless those who curse you, to slaughter them, but do it in love and with the state’s blessing.

You may be saying, wait a minute, Glenn, I happen to agree we need to defend ourselves, that this non- violence stuff is NOT practical today! That is very true. But it was not practical then, either. Their obedience to Jesus and His commands caused them to stand out in such a way that they were easy to victimize and persecute. Their bold faith and radical lifestyle was apparent to all. To make matters worse, when comparing them to modern Christianity, they also did not believe in storing up money here on earth nor laying up treasures anywhere but heaven. They believed they did this by giving to the needy, helping widows and orphans and sharing their goods with their brothers and sisters in the faith. It was not convenient to turn the other cheek, nor to forgo personal financial gain for the opportunity to help others, then or now. Unless you seriously believe that following Jesus’ commands are vital. Then you read where He said to lay up treasures in heaven and NOT on earth. Then you read where He said to turn the other cheek and bless those who persecute you. And to them, it was simple. That is what you did if Jesus was your Lord. Simple, really. If you truly seek the Kingdom first, you don’t run to proof texts, commentaries and theologians to find a way out. You obey. Crazytalk, heh?
You see, in the first two hundred years if you asked a person what it meant to be a Christian, the answer would be very different from today. They would not quote a few bible verses or talk about faith without works, or praying to ask Jesus into their heart. They would tell you of the teachings of Jesus. They would expound on the life lived based on the Sermon on the Mount, the very teachings of Jesus. They did not separate Jesus from His teachings. Yes, they would tell of His dying for them and raising from the dead. Of His being the Son of God. They would speak of repentance and obedience to Jesus, born out of a true faith that resulted in a transformed life full of good works, as taught by Jesus and His disciples.
But what about theology? Well, hold on to your hat.

They also believed in free will. Universally. If you think it is impossible for the disciples of Paul and the churches that Paul planted not to understand predestination like Calvinism, then don’t believe me. Ask Calvin. He admits the early church universally believed in free will. We know these things about what they believed on these topics because there was a group that did believe in predestination. And for that matter, they also believed in eternal security, baptism as purely symbolic (and not necessary) and communion as only a nice ritual. They were called Gnostics. There are reams of debates with them so we can be very clear of the church’s position on these topics. The early church and the early church fathers, the disciples of Paul, John, and Peter, believed in free will, the potential of a believer to become an unbeliever and works befitting a man claiming to be a Christian. As Paul clearly states in describing his ministry to King Agrippa, he called on men everywhere to repent and bring forth fruit from their repentance. We also see that Paul instructed Titus to emphasize good works, all through the letters written to him to go and set up elders in the early church. Works mattered to the early church. Apparently, they mattered to Paul.

To the early church, if you had no works based on a changed life after repentance and baptism? Well then, it was assumed, you were not a real believer. You had no saving faith. They simply believed that kind of faith could not save you. They actually warned unbelievers, that if anyone did not follow the teachings of Christ and claimed to be a Christian then he was a liar and to be ignored and avoided.
What are we to conclude from all of this? Were the Apostles failures? Or was the faith delivered once and for all, given to faithful and capable disciples who by the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit delivered it as they had been taught. If Calvin is right then all I can say is that Paul, Peter and John did a poor job of sharing that little truth. In fact they universally got a big fat zero on that test.

What about works? I was told the church fell, and saw works being connected with faith. Well, I would invite you to read James. Also, read Paul’s instructions to Titus. Hey, even go to Galatians. You will see from there and the book of Acts that Paul was clearly dealing with a heresy, where the Judiazers were trying to get the Gentile believers to trust in the Law and Works of the LAW. Not to warn them against good works. It was a raging issue. Paul called for good works and demanded a man that repented bring good works befitting a man who repented. They did not juxtapose faith and works in the early church. They did juxtapose faith and works of the Law. Exactly what Paul said he was writing to the Galatians about.

What is particularly compelling is that the Church had such unity on these points. You would expect, if there was a heresy creeping in like we saw in the case of the Gnostics, we would have had the heresy start somewhere and be identified. We would see it introduced and slowly spread. For example, we had the Arian controversy in Northern Egypt. We know all about that error, its spread and its remedy and debates. We would expect to see some writers defending faith against works. Or a bishop proclaiming or defending predestination and a ruined nature, if that was the truth passed down. Instead we see the opposite side taken by the church, and only Gnostics defending ruined nature and predestination. Or, perhaps, arguing that baptism was just a ritual. But instead for 200 years we see the church in unity on these issues. Baptism was a vital part of repentance and belief. Whether it was Asia Minor, Rome, Egypt or wherever, they held great unity of teachings. So the truths as they taught them were universally shared all at the same time.

This has all the traits of a well distributed and coordinated teaching, clearly communicated, universally believed and geographically spread with consistency. Not a heretic somewhere slowly leading the church astray. And remember, the observations in Revelations, from Jesus Himself, were all directed at deeds and lawlessness – not doctrine. They were warned of eating food sacrificed to idols, losing their first loves, sexual impurity etc. Not a word from Jesus in Revelations concerning predestination or faith and works as being areas where error was coming in. Many believe this book was written right before John died at the end of the first century. If the church was already in error, you would have thought Jesus would have noticed and pointed it out.

No I don’t think the church was in error. I don’t think the Apostles were failures. I invite you to read about the early church and their great bravery, martyrdom and sacrifice. Their obedient love-faith relationship, and dedication to the point of death, to follow Jesus and His teachings. Does that sound like a bunch of heretics? Or does that sound like Stephen in Acts? Does their life of great sacrifice and loving good deeds sound like error, or like Jesus? I personally, have given up on doctranity. That brand of Christianity that defines itself by the orthodoxy of the reformers, or some variation on that theme. I have traded it in on following Jesus and His teachings. Not what the theologians SAY Jesus and the Apostles meant. But what they literally taught. The actual teachings and message of Jesus and the Apostles. The closest thing to a commentary you will find me referring to these days is the writings of the early Christians. You know, the guys that knew Paul and his disciples, the guys that spoke the language and lived in the culture of the Apostles.

You may be asking where you can learn more. I highly recommend The Kingdom That Turned the World Upside Down by David Bercot. It is a great place to start. I would add two other books of his, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand up and Will the Theologians Please Sit Down. Read those and I will point you to others. They are short, footnoted and great primers to understanding the early faith. So now you have a choice. Do you want to continue on the theological highway or find out about this faith delivered once and for all from a perspective other than theologians? Do you want the vantage point of those who lived and wrote 1500 years after Jesus, from a culture and language foreign to the biblical one and to yours? From theologians joined to the state, using the government to enforce their views, or perhaps you are considering something else. Perhaps you are now intrigued by the first two centuries.

You know the reformers murdered dissenters. They drowned and burned people alive that baptized people after repentance. They used the state to persecute those that disagreed with them, including taking property, children and yes even lives. Does that sound like the fruit of a good tree? Does that sound like a tree bearing good fruit or a tree bearing bad fruit? Jesus said that only a good tree can bear good fruit. You can follow their view of the faith delivered once and for all if you choose. It means the Apostles were terrible disciple makers, and perhaps Jesus chose the wrong guys after all. Or you can believe that they were not failures. That Jesus chose the right guys, and they faithfully delivered the faith once and for all to the body of Christ. Do you believe those that compelled pagans to convert on the pain of death and torture, and murdered their brothers for disagreeing? Is that your source of the truth? Or those that laid down their lives for the saints? Those that murdered pagans or those that went to the lost with the Gospel, and were martyred? Which one sounds like Jesus? Which one sounds like the New Testament? I hope I have got you thinking. If you are not careful, you might wind up making some changes. Selling some things now precious to you to help the poor.Spending time with the lost.Trying to decide if that 401k is really a good investment after all. Wondering, what do Jesus and the Apostles say good works really are? Are works evil? Or are they wonderful? Theological error? Or the works prepared before the foundation of the earth for the saints to perform? Just remember, Jesus said to let your works so shine that the world would see your good works and glorify God in heaven. Does that sound like heresy to you? If it is slowly sounding like sound doctrine then you may find yourself walking in a new way. I pray it is so.




5 responses

21 07 2014

Very thought-provoking. Thank you!

23 07 2014
James Belleau

I’ve read Bercot since he was in Texas, good teacher~good bit of writing brother.

8 06 2015
Dr. Alice Stanback

Eph 2:For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

8 06 2015

Great stuff Alice. The early church would no doubt quote this verse in defence of faith without works is dead and unsaving faith. We were LITERALLY created FOR??????? Wait for it???? Good works, which God prepared beforehand so that WE would walk in them. The works of the Law were a raging controversy in the early church. GOOD WORKS were not. They were lauded, advised and promoted. In fact my brother Pauls says that EVERYWHERE, if memory serves me correctly, he preached a repentance that result in works worthy of repentance. The Gospel according to Paul was REPENTANCE WITH fruit. Mine too! At least the entrace to the Kingdom. Thanks again.

14 06 2015

Love that verse and appreciate your posting the entire verse. Created for Good Works. The disciples of the Apostles agree!

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