Jesus promised that He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. And yet He also said, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8b)
To reconcile this apparent contradiction, it is vital to understand what constitutes the true church and where the church fits into Bible prophecy. Jesus’ letters to the seven churches in the first three chapters of the book of Revelation illustrate how Jesus addresses each of them as “church” even though He had strong rebukes for most of them.
We want to look at how the church of the LORD Jesus Christ started, how it evolved, and where it is headed. Has the visible church lost its way? Has Satan crept in and defiled the Bride of Christ?
The One True Church
Various denominations and bible-based cults today claim to be “the one true church.” The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, lays claim to that title. Catholic dogma teaches that she is the only church founded by Jesus Himself since she is the oldest “Christian” institution and since there is only one true church. All the others must be cheap imitations.
However, Jesus sees it differently. He did not set up any institutional hybrid of a religious hierarchical centralized power that would lord it over congregations around the globe. His church - the true church, the Bride of Christ - has no headquarters or even buildings. The true Bride has no spot or wrinkle - there are no phony infiltrators in the real Bride of Christ. She is pure as the driven snow.
The real Bride is made up of the saints - the out-called ones - who are born-again, filled with the Holy Spirit, set apart in this world and have forsaken all to follow the Master. However, she is hidden among many congregations, each of which is a mixed multitude. Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares reveals this truth, and warns us that we are not in the position to separate the wheat from the tares because with the naked eye they are, for the most part, indistinguishable.
Jesus said, “Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn." (Matt. 13:30)
Rather than just one institutional church, Jesus addresses the seven churches of Asia-Minor in the second and third chapters of Revelation. Each church has a unique personality and is composed of true and false converts. Even the churches that are the most far-gone doctrinally, like the Church of Thyatira, has a few true saints hidden in their midst.
As the Apostle Paul pointed out, “Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.’" (2 Tim 2:19)
If Jesus had put a particular institution in authority over all the others, He would only have written a letter to that one church. But these seven, each with its own lampstand and angel, are in specified locations. The Christians in each city where the early church was birthed gathered together regularly for fellowship and teaching. There were no Gideon Bibles in every inn: the appointed bishop or pastor would read from the apostles’ writings they had access to. And there were no denominational divisions - Christians were Christians and they got together. Overseers were appointed for the sake of keeping order and the gifts and calling of apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, and deacons were recognized, as were those with all the gifts of the Spirit such as helps, administration, and mercy. The elders kept things in order.
But there was no hierarchy. All believers are equal in God’s sight and each must endeavor to follow the voice of Jesus and abide in the Vine. No pastor or church institution is going to do that for anybody.
Jesus was unequivocal about what He thought of a hierarchy.
“But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.’” (Mark 10:42-43)
How Did We Get Here?
The decline of Christianity seen all over the world in the 21st century did not happen in a vacuum. Church history is rampant with scandals and debauchery; men vying for power and position in the institutional church. Inquisitions, Crusades, Ecclesiastical Wars and whatnot. It’s the wickedness in the visible church that gets all the attention. Individual saints in the invisible true church go unnoticed. And it seems that as soon as they get recognition, it goes to their heads and their sanctification slips when pride enters in.
The de-evolution of the visible institutional church did not surprise Jesus or His apostles. The Apostle Paul warned the Ephesian elders:
"For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.” - Acts 20:29-31
Drawing disciples after themselves? Anyone who preaches their church or denomination when witnessing to the lost is doing just that. That is not being a witness, but a recruiter. They are not preaching Jesus, but their church. The Roman mother church is notorious for that. Their entire evangelization campaign is “Catholics Come Home.”
Paul could see the writing on the wall. The church he loved so much was being infiltrated by wicked men with their own agendas for greatness. Paul and the other apostles, under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, had written the New Testament gospels and epistles, establishing the foundation of the faith. Soon after Paul’s martyrdom, many heresies crept into the church.
When Jude, the brother of Jesus and James, wrote his little epistle, the Christian faith had already been founded. The last New Testament book to be written, Revelation, completed the canon and contained a warning to those who would add to or take away from the book. But Gnosticism and other devil-inspired ‘isms’ immediately gained a foothold to distort the truth that the apostles had delivered. He wrote:
“I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.” - Jude 3b
If the faith was not under attack back in the first century, there would have been no need to pen those words of warning.
Even before the apostles died off, the visible church that was planted was already a mixed multitude. As early as 95 A.D., when Jesus gave the Revelation to John on the Isle of Patmos, Jesus had issues with the direction some of them were headed. Out of the seven, He only addressed two without a rebuke. He still acknowledged the errant ones as “churches” - probably because they confessed His name and had some wheat among the tares.
As the wise man Solomon once said, “There is nothing new under the sun.” From this list of noted bad traits, the same issues are found in many church groups today:
“Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love.” (Rev. 2:4)
“You have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality.” (Rev. 2:14)
“You also have those who hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate.” (2:15)
“You allow that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, to teach and seduce My servants to commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.” (2:20)
“Known the depths of Satan” (2:24)
“You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” (3:1)
“I have not found your works perfect before God.” (3:2)
“Defiled their garments” (3:4)
“You are neither cold nor hot.” (3:15)
“You are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.” (3:17)
I wonder what Jesus would have to say to today’s churches were He to write them all a letter!
It seems like the older an institution gets, the further away it drifts from its roots. People often say, “Well, that ministry started out right; they just got off course along the way.” Think of the plethora of church groups, denominations, and Bible fellowships that would be true of. The Roman Catholic Church shouldn’t boast of their antiquity - they’re just further afield from their beginnings. And you can easily detect their roots when you read the LORD’s rebuke to the church of Thyatira with a little dash of Pergamos thrown in.
On the other hand, true saints of the Most High God today are not much different than the saints of old. The true called-out ones are still living and dying for their faith. They are still sharing the testimony of Jesus with others and not merely recruiting for some organization. Institutions wax and wane, but the invisible church of Jesus Christ abides and remains.
Although I’ll be talking a lot about the “institutional church,” made up of wheat and tares, that does not mean I am adverse to organization. The Bible lays out the way the local body should function – in decency and in order – with each saint bringing their gift to minister to the rest. That is why in 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul lays out the diversity of gifts that are given as the Holy Spirit so chooses. The offices of pastor, evangelist, deacon, bishop, teacher, and every position of leadership should function in the Body yet understand that the position does not equate to being more holy or superior than the rest.
The Roman Catholic Church (RCC) does not stand alone as the oldest institution calling itself Christian. She shares that distinction with her sisters, the Eastern Orthodox Church and her outposts, along with the Coptic Church in Egypt. Remember, Alexandria, Egypt was a major hub of Christianity in the days of the apostles.
Not only do these other bodies from antiquity share the distinction of age, but they also share many of the same attributes as Catholicism such as the use of icons, elaborate architecture, religious art and sacramentals such as candles, incense, holy water, hosts, priests, vestments, and whatnot. However, the RCC is the Mother Church historically, as she is the institution that took the prominence over the others. The rest followed her example, while maintaining their independence.
As these institutions vied for religious and secular power and importance, God still had His little lambs in pockets of believers who did not go along with the hijackers of Christianity. They do not stand out in history, because they were not the ones exerting their importance over the others. God knows who they are.
So that begins this dysfunctional family. We have the mother and the sisters. Then there are the daughters – the ones who broke off from the mother. This list would include the Church of England, also known as Anglican and Episcopalian, and the groups formed by the Reformers such as Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed. These churches reformed some of Rome’s errors, however they held onto some traditions that make void the Word of God. A major blunder of the Reformers was maintaining Rome’s insistence on a church-state in which they held secular power over the people. And those who opposed that power were often put to death or imprisoned. (John Bunyan for example.)
That brings us to the cousins in the institutional church. Some of these started out better, like the Methodist Church and some Baptist denominations, although they didn’t move far enough away from their ecclesiastical roots. But the power of the hierarchy – a sort of Christianized caste system – took root as men and sometimes women rose up the ranks in their chosen career as clergymen. Official ordination gave them the power to institute so-called sacraments such as a distorted ceremony they call “communion” or the ability to baptize, in some cousins even babies, claiming that water baptism is what saves a person’s soul. Cousins like the United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, American Baptist and so on, have turned liberal and given platforms to homosexual incursions. In fact, the liberal umbrella organization that many of the cousins belong to, the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, have an entire agenda of liberal/progressive and anti-Christian positions. Even odd cousins like the Quakers, Mennonites, and Moravians are members.
Today, the grandchildren institutions are on the rise. Emergent, Seeker-Sensitive, and Purpose-Driven churches have become the norm, hand-in-hand with the fallen culture to attract unsaved people, particularly the youth, watering down the Gospel to institute their church-growth principles. Spin-offs from the Assemblies of God denomination are expanding under the authority of false apostles and prophets under the banner of the NAR: New Apostolic Reformation. They are leading scores of young people into a Kundalini metaphysical baptism producing hypnotic induction with the assistance of evil spirits.
The grandparents of this institutional Church, consisting of sheep and goats, are the spirit of Antichrist and his cohort, the Queen of Heaven.
The Church Family
The first century church as seen in the book of Acts and the Epistles got along just fine without any institutional religion. It was a time of innocence before the Apostle Paul left for glory. Throughout Paul’s epistles, he spent much of his time correcting error as it crept in – nipping it in the bud before it took root. After the time of the apostles, wicked men crept in just as Paul had foretold. Paul’s second and third missionary journeys consisted of strengthening the congregations he had established, weeding out wolves and hirelings as he went.
The early church met in houses. It looked more like family gatherings than religious services. They would look out for one another. If one had a need, the others would pitch in to meet that need. They loved one another, worshiped corporately, prayed together, broke bread together and shared wine commemorating the Last Supper and the LORD’s sacrifice for their sins. They even joined together in industry – Paul worked with Pricilla and Aquila in the tent-making business. They were hospitable, entertained strangers, shared their testimonies, told others about Jesus and His Gospel of salvation as a free gift to repentant sinners. They were in unity – one body.
As many as were being saved joined their ranks. They had a love for Scriptures and hoped for the soon return of Jesus, looking for Him in joyous anticipation. It wasn’t until a century or so later that certain so-called “church fathers” came along denying His future millennial reign on the earth. According to the infiltrators, Christ was ruling now through the church hierarchy and His return would be to end the world, not to rule it.
The Parables of the Kingdom
We’ve all heard the saying, “History repeats itself.” That happens to be a biblical concept.
When God gave the Law to Moses for the children of Israel to follow, it didn’t take long for the nation to depart from it. Even while Moses was on the holy mount, the Israelites were building a golden calf and saying it was the image of the god that led them out of bondage in Egypt. By the time they inherited the land under the leadership of Moses’ successor Joshua (another way of saying ‘Jesus’), they were already starting to adopt some of the pagan practices and idolatry of the nations they were uprooting.
The fact that the same thing happened upon the establishment of the New Testament church should come as no surprise. That seems to be the nature of fallen man. And it’s not like we weren’t warned. Paul admonished the baby church to learn from Israel’s mistakes so as not to do likewise.
“Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” 1 Cor. 10:11-12
Jesus especially showed us how the Kingdom of Heaven when it manifests in the earth is immediately polluted from within. Many of the parables give us clues to the condition of the church which is supposed to be His witness on earth to the Kingdom of God after His own people rejected Him and we gentiles were grafted into the same Olive Tree.
Jesus made this interesting observation:
"And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force.” – Matt. 11:12
He certainly wasn’t speaking complimentary of those who cause the Kingdom to suffer by invading it. Yet, believe it or not, false teachers on TV have used – or should I say misused – this passage to mean that they need to get violent to rise to position in the church.
Jesus was obviously saying that violent men had taken over the highest position in the synagogues, referring to the high priest, Pharisees, and Herodians who eventually turned their violence on Him. This fact is illustrated in His parable of the land owner and the vinedressers.
"But when the vinedressers saw the son, they said among themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and seize his inheritance.” Matt. 21:38
That is an example of those taking the Kingdom by force.
Jesus warned His disciples to beware of the “leaven of the Pharisees.” That leaven, the Bible says, is sin and false doctrine. The Apostle Paul identified the leaven in the same way. He told the Galatians:
“A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal 5:9). And Paul said a similar thing to the Corinthians: “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened.” (1 Cor. 5:7).
At Passover, Israeli wives would have to sweep through their entire house and get rid of all yeast and leavening agents as instructed by the Mosaic Law. Leaven is not a good thing in biblical typology. So why would believers think it is a good thing to be leaven. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard TV preachers telling their people to go out and be leaven – using that as a metaphor for influencing others.
They base that on a misunderstanding of the Parable of the leaven:
“And again He said, ‘To what shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.’" – Luke 13:20-21
That was a clarification of the Parable of the Mustard Seed He had just shared:
“Then He said, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.’" – Luke 13:18-19
These “birds of the air” are birds of prey – unclean birds according to the Law. Some Bible translations call them “vultures.” The pure Kingdom looked good to them to use it to nest in. They took over the tree.
This goes back to the Letter to the Seven Churches – These churches had taken the kingdom – some rightly and some wrongly – but he addressed them all since they put themselves in Moses’ seat.
"The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat,” Jesus said, “But all their works they do to be seen by men.” – Matt. 23:1,5
And just like the Pharisees and Sadducees who opposed Jesus, these leaders in the church who brought in the leaven of their false doctrines claim for themselves “the seat of Peter”. However, they will be cast out of the Kingdom when Jesus comes and dispatches His angels to separate the wheat and the tares. Jesus said we will know them by their fruit. Or as the late Walter Martin often said, “You can know a wolf by his diet; wolves eat sheep.”
The true sheep of God’s Vineyard are scattered throughout these little kingdom wannabe buildings. And they’re also meeting in homes with little flocks of fellow sheep.
The Pilgrim’s Progress is a wonderful allegory for the life of the true believer. We can’t go it alone. It would seem that the same percentage of pilgrims in the book of actual citizens of the Celestial City is the same as in the world today. They were the few. They didn’t fit in. They overcame. They were persecuted. They were attacked. They were martyred. They were reviled. They made it through to their ultimate destination.
The nature of the enemies that confronted Christian, Faithful, and Hopeful hasn’t changed. The modern dress and speech is different, but the old sleuth foot has nothing new in his bag of tricks. His time is short, but because he knows that, he is on the warpath. As Christians we are targeted as the enemy. The Apostle Paul put it this way:
“In perils of waters, perils of robbers, perils of my own countrymen, perils of the Gentiles, perils in the city, perils in the wilderness, perils in the sea, perils among false brethren;” 2 Cor. 11:26
But Paul told Timothy:
“And out of them all the Lord delivered me.” (2 Tim 3:11b)