It began with Jesus. Then, his disciples. They believed in Jesus. They followed Jesus. They lived like Jesus. His spirit permeated them. They told everyone they met how knowing Jesus had changed them from the inside out.
They spent as much time together as possible. Every day, they congregated from one home to another. They shared stories about what had happened to each of them. They prayed together. They helped each other to become stronger, by teaching and encouraging each other. They ate together, pausing during each meal to remember Jesus by eating unleavened bread and drinking wine, as he had shown them. When one had a need, the others supplied it out of what they had. Then needed, they even sold what they had to help others.
They shared all things in common. They were a community of believers.
Today, millions of people around the world want to be like those early disciples. They go to church each week and spend a maximum of about four hours together. Someone leads them in prayer. Someone leads them in music. Someone passes a collection plate so each can give an offering to support the church. The church helps some who are in need. Someone teaches them in a class. Occasionally, they eat the Lord's Supper, they call it "partaking" of the Supper. It is now a ceremony, separate from anything else they do. Occasionally, they schedule "fellowship."
They share little in common. They are a church.
Have you ever wondered, "How'd it get to be this way? Where'd the 'church' come from, anyway?"
Perhaps you are well acquainted with church history and know many or all the events that led to the organization and formalization of the disciples' activities which led to today's churches. However, there is an underlying real reason for all those events that the church history books don't tell about. That underlying reason is that there is a spiritual war being fought.
In Ephesians 6, Paul warns:
"For the rest of it, [you must] be empowered in the Lord and in the might of His strength. You [must] put on the whole armor of God so that you are able to stand against the craftiness of the devil; because our hand-to-hand combat is not against blood and flesh (other people), but is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual armies of evil in the heavenlies. Therefore take up the whole armor of God in order that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having completed all things, to stand firmly. Therefore, you must stand, wrapping up your loins with truth, and putting on the breastplate of righteousness, and shoeing your feet with readiness of the good news of peace, in all things, taking up the shield of faith, by which you will be able to extinguish the flames of all the burning arrows of the evil one, and you must take the helmet of salvation and take the sword of the spirit which is God's word, with all prayer and pleadings; at all times, praying in the spirit, and being careful to persist in it in all perseverance and petitions [for others] concerning all the saints, and on my behalf..."
So, we are at war. Sadly, many don't know that, but all children of God are at war – not against each other – but against the spiritual armies of the evil one. If you think that's not real, then you're already a casualty.
That's why it was not long after Jesus left earth that Satan came among the disciples and began to change their focus and, consequently, what they were doing. In the beginning, the disciples' focus was on Jesus and on each other. Using his "craftiness" and his "burning arrows," Satan changed the center of their attention from Jesus and each other, to an organization called the church. He changed what they spent their time thinking about and doing, from serving the Lord, to serving the church. With some exceptions, it's been that way ever since.
Jesus commanded His disciples simply to love God and love each other. He said those were the two most important things for them to do (Jn. 15:12-14; 13:34, 35; Mk. 12:28-34; and others). The picture we see of the early disciples shows them doing exactly those things. Please read the early chapters of the book of Acts.
Jesus came, just as prophets said He would, as prophet, priest, and king. Some Jews were expecting three people as their messiah, however, all three missions were embodied in the Man, Jesus. Many were expecting the coming king to establish a kingdom in Israel, sit on a throne in Jerusalem, raise a mighty army, and lead the nation conquering and ruling all other kingdoms of earth.
But Jesus' reason for coming was altogether different. He came to establish His reign in the hearts of men and women. Just ordinary people. If they would forsake themselves and all others and accept Him into their hearts He would reign within them, thoroughly changing their lives. He would send His Spirit to live within them. As He told Nicodemus (Jn. 3), one who wants to see the reign of God must be born from above. Jesus explained that this was a spiritual birth, contrasted to the physical birth about which Nicodemus was thinking.
The changes in a person's attitude which His spirit makes consumed almost all of His person teaching. This spiritual birth from above changes who and what a person is – from the inside. Jesus' blood washes us clean (1Jn. 1:7) inside. It changes our hearts, our way of thinking, our values. Jesus even said that those who are "clean in heart" are blessed because they shall see God (Mt. 5:8). Just as He promised Nicodemus, those who are born from above will see the reign of God.
The religious leaders of his time failed to fathom what Jesus was talking about. They were expert in law. Their efforts had at their core trying to keep people from violating the law of God. To the ten simple commands God had given Israel, the Pharisees and those like them, had added literally myriads of details, explanations, clarifications, additional laws, and conditions. They were trying what modern psychology calls "behavior modification."
Jesus told them they were washing clean the outside of the dish and leaving the inside dirty (Mt. 23:25-36; Lk. 11:37-54). He was trying to convince them that it was what was inside a person that needed to be clean. He even told them they were like whitewashed tombs. They were clean and beautiful on the outside, but inside, where it counts, their spirits carried a stench like dead men's decaying bodies within a tomb. Their behavior had been modified, but their hearts were still dark.
Jesus condemned "behavior modification." He can change our innermost beings. Jesus changes what we are, not how we look!
But, what did Satan do? How did he change things?
In Acts 2:42, the disciples were conscientious about hearing, learning and repeating to others the things they had heard the apostles teach about Jesus. The apostles were those sent personally by Jesus to teach others all the things He had taught them (Mt. 28:18-20). The early disciples recognized that the words the apostles said were essentially the very words of Jesus. They wanted to hear them. They wanted to know them. They wanted to remember them and share them with others. They wanted to share with others the unspeakable joy they felt because of the teachings of Jesus. They were being reborn. This time, they were being born from above. They were totally new on the inside and had a freedom in Jesus Christ that their ancestors had never known.
It took a generation or two, but Satan used his craftiness in the disciples' minds to shift the emphasis Just slightly from clinging to the words of Jesus, as spoken by the apostles, to clinging to the words of the apostles, because they had been spoken by the apostles. It came to be known as the apostles' doctrine, then later as The Apostles Creed. In any case, simple Christians soon began to recognize a set of Christian laws, a body of teachings, originally based on what Jesus had taught. But now that the doctrine had been spelled out, commentators began to comment on it, and it became a creed, to which all believers must subscribe to enjoy the fellowship of the already established believers.
Springing up around the simple teachings of Jesus were all the teachings and interpretations of men and women who came later. The attitudes of the Pharisees had permeated them. Satan shifted the focus from what a person is on the inside to the way he looks on the outside – from what he was to the things he did. From spiritual birth from above to "behavior modification" through law-keeping.
Satan changed how we look, not what we are!
In all believers began a well, springing up inside them, which compelled them to share with others the good news of the joy of the salvation Jesus brought them. When persecutions began against them in Jerusalem, this compulsion to tell others about how their lives had been changed by the good news they had received about Jesus, caused them to go everywhere telling it to whomever would listen (Acts 8:4).
Originally, all disciples shared what they knew and had experienced with others.
While the body of believers was growing, Jesus sent gifts to them. Besides apostles, He gave prophets, teaching shepherds, and "good news messengers," as gifts to the body (Eph. 4:1-13). The reason Jesus gave those gifts to the body of believers was to build them up from the inside – to make them spiritually stronger – to bring them to become like Jesus whom they followed.
These gifts were given to and used by everyday, ordinary Christians. The only way each differed from anyone else was in the gifts each had been given and was using. The Lord's body needed all these gifts (along with others) being used all of the time. Paul taught that one was not special and should not be elevated above others because of what he or she did (1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:1-16).
However, Satan got a hold on that one and give it a twist, too.
Within a few generations, those who told the good news were elevated. The teaching shepherds were ennobled. Teaching became a profession, paid for and supported through their collections by the body of believers. Satan had taken the disciples' focus off the things taught and had shifted it to the teachers. Satan pointed them to the words of Paul that "the laborer is worthy of his hire," and that they must not "muzzle the ox which treads out the grain." He was teaching them that they should not let those who worked among them starve and to be in need because they had dedicated themselves to the work of teaching them and telling the good news to others. There were times when they had allowed Paul and other teachers to fall into deep poverty. He was teaching them that it was wrong to let that happen.
Satan twisted that teaching to create a professional "clergy." He used a two-pronged strategy to make it happen. He worked on the egos of the teachers who would be recognized by the body. It was appealing to them to become someone special or famous. The other prong of attack was upon the body of believers themselves. They liked to be close to someone who was special. If a teacher was elevated to become famous, then those disciples who knew the teacher well or associated closely with him could bask in the reflected glory. They became "somebody," too.
There's no question but what Satan has great ability to be crafty.
The early disciples taught each other, but they were also taught and lead by people with the special gift of being teaching shepherds (Eph. 4:11). They were just regular, ordinary disciples, but each was endowed by Jesus Christ with one or more gifts.
But, it didn't take Satan long to change the disciples' focus from the things taught and the leadership they were receiving, to the men and women, themselves, who taught and lead. The disciples began to ennoble them. They elevated one in each city to become a President. Later these men began to confer with their counterparts from other cities. In each region, one was elevated to become bishop. Before too many years had passed, these Bishops elevated some of their own number to be Cardinals. The Cardinals elected one of their number to be Pope.
As this hierarchy developed it took on power and authority of its own. Never had one Christian exercised any power or authority over any other. They had been simply dependent on God and interdependent on each other, following the commands of Jesus Christ.
But, Satan had again shifted their focus from teaching and leadership to the power, influence, and authority of this hierarchy of teachers and leaders.
Through the centuries reformers have come who recognized the problems and corruption that develop simply because of the nature of such a power structure. They have attempted to "reform" that organization. But, as noble as those reformation efforts have been and are, many times Satan takes the eyes of the reformer off his purpose. The purpose should be to return things to the simplicity which Jesus gives, not to replace a well-formed, heavily-entrenched hierarchy with a simpler hierarchy and system of government.
In different churches, these governmental structures take different shapes and names, but they were created because of Satan's craftiness, in any case.
When the early disciples got together, the scriptures tell of many varied things they did together. However, there is nothing they did which resembles the worship service of today's churches. When assembled, the early disciples prayed, ate, taught each other, confessed their faults to each other, met to go out of town together to escort a visitor into town, ate the Lord's Supper, and did many other things, but they never had a "service" of any kind that I can find.
But, Satan got into the act. He took the disciples’ focus off the benefits of what they had assembled for, and helped them to develop a pattern which must be followed each time they meet. It's called a liturgy, a prescription to be followed during worship services. Doing this has turned many a meeting of Jesus' disciples into a repetition of the sameness they have done over and over. Few, if any, grow, few learn, few come to be born from above, few become filled with the Spirit of Jesus, and have their very beings changed as a result.
Probably the most effective single thing Satan has done is to shift the disciples' focus from letting the Lord work through them for the benefit of others, to the building and maintenance of more and more ostentatious and pretentious real estate.
Anyone who has ever participated in the building, maintenance and operations of a church building knows how time-consuming that can be. Many conscientious people believe they are serving the Lord when they are serving only the needs of church-owned real estate with a voracious appetite for time, effort, and money. Satan really showed the extent of his craftiness when he came up with the church buildings and other church-owned real estate. Just think of the time, energy, and money each building takes that otherwise would have been spent doing the things the first century Christians did.
Along with all the other things we've already mentioned, Satan put into the minds of some that those organizations and institutions needed a vast, well-organized support system to generate professional clergy and other leaders.
Instead of depending on the Lord for the words to say, the things to do, and the places to go, as the early disciples did, Satan taught us to build theological seminaries, preaching schools, and leadership training schools. How else can the church find qualified ministers, pastors, preachers, elders, deacons, if they don't have a system to train them properly in that particular church's doctrine? Think of the time, effort and money siphoned away from the work of our Lord with that stratagem of Satan's!
Along with all the other things, Satan threw in formality. When I read the scriptures, I don't see anything very formal among the early disciples. Can you imagine Paul, standing in a 5,000 seat sanctuary of the Corinthian church's plant, in front of a 500-person choir (who sang for the other disciples, not with them), wearing his clerical robes, and with well-schooled inflection, intoning a lesson from the International Sunday School lesson for the week? Can you see him standing on an elevated platform (pulpit), behind a lectern (which he must have to hold his notes), with all lights focused on him, talking for hours to a group of people whose seating is arranged for the best view of him (even though they are looking at the backs of each other's heads)?
It seems to me that Satan has really "done a number" on us. He's taken our focus off the Lord and each other, and has us busy doing myriads of other things instead. He has successfully clouded the understanding of thousands. No longer is the emphasis on being a newly created being, reborn from above in the spirit, given the gift of the Spirit of our Lord to live inside us, the ability to become like Jesus, the burning desire to share our joy and the good news with others, the urge to share with others anything and everything we have. But Satan has changed the emphasis to form and structure, to law-keeping, to right behavior instead of the right spirit, to cleansing the outside of our dishes instead of the inside. From being faithful and serving our Lord to being faithful to and serving our church.
Don't kid yourself, our adversary really knows what he's doing.
This war is serious!