“On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians.”—Acts 17:10-11
In the fourth century A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine, who was of a questionable religious persuasion, decided to not only grant a law of toleration for Christians in the Roman Empire, but to make Christianity the official state religion. When this happened, the state persecution of Christians stopped; no longer were they hunted down by the authorities, and dragged to the Roman coliseum to be eaten by lions for the entertainment of spectators; no longer would they be tormented in prisons, and pressured to reject Christ and declare Caesar as god; no longer would they be burned, and mocked, and insulted by those in places of authority. Sure, not all persecutions, stopped:–on a social level, it was still hard to be a Christian in the empire: “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). But the key thing to remember is: by the fourth century Christianity became the official Roman religion (Roman Catholic), and Christians were granted diplomatic immunity from the government. Rather than it being legal to persecute Christians:–it became illegal to persecute Christians…and Christianity became the state religion. Let’s pray that happens in China!
This made Christians rejoice! But there would be positives and negatives of this. The positives were: (1) No more fear of being killed for your faith in Christ. You could live your life, and enjoy the life God gave you, with peace of mind that you are not going to be arrested, thrown in prison, or torn apart by bears and lions. (2) The rise of Christian theology was much easier, because more Greek and Roman philosophy graduates from the academies, upon conversion to the faith, could enjoy careers as priests, theologians, or even monks; they could also be “apologists” and defend the faith philosophically against the arguments of non-Christians. (3) It enabled the Christian faith to spread more effectively; not being staunched and hindered by the government; and even making way for Biblical law to influence Roman civil law. (4) It enabled the public to see where church buildings are physically located. Before Constantine granted clemency to Christians, they had to meet in house churches (secretly), out of sight from the general public; these early house churches operated on an “honor system”; if a new convert was trusted, then he was allowed into the community. Otherwise, the general public had great difficulty knowing where it was that Christians physically worshipped at. There were no church buildings before Constantine; no church signs, no advertising at all; it was completely based on “word of mouth.” This means that early churches were very small in number, and could not spread the Gospel to very many people, because they had this “invisible” status for their church meetings. Constantine radically changed that—and I think, for the better—many large and quite visible buildings throughout the empire would be converted into Christian churches. Constantine enabled the Christians to “come out of hiding,” and wear their faith on their sleeve, and even let their church buildings be highly visible in cities. This helped with the evangelistic mission of the Great Commission, to “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).
However, there were negatives that would also come from Constantine’s institutionalization of the Christian Church: (1) Lukewarmness, or the decline of Christian spirituality was something that eventually took hold of many church members. Since they were no longer being persecuted for their faith, a kind of complacency came over many Christians. No longer were they driven to their knees in prayer during hard times. No longer were they crying out to God for visions, and wisdom, and direction for their lives. Many of them sat back in ease, got a stable job, and began to “eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19). However, if one wanted to live spiritually, he would just about have to abandon the normal “dry” church setting, and become a monk or a nun (monasteries were starting to develop in those days because of the Desert Fathers in Egypt). (2) The confinement of spiritual gifts and miracles to monasteries. The everyday organized church leaders did not like the idea of people prophesying, words of knowledge, sharing visions during church services, praying for healing and seeing no instant results, or worse yet, an indecent display of demon exorcism during sophisticated church services. Those who yearned for such things, who “eagerly desired gifts of the Spirit” (1 Cor. 14:1), who wanted to live in a more prophetic and apostolic manner, would have to become celibate monks and nuns, and live in a monastery for the rest if their lives. And miracles only appeared among some monks and nuns, in some monasteries, and in some Catholic orders (not all of them). And even when visions and miracles happened in monasteries, they were often kept a secret, to protect monasteries from the “pride” of miracles; or from the “ridicule” that could come from making such claims. (3) The Great Commission often confused with the political interests of government officials who go to church. Constantine mixed church and state; he made the church and the government the same body of people; and so, when worldly or unspiritual, ambitious men in the government, desired certain office jobs in the government, or desired to expand the territory of the empire, they would often resort to “spreading the Christian religion” into the heathen lands:–this mentality eventually crystallized into what was called “the Holy Roman Empire” and would be the carnal justification for the Crusades. Although St. Paul said, “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal” (2 Cor. 10:4, NKJV). All that changed with the Crusades. And to this day, one does not have to look very hard to see ungodly church leaders who seem to be more concerned about politics, and socio-economic status, than Christian spirituality.
With these negatives so forcefully stated, let me also say, that there have been exceptions to this rule throughout church history. In every century of the church, there has been at least one movement or spiritual revival, which has sought to remain within the confines of the organized church, and yet still retain apostolic spirituality and power. We may see this as the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the history of the Christian Church, as a mark of God’s faithfulness to His people, no matter how many may stray from the original Biblical pattern.
Until the 16th century, the monasteries retained the apostolic vision of a prophet. A true Christian who pursues holiness and righteousness, and seeks the face of God in contemplative prayer, so it just may be that God would grant him a vision, or a voice from the Spirit, or a prophetic dream, or His manifested presence, or a message from an angel, or faith to heal the sick by prayer and the laying on of hands. Various Catholic orders would produce some of the most prophetic monks ever recorded, and miracles on par with the prophets in the Bible:
- The Order of St. Benedict
- The Celtic Saints (St. Patrick, St. Columba of Iona)
- The Franciscan Order
- The Dominican Order
- The Society of Jesus (Jesuits)
- The Discalced Carmelites
Healings, miracles, visions, and other “mystical phenomena” of the Holy Spirit are abundantly recorded in the annals of the Catholic saints through the ages. Whatever anti-Catholic notions we may hold as Protestants, we need to give credit where credit is due, and admit that the Holy Spirit manifested the power of Christ, and the Gospel, through hundreds, if not thousands of times, by the Catholic saints in the Middle Ages. Not to mention the incredibly high standards of holiness and righteousness they strived for. Yet none of these Catholic orders or monasteries ever separated from the authority or supervision of the Catholic Church:–they were structured, organized, and disciplined. It was a required policy that each monastic order drew up for itself a “rule” by which it would live (for example: The Rule of St. Benedict, The Rule for Monks by Columbanus, The Rule of St. Francis, etc); a collection of spiritual disciplines and policies for the government, organization, and boundary lines of the order. They remained within the organized church, while at the same time, cultivating revival and Christian spirituality in their own ways.
In the 16th century, Spain saw the last burst of Catholic spirituality through the “Counter-Reformers” known as the Jesuits and Discalced Carmelites (St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. John of the Cross). They were monks and nuns who sought to revive the spiritual experiences of the Desert Fathers through disciplined prayer and contemplation. Germany and England went through the Protestant Reformation, ushered in through Martin Luther’s confrontation of various abuses by the Catholic clergy at the time. He truly “took a stand against the system”; but it wasn’t so much a stance against “the organized church” (in matters of organizational setup)—it was a stance against ungodliness, greed, carnality, and the “Prosperity Gospel” of the Middle Ages, known as the selling of “Indulgences.” These things Luther stood against in his “95 Theses”; but more important than all that, was his revelation of justification by faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone:–something that dawned on him as he read the Book of Romans. Luther’s revelation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the centerpiece of the Reformation; and was at the heart of the early Lutheran Church. It is important to note that Luther did not want to start the Lutheran Church, but wanted to remain a Catholic priest, and reform Catholic morals and theology. But since the Catholic Church leaders wanted to kill him, he buckled and started the Lutheran Church. It would be a grand understatement to say that Luther’s church was in a state of revival so long as he lived and retained influence in it:–but note: it was an organized church. Although it was independent from the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church still had an organizational structure to it, and it housed the Holy Spirit and revival for a time. The exact same thing can be said of Thomas Cranmer and the early Church of England, at least for the Anglican reformers, who were spiritual.
In the 1600s, however, the spiritual vitality of the Church of England waned, and the Puritans sprouted up under the inspiration of the Spirit, to reform the theology along more Calvinistic lines, and more soteriological, sanctification, evangelistic, Gospel-centered lines. The Puritans were often conflicted with the question: Should we try to reform the Church of England, by remaining within its organizational boundaries; or should we start our own independent Puritan “Nonconformist” churches? Many of the Puritans started their own churches, because they felt there was more freedom to preach out against certain sins in the pulpit. But still:–keep this in mind—whether a Puritan pastor decided to remain within the Church of England, or start his own independent church, both church models were organized churches. Sure, the independent model is less complicated and developed organizationally. But even the smallest Puritan church always had some level of organizing about it (examples: pastor, times of church services, hymns, sermons, cell group meetings—called “conferences”, church buildings, pulpits, pews, etc). The Pietists were not their own denomination, but were a group of spiritual Lutherans, that sought to revive piety and holiness in the Lutheran Church (they were like “Lutheran Puritans”). Over time, the Lutheran Church had become lukewarm and antinomian (that is, relying on “cheap grace” license-to-sin concepts). The Pietists preached against that; they also had cell groups.
The Methodists of the 18th century were incredibly spiritual, as they were blessed with a leader like John Wesley. Evangelists and open air preachers were sent all over England and America preaching the Gospel message of repentance, faith, justification, and regeneration—that “Scriptural holiness may be spread throughout the land.” For almost 53 years, most of Wesley’s adult life, the Methodists were a group of spiritual Anglicans, which sought to revive piety and holiness in the Church of England, and bring evangelists into the public spotlight. Although the Methodists were Anglicans, it cannot be denied that there was a lasting tension between them and the Anglican priests. The Methodists managed to cultivate a sense of community by “class meetings” and home-based cell groups. Only near the end of his life, did Wesley see the need, as if forced by circumstances, to form the Methodist Episcopal Church, to keep the group from dying off. Wesley was known as a skilled organizer; and any study of their movement or the structure of the early Methodist Church shows how “institutional” and “pro-organized church” Wesley was. Yet, it was said by Henry Moore, he was the “chief instrument” of the Great Awakening in England and America.
The Great Awakenings of the 1700s and 1800s in America were totally spiritual movements of evangelists, revivalists, and salvations that swept through all sorts of Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Reformed, and other evangelical churches. All of which could be called “organized churches.”
The Early Pentecostals, from 1906-1956, were moving in holiness and revival power—much unlike things are today. The hotbed of the Pentecostal Movement was William J. Seymour’s church called the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission, the location of the “Azusa Street Revival”, which is said to have run continuously for 3 years straight! (1906-1910). It was an independent church, but was also an “organized church” and was organizationally setup like an urban “holiness mission.” Many of the holiness and Pentecostal “missions” of the early 1900s were started by street corner “street meetings” held every Saturday or Sunday—street preaching and street worship services, that brought an evangelistic outreach to the local towns and cities. Pentecostal pastors would rent out storefront rental spaces or “halls” as their church plants.
The Brownsville Revival, from 1995-2000, in Brownsville Assembly of God, was probably the greatest Pentecostal revival since Azusa Street. It carried on for 5 years in an organized church.
Independent Charismatic churches such as Mike Bickle’s International House of Prayer-Kansas City, I believe, are being used of God today—so long as the pastor and his staff are godly, and the sermons are focused on holiness. Spiritual gifts, prophetic words, and healings are welcomed and encouraged in such “Third Wave” Charismatic churches. Yet even these are “organized” churches! David Wilkerson’s Times Square Church, and for a time, Keith Green’s Last Days Ministries were or are still well known holiness preaching independent ministries or churches—and they are “organized” ministries.
Let us not forget the endless list of saints who have been saved and blessed through independent missions sending agencies like Youth With A Mission (YWAM), Operation Mobilization, Bethany Fellowship, etc.
Spiritual vitality and revival can occur in the organized church! In a day and time when “organized religion” is coming under attack not only by atheists, but also “emergent” church Christians—one must wonder if these critics are at all aware of the good things that have occurred in the organized church in the past. I think being well versed in “church history”, as well as “revival history”, is necessary for the spiritual well-being of individual Christian living; but also for the spiritual survival of the church at large. And revival history, is something that I for one, want to learn more of, because I don’t want to be doomed—but blessed to repeat it! In my opening text I quoted: “On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians” (Acts 17:10-11). This is the basic reality of revival. The Bereans had revival, but not so much the Thessalonians. The Bereans were all about the Scriptures and the Gospel and they had faith. They were “more noble” than the Thessalonians. Jesus said there would always be “wheat and tares” in His church; and that we would have to wait till the Day of Judgment for the tares to be thrown into the fire (Matt. 13:24-30). So, as we wait for that blessed day of God’s vengeance on all the hypocrites, let us work for revival in the church. Let us love the church as Christ loves it. Let us “seek and save the lost” IN THE CHURCHES (Luke 19:10). Let us not run away like Jonah, and avoid preaching sermons on repentance (Jonah 1:1-3). Let us do the work of the Lord! And not grow weary! If you have to move from the church of Thessalonica to the church of Berea…then SO BE IT! Go where revival is welcome; become a revivalist; live in revival; be of “more noble character” than the Thessalonians! I don’t believe the answer is in “leaving the institutional church” model altogether, or “coming out from among the system” to be separate from harmless religious forms; the answer is in “holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14):–and to “spread Scriptural holiness through the land.” Unless God directly speaks to you about leaving a specific church, then don’t leave it, simply because of its “organized ways”:–however, remember the value of meeting together with Christian friends, cultivate koinonia wherever you are, and in cell groups, strive for the open sharing depicted in 1 Corinthians 14:26: “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.” While we should maintain the value of a traditional godly church service, with godly Puritanical sermon preaching, reverent worship music, and organized evangelistic outreach in the community, let us never forget that Christianity is not just about preaching sermons and singing songs. There is a shared life of Christian friendships that can be experienced in small home-based groups that cannot be experienced anywhere else!