The Great Deception of the Church

"Who is blind but my servant, and deaf like the messenger I send? Who is blind like the one committed to me, blind like the servant of the Lord?"

Isaiah 42:19

I am no professor of Church history, but I do read. And from what I have studied of the history of the Church there are at least three clear examples of how God's people were tragically and thoroughly deceived at critical times in history. There may be many other examples, but these are three very clear examples. Interestingly, ALL of these examples of the deception of the Church involved politics!

Example One: Rome and Constantine
Up until the time of Constantine, Christians had suffered terrible persecution and martyrdom. Rome must have been abuzz with rumours of the Emperor's conversion. Radical changes followed, and instead of Christians being persecuted, Christianity was eventually enshrined as the official religion of the Empire. Imagine the excitement that many Christians must have felt at their beloved Emperor coming to faith in Christ! What a hero for the cause he could be... I am sure that many would have basked in the glory of the new legitimacy that Christians could enjoy. Surely those must have been exciting times! Hmmm... or were they?

What really happened? Apparently Constantine saw a vision with the sign of the Cross, and a voice spoke to him saying, "By this sign you shall conquer". I am not going to speculate as to whether Constantine's conversion was real or not, or whether or not that experience was authentically from God or not. There is no way that I can tell. But the Bible does tells us that Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace. We may be called to conquer and overcome... NOT by the weapons of this world, but "by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony".

I would prefer to comment on the results of those changes that took place in the Church as a result of Constantine's 'conversion'.

I had the privilege a few years ago of travelling to Milan in Italy, and I actually spoke in the Basilica of St Estorgio (how this opportunity came up is a whole other story!). That place of worship was the preaching place of notable figures of European Church history, including Thomas Aquinas. The sanctuary is said to house the remains of one of the wise men who actually attended the birth of Christ - his tomb is in the back right-hand corner of the building. Along the walls on each side there are glass cases displaying the bones of other saints, silver busts of former Popes are on display and a large statue of Mary (wearing a crown) towers above the congregation. But if you go out through the back door you can visit the foundations of the original building which were actually laid during the reign of Constantine.

From our historical perspective is hard to comprehend changes that Christians went through during that time. The Church, both in Rome and throughout most of the Roman Empire, went quickly from being an underground movement made up of cells of believers who met in private homes and other secret locations, to being a highly organised, formalistic religious system with State backing, State leadership and subject to State regulation. The impact that this would have had on church life would have been like the difference between night and day. What resulted was the construction of a religious system that bore more of a semblance to the Old Covenant - a formal Priesthood (even though Christ is now our High Priest) an elaborate and stately Temple system (even though we are the Temples of the Holy Spirit), a complex system of rules and regulations (even though the law of the Spirit has set us free from the law of sin and death). Some people would have seen the establishment of European "Christendom" as a triumph for the Christian cause... others would have recognised the institutionalisation of the Church and it's marriage with the State as being the great tragedy which would plunge Europe into centuries of spiritual darkness.

Example Two: Following the Great Reformation
Another Great Deception of the Church actually took place during the Reformation, and the vestiges of this are still with us today. This great deception was to do with the relationship between Church and State. Some believers at the time passionately believed that there should be a complete separation of Church and State because they had seen first-hand how the quest for political power can corrupt, and how religion can be used as a tool to justify the wicked lust for power and ungodly political agendas. Afterall, Jesus said "My Kingdom is not of this world".

Apart from bringing a spiritual awakening throughout Europe, the Protestant Reformation also broke the Vatican's political stranglehold on Europe. Luther's efforts to bring about the reformation of the Church was mirrored by the efforts of other Reformers throughout Europe. Other Reformers had been around for some time (Luther was not the first to be asserting the truths of justification by faith). They were routinely persecuted or executed by Rome as heretics. The timing of the Reformation's success was probably due in part to political and technological factors as well as spiritual. One regional governor took it upon himself to defy Rome and protect Martin Luther from the fate that other Reformers had suffered. The innovation of the printing press also meant that new ideas could easily be published abroad to the masses.

Unlike Luther, those who held to the belief of separation of Church and State were mostly of baptist conviction... ie, they believed that water baptism was for believers only - not for new-born babies. (Up until that time the Catholic Church was paedo-baptist... ie: They baptised babies and then called them Christians.) After the Reformation had swept Europe, all of the State-controlled regional churches which sprang up throughout Western Europe after the Reformation (Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, Church of Scotland, etc, etc, etc...) all embraced paedo-baptist theology. You could conclude from this that the reformation of the church stopped short of addressing all the theological errors of Rome and did not go far enough!

There is a strong and important connection between the issue baptism and that of the relationship between Church and State.

Baptising babies and declaring them to be members of the Christian Church from birth was actually a powerful tool of the State to unify and 'Christianise' Western Europe - and to create a cultural buffer against the feared Muslim hoards which were slowly approaching from Eastern Europe. It is quite interesting to read how another prominent Reformer, Zwingly, did a back-flip on the baptism issue as he moved into a position of governmental authority. He even began persecuting his former followers, and had them thrown into prison if they refused to baptise their children. In protest they declared that they were only following what he himself had originally taught them - that baptism is only for those who have personally professed faith in Christ. The persecution of Anabaptists (a derogatory term meaning 're-baptisers' - although they did not consider infant baptism to be real baptism at all!) was so intense that many were forced to flee to the only place in the world where they could be assured of religious freedom - the New World... America!

But in seeking to culturally 'Christianise' Europe by a marriage of convenience with the State, the reformed churches of Europe succeeded mostly in diluting and dissipating much their own spiritual vitality. It is very interesting to trace the spiritual lineage of evangelical/pentecostal Christianity throughout the world today. It can actually be clearly traced back to that faithful remnant that fled Europe for America - and, perhaps surprisingly, not as much to the reformed state-churches of Europe. Whilst Christianity in Europe has been steadily in decline, evangelical/pentecostal Christianity has been rapidly spreading throughout the world from its Anabaptist roots in that fertile seed-bed of America. Even when it is possible to identify spiritual revival in Europe, such as the Great revival under John Wesley, we need to note that it was Anabaptists who actually led him to discover true faith. It seems that God's plan down through history has always been to work through a faithful remnant rather than the often-misled masses.

Example Three: Nazi Germany
Who would have thought that the country that gave the world the Great Reformation would also have given us the Jewish Holocaust?

How many devout Lutherans would have ever thought that their great Christian nation could ever slide so close to the gates of Hell by endorsing the leadership of a mad-man like Adolf Hitler who took the world to war resulting in 50 million deaths?

How many of them could have refused to believe him when he assured them that Germany was a superior nation and was blessed by God? How many would have refuted that it was Germany's great destiny to bring their superior industry and technology to the world? And yes... even Hitler claimed to have God on his side! Sadly, Germany was tragically deceived, and many German Christians were deceived along with them... until it was too late! Even God's elect can be deceived! Nationalism is a great deceptive influence - and there are few things more universally seductive to otherwise good and upright people.

In Our Time
Recently I watched a documentary which highlighted the relationship between George W Bush and what is commonly called 'the religious right' in America. Many high profile Christians - televangelists and other household names for many Christians - gave personal testimonies about their conversations with George W Bush, bearing witness to the absolute sincerity and validity of his faith. Many said "He's the real deal". The program even showed George W himself saying that he is a changed man because Jesus Christ had changed his heart.

That was enough to convince me... I am convinced that George W Bush has prayed the sinners prayer, that in his heart and his mind he is a changed man and that he really believes that he has found a new direction and purpose in life through Christ. I have no reason to dispute that, just as I have no reason to dispute that Emperor Constantine also had some kind of encounter with God. Nor do I dispute that the great Reformers of Europe, such as Zwingly and Luther were, at least in their own mind, convinced that they were serving God when they authorised the severe persecution of the anabaptist believers which drove them out of Europe.

But what can we learn from the lessons of history?
Should we ever blindly endorse the policy of any leader just because they might profess a faith in Christ?
Does having a belief automatically make one wise?
Does having a belief automatically it make one's policies right?
Does having faith render a man infallible and incapable of making the most grievous and tragic mistakes?
Do we want more unholy alliances between Church and State?

In Australia today, many Christian's are giving their endorsement to candidates who appear to profess faith. Many Christians are giving their endorsements to candidates on the basis of a very narrow definition of righteousness and morality... usually because they are thought to be family-friendly candidates or are opposed to gay marriage (as if dropping bombs on blameless civilians does not also rate as a moral issue!!!) Many Christians in America are giving their wholesale endorsement to President Bush without understanding the full implications of many of his government's policies, and the reverberations that they are having throughout the world. And what about Donald Rumsfeld? He is responsible for much of America's foreign policy... is he the real deal too? What values and ideologies really drive him? And what are the long-term implications for the rest of the world? What are the implications for the way America is perceived throughout the world? And what about Dick Cheney? Is he the real deal? What beliefs and values really drive him?

I am thoroughly convinced, more than ever, that we are facing another Great Deception in the Church... and it is happening right under our noses in our time! The deception facing the Church is that we are putting hope and confidence in some political leaders merely because they profess faith, without having an informed regard for the implications of their policies abroad, for how those policies are stirring hatred and resentment, and with no understanding or regard for what the repercussions will be for our children and our children's children.

Now is a time to be discerning before history judges us harshly... and to pray like we have never prayed before.

Let us not be ignorant of the tragic mistakes of history!

Allan D Weatherall
Publisher, Worldview Interactive magazine

Note: Worldview Interactive magazine does not endorse any political party or candidate. We simply want Christians to think deeply and prayerfully about issues of faith, culture and politics.

Saturday, November 18, 2006   printer friendly version | 13705 reads