Why so many Churches? Part 1

Many people have often asked, “Why are there so many churches in the world today?” That is a great question and one that is important to answer. To understand why requires a study of both history and the Bible. Today, we will look at the early history; next week we will look at the Restoration, then finally, more modern history. When it comes to the church’s history, there are many versions out there because it always depends on who is doing the writing! But, the facts are not difficult to find and Jesus is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13: 8). So, in reality, His church has never really changed since the day of its inception, as we can read in Acts chapter 2 and forward. But, a look at history tells us from where all these others came.

Beginning in the days of the apostles, we see many autonomous congregations of the church of Christ being established (Acts 8-28; Romans 16:16), which were each lead by a plurality of elders (Acts 14:23; 1 Peter 5:1). But even at that time, some were already exiting from the faith and starting their own “churches,” (3 John 9; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Revelation 2:6). This explains why that in the beginning of the second century, also called the Age of the Church Fathers (100 to 500 AD), apologists such as Irenaeus and Origen write that a new practice emerged where a single elder began to wield more influence and control over other congregations, outside of his own. In 325 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine made it official by convening the Council of Nicea, which decreed that certain “bishops” were to be given control over the various churches and elderships within their “districts.” In that decree, the Roman Catholic Church was born. This departure from the Scriptural model of leadership started what would later become an avalanche of denominationalism.

From about 500 to 1500, also known as, The Dark Ages, the Roman Empire had completely disintegrated, but the Holy Roman Empire grew in importance and power. Pope Leo I was the first church leader to use the name Pontifex Maximus. But, several historians generally considered Gregory I to be the actual, first Pope. It was he who wrote a decree stating that Peter was the first “Pope” in Rome. Therefore, according to that, all authority for the church must reside in Rome. Gregory’s successor, Boniface III, later appointed himself as the first supreme leader of the church in 606 AD. The Dark Ages also produced a major division over whether the headquarters of the Catholic Church resided in Rome or Constantinople, musical instrument were introduced into worship, and unbiblical doctrines appeared such as indulgences for those who wanted to pay to have their sins forgiven. Fortunately, this period also produced John Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English and Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, which made the Bible accessible to ordinary people for the first time in history.

Such accessibility to the Bible prompted a German friar, named Martin Luther, to nail his “95 Thesis” (complaints) to the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg in 1517. This ignited a movement called The Reformation (1500 to 1650). Many others also began studying the Bible on their own, like John Calvin, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli and Conrad Grebel, who each rejected Catholic doctrine. This precipitated many to leave that church and start their own. The name Protestantappeared as more and more “protested” and resisted imperial edicts. The Roman Catholic Church responded with a Counter-Reformation at the Council of Trent. There, they rejected the accusations against them and affirmed their doctrine through the Catholic Catechism of 1566. This resulted in a bloody inquisition and many religious wars where thousands upon thousands lost their lives for the next several decades. The fighting finally subsided when the “Peace of Westphalia” was signed in 1648.

Tired of so much conflict, many religious groups began seeking freedom to practice their own religion by migrating to the New World. Among those groups to arrive, even more divisions emerged as each attempted to follow their own interpretation of the Scriptures. This has continued until today, resulting in more than 40,000 different religious organizations! Each has their own creed, their own doctrine, and their own hierarchy of leadership. But, the New World also became fertile soil for the Restoration Movement (1790-1840). This became a crusade f rejecting all man-made creeds, doctrines, and religious institutions and simply returning to the Bible for all guidance pertaining to the church and religion. …. To be continued next week!