II. The Doctrine of the Fallen Church

From within the Anabaptist story emerges the doctrine of the fallen church. Can there be a doctrine that is biblical and that is not in the Bible? Try to name such a doctrine; perhaps the trinity? But hints to the trinity are within the Bible. The Evangelical Anabaptists will develop a doctrine that has a source outside of Scripture--and you will have to judge whether it is a biblical doctrine or not. This doctrine, however, will be echoed in John Smyth, Roger Williams and a host of reformers or would be reformers. I feel that it is a biblical doctrine.

To be a reformer in the 1500s you would have had tremendous regard for the traditions of the historic church. The existing church was the true church, but things were wrong with the church. The church had fallen on evil, and into unworthy hands. The problem they faced was how to achieve moral and spiritual purity in order that the church could be usable to God. This was why reform was important.

So there developed the idea of a fallen church. That which the church was to be, it was not; if the church did not meet the biblical model then it had to have fallen--fallen away from the intentions of God. Every Reformer held to the view because, otherwise, there was no need for reform. The fact you are calling for the church's reform means something had gone wrong with the church. When and where did the church go wrong? When and where did it fall?

This doctrine was a presupposition which each reformer brought to the interpretation of the church. When and where did the church fall? Every Reformer held to this doctrine, but every reformer dated the time of the church's fall differently. The key to understanding the Reformer's doctrine of the church is to learn when--that is, with what historic innovations--they considered the fall as having taken place.27

A. Zwingli's Dating of the Fall of the Church

Zwingli accepted practices within the church that were explicitly specified in Scripture. Accordingly, he regarded the church as having fallen in the early 600s with the rise of the papacy and Gregory I. I don't know that this was ever directly stated by Zwingli, but George Williams28 has suggested these dates and the reasons for the dating will be in the material that I will be sharing with you.

Zwingli opposed the abuses of the medieval concept of the church that came about through the papal institution. He looked upon Constantine and what Constantine had done in a positive light. It was not Constantine, but rather the monarchial papacy that Zwingli opposed. So when Zwingli talks about reform, he wants to go back to the 600s and the situation before the papacy began exercising its power. The Constantinian era was viewed by Zwingli as a triumph for the early church.

B. Luther's Dating of the Fall of the Church

Luther accepted practices within the church as long as they were not contrary to explicitly stated Scripture. He thus considered the church as having fallen about the time of the abuses of Boniface III. This would be in and around the 607 time frame. Therefore he did not regard the order of the papacy as being wrong, nor did he object to the way that the church was structured, but rather he felt that it was the abuses of power that needed reform. Luther had been a Roman Catholic and wanted to stay that way; he would have remained Roman Catholic if only they would have let him. Luther can accept the monarchical papacy, but not the abuses of the papacy.

Luther and Zwingli had similar views and this is why they can agree on most things, as seen in the Marburg Colloquy in 1529. The difference between Zwingli's and Luther's dating of the fall of the church can explain their differing views on the Lord's Supper, the one issue that continued to separate them at Marburg.

In general it can be said that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin maintained that a fall had occurred. The pope's sweeping claims to temporal power, the dragging of the church into the political arena, and the moral deterioration of the church--these were general areas where the magisterial reformers felt that the fall had taken place. This enabled the Reformers to consider themselves as the continuation of the true church and to consider the papal church as the work of innovators. It was the abuse of the system that caused the fall, and by correcting the system they were in continuity with the historical church.

C. Anabaptist's Dating of the Fall of the Church

Where Luther and Zwingli opposed the abuses of the medieval concept of the church, the Anabaptists attacked the concept itself. Where Luther and Zwingli looked upon Constantine as a positive period, the Anabaptists did not. For the Anabaptists it was the illicit union of church and state that caused the fall of the church. The Anabaptists will date the Fall of the Church at AD 313--Constantine's Edict of Milan. It was at that point that Christianity received official recognition and acceptance, even though Christianity did not become the official religion of the Roman empire until AD 380 under Theodosius I. Because of the union of church and state and the developed rite of infant baptism, the church was flooded with hordes of nominal Christians and unregenerate peoples. For the Anabaptists, the need was the removal of the historic perversions that came from the union of the church with the state. This removal was to be accomplished by the practice of believers' baptism. The concept of believers' baptism as a covenant would remove the unregenerate membership from the church. It was this concept that became the organizing principle around which the Anabaptist sought to restore the "Ancient Church."

To illustrate the issue, the Christian church in the sixteenth century may be compared to a tree. There were several opinions as to what should be done with the church at that time. The Roman Catholics wanted to keep the tree just as it had grown, even though some of the branches were withered and some rotten. The tree was sacred--it should not be touched. Reform-minded Catholic humanists, of whom Erasmus would be the best example, wanted the tree pruned of dead wood, so that it might bear better fruit. Major tree surgery was called for, said the Protestant Reformers. The only way to save the tree was to cut off whole limbs in order to get back to the healthy trunk. Finally, there were the Radical Reformers--the Anabaptists--who contended that the entire plant above ground was sick and the only solution would be to cut it back to the healthy roots and let new life spring up from them.30

Most likely the Radical Reformers were influenced by humanism in speaking of the church's fall. Renaissance people were fond of speaking of the golden period of Greece and Rome, followed by the dank, dark, and dismal Middle Ages. This widespread interpretation of secular history helped the Anabaptists come to their understanding of church history.

When Emperor Constantine began to favor Christianity, and was himself baptized shortly before his death, the church started on a downward path. Unlike the traditional Christian view which, since Eusebius, has seen Constantine's conversion as the beginning of the glorious period of Christian influence and dominance, the Anabaptists saw that event as a tragedy of tremendous proportions.

D. A Historical Study of the Fall of the Church

There was an almost imperceptible, gradual process that took place in the Patristic era that changed the nature of the church. When one looks at the end-result of this process in the Roman Catholic Church and considers its New Testament starting point, the vast difference becomes apparent.

Two major factors moved the ekklesia (the termed used for the New Testament people of God) to the "church" (the institutionalized organization), and these factors were interrelated. The factors were the development of a formal legal authority and the development of the sacramental view of salvation around the New Testament ordinances.

The sacramental view of salvation developed around both the Lord's Supper and Baptism. The saving grace of Christ would be experienced in these rites controlled by the church. In our discussion I will center only on baptism because of the Anabaptists thesis that baptism is an initiatory rite for entering the ekklesia. If time were available both ordinances would receive scrutiny.

1. The Institutionalizing of the Ekklesia

It was said that "Christianity had two great battles to fight in the Patristic era. The first battle was without--the battle against persecution. The second battle was within--the battle on discipline and purity. It has been said that one battle was won and the other battle was lost, but I want to disagree with that conclusion--I believe that both battles were lost. The church that won the battle over persecution was not the same church as the New Testament ekklesia. The ekklesia had already changed; the church's very nature had been altered. Here are the reasons for this changed nature:

a. Syncretism--The Problem of Growth

In the first three centuries, it is estimated that between 5 and 10 million people were won to Christianity. This was a tenth of the Roman Empire. Gal. 4:4 needed to be understood as more than just the New Testament. Sometimes the church would triple overnight. The need for leaders was great. Early leaders in the church were from Judaism, but later Judaism rejected the Christian message. The Judaic leaders had an Old Testament background and were able to perceive and to interpret the New Testament message, but the leadership that came from the Gentile converts had a pagan background and had understandings that were vastly different.

The Gentile converts, being from a different culture, lacked an understanding and means of communicating the gospel. How long does it take for Christianity to filter into the sub strata of a culture? I don't know. But the resulting syncretism had two emphases--some church rites carried with them magical overtones, and the external signs of church membership were magnified.

b. Purism--The Problem of Discipline

A large number of persecutions transpired in this time period before legality was offered to the church. Most of these persecutions were local, but there were two exceptions which had Empire-wide overtones:

  • The Decian persecution in 250, which produced the Novations.
  • The Diocletian persecution in 303, which produced the Donatists.

The question that arose from these persecutions was how the church should deal with the lapsed. Should they serve the church as members? Should they be served the Lord's meal? Should they have full membership as if they had never renounced their faith? Suppose one's husband had died because of faithfulness to Jesus Christ and another's husband had renounced Christ under the same persecution, was freed, and later came back to the church proclaiming a faith in Christ? How should the people of God deal with the matter? How will the widow of a martyr feel toward the lapsed? What is the role of the lapsed in the church?

The answers to those questions affected the very nature of the church. Augustine used the wheat and tares analogy (Mt. 13:24-30) as a basis for his solution.

c. Civil Religion--The Problem of Dominance

The Edict of Milan (313) made Christianity a legal religion. When Theodosius I made Christianity mandatory in 380, he required the baptism of every person a rite of citizenship to the Empire. Where at one time no Christian could serve in the military because of their allegiance to a someone greater than Caesar, now every soldier had to be Christian to serve--a remarkable change.

  • Leadership in the churches was now based on organizational skills and loyalty to the state, where before Constantine leadership had been based on spiritual gifting.
  • The persecuted church becomes the persecuting church. Those not professing Christianity were often debarred from offices.

The statement "the church exists only where the bishop is present" became the teaching of the church, and represented a fundamental difference with the New Testament "where two or three ..." (Mt. 18:20). This position may be traced back to Cyprian, but was actualized after Constantine. Its purpose was to correct and prohibit heresy, and in turn it became a heresy itself, at least from the Anabaptist point of view.

d. Authoritarianism--The Problem of Schism

Two forces were at work here. The first was the modeling of the church after the government, and the second was the development of church leaders having a mode of authority originating in the culture. This use of authority intruded into the spiritual organism and brought a different kind of nature to the church--rank and formal authority of jurisdiction. The church had become a hierarchy.

2. The Sacramentalizing of the Ekklesia

When the ordinances were conceived of as a sacrament, a fundamental change in the structure of the ekklesia took place. I would love to use the word "sacrament" here if it meant what it did when it was first used, an "oath of loyalty" (Tertullian).

  1. The use of "sacrament" as a conveyer of God is a failure to understand the doctrine of grace. Grace conveyed through specially ordained channels becomes the norm of the church in the post-Constantinian period. This approach suggested an impersonal and quasi-material force or sub-personal pneumatic power conveyed through ordained channels. Grace in the New Testament, on the other hand, was understood as being the initiative of God.
  2. The use of "sacrament" as a conveyer of God is a failure to understand the doctrine of baptism.
    • Baptism as a conveyer of God has Christ's baptismal waters filled with a sanctifying potency.
    • Bishops began praying over water before baptism so the waters would have the same potency for those they baptized.
    • Infant baptism developed next. Baptism in the New Testament and in much of the Patristic period had a required catechism, but this cannot be done with infant baptism.

      Infant baptism obscured the New Testament doctrine of baptism. Water baptism was viewed as a cleansing from original sin and confirmation as a means to conveying the Holy Spirit. Division between catechism and baptism developed as a way to handle the problem. Augustine fleshed out the doctrine, relating it to original sin. Under the impetus of Augustine infant baptism spread throughout the church. From the fifth century on, infant baptism became the general practice of the church. It was only challenged by a few isolated communities.

      Baptism, through its application to infants, progressively lost its New Testament significance until it could be used as a mere outward sign without any inward spiritual significance. At the time of the Anabaptists, it was primarily a mark of citizenship.