We live in a time of change. We have seen attacks terrorize the West, revolutions topple long-standing regimes and technologies change the way we communicate.
And we are also witnessing changes in the world’s largest religion—Christianity.
Nominal Christianity is in a very fluid state of change. For example:
- The pope is reaching out to different groups in a way, it seems, no pope has done before. The conciliatory positions of Pope Francis I have led people to describe him as “the people’s pope” and “a pope for everyone.”
- More and more denominations are endorsing and/or performing same-sex marriages or civil unions.
- Megachurches that have no firm doctrines, but mainly serve as social and community service hubs for attendees, have become popular.
- Many churches are changing their teaching of hell, transforming it into an ethereal “state of mind” of eternal separation from God’s love.
Changing beliefs of individual Christians
Polls conducted in recent years by the Pew Research Center revealed some surprising results:
- 38 percent of American Christians polled say Jesus Christ definitely or probably will never return to earth.
- Only 33 percent of American Christians polled believe that the Bible is the Word of God and to be interpreted literally.
- 65 percent of American Christians polled believe that there are multiple paths to eternal life. Among this group, 80 percent believe at least one non-Christian religion (such as Judaism or Islam) could lead to eternal life.
Essentially, Christianity is heavily impacted by the social and cultural trends of today’s world.
Mainstream Christianity has clearly evolved within the last few decades!
The historical evolution of Christianity
But the evolution of Christianity goes back much further! In fact, one of the most amazing stories of history is how Christianity evolved quite dramatically into a religion very different from the religion found in the Bible.
The New Testament documents the rise of that Church in the book of Acts and in the letters written by its leaders. The Bible reveals a Church very faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ—a Church that taught the law of God and shunned all forms of paganism (1 Corinthians 7:19; Ephesians 5:11).
The text of the New Testament closed around A.D. 90-95. By this time, the New Testament Church was greatly weakened from its dynamic beginning in Acts 2. Its members were scattered by persecution and most of its original leaders had died as martyrs.
Jesus foresaw that others would later connect His name to an evolved form of Christianity and deceive many.
There are sparse records of Christianity in the years immediately following the deaths of the apostles. Church historian Jesse Lyman Hurlbut identified this era as “The Age of Shadows” because “for fifty years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” (The Story of the Christian Church, 1970, p. 33).
Yes, very different.
The Christianity that began to emerge after A.D. 120 was nearly unrecognizable from the Church we read about in the Bible—having vastly different beliefs and practices. In fact, Christianity became divided into regional sects, teaching and practicing different versions of Christianity.
This evolving Christianity only began to coalesce into a unified system of belief and practice when, in A.D. 313, the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which gave the Roman version of Christianity legal status in the Roman Empire. Then 67 years later, in A.D. 380, Emperor Theodosius I declared this religion the official state religion of Rome. This version of Christianity, wrote historian Charles Guignebert, had “already traveled very far from the ideas both of Jesus and of the Twelve” (The Early History of Christianity, 1927, p. 112).
Notice another quote from Charles Guignebert: “In the third century it [Christianity] could meet and overcome the entire pagan syncretism, because it had itself become a syncretism in which all the fertile ideas and the essential rites of pagan religiousness were blended” (ibid., p. 116).
Another historian, Ramsay MacMullen, wrote: “The triumph of the church was one not of obliteration [of non-Christian beliefs] but of widening embrace and assimilation” (Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, 1997, p. 159).
Many of today’s commonly held doctrines and practices entered Christianity through this process of assimilation. Examples include Sunday as the weekly day of worship, holidays like Easter and Christmas, the Trinitarian explanation of God, the cross as a Christian symbol and the veneration of Mary and saints (in Roman Catholicism).
Christianity has evolved; this is an undisputed historical fact. But did Jesus and the apostles design Christianity to morph and evolve?
Jesus Christ: founder of an evolving religion?
Did Jesus intend for His teachings to evolve after His death? No.
Christ pointed His followers to the Word of God as their source for life and belief: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). In fact, Jesus taught that His way of life was to be based on adherence to the Commandments of God (Matthew 19:17). He said those laws were unchangeable and permanent (Matthew 5:17-19). He went so far as to say that those who practiced “lawlessness” are not His true followers (Matthew 7:23).
His vision was that His followers would teach others to observe “all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20)—not change or add to His teachings!
Though He taught against the evolution of His teachings, it is clear that Jesus knew that it would happen. One of His strongest warnings was that “many will come in My [Christ’s] name, saying ‘I am the Christ,’ and will deceive many” (Matthew 24:5). Jesus foresaw that others would later connect His name to an evolved form of Christianity and deceive many.
But what about those men Jesus commissioned to lead His Church? Did they give Christianity a license to evolve?
Paul: The founder of an evolved Christianity?
The apostle Paul was the most prominent writer in the New Testament. Many incorrectly believe that he was the first to change the teachings of Christianity—often calling him the founder of “Pauline Christianity.” However, a close reading of his books shows that everything He taught was consistent with the teachings of Christ. In fact, Paul stated plainly that his ministry was based on imitating and faithfully following Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:1; Ephesians 1:1).
Just like Christ before him, the apostle Paul taught faithful obedience to the 10 Commandments (Romans 7:12), faithfully observed the biblical Sabbath (Acts 13:42-44; 17:2; 18:4) and kept the annual festivals found in Leviticus 23 (1 Corinthians 5:7-8; 16:8; Acts 20:16; 27:9).
In fact, far from licensing the evolution of Christianity, Paul strongly warned against it. He warned that a time was coming when “they will not endure sound doctrine, … and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). To counteract this, Paul urged Christians to hold “fast the faithful word” (Titus 1:9).
Paul warned about people changing the true gospel (Galatians 1:6-9), doing away with God’s law (Romans 3:31; 2 Thessalonians 2:7) and blending in paganism (2 Corinthians 6:14).
Warnings from the other apostles
The other apostles also wrote strong warnings against any future evolution of Christianity. The apostle Peter taught that Christians “should follow His [Christ’s] steps” (1 Peter 2:21). In his last epistle, Peter warned against the coming of “destructive heresies” (2 Peter 2:1). Heretics would “promise them liberty” (2 Peter 2:19) and would “twist” the writings of the apostle Paul to create an evolved Christianity (2 Peter 3:16).
History proves that Peter’s warnings were not heeded by many, as mainstream Christianity almost unanimously teaches “liberty” from the law of God using Paul’s writings!
The apostle John also warned God’s people against deception by encouraging them to “abide in [stay faithful to] the doctrine of Christ” (2 John 1:9).
Jude wrote one of the most heartfelt warnings in the Bible against the evolution of Christianity: “I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
Do you discern a pattern in all these warnings?
Heeding the warnings today
These leaders of the early Christian Church saw that others were trying to change and add to the doctrines of Jesus Christ—creating a new, evolved version of Christianity. They warned Christians to reject these changes and stay grounded and faithful to what had been taught by the Old Testament, Jesus Christ and the apostles (Ephesians 2:20).
Unfortunately, those warnings went unheeded by many, and an evolved form of Christianity arose that continues to be the dominant form of Christianity today—though now divided among many denominations.
If you take the Bible seriously, it’s time to heed the ancient warnings of Jesus Christ, Paul, Peter, John and Jude. It is time to study the Bible and learn what original Christianity actually looked like.
No, Christianity was not designed to evolve. Continue reading Discern to learn how you can practice the original, genuine Christianity of the first century today!