One, Holy Catholic, and Apostolic Church
1 John 2:15-17

*Reformation 500: Exploring the Traditions of Protestantism – Part 1*

As most of you already know, there are three main branches of the Christian church: The Roman Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Protestant Church. Many of you grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and you are familiar with the language of Pope, priests, nuns, the mass, the missal, and the host. Most of you, I presume, are not very familiar with the Eastern Orthodox Church. Even though it is the second biggest church body in the world, it is largely limited to Greece, Russia, and Eastern European countries. That is why many of us here in North America are unfamiliar with terms like the Divine Liturgy, iconography, and the Holy Theotokos.

            The third and most diverse branch, the Protestant Church, is comprised of multiple denominational limbs: Episcopal, Lutheran, Reformed/Presbyterian, Congregational, Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal. Each one of these limbs has a myriad of twigs. For instance, the Baptist twigs include: Southern Baptists, Northern Baptists, American Baptists, Fundamentalist Baptists, Regular Baptists, Independent Baptists, Conservative Baptists, Free-Will Baptists, and Baptist General Conference, just to name a few. (I’ve been thinking about writing a book to sort out all these different types of Baptists. I already have a title picked out “Fifty Shades of Baptist.” It’s going to be a best seller!”)   

            Seriously though, in a world with so many different expressions of the Christian church, how do you know which one is right? How did they all get started? And how did it become this way? It is ironic that we use the phrase “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” when we recite the Apostle’s Creed, and yet the church of Jesus Christ has never been more fragmented!

            I will address each of these questions and many more as we begin our fall sermon series titled “Reformation 500: Exploring the Traditions of Protestantism.” Over the next few months, we will dedicate each Sunday morning to learning about all the aforementioned denominations. I hope that this series will give us a better understanding of the diversity of the universal church and how we fit into the overall story. I also hope that this series will deepen our appreciation of various streams of Christianity. But to properly understand Protestantism, we must begin with the Roman Catholic Church.

 

The Rise of Roman Catholic Church

Any Roman Catholic theologian worth his salt would tell you that the Roman Catholic Church was instituted by Jesus Christ himself and then was propagated by the apostles, especially Peter, whom they consider the first pope. Now Jesus did in fact establish the Christian Church and Peter and the other apostles were responsible for the church multiplying and spreading throughout the world, but the church was not really Romanized until A.D. 312 when Emperor Constantine was converted to the Christian faith legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Throughout its first three centuries, the Christian church went through unimaginable persecution from the Roman Empire, though all the time growing and spreading. The first recorded official persecution of Christians was in AD 64, when Emperor Nero attempted to blame Christians for the Great Fire of Rome. It was during the reign of Nero that Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome. The most widespread persecution was carried out by Emperor Diocletian (303–311), who ordered Christian buildings and homes torn down and sacred books collected and burned. Christians were arrested, tortured, mutilated, burned, starved, and condemned to gladiatorial contests to amuse spectators.

So, imagine what an extraordinary turn of events it was when the Roman Emperor himself became a Christian. Within one person’s lifetime, the Roman Empire went from the most savage persecutions of Christians to fully embracing Christianity.

             At that time, the Empire was divided into three sectors and each one was governed by a rival Caesar, who all laid claim to the throne. Looking for a divine power to help him overcome his enemies, Constantine turned to the Christian God instead of the Roman pantheon of gods and goddesses whom previous emperors trusted.

            Constantine called on the one true God with earnest prayer to secure victory over his rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312. While he was praying, a most extraordinary sign appeared to him from heaven. At about noon, he saw with his own eyes the sign of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, “By this symbol you will conquer.” He was struck with amazement by the sight, and his whole army witnessed the miracle.

            He said that he was unsure what this vision could mean, but that while he continued to ponder, night suddenly came on. In his sleep, the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies. The sign was the Chi Rho, the first two letters of the name Christ in Greek. Constantine told his soldiers to paint this sign on their shields. And even though their army was outnumbered two to one, they were victorious. Maxentius was drowned in the Tiber river and Constantine became the first Christian Emperor.

            Immediately following his victory, he invited Christian ministers to teach him the ways of Christ. Throughout the rest of his life, he embarked upon changes that made it easier for Christians to flourish in the Roman Empire, including:

  • Issued the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313, which legalized Christianity in the empire.
  • Ended widespread persecution of Christians.
  • Stopped the barbaric gladiatorial games.
  • Abolished crucifixion.
  • Established Sunday as a day of rest.
  • Gave massive amounts of money for constructing church buildings.
  • Developed vast programs to feed and clothe the poor.
  • Commissioned copies of the Bible for all the new churches.
  • Assisted bishops in establishing Christian orthodoxy and settling theological disputes.
  • Convened and presided over the Council of Nicaea which produced the Nicene Creed, thus affirming Jesus’ divinity.

 

            Emperor Constantine was the preeminent person responsible for uniting the Christian Church and the Roman Empire, thus leading the rise of the Roman Catholic Church.

 

The Fall of the Roman Catholic Church

But just as Christianity had an incredible impact on the Roman Empire, the Roman Empire exerted considerable influence on the Christian church. This is always one of the unintended consequences of aligning with political power; you become what you serve. Over the next 1000 years, as the Roman Catholic Church grew into one of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in history, it drifted away from the Word of God. Throughout the Middle Ages, the church embraced more and more of the world and began to look less and less holy. Cardinals undercut (and sometimes even murdered) each other to become Pope. Archbishops abused their authority to confiscate land and make themselves rich. Bishops forsook their vows of celibacy and took mistresses and had children out of wedlock. And many priests died from complications brought on by syphilis.

During these dark ages, going through the motions of the eucharistic mass became more important than preaching the Word of God and biblical instruction. Praying to patron saints was often substituted for praying to Jesus. And the sale of indulgences began—where the priests told the church members that if they gave enough money to the church they could purchase the souls of loved ones from purgatory and then they could finally rest in heaven. The life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ became buried under the rubble of religious rules, rites, and rituals.

Now please don’t misunderstand me—I am not denigrating the Roman Catholic Church. Personally, I have a deep appreciation for it and it accomplished many great things for Christ during this time. I am just showing how it slid off track in some of its doctrines and practices and how they led to the spiritual conditions that necessitated a Reformation.

 

Do Not Love the World (1 John 2:15-17)

In a nutshell, the Roman Catholic Church fell into the spiritual trap that the Apostle John cautioned about in his first epistle, which was a pastoral letter written to counteract false teaching in the church. In 1 John 2:15-17, he flat out warns:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the father but from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

John is declaring that two choices stand before everyone—even in the church: Either we love the Father or we love the world. When he uses the word “world”, he can mean the created material universe which is good or the world of sin that stands in opposition to God. Here it represents the unredeemed world, a world under the control of Satan; it lives in darkness and is the object of God’s judgment. To John, the material world is good and will be renewed someday. Yet there are those within it who succumb to sinful impulses and reject God—these will not abide with God forever.

John has in mind that individual Christians are to avoid an infatuation with worldly godlessness, with the realm of darkness that brings illicit pleasures; hence, the desires of the “flesh” and “eyes” that he mentions here. The “pride of life” refers to an attitude of pretentious arrogance or subtle elitism that comes from one’s view of wealth, rank, or status in society. It is an overconfidence that makes us lose any notion of dependence on God. To summarize, John is saying that affection for this world is incompatible with the true love of the Father. (Burge 116-117).

            John’s warning here is not only meant for the Roman Catholic Church; it is meant for all branches of the Christian church. It is meant for the East Franklin Union and Franklin United Churches. It is meant for all Christians in every age.

            We always have the same choice standing before us: Am I going to love God and the things of God or am I going to love the world and the things of the world? Are we, as Christ’s church, going to stand firm on the truth of God’s Word in all aspects of life or are we going to allow the world to redefine our views of morality, sexuality, and spirituality? Are we going to love Jesus with all our hearts or are we going to waste our time chasing wealth, status, power, and popularity? Are we going to focus our time and energy on following Jesus closer or are we going to follow the desires of our flesh? Are we going to rely on the Father’s grace and wisdom or are we going to get puffed up on the pride of life and insist on doing things on our own terms? Are we willing to give up trying to control our lives and determining our own destinies? Whatever you do, don’t let the world influence you away from the kingdom of God!

            Friends, this world is passing away! Let us make sure that we don’t pass away with it! If you haven’t already, commit your life to Jesus Christ today! If you have fallen away from him, come back before it is too late. If you have stumbled into some sinful trap, confess your sin to God and turn away from it! Then run back to Jesus’ arms of forgiveness! For this is the only way that we can prevail over the world—as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of Jesus Christ!

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