In the early years of the New Testament church, the pattern for doctrine and worship was laid down in a clear, unambiguous way. It was laid down in the Old Testament and made clear in the New.
But gradually this pattern of clear teaching in the Bible was challenged and altered by an erring church, until not only doctrine and worship, but even what was perceived as God’s Word itself, was changed.
The Bible’s authority lies in it being God’s inspired Word, to be read, love and obeyed. But, by the Middle Ages, the church had decided the Bible was not sufficiently clear and that the man in the street was not able to understand it by himself; he required church leaders to do this for him.
This subtle attack bypassed the authority of God and gave authority into the ever-changing hands, heads and hearts of men. Men would decide what the Bible says and means! The church, although it was religious became even more religious. It did not, however, have God’s new life within, and it became more humanistic than ever.
By the Middle Ages, large swathes of the church had become merely a man-made institution, paying lip-service to God, while inwardly determined to decide what ‘truth’ is, and not submit to what the Word of God decides is true.
We are all born as fallen human beings, each deciding for ourselves what truth is, so that, ‘Your truth may not be my truth’. Our first parents, created without sin, were tempted by Satan into believing that their truth could be equal to God’s truth. And, ever since the Garden of Eden, men have been making their own truth — their own god, their own pattern for church and what it should believe and do.
Men have done this, not only in religion, but in all areas of society, politics, law, education, art and government. But fallen man’s truth is not God’s truth.
In contrast, Jesus Christ tells us: ‘I am the truth’ (John 14:6); the Holy Spirit is ‘the Spirit of truth’ (John 14:17); and God’s Word is truth — ‘Sanctify them through thy truth, thy word is truth’ (John 17:17). And the apostle Peter says: ‘The Word of the Lord endures forever. And this is the Word which by the gospel is preached to you’ (1 Peter 1:25).
Yet Pilate still asked, ‘What is truth?’ (John 18:38), for man has been trying to decide what truth is, ever since the Fall. Sin destroyed man’s proper grasp of truth; unconverted man no longer properly understands what is right and wrong.
The errors gradually introduced into the early New Testament church did not go unchallenged, by the apostles Paul, John and others. And, when the Bible’s canon was complete, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Augustine, Athanasius and many others did much to resist departures from biblical truth — some with their lives.
Down the centuries, God has preserved his Word in marvellous ways and has maintained in the hearts of men a desire to know him. We can illustrate this by the following story.
Many years ago, when the Inuit peoples lived in great hardship, it was their custom when an individual grew too old to contribute anything to the life of their family, for a small igloo to be made for that person. The old and sick person would then be put inside it with a little food and water and left to die — an early form of euthanasia.
A missionary nurse living among the Inuit heard of an old woman left to die like this. She visited her and, although it was too late to do anything for her body, told her of God’s redeeming love in Christ Jesus.
The old lady’s tears flowed. ‘Oh’, she said, ‘I knew there was something more. When I looked at the sky, and when I looked all around me, I knew that there is a God. When I looked into my heart, I knew that I had offended God. I knew there must be something more’. That ‘something more’ was not human insight or even the church in itself, but the Bible, the Word of God, with its glorious message of saving grace in Jesus Christ.
A corrupt church does not like the Bible, but God has decided that his Word would not be lost: ‘Forever, O Lord, thy Word is settled in heaven’ (Psalm 119:89); ‘the grass withers, the flower fades: but the Word of our God shall stand forever’ (Isaiah 40:8).
Even when written copies of the Bible were scarce and hard to come by, God preserved his truth. In Hungary, around the fifth century AD, there were those who memorised Scripture. They would go to the markets and sing whole books of the Bible.
At one market, you might hear someone singing the whole of Genesis or the Gospel of John; another might sing the Psalms or the evangelical Isaiah. God spoke to needy men, women and children through those troubadours singing his Word.
The Celtic church in Ireland, and in Scotland from around 500 AD, loved God’s Word and loved to preach it. This was in the time when the Roman church had ceased to love the gospel and make it known. The Celtic church was primarily a preaching church that sent missionaries to mainland Europe, even northern Italy, as they had no confidence in the Church of Rome and its pope.
It was a Bible-loving church and its members carefully copied the Scriptures in wonderful detail. They never acknowledged the pope, until overrun by Catholicism in the twelfth century. They gloried in preaching at a time when the Roman Church had forgotten how, and had turned to rites and candles, and especially the blasphemy of the mass.
In 1971 in Europe, while paying a car park attendant, he asked me where I came from. I told him and he told me he was descended from Celts. I smiled politely, as we were so far from Scotland. On returning to my car, he was waiting beside it full of excitement and held out for me to see a little bronze figure of a bull, a Celtic symbol.
Missionaries had come to his country; men who loved God’s Word and who had the heart desire to share it. He claimed to be descended from those missionaries. His country was the Czech Republic.
Some would tell us that the church of the Middle Ages before the Reformation was a beautiful church, with rich music that entranced the ears, gorgeous robes that amazed the eyes, and altar rails that distanced the people away from the sacraments.
However, this church could not be compared with the early church, which followed the teaching God has made known in his Word and whose worship was Christ-centred and simple, and included both pastor and people.
At the centre of the true church’s worship lay the gospel message that even a child could understand, while the very learned could not plumb its depths. It was a church that followed a lifestyle of obedience to Christ. It taught that the heart must love and obey God in everyday living.
But, by the time of the Reformation, the church throughout Europe was not such a biblical church, even though there were individuals and groups here and there with whom true evangelicals today would have felt privileged to share and worship with, if it had been possible.
To be concluded
Rev. William B. Scott, of the Free Church (Continuing), regularly visited Eastern Europe from 1971 until 1998, preaching in many different churches. He had a break from these visits when he and his wife served as missionaries in Peru.