Dear Bro. Waddey:
Did the true church exist during the centuries after the death of the Apostles? If so where could I read about it?
If you are looking for a national or international organization wearing the name Church of Christ and meeting publically in "church buildings" such as we know, the answer is no. But if you are looking for people who lived and worshiped according to the teachings of Christ the answer is yes. The apostles predicted that apostasy was coming (Acts 20:29-30; I Tim. 4:1-3). By the fourth century apostasy was wide-spread. The corrupt church did not hesitate to persecute those who dared to dissent from her teaching and practice. When the apostasy was full grown it was what we now know as the Roman Catholic Church. So great was its power and so oppressive its tyranny that any who dared to hold to the ancient faith of the apostles had to go "underground" with their faith or perish at the hands of the dominant church. In the Book of Revelation, John pictures this as the persecuted church fleeing into the wilderness where she would be nourished and protected by God for 1260 years (Rev. 12:13-14).
The dissenting groups, being small and persecuted, did not gain a notable place in the history of the church. The corrupt church being dominant, preserved her diatribes against the dissenters. As is common, they were maligned and misrepresented on every occasion. From the writings of their enemies it is virtually impossible to know for sure what they believed, taught and practiced.
In recent years researchers have been able to unearth some bits of information that throw more light on these independent churches. Some among the Puritans and Separatists in England seem to have held views similar to modern day churches of Christ. In Europe there was a numerous back to the Bible movement called by their enemies, "Anabaptists," which meant re-baptizers. The earliest traces of this movement are found in the 14th century. They were thoroughly committed to the idea of restoring the original faith, worship and practice of the apostolic church. The Anabaptists were hated and persecuted by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists. Thousands of them died for their faith.
Those believers who sought to be faithful to the teaching of Christ and his apostles labored under the most difficult circumstances. Most were poor. They were persecuted unto death. Their opportunities for advanced education were very limited. Many were illiterate. They frequently had to flee for their lives. Their leaders were hunted down and killed. Bibles were extremely rare and their cost was beyond the reach of most ordinary folks. They lived in a day of prevailing ignorance and superstition. This they had to overcome as they sought to know and do God's will. Books of sound teaching were virtually non-existent. Tools for research and study, which we take for granted, were unavailable to them. These conditions left them grouping for direction like a man in a darkened cave. Doubtless they often stumbled and reached wrong conclusion in their search for truth. We would not have done any better in the same circumstances. Their hearts were set on the New Jerusalem, they followed to the best of their ability such light as they had. We are happy to leave their fate to the Judge who knows the hearts and minds of men (Heb. 4:12-13) and who is great in mercy to them that fear him.
Be reminded that our standing before God does not depend on our ability to trace a line of churches of Christ back through history to the apostles. The gospel is the seed of Christ's kingdom-church (Luke 8:11). In any place on earth, when an honest soul hears the gospel message, believes and is baptized, he is saved (Mark 16:15-16) and added to the Lord true church (Acts 2:41,47). When two or more converts resolve to meet together and worship Him, they constitute the church of Christ in that community (Matt. 18:20).
By John Waddey
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