The Early Church faced a lot of challenges in its formative years. One of the greatest problems came from within the Church itself: heresy. Some of my next few posts will look at a few of the common heresies the Early Church had to contend with. As they fought against the oppressive and liberal Roman world, the creation of heretical and schismatic movements within the Church itself meant that brothers and sisters in the Early Church had to fight for the Gospel both within and without.
Gnostics, Donatists, Arians and many more rose up, and they all taught lies and deception, deceiving people from salvation to damnation. These heresies sprung from and depended on false teaching. Peter spoke of the terrible effect that false teaching could have.
But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping.
2 Peter 2:1-3 (NIV).
This and other clear teachings on the danger of false teachers in the New Testament illustrate the damaging power such people have. Their false teachings are destructive. Their words deny the Lord they claim to profess, and the “many” who follow them will bring the way of truth into disrepute. The Bible is clear on the end of these teachers. Peter tells us they will be destroyed, he goes on to say their reward will be “[to] be paid back with harm for the harm they have done” (2:13).
The true tragedy of these teachers is their followers. The “many” that Peter tells us will follow such teachers ought to break our hearts. Many led astray from the path of life to that of death. Many seduced by evil, away from what is good. Many who appeared saved now lost. As we look at the schism and sinfulness of the Early Church we must not be anaesthetised to the human reality of what we see. Many men and women doomed to an eternity apart from God because of the actions and teachings of false teachers. That is not to say they are not at fault for their sinful hearts, by no means, Peter reminds us here that there is great sin in denying the truth. But wrapped in this sin of false teaching is great tragedy: men and women bent on destruction operating within the church only a few decades after the life and ministry of Jesus Himself.
We shouldn’t let the historical distance between us and the Early Church steel us against the sadness of men and women destined for destruction. Recognising the tragedy of the schisms and heresies of the Early Church ought to prompt us to more readily engage those around us who we know are far from the truth of God with His Gospel.
Recently a friend of mine became very seriously ill. In his illness he feared that, perhaps, his time on Earth was up. Thinking he had but days left (I am glad to say that he has since recovered considerably), he decided to write letters to some of his close non-Christian friends. I read one of these letters, addressed to a great university friend of his, and it was heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking to hear so candidly the words of a friend who expected such a letter to be read when he was gone, but it was even more distressing to see the emotion behind his plea with his non-christian friend to explore the Gospel. My friend had a great concern for those who were lost, and this challenged me. Even if it were my darkest hour, am I concerned for the lost as I should be?
Does my heart break or am I cruelly indifferent?
I know I struggle to be truly heartbroken for lost souls. It is something I must repent of, something I need to be challenged on. And I suspect this is the case for many of us. Are we truly grieved by the thought of those we know and love quite literally hell-bent on their own eternal destruction?
The great preacher Charles Spurgeon summed up the tragedy of a lost soul.
Lost! Lost! Lost! Better a whole world on fire than a soul lost! Better every star quenched and the skies a wreck than a single soul to be lost!
What a tragedy that the outcome of false teaching in any age is lost souls. May we be challenged by that painful reality, and moved to embrace both solid Bible-based teaching and heartfelt evangelism all the more as we think of the challenge of the schisms and sinfulness of the Early Church.