There has never been a perfect church and never will be. This includes the churches of New Testament times. Churches have always been filled with flawed people working together in worship of God to fulfill His mission on earth. Nevertheless, the worship that came out of New Testament times was basically a simple, pure, and unified worship. Sadly, this form of worship did not continue through the early centuries entirely unimpeded. There were several scattered persecutions of Christians that took place during the first and second century. In the third century from A.D. 249 to 261, the Roman saw its first Empire-wide persecution of Christians. During this emperor-ordained persecution, Christians were required to save themselves by denying Christ.
Constantine Changes Things for Christianity
Early in the fourth century Constantine became Roman Emperor. He drastically changed life for Christians by converting to Christianity and making it a recognized religion. It was in A.D. 325 that Constantine first sought to battle heresy and control churches by calling the first Ecumenical Council of Nicea. Tradition says that up to 318 bishops gathered at Nicea at government expense.
Some very positive things did occur in the rest of this century following the First Council of Nicea. Two things were particularly influential to the future of church worship:
First, although the debate over the accepted New Testament canon had raged for many years and would continue for many more, this century saw the most advancement in the agreement and acceptance of canonized Scripture.
Second, the fourth century saw the popularization of hymnody.
Christianity was such an ingrained part of Roman culture by the latter half of the fourth century that in A.D. 380 the current emperor Theodosius I made it the official state religion. The Christianity that resulted throughout the years after Constantine first made it into a recognized religion and even more after Theodosius made it an official state religion was an increasingly ritualistic Christianity that put much more emphasis on human leaders both deceased and alive and less interest on God and His personal relationship with individuals.
The Centuries of Darkness
What this served to do was to help introduce several centuries of different degrees of darkness. Beginning in the fifth century, things were not bright for Christianity or for the rest of the world. It began dark and got increasingly darker. The darkest years of the middle ages is aptly called The Dark Ages because of its immense spiritual, political, and social void. While it wasn’t all bad with there being some very positive movements in the medieval Roman Catholic church, most of its timeline is characterized by impersonal worship. This sad time period in the church is highlighted by some horrible events instigated by human leadership in the name and purportedly for the cause of Christ.
The Return Begins
Then people started slowly waking up. Although the Protestant Reformation would not begin in earnest until the 1500s, there were signs of its coming for many years before its greatest revelation. In the 1300s various personalities and groups began criticizing the Roman Catholic church and fighting for a renewal of the personal worship for the common man. One of these personalities, John Wycliffe, dreamt of translating the Bible—which was at that time written in Latin so that only priests could read it—into English. Exactly 100 years before the Spanish Inquisition began, Wycliffe’s followers, called Lollards, did so. In performing this illegal action, the Lollards broke with a long-standing tradition of the church.
In the years following, translations of the Bibles would become available for many throughout Europe to read. The seeds of reformation would be planted until the flower would finally bloom to bursting. When the Bible once again became available to the common worshipper, the impersonalized worship was never the same and became personal again.
I thank God that today every one of us has full access to His Word. I am overjoyed that once again our churches emphasize an individual relationship with God. It has given us a more personal, direct worship of Him. However, there are still those in the world who do not have the knowledge nor ready access to it. We must seek to give it to them so they too can instigate a reformation of their own lives. Truly, the return is still continuing.