Is Christ divided? There are hundreds of denominations in Christendom — and many other little groups and sects. Why? When did this confusion originate?
It's hard to believe, but it's true! The facts of history — both biblical and secular — are utterly astonishing. It's time we looked behind this curtain. It's time you knew how, when and where all this religious confusion started. Every thinking person — every denomination — realizes that, at some time in history, there has been a great apostasy or falling away from original truth.
Only one Church
Jesus Christ did not found many denominations. Christ said, "I will build My church" (Matthew 16:18). He did build it — one Church, commissioned to preach and to publish His Gospel — the very message He brought from God — to all the world. But what do we find today? Hundreds of different and disagreeing churches, all founded by men, each professing to teach the truth, yet contradicting and disagreeing with all the others.
The Church in prophecy
While most people today suppose that the true Church was rapidly to grow big, to become a powerful organization, exerting powerful influence on the world, making this a better world, becoming the stabilizing influence of the world's civilization, actually Christ founded His Church for no such purpose. In His final prayer for His one Church, Jesus prayed: "I pray for them. I do not pray for the world... Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are... I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world" (John 17:9-16). Those of His Church are described as being strangers and foreigners in this world — ambassadors for Christ — which is foreign to this world — yet never being of the world. This true Church of God was to be persecuted — scattered. "If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you," said Jesus to His disciples (John 15:20). "All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (II Timothy 3:12). On the night Jesus was seized to be crucified, He said, "It is written: 'I will strike the Shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered'" (Mark 14:27). After He, the Shepherd, was crucified, the "sheep" — His Church — were to become scattered. Previously that same evening, Jesus had said to His disciples, "You will be scattered" (John 16:32). This persecution and scattering began early. Notice Acts 8:1: "At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles." Nowhere is there any prophecy that the one true Church should become great and powerful, exerting influence in this world. Rather, Jesus called it the "little flock" (Luke 12:32). Despised, persecuted, scattered by the world — separate from the world. Scattered, but never divided. Always one Church, speaking the same thing — never many differing sects. You haven't read much of the history of that Church. Even the historians have never known where to look for the true Church — for they do not know what the true Church is.
Broad majority deceived
On the other hand, in the world, all the prophecies foretold apostasy, deception and division. Jesus foretold the very first event to come on the world — great deception — climaxing, in our day now just ahead, in great tribulation. "Take heed," He said, "that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many" (Matthew 24:4-5, Authorized Version). Notice carefully: It was not the few who were to be deceived, but the many. It was the few who were to become true Christians! Jesus pictured this same condition when He said: "Wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it" (Matthew 7:13-14). That isn't what the world believes, is it? Probably that isn't what you have heard and come to assume. But it's what Christ said. How deceived this world has become! Satan is pictured in the Bible as the god of this world. He appears, not as a devil, but as a god — as an angel of light. And in Revelation 12:9, you read of "Satan, who deceives the whole world." Yes, the many would come in Jesus' name, proclaiming that Jesus is the Christ — yes, preaching Christ to the world. And yet, without realizing it, deceiving the world.
Apostles knew what would happen
The apostles, instructed directly by Jesus Christ Himself, warned the Church about the departure from the faith that would begin to occur at the close of their ministry. Scarcely 20 years after the crucifixion of Jesus, the apostle Paul, in one of his first inspired letters, cautioned Christians not to be deceived by false preaching or by false letters purporting to be from the apostles: "Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day [the time of God's intervention in human affairs, when Jesus Christ will return to rule the nations] will not come unless the falling away comes first" (II Thessalonians 2:3). In Acts 20:29-30, the teacher of the gentiles explains how the apostasy would begin. He gathered the elders (ministers) of the Church at Ephesus to deliver them a final message concerning their responsibility over the local congregations. "For," said Paul,
Satan, the god of this world, appears, not as the devil, but as an angel of light. Jesus said many would come in His name, proclaiming that He was the Christ — and yet, without realizing it, deceiving the whole world.
"I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things." Why? "To draw away the disciples after themselves." To gain a personal following for themselves. To start new denominations! Do you catch the full significance of these two verses? The elders or ministers were especially assembled because, immediately after Paul would leave Ephesus, there would come within the local church congregations false ministers, wolves in sheep's clothing, to make a prey of Christians. And even from those elders already in the church congregations some would pervert the doctrine of Jesus to secure a following for themselves. In instructing the evangelist Timothy, Paul instructed him to "convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires" — wanting to do what they please — "... they will heap up for themselves teachers" — encourage ministers who will preach what they want to hear — "and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables" (II Timothy 4:2-4). This was in the days of the apostles and evangelists. Many who fellowshipped in the local congregations of the early Church, after about two generations, did not endure sound doctrine because they had not really repented and therefore had never received the Holy Spirit. They followed teachers who, for the sake of money, pleased their wishes by preaching fables — the enticing fables of mysticism and sun worship that were engulfing the Roman Empire. When Paul wrote his second letter to the gentile-born Thessalonians, he instructed them about the "mystery of iniquity" that "doth already work" (II Thessalonians 2:7, A V). Notice: Teachings of lawlessness were at work in Paul's day. The Roman world was filled with mystery religions that stemmed from the old sun worshiping mysteries. Many of them found that by including the name of Jesus their following increased. Jude had to include in his letter the admonition that every Christian should "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.... These are sensual persons, who cause divisions, not having the Spirit" (Jude 3-4, 19). They taught penance, not repentance. Jude says these preachers separated their followers from the body of believers. By the time John wrote his epistles, he had this sad note to include about those who at first crept in unnoticed: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us" (I John 2:19). Although these numerous deceivers, called Gnostics, left the true Church, drawing away disciples after them, their following did not last for more than a few centuries. There was, however, an even more dangerous apostasy that infiltrated the true Church.
True Christians forced out
Peter warned the churches that many would be misled. There were false teachers among Christians who would bring in heresies, "and many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of the truth will be blasphemed" (II Peter 2:2). The letters of Paul were twisted to give another meaning than intended (II Peter 3:15-16). But instead of leaving the local congregations and forming their own sects, as others had done at first, these false preachers remained within the congregations and soon began to expel the true Christians. In the letter of the apostle John to Gaius, we read: "I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church" (III John 9-10). The true Christians, who alone comprised the true Church, were being put out of the visible, organized congregations! These were the scattered ones of whom John said, "Therefore the world does not know us" (I John 3:1). The name Christian was being borne away by leaders who crept into the fellowship of the Church of God, captured the local congregations and, in the name of Christ, deceived the many into following' their false teachings as if it were Christ's Gospel.
The age of shadows
Following the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 and the deaths of the apostles, a strange phenomenon is witnessed. The true Church almost disappears from history, and false churches arise! Of this period the English historian Edward Gibbon says: "The scanty and suspicious ecclesiastical history seldom enables us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the church" (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 15). The truth was obscured by error! Historian Jesse Lyman Hurlbut gives us even more details in his book The Story of the Christian Church, page 41: "We would like to read of the later work of such helpers of St. Paul as Timothy, Apollos and Titus, but all these... drop out of the record at his death. For 50 years after St. Paul's life a curtain hangs over the church through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about A.D. 120, with the writings of the earliest church fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of Peter and Paul."