CHURCH HISTORY: DARK AGES
In the previous message I discussed the first period of church history which encompassed the the first 65 years of the Church's history and extended from 33 A.D.
to 100 A.D. In this study we shall examine the second period of church history which is commonly known as the Dark Ages. The first short period of church history was one of the most glorious periods of human history, but the second period was the worst period of human history since the time of the flood in the days of Noah. It has gone down in the history books as the Dark Ages, and that is a very fitting name for it. It is also called the Middle Ages or the Medieval period. It is ironic that the glorious apostolic period of the first century was followed by one of the worst periods that human history records.
The Dark Ages cover a little over a thousand years and extend from about 500 A.D. to about 1500 A.D. Historians have styled it the dark ages because it was a time characterized by church heresies, disagreement with revealed truth, superstition, spirtual darkness, ignorance both religious and secular. Towns shriveled up or disappeared, libraries were burned or rotted away from neglect, schools were closed, disorder prevailed, and those who could read or write became fewer and fewer. The Bible became a lost book, and the glory of the Christian religion was eclipsed for over a thousand years. The result in the religious realm was like that which an eclipse of the sun produces in the physical realm.
THE TRANSITION PERIOD
The apostolic period ended in 100 A.D. and the Dark Ages began about 500 A.D. What about the 400 years between the two periods? What happened during that time? This was the transition period between the age of the apostles and the Medieval period. The apostolic period came to an end by the year 100 A.D., but the new period of the Dark Ages did not begin in 101 A.D. Men do not and cannot change their habits and ways of doing things all at once, no matter what happens. It is true that a single event, such as an important battle which results in the loss of a nation's independence, may produce an abrupt change in the government. However, moral, religous, and social changes take place very gradually. The Dark Ages did not happen overnight. There were gradual changes from 100 A.D. to about 500 A.D. which caused the human race to emerge into the Dark Ages.
During these transition years there was a radical departure from the true New Testament Christianity. False teachrs changed the church as it was origina]ly constituted by our Lord and His apostles. In the second and third centuries we find everywhere evidences of a rapidly developing falling away or apostasy. The word apostasy means “a falling away.” Great numbers of Christians fell sway from the true church and wandered away from the truth. The falling away from the simple truths of primitive Christianity began at a very early date. The mystery of iniquity was already working in the apostles' day. Close to the time of 100 A.D. we find in the churches of Asia Minor a sad departure from faithfulness and obedience to Christ. The church in Ephesus had left its first love (Revelation 2:4). This simply means their love for Christ was gradually getting weaker; it was a declining church.
The church at Pergamos was tolerating false religious teachers and were being ruined by false doctrines(Revelation 2:14,15). The church in Thyatira had lost the spirit of holy judgment against wrongdoing and was therefore affected by a shocking degree of immorality(Revelation 2:20—23). The message of Jesus to the church in Sardis was, “You have a name that you live and art dead”(Revelation 3:1). The church in Laodicea had become so lukewarm
so lukewarm, the Lord said, “I will spew you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15,16). This bad religious trend became worse and worse during the second and third centuries. After the death of the inspired apostles, error made deeper inroads, and its baneful influence cast a shadow over the church, which rapidly deepened into the darkness of spiritual night. The Bible was taken away from the world. One of the earliest corruptions of apostolic truth concerned the design and purpose of baptism. The use of holy water was introduced into the church in 120 A.D. by Alexander, a bishop of the church. He taught that the water for baptism must first be blessed and thus consecrated for religious purposes. This grew out of the practice of the heathen custom of dipping their hands in water and sprinkling it upon themselves as they entered the pagan temples. As paganistic ideas were introduced into the church, it became a custom to provide holy water for the use of the worshipers. This innovation was followed by others just as unscriptural. The organization of the church was greatly changed from that which the Holy Spirit gave in the. New Testament. Elders in the church lost their authority to higher ranking officials not authorized by Christ. In addition, the plan of salvation was corrupted. Church membership was granted to people who had not met the requirements of Christ. New and strange forms of public worship were introduced not authorized by the New Testament. A host of false doctrines and traditions arose which finally bound the people in the thraldom of superstition and plunged the world into the darkness of spiritual night. New Testament truth was at length lost to view, buried beneath the rubbish of men̓s traditions. When we leave the first century when the apostles lived, and enter the second and third centuries, we are conscious of a change to another era and to another country. It was this religious deterioration which was the forerunner of the Dark Ages. Christians did not read the New Testament and lost the knowledge of the truth. The beginning of the Dark Ages should be dated about 500 A.D. for by that time the original New Testament church was in an almost complete rebellion, and primitive Christianity had for the most part disappeared from the face of the earth. The dark ages was the natural fruit of the seeds planted during the second, third, and fourth centuries. There we begin to notice very clearly foreign elements which stand out in bold contrast to the simple teachings of primitive Christianity.
There are few things worth remembering about this long period of time. Nevertheless, there are some things we should remember for the sake of our souls. One thing that should be remembered is that God predicted the Dark Ages to give a warning to Christians. This exceedingly bad period of church history did not take God or the apostles by surprise. The Holy Spirit knew the Christian religion would fall apart and go into an apostasy which would last a thousand years. God forewarned and foretold mankind about the Dark Ages, also called the Middle Ages. We have a record of this period of church history before it was ever born. The Bible told about the dark ages long before they ever appeared. The apostles carefully taught the Christians of the first century about this strange turn of events which was to affect adversely the church. God forewarned us about the Dark Ages before it happened so that true Christians would not get involved in it by ignorance. There was a remenant of true Christians during the Dark Ages. Therefore, the downfall of the church was no surprise to people who knew and studied the 27 books of the New Testament.
One of the first indications that trouble lay ahead for the church is recorded in Acts 20:28,29. Addressing the elders of the church in Ephesus, Paul said, “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood. For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” Paul warned the early Christians against two dangers which his prophetic vision could foresee. One danger was the entering in of fanatic teachers and church disturbers from abroad, whom he styles “grievous wolves” who would not “spare the flock”. The second danger was the uprising from among themselves of trouble makers and factionists, who would divide the church and draw away disciples from the church to follow them. This happened just as Paul predicted it. These wolves did enter in
among Christians and practically destroyed the church. Some churches remained faithful to Christ longer than others, but during the three hundred years that followed the first century most all churches of Christ were corrupted and were in a condition of apostasy. They had fallen away from the teachings of Christ and the apostles. Peter also predicted bad times for the church by saying, “But there were also false prophets among the people(Old Testament Church,) even as there shall be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways, by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of”(2 Peter 2:1,2). Jesus also predicted a time in the future when many Christians would apostatize or defect from the church. In Matthew 24:11,12 the Lord said, “And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.”
The most alarming thing about this future world wide corruption of Christianity was the prophetic announcement that a counterfeit church would take the place of the original church established by the apostles. The original New Testament church was corrupted and replaced by a new church with strange religious doctrines and unscriptural forms of worship. Satan made an all out attack on the church which Jesus built to blot it from the face of the earth. Unable to completely destroy it, he corrupted it and replaced it with a counterfeit church which God would not accept. The result was the false church of the dark ages which was a strange amalgamation of the Jewish religion, the Christian religion and the pagan religion of the ancient Roman Empire. The Roman Catholic Church ruled the world during the Dark Ages headed b Popes, Priests and a Priesthood as existed in the Jewish religion. Fortunately, this counterfeit church is quite clearly described in the New Testament so that God's people would not be deceived. Paul described the counterfeit church of the dark ages in I Timothy 4:1—3, saying, “Now the Spirit speaks expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.” On leaving the New Testament church, Paul revealed that the apostate Christians would not give up their religion compleltely. They started another religious organization using the doctrines of the demons. Two of the demonic doctrines were to forbid marriage and forbid the eating of meats. This was predicted to help us identify it.
The apostate church of the dark ages is described again by the apostle Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:3,4. These Christians had the erroneous impression that Jesus was about to return any moment from heaven. Paul said the second coming was not near because the great apostasy had not yet occurred. He said, “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God, or that is worshiped; so that he as God sits in the temple of God
showing himself that he is God.” God's only temple in the Christian age is the church; this is a prediction that some great religious leader would take over the church, claim to be the head of the Church on earth and even accept worship that belongs only to God. An outstanding feature of the apostasy and falling away from the Christian religion is mentioned in this passage. It was to be directed and guided by a great religious leader who would pretend to be the head of the church and receive divine honors and worship which no one has a right to receive but God. We should not seek for the fulfillment of this prediction in those minor sects and heresies which arose at an early date and soon passed away. The description refers to some power occupying the greatest prominence, making the most of pretentious claims, and a power that is to endure until the second coming of Christ. I agree with many Bible scholars who understand this woman to be a figurative representation of the Roman Catholic church. But she represents a bad woman, an unfaithful bride. The church is called the bride of Christ. The apostate church of the Dark Ages had become unfaithful to God and was no longer like the church Christ built and the church the apostles revealed to the world.
At this point an important question should be answered. What happened tO the true church of the New Testament during the dark ages? The true church existed right along with this apostate church, but persecuted and small in number. The apostate church was stronger, had political power, and used the sword to force her teachings on the world. By the time of 500 A.D. there were two different churches. One was the true New Testament church and the other was the first denominational church that ever existed. The Roman Catholic churh is the first denominational church that sepearted from the original apsotolic cchurch, New Testament church. It was formed by unfaithful Christians who fell away from the~ primitive church. Under the fear of persecution, weak Christians sometimes left the church. Many compromised and became a part of the apostate church. Only a small remnant remained faithful to Christ. In fact, the true church nearly disappeared from the face of the earth.
The true church of the New Testament during the dark ages is described in Revelation 12:1—6, “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars. And she beinç with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered. And there appeared another wonder in heaven; and behold a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads. And his tail drew the third part of the stars of heaven, and did cast them to the earth: and the dragon stood before the woman which was ready to be delivered, for to devour her child as soon as it was born. And she brought forth a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron: and her child was caught up unto God, and to his throne. And the woman fled into the wilderness, where~ she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.” Verse 17 of this chapter says, “And the~ dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, who keep the commandments of God, and, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.” Six of the seven commentaries I have on the book of Revelation say this chapter describes the true church of the New Testament during the dark ages. I concur with this view. Verse 17 quite conclusively proves the woman refers to the church. The beautiful woman in this chapter is the~ true church which Jesus built. She was the bride of Christ in all her glory from 33 A.D. to 100 A.D., and a century or two following. The children of this beautiful woman are Christians, and the great red dragon was a political, religious power who tried to destroy the true Christians who were offspring of the New Testament church. Only eternity will reveal how many faithful Christians lost their lives during the Dark Ages. Revelation 12:6 describes the sad condition of the true church during the Dark Ages. It says, “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days.” During the dark ages the true church went into hiding and into obscurity for over a thousand years. The 1260 days refer to the Old Testament church in the days of Elijah. Jezebel killedd hundreds of God prophets and all but destroyed the true Old Testament church. God took care of faithful Israelites during the Jewish apostasy in the days of Jezebel, and God took care of a small remenant of true Christians during the Dark Ages. God preserved the true church during the Dark Ages just as God presrved the Old Testament church in the days of Jezebel and Ahab.
The most vivid picture of the apostate church of the Dark Ages is recorded in Revelation 17:1—5, “An angel said to the apostle John, “Come hither:;I will show unto thee the judgment of the great harlot who sits upon many waters: with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication. So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet colored beast, full of names of blasphemies, having seven heads and ten horns. And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet color, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication; and upon her forehead was a name written, MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.” The apostle John explains who this woman was in Revelation 17:9 and 18.