Novelties were introduced into the Church of Jesus Christ that so altered its character that it could no longer be considered the Church in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ was deposited. One of these novelties was the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes - a sect mentioned specifically in the divine communication wherein John the Revelator was instructed to write to the churches of Asia (Rev. 2:6, 15); and the reference proves the abhorrence with which the Lord regarded the teachings and practices of the cult. The attempt to corrupt Christianity by the introduction of Nicolaitan ceremonies was a substantial danger that threatened to destroy the Church of Christ. Smith's Bible Dictionary is instructive:
"The Nicolaitan sect itself comes before us as presenting the ultimate phase of a great controversy, which threatened at one time to destroy the unity of the Church, and afterward to taint its purity. The controversy itself was inevitable as soon as the Gentiles were admitted in any large numbers into the Church of Christ. Were the new converts to be brought into subjugation to the whole Mosaic law? The apostles and elders at Jerusalem met the question calmly and wisely. The burden of the Law was not to be imposed on the Gentile disciples. They were to abstain, among other things, from 'meats offered to idols,' and from 'fornication' (Acts 15:20, 29), and this decree was welcomed as the great charter of the Church's freedom. Strange as the close union of the moral and positive commands may seem to us, it did not seem so to the synod at Jerusalem. The two sins were very closely allied, often even in the closest proximity of time and place.
"The messages to the churches of Asia, and the later Apostolic Epistles (II Peter, and Jude,) indicate that the two evils appeared at that period also in close alliance. The teachers of the Church branded them with a name that expressed their true character. The men who did and taught such things were followers of Balaam (II Peter 2:15; Jude II.)
"They, like the false prophet of Pethor, united brave words with evil deeds. In a time of persecution, when the eating or not eating of things sacrificed to idols was more than ever a crucial test of faithfulness, they persuaded men more than ever that it was a thing indifferent (Rev. 2:13, 14). This was bad enough, but there was a yet worse evil. Mingling themselves in the orgies of idolatrous feasts, they brought the impurities of those feasts into the meetings of the Christian Church. And all this was done, it must be remembered, not simply as an indulgence of appetite, but as part of a system supported by a 'doctrine,' accompanied by the boast of a prophetic illumination (II Peter 2:1)."
Imitation of Heathen Mysteries, and the Result
The worship of God by the early Christians was decried and ridiculed because of its simplicity and the absence of mystic ceremonies. True, the zeal of persecutors soon made necessary a prudent secrecy in religious service and worshipping assemblies, but aside from such necessity, there was a voluntary effort to feign a secrecy that was uncalled for. On this point Gibbon remarks as follows:
"The precautions with which the disciples of Christ performed the offices of religion were at first dictated by fear and necessity; but they were continued from choice. By imitating the awful secrecy of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Christians had flattered themselves that they should render their sacred institutions more respectable in the eyes of the pagan world. But the event, as it often happens to the operations of subtle policy, deceived their wishes and their expectations. It was concluded that they only concealed what they would have blushed to disclose. Their mistaken prudence afforded an opportunity for malice to invent, and for suspicious credulity to believe, the horrid tales which described the Christians as the most wicked of human kind, who practiced in their dark recesses every abomination that a depraved fancy could suggest, and who solicited the favour of their unknown God by the sacrifice of every moral virtue. There were many who pretended to confess or to relate the ceremonies of this abhorred society."--(Gibbon, "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," chap. XVI.)
Ebionites and Gnostics.
"Beside the general design of fixing on a perpetual basis the divine honours of Christ, the most ancient and respectable of the ecclesiastical writers have ascribed to the evangelic theologian [St. John] a particular intention to confute two opposing heresies, which disturbed the peace of the primitive Church.
I. The faith of the Ebionites, perhaps of the Nazarenes, was gross and imperfect. They revered Jesus as the greatest of the prophets, endowed with supernatural virtue and power. They ascribed to His person and to His future reign all the predictions of the Hebrew oracles which relate to the spiritual and everlasting kingdom of the promised Messiah. Some of them might confess that He was born of a virgin; but they obstinately rejected the preceding existence and divine perfections of the Logos, or Son of God, which are so clearly defined in the Gospel of St. John.
"The Gnostics, who were distinguished by the epithet of Docetes, deviated into the contrary extreme, and betrayed the human while they asserted the divine, nature of Christ. Educated in the school of Plato, accustomed to the sublime idea of the Logos, they readily conceived that the brightest Aeon or Emanation of Deity, might assume the outward shape and visible appearance of a mortal; but they vainly pretended that the imperfections of matter are incompatible with the purity of a celestial substance. While the blood of Christ yet smoked on Mount Calvary, and the Docetes invented the impious and extravagant hypothesis that, instead of issuing from the womb of the Virgin, he had descended on the banks of the Jordan in the form of perfect manhood; that he had imposed on the senses of His enemies and of His disciples, and that the ministers of Pilate had wasted their impotent rage on an airy phantom, who seemed to expire on the Cross, and, after three days, to rise from the dead."--(Gibbon, "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," ch. XXI.)
Admixture of Pagan Doctrines With Christianity
The following statements by later writers as to the effect of pagan "philosophy" on the Church are worthy of attention. Summarizing conditions prevailing in the latter part of the second century, Milner says:
"We have hitherto found it no hard matter to discover, in the teachers and writers of Christianity, the vital doctrines of Christ. We shall now perceive that the most precious truths of the gospel begin to be less attended to, and less brought to view. Even Justin Martyr, before the period of eclectic corruption, by his fondness for Plato, adulterated the gospel in some degree, as we have observed particularly in the article of free will. Tatian, his scholar, went bolder lengths, and deserved the name of heretic. He dealt largely in the merits of continence and chastity; and these virtues, pushed into extravagant excesses, under the notion of superior purity, became great engines of self-righteousness and superstition; obscured men's views of the faith of Christ, and darkened the whole face of Christianity. Under the fostering hand of Ammonius and his followers, this fictitious holiness disguised under the appearance of eminent sanctity, was formed into a system; and it soon began to generate the worst of evils. [...] St. Paul's caution against philosophy and vain deceit, it appears, was now fatally neglected by the Christians. False humility, 'Will-worship,' curious and proud refinements, bodily austerities mixed with high, self-righteous pretensions, ignorance of Christ and of the true life of faith in Him, miserably superseded by ceremonies and superstitions,--all these things are divinely delineated in the second chapter to the Colossians; and, so far as words can do it, the true defence against them is powerfully described and enforced."--(Milner, "Church History," Cent. II, ch. 9.)
"The schisms and commotions that arose in the church, from a mixture of the oriental and Egyptian philosophy with the Christian religion were, in the second century, increased by those Grecian philosophers who embraced the doctrine of Christ. The Christian doctrine, concerning the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the two natures united in our blessed Saviour, were by no means reconcilable with the tenets of the sages and doctors of Greece, who therefore endeavoured to explain them in such a manner as to render them comprehensible. Praxeas, a man of genius and learning, began to propagate these explications at Rome, and was severely persecuted for the errors they contained. He denied any real distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and maintained that the Father, sole Creator of all things, had united to Himself the human nature of Christ. Hence his followers were called Monarchians, because of their denying a plurality of persons in the Deity; and also Patropassians, because, according to Tertullian's account, they believed that the Father was so intimately united with the man Christ, His Son, that He suffered with Him the anguish of an afflicted life and the torments of an ignominious death. However ready many may have been to embrace this erroneous doctrine, it does not appear that this sect formed to themselves a separate place of worship, or removed themselves from the ordinary assemblies of Christians."--(Mosheim, "Ecclesiastical History," Cent. II, Part II, ch. 5:20.)
Spurious Writings in the Apostolic Period.
"Not long after Christ's ascension into heaven, several histories of His life and doctrines, full of pious frauds and fabulous wonders, were composed by persons whose intentions, perhaps, were not bad, but whose writings discovered the greatest superstition and ignorance. Nor was this all: productions appeared which were imposed upon the world by fraudulent men, as the writings of the holy apostles. These apocryphal and spurious writings must have produced a sad confusion, and rendered both the history and the doctrine of Christ uncertain, had not the rulers of the church used all possible care and diligence in separating the books that were truly apostolical and divine from all that spurious trash."--(Mosheim, "Ecclesiastical History," Cent. I, Part II, ch. 2:17.)
Very early in its history, the Church manifested a tendency to supplant the pristine simplicity of its worship by elaborate ceremonies, patterned after Judaistic ritual and heathen idolatries. As to such innovations, Mosheim writes as follows, with reference to conditions existing in the second century:
"There is no institution so pure and excellent which the corruption and folly of man will not in time alter for the worse, and load with additions foreign to its nature and original design. Such in a particular manner was the fate of Christianity. In this century many unnecessary rites and ceremonies were added to the Christian worship, the introduction of which was extremely offensive to wise and good men.
"These changes, while they destroyed the beautiful simplicity of the gospel, were naturally pleasing to the gross multitude, who are more delighted with the pomp and splendour of external institutions than with the native charms of rational and solid piety, and who generally give little attention to any objects but those which strike their outward senses."--(Mosheim, "Eccl. Hist.," Cent. II, Part II, ch. 4.)
The author just cited explains that the bishops of that day increased the ceremonies and sought to give them splendour "by way of accommodation to the infirmities and prejudices of both Jews and heathen.
To more effectually reconcile the gospel requirements with Jewish prejudice, which still clung to the letter of the Mosaic law, the officers of the Church in the first and second centuries took to themselves the ancient titles; thus, bishops styled themselves chief priests, and deacons, Levites. "In like manner," says Mosheim, "the comparison of the Christian oblation with the Jewish victim and sacrifice, produced a multitude of unnecessary rites, and was the occasion of introducing that erroneous notion of the eucharist, which represents it as a real sacrifice, and not merely as a commemoration of that great offering that was once made upon the cross for the sins of mortals."--(Mosheim, "Eccl. Hist.," Cent. II, Part II, ch. 4:4.)
In the fourth century we find the Church still more hopelessly committed to formalism and superstition. The decent respect with which the remains of the early martyrs had been honoured degenerated or grew into a superstitious reverence amounting to worship. This practice was allowed in deference to the heathen adoration paid to deified heroes. Pilgrimages to the tombs of martyrs became common as an outward form of religious devotion; and the ashes of martyrs as well as dust and earth brought from places said to have been made holy by some uncommon occurrence were sold as sovereign remedies against disease and as means of protection against the assaults of malignant spirits.
The form of public worship was so changed during the second and third centuries as to bear little resemblance to the simplicity and earnestness of that of the early congregations. Philosophic discourses took the place of fervent testimony bearing and the arts of the rhetorician and controversial debater supplanted the true eloquence of religious conviction. Applause was allowed and expected as evidence of the preacher's popularity. The burning incense, at first abhorred by Christian assemblies because of its pagan origin and heathen significance, had become common in the Church before the end of the third century.
In the fourth century the adoration of images, pictures, and effigies, had been given a place in the so-called Christian worship; and the practice became general in the century following. An effort to check the abuses arising from this idolatrous practice in the eighth century, actually led to civil war.--(See Mosheim, "Eccl. Hist.," Cent. VIII, Part II, ch. 3:9, 10.)
In considering such evidences of pagan ceremonial and superstitious rites taking the place of the simple procedure incident to genuine worship characteristic of the Church in the days of its integrity, who can question the solemn and awful fact of actual apostasy? But more important yet, more significant still than mere additions to the ritualistic ceremonial, are the perversions and changes introduced into the most sacred and essential ordinances of Christ's Church. As it is common with ecclesiastical authorities to consider the most essential ordinances of the gospel originally established by Christ and maintained by His apostles, as comprising baptism and the sacrament of the Lord's supper, we shall examine into these alone as examples of the unauthorized alterations now under consideration. In this restriction of our illustrative examples we do not admit that baptism and the sacrament named were the only ordinances characterizing the Church; indeed, there is abundant proof to the contrary. Thus, the authoritative imposition of hands for the bestowal of the Holy Ghost in the case of baptized believers was equally essential with baptism itself,--(See Acts 8:5-8, 12, 14-17; also 19:1-7; see also 2:38; Matt. 3:11; and Mark 1:8.) and was assuredly regarded as a vital ordinance from the first.--(See Matt. 3:11.) Furthermore, ordination in the priesthood, whereby men were commissioned by divine authority was indispensable to the maintenance of an organized Church. The examples selected, however, will be sufficient for the purposes of our present inquiry.
The Ordinance of Baptism Changed
First, then, as to baptism, in what did the ordinance originally consist, as to purpose and mode of administration, and what changes did it undergo in the course of progressive apostasy through which the Church passed? That baptism is essential to salvation calls for no demonstration here; this has been generally held by the Christian Church in both ancient and modern times. The purpose of baptism was and is the obtaining of a remission of sins; compliance with the requirement has been from the first the sole means of securing admission to the Church of Christ.--(See Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3; also Acts 2:38; I Peter 3:21; and Acts 22:16. Compare II Nephi 31:17.)
In the early Church, baptism was administered on profession of faith and evidence of repentance, and was performed by immersion at the hands of one invested with the requisite authority of priesthood. There was no delay in administering the ordinance after the eligibility of the candidate had been shown. As instances we may cite the promptness with which baptism was administered to the believers on that eventful day of Pentecost; (Acts 2:37-41) the baptism administered by Philip to the Ethiopian convert immediately following due profession of faith;--(Acts 8:26-39) the undelayed baptism of devout Cornelius and his family;--(Acts 10:47, 48) and the speedy baptism of the converted jailer by Paul, his prisoner.--(Acts 16:31-33.)
In the second century, however, priestly mandate had restricted the baptismal ordinance to the times of the two Church festivals, Easter and Whitsuntide, the first being the anniversary of Christ's resurrection, and the second the time of Pentecostal celebration. A long and tedious course of preparation was required of the candidate before his eligibility was admitted; during this time he was known as a catechumen, or novice in training. According to some authorities a three years' course of preparation was required in all but exceptional cases. (See Schlegel, Book VIII, ch. 32.)
During the second century the baptismal symbolism of a new birth was emphasized by many additions to the ordinance; thus the newly baptized were treated as infants and were fed milk and honey in token of their immaturity. As baptism was construed to be a ceremony of liberation from the slavery of Satan, certain formulas used in the freeing of slaves were added. Anointing with oil was also made a part of the ceremony. In the third century the simple ordinance of baptism was further encumbered and perverted by the ministrations of an exorcist. This official indulged in "menacing and formidable shouts and declamation" whereby the demons or evil spirits with which the candidate was supposed to be afflicted were to be driven away.
"The driving out of this demon was now considered as an essential preparation for baptism, after the administration of which the candidates returned home, adorned with crowns, and arrayed in white garments, as sacred emblems,--the former of their victory over sin and the world; the latter of their inward purity and innocence."-- (Mosheim, "Eccl. Hist.," Cent. III, part II, ch. 4:4.)
It is not difficult to see in this superstitious ceremony the evidence of pagan adulteration of the Christian religion. In the fourth century it became the practice to place salt in the mouth of the newly baptized member, as a symbol of purification, and the actual baptism was both preceded and followed by an anointing with oil.
The form or mode of baptism also underwent a radical change during the first half of the third century,a change whereby its essential symbolism was destroyed. Immersion, typifying death followed by resurrection, was no longer deemed an essential feature, and sprinkling with water was allowed in place thereof. No less an authority than Cyprian, the learned bishop of Carthage, advocated the propriety of sprinkling in lieu of immersion in cases of physical weakness; and the practice thus started, later became general. The first instance of record is that of Novatus, a heretic who requested baptism when he thought death was near.
Not only was the form of the baptismal rite radically changed, but the application of the ordinance was perverted. The practice of administering baptism to infants was recognized as orthodox in the third century, and was doubtless of earlier origin. In a prolonged disputation as to whether it was safe to postpone the baptism of infants until the eighth day after birth--in deference to the Jewish custom of performing circumcision on that day--it was gravely decided that such delay would be dangerous, as jeopardizing the future well-being of the child should it die before attaining the age of eight days, and that baptism ought to be administered as soon after birth as possible.--(See Milner, "Church History," Cent. III; ch. 13.)
A more infamous doctrine than that of the condemnation of unbaptized infants can scarcely be imagined, and a stronger proof of the heresies that had invaded and corrupted the early Church need not be sought. Such a doctrine is foreign to the gospel and to the Church of Christ, and its adoption as an essential tenet is proof of apostasy.
Changes in the Ordinance of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper
The sacrament of the Lord's Supper has been regarded as an essential ordinance from the time of its establishment in the Church by Jesus Christ. Yet in spite of its sanctity it has undergone radical alteration both as to its symbolism and its accepted purpose. The sacrament, as instituted by the Saviour and as administered during the days of the apostolic ministry, was as simple as it was sacred and solemn. Accompanied by the true spirit of the gospel, its simplicity was sanctifying; as interpreted by the spirit of apostasy its simplicity became a reproach. Hence we find that in the third century, long sacramental prayers were prescribed, and much pomp was introduced. Vessels of gold and silver were used by such congregations as could afford them, and this with ostentatious display. Non-members and members "who were in a penitential state" were excluded from the sacramental service--in imitation of the exclusiveness accompanying heathen mysteries. Disputation and dissension arose as to the proper time of administering the sacrament--morning, noon, or evening; and as to the frequency with which the ordinance should be celebrated
At a later date the doctrine of Transubstantiation was established as an essential tenet of the Roman Church. This briefly summarized, is to the effect that the species--i. e., the bread and wine used in the sacrament--lose their character as mere bread and wine, and become in fact the flesh and blood of the crucified Christ. The transmutation is assumed to take place in such a mystical way as to delude the senses; and so, though actual flesh and actual blood, the elements still appear to be bread and wine. This view, so strongly defended and earnestly reverenced by orthodox members of the Roman Church, is vehemently denounced by others as "an absurd tenet,"-- (Milner) and a "monstrous and unnatural doctrine."--(Mosheim.)
There has been much discussion as to the origin of this doctrine. Roman Catholics claim for this interpolation great antiquity, while their opponents insist that it was an innovation of the eighth or ninth century. According to Milner it was openly taught in the ninth century;--(Milner, "Church History," Cent.IX, ch. 1.) was formally established as a dogma of the Church by the Council of Placentia A. D. 1095,--(The same, Cent. XI, ch. 1) and was made an essential article of creed, belief in which was required of all by action of the Roman ecclesiastical court about 1160.--(Milner, Cent. XIII, ch. 1.) An official edict of the pope, Innocent III, confirmed the dogma as a binding tenet and requirement of the Church in 1215;--(Mosheim, "Eccl. Hist.," Cent. XIII, Part II, ch. 3:2.) and it remains practically in force in the Roman Catholic Church today. The doctrine was adopted by the Greek Church in the seventeenth century.--(Mosheim, Cent. XVII, Part II, ch. 2:3.)
The consecrated emblems, or "host," being regarded as the actual flesh and blood of Christ, were adored as of themselves divine. Thus,
"a very pernicious practice of idolatry was connected with the reception of this doctrine. Men fell down before the consecrated host, and worshipped it as God; and the novelty, absurdity, and impiety of this abomination very much struck the minds of all men who were not dead to a sense of true religion."--(Milner, "Church History," Cent. XIII, ch. 1.)
The "elevation of the host,"--i. e., the presentation of the consecrated emblems before the congregation for adoration, is a feature of the present day ritual of worship in the Roman Catholic Church. The celebration of the mass is taught to be an actual though mystic sacrifice, in which the Son of God is daily offered up anew as a constantly recurring atonement for the present sins of the assembled worshippers. A further perversion of the sacrament occurred in the administration of bread alone, instead of both bread and wine as originally required.
Thus was the plain purpose and assured efficacy of the sacrament hidden beneath a cloud of mystery and ceremonial display. Contrast such with the solemn simplicity of the ordinance as instituted by our Lord,--He took bread and wine, blessed them and gave to His disciples and said, "This do in remembrance of me."--(Luke 22:19, 20; compare Matt. 26:27, 28.) Of the bread He said, "This is my body;" of the wine, "This is my blood;" yet at that time His body was unpierced, His blood was unshed. The disciples ate bread, not flesh of a living man, and drank wine, not blood; and this they were commanded to do in remembrance of Christ.
The perversion of the sacrament is evidence of departure from the spirit of the gospel of Christ, and when made an essential dogma of a church is proof of the apostate condition of that church.
" ... they have transgressed the laws,
changed the ordinance,
broken the everlasting covenant"