In this post and the next, which will conclude this series, we will take a look at the power and place of Tradition in the Church as it relates to the two primary principles that will define the Church at the end of the age: apostasy and restoration. These are the two major movements that will mark the Church in increasing measure unto the end. It is essential that we understand the primary role that Tradition will play in both!
“Back to the Future”
If we are to understand both the process of apostasy and of restoration as they each come to their final culmination and manifestation at the end of the age, we must first go back to the beginning to see the genesis of them both. In God’s economy, the beginning governs the end, and the end is the fulfillment of the beginning. As we go back to the beginning, then, we are, in essence, going “back to the future.” Here are found the roots of both full-grown trees.
In regards to the Church, apostasy and restoration also find their unique meaning in relation to God’s original intention for the Ekklesia. Apostasy is the movement away from that original intention, and restoration is the movement back to it.
As a starting place for understanding both of these principles, then, we must go back to the beginning.
“In the Beginning…”
God’s original intention and pattern for the Church can be summed up in one word… “CHRIST!” The Church is simply the corporate expression of Christ on earth (and in heaven.) Every aspect of it is to be the manifestation and representation of Him. He is its Heavenly Pattern and all things must be conformed to Him. Whatever is of and according to Christ, therefore, is of and according to God’s original intention and pattern; Whatever is not of and according to Christ, is not of and according to God’s original intention and pattern. The Church is very simply “CHRIST”! (1 Cor. 12:12)
Now that is the general revelation God has given concerning His Church, but that breaks down into many specific aspects that become immensely practical. I will focus on just four of them that lie at the very core of the Church’s calling to manifest and represent Christ. It is my conviction, that when these four core principles are established according to Christ, the entire Church takes on the “DNA” of Christ and becomes fashioned according to Him in all respects.
These four formative aspects, then, are as follows:
1. Christ is to be the unrivaled Center of the Church – The One around, for and to whom the Ekklesia is fashioned and gathers.
2. Christ is to be the supreme Identity of the Church – The One who alone identifies the Ekklesia in His Person and by His Name.
3. Christ is to be the sole Foundation of the Church – The One who alone establishes, unifies and defines the Ekklesia in and through His Person and Work.
4. Christ is to be the uncontested Head of the Church – The One who directs, governs, and supplies all things to the Ekklesia through His immediate authority, power and presence.
According to God’s original intention, Christ is to be the Center, Identity, Foundation and Head of the Ekklesia. When we look into the New Testament, this is what we see the apostles laboring to establish in the local assemblies they founded and oversaw.
When a church is established according to Christ in this way, the “conformative development” of its corporate life, functioning and expression takes on the “shape and contour” of Christ in all things. As this “conformative matrix” develops, it serves to “lock in” the four core principles that it is built according to, solidly establishing the church according to Christ in all respects.
Not only so, this entire body also takes on the nature and character of Christ throughout. In this regard, there are four distinctive characteristics that will be found ever-increasing in the church that is thus established. These attributes spring naturally from Christ being the formative Center, Identity, Foundation and Head of the body.
These distinctive characteristics are:
These are essential attributes of Christ and will be organically manifested in an assembly which is rightly and fully established according to Christ. The presence or absence of these characteristics, then, also become a “fruit test” as to whether Christ is, in reality, in His rightful place or not in that corporate expression.
This then is a brief sketch of God’s original pattern, plan and desire for His Church, and is what we see being established by the apostles in the churches of the first century.
The word, “apostasy” comes from the Greek word, “apostasia” which literally means, “apo-“ = “away from”, and “-stasis” = “a standing”… i.e. “a standing away from”. It is, likewise, translated as, a “falling away” (2 Thess. 2:3) which identifies it accurately as a process of moving away from.
From the earliest times, there has always been a “moving away” from God’s original design and intention for His Church. The carnal pull of the natural man, the spirit of the world, and the persistent working of the enemy have all combined to draw the Church off-center and away from Christ being all that He is ordained to be in the Ekklesia.
In this process, two basic principles are at work: supplementation and supplantation. The first is supplementing Christ with other things, as if He is not all-sufficient, in and of Himself, and needs to be added to. The second is supplanting Christ with other things, as if He is not all-essential, in and of Himself, and can be readily replaced.
In the New Testament, we see some of the first seeds of this “moving away” taking root in some of the local assemblies, and also the apostolic response to re-center and re-fashion them according to Christ alone, once again. The church of Corinth and the churches of Asia Minor (Revelation 2-3) are good examples of this.
Historically, however, with the passing of the original apostles, a major shift took place in the Church that became universally accepted and practiced, and was zealously promoted by the prevailing leadership. Whereas in the first-century church, the local ekklesiae were overseen by a plurality of co-equal elders, by the middle of the second century, the monarchical bishop had arisen as the single, supreme leader of each city church. In this shift, this single, set-apart man, in essence, became a human, earthly substitute for Christ. He became the cohesive center of the local church’s gathering; He became the representative identity of the church; He became the defining foundation of her authenticity and unity; He became the functional head of her assembly. In practical reality, the Bishop became the center, identity, foundation and head of the local church in substitution of Christ.
Out of that shift, the entire Roman Catholic system developed. The pinnacle of that system, and the ultimate embodiment of its substitutionary principle, is found in the Pope who unashamedly bears the title of “Vicar of Christ”, which literally means, “Substitute of Christ”. Although the Lord Jesus Christ was still worshiped, preached, believed in, followed and served to a great degree, He was now mediated through a set-apart man, and eventually an authorized class of men, and no longer held the immediate, unmediated, unmitigated place of centrality, supremacy and all-sufficiency that the Father had ordained for Him in His Church.
The “conformative development” of that system, and the substitutionary principle that formed it, have dominated Christianity ever since. Even the Protestant Reformation did not break its stronghold, but merely gave the prevailing church structure a “Protestant make-over”. It substituted the Bible and the pastor/preacher in the place of the Eucharist and the bishop/priest as its central and primary principle and developed its “conformative matrix” according to that fundamental change. Due mainly to the psychological and sociological power of Tradition, however, the essential nature of the church structure was relatively unchanged from the Roman Catholic system to the Protestant one, and its fundamental principles and forms continue on to this day in both streams.
As a result, throughout all of the Christian world, Christ has essentially been supplemented and supplanted in the Church in the four primary ways the Ekklesia was originally established according to, with Christ alone as her unrivaled Center, supreme Identity, sole Foundation and uncontested Head. Not only so, but the corresponding attributes of unity, fullness, purity and balance, have also been systemically replaced with disunity, diminishment, impurity and imbalance.
The principle of apostasy that runs throughout all the various streams of Christianity can trace its source back to that early universal shift of the second century.
Tradition and Apostasy
This lays the groundwork for now addressing the question that specifically concerns us in this post, How does Tradition relate to the principle and process of apostasy?
In reality, it would be hard to overestimate the significance of Tradition in this process of apostasy, for it is, arguably, the primary force at work. When we understand the complex dynamics of its psychological and sociological power, we can begin to comprehend why this is so.
As has been stated, the process of apostasy begins when a portion of the Church begins to move away from Christ’s centrality, supremacy and all-sufficiency in all things concerning its spiritual life and practical expression. Whenever HE begins to be supplemented or supplanted in any way, especially in any of the four primary roles that have been already mentioned, that expression of the church begins to move away from the place where all unity, fullness, purity and balance are found.
Consequently, as it moves away from the place of true unity, division and schism begin to creep in; from the place of all fullness, diminishment and limitation begin to set in; from the place of all purity, corruption and deception begin to find their foothold; from the place of spiritual balance, excess and distortion begin to be embraced and promoted.
To counter these negative effects, which become more and more evident over time, further supplements and substitutes for Christ are embraced and employed to make up for the spiritual lack, offset the imbalances, force the desired results, and secure allegiances. For example, authoritarianism, legalism, sectarian pride, soulish manipulation, religious hype, worldly entertainment, sensory attractions, the “edifice complex”, and the like, are employed, with a “Scriptural” veneer, to attempt to accomplish what only Christ Himself can do.
This, over time, leads to further spiritual diminishment, defilement, distortion and disunity, and the process continues to deepen. With each layer, teachings and practices are adopted, incorporated, and passed on which foster and facilitate the pseudo-solutions which are employed. These “traditions” have great psychological and sociological power to shape the individual mind-sets and collective norms of the group. All of the dynamics described in Parts 2 and 3 of this series begin to work their synergistic effects on the individual and corporate levels. Eventually the developing “conformative matrix” of the group “locks in” the supplements, substitutes and traditions which have been embraced. The longer this process goes on, the more multi-layered, enmeshed, fortified, incorrigible and apostate it becomes. Tradition strengthens its death grip on the whole construct and won’t let go. Eventually all spiritual life goes out of it and rigor mortise (or as I call it, “reli-gor mortise”) sets in. 🙂
As movements follow this predictable progression and become increasingly apostate, new movements spring up, generally from within, which find it necessary to break with the external systems they have been a part of. The residual “new wine” in the old system seeks a new “wineskin” to contain it. These upstart groups are generally reactionary in nature, however, and seek to counter-balance and overcome the weaknesses of the prior systems with their newly formed visions and convictions. Because it is easier for a man to come out of the system than it is for the system to come out of the man, it is extremely rare for these fledgling groups to properly discerning the true root of the problem, i.e. the supplementing and supplanting of Christ in the four core areas we’ve discussed. Instead, they come up with a new set of supplements and substitutes for Christ as the center around which they are formed and gather, the identity by which they are associated and known, the foundation upon which they are built and unified, and the “head” by which they are governed and resourced. Thus, from the very beginning, these groups are built on faulty and false presuppositions which tend away from true unity, fullness, purity and balance. It is not long until they, in turn, add further supplements and substitutes to their “conformative matrix” in order to “makeup for the spiritual lack, offset the imbalances, force the desired results, and secure allegiances.” These are fortified further with pseudo-Scriptural teachings and practices (i.e. un-Biblical traditions), and, you guessed it, the process repeats itself over and over and over again.
In fact, this larger pattern of starting new groups and movements, each with their own set of secondary formative core principles, becomes so oft-repeated throughout the Christian world that it, in and of itself, becomes a “tradition” that carries with it the tacit “collective endorsement” of the mass of Christendom. It becomes so accepted and promoted that no one even bats an eye at it or seriously calls it into question. Those who do, are dismissed as being “eccentric” and “out there”, while, in reality, it is the mass of Christendom that has become “eccentric” (out-of-Center) and “out there”(apostate)!
Unto the End
This process of apostasy, fueled and fortified by the psychological and sociological power of Tradition, will continue unto the end. It will eventually culminate in a one-world, false, religious/political system, Mystery, Babylon the Great, Mother of Harlots and Abominations of the Earth, which will be ruled over by the Anti-Christ, the ultimate “Substitute of Christ”. The process of apostasy will then be complete.
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That is not the whole Story, however! God will also have His original intention come to ultimate fulfillment and culmination in the last days. He will perfect His overcoming remnant Bride, the Wife of the Lamb, who will be lovingly ruled over by Christ, her triumphant Bridegroom King. He will be fully restored to His rightful place in her midst, and the Church will once again embody and display forth the glory, sovereignty, centrality, supremacy and all-sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ in all things. This restoration is the second principle that will define the Church in the last days!
In the next post, we will look at how the process of restoration will work to accomplish God’s ends, and how it, likewise, will be fueled and fortified by the psychological and sociological power of…Tradition!