THE ETERNAL CHURCH (part 3)
In the book of Acts and the Epistles, we see how the Church began, and functioned for the first few centuries. There were no special "church buildings", the people met in homes, or in public buildings like Synagogues or parts of the Jewish temple. Remember for the first few years the Church was composed of Jewish converts, until the Lord led Peter to Cornelius, a Gentile who believed in God. (Acts 10:1-49). The original disciples of Jesus became the early apostles, who along with Paul and some of his associates, spread the good news of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God to much of the then known world. Their usual pattern was to go to a city and start preaching about Jesus in the Jewish Synagogue, then when certain people became believers they were organized into small groups that would meet in the home of one of these people. Elders were chosen and set in place by the apostles, to give leadership to this group of believers. There was always a plurality of elders in charge of each local church, who would be visited by the apostles periodically for teaching and encouragement. In this way the churches multiplied in spite of much persecution by the Roman Emperors. The last and most horrible persecution took place under the reign of Diocletian and his successors, from 303-310 AD. Then in 313 AD Emperor Constantine issued his famous "Edict of Toleration", which ended the persecution and made the Church a part of the Roman Empire. This ended Church as God planned it, and a new "Structural Church" replaced the "Spiritual Church", and the 1000 year period referred to as the "Dark Ages" of Church history began.
This period was definitely a time of "Deterioration" for the true Church! Constantine started building large Cathedral type church buildings, patterned after Pagan Temples, and introduced a system of worship that included a Priesthood which was a mixture of Jewish tradition and Pagan practices. By this time the churches in the larger cities had appointed Bishops, who were competing with each other to see who would be the chief leader. Gradually the Bishop of Rome became the recognized leader and took on the title of "Papa" (father), which became "Pope" once the church became the "Roman Catholic Church". The name catholic means "universal", and is a good description for the true universal Church that Jesus is building, but it took on a different meaning when the church became part of the Roman Empire and became "structural" instead of "spiritual"!