The Peril of Small Steps

by Tom Wacaster

A careful study of church history is important if for no other reason than the fact that it will give the student  a deep appreciation for the abundant blessings that God has given to him.  Abraham Lincoln is credited with having said, “The person who does not respect the past has very little to offer the future.”  While it is true that those who forget history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past, it is also true that a knowledge of past history will serve as a safeguard against apostasy in the present.   The first five-hundred years of church history say a lot about men in general and religious movements in particular.   Before the pen of inspiration was laid to rest, the apostle Paul warned the brethren at Thessalonica that the “mystery of lawlessness doth already work” (2 Thess. 2:7).  To the elders of the church at Ephesus that same apostle warned, “I know that after my departing grievous wolves shall enter in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29).  It is no surprise, therefore, that before the church barely had time to get its feet on the ground, the devil was actively involved in his attempt to destroy “her seed, that keep the commandments of God, and hold the testimony of Jesus” (Rev. 12:17).  By the 5th century A.D. primitive Christianity had, for the most part, been replaced with the wisdom of men, and the bride of Christ had slipped into obscurity and isolation.   A comparison of the church envisioned by Christ and revealed by the inspired apostles with that religious system of the later part of the 4th century presents quite a contrast, does it not?  There can be little doubt that “the falling away” foretold by the apostle Paul (2 Thess. 2:3) had become a reality within a very short period of time.   One can only wonder, “How could such occur in so short a period?”    Or, to put it another way, “How can men be so foolish as to allow such a radical departure from truth?”  The answer is found in small increments.  For you see, beloved, men do not generally awake on any given beautiful day and determine that they will set out on a journey to leave the Lord, or to depart from their religious and/or moral roots.  Apostasy is taken one step at a time. 

In his attempt to destroy the church, Satan first struck at her organization.   In small, seeming innocent steps, he led the church down the path of error, replacing God’s wisdom with man’s wisdom, and subverting heaven’s plan at every corner.  The eldership, or presbytery, was rapidly jettisoned for a form of church government more in line with the political structure of the day.   Unsatisfied with the oversight by the divinely authorized body of men known as elders, churches began to elevate one man above the other elders, and by 185 A.D. that one man, known as “the bishop” exercised authority over the other presbyters.   Another 60 years would pass before the next small step would be taken, occurring under the influence of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage.  According to Cyprian (248-58 A.D.), the Episcopal authority of the bishops was linked to apostolic authority.  Robbing the churches of their autonomy, the “bishops” became the ultimate authority in matters pertaining to the doctrine and structure of the church.  Once that small step was taken, it provided the Catholic church the opportunity to gain complete control over the common man.  By 606 A.D. the universal church plunged, unchecked, into the mire of error resulting in the complete and full abandonment of God’s pattern and design for church organization.  It would be almost a full millennium before men would come to recognize the error and take steps to reform the church.   We can only imagine the courage and conviction of those early reformers who, in the mid 1500’s, challenged what had become the “norm” of their generation.   The Roman Catholic Church had, for more than 1,000 years, held sway over the world, ruling with an iron hand while hiding the truth from the common man.  With the Bible in hand, and God as their guide, those early reformers shook the religious world into the sobering realization that what was the “norm” was not what was taught in the Bible.   It was soon realized that the small steps of the first five centuries of the church’s existence had resulted in the great apostasy foretold by Paul.  

The devil’s tactics have not changed in the intervening 450 years.  Even today, that great movement we sometimes call the “Restoration of New Testament Christianity” has suffered from the foolishness of men who have abandoned the faith of our forefathers, and taken small, seemingly insignificant steps, away from God and His pattern for the church.   Our generation has witnessed a significant portion of the brotherhood take small steps that have resulted in wholesale abandonment of the truth.  It is sad, but it is a reminder that apostasy is seldom taken in one large step. 

I do not have opportunity to watch a lot of television, but one program that I have truly enjoyed over the four or five years of its existence is "DOC."  It is the story of a country grown boy that finds himself practicing medicine in New York after his graduation from med school.  A close associate of Doc Cassidy is Nate, a policeman of outstanding moral qualities and true character.   In one particular episode, Nate was tempted to lie in order to protect a fellow policeman who was pilfering money from drug busts.  But Nate would not give in, and in the end honesty and integrity won out over greed and covetousness.   At the end of each weekly segment Doc Cassidy writes to his mentor back in Wyoming via email.  His comments speak volumes:  "Even in the little things, do what is right, cause a soul is seldom sold in one great auction.  Instead it is bartered away in a thousand tiny trades, a little bit at a time." 

What DOC said with regard to individual compromise and failure is just as true with regard to a church and/or a movement.  The apostasy of the first century, and the present apostasy of our generation reminds us of the peril of small steps.