A Brief Overview of New Testament Church History

Jesus promised his disciples that he would build his church on the faith that confessed he is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  He also promised the gates of hell would not overcome his church.  Through the disciples' carrying his gospel into all the world his church would grow.  The purpose of this lesson is to see in a brief history of the New Testament church how Jesus’ words have been fulfilled.

1. From 100 A.D. to 1517 A.D.

The last apostle, John, died between 90-100 A.D.  Through the preached and written Word of God the apostles gained many new converts who believed Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ, their only Savior from sin and hell.  These Christian converts then picked up the banner of the gospel and the church of Christ marched on.  From those converts gained through the apostles’ ministry faithful pastors arose who continued the apostles’ work in Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, Italy, and Spain.  Missionaries were sent into Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, and France.  Through these missionary efforts many more souls were brought to faith and gathered into Christ’s church.

But the devil was not content to sit idly and let the church flourish and spread.  He tried to stem the tide of the gospel through the hatred of the heathen and the Jews.  The church was first persecuted in Jerusalem during the time of the apostles.  The Jews stoned Stephen and launched an all out persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem, who fled and scattered to the surrounding areas.  Wherever they scattered, they carried the gospel of Christ with them, so that, instead of the church being stamped out, it spread out.  In 64 A.D. Nero initiated the torture and slaughter of the Christians in Rome.  During the succeeding two and a half centuries there were ten bloody persecutions of the church.  A great many believers were beheaded, crucified, sawn in two, fed to the lions, or coated with pitch and burned as human torches.  In spite of these persecutions Satan was unable to destroy the church of Christ.  The heroic Christians by means of their courageous confession of faith in the face of death impressed the heathen so that many more souls were won for Christ.  As it has been said, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the church.  Christianity was finally recognized and was made the religion of the Roman Empire shortly after Emperor Constantine was converted in 313 A.D.

Satan did not give up his attempts to exterminate the church.  Since persecutions failed to destroy the church from without, he raised up false teachers to destroy the church from within.  They abandoned the gospel and proclaimed their heresies.  Arius denied the deity of Christ, asserting that the Son of God was not eternal and equal with the Father.  In 325 A.D. the Church Council of Nicea rejected his heresy and adopted the Nicene Creed, which confessed that Jesus Christ was “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.”  The outstanding defender of the Christian faith at the Council of Nicea was a man named Athanasius.  It was after him that the great Trinitarian confession of the sixth century was named, the Athanasian Creed.  The Apostles’ Creed, the oldest of the Christian confessions, though not referred to by that name until 404 A.D., dates back as far as 150 A.D.  Then in the fifth century Pelagius attacked the doctrine of original sin.  He asserted a person could convert and save himself.  Augustine took issue with his false teaching and defended the faith, explaining that people are by nature incapable of good and owe their salvation completely to the grace of God.  Gradually, however, a number of false teachings took root within the church.  Christians began to consider a life of celibacy and poverty as a hermit was a holier life than living a normal life in the world.  The gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus began to be overshadowed by an emphasis on one’s works and manner of living.  In spite of these false teachings the church continued carrying the message of Jesus into the world--Ireland, Scotland, England, Germany, Denmark, the rest of France, and later to Russia and Norway.

Satan also aroused a lust for power and prestige within the clergy to undermine the church, which began to come to the forefront about the time of Constantine.  Some ministers were elevated above others and called bishops.  In time, the more powerful and influential the city the bishop served in, the more power and influence he claimed to have, so that the bishops of larger cities became more highly honored than the bishops of smaller cities.  It was only a matter of time before the bishops of Rome and Constantinople became the most powerful bishops.  A rivalry for supreme power over the whole Christian church ensued, until the church split in 1054 A.D. into the eastern and western churches.  The eastern church became the Greek Orthodox Church.  The western church became the Roman Catholic Church.  The bishop of Constantinople was called a patriarch, and the bishop of Rome was called a pope.  Both titles meant “father.”  The pope then declared that he was the rightful successor to Peter (who was never a bishop or a pope) the vicar of Christ on earth, and the visible head of the church.  He forbid priests to marry, claimed he was not subject to any ruler or council, and declared that he alone had the power to install or remove emperors and kings.  Over the centuries monasteries flourished and increased in wealth, but then fell into decadence and shame.

Over the centuries the light of the gospel was covered over by man-made traditions and false doctrines, to such an extent that the way of salvation through faith alone in Jesus Christ was obscured.  The authority of Scripture was made secondary to the decrees of the popes and church councils and to the traditions of the church.  Salvation was declared uncertain and the people were instructed to trust, not only in the merits of Christ, but in their own works to gain God’s favor.  Christ Jesus was portrayed as a stern judge who demanded perfect righteousness.  The people were led to believe that he could best be approached through the Virgin Mary, for surely he could not ignore the pleas of his own mother.  The Lord’s Supper was changed from a means of grace through which Christ assured the communicants of the forgiveness of their sins and salvation into a good work of the priest who made an unbloody sacrifice of Christ in payment for the sins of the living and the dead.  The church imposed punishments, penance, for sins, and taught that whatever punishment the sinner did not suffer for his sins during his life he must suffer in purgatory until they were paid for.  Indulgences were sold for the remission of sins.  Because of such false teachings, the church was close to ruination.

2. 1517 A.D. to 1750 A.D.

Jesus had promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church.  At different times Wycliffe, Savanarola, and John Huss attempted to reform the church to eliminate the abuses within it.  But the Roman Catholic Church resisted their attempts.  After his death the church ordered that Wycliffe’s body be dug up and burned as a condemnation of his teachings.  The church hung Savanarola and burned John Huss at the stake as heretics in condemnation of their teachings.  But on November 10, 1483, another reformer was born in Eisleben, Germany.  The Lord raised him up to proclaim the biblical truths and he would not permit the church in Europe to silence him.  This reformer was Martin Luther.

Luther was raised a Roman Catholic.  Throughout his childhood and early adulthood he learned the doctrines of his church.  As a young man he sought to find peace for his soul with God through the sacramental system of the Roman Catholic Church.  He was troubled by the question of how could he, a sinner, escape God’s righteous wrath and be assured of his salvation.  He left the university, where he had been studying law, after nearly being killed by lightning and making a vow to become a monk.  In those days it was believed that the surest way of reaching heaven was by becoming a monk.  While in the monastery he prayed, fasted until his body was little more than skin and bones, and slept on the cold stone floor of his monastery cell without the benefit of a blanket in the hope of subduing his sinful flesh and finding favor with God.  But he found no peace or salvation for his soul through the process of destroying his body.  In spite of these efforts he continued to ask himself, “When will you be pious and do enough that God will be merciful to you?”  In time Luther found a Latin Bible and eagerly read it, and another monk urged him to simply put his trust in Christ for his salvation.  Luther became a priest.  His superiors recognized his talents and abilities.  They directed him to return to his studies to become a teacher.  He earned a doctorate of theology degree and in the process became an avid student of the Bible.  He was given the position of lecturer of the Bible at the University of Wittenberg.  There, while preparing his lectures on Romans 1:16,17 in his tower study, the Lord enlightened him with the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ.  He later wrote the experience had been like passing through the doorway to heaven.  The Bible became an open book.  He understood that a person was not justified by a righteousness which God demanded from him but by the righteousness of Christ which God credited to him through faith.  He saw clearly that a person was not saved by his own works and efforts but through faith alone in Jesus.  This gospel then became the guiding light of Luther’s study and teaching and the reformation of the church.  From that period of history known as the Reformation came these scriptural principles: Grace Alone; Faith Alone; Scripture Alone.

Luther began teaching the Lord’s gospel at the Wittenberg University.  The gospel won over both the faculty and the student body.  Luther was agitated by the sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins and deliverance from purgatory, which were being sold by Tetzel to raise money for St. Peter’s Church in Rome.  He saw clearly as the parish priest that the indulgences gave the people a false sense of security and inhibited a true repentance.  With their indulgences in hand the people believed they were saved without a personal repentance and faith in Jesus.  Luther, spurred on by the sale of the indulgences, wrote his Ninety-Five Theses which spoke out against their abuses.  He posted them on October 31, 1517, on the church door, which served as the town bulletin board.  Historians have since marked this date as the beginning of the Reformation.  Luther, however, at the time, had no intention of breaking away from the church of Rome to start his own church.  He actually thought that he was doing the pope a favor by speaking out against the indulgences.  Such was not the case, however.  Almost immediately after he had posted his theses on the church door, they were printed and distributed.  The Lord used the printing press, which had only been invented in 1456, to spread his gospel throughout Germany and into Europe to make the success of the Reformation possible.  In a few short weeks Luther’s theses were distributed throughout Europe, and its people were reading and discussing them.  While a great many rejoiced over them, the pope in Rome was disturbed by them.

The pope began trying to silence Luther with threats.  In 1521 Luther was excommunicated and ordered to appear before the Diet of Worms.  Luther’s friends feared for his life, but he went anyway.  Charles V of Spain, who was the Holy Roman Emperor, princes, and other government officials were present.  They gave Luther no opportunity to defend his many writings.  They demanded he recant.  But he answered, “Unless I am convinced by testimonies of the Scriptures, I cannot and will not recant.  Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise.  God help me!  Amen.”

Charles V declared Luther an outlaw who could be killed on sight.  Powerful friends of Luther, however, staged his kidnapping while he was returning to Wittenberg and hid him in the Wartburg castle.  While he was there, he translated the New Testament into the German language for the people.  Later, though still considered an outlaw, he returned to Wittenberg to deal with problems which had arisen in the church.  At the university students came in great numbers to hear Luther lecture and preach.  The Reformation continued and spread.  In 1529 Luther wrote his small catechism, “the gem of the Reformation.”  Through the years he also wrote many hymns, among them the battle hymn of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”  Soon the gospel truths were being sung into the hearts of the people, and the Lutheran Church became known as the “singing church.”

Those who followed Luther’s teachings of the gospel were dubbed Lutherans” by  their enemies.  The emperor tried to suppress the Reformation and the gospel.  When the people protested his actions, they were called “Protestants.”  In 1530 the Lutheran princes of Germany appeared before the emperor in Augsburg, Germany, with a written confession of their faith, the Augsburg Confession.  By 1580 a number of Lutheran Confessions had been written and they were gathered into the Book of Concord.  The Lutheran Confessions included the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Augsburg Confession, the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, and the Formula of Concord.  The Book of Concord was signed by fifty-one princes, thirty-five cities, and nine thousand theologians.  During this time Lutheranism spread to Denmark, Norway, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Lapland, the Baltic, and influenced England and Scotland.

The Lutheran Confessions, not only distinguished the Lutherans and their faith from the Roman Catholic Church, but also distinguished them from the Reformed Churches that had arisen.  Some who had first accepted the gospel began to introduce doctrinal errors into their faith and preaching.  The Anabaptists, for example, rejected infant baptism, rebaptized those who joined their fellowship, and insisted a baptism was not valid unless it had been administered by immersion and only to those who could first confess their faith.  These errors have continued within various church bodies to this day.

Two Swiss reformers, Zwingli and Calvin, became prominent during the Reformation.  Their errors, however, especially their rejection of the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, caused dissension within the churches.  They believed Jesus’ words “This is my body” meant “This represents my body.”  In spite of Luther’s repeated biblical presentations on the real presence, they continued in their error, gained many adherents, and became the fathers of various Reformed, or Protestant, Churches.  John Knox followed Calvin’s lead and organized the Presbyterian Church in Scotland.  Crammer founded the Church of England, or Episcopal ChurchJohn Wesley of England founded the Methodist Church.

Luther died on February 15, 1546.  The Lutheran Church in the face of opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and the Reformed Churches continued to uphold the truths of Scripture, which were often set to music.  The great hymn writer Paul Gerhardt composed some of the Lutheran Church’s finest hymns.  Johan Sebastian Bach, a Lutheran and master musician, composed a treasure of chorales.  George Handel, another Lutheran, composed the famous “Messiah” and “Hallelujah Chorus.”

3. The Lutheran Church in the United States

In the early 1600’s groups of Lutherans migrated to America from Denmark, Holland, Switzerland, Norway, and Germany.  The pursuit of religious freedom was one of their reasons for coming to America.  In 1619 the first Lutheran church service was conducted in America on the Hudson Bay by Rev. Rasmas Jensen.  The first Lutheran church was built in 1638 in Wilmington, Delaware.  In 1646 Campanius translated the first book into the language of the American Indian, Luther’s Small Catechism.  As Lutherans migrated to the United States, they formed congregations, built churches, and their congregations formed synods.  Today the Lutheran synods in the United States are the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod (LCMS), the Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC), the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS), and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS).

4. The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS)

The Wisconsin Synod was founded in 1850.  On May 26th of that year its constitution was adopted.  Pastors Muehlhaeuser, Weinmann, Wrede, Pluess, and Meiss were present.  These pastors represented the eighteen congregations they served.  In 1872 the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods founded the Lutheran Synodical Conference of North America.  In 1892 the Minnesota and Michigan Synods joined the Wisconsin Synod to become what is now known as the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.  Because of errors in doctrine and practice on the Word and church fellowship which arose within the Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Synod suspended fellowship with the Missouri Synod in 1961.  The Evangelical Lutheran Synod did likewise.  Today the Wisconsin Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod remain in fellowship.

The Wisconsin Synod numbers more than 400,000 members, 1200 congregations, and 1200 pastors.  Its congregations operate over 350 elementary schools, with an enrollment of over 32,000 students, and have over 2900 teachers for the education of the children through the eighth grade.  Throughout its twelve districts it has 20 high schools.  It also operates prep schools, colleges, and a seminary.  Its seminary is located in Mequon, Wisconsin.  Its publishing house, Northwestern Publishing House, is located in Milwaukee.

In accordance with Jesus’ great commission the Wisconsin Synod is a mission minded church body.  It has opened many missions within the United States and in many parts of the world.

In closing we can say Jesus has been faithful to his Word.  His church has spread throughout the world and the gates of hell have not prevailed against it.  His church continues to be built on the faith that he is the only Savior, the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And by his grace the gospel continues to be proclaimed throughout the world in spite of attacks against the church from within and from without.  To Christ, our Savior, be the praise and the glory forever.  Amen.