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The Church at Pergamos

The Paganization of the Church
(AD 300~600)

And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges; I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan's seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth.     (Revelation 2:12,13)

in his work The Pilgrim Church, E. H. Broadbent remarks that following an age of untold persecution of believers by the Roman Empire, that the empire was eventually overcome by the devotion to the Lord Jesus of those who knew Him. “Their patient, unresisting endurance had changed the bitter hostility and hatred of the Roman world, first into pity, and then into admiration” (page 19).

In 312, the Emperor Constantine had won a decisive victory in the struggles that had divided the empire. He entered Rome and immediately issued an edict bringing the persecution of Christians to an end.

The story is told that a sleepless Constantine had seen a vision while in his bed—a vision of the cross, the sign of Christ, and the words, “In this sign conquer.” He arose and baptized his army, and then proceeded to march on to victory, reuniting the sprawling empire under his rule. Some imagine that this represented a conversion of sorts on the part of the Roman ruler, but the fact of the matter is that he retained the old imperial dignity of the chief priest of the Pagan religion of Rome, even while assuming the role of chief arbitrator of issues pertaining to the Christian church.

As Broadbent affirms: The Church and the State quickly became closely associated, and it was not long before the power of the State was at the disposal of those who had the lead in the Church, to enforce their decisions. Thus, the persecuted soon became the persecutors (page 20).

Indeed, the banishment of the Donatists, and the convening of the Council of Nicea, which resulted in the Nicene Creed, were just a few of the matters that were personally directed by Constantine, who himself continued to worship the sun god Ra.

Here we see a strange marriage of Christian church and pagan state, which resulted in pressure on Bible-believing Christians to conform to the new form of the church that was born of this amalgamation. Or, as the Lord states in His letter to this church, “I know where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat (throne) is.” It is interesting to note in this regard that the Greek word “Pergamos” can be translated “much marriage” or, as some have suggested, “perverted marriage.” Church and state had become strange bedfellows, indeed.

Through his great influence and patronage of the church, Constantine had much to say about who was promoted and given power and authority in the church, and who should fill places of leadership in the dioceses that formed throughout the empire. Obviously, these men would be beholden to the State and the Emperor personally, and in return for his support would not say or do anything to offend him or his religion. In fact, it is at this point that the “church” began to accommodate many pagan rites, icons and holidays. The Lord seems to suggest this in the next portion of the letter:

But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doc­trine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (Revelation 2:14—16)

The story of Balaam and Balac is found in Numbers chapters 22 to 24. It is only by this statement found in the last book of the New Testament that we learn of the relationship of these events to the events that take place in Numbers 25. For in this chapter, the men of the camp of Israel “began to commit whoredom with the daughters of Moab.”

And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods, and the people did eat and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself to Baalpeor… (Numbers 25:2,3)

What was not obvious from the Old Testament passage is made clear in this message from the Lord Jesus. Balaam was unable to curse the camp of Israel and gain the reward offered by Balac if he would do so because God directly forbade him. We learn here, however, that Balaam sold Balac a plan whereby the children of Israel would bring a curse upon themselves—by joining themselves to pagan idolatry. The plan was to have the women of the Moabites “hang out” around the outskirts of the camp and entice the young men to engage in sexual immorality with them, and then as a reward for their favors, the young men would be compelled to join the Moabite women in their sacrifices to Baal.

That’s all very interesting, but what does that have to do with the church? The Lord Jesus here is speaking to and about the church. According to the Lord Jesus, someone has taught the church to ‘worship idols’ and ‘eat things’ sacrificed to idols.

It would take another book to retrace in detail how the spring rites of the fertility goddess Istarte, replete with fertility symbols such as eggs and rabbits, replaced the primitive Christian observance of the Lord’s resurrection, or how a special “mass” honoring the birth of “Christ” came to be celebrated on the winter solstice (December 22–24) at the same time Constantine and the pagans celebrated the birth of the sun. Then there is the interesting history of the pagan cult of the “mother and child,” which provided the empire with countless shrines built to honor “Mary and the Christ Child” before Christianity had been given the green light to be practiced freely in the empire.

Due to the patronage of the State, men whom Constantine wanted to reward in some way easily made the transition from pagan devotee to positions of leadership in the “church.” In fact, there are many stories of men who were not baptized until after they had taken up the position of priest, or even bishop. Many were totally ignorant of the scriptures or any of the tenets of the Christian faith.

And so, the victory of the Nicolaitans over the “laity” in the church was complete. From this point on Christianity would revolve around mystical rites and rituals, (or “sacraments,” from the same root as the word “sacrifices”) performed by priests on behalf of the people who had no other access to God, Jesus, or salvation. And since all people are in need of salvation, all citizens of the empire would be compelled to provide financial support to the church for the upkeep of the priests and bishops, and the State would back up that claim.

The deeds of the Nicolaitans, whose teachings were exposed and resisted in the Apostolic age, were now institutionalized as “church doctrine,” the Lord’s proclamation of His displeasure notwithstanding.

He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it. (Revelation 2:17)

During this period of the paganization of the church and the establishment of a high clerical caste to rule over the laity, there were still those who truly knew the Lord and desired nought but to worship Him in spirit and in truth. They refused to acknowledge the rites and duties of the institutional, official state church, often at great peril to person and property. The “manna” the church provided was contaminated, having been “offered to idols.” The Lord promises to provide these overcomers with “hidden manna,” manna not obscured and obfuscated by the layers of paganization and idolatry which now pervaded the church—the true manna, that bread “which came down from heaven,” the Lord and nothing but the Lord (John 6:51).


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