2: Journey into the PAST 

Seven Christians were brought into the judgment hall of Cyrilla, bishop of Carthage. These men loved God, studied the Bible carefully, and tried to faithfully obey it. But now the crisis had come. Unless they changed their faith to that of the official State church, they would receive the death sentence.

It was the year 456. Cyrilla was the Christian bishop of Carthage. He was the spiritual leader of thousands of Christians. But, like many other Christian leaders of his time, he was determined to eliminate all who would not yield their beliefs to those dictated by the State church officials.

At first, Cyrilla attempted to win them over by flattery and the offer of rewards. But their refusal was firm. "We acknowledge but one Lord and one faith—that given in the Bible. You may therefore do whatever you please with our bodies, for it is better that we suffer a few temporary pains than to die in hell."

Angered and humiliated that they would place the Bible above his own authority, Cyrilla arranged for the civil authorities to have them thrown into a dungeon and put in irons. But recognizing their quiet godliness, the keeper of the prison permitted their friends to visit them and bring them food.

Upon learning of this, Cyrilla and the government leaders backing him became so angry that they ordered the seven men to be put on board an old vessel which was then towed out of the harbor of Carthage and set on fire. The seven men that died that day were Rusticus, Liberatus, Severus, Rogatus, Servs, Boniface, and Septimus.

We have journeyed back into history 1,500 years—and again we have found the same thing: "Christians" killing Christians. Such murderous terrorism existed for centuries. But already part of the mystery is being solved. The problem begins when, by government legislation or decree, the creed of one of the churches is made the official State religion. Then persecution of the other Christians soon follows.

Yet what is it that starts a church organization down the path toward official government sponsorship? That is what we want to learn next. In this chapter, we will learn about the church apostasy that led to it.

When the last page in the Bible was written many centuries ago, an amazing story began. It is a story of faithfulness amid apostasy and persecution. While many of God’s people stood true to Bible principles, there were others who lived like the world and soon were hardly distinguishable from the rest. But persecution by the non-Christian world kept many close to Christ and to what He had taught them in Scripture.

Yet apostasy was a serious one. Pagan ideas and teachings were rapidly coming into the church. By A.D. 250, worldliness was sweeping into the early church in an ever-increasing flood. Here are some of the apostate errors that were introduced.

Because the pagan priests cut a circular bald spot on their heads in honor of the solar disk (the sun god), Christian leaders in Alexandria, Egypt, and at Rome soon copied this hair style, called the tonsure (Leviticus 21:5; Deuteronomy 14:1). Certain monastic orders still use it today.

From India, came ascetics, monastic hermits, and rosary beads. Persia, through Mithraism, gave the burning of candles to the Christians. (The light in the candle was considered to be a small "sun.")

The worship of the Queen of Heaven came from Egypt and, with it, much of the liturgy—the worship service pattern—used by the church for centuries. Isis was the Egyptian Queen of Heaven. She had an infant son called Horus. Here is a description of how the Egyptians worshiped Isis and Horus. This church liturgy is the ancestor of the worship service of one of the oldest and largest churches of Christendom.

"The daily ritual of Isis, which seems to have been as regular and complicated as that of the Catholic Church, produced an immense effect on the Roman mind. Every day there were two solemn offices, at which white-robed, tonsured priests, with acolytes and assistants of every degree, officiated. The morning litany and sacrifice was an impressive service. The crowd of worshipers thronged the space before the chapel at the early dawn. The priest ascending by a hidden stairs, drew apart the veil of the sanctuary, and offered the holy image to their adoration. He then made the round of altars, reciting the litany [mystic words in an unknown tongue], and sprinkling the holy water from the secret spring."—Samuel Dill, Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, 577-578 (2 Timothy 2:15-16; Exodus 20:3-5).

The "Queen of Heaven, the Mother of God" concept came directly into the Christian church from the "Mother and Child cult" in Egypt, which was the worship of Isis and Horus.

Although the date of Christ’s birth is not known, Scripture study indicates that it occurred in the fall of the year. But back in those early centuries, December 25 was a great pagan festival to the yearly rebirth of Mithra, the sun god. Following the winter solstice, on December 21, the sun was, by the 25th, already beginning to rise higher in the sky. So the sun worshipers celebrated that date as the yearly rebirth of the sun god. This festival had continued for centuries among the Mithraites; but, within two hundred years after the Bible was completed, it had been adopted by the more worldly Christian churches as the day on which they celebrated the birth of Christ. Here is the way Epiphany and Christmas (celebration of the birth of Christ) began, according to Williston Walker, a leading church historian of our time:

"About the same time, in the early fourth century, there developed, in the West, a distinctive nativity festival on December 25. The date was partly determined by the idea that the birth of the world occurred on the vernal equinox of the sun (March 25) and correspondingly its new birth in the Saviour would be nine months later, December 25. But, perhaps even more, the date was influenced by the fact that December 25 was a great pagan festival, that of Sol Invictus ["the unconquerable sun god"], which celebrated the victory of light over darkness and the lengthening of the sun’s rays at the winter solstice. The assimilation [transformation] of Christ into the sun god, as Sun of Righteousness, was widespread in the fourth century and furthered by Constantine’s legislation on Sunday, which is not unrelated to the fact that the sun god was the titular divinity of his family."—Williston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, 54, cf. 155.

Epiphany later became the day which was celebrated when the Magi first learned about the birth of Christ. But, back in the beginning, it was but another sun-worship day. On the same page as the above quotation, Walker also explains how the other part of the Christmas celebration began."

"The gift giving we associate with Christmas has its origin partly in the similar custom at the Roman Saturnalia (December 17-24) and partly in observances which were associated with the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra (the prototype of Santa Claus) on December 6."—WiIliston Walker, A History of the Christian Church, 155.

Then there was that greatest of all, the heathen spring fertility rites in the Roman Empire. Called Easter, this festival was held in honor of Ishtar, the moon goddess, and her husband, Mithra, the sun god. Thought to be the date on which Mithra had been resurrected from the dead, it became a special day of licentiousness throughout the empire. Emperor Claudius made it an official holiday during his reign. So Easter celebration began when Christians started keeping a pagan holiday sacred to a licentious pagan goddess ("Easter," in Acts 12:4, is a mistranslation; the original Greek is "Pascha": "Passover").

"Attis [Mithra awoke from his sleep of death, and the joy created by his resurrection burst out in wild merrymaking, wanton masquerades, and luxurious banquets."—Franz Cumont, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, 56-57.

Gradually, the Christian church identified with this pagan festival of the resurrection of spring, by keeping it in honor of the resurrection of Christ. But Christ was actually resurrected at the time of the Biblical Passover, not at the heathen Easter, which varied from it by several weeks. Thinking that the adoption of pagan customs would "help convert the world," Anticetus, the bishop of Rome, decreed that a Sunday festival be held yearly by Christians at the time of the lshtar fertility rites. But, of course, the more the church leaned toward pagan ways and ideas, the more worldly it became.

Another non-Biblical carryover from paganism was the use of so-called holy water for baptism. But eventually the inconvenience of obeying this teaching of Christ degenerated into sprinkling, which is but the placing of a few drops of water on the forehead. About the year A.D. 300, prayers for the dead began. Soon this heathen custom was being practiced while kneeling before images and wax candles.

Another pagan custom—one that was to become extremely influential in the church—was the worship of the Virgin.

"From ancient Babylon came the cult of the Virgin Mother goddess, who was worshiped as the highest of gods."—S. H. Langdon, Semitic Mythology.

With the passing years, more and more inventions of paganism were gradually brought into the church.

"The belief in miracle-working objects, talismans, amulets, and formulas was dear to . . Christianity, and they were received from pagan antiquity . . The vestments of the clergy and the papal title of Pontifix Maximus were legacies from pagan Romanism. The church found that the rural converts still revered certain springs, wells, trees, and stones; she thought it wiser to bless these to Christian use than to break too sharply with the customs of sentiment . . Pagan festivals, dear to the people, reappeared as Christian feasts, and pagan rites were transformed into Christian liturgy . . The Christian calendar of saints replaced the Roman fasti; ancient divinities, dear to the people, were allowed to revive under the names of ‘Christian saints’. . gradually the tenderest features of Astarte, Cybele, Artemis, Diana, and Isis were gathered together in the worship of Mary."—Will Durant, The Age of Faith, 745-746.

Laing mentions several other corruptions by which the Mother goddess had been worshiped by heathens—and then adopted into the Christian church by worldly leaders—and continued down even to our own day: votive offerings; elevation of sacred objects [lifting of the host]; priestly bells; decking of images with beautiful clothing, jewelry, and crowns; processions; festivals; prayers for the dead; holy water; and the worship of relics and statues of saints (see Gordon J. Laing, Survivals of Roman Religion, 92-95, 123-131, 238-241).

Cardinal Newman, a well-known Catholic writer of the mid-nineteenth century, listed many examples of things of "pagan origin" which the papacy brought to the heathen.

"The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees; incense, lamps, and candles; holy water; asylums [hermitages, monasteries, and convents]; [pagan] holydays; processions; sacerdotal vestments; the tonsure; the ring in marriage; turning to the East; images . . and the Kyrie Eleison."—John H. Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 73 [Roman Catholic].

Summarizing the massive apostasy that was gradually enveloping much of the church, Alexander Flick, a church historian said:

"The mighty Catholic Church was little more than the Roman Empire baptized."—A. C. Flick, The Rise of the Medieval Church, 148.

The crucial fact here is that, all through those early centuries, in spite of the mounting apostasy—it was only the heathen who were persecuting the Christians! The growing worldliness and apostasy in the church was similar to what we are experiencing today, but there was another step to be taken that would bring in the deadly persecuting power of a State church upon the early Christians in every part of the land.

What we want to know now is what is that first step in starting a government-sponsored church.

"Condemn no man for not thinking as you think. Let every one enjoy the full and free liberty of thinking for himself. Let every man use his own judgment, since every man must give an account of himself to God. Abhor every approach, in any kind or degree, to the spirit of persecution. If you cannot reason or persuade a man into the truth, never attempt to force him into it. If love will not compel him to come, leave him to God, the Judge of all."—John Wesley, "Advice to the People Called Methodists," Works of John Wesley, Vol. 8, 357.