History of the Church of God

A Little Flock in the Wilderness


The third century found the Western churches, and specifically the bishop at Rome, gaining authority.

The doctrinal debate over whether to observe the memorial of the death of Jesus on the Passover or, instead, to celebrate his resurrection, supposed to have occurred on Easter Sunday, was such an issue that it even received its own label-the Quartodeci­man controversy. The name comes from the Latin word meaning "fourteenth."

The Quartodeciman controversy

The 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica discusses the problem:

"There is no indication of the observance of the Easter festival in the New Testament, or in the writings of the apostolic Fathers.... The first Christians continued to observe the Jewish festivals, though in a new spirit, as commemorations of events which those festivals had foreshadowed. Thus the Passover, with a new conception added to it of Christ as the true Paschal lamb and the first fruits from the dead, continued to be observed... .

"Generally speaking, the Western churches kept Easter on the first day of the week, while the Eastern churches followed the Jewish rule, and kept Easter [Passover] on the fourteenth day.

"St. Polycarp, the disciple of St. John the Evangelist and bishop of Smyrna, visited Rome in 159 to confer with Anicetus, the bishop of that see, on the subject; and urged the tradition, which he had received from the apostle, of observing the fourteenth day.... About forty years later (197) the question was discussed in a very different spirit between Victor, bishop of Rome, and Polycrates, metropolitan of proconsular Asia.... Victor demanded that all should adopt the usage prevailing at Rome....

"The few who afterwards separated themselves from the unity of the church and continued to keep the fourteenth day, were named Quartodecimani, and the dispute itself is known as the Quarto­deciman controversy" (article "Easter," pages 828-829).

Historian Karl Baus writes in his work From the Apostolic Community to Constantine.

"The Quartodeciman minority remained faithful to their previous practice .... The Council of Nicea [A.D. 325] expelled the Quartodecimans from the ecclesiastical community. Thereafter, their numbers continually declined, though even into the fifth century the great Church had to deal with them on occasion" (pages 271-272).

The fourth century turned out to be a time of monumental change in the Christian world. The church at Rome far over­shadowed the smaller groups in the East who strove to remain faithful to the doctrines of the first apostles.

Government persecution continues

But whether Eastern or Western, for nearly 250 years those who were called Christians had to persevere through trial and tribulation. As the fourth century began there seemed to be no change in sight-persecution continued.

Beginning with Nero's persecutions in A.D. 64, Christians by the year 303 had weathered nine major persecutions from the Roman government.

The terror that began in 303 was no different. That 10th persecution lasted 10 years. The Roman emperor was Diocletian.

Yet, in spite of every effort to stamp out Christians, God's Church was able to endure.

And in spite of the persecution, the Western church, with its principal bishop at Rome, gained ever increasing influence.

Early in the fourth century, as Roman persecution raged, a momentous change came. Constantine, a leading Roman general and the man proclaimed Caesar by the Roman armies, commanded his troops in the battle of Mulvian Bridge. Rome was about to become his.

Prior to the battle, Constantine, a worshiper of the sun, allegedly experienced an amazing vision: He saw a flaming sign of the initial letters of the name of Christ and heard a voice say, "By this sign you will conquer."

Taking it as an omen, Constantine had his soldiers paint those letters, chi and rho, on their shields.

His armies were victorious, and the Roman relationship to the Christian church was at that moment forever changed.

At Milan, Constantine issued a proclamation that came to be called the Edict of Toleration, or the Edict of Milan. It accepted Christianity as an official religion in the Empire with legal equality to other religions.

It was A.D. 313.

Constantine and the church

But the Christianity that Constantine acknowledged was primarily that of the church in the West. Constantine found that churches in the East and even in other parts of the vast Roman Empire differed significantly in doctrine and practice.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say about what was happening:

"Captivated by Christianity, Constantine wanted to give it the protection of the state; for, in line with the old Roman idea, he regarded himself as Pontifex Maximus of Christianity.... As such, he thought it his task to settle a controversy, that was upsetting the politico-religious unity of his Christian empire.... When another synod in Antioch late in 324 failed to effect the desired unity, the Emperor decided to settle the controversy by a general synod of the more important bishops of the world" (volume 10, page 432).

Thus the first great ecumenical council was called in the Asia Minor city of Nicea in A.D. 325.

It was a major turning point.

The emperor had already decreed that the day of the sun (called by many Christians the first day) should be kept as a weekly day of rest.

Now, the Council of Nicea would determine the course of action for the future of the Church. In a letter to the churches after the council, Constantine announced the outcome: that all churches were to observe Easter Sunday.

So the Church centered at Rome could exercise great power. Christians in the East were at a crossroads.

A prophesied time to flee

Interestingly enough, more than 200 years before the council of Nicea, Christ had revealed an amazing prophecy to the apostle John. Here is that prophecy from Revelation 12:6: "Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days."

In Bible prophecy, a day can symbolize a year in fulfillment. Applying that interpretation to these verses, God's Church, symbolized as a woman, would flee persecution and hide in the wilderness for 1,260 years.

If that flight to the wilderness begins in about A.D. 325, we would expect to see significant events some 1,260 years later-in the late 16th century.

And that's exactly what happened. The 16th century, or the1500s, also proved to be a vital turning point in world history.

By then the work of Johannes Gutenberg made printing practical. His first great printed works were Bibles.

Then, in the early 16th century, Martin Luther swept the world into a different age, as the Protestant Reformation began on the European continent. In the same century, Henry VIII broke England away from the Roman Catholic Church. By the time of Elizabeth I the Church of England was firmly established.

We'll see in a future installment how God's Church in the wilderness could begin a new chapter of Church history. But that's getting ahead of our story.

Called Paulicians

After the Nicean council, faithful followers of the apostolic Church and doctrine had to flee the major cities and territories.

Their place in the wilderness was at first in what we now call Armenia. These faithful Christians came to be known as Paulicians. Scholars differ on the origin of that name. Some feel it was because of their devotion to the apostle Paul of the early New Testament Church. Others think the name is derived from a third­century bishop.

Perhaps the origin of the name is not so important, but who they were and what they believed is of great import.

Although these Christians existed in hiding from the early fourth century, they would not become known to the world till the seventh century.

Historian A.H. Newman described the Paulician hiding place in Armenia: "it was the huge recess or circular dam formed by the Taurus mountain range that furnished a comparatively secure abiding place for this ancient form of Christianity" (A Manual of Church History, volume 1, page 381).

An amazing discovery

Perhaps the biggest handicap in studying Church history is the lack of original writings from those about whom we desire to know the most.

In fact, a majority of the material available about any non­mainstream Christians is from those who persecuted them. Such sources can hardly be considered the most reliable.

But in the case of the Paulicians a remarkable literary discovery was made in the late 19th century. British scholar and theologian Fred C. Conybeare discovered seventh- or eighth-century Paulician manuscripts that had been stored in an Armenian monastery.

This amazing find was called The Key of Truth. In that collection we can read about many Paulician customs and beliefs.

George Fisher says of this discovery: "In the manuscript called The Key of Truth we find many of their [the Paulicians] beliefs. Conybeare says he had at last 'Understood who these Paulicians really were. All who had written about them had been misled by their Calumnies (slander). I now realized (he said) that I had stumbled on the monument of a phase of the Christian Church so old and so outworn, that the very memory of it was lost.' "

Constantine of Mananell

One of the most colorful personalitics of the Paulician period was a man called Constantine of Mananeli. The time was probably in the early to mid 600s.

You can read his story in chapter 54 of Edward Gibbon's De­cline and Fall of the Roman Em­pire. For the sake of space, we'll paraphrase that exciting story.

In the town of Manancli. Conatantine received a returning resident who had been held captive in Syria. This man had obtained a manuscript of the New Testament. Together they studied the Scriptures. Constantine took a particular affinity to the writings of the apostle Paul (leading some scholars to conclude the origin of the name, Paulicians).

As more and more people in the area studied and became believers, they took biblical names­Timothy, Sylvanus, Titus, etc. They strove to live by the teachings of the New Testament as they carne to understand it. Their numbers grew rapidly.

To stamp out the movement, the Byzantine emperor dispatched a man named Simeon. He gathered some of Constantine's followers and, under penalty of death if they did not cooperate, ordered them to stone Constantine to death.

Unfortunately, in a group of believers, same may weaken. In this case at least one did--and he stoned his former leader.

But then developed a story stranger than fiction. Simeon was so moved by the faith of Constantine and his Paulician followers that after the death of this brave man. Simeon himself became a believer.

Much like the apostle Paul of the New Testament, Simeon embraced the doctrine he was sent to stamp out.

Simeon renounced his former life, his honors and his wealth. He soon became a leader and minister among the persecuted Paulicians.

Simeon also gave his life as a martyr for the Christian cause he embraced.

As Edward Gibbon wrote of these times: "From the blood and ashes of the first victims a succession of teachers and congregations repeatedly arose" (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)

After the Wasters churches began to dominate the Roman Empire, faithful followers of the apostolic Church and doctrine moved out of the Empire-into Armenia.


After the Western churches began to dominate the Roman Empire, faithful followers of the apostolic Church and doctrine moved out of the Empire-into Armenia.

What an impact these Paulicians made!

Huddled in the wilderness of Armenia for several centuries, God's people had more than occasional impact on the world.

By the mid ninth century, the Empress Theodora severely persecuted Paulician Christians. By some estimates as many as 100,000 were martyred between A.D.. 840 and 860.

Yet the Church's years in the wilderness were not over. The Church would have to move. Many had already migrated toward southeastern Europe. Times would again change. We'll pick up the story in the next chapter, as the persecuted Church of God flees to Europe.

But we conclude this chapter with a summary of the doctrines and beliefs of the Paulicians from a variety of sources including Conybeare's Key of Truth and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I1th edition.

Summary of Pauliclan beliefs

1) They baptized only adults, citing Christ's example that he was 30 years old when he was baptized.

2) They did not baptize in a font, but by immersion.

3) They believed Christ, although he was crucified for man, did not command adoration of the cross.

4) They did not believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary, the mother of Jesus, nor did they consider that she was a mediatrix.

5) They rejected the Catholic mass, communion and confession.

6) They believed that true repentance was a prerequisite for baptism.

7) They believed the Church was not a building. but a body of people.

8) They were characterized by their obedience to the Ten Commandments and believed a Christian was one who knows Christ and keeps his commandments.

In summary. Fred Conybearc says of the Paulicians.

"The Sabbath was perhaps kept, and there were no special Sunday observances.... Wednesday and Friday were not kept as fast-days. Of the modern Christmas and of the Annunciation, and of the other feasts connected with the life of Jesus prior to his thirtieth year, this phase of the Church knew nothing. The general impression which the study of it leaves on us is that in it we have before us a form of Church not very remote from the primitive Jewish Christianity of Palestine" (page 193).

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