Many people believe that the greatest threat to Christianity as a religion came in the form of ruthless and bloody persecution, beginning already with the persecutions directed by the leaders of the Jewish church against Jesus and His apostles, and thereafter the systematic efforts of Roman emperors to eradicate Christianity by means of sadistic torture and cruel death inflicted upon countless thousands. But there were also other notable persecutions of faithful Christians over the centuries, many on the part of pagan invaders (Goths, Muslims, Celts, etc.) but also many on the part of those who marched under the banner of Christ’s cross (violence against the Reformers by the Papacy and by the Holy Roman Empire, Counter-Reformation measures after 1563, the Inquisition, the Thirty Years’ War, etc.)! And finally there was oppression of faithful Lutheran pastors by the state churches in Saxony, Prussia, Bavaria and elsewhere in Germany that forced our Lutheran fathers to flee to the “New World” for religious freedom.
There was, however, since the time of Christ and His apostles already, a force of greater magnitude that threatened the Church — the danger of false prophets who would attack the Church from within! St. Paul warned of it in his parting words to the elders of the Church at Ephesus, saying, “After my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them! Therefore watch!” (Acts 20:29-31a). And this infiltration of falsehood began already in the first century, perpetrating one heresy after another, and fomenting controversy after controversy and schism after schism, until outward Christendom was, after the first two thousand years of its existence, fractionalized into hundreds of sects all claiming to be followers of the Lord Jesus, “by good words and fair speeches deceiving the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:18). In the last analysis, controversy did more damage to the Church than did persecution.
Already during the time of the Apostles, false teachers arose even from within congregations of Christians to introduce errors contrary to the doctrines of Holy Scripture. Where these were not aggressively combated and defeated, where they were tolerated and permitted to gain a firm foothold in the early Church, fertile ground was created which nurtured the growing Papacy and allowed the pure teachings of God’s Word to be obscured, supplemented with the commandments of men, and even rejected altogether. By God’s grace, Dr. Martin Luther in the Reformation of the 16th Century stemmed to a great extent this tidal wave of heterodoxy and brought outward Christendom back to the teachings of the Bible.
Tragically, however, since Luther’s time, the “isms” of false doctrine have multiplied like pernicious leaven in the lump of pure doctrine (Pietism, Rationalism, Accommodationism, Modernism, Ecumenism, Unionism, etc.), so that most of the church bodies that bear Luther’s name have gradually forsaken the truth of God’s Word and become heterodox, that is, guilty either of teaching false doctrine contrary to Holy Scripture (Romans 16:17) OR of permitting truth and error to stand side by side as equals (Jeremiah 23:28). Refusing to exercise doctrinal discipline in their midst (Titus 3:10; Romans 16:17-18; I Timothy 6:3-5), they have become so tolerant of false doctrine and practice (II Timothy 4:3) that every effort at reformation is either quietly ignored or openly rejected. Only by God’s grace do the churches of our precious fellowship, though small in numbers, stand fast in purity of doctrine and practice —not just in a “conservative” or “confessional” mode but in true orthodoxy without compromise and in complete unity with one another on the basis of His Word alone (John 8:31-32; Ephesians 2:20; I Corinthians 1:10; Jeremiah 23:28; Romans 16:17; etc.). For that we are sincerely grateful and gladly hear and heed the Apostle Jude’s benediction: “Now unto Him that is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to the only wise God our Savior be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever! Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25).