Has God Changed?

by Elder Louis Holder
written January 1989
(mouseover a superscript for the citation)

Several weeks ago a man I work with asked me a biblical question. I pondered a moment and started to answer him like this: “The God in the Old Testament is the same God we worship today…” That’s as far as I got for he interrupted very excitedly and said, “Oh no, he is not, he has changed, he used to be very revengeful but now he is very forgiving.” What do you think about my friend’s statement? Is God exactly the same as he has always been, or has the sacrifice of his Son mellowed him to some extent?

John tells us “God is love”. (I John 4:8) Was it a God of love that caused the earth to open up and swallow Dathan and Abiram along with their wives, their sons and their little children? (Num. 16:32) And burned up with fire the two hundred and fifty men who offered incense? (Num.16:35) Was it a God of love that sent serpents among the children of Israel and “much people of Israel died”? (Num. 21:6) How about the time that the people joined in with the Moabites and bowed down to their gods and God sent a plague among them that killed twenty-four thousand people? (Num. 25:1-9) The hero in that story was a grandson of Aaron named Phinehas, who took a javelin (spear) and followed an Israelite man named Zimri into his tent and killed both him and the Midianitish woman, named Cozbi, who was with Zimri. God was very pleased with Phinehas and gave him “my covenant of peace” and “the covenant of an everlasting priesthood, because he was zealous for his God.” (Num. 25:7-15)

Is this the same God we worship today who views sin exactly as he always did, or do you think, along with my friend, “Oh, no, he has changed”?

At the end of World War II the Allies tried many Nazis for war crimes. At the war crimes trial in Nuremberg, Germany, Hitler’s henchmen argued that they had broken no laws. Germany’s own legal system, they contended, permitted the elimination of those who impeded the advance of the Third Reich. (For you younger readers, Hitler’s henchmen exterminated six million Jews and several millions of other ethnic groups.) Adolph Eichmann protested before his execution, “I had to obey the laws of war and my flag.”

Robert H. Jackson, Chief Counsel for the United States in the Nuremberg trials, was forced to appeal to permanent values, to moral standards transcending the life styles of a particular society. In effect, he argued that there is a law beyond the law that stands in judgment on the arbitrary, changing opinions of man.

What do you think? Is there an eternal, unchanging, absolute, moral standard by which men should govern their lives? I think so. If there is not, then the Allies had no right to try Hitler’s henchmen for acts that were not against Germany’s laws at the time. In the New Testament, James says, “Every good and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” (James 1:17) In the Old Testament, Solomon says, “I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever: nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before Him.” (Ecc. 3:14) Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God, and “the same was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2), is in such perfect harmony with his Father that he says, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30), and he is “the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.” (Heb. 13:8) So God the Son and God the Father are in perfect agreement and neither ever change. Aren’t you glad they never change? “That by two immutable (not capable of change) things (God’s Promise Gen. 15:5, and God’s Oath Gen. 22:16-18), in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil;” (Heb. 6:18-19)

With regard to the previous statements about God’s immutability, let me direct your thoughts to Proverbs for a moment. “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea seven are an abomination unto Him: a proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, a false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.” (Prov. 6:16-19)

Now that we are in the New Testament age and Jesus has shed his blood to save us from our sins and God is a God of love, would it be more accurate to say, “These things somewhat displease the Lord: yea seven are a real disappointment to Him…” Should passages like these be watered down, or even ignored, to illustrate God’s more tolerant view towards sin?

Jesus, who is, as has already been pointed out, one with the Father, vigorously upheld God’s law pertaining to parental obligation “For God commanded, saying, honour thy father and mother: and he that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say…” God’s people did not like God’s law, they were explaining it away and substituting some man-made rules more to their liking, and because of this Jesus said their worship was in vain. (Matt. 15:4-9) After Jesus so boldly upheld and defended God’s law on this matter, do you think that He Himself voided it in the New Testament Church? Please compare the quotation from Matthew, with this one from I Timothy: “But if any provide not for his own, and specifically not for those of his own house, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” (I Timothy 5:8) Is this not the same lesson? Does an infidel or one even worse than an infidel, have a place in the Church?

Many people, like my friend, have the feeling that God’s laws have been relaxed in the New Testament Church age, but the opposite is true. Our righteousness is supposed to exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees. (Matt. 5:20) For instance, in the case of adultery, one of the Ten Commandments says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” But the Jews were allowed to divorce and remarry, perhaps several times over. Jesus added to the restrictions concerning adultery. “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. (Not pleasing to God.) And I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery, and who so marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” (Matt. 19:8-9) Jesus made the law in the New Testament age more stringent concerning marriage than it was before; he even goes beyond the physical act and addresses our hearts and minds, our moral convictions and says, “…whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matt. 5:28) It is evident that Jesus requires people of high moral convictions, of lofty principles, of strong character to be his followers, for people without these qualities won’t pass the first test.

In the Old Testament, God the Father, (with whom Jesus is “one”) had a list of over a dozen sins that were sins unto death. Most of these if not all, have their counterpart in the New Testament. After all, if Jesus is in perfect harmony with his Father, how could it be otherwise? One of these is a “presumptuous” man who appears before the High Court for a ruling, then will not abide by the ruling when it is given, “…even that man shall die; and thou shalt put away the evil from Israel.” (Deut. 17:8-13)

Compare that lesson with this one: “…and if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church: but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.” (Matt. 18:17)

Is not the lesson the same? Is not the penalty the same? Is not the purpose of the penalty the same?

Another of the crimes that God’s law required the ultimate penalty for was murder: “And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.” (Num. 35:16)

In the New Testament, John says, “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.” (I John 3:15) And also, “If a man says I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar…” (I John 4:20) Do murderers and liars have a place in the Church? “For without are dogs and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.” (Rev. 22:15)

So once again God the Father and God the Son are in agreement, the penalty for the crime of murder is total, absolute, irrevocable removal from the ranks of God’s people.

Perhaps we would do well to consider God’s purpose in requiring the death penalty for certain crimes. We do not have to guess what his purpose is because he tells us over and over:

And that prophet or dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death: because he hath spoken to turn you away from the Lord your God… so shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee. (Deut. 13:5)

Then shalt thou bring forth that man or that woman, which have committed that wicked thing, unto thy gates, even that man or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones till they die… so shalt thou put the evil away from you. (Deut. 17:5&7)

And they shall say unto the elders of his city, this our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear and fear. (Deut. 21:20-21)

But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of the city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she has wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you. If a man be found lying with a woman married to a husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel. If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto a husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man because he hath humbled his neighbor’s wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you. (Deut. 22:20-24)

God’s purpose is abundantly clear. The perpetrators of these crimes can influence others to behave in like manner. To avoid their influence spreading like cancer through the society of God’s people, God required their swift, certain and permanent removal from that society.

Alexander Pope wrote a little poem that pretty well expresses our response to sin:

Vice is a monster of such hideous mien
that to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
we first endure, then pity, then embrace.

Some twenty-five or thirty years ago, one of the most famous actresses of the times had her career destroyed by having an illegitimate child. The actress was Ingrid Bergman. In the intervening years the morals (?)of society have changed so much that we see nothing wrong with our screen idols choosing to have their babies without marriage. Beautiful, talented people like Farrah Fawcett and Jessica Lange choose childbirth without husbands and it is considered an “alternate life style”, and their careers continue unabated.

Shakespeare, who was an astute observer of human nature, wrote, “Nothing emboldens sin so much as mercy.” God, who knows the working of our minds better then we ourselves, was not deterred by the possible repentance of those sinners we have been discussing, nor their future worth to Israel. His judgment was that their sin, if allowed to spread, would do more harm to Israel than any value their lives could possibly be worth in later years.

The Apostle Paul understood this principle very well when he wrote, “Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” (I Cor. 5:6) He was speaking of a member of their Church who had committed a sexual sin: he had had his father’s wife. (I Cor. 5:1) He instructed the Church to put that man out of the Church, “To deliver such a one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh…” (I Cor. 5:5)

This man had broken at least two of God’s laws that were “unto death”. He had committed incest in having his own stepmother, “And the man that lieth with his father’s wife hath uncovered his father’s nakedness: both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Lev. 20:11, also Deut. 27:20) He has also committed adultery in having another man’s wife, “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife…shall surely be put to death.” (Lev. 20:10) All of which is called “fornication”.

The question is, if you remember, has God changed? Is God more “laid back”, has he “mellowed out”? Is he now willing to forgive and fellowship in the closest, most intimate way possible with the perpetrator of a sin that he formerly required the death penalty for?

The penalty for this sin, which the Church member at Corinth had committed, is no different in any degree from the penalty for murder, or any other of the dozen or more sins that God judged were unto death. If God is now willing to forgive “the man that lieth with his father’s wife” and restore him to fellowship in the New Testament Church, and being as the penalty for this sin was the same as the penalty for murder, adultery, idolatry, blasphemy and so on, doesn’t it follow that God would also be willing to forgive all these other sins? If not, why not? If the above be true, then hasn’t God’s treatment of the perpetrators of those sins changed?

The question naturally arises: “If the Church did not forgive the man who had had his father’s wife, then who is it that Paul is speaking of in II Cor. 2:7 “So that contrariwise ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one should be swallowed up with over much sorrow?”

In my personal library, I found three books that answer that question:

1) The Introduction to Corinthians in “The Open Bible” (King James), Thomas Nelson Pub.
2) “Unger’s Bible Dictionary” (very brief)
3) “Interpreting the New Testament” by James L. Price of Duke Univ.

I would like to offer an excerpt from the first and the last of these for your consideration. First, you need to know that the scholars think that there were a total of four letters written by Paul to Corinth, two of which are lost:

1) Original letter (I Cor. 5:9) lost.
2) Second letter which we call I Corinthians.
3) Third letter (severe letter) lost.
4) Fourth letter which we call II Corinthians.

From “The Open Bible”:

Part of the background of Second Corinthians can be found in “The Time of First Corinthians”. Paul was in Ephesus when he wrote First Corinthians and expected Timothy to visit Corinth and return to him (I Cor. 16:10-11). Timothy apparently brought Paul a report of the opposition that had developed against him in Corinth, and Paul made a brief and painful visit to the Corinthians (this visit is not mentioned in Acts, but it can be inferred from II Cor. 2:1; 12:14; 13:1, 2). Upon returning to Ephesus, Paul regretfully wrote his sorrowful letter to urge the church to discipline the leader of the opposition (2:1-11; 7:8). Titus carried this letter. Paul, anxious to learn the results, went to Troas and then to Macedonia to meet Titus on his return trip (2:12, 13; 7:5-16). Paul was greatly relieved by Titus’s report that the majority of the Corinthians had repented of their rebelliousness against Paul’s apostolic authority. However, a minority opposition still persisted, evidently led by a group of Judaizers (10-13). There in Macedonia Paul wrote Second Corinthians and sent it with Titus and another brother (8:16-24). This took place late in A.D. 56, and the Macedonian city from which it was written may have been Philippi. Paul then made his third trip to Corinth (12:14; 13:1, 2; Acts 20:1-3) where he wrote his letter to the Romans.

From “Interpreting the New Testament”:

We have seen that anyone wishing to reconstruct the course of events between the writing of I and 2 Corinthians must adopt some questionable assumptions. But certain points are clear. Timothy’s return from Corinth brought news of no improvement in the church. Soon afterwards, Paul went directly to Corinth by sea, abandoning his plan to visit Macedonia first.79 This journey is commonly called “the painful visit”. It was a complete fiasco. One member of the Corinthian church rebelled against Paul’s authority, and the congregation as a whole acted defiantly.

Upon Paul’s return to Ephesus he wrote a third time to the Corinthians. It is probable that this so-called “severe letter” has not been preserved. Did the letter contain an ultimatum from the Apostle?80 It is certain that he demanded the punishment of the rebel. It seems that Titus was the bearer of this letter. While awaiting the return of his fellow-worker, Paul suffered deep anxieties. Had he dealt too harshly with his converts? External threats to his life in Ephesus were accompanied by these and other misgivings. Paul left Ephesus sooner than he had planned. While at Troas Paul was not able to go on with his work, although opportunities were given to him to preach.81 After taking leave of friends at Troas, Paul journeyed along the Egnatian Way, hoping to meet Titus with news from Corinth.

When Titus joined Paul, the Apostle learned that the worst was over. The Corinthians had been moved to grief and repentance by Paul’s severe letter. The offender had been punished by the congregation, although this action had caused some disagreement.82

Paul found such great relief from his depression that as soon as possible he began a fourth letter to the Corinthians. He wrote in a reminiscent mood. The contrast of his states of minds when writing the severe letter and when receiving the report from Titus led hm to express his overwhelming joy (7,21).

A source of confusion among us is the different opinions many of us have concerning the meaning of the words “adultery” and “fornication”. Part of the confusion is due to the legal profession, which has been forced, for their own purposes, to give very specific definitions to these words, which do not coincide with Biblical usage. The legal definition of fornication for use in the courts is “sexual intercourse between two unmarried persons”. This is usually the definition that is used in smaller dictionaries. Our study here has to do with how these words are used in Scripture. Strong’s Concordance defines fornication thus: “Harlotry, including adultery and incest, figuratively, idolatry.” Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (1988) says “(2) In the Bible, any unlawful sexual intercourse, including adultery. A forsaking of the true God and worshiping of idols. Adultery is just ‘a violation of the marriage bed.'”

These two references tell us that fornication is a general word. If someone told you that they had seen some especially beautiful flowers on a trip last weekend, you would still not know what kind of flowers they had seen. There are thousands of blooming plants, all of which have flowers. Flower is a general word. In order for you to know what kind of flowers they saw, they will have to become specific and say “roses” or “bluebonnets” or something. Fornication is a word like that. It simply means “any sexual sin”. Sometimes in Scripture, specific sexual sins are singled out, while all the others are lumped in the general word fornication.

When Jesus said, “And I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication…” (Matt.19:9), He was using the word in its general sense. The wife under consideration is, of course, married. If she has sex with any man other than her husband, she has committed adultery, and the man she commits it with is also guilty of adultery even if he is single. “And the man that committeth adultery with his neighbor’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” (Lev. 20:10) The fact that a single man who has sex with a married woman (or vice versa) is an adulterer (or adulteress) will shed some light, I believe, on verses of Scripture such as I Cor. 6:9-11.

The reason why Jesus used a general word rather than a more specific term in Matt. 19:9, is because he is a very wise man and he knows that some people, some time will engage in any form of perversion that they can think of. Homosexuality is one possibility. “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Lev. 20:13) We know that some women also engage in this perversion, called lesbianism, and Paul takes notice of this in Romans: “For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:” (Rom. 1:26)

The possibility of fornication even goes beyond adultery and homosexuality into a realm we can hardly bear to think about, called bestiality. “And if a woman approach unto any beast, and lie down thereto, thou shalt kill the woman, and the beast: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” (Lev. 20:16) The wife then, in Matt. 19:9, if she should be unfaithful to her husband with another man, another woman or even a beast, has committed fornication, and has invalidated the marriage contract, and is, in a sense, dead to him and he is free to marry again. This applies equally to either spouse of course. The word fornication, as has been pointed out in the definitions given, also refers to the worship of idols instead of, or along with, the worship of God.

Our relationship with God is one of marriage (Jer. 3:14, Rom. 7:4, II Cor. 11:2), so if we are unfaithful to God, we are guilty of fornication in that sense. That is the sense that the word fornication is used in Rev. 2:20. There were some people in the Church in Thyatira that were teaching others, perhaps by example, to worship idols. In the 20th and 21st verses this is called by the general term fornication, and in the 22nd verse, because it is a violation of the marriage relationship with God, it is called by the specific term adultery.

The Lord said he had a few things against the Church because they “suffered” or allowed that evil to exist in the Church and had not “put the evil away from among you”. (Deut. 17:5&7) The Lord had given them “space” or a time to straighten out their own affairs, but there had been no change in the Church’s attitude (they had not repented), so, barring a last minute change of heart, the Lord was going to destroy them as an example to other churches. John, in writing the Book of Revelation, wrote in a kind of spiritual code, with many references to other Scriptures. In this lesson, he refers to the seducers in Thyatira as “that woman Jezebel”, which invokes a vivid picture of a wicked influence among the Lord’s people. (See I Kings 16:31, 21:25, 26).

Idolatry was a common practice among the Gentiles in biblical times and the New Testament writers were adamantly opposed to it among church members. Paul wrote, “But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.” (I Cor. 10:20, 21)

The unbending condemnation of sexual sins by the Church has long been a point of contention. One of the earliest records we have of someone trying to change this part of Church doctrine is a writing by a man named Hermas who lived about 150 A.D. Hermas claimed to have had a revelation from God, and he wrote it down and some of the early brethren accepted it as Scripture. By reading this carefully, you can see what the early Church had taught Hermas and what he wanted to change.

Ch. 3. And I said to him: “I should like to continue my questions. “Speak on,” said he. And I said: “I have heard, sir, from some teachers that there is no repentance than that when we descend into the water and receive remission of our former sins.” He said to me: “Thou hast well heard, for so it is. For he who has received remission of his sins ought to sin no more, but to live in purity. Since, however, you inquire diligently into all things, I will point out this also to you, not as giving occasion for error to those who are to believe, or have lately believed, in the Lord. For those who have now believed and those who are to believe have not repentance of their sins, but they have remission of their former sins. For to those who have been called before these days the Lord has set repentance. For the Lord, who knows the heart and foreknows all things, knew the weakness of men and the manifold wiles of the devil, that he would inflict some evil on the servants of God and would act wickedly against them. The Lord, therefore, being merciful, has had mercy on the works of His hands and has set repentance for them; and has entrusted to me the power over this repentance. And therefore I say unto you,” he said, “that if after that great and holy calling any one is tempted by the devil and sins, he has one repentance. But if thereupon he should sin and then repent, to such a man his repentance is of no benefit; for with difficulty he will live.

(From an excellent book called “A Source Book for Ancient Church History” by J.C. Ayer, Jr.)

The majority of brethren rejected Hermas’ “revelation” and the Church in general still held to the belief that some sins, if committed by baptized church members, were unforgivable. This belief was held by the Church up until the first general persecution. The emperor at that time was named Decian and he undertook to exterminate all Christianity. He made a law that all Christians would be put to death unless they proved they were not Christians by cursing Christ and worshiping an idol, in the courtrooms before witnesses, after which they were given a certificate proving they were not Christians. The following is one of those certificates, preserved for over 1700 years:

Presented to the Commission for the Sacrifices in the village of Alexander Island, by Aurelius Diogenes, the son of Satabus, of the village of Alexander Island, about seventy-two years of age, with a scar on the right eyebrow.

I have at other times always offered to the gods as well as also now in your presence, and according to the regulations have offered, sacrificed, and partaken of the sacrificial meal; and I pray you to attest this. Farewell. I Aurelius Diogenes, have presented this.

[In a second hand.]

I Aurelius Syrus, testify as being present that Diogenes sacrificed with us.

[First hand.]

First year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintas Trajanus Decius, pious, happy, Augustus, 2d day of Epiphus [June 25, 250]

(From the same “Source Book”)

During this general persecution, many thousands of people, put to the test for the first time, cursed Christ, worshiped the idol, and were excluded from their churches. The Emperor Decian lived only a short time and when he died, the persecution ceased, and it became safe to be a Christian again. For the first time the Church was faced with thousands of excluded former members outside the Church who wanted back in, and thousands inside the Church, many of whom did not understand the reasons for discipline, who wanted “Uncle Henry, or Cousin Bill” back in the Church. Some of the church leaders decided it was time to change church doctrine on this subject. It might be well to point out at this time that the Church was in harmony on the subjects of eternal salvation, baptism, and so on, the only thing that they separated over was church discipline. The following is from an Episcopal history book called “Chapters in Church History” by Powel Mills Dawley:

The imperial policy of encouraging apostasy created such chaos in the life of the Church that the Decian persecution came within a narrow margin of destroying the Christian organization. Only the wise decision of bishops like Cyprian of Carthage and Cornelius of Rome averted a catastrophe. They made a daring modification in the strict penitential discipline of the Church, receiving back with forgiveness those whose weakness had led them into apostasy.

Fortunately, the severe trial of the Church during the reign of Decius was of short duration. The emperor was killed on the frontier in the year 251 while leading his troops against the Goths, and under his successors the persecution gradually died out. After 260 A.D. peace descended upon the Church for another forty-year period, until the final imperial persecution of Christianity just before the accession of the Emperor Constantine.

DIVISION IN THE CHRISTIAN RANKS

During the confusion of the Decian persecution, the bishops’ decision to relax the harsh discipline of the Church, admitting back into fellowship those who had committed apostasy, did not pass unchallenged. An able and high-minded presbyter of the community at Rome named Novation, sternly rigorous in his view of the requirements of Christian obedience, led a small party in violent opposition to the merciful policy of Cyprian and Cornelius. It seemed to Novation and his followers that the extension of forgiveness to apostates made nonsense out of the high moral demands of Jesus for unswerving loyalty and self-sacrifice. Had thousands of Christians suffered martyrdom in vain, only to have the weak-hearted forgiven their cowardice? To the puritanical Novations the absolute challenge of the Gospel was unmistakenly clear.

This disagreement separated Christianity into two camps. The majority called themselves the Universal, or Catholic, Church, the minority were called Novations after their chief spokesman. Every Baptist history book says we are the Novations. Even the Southern Baptists claim to be descended from the Novations though they have completely rejected the Novations’ position and adopted the Catholic position as their own. Should we follow their example?

The two positions are clearly recorded in various history books. The following from “A Source Book for Ancient Church History” is the Catholic position:

Novatus [Novatianus], a presbyter at Rome, being lifted up with arrogance against these persons, as if there was no longer for them a hope of salvation, not even if they should do all things pertaining to a pure and genuine conversion, became the leader of the heresy of those who in the pride of their imagination style themselves Cathari.1 Thereupon a very large synod assembled at Rome, of bishops in number sixty, and a great many more presbyters and deacons; and likewise the pastors of the remaining provinces deliberated in their places by themselves concerning what ought to be done. A decree, accordingly, was confirmed by all that Novatus and those who joined with him, and those who adopted his brother-hating and inhuman opinion, should be considered by the Church as strangers; but that they should heal such of the brethren as had fallen into misfortune, and should minister to them with the medicines of repentance. There have come down to us epistles of Cornelius, bishop of Rome, to Fabius, of the church at Antioch, which show what was done at the synod at Rome, and what seemed best to all those in Italy and Africa and the regions thereabout. Also other epistles, written in the Latin language, of Cyprian and those with him in Africa, by which it is shown that they agreed as to the necessity of succoring those who had been tempted, and of cutting off from the Catholic Church the leader of the heresy and all that joined him.

The following is from “A Concise History of Baptists” by G.H. Orchard and is the Novatians’ position:

5. There was no difference in point of doctrine between the Novatianists and other Christians. Novatian had seen evils result from readmitting apostates; he consequently refused communion to all those who had fallen after baptism. The terms of admission in those churches were, “If you wish to join any of our churches, you may be admitted among us by baptism; but observe, that if you fall away into idolatry or vice, we shall separate you from our communion, and on no account can you be readmitted among us. We shall never attempt to injure you, in your person, property, or character; we do not presume to judge the sincerity of your repentance, or your future state; but you can never be readmitted to the fellowship of our churches, without our giving up the securest guardian we have for the purity of our communion.” “They considered,” says Mosheim, “the Christian Church, as a society where virtue and innocence reigned universally, and none of whose members, from their entrance into it, had defiled themselves with any enormous crimes; and, of consequence, they looked upon every society, which readmitted heinous offenders to its communion, as unworthy of the title of a true Christian church.”
The churches thus formed upon a plan of strict communion and rigid discipline, obtained the reproachful name of PURITANS; they were the oldest body of Christian churches, of which we have any account, and a succession of them, we shall prove, has continued to the present day.

We call ourselves Primitive Baptists. This is a name our brethren of about 150 years ago chose for us to distinguish us from the progressive brethren. It means “old” or “original” Baptist. How far from the old or original doctrine can we stray and still be honest when we tell folks we are “Primitive” Baptists?

Can we go along with Hermas’ “revelation” and be primitive? Can we agree with Cyprian and Cornelius’ “wise” decision to relax the strict discipline of the Church? Can we adopt the Catholic petition to the “fallen” and “minister to them with the medicines of repentance” and be “old, original” Baptists? If you had lived in 251 A.D., which side would you have chosen to be on?

Elder Louis Holder
Houston, Texas
January 1989

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