Since the establishment of Christianity, the ones who were willing to do God’s will have sensed that something was wrong.
Sadly, the decline Paul wrote so fervently against in his many letters soon set in. As soon as love began to die, obedience waned, and the true revelation of God ceased to exist.1 The people were left to their own understanding about God and His will. Men with great intellects and powerful speech began to dominate the simple believers in the churches. The apostle John wrote that the sincere were being turned out of the churches,2 just as they had once been turned out of Judaism.
His Spirit had produced one anointing that brought them all into the same revelation, love, and obedience to the Word. But eventually through disobedience the anointing flow was constricted and eventually, it stopped. Denominations began to creep in as different leaders had different understandings and led away followings after their own interpretations.3 When love died, the community died and they no longer shared all things in common. This is how the religious establishment of Christianity began. Since that time, the ones who were willing to do God’s will have sensed that something was wrong in the established religion. They became dissenters, disillusioned with what they saw and heard. They began to look for something real. But where would they go? Such dissenters have always been persecuted by whichever denomination was in power. This has been the history of the Christian church.
Consider the Inquisition and the Crusades of the Roman Catholic Church. Look at what the Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin did to those who didn’t agree with them. When the Anabaptists were compelled to follow their “inner conviction” contrary to the traditions and teachings of the established Lutheran Church, Luther pronounced them worthy of death. Dissenting on the issue of infant baptism placed the Anabaptists outside the camp of the Reformers’ interpretation of scripture. In 1527 Luther and Zwingli promoted the total elimination of the Anabaptists through capital punishment, “for the preservation of the public order.”4
John Calvin, founder of the Reformed churches, was responsible for the execution of Michael Servetus. Servetus had the wrong doctrine — that is, he had a doctrine of baptism and the Trinity that differed from that of Calvin. Calvin’s expertise in the “right” doctrine qualified him as an expert witness in the civil trial of Servetus.5 It was upon the authority of Calvin’s expert testimony that Servetus was found guilty and sentenced to burn at the stake. The sentence was decreed by the town council of Geneva, a body of laymen.6 As Servetus was being led to the stake, he was accompanied by William Farel, who tried to persuade him to “repudiate his errors.” Servetus was silent. From the flames Servetus prayed, “O Jesus, thou Son of the eternal God, have pity on me!” Farel later said that if Servetus had been willing to confess “Jesus, the eternal Son of God,” he might have been saved. Essentially he was saying that Servetus was executed because “he put the adjective [eternal] in the wrong place,”7 referring to God rather than the Son of God!
This pattern of relentless persecution and execution over points of doctrine continued down through the 17th century in the Church of England. Some Puritan dissenters were tortured and killed until they fled England to the new world in 1620. Among these Puritans were a group of dissenters from the Church of England who could not tolerate worshipping in the midst of compromise and contradiction. Their dissent led them to leave the Church of England altogether and form new, separate churches. Beginning as early as the 1570s a number of Puritans did just that and earned the name Separatists.8
Foremost among these Separatist dissenters who came to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1631 was Roger Williams. When he called the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in Boston to renounce their ties with the Church of England and be entirely separate from it, he was banished into the wilderness of New England. Williams was a dissenter and a very educated man who knew that what he saw in Christianity was not the true church. He knew that if there was ever to be a true church, it had to be raised up by apostles and that it would be raised up outside the “wilderness of the world” that the church had become. In effect, in Williams’ view, Christians had lost their church and there was no present way to recover it.9
Williams’ life was spared as he escaped into the wilderness and established the colony that later became the state of Rhode Island. He established a secular government based on the separation of church and state to protect the individual believers who were left in the “wilderness of the world” until Christ returned. Many other dissenters were not so fortunate and were imprisoned, beaten, and executed for their dissent in the colonies. It was from the lessons learned from this long, bloody history that the framers of the U.S. Constitution adopted a system of law that protected the freedom of religious dissent and kept the state from adopting any one religion as a state religion to which all must bow.10
The Christian establishment has had a program of bloodshed since Constantine made Christianity the recognized religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. They quenched the voice of dissent just like their predecessors, the Jews, who quenched the voice of their Messiah by putting Him to death on a cross. It is no different today except where religious freedom is protected by law, and even then there are no guarantees that dissenters will not be labeled and targeted as a cult.
Dissenters within the established religion of Christianity have long looked for a prophet to come — one with a different program than the dead traditions and liturgy that replaced the love of God that they desire. The sincere ones in Christianity today parallel the sincere ones in Judaism in our Master’s day. They are looking for the dissident voice “outside the camp”11 to show them the ancient path — the path of love revealed in the gospel. The revelation that the Messiah is the Son of the living God comes to those with a sincere desire to obey. That revelation is the rock on which our Master builds His church (community).12 Dissent will always be in the hearts of the sincere until they find the words of eternal life that compel obedience. Apart from that revelation there is no obedience, but the true words of eternal life bring the lonely into families.13 This is what Jesus came to establish. He wants a new family where His word is obeyed. It is in this family that dissent is replaced by love that is daily being perfected in unity.