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Women World Leaders' Podcast

May 20, 2024

In Julie Harwick's last podcast for Women World Leaders (Episode 551 - A Warning from the Ancients), she talked about the dangers of succumbing to false teaching because of the way culture so easily infiltrates the Church. Join her today as she looks more closely at how the modern Church came to be and begins to ask some hard questions, finding further confirmation that it’s very different from the Church described in the New Testament.


Welcome to Women World Leaders podcast. I’m your host, Julie Harwick. Thank you for joining me today as we celebrate God’s grace in our lives, in this ministry and around the world.

In my very first podcast with Women World Leaders I shared how I came to faith. It’s not very glamorous or exciting, but it is kind of different and I’ll share some of it again because it’s relevant to our topic.  I grew up in a very devout Catholic home. My dad had attended Catholic school and mass on every Sunday of his life.  My mom converted in order to marry him and they made sure I was baptized in the Church before I was even a week old. He was so devout that even on vacation, we would seek out the nearest Catholic parish and make sure we went to mass either Saturday night or Sunday morning.  And of course, that meant I had to go to catechism for five long years.  But in spite of his unwavering commitment to the Catholic faith, my dad was a seeker.  He read the bible and many other Christian books and listened voraciously to a variety of Christian radio programs. He encouraged me to go to an after-school bible club when I learned about it in the fall of first grade.  At my very first visit to the Good News Club, I heard a clear presentation of the gospel and responded without hesitation.

  For the next six years, it was the highlight of my school week and I threw myself wholeheartedly into everything it had to offer:  bible stories, scripture memorization and songs.  So on Monday afternoons I got filled up on the bible and on Saturday mornings, I got filled up on Catholic teaching.  But the deeper I got into each one, the more discrepancies I discovered between them.   Full disclosure here: I wanted to go to Good News Club where I was rewarded for my efforts with lots of candy, interesting bible stories and a fun time with my friends.  I did not want to go to catechism which offered no candy and kept me from the finest tv viewing of the week – the one 4-hour block of programming designed just for me at a time when no one else in the household wanted to watch.  So, I may have been approaching catechism with a negative predisposition, but there was no denying the questions that began to pop up in my elementary school brain. Why do I have to memorize and repeat prayers?  I talk to God all the time about whatever pops into my head…in words that we both understand.  What in the world does “blessed is the fruit of thy womb” mean anyway? When I summoned the courage to ask a nun why I should pray to Mary, her answer mystified me.  “Mary will tell Jesus and Jesus will tell God,” she explained.  It immediately brought to mind the game of telephone that we often played when the class had to stay inside for recess.  Those messages always got completely messed up, so why wouldn’t I just tell God directly?  When a nun asked me whether I believed that the fancy box with curtains all around it on the altar actually held the body of Jesus, I knew how I was supposed to answer, but I just couldn’t.  First of all…gross.  Second of all, I knew there were Catholic churches in every city everywhere in the world, so how could there be enough of Jesus’ body for all of them? In Good News Club I had learned the story of the Last Supper and even my 8-year-old mind could grasp that Jesus was saying that the bread was meant to represent His body.

 I had many questions and I grew more and more skeptical of what I was learning on Saturday mornings.  I must’ve shared my questions with my parents.  I certainly let them know how much I hated going to catechism and frequently begged them to let me stop going.  At the same time, God was busy at work in my dad’s life.  He brought a priest to our local parish who fully understood and preached what it meant to be saved by grace.  My father had heard that message for years from daily Christian radio broadcasts, but when he finally heard it confirmed by a Catholic priest, he was fully ready to receive it.  We continued to attend mass for about another year, but my catechism days were over.

In retrospect, I’m kind of surprised at my younger self for not just taking everything I was told as gospel. I actually thought about everything I was taught and I believe that the Holy Spirit within me wouldn’t allow me to accept anything that conflicted with what I knew of God’s word. But somewhere along the way, I lost that questioning nature.

I was confronted with that realization as I was doing research for my last podcast.  In trying to figure out how the church got so far away from its humble and simple beginnings, I read a book called “Pagan Christianity,” by Frank Viola and George Barna.  My husband had read it years ago and shared much of what he learned.  Although I was very intrigued by what he told me, I never bothered to read it for myself until now.  A part of me wishes I hadn’t, because now I’m responsible for what I know and I’m really not sure what to do with my new-found knowledge.

The book examines everything the New Testament tells us about the Church and how it functioned.  And that is very, very different from the Church we know today.  More than half of the book is footnotes detailing where the authors sourced the changing history of the Church as well as comments from modern Church leaders. I was immediately convicted that even though I frequently criticize the Church of Jesus Christ  which looks more and more like the world and less and less like Jesus, I have accepted the status quo for years with very little scrutinization.

Even though I’m well aware that the building I drive to on a Sunday morning is not the Church, I have fallen into the habit of thinking that what takes place there, is.  The authors clearly point out that Church is not somewhere you go, it’s something you are. The first followers of Christ understood this and were much more focused on being in fellowship with one another than having an order of business for their gatherings.  From what the New Testament tells us, they met together in individual homes where they could enjoy a meal together, learn from one another and encourage each other.  That’s it. No church building, no professionally trained clergy, no piano, organ or band, no four-point sermon with an accompanying fill-in-the-blank program, no announcements about upcoming events…it was very simple and very personal.

So how did we get from A to B?  The book lays out the origins of everything that’s been added and most of it is rooted in paganism.  The culture of the first century was completely intertwined with paganism. Ruins that still remain from that time period are completely dominated by temples built for a large variety of gods and goddesses.  These magnificent buildings were filled with priests who served there, night and day.  They performed rituals, some seeming almost magical, while dressed in beautiful priestly robes. They received sacrifices and dispensed blessings, burned incense and led the people in chants or songs.  First and second century people were very accustomed to these practices and as the years went by, they slowly began to creep into the Church. 

No one had a greater impact on this shift than the Emperor Constantine in the 300’s. The first pagan emperor to embrace and even legalize Christianity felt that building large, ornate church buildings would be the best way to build acceptance among the population who had been used to all legitimate religions being propagated through temples. He also instituted the practice of having priests and bishops to lead and determine what activities should take place within the new church buildings. He encouraged them to develop special robes and garments that would set them apart from ordinary believers.  He began to view Jesus strictly as a conquering hero who had conquered death and would now enable him to conquer all of the empire’s enemies. He then made the move from making Christianity legal to making it the official, required state religion.  Those who would not comply were seen as enemies of the cross.  Where following Christ had cost the early Christians everything, it was now, the path of least resistance.

It makes you wonder if Satan didn’t come to the realization that persecuting the Church only made it stronger and he would do much better to weaken it from within. Is it any wonder that the more mainstream and socially acceptable it became, the further it moved from Jesus’ teaching.  Acts 3 describes the early Church this way.  “The congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and abundant grace was upon them all.” By the mid 300’s the Church was state-supported, used to control the masses and justify war against the empire’s enemies.  We also saw this new blending of government and religion lead to the Crusades and later, the  battle between Catholicism and the Reformation.

It's been a long time since Christianity has been weaponized in such a  way, but there are other lasting ramifications.  Have you ever asked yourself why churches need to own property and erect large buildings? Many of them are only used for a few hours on Sunday and only sporadically throughout the rest of the week.  How many financial resources are required to maintain them, and how many congregations have been destroyed or seriously damaged through building campaigns?  Do good things also happen there?  Of course. But so many large churches provide the kind of anonymity that allows people to check a box each week- fulfilling an obligation without really having to interact with anyone or be accountable in any way for what’s been preached. The early Church pooled their financial resources and used them to meet their own needs, the needs of the apostles and those who were suffering from famine or poverty. By meeting in homes, they necessarily kept their numbers small enough to develop true intimacy and hold one another accountable for what they claimed to believe.

The other change that Constantine instituted and has now become a requirement in most churches is a division between clergy and non-clergy.  In most modern churches that I know of, the pastor, or leadership team is made up of full-time, professionally-trained people who have been ordained to minister in the church as a profession. Most have some sort of degree from a seminary or bible college and it’s up to them to determine the church’s mission, practices, order of worship and overall direction. Elders may play a role in some of these areas, but on a typical Sunday morning service, the only people you’re likely to hear from are the preaching and worship pastors.  It’s quite a different environment from the one described by Paul in 1 Corinthians.  In Chapter 12, he lays out all of the spiritual gifts and the importance of each one being used appropriately to complete the Body of Christ. In Chapter 14 he specifically mentions that, “when you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue or an interpretation.” In Colossians 3:16 he encourages the Colossians to allow the word of Christ to dwell in them richly, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.”  Clearly, the members of the early Church were active participants in their meetings, not just spectators as we often are today.

 Here’s what most church services I’ve attended look like:  the worship team gets things started with an upbeat song.  The worship leader, who is likely to be a professional musician, welcomes everyone and may sporadically offer some bible verses, or commentary on what we’re about to sing or a prayer before concluding the praise and worship part of the service and handing it over to the pastor.  Depending on the church’s size, resources and the preferences of its’ leaders, praise and worship can involve an organ and hymns or feel more like a rock concert  with special lighting, professional sound technicians and even fog machines.  The pastor is likely to speak from 20 to 50 minutes and in some cases, may invite a personal response with an invitation to come forward for prayer, or to raise a hand indicating a response or possibly to just silently repeat a prayer he leads. Ushers may pass a collection plate while more subtle churches may suggest that offerings be placed in an offering box on the way out. The worship team may return for a final song or the pastor may simply pronounce a benediction ending the approximately 1 hour and 15 minute service. If you so choose, it’s entirely possible to get through the whole service without uttering a word or interacting with anyone. Most modern church services encourage us to be consumers – seeking out the best music and technology and the most engaging preachers.  As a result, most church attenders go home entertained, but unchanged.

Church attendance and involvement has been an extremely high priority in my life…always.  The only times I haven’t been very involved in a church is when we’ve moved from one to another and those periods haven’t lasted long. I’ve been a choir director, worship leader, creative team member, small group leader, women’s bible study leader, drama ministry director, children’s church teacher and church spokesperson.  I only mention all that to let you know how invested my life has been in the modern church.  But for the first time, I’m asking myself why we do what we do. And if it’s all really what God wants us to do.

Honestly, I don’t know how to feel about it or what God would have me do about it.  There’s no question that it has morphed into something very different from what He described for us in the New Testament. There is a whole home church movement led by those who seek to return to something as close as possible to the early church.  Some function more like what many of us know as a small group, but others are successfully functioning just like the churches described by the Apostle Paul.  Many of you may be fully engaged in a church where you’re growing and deepening your walk with Jesus and other members of your church.  I hope so.  I’ve come to realize from personal experience that the Church of Jesus Christ will never be perfect on this earth because it’s filled with imperfect people…people like me.  But if we seek to make it better and more closely aligned with His purposes, should we just accept things as they are, or instead, boldly question everything? Change is difficult and frightening and uncomfortable.  Just ask the Pharisees how they felt about Jesus’ teaching.

If you’d like to learn more about how the Church has changed over the past two millenia and what possible alternatives there might be, I can personally recommend two books:  the one already mentioned, “Pagan Christianity” by Frank Viola and George Barna, and also “So You Don’t Want to go to Church Anymore,” by Dave Coleman and Wayne Jacobsen.

Thanks for listening to Women World Leaders podcast!  Join us each week as we explore together God’s extravagant love and your courageous purpose.  Visit our website at to submit a prayer request, register for an upcoming event, and support the ministry.  From His heart to yours, we are Women World Leaders .  All content is copyrighted by Women World Leaders and cannot be used without written consent.