Some cults, sects, and schismatic groups believe and teach that the Christian church pretty much disappeared after the apostles died. They also say that the church then came back with their group or leader. For example, Mormonism teaches that Joseph Smith (d. 1844) “restored” the church after around 1800 years of darkness. Alexander Campbell (d. 1866) also led a restoration movement in the United States in the early 19th Century.
However, the historic Christian and biblical teaching is that there always has been a people of God on earth – and there always will be. Francis Turretin (d. 1687) summarized it this way:
“The orthodox with great unanimity teach that there always was and always will be on earth some church of Christ and that its perpetual existence is not contingent (so that it can altogether fail), but clearly necessary….”
Here are some biblical truths Turretin uses to support this historic Christian teaching (which I’ve edited for length). The perpetuity of the church is proved:
1) Because it is the body of Christ (Eph. 1:23). The body of Christ cannot be torn away from him and will last as long as even the head itself, which cannot exist without the body. Christ has betrothed himself to the church and loves her with perpetual love; he will never leave her but rather perfect her and present her spotless to God (Eph. 5:26-27).
2) By the nature of the covenant of grace. Since the covenant is eternal and will never be abrogated according to the sacred oracles (Is. 59:21; 61:8, Jer. 31:31-27, etc), it is necessary that the church, which is the other covenanted party, should perpetually continue.
3) From the nature of the divine promises. God’s promises assure the perpetuity of his presence and grace to the church in the world, since Christ promises ‘to build his church upon a rock, and that the gates of hell shall not be able to prevail against it’ (Mt. 16:18). Christ asserts that whatever the efforts of Satan to oppose the church, whatever the power of death and the grave, still they will never totally overthrow the church because it is built upon an eternal and immovable rock. Christ said, ‘I am with you always, even to the end of the world’ (Mt. 28:20).
4) From the office of Christ the Mediator. Christ’s mediatorial office is perpetual in three ways: a) as to his kingship and kingdom, which are eternal, b) as to his priesthood, since he is a priest forever, and c) as to his prophetic office, which includes calling and preserving his people by his word.
5) From the continual presence of the Holy Spirit. Isaiah 59:21 is where God promises that his word and Spirit would not depart from his people. Christ promised the same thing in John 14:16: ‘[the Father] will give you another Helper to be with you forever.’
6) From the experience of all ages. It can be shown that both in the Old Testament and in the history since that God has always had a people on earth. Neither the plague of Arianism nor the persecution of the Roman emperors wiped out the church. It is evident that the church has not failed in the past, and it is fair to infer that the church will never perish in the future.
7) From the causes conserving the church. Satan cannot conquer the church, because Christ has triumphed over Satan (Col. 2:15). The world cannot destroy the church, because our faith is the victory that overcomes the world (1 Jn. 5:4). The immutable purpose of God, the merit and intercession of Christ, the power and protection of the Holy Spirit are assurances that God will protect and keep his people on earth.
The teaching that Christ’s church disappeared for a time is an unbiblical, unchristian teaching that contradicts God’s decree, his love, Christ’s work as Savior, and the Spirit’s work as sanctifier and preserver. Thankfully, Christ will even defend his church from being destroyed by heresy, as the hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” says:
The church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord to defend,
to guide, sustain, and cherish
is with her to the end;
Though there be those that hate her,
and false sons in her pale,
against or foe or traitor,
she ever shall prevail.
The above section of Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology can be found in volume 3, pages 42-46.