Archives For History of the Church

We spent the last two posts reviewing an article entitled “The Six Worst Things About American Christianity” from RedLetterChristians by Steven Mattson. Now that I have had a few days to digest these words I want to turn the article’s six points around to imagine them as lessons we U.S. Christians should learn. Here they are:

1) We must realize that no one has an exclusive connection with God  —  Much of what we know about early Christianity is the result of  a scribe writing down Christian stories that had been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years and even those original manuscripts have been lost to us. What we have now are copies of copies. Men throughout the ages have been penning their interpretations of what those original messages might have been.  This almost infinite list of opinions spreads from King Constantine and his council and Augustine in the fourth century to Luther and the other reformers in the 16th century all the way down to thousands of theologians at work today.

We must realize that none of these various man-made beliefs about God are without error. They might have been inspired by God but they were without question, even to the literalist, penned by men. The best thing that could happen to U.S. Christianity is that we would finally quit our “us” vs. “them” mentality of the various opinions of Christianity. We need to go back to kindergarten and learn to play nice with others. We need a little less bravado and a lot more humility.

2) We must not confuse our dedications to Jesus’ teachings and our political affiliations. — Neither U.S. political party at its roots are Christian. They are both mainly power based organization currently just wanting to force their worldviews on each other. The early Christians were very aware that God’s kingdom is not of this world. We need to re-learn those lessons. Don’t allow your Christianity to be hijacked for political purposes.

3) Christianity is counter-cultural — Christianity is not like the latest fad that is determined by our current cultural trends. We in the U.S. live in very shallow lifestyles. The teachings of Jesus are often very counter to what we endear in this country.

4) We don’t hold a “special” status with God — We in the U.S. have got to get it out of our minds that somehow God loves us more than he does others. God has agape love for all of his creation and by definition that is an infinite amount for each of us. How can some of us have more than and infinite amount of God’s love?  We may be the current biggest military and industrial force in the world and therefore have more than our say in what goes on in the world but that does NOT infer special status with God.

5) Remember, we Christians are meant to “march to the beat of a different drummer”.  — Jesus clearly told us again and again “don’t cling to your stuff”.  We in the U.S. are totally obsessed with consumerism. That is clearly not where Jesus wants us to be.

6) There is no such thing as a “power-hungry” Christian. — Jesus told us to have a servant mentality, not a master; that is very different from the U.S. culture teaches us. For us Christians it should never be about control or influence but instead about loving and caring.

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Before I start on my study of the history of the church I want to do an “aside” post here on another topic.

I just read a very thoughtful post over at Rachel Held Evan’s blog about mysticism and evangelicalism. In it she was commenting on a book by Tim Challis about how mysticism, which he defined at any experiences with God outside of the Bible, as not being valid. I am not going to get into his arguments to back up this belief nor Rachel’s counter to it. Click on the link above to see all that.  Instead I am going to talk about how Mr. Challis and many evangelicals I have encountered to have thoroughly dismiss the pope as a mediator between man and God but then turn around and put the Bible in that position.

I personally have been on both sides of the Catholic/Protestant divide so I think I have an understanding of some of the differences. I spent the first 20 years in the Catholic church in one degree or another. I went to the first seven years of schooling being taught by nuns and priests. During that time I learned that man can’t interact directly with God as he is just too holy for our sinfulness.  Instead we had to count on the parish priest for our daily interactions with God and for the Pope for the really deep understandings.

Even during those years I felt uncomfortable with this idea. We received communion  on a regular basis but at that moment when the bread wafer turned into Jesus it was over the hunched shoulders of the priest ruling over the mass.  We just weren’t allow to be part of that transformation.  When I was an altar boy I occasionally tried to sneak a look at just what was going on but never saw anything I thought was miraculous about it. I just couldn’t understand why I needed someone else to talk to God for me.

As was typical I turned away from all things religious during my college years. I occasionally dabbled in the RCC but only very tepidly. When I was about to get married I had my first encounters with those people outside the “real” church. THose who call themselves Protestants in one form or another. The flavor I was involved with were Lutherans. I must admit that many of the things with Lutherans and Catholics are very similar. They have basically the same liturgy and beliefs with most things but definitely not when it come to the Pope. I can’t number how many times I heard very harsh words about the pope in my Lutheran circles. I was embarrassed by this almost hatred because I couldn’t understand it coming from  Christians.

In reality I have come to realize that Lutherans and I expect many other Protestants have simply moved from one mediator to another. They take all authority away from the pope and put it on the document created under the tutelage of King Constantine in the fourth century. Of course that document is the Bible. While the Bible contains very inspiring writings passed down from generation to generation before being penned it is not the sole presence of God in the world today. To say that God quit instructing us how to live and love more than 1600 years ago is to take power away from him.  And I am just not one to do that…..

One of the underlying assumptions is that money from the offering or tithe belongs to the church. But the Scriptures consistently teach that the offering is God’s instrument of redistribution and that it belongs to the poor. Giving to the poor should not make its way into the budget; it is the budget. One could argue that small portions of the Israelite offering (no more than 10 percent) was given to the Levitical priesthood (Neh. 12:47), and that in the early church an even smaller contribution could be given to the church’s itinerant evangelists, who, incidentally, were themselves poor (1 Cor. 4:11). But it is not a coincidence that the first major organizational structure in the early church was created to assure order in the redistribution of resources to widows and orphans (Acts 6:1 – 6).

So historically, church offerings were part of God’s economy of redistribution, and over 90 percent was to be given to the poor. We live in an age when we have nearly reversed what God set in place. An average of 85 percent of the church offering is used internally, primarily for staff and buildings and stuff to meet our own needs. And this borders on embezzlement, as theologian Ray Mayhew points out in his essay “Embezzlement of the Church: The Corporate Sin of Contemporary Christianity.” No wonder most churchgoing Christians give only less than 3 percent of their income to the church and find other ways of giving money to the poor.

Claiborne, Shane (2008-09-09). The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical (Kindle Locations 3015-3025). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

I have made it known in the past that Shane Claiborne is one of my heroes. He lives out his faith in an inner-city church called “the Simple Way”.  The book from which the quote above came has a place on the back of my desk reserved for those I consult on a regular basis. As one of the reviews for the book mentions Shane is on a genuine search for the authentic church. That has basically been my goal that founded this blog more than four years ago.

One of the most embarrassing things to me when I was attending a small Lutheran church was to see so little of my weekly offerings actually going out into the community. As a matter of fact there really was practically none of it used for that purpose. The vast majority of the money collected by this small congregation of about forty families went to pay the clergyman’s salary. What was left was for the mortgage on the building and utilities. There was literally nothing left except the expected 10% tithing back to the  national bureaucracy.  When I pointed this out on more than one occasion there was for the most part a silence in the group.

I, like Shane mentioned above, reserved a good portion of my charitable giving to go to an organization that directly dealt with the poor.  It seemed shameful to spend almost all that tax-free money on ourselves. It almost seemed like we were embezzling  God.  It was not until after I left that congregation that I learned that this is more or less the norm for most churches today. Very little gets beyond the church’s doors.

Banner - Aside 2

I am only now beginning a serious but somewhat sporadic study of church history but even at this point in my study it is clear that the church has remained silent about many moral wrongs of the times.  The most notable in recent history is the holocaust.  Millions of Jews were being sent off to their deaths by Hitler and the church for the most part remained silent.

By their silence they were indirectly condoning the moral wrongs. When there is hatred and moral wrong being committed on any in our society the church of Jesus Christ must speak out against it as Jesus himself did. But lets face it, silence in the church is notorious.

Another example is the slavery and the later Civil Rights era in our country. While Martin Luther King was marching throughout the South to end segregation most of the church was silent. Some even condoned segregation as being biblical. They said the bible told slaves to obey their masters. Many passively stood by while racists burned church after church in southern states.

I recognize that many in today’s church are of the ultra-conservative brand who adamantly resist change. They will do anything to maintain the status quo as change is just too frightening to them. Unfortunately many have hooked their churches up with the radical right political agenda of our times. This link is proving to be detrimental to the fabric of the church. They are quickly losing tomorrow’s members as a result of this attachment. They are even losing seniors such as myself who don’t see the words of Jesus in their actions.

I want to believe that this type of silence is due to human nature instead of the soul of the church. Many are just too afraid to attack the problems of the times. It seems that when personal wants and needs are thrown opposite of the foundations of the church the foundations end up with cracks.

Are You Saved???

April 10, 2013 — Leave a comment

If Grace is trueOccasionally people knock on my door or hand me a tract on a street corner or strike up a conversation with the aim of asking, “Are you saved?” Even before I believed in the salvation of every person, I always answered with an enthusiastic yes. Often, rather than sharing my elation, my inquisitors would look me up and down with a dubious eye and ask another question. The second question varied depending on the person. Many asked, “Have you repented of your sins and accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior?” Some asked, “Do you belong to a Bible-believing church?” Others asked if I’d been fully immersed or baptized in the name of Jesus or filled with the Holy Spirit and spoken in tongues. My salvation hinged on how I answered their second query. Those most aggressive about determining my salvation were also most certain what it meant to be saved. They knew the sole formula. Claiming to be a Christian was never enough. I had to subscribe to their specific explanation for the human condition, the activity of God, the means and purpose of salvation. If not, I faced damnation.

Gulley, Philip; Mulholland, James (2009-03-17). If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person (Plus) (p. 155). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

We humans, and that includes everyone who is or has ever been in the church, put so many conditions on God’s grace where he seem to have put none. Putting an emergent twist on this topic, this has been the case for most of the church’s history. One theologian believes “X” and another believes “Y”. If they aren’t overpowered as a heretic then the church’s belief becomes “X+Y”. Over the ages this has resulted in a belief code that is almost as long at the U.S. tax code.  Much about the church has become what to believe rather than what to do.

I spent several years trying to sort all of this out. There are literally hundreds of published theologians around today and I studied many of them. In some ways they are kind of like expert witnesses at trials.  If you just look enough you can find one who will testify as the the truthfulness of whatever you want to believe. During those years of study I became overwhelmingly frustrated in trying to discern what God was really like. It was not until I heard a whisper telling me to not be concerned about what the theologians said  but instead to listen with my heart and soul.

At that point I learned a valuable lesson and that is that God just can’t be defined by human logic or understanding. Mine or anyone else’s. The theologians throughout the ages are simply men like you or I who have an opinion which they hope will garner them some authority with the body of Christ and praise from men.  They like everyone else want to leave a legacy behind so they make up this or that rule or belief to add to all the others before them.  Do they do this with a belligerent intent? For the most part I don’t imagine so.

As a result we, as one of the 39,000 different versions of church, have piled belief and rules one upon the other where God had put only two. As the quote above inferred every version of Jesus’ church they have the sole formula for salvation. God in the person of Jesus made it pretty simple and that is to love God with everything you have and to love your fellowman. It couldn’t be simpler than that.  Why have we allowed so many since Jesus’ time to pile on so many other things?

Am I saved? If I believe in the agape love and grace of God then I can give you an emphatic yes as an answer. If I live by the piles of accumulated beliefs that answer is not so simple. I think I will choose Jesus’ simple words instead of man’s complicated ones.

What matters to those who look to history for important lessons is that something was lost in the fourth century that permanently changed the nature of Christianity. If we do not recover that spirit of loyalty to the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount as opposed to saluting the Nicene Creed, the decline of the church will continue. If we persist in arguing across our theological divides in a perishing world, then the church deserves its fate. If we cannot reverse the move away from praxis and toward doctrine that was sealed by Constantine, the church will become, and deserves to become, the relic of another age.
It was post-Constantine theologians who gave us the doctrine of original sin (an inherited disease for which the institution that makes the diagnosis also claims to have the only cure) and the blood atonement, the belief that Jesus came to earth solely for the purpose of dying for our sins, a doctrine not fully developed in the church until the tenth century.
Are we born bad and must be saved, as conservatives assert, or are we born good, as liberals maintain, but have forgotten where we came from, where we are going, and to whom we belong? Was the death of Jesus on the cross necessary for the salvation of the world, or is this the ultimate form of Child abuse?

The words above are from a book entitled The Underground Church by Robin Meyers. I must admit that this book along with the book by Harvey Cox entitled The Age of Faith have fundamentally changed my perception of what the church should be. The words above were an “aha” moment for me. When I discovered that much of what I thought was from Jesus but in reality came many years later from man it changed my perception of what being a follower of Jesus really meant.

When I took the time to study early church history it opened my eyes to some truths that were hidden from me and from so many others today.  When I realized that for the majority of its history Christianity has been in a constant conflict about its theology it made me realize that some of what I am told to just take as truth may actually just be the version that won out in a previous church conflict.

As the quote above states a major shift happened in the Church when Constantine changed it from being groups throughout the empire who followed the words of Jesus to a State mandated religion it changed the church in a very basic way. The power that came along with this dictate was corrosive to the church leaders and thinkers.   In order to rescue the church from the mistakes made during these periods we must get back to the pre-Constantine  church.  Simply parroting the doctrine of past theologians will no longer hack it with many who are looking for a more spiritual foundation for their faith.

The emergent movement that is taking place today within the church says that it is ok to believe that some of the things from past leaders could have been wrong hearted. It is ok to say we don’t fully understand the heart of God. In other words it is ok to say that we and all those who preceded us are human beings with human foibles and weaknesses and just may have gotten some of it wrong. That inevitably include the past leaders and theologians. Yes, even the popes.  I’m sure even Martin Luther would agree with that last part….

What is Heresy??

December 16, 2012 — Leave a comment

Many people throughout church history have been put to death because of heresy. But, just what is heresy? That is what this post will be about. Many church leaders have charged others with heresy many times in its history. The most recognizable instances are the inquisitions, post-Constantine period, the Crusades, and of course Galileo and Joan of Arc.  Of this list I am the most familiar with the post-Constantine period. It is estimated that about 25,000 Christians were put to death for heresy during the two centuries after the Roman King Constantine made Christianity a State religion. That number far surpasses those put to death by the Romans in the Coliseum.

Let’s look at the definition of heresy:

1.  opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, especially of a church or religious system.

2.  the maintaining of such an opinion or doctrine.

3.  Roman Catholic Church . the willful and persistent rejection of any article of faith by a baptized member of the church.

4.  any belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs, customs, etc.

Harvey Cox in his book The Future of Faith tells us that heresy is a man-made invention that came about many years after the first Christians.

In the last few decades, however, all these assumptions have proven erroneous. The following are now evident. First, there never was a single “early Christianity” there were many, and the idea of “heresy” was unknown. Second, it was not the apostles themselves, but subsequent generations who invented “apostolic authority,” and both creeds and hierarchies emerged much later than had been thought. Third, an essential key to comprehending the earliest Christians, including those who wrote the New Testament, is to see their movement as a self-conscious alternative to the empire that tyrannized them. And the best way to understand the succeeding generation of Christian leaders is to notice how they reversed course and gradually came to admire and emulate that empire.

It turns out that heresy is almost exclusively about beliefs and has nothing to do with “being” a Christian. Why does this problem between beliefs vs being crop up so frequently in the church?  I think much of it has to do with the power structures built up by the church and of course the egos that go along with  that power. No, the church is not exempt from the old saying that Power corrupts and absolute power absolutely corrupts. Throughout its history the Christian church has had a very vertical hierarchy. As a result almost all change comes from the top down. Grass roots change is very rare among any Christian church structure both before and after the Reformation.

Since God is obviously not in the refereeing business, or he would have taken care of this long ago, he leaves it up to us to work out. Obviously we are not good at it at all! Too many egos in play. It just seems difficult for Christians to allow diversity of beliefs to exist in Jesus’ church

More about that in the next post.

This post is about the fourth great rummage sale and that is the “Great Emergence”. In this post I am only giving you a small taste of the emergent movement In future posts we will look at just what the Great Emergence is and where it is going.

Lets start off this post again with some words by Phyllis Tickle in her book The Great Emergence:

The Great Emergence, like the Great Reformation or the Great Schism or the time of the Great Gregory or the Great Transformation, is a generalized social/ political/ economic/ intellectual/ cultural shift. Like its predecessors, this one too is a phenomenon initiating in the Western experience; though unlike the preceding reconfigurations, the Great Emergence is not limited to the Western world in its expectations, expression, or exercise. It suffers also from an unfortunate confusion of terms that its predecessors did not have to surmount.

As pointed out above the cultural trends that are pointing to the Great Emergence are spread far beyond the religious realm. Another important point made by this book is that this rummage sale, unlike those in the past, is not limited to just the western world. In fact many African and South American nations are at the forefront in this transformation. That in itself is very frightening to many of us here in the United States.

There is much trepidation in some current Christian denominations when the words “emergent church” are discussed. There is almost a panic among some as they see their spiritual life being extinguished.  It should be pointed out again that as in the past the Great Emergence is not about shaking Christianity off its foundations but instead is about opening the blinds and letting new, and some not so new, light in.

Anyone who has read some of my posts of the last few months know that I believe the emergent movement will take the church back to its roots of “Being” instead of just “Believing”. In other words it will take us back to our roots but this time with a twenty-first century understanding.  I will have much more to say about this in coming posts.

Lets close out this post with, again, some word from the book The Great Emergence.

One of the hallmarks of the Church’s semi-millennial rummage sales has always been that when each of the things was over and the dust had died down, Christianity would not only have readjusted itself, but it would also have grown and spread. Never has that principle been more operative than now. In the hands of emergents, Christianity has grown exponentially, not only in geographic base and numbers, but also in passion and in an effecting belief in the Christian call to the brotherhood of all peoples.

I am very aware that I have probably not began to cover the questions you might have about this movement.  We will be getting to more of those in future posts. But for now I will be going on to some other topics, including the most important thing of all and that is the words of Jesus. 

I think most people, especially those who call themselves Christian, are at least a little familiar with the third great rummage sale in Christianity which was the Reformation.  I will only give a very brief look in this post. Martin Luther, a monk with an incredibly low self-image, started it in 1517 when he nailed his list of 95 complaints about the workings of the church on the Wittenberg church door.  Martin’s initial goal was to try to turn the church from corruption of its day. But, due to bruised egos he ended up causing the second great schism in the church.

Luther would not be the only person who would separate from the catholic church; many more would follow.

  •  John Calvin in 1534 followed Luther in forming his own church. Whereas Luther decided that the most important part of the bible was that we are saved by grace alone and works don’t really matter, Calvin went even further to believe that God simply chooses certain people to give his grace and everyone else is doomed to an eternal agony regardless of how they lived their lives or what they chose to believe.
  •  Ulrich Zwingli would started a Swiss reformation in 1523.
  • The Anabaptist movement began in 1525.  They did not favor church bureaucracies such as pope and bishops. Like most of the reformation proponents this group would later split into many others arguing over doctrinal and beliefs differences.
  • In 1523 King Henry VIII  split due marriage issues around wanting to marry Anne Boleyn. He started the Church of England
  • John Knox started the Scotland reform in 1559
  • In 1608 John Smyth baptises the first Baptists. He fixated on the method of baptism for his split.

Over the centuries many others would jump onto the separatist bandwagon. Of course splitting over interpretation of sacred documents and other such things continues even now. It is believed that there are now over 39,000 different versions of Christianity in existence today.

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Next time we will be talking more about the rummage sale that we are now engaged in. This time around some are basically trying to reassemble the church around actions rather than man-made beliefs. The emergent movement has some exciting possibilities in that regard.

Let’s close out this post with another visit into the book The Great Emergence  by Phyllis Tickle. This time about the coming age:

Now, some five hundred years later, even many of the most diehard Protestants among us have grown suspicious of “Scripture and Scripture only.” We question what the words mean— literally? Metaphorically? Actually? We even question which words do and do not belong in Scripture and the purity of the editorial line of descent of those that do. We begin to refer to Luther’s principle of “sola scriptura, scriptura sola” as having been little more than the creation of a paper pope in place of a flesh and blood one. And even as we speak, the authority that has been in place for five hundred years withers away in our hands. “Where now is the authority?” circles overhead like a dark angel goading us toward disestablishment. Where indeed? 

The Great Schism is basically when the Christian church split in the Roman Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This happened around 1054CE.  What had once been a single church slowly separated into two distinct identities.  Most of the differences that caused the split were almost nit-picking about what to believe and had little or nothing to do with how to “be” a Christian. This shows us that the belief vs action dilemmas have a long origin.

  • The Eastern Church (Orthodox) used Greek as its language; The Western (Roman) Church used Latin.
  • Eastern clergy could marry and wore beards; Western Clergy  were celibate and were clean shaven.
  • The Western church added the “Son” to the Nicene Creed; the Eastern church deemed that heretical
  • The Eastern church refused to recognize baptism performed in Western churches.

The differences between the two churches seemed less essential but at the heart of the matter was power. This split, like the one that would occur during the next rummage sale five hundred years later was primarily a battle between two large egos.

In Rome Bruno became Pope Leo IX.  In today’s terms he would be considered a fundamentalist. He immediately launched a program of “moral and theological” reform. In order to prevent priests from automatically passing their positions on to their children he banned all priests from marrying. (I always wondered the initial reason why Roman Catholic priests are celibate.)  Bruno sought to free the Roman church from outside controls.  He chose to consolidate power under his leadership. Given the experiences following Constantine taking over control of the church six centuries previous he had good reason to seek this reform at the essential re-birth of the church.

Meanwhile Michael Cerularius, the new bishop of Constantinople, refused to recognize Bruno as pope. He closed all churches in that city that were loyal to the Roman bishop. He treated envoys sent from Rome with total disrespect. The final blow that caused the schism was the Crusades where Roman crusaders sacked Constantinople which was the “Rome” of the Orthodox church.

With this schism the Christian church for the first time became two churches with different theology, doctrine and practices.  But in looking forward to the third rummage sale it would not be the last time a split primarily caused by power conflicts would arise.

Before we move on to the third rummage sale caused primarily by Martin Luther I want to step back a little and bring in another quote by Phyllis Tickle from her book The Great Emergence:

 It is especially important to remember that no standing form of organized Christian faith has ever been destroyed by one of our semi-millennial eruptions. Instead, each simply has lost hegemony or pride of place to the new and not-yet-organized form that was birthing. 

In other words, we should not fret that the coming emergent church movement will shake the church from its foundations.  When we eventually move from a church primarily focused on “beliefs”back into a church about “being” it will strengthen the church not destroy it.