A Bit of Church (and personal) History
The church is not an institution, a denomination, a corporation or a building. The word translated “church” in the New Testament isecclesia, which the Gentiles used to refer to a town meeting where citizens would decide local issues, and the Jews used to refer to a people (Israel) set apart to bring God’s love and justice to all the other nations. Jesus combines the meanings when He says: “I will build my church.” (Matthew 16:13-20 – the personal pronouns are emphatic in the Greek: Iwill build MYecclesia.) When Jesus spoke of the church, He painted a beautiful image of the Body of Christ, a group of very diverse people working in harmony to influence the world on behalf of the Kingdom of God.
That’s why God is so emphatic that there be unity in the church. Proverbs says He hates the one who sows discord among the sisters and brothers. Paul urges us to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. John tells us repeatedly to love one another. Jesus said that the only indication that we are truly His children is that we love each other in the same way He has loved us, that is, by self-sacrificing, all-forgiving love. That doesn’t mean we agree on everything – only that we are committed to always be loving and kind.
Our Lord goes on to say that the gates of Hades will not prevail against His church. The picture He is drawing is of Satan’s kingdom being like a walled prison. People are held captive within. We see that all around us – people who are cruelly addicted to drugs, alcohol, poverty, racism, injustice, violence, hatred. But the ecclesia, the church, storms the gates of Hades, tears down its walls and sets the captives free. We do that through prayer and loving intervention to compassionately lessen the suffering of those around us. We put on the whole armor of God (Galatians 6) and we pray in faith.
Setting captives free, bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4), this is God’s mission for the entire church, and it is why Jesus prayed that we would all be one (John 17). He did not mean that we would all belong to the same denomination; He meant that we would be in harmony and unity with each other, showing radical love to the world as an alternative way to live.
The Body of Christ is a beautiful thing. The Bible calls it the Bride of Christ. Look how God has preserved it historically, often in spite of us humans:
For the first three centuries, followers of Jesus lived by the words of Christ. They were heavily persecuted and often jailed or killed. They steadfastly refused revenge or violence of any kind. They refused to pledge any allegiance to Caesar, so they were considered traitors. They turned the other cheek. They refused to kill. They forgave and loved their enemies, practiced radical love and generosity among themselves, and showed amazing charity to anyone in need. And, the church grew like a windswept wildfire through tinder.
Then in 313 AD, Constantine issued the Edict of Toleration that stopped all the persecution of Christians. Constantine marched his soldiers down the river and commanded them all to be baptized. Government officials and pagan priests who wanted to stay in the good graces of their emperor faithfully followed suit. In 380, Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. You can guess what happened. Everyone “became Christian.” But most of those people made no commitment to really follow Christ and certainly did not live by the Sermon on the Mount.
Meanwhile, the church, which now became institutionalized and more formal, modeled after the Roman Imperial Court, had a big problem. Hence, the emergence of an obvious ethical dilemma. Jesus said to love your enemies, but Rome wanted to kill anybody who resisted. Jesus said to give. Rome wanted to get. Jesus said to serve. Rome lusted for power.
So, the theologians went to work and came up with ways of explaining away all the teachings of Jesus and justifying violence, war, wealth and power. The institutionalized church of the Middle Ages became more and more corrupt.
And yet, there were always faithful women and men: The desert mothers and fathers, nuns taking in orphans and ministering to the sick, missionaries spreading the good news all the way to China via the Silk Road. Christians invented hospitals, orphanages, and sanctuaries of refuge.
After the fall of Rome, the eastern part of the Roman Empire continued for quite a few centuries until the Ottoman Turks eventually conquered it. That eastern section was called the Byzantine Empire. Gradually, five patriarchs came to be acknowledged as the leaders of Christendom: the bishops of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome.
Fast forward into the 900s and there is a lot of squabbling and political manipulation, especially between the bishop of Rome and the other four leaders. In 1054, the squabbles erupted into the first big church split. The church that had been the state religion of the Roman Empire split into the western, or Latin, Roman Catholic Church and the eastern, or Orthodox Church.
(“Western” and “Eastern” are Eurocentric terms, referring to the western part of what had been the Roman Empire and the eastern part of what had been the Roman Empire. Meanwhile, another Christian missionary movement known as the Nestorians took the gospel to India, Tibet, China, and Japan. The Nestorians eventually died out.)
So, the Orthodox Church is by far the oldest expression of Christianity surviving today. The Divine Liturgy that is used by Greek, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Russian and other Orthodox Churches is the oldest liturgy known. It dates back to the early years of the Byzantine Empire. (If you have never attended an Orthodox service, be prepared for a unique experience in worship. You may be encouraged to stand up for about three hours of liturgy.)
In 1517, reacting against the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation erupted across Europe. It was not one unified movement, but instead had four major branches: Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican and Anabaptist.
The Lutheran movement started with Martin Luther in Germany. John Calvin in Geneva, Zwingli in Zurich, and John Knox in Scotland gave birth to the Reform movement. The Anglican expression emerged in England, and the Anabaptists originally arose in northern Europe and scattered widely due to intense persecution.
Lutherans are Lutheran. The Reformed churches include the Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed. The Anglicans are called Episcopalians in the United States.
The Anabaptists were the radical reformers of the Reformation. They embraced baptism by immersion of adult believers, nonviolence, simple life, generosity, service, following the Sermon on the Mount, separation of church and state, and allegiance to the Kingdom of God and King Jesus alone. (Sounds a lot like the Christians of the first couple of centuries, doesn’t it?) For their trouble, they were murdered and persecuted by everybody – secular, Catholic and Protestant alike.
Fast-forward a couple more centuries and we come to the revivalists of the 18th, 19th, and 20thcenturies. Major ones, from the perspective of Northern Europe and North America, included the Methodist revival, led by John and Charles Wesley in Great Britain (1700s), the First Great Awakening, led by Jonathon Edwards and George Whitfield in America (1700s), and the Second Great Awakening (19thcentury). The second great spiritual awakening was led by Charles Finney in upstate New York and New England, Dwight Moody in Chicago, Charles Spurgeon in England, and open-air tent revivals in Kentucky.
The Methodist revivals produced the Methodist, Nazarene, and Holiness churches; Moody and Finney are the forefathers of the Evangelical churches; and all of the churches called “Christian” (many around here use water related names, like Rivers, Trees, Streams) come from the tent revivals in Kentucky.
In America, Baptists arose when the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the haven of the Puritans, kicked out Roger Williams. Williams went a bit south, founded the colony of Rhode Island and built the first Baptist church (still there in Providence). Influenced by the awakenings and revivals, Baptists are characterized by four very fragile freedoms:
- Soul freedom (the belief that each person is free to follow God as God leads him or her in unity with Scripture and the local church)
- Biblical freedom (the belief that the Holy Spirit can and will guide and instruct every believer, not just clergy)
- Congregational freedom (the insistence that each local congregation has the right to decide for itself how it will operate, who it will ordain, and so on.
- Religious freedom (freedom of, for, and from religion in society).
Unlike Eurocentric Baptists, African American Baptists have always been outside the power structures and therefore concerned with social justice.
Another big revival swept through the church: the Pentecostals emerged after a revival broke out on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in the early 1900s. Pentecostal denominations include the Assemblies of God, Church of God (Cleveland, TN), Four Square Gospel, and others. The Jesus Movement of the mid-1960s and 70s is a neo-Pentecostal movement, as are many of the expressions of Christianity that are currently taking the global south by storm.
Personally, I am grateful for pretty much all of them.
From the Orthodox tradition, I have absorbed a deep understanding of the cross in which I see God reconciling all of creation to Himself and conquering evil with perfect love.
I love the Roman Catholic emphases on contemplative prayer, deep spirituality, and charitable service to the poorest of the poor. Think Mother Theresa.
The Lutherans recaptured salvation by grace alone; the Reform churches remind us that Scripture is vital and central; the Anglicans gave us the gift of the Book of Common Prayer and some remarkable theologians. Methodists and their kin remind us to live holy lives. Evangelicals remind us to invite others to know Christ, and I love and embrace Pentecostal belief in healing, prayer, and expectation of miracles. And, of course, I appreciate the theological breadth of the Baptists – people of all languages, cultures, ethnicities, and theological persuasions all under one tent. From the Black Baptist tradition, I embrace justice issues and have a heart for the oppressed.
The desire of my heart is to live full-on for Jesus, radically, unreservedly, sold out, living by the “red letters,” the things Jesus said (which are printed in red in some Bibles), especially the Sermon on the Mount. For me, all scripture is vital and God-breathed, but the Bible is not flat, not uniform in its emphasis. “Love one another” carries more weight than “don’t eat shrimp.” The New Testament trumps the Old, and the words of Jesus trump everything.
I came to faith in the Jesus Movement. At heart, I am still a radical neo-Pentecostal Jesus Freak. I am a rich combination of heartfelt traditions and teachings of so many godly, learned and passionate women and men. The first church I belonged to, the seminary I went to, and my ordination were all from an Anabaptist tradition. (Today’s Anabaptists are the Mennonites and various Brethren groups. Anabaptism has also heavily influenced the Amish and Quakers. I was ordained originally in the Church of the Brethren.)
That makes me a radical peace-promoting, enemy–loving, self-sacrificing, simple-living, justice-focused, Anabaptist, neo-Pentecostal, sold-out for Jesus, Red Letter Jesus Freak.
Or something like that.
The ecclesia is not built on Peter. “Peter” means “stone;” Jesus said He would build His ecclesia on a massive rock, namely, the fact that He is the Messiah, the Son of God.