The Brief History of Christianity’s Failure to Unify

From its earliest days, the Jesus movement, and then Christianity, were comprised of different, conflicting streams.

Jesus lived and died in occupied Roman Palestine. But Jews who believed Jesus was God’s promised one lived all over the empire. Paul, and probably other itinerant evangelists for Jesus’ Way, went to Roman cities, found the synagogue, and sought to persuade.

Jesus communities formed in many places. One or more house churches of maybe up to 20 members sprung to life. And, as we can read in virtually every book of the New Testament, those small groups of Jesus followers did not agree with each other, either within their communities or from one community to another.

The early Jesus communities were not idyllic islands of unity and peace. They were full of conflict, verged on and went over into division. Paul and the other writers would not have appealed for unity and peace so often if those experiences were abundant. If you extract conflict out of Paul’s existing correspondence with the Corinthians, you’ll hardly have enough words to make a sentence!

We have four Gospels that tell some similar, some overlapping, and some completely different stories. Early Christianity was an effervescent pool bubbling with Jewish beliefs and practices, Zoroastrian influences, Greek philosophy, Roman mystery cults, Manichean dualism, apocalyptic hopes and fears, Gnosticism, and more.

The reception of the Jesus movement differed by region. Conflict between church and synagogue moved to separation.

The new religion was praised and cursed. It was banned, then it became legal, and then at the end of the 4th century reigned as the only legal religion of the empire.

Effervescence and order vied for dominance. Christian communities in the East, in the West, in North Africa, in Egypt, in India developed their own structures, authorities, and practices. The Roman emperor imposed creeds when theologians could not consense. East and West formally split in the 11th century but that split was coming for many lifetimes.

From the 6th century up through the modern era, Catholic orders of men or women religious, both laity and clergy, developed either to advance the mission of the church or to correct its excesses and deficits. Crusaders tried to retake the holy lands from Muslims, or at least to keep knights from killing each other in Europe by sending them on holy wars elsewhere, and to take out some ancient grievance upon the Orthodox East.

Cages of the Anabaptists at the Tower of St. Lamberti Church, Münster, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany (2017)

Then, came the invention of the printing press, the age of discovery that the world and its peoples—the opportunities for wealth and for evangelism—were larger than Europeans thought, the development of capitalism, the maturing of universities, the challenges of secular authorities to the dominating powers of the church, and the nascent nations.

Western Christianity began its long period of splitting into branches: Catholicism, the Church of England, Reformed Churches, Lutheran Churches, and the Radical Reformation Churches that included Mennonites, Baptists, and others responding to the gospel command to “come out from among them and be separate.”

Take all those conflicts, and now export them to the Americas and to the nations of Africa. Oh, and let’s see how many of our Christian heretical opponents we can kill on European battlefields while we’re expanding our wars at home. Answer: Christians in 17th century Germany killed a third of the total population of their Christian opponents on both sides.

In the late 19th century, some Christians tired of the battles especially in mission fields. They began to experiment with cooperating rather than competing. In the late 19th century, the YMCA and Dwight Moody gathered youth from across the US to ecumenical conferences. Missionary leaders called a missionary conference in 1910. Europeans and Americans began “life and work” gatherings to deliberate together about Christian ethics in a world after the “war to end all wars” scared the devil out of them.

Others said let’s compare what we believe and see where we might find common ground and not simply keep looking for how my faith family is different from your faith family.

Then, in the terrifying aftermath of the atomic conclusion of World War II, as the United Nations was forming, leaders from missionary fields, ethics and society, and faith comparisons (mostly Protestant with a few Orthodox) said the churches must work together to help prevent a nuclear WWIII. And so the council of nations which is the UN was mirrored by a council of churches, the World Council of Churches. Going beyond the UN’s imperative, the WCC was searching for the real unity of Christ’s church and what must be surrendered to dissolve all the human-created divisions which frustrate God’s will for a united church and a just and peaceful world.

This world scene of the 1940s was driven by powerful centripetal forces; we must pull together for the sake of the survival of the human race. Except the “we” did not include people of color around the world and developing nations as equals with economically wealthy Western predominantly white nations. The civil rights movement in the US highlighted to the rest of the world a defect, a perhaps fatal defect, in American Christianity. The US war in Vietnam further diminished the status on the world stages of not only America but also American Christians. While Vatican II opened the Catholic Church to participate in the ecumenical movement, and Catholics and Protestants marched together for racial justice and farm laborer rights, the women’s movement divided Catholic from Protestant about as quickly as dialogue opened.

Developing nations freed themselves of colonialism and demanded an equal seat at the table. These struggles are ongoing.

And there we are.

Even though issues such as hunger, disease, and impending climate catastrophe might provide abundant centripetal energy today, centrifugal forces, spinning ourselves away from one another, increase.

I cannot imagine the United Nations, Vatican II, the ecumenical movement, the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Church, or the Consultation of Church Union forming today.

I hear the cries for councils of equals, for equitable representation everywhere, but little satisfaction in their realities. Who is at the table? Whose voices are there and whose voices should be there? Who can represent whom?

How do we achieve a society with enough coherence and enough freedom to function?

I’ve come to believe that our oneness—whether the oneness of a religious congregation or the oneness of our nation—would be founded upon three principles. While religions might contribute to those principles, those principles are not religious.

First, we agree to play the same game. Second, we agree to play by the same rules. Third, we agree to stay at the table when the going gets tough.

First, the same game. If one faction seeks illiberal minority control of a majority and another seeks to uphold liberal democracy with the majority recognizing minority rights, we are not playing the same game. One can’t play football with a baseball or baseball with a badminton birdie.

The game for Americans is expressed in the Declaration and the Preamble to the Constitution: life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, a more perfect union, justice, peace, defense, general welfare.

Second, we agree to play by the same rules. The US Constitution prior to the Civil War and Reconstruction, meaning prior to the 13th-15th Amendments, was a set of rules for a slave holding, white male republic. With those Amendments, and then the 19th Amendment establishing women’s suffrage, the Constitution is a very different set of rules from the pre-Civil War document.

Originalist interpretations of the Constitution that diminish the importance of the Reconstruction Amendments result in different rules from when the courts recognize the full impact of those amendments.

Third, we agree to stay at the table when the going gets tough. When a couple comes to a therapist for relationship counseling, one of the critical first questions is: is this marriage counseling or divorce counseling? When one party believes that other is about to leave the table, what is risked will be much different than if each party believes the other wants to continue to live in the same household, or city, or state, or nation.

Yes, there are legitimate circumstances for leaving the table: an inability to agree on the game or violating the rules to the extent that staying diminishes one’s humanity.

I close with one stanza of a lovely, powerful poem by James Russell Lowell. He wrote the poem in 1845 as a protest against the, in his opinion, misbegotten Mexican-American War. Many Christians will know the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation” that is excerpted from the poem.

Hear Lowell’s pleas to keep looking forward. We will not accomplish what we, as a nation, need to do simply by honoring the past and not also reckoning with it.

New occasions teach new duties; Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward, who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires! we ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key.

It is that last line that pierces me. “Nor attempt the Future’s portal with the Past’s blood-rusted key.”

Among the sources of that blood-rust is Christianity.

Will Christianity also be an element in the forging of a proper key for the future’s portal?

Dr. Gary Peluso-Verdend is president emeritus at Phillips Theological Seminary and is the executive director of the seminary’s Center for Religion in Public Life. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. Learn more about the Center’s work here and about Gary here.

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