Thursday, October 22

A Brief Sketch of Denominational History

Around the time of the New Testament, St. Ignatius was writing about the "Catholic Church," a term the apostles had been using, and one that John the disciple (one of the original twelve) likely taught to St. Ignatius. Why? Because "Catholic" comes from the Greek word katholikos meaning "Universal" or "Whole," so all it means is, "the Universal Church" or rather "The Whole Body of Christ." That is what the early Christians called themselves. We find Christians referring to themselves as "Catholic" or "Universal" a multitude of times in the first several hundred years. In fact, the term “Christian,” although it was first used in Antioch, was often used in the negative sense until many centuries after Christ.

This Universal ("Catholic") Church began when the disciples began going out into each city, electing bishops and ministers. Western Christianity stayed in the Mediterranean area, whereas Eastern Christianity developed more around Syria and elsewhere. But there was also a number of heresies. Much of theology arose as a reaction to or against heresy. Christological views were developed, the Biblical canon was developed and refined, sacramental views changed, and various theologies emerged. It has been said in theology that clarity comes out of confusion, or order out of chaos. As the early Christian movement grew, it took on new ideas, new concepts, and new understandings. Although Acts of the Apostles identifies the early Church as "The Way" it seems that this "Way" was - and is - in a continual ebb and flow progression, development, and discovery.

It was early on that we find heresies such as the Ebionites, the Marcionites, the Donatists, Docetists, Phibionites, Christian Gnostics, and so forth. Many of these heresies dealt with the nature of Jesus - the Ebionites, probably an early Jewish sect, held that Jesus was only man, not divine. Thus, some traditions arose that St. John wrote his gospel in response to these Ebionites. Another group, the Gnostics, held that Jesus was indeed divine, and only that. He sought to liberate humanity from an evil, vindictive deity and bring them into the light of the "true" deity. The Docetists believed that Jesus only appeared to have died on the cross, but in reality did not. The Arian heresy began in the AD 300s and led to the calling of the first official church council, the Council of Nicaea. Many church councils since then were called as a result of theological heresies or issues, such as Nestorianism, Monophysitism and so forth.

Now, one of the common claims against historical Christianity is that “there was Christ and the apostles, then the 'true' church went underground for 1500 years.” Yet this disagrees with historical reality as well as God's work and movement in his people. Very few Christians agree on every doctrine and every debate today, but aside from the different heretical groups throughout the early Church, the Catholic (or if you prefer, “Universal Church” or “Great Church”) was the Church of Christ. It remained constant, and it remained intact. But around AD 1054, the Eastern Church housed in Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) and the Western Church housed in Rome had a massive problem break out between them, and the Catholic Church split in two. Over time, the Eastern Church (Orthodox) began several different branches - the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Syrian Christianity, and so forth. When Christianity enters into a new culture, a new political and social reality, it often interacts with that culture and defines much of how Christianity is practiced within that culture.

So up until AD 1054, the “Great Church” was the primary vehicle for apostolic teaching and carrying on the mission of Christ. Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity then began to develop, and Western (Catholic) Christianity continued its already 1000-year long continuum. About 500 years later, an Observant Augustinian monk from Germany named Martin Luther disagreed with the clerical decision of a Dominican monk named John Tetzl (for the record, so did most Christians), and he began the famous Protestant Reformation. The printing press was developed, literacy increased, and people started reading the Scriptures for themselves. In fact, the goal of learning how to read was in order to read the Scriptures in order to learn how to have salvation.

Following this, several issues came up. Martin Luther taught the ideas of sola fide (Faith alone) and sola scriptura (Scripture alone). He felt that any tradition that had been passed on since the apostles was not necessary, and that if it was not in Scripture, it was not true (hence the modern idea that “it’s not in the Bible, so I don’t believe it” came from Luther’s idea 500 years ago). Then in 1534, due to issues between King Henry and the Pope, the Church of England broke off from the Catholic Church - it became the Anglican Church. The Anabaptist movement started in 1521. The Mennonites began in 1536, the Calvinists in 1555, Presbyterians in 1560, Congregational in 1582, Baptists in 1609, Dutch Reformed in 1628, Quakers in 1649, Amish in 1693, Freemasons in 1717, and Methodists in 1739. 

When the Anglican Church came to the American Colonies in 1789, it became the Episcopalian Church. The Campbells founded the Disciples of Christ in 1827. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) were founded by Joseph Smith in 1830. The Seventh Day Adventists began in 1844. The Salvation Army began in 1865. The Holiness movement in the United States (out of which the modern “Apostolic” and “Pentecostal” movements finally arose) began in 1867. Jehovah’s Witnesses began in 1874, the Church of Nazarene began in 1900, the Pentecostal movement started in 1901 by Charles F. Parham, the Assemblies of God started in 1914, the “Born-Again” movement started in the 1970s in the United States, the Harvest Christian church started in 1972, and the Non-denominational movement began in the 1990s in the United States. And that, in a nutshell, is the historical development of Christian denominations as they exist today.

Now, I am not trying to say is that anyone needs to be Catholic, or Lutheran, or Methodist, or what have you. What I am saying is that we need to live out the gospel, love our brothers and sisters regardless of which Christian tradition they come out of, and learn how to love as Christ taught us to love, and share his grace with others. It means that we are all brothers in sisters, made in the image of God, commanded to love one another. It means that we are all branches of a tree rooted in Christ.

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