Where are we?
I think this is a great question to ask if the “we” that we are apart of has any kind of goals or purpose. This question can serve as a self-evaluation as well as to determine if we are on course to achieving those goals or fulfilling those purposes. But an important aspect of determining where we are is to first determine where we have been. So where has the Church been in the past and how have we gotten to where we are today?
My guess, based on personal experience, is unless you have studied Church history in your own spare time or took classes on it in college, chances are you probably do not know much about it.
The same went for me. Before going to college, I knew nothing about Church history and I never cared to take the time to study it on my own. I grew up in church my whole life and yet was never taught anything about our Christian heritage. I had no idea where we as a Church had come from or how we got to where we are today. Now I’ve only taken two classes on Church history and only read a little bit more apart from that, so I am no expert on this by any means at all.
So in order to talk about where we are today, we have to first look into the past and take a quick look at where we came from. For the sake of time and unfortunately at the cost of fidelity, I’ll briefly journey through some Church history, which sadly, is not going to do it justice.
Studying the Early Church is very interesting, especially the persecution they endured and yet they continued to thrive and spread like wildfire. If someone honestly believes that Christians in America have it rough when it comes to persecution (even though we’re some of the most privileged in the world), then they should study the Early Church.
The persecution and execution of Christians were sporadic and localized at first. There was no agitation from the public to give the Romans any motivation to carry out this persecution. However, the early Christians were very secretive in their rituals and times of worship, which contrasted with the rest of the Roman empire in that their religious rituals were accustomed to public display. Due to their secrecy, Christians raised the suspicion of the Roman empire quite frequently, especially with the rumors going around that Christians were cannibals and committed acts of incest. Rather, the general public simply did not understand what the Eucharist was, or why all Christians called each other “brother” or “sister,” including their spouse.
It was not until 64 A.D. that Nero became the first Roman emperor to call for Christians to be executed. After a great fire broke out in Rome, which most historians are certain that Nero secretly ordered himself, he conveniently turned to blame the Christians for the destruction after he noticed that many Jewish and Christian residents had not been burned down. He used this excuse to bring Christians into the city of Rome and have them tortured in various ways for entertainment. It is believed that the apostle Paul was put to death under emperor Nero during this time.
Other notable emperors that were heavily involved in the persecution of Christians as well as other religious minorities were Domitian, Decius, and Diocletian. Historians have said that it was Diocletian that brought about the worst period of persecution to religious minorities in the Roman Empire’s history. They all had their own unique approaches to persecution, but their means of persecution all came out of the emperors’ desire to restore Rome to its past glory.
During this time of persecution, the Church was also wrestling with what it confessed to be true and what it did not. The Church did not have an official doctrine at all since everything was all so new. It did make sure to combat blatant heresies along the way though during this time of persecution, such as docetism (the belief that Jesus was not actually a human, he was a spirit that looked like a human), gnosticism, and the belief that the Old Testament was to be disregarded.
Then came along Constantine as the emperor of the Roman empire. Under his rule, things changed drastically. In 313, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which finally legalized Christianity.
After this edict, the Church was finally able to come out of hiding and come together to discuss what they should all affirm together. The most important councils were to come, and as far as I know, every denomination today accepts the first seven ecumenical councils. These councils consisted of theologians and bishops in the Church from all over, and they came together to meet and discuss what it was that they should confess to be true together.
The first council did not occur until 325, and it is referred to as the First Council of Nicaea, which emperor Constantine also attended.
It had been nearly 300 years at this point since the time of Jesus, and it was not until these councils that the Church began to discuss what it was that they confessed as true in regards to these new concepts, such as the nature of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity.
In the First Council of Nicaea, the main issue that was discussed was the divinity of Jesus. It got so heated at one point, that Saint Nicholas walked across the room and slapped Arius. Arius believed that Jesus was not co-eternal with God the Father, but the other side won out and determined that Jesus was homoousious (of the same substance) with the Father. The original draft of the Nicene creed also came out of this council.
The next six councils were equally important in determining what the Church should confess. They concluded things such as Jesus was both fully God and fully human, Jesus is not two separate persons living in one body, but one being, and the virgin Mary was Theotokos (Mother of God). They rejected ideas such as the divine and human natures of Jesus were blended into one single nature, monothelitism (the view that Christ has two natures but only one will), and other Nestorian teachings. They also restored the veneration of icons, images, and symbols as well as approved of the Nicene Creed.
As a whole, the main topic of most of these first 7 ecumenical councils dealt with the nature of Jesus Christ and how he was both fully divine and fully human. We take these basic theological statements about the person of Jesus Christ for granted today, but when we study Church history, we see how much work people put into studying these things and the passion they had to give us these basic confessions we have today.
Yet from the beginning of these councils, there was already a hint of divisiveness. It was not solely because people disagreed in these councils, but because at times, sides were taken and the conversation became more about winning and losing rather than working together (kind of like politics today).
Through these councils, there emerged two ways of thinking, the East and the West, with a few dissenters in between. The West is represented in the Roman Catholic church, while the East is represented by the Eastern Orthodox church. And although they had two separate leaders, the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople, they still considered themselves to be one church (the fact that they had separate leaders would contribute to the future divide between them). Things only got worse when a man named Photius declared all of the West heretics because they added one word to the Nicene Creed. So there was already this tension building up between the East and West before the Great Schism of 1054.
It was during the time of the Holy Roman Empire, when they were being raided by outside forces, that the East and West refused to help each other out, even though the two leaders had a substantial amount of military power during that point in history. Pope Leo IX sent a letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople requesting military aid. He sent Cardinal Humpert as his representative, but Humpert had other ideas. And in 1054, Humpert, instead of delivering the letter, placed on the alter of Hagia Sophia (a former basilica) a bull of excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The Patriarch then in turn, excommunicated the Pope, who ironically, had already been dead for a few months by the time this took place.
It was evident that there was going to be a schism between the East and West eventually. They had already been slipping in and out of unity quite frequently up to this point. But this event, known as the Great Schism of 1054, changed things and became the first official schism in Church history.
Several centuries later, most people know the story of Martin Luther pinning the 95 theses on the door of the church and how this is regarded as the initial catalyst to the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther had no intention of splitting the Church apart further, he only wanted to discuss the corruption involved in the sales of indulgences and a few other clerical abuses that were widespread in the church. Nonetheless, there was another split, and more division continued to happen rapidly as shown in the chart below.
There are over 33,000 denominations worldwide. Now you can take that statistic with a grain of salt depending on how you might personally define “denomination.” The person who wrote the encyclopedia discussed in the article, defined “denomination” as, “an organized aggregate of worship centers or congregations of similar ecclesiastical tradition within a specific country.” These 33,000 denominations compose the 300 major ecclesiastical traditions of the Church. Based on the current trends and numbers today, and given the same definition for “denomination,” by 2025, it is believed that we will have reached 55,000 different denominations.
No matter how you might personally define “denomination,” numbers like these are very troubling and discouraging.
Here’s another depressing statistic in my opinion. There are over 35,000 non-denominational/independent churches in America alone. 35,000 churches working independently from any kind of larger body of the Church.
I do not even know where to begin in talking about unity in the midst of such a splintered Church such as the one we are facing today.
Allow me to bring some of these numbers closer to home. My hometown, Circleville, Ohio, home of the Pumpkin Show, has a booming population of 13,000 people. Circleville has 46 different churches (and 4 Subway restaurants) in this tiny town.
Within these 46 local churches, there are 18 different denominations and 6 non-denominational churches apart from those 18 denominations. All of these different churches, for the most part, are working separately from one another to grow their own individual churches within this small community. They are fighting for the same people in order to grow their numbers.
This Cannot be what Christ Envisioned for the Church.
What happened to One Body?
What happened to Christ being the unifying factor?
What happened to Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3:28? “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Somehow we’ve missed the point. Somehow we are still struggling to figure this out together. Somehow we’ve forgotten that Christ unites, not divides. Listen to Paul’s words in Philippians 2:1-8 as he writes from prison to the church in Philippi:
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”
So where can we start? I think one thing we can do is to start emphasizing commonalities rather than differences. If we were to truly stop and think about it, the idealogical differences in the Church are really not that different from each other compared to the different viewpoints present in the rest of world.
And if we wanted to take things a step further, we could take Paul’s words to heart and “in humility value others above yourselves.” And that includes their idealogical differences. That is the only way true discussion can begin to take place and true change can result – through humility.