This article traces the history and evolution of Christianity as it spread from its early Jewish form to various parts of the world.
Contrary to common beliefs, traditional Christianity as taught by most churches is in many aspects not what was taught by Jesus and the early disciples. Careful study of the Bible will show that several strands of beliefs are intertwining in its pages – some reflecting early teachings and an alternative form of Christianity.
It is a well-documented fact that the New Testament wasn’t finalized until the 4th century. At that time the church was recognized as official religion and came under the control of the Roman Emperor Constantine with the pope and a hierarchy of clergy under him. Because of different strands of Christian beliefs coexisting side by side, several church councils were called by the Emperor for the purpose of enforcing unity. More often than not, doctrines were established in bitter debates. There was never just one opinion on such matters as the nature of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit. However, the idea that most of the attending clergy agreed with became the official orthodox doctrine sanctioned by the Emperor. At the same time, other ideas (equally or more valid) were branded as heresies. As time went on, the popes and cardinals of the state-controlled Roman Church also introduced non-biblical, even pagan, ideas, such as the Trinity, celibacy for the clergy, purgatory, indulgences (payment for supposedly shortening time in the purgatory), and others.
While the Bible asserts in many places that Jesus’ blood washes away sins, satisfies the demands of an “angry God”, and redeems humanity from eternal suffering, even this was not in the original teachings and writings of those whose names are on the books. Having come from Jewish backgrounds, the idea of drinking blood and eating flesh of their Savior would have been utterly abhorrent based on their Old Testament upbringing. (More on this later.)
Rather, what happened in the development of the New Testament Scriptures as they stand now is that those who allegedly reproduced the originals (now no longer in existence) added and took away ideas according to their own understanding and motives. As a result, false teachings have been introduced. The ecclesiastical writers and editors under the authority of Emperor Constantine, who wanted to use the church for his own political purposes and control, also benefited. Indeed, the clergy gained temporal powers far in excess of those that would have existed under the teachings of the early church.
Beside the church in Rome under the jurisdiction of Constantine and his successors, a differing strand of Christianity existed in the East (Turkey, Syria and spreading as far as China at one time). These Christians felt they had retained the original teachings of Jesus and his disciples and called themselves Orthodox. Besides these, numerous other groups, often persecuted by the official church, gathered for worship at different places with their own understanding.
As Christianity spread to various parts of the world, it changed the prevailing culture, but also adapted itself to it – sometimes absorbing untruths and elements of paganism. In the 16th century, a few courageous men, aware of the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, stood up and demanded reform. The best-known are Martin Luther in Germany, Ulrich Zwingli in Switzerland and John (Jean) Calvin, originally from France, who fled to Switzerland from Catholic persecution. But, while they agreed that the Catholic Church needed change, they significantly differed on what the reformed church should look like.
With time, a sizable Protestant movement developed as a result of the reformation attempt. However, with the Scripture having become available to the lay people, whereas before only the clergy dictated approved dogma, interpretations multiplied. Groups continued to split and there are now thousands of different denominations and sects – each believing they have the truth and that they interpret the Bible correctly.
What do I see as the answer to this dilemma of almost overwhelming choice and even confusion? I have come to believe that no church is ideal or perfect (being made of humans, it cannot be). By the same token, no church will teach exactly what each individual believes. Therefore every person needs to find a group where they feel comfortable worshiping and fellowshiping with others of like mind, bearing in mind the above-mentioned limitations.
One key Protestant doctrine in contrast to the Catholic belief is that salvation needs to be worked out by each individual – it is not in the power of the church. Each person is responsible for their own relationship with God and their own salvation. (See the article, Humanity to Divinity.) With that in mind, let us all walk with God to the best of our ability, live by the Golden Rule and Jesus’ commandment of love one another, read widely, and hold on what sounds true to us – what speaks to our heart and develops our soul in God’s Divine Love.
© 2015, Eva Peck
Photo: Alex Peck