SEVEN LESSONS FROM CHRISTIAN HISTORY
Recently I finished reading a large, one-volume epic History of Christianity. No, I’m not talking about Professor Diarmaid MacCullouch’s monumental (and monolithic) A History of Christianity [http://www.amazon.co.uk/History-Christianity-First-Three-Thousand/dp/0141021896], which I have seen recently on a number of shelves including my DPhil supervisor’s and which I would like to read one day, but rather the very funny, more popular and accessible A Nearly Infallible History of Christianity [http://www.amazon.co.uk/A-Nearly-Infallible-History-Christianity/dp/1444750127] by writer Nick Page [http://www.nickpage.co.uk], which I was given as a gift.
A few things struck me as I was reading this broad overview of the story of the church. So here are seven lessons from Christian history that I’ve learned, the things that really jumped to me offered from my own personal perspective, in case they are edifying or interesting to anybody:
1. Christianity is still growing.
Beginning with present history, there are more Christians now than there have ever been before. More people are becoming Christians now than ever before. Christianity is still growing. It’s still the most popular faith today; 2.3 billion people call themselves Christians. Of course, there is an enormous variety of commitment and idiosyncrasies within that 2.3 billion, and a much smaller number will really have given their lives to Christ or even attend a church. And of course, just because something is widely believed, this in no way makes it true (though I think the longevity, universal applicability and adaptability of Christianity is a reason for people to sit up and take notice of it…). However, at the same time, it’s encouraging to me at least that the Church is still increasing, the Christian good news is still being made known to new peoples throughout the earth, and the Kingdom of Heaven is advancing. Christianity is not dying, it’s not on the way out. Just because in this corner of the Enlightened European West it appears to be flagging somewhat at the moment, this does not mean the global picture is the same –indeed it seems that the centre of Christianity is currently shifting to the global South and East, with South America, Africa and China currently experiencing booming Christian revival.
2. Between the New Testament and about the fourth century, something went really wrong, in some places.
Zooming back from the present day and scanning much earlier into the sands of time, it seems that quite early in the church’s story something unhealthy and distinctly un-Christian set into parts of it, which were unfortunately the parts that got lots of press (much like today?). Early Christianity involved everyone sharing everything in common and looking out for one another, and meetings seemed to largely focus on worshiping God, scriptural teaching, prayer and people prophesying over one another to build each other up. Leaders were something close to democratically elected and were called to serve the church rather than lord their power over people. Oh, and the church was heavily persecuted, which must have served to catalyse its growth and sustain its purity. When and by the time Christianity becomes institutionalised, legalised and made the state religion, many mainstream church leaders are squabbling over theology, beating up and persecuting one another, and end up hankering after positions of authority because of the human status, wealth and power that go with them, which they then abuse. What a mess. I love the New Testament picture of church, by distinction. It’s beautiful. It’s the Church I want to be a part of, looking through lots of the paraphernalia and junk that it has often been obscured by.
3. ‘Pentecostalism’ and ‘social justice’ are not new. As such, they’re here to stay.
Even in light of point 2, there seem to have been parts of the church that have kept going with the Real Deal, including in the pursuit of supernatural demonstrations of God’s love and working with the poor, oppressed and needy. Neither of these things are new. For a start they are biblical, as Acts and the New Testament are full of signs, wonders and miracles, the gift of tongues and profound experiences of the Holy Spirit as well as care of widows, orphans and the poor and outreach to the marginalised, sick and helpless, often all at the same time. I think it’s a brilliant thing that there are now such things as a global movement called ‘Pentecostalism’ and a recognisable trend in modern churches that puts emphasis on ‘social justice’. But it is my conviction and contestation that these things have nonetheless been preserved faithfully by different Christians down the ages and that their current expressions are actually re-ignitions of essentially Christian practices. I think that occasionally this can be glimpsed in the lives of some Christian heroes who are remembered by posterity (see below), but that there must have been other saints who were un-prominently getting on with these things while the ‘official’ church leaders that get recalled in the history books were often mucking around with corruption, dissolution and violence and getting the main share of the infamy.
4. A lot of horrific things have been done by the ‘church’ in the name of Christ.
Yes, this is obvious and horrendously sad. ‘Christian’ wars. The Crusades. The Inquisition. Torture. Exploitation. Theft. Murder. Rape. What a relief that Christians don’t worship the manifold human institutions that call themselves ‘church’, but rather we worship Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said that not everyone who would use his name would really be acting in accord and relationship with him. He said that, at the end of time, “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:22-24). The horrific words and acts of many who call(ed) themselves ‘Christians’ do not undermine the goodness, beauty and truth of Christ.
5. There have always been whackjobs.
Equally obviously, yes, there have always been people who call themselves Christians who have completely lost the plot (the plot being the Grand Metanarrative of Christian truth which is the fundamental reality in the Universe) and sometimes amassed huge followings, usually making a large amount of money and living completely immorally along the way: Cult celebrities predicting the End of the World and promising safety if you give them your bank details (because those are going to useful after the apocalypse, right) as well as completely ignoring Jesus saying in the Gospels that he won’t come back until all peoples have heard his good news and that even he wasn’t sure when the Father was going to have this happen. Wily heretics propagating a dangerous mixture of biblical truth and utter garbage, which always somehow sneakily includes some sort of denial that Jesus was fully eternal God and fully man and which, oh, look, can usually be traced up to the top of pyramid where someone is making an enormous amount of cash. Or just your run-of-the-mill hate groups that misinterpret Jesus’ and the Bible’s very real judgment of and statements on sin as free license to go around attacking people and being abusive towards them. None of this is new, in fact it’s all tediously unoriginal and will go on until the Second Coming, according to the New Testament. But the same things as for point 4 apply: Don’t let this colour your vision of Christ, who is marvelous and terrible in his majesty and wrath against such things.
6. There have also been some total heroes in Christian history down the ages.
More positively, and expanding on point 3, there have been some people who are true inspirations and role models throughout history that have actually sought to live in a way much closer to the authentic life of Christ. Usually these people, as well as being steeped in the Bible, have also had the healthy combination of emphases on God’s supernatural miracles and caring for the poor as well, not to mention the fact that they were usually heavily persecuted too. Some of my favourites include: St Francis of Assisi, St Dominic after whom the Dominicans are named, St John Wesley, St William Booth and St Smith Wigglesworth. Some who are still alive today include St Billy Graham, St Jackie Pullinger, St Heidi Baker and St Brother Yun. It’s not all doom, gloom and misery! There are some real examples for us to look to in history to learn from, and who model to us the fact that their lives were themselves modeled on Jesus. Let’s go and do likewise!
7. Really, no hero is perfect –except Jesus. And no church is perfect –except the Church.
At the same time as the above, is really important that we don’t idolise these heroes of the faith above the Saviour or ever trick ourselves into thinking that any of them were completely perfect all of the time. One thing that really struck me in this regard on reading the book was Martin Luther’s views on Jews i.e. his anti-Semitism. An important reminder that no Christian hero or church leader or human is perfect. Everyone has blind spots. I know I have blind spots. I have no idea what they are, but I’m sure I have them. Biblical figures all had them too. As is well rehearsed, Noah was a drunkard, Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer and a murderer, Elijah was depressive, Solomon was a polygamist, Peter was a coward, Paul was a mass-murderer, the apostles squabbled among themselves, and so on. Only Jesus nailed it. Literally. Similarly, no church is perfect. There are always going to be flaws, weaknesses, blind spots, in the different human expressions of church, no matter how close to Jesus’ teachings they are. But the Church, ah, the spiritual Body of Christ made up of all those who genuinely belong to him and obey him, who have been redeemed by him and are being made perfect by him and at the end of time will be joined in spiritual marriage to him…wow. That’s perfection. Again, perfection that comes from Christ. Keep your eyes on him, not on all the human stuff that is called or calls itself ‘church’.
In case anyone’s interested, to finish I append Page’s own longer 12-point list of ‘things you learn from Christian history’ that he gives at intervals throughout the book. I imagine this can only help his sales, but if the original author or Hodder and Stoughton ever come across this and want me to take this bit down, they only have to say.
‘Things you learn from Christian History’ according to Nick Page, author of A Nearly infallible History of Christianity:
1. It’s the resurrection, stupid (Christianity’s core business is resurrection).
2. All traditions have to start somewhere.
3. Christianity and [political/human/dominating] power do not mix.
4. Sometimes it’s hard to work out who the barbarians are.
5. Always be suspicious of really virtuous sounding names and titles. Variant: Never trust anyone called Innocent.
6. All reforming movements end up needing reform. Variant: Holy men are nearly always, in some way, betrayed by their followers.
7. Heresy is any theological speculation which is not the official theological speculation. Variant: A heretic is someone who is wrong at the time.
8. If you encourage people to think for themselves, they will.
9. Without love, it’s all just noise (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
10. Not everyone welcomes revival (revival movements are always criticised by some).
11. Just because you shout louder, doesn’t mean you’re right.
12. Nothing is ever really new.