My class readings this past week brought us through the “Great Schism” between Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity. This material was fascinating to me because Church history is not taught in the vast majority of evangelical churches (including the ones I’ve attended), and thus they seem to have little appreciation that for hundreds of years, “the catholic Church” (notice the small ‘c’) was simply the body of believers throughout Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, and wherever else the Holy Spirit led these Christ followers when they left Jerusalem following Nero’s (and subsequent emperors) persecution in the first century.
So let’s explore this. Let me stop here and say that what follows is probably overly simplified, mainly because I am still learning and also because I want to present a very simple overview in the limited space of my blog, without getting sidetracked with a bunch of other details. But this is important stuff…in my view, ALL Protestant believers should understand that our history dates back to the book of Acts…not to the Reformation.
As we see through Paul’s missionary journeys in the book of Acts, it was Paul’s practice in the cities he visited to leave the baby churches he planted in the hands of a “bishop” or “overseer” (see 1 Timothy 3, “pastor” in today’s vernacular), to provide spiritual and practical leadership. According to Acts, James the brother of Jesus was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Church history provides the name of the first leader, or bishop in Rome—Peter, one of the original twelve disciples. Besides Jerusalem and Rome, by the mid 300s, there were three other “patriarchal” cities that were significant to the spread of Christianity: Constantinople in modern day Turkey, Antioch in Syria, and Alexandria in Egypt.
As the only first-hand disciple of Jesus in these patriarchal cities, the fact that Peter was the bishop of Rome is significant. Rome (through Peter and later his successors) became the “keeper of the true faith” in terms of ensuring right doctrine and promoting Church-wide polity based on the general foundation laid in the first century Church. However, Rome at this time could not make policy…Church policy was made as a consortium among the bishops of the five patriarchal cities.
But let’s not forget that Rome was also the ruling city (via the emperor) of the entire Roman Empire, and so when the Roman Empire fell in 476, this had a dramatic impact on all of the churches spread throughout the West (i.e., Europe). Their relatively peaceful existence (since Christianity was accepted as an official religion of the Empire) was no more. As barbaric tribes infiltrated Europe, demolishing its cities, Western Christianity suffered tremendously.
Backing up a bit, people being people, there was always some tension between the bishops of the five patriarchal cities. Particularly, the bishops of the other four (Eastern) patriarchal cities were not always thrilled with decisions made in Rome. So it is easy to imagine that once Rome fell, these Eastern bishops took advantage of the chaos in the church in Rome. Animosity among these bishops grew over the years, even as Rome tried to stretch its muscles both politically and missionally. The “Roman church” (the main church body that had been sending missionaries out into Europe for centuries, including the British Isles) got a big shot in the arm when Charlemagne, who united much of Europe as Emperor of the Romans in 800, requested that the bishop (by now called the pope) in Rome preside over his coronation.
Over the next two hundred years, the patriarchal cities that had shared authority within and over the Church (meaning the Christian churches throughout the known world) vied for power. Finally, in 1054, the tenuous seams that had held the Church together for nearly 700 years ripped wide open, and communion was severed completely between the Roman church and the churches represented by the four remaining patriarchal cities, which all happened to be in the East.
While some might claim that the Roman Catholic church has been in existence since Peter became the bishop of Rome, this is not historically accurate. Peter was the head of the “Roman church” as differentiated from the other patriarchal churches…not the “Roman Catholic church.” The true birth of the Roman Catholic church took place in 1054, when the Roman church split from the Eastern churches and formed its own unique identity.
And so, dear Christian brothers and sisters, whether you are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant, let’s embrace the knowledge that we have a shared history that spans over a millennia (before the Reformation)! I think that is pretty exciting. This also means, of course, that we “Western” Protestants do share about 475 years with the Roman Catholic Church, from 1054 to the beginning of the Reformation in 1517 (500 years ago this year!). And again, if we review Church history, there is much in that era to appreciate, as it has helped to shape who we are today. How I desire for all of us to focus on our shared common histories rather than on what divides us.
I will end this post by adding a personal thought. Since its inception with the Protestant Reformation, Anglicanism as a whole (the Anglican church has not been perfect over the years, by any means) has been concerned with finding the “Via Media” or middle road…blending the theology of the Reformation with the beautiful prayers and liturgies that had to that point lasted for fifteen hundred years. From my perspective as a member of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA), the North American Anglican church is still concerned with finding middle ground and healing the wounds that separate us. I LOVE this about the ACNA, and I pray daily that the Holy Spirit will help each of us as Christ followers to find inroads to peace with our brothers and sisters in other denominations.
“They will know we are Christians by our love!”
This is Part 2 of a series.