The Battles of Church History Rage Within
Christianity has produced both witch trials and hospitals; The Inquisition and Saint Francis of Assisi; the Crusades and Mother Theresa of Calcutta. How can followers of one faith produced such consistently inconsistent results?
This question and its various answers through time are why I not only enjoy reading church history, but why I consider some knowledge of that history essential for our contemporary faith. I didn’t always feel this way. I grew up in churches, which didn’t emphasize church history at all. It was as if we had jumped straight from the pages of Acts to the South in the 1960s and 70s. Yet none of our faith was ahistorical. All that had come before us in faith influenced us too. As Pentecostals, we were part of a great and growing stream within the larger flow of the Christian story.
In time, I came to discover the many twists and turns the story of Christianity took from the shores of the Sea of Galilee throughout the Roman Empire and to the ends of the earth. By immersing myself in that story, I discovered the ongoing power within the Gospel that self corrects as we distort it.
Sure there have been times when the Gospel was distorted to justify the slave trade. But that same Gospel already contained within it the seeds of the overthrow. For while the slave owners enjoyed certain parts of Paul’s writings, they had to avoid his letter to Philemon in which he asked a slave owner to set his slave free. They also had to avoid the whole Exodus saga which spoke so powerfully to the slaves who discovered that story. So it was inevitable that Christianity would correct itself and a former slave trader would become a strong voice for abolition of slavery.
Each time we distort the Gospel to serve our own ends, God sends those who speak the truth in love against that distortion. The Inquisition, with its intolerance and cruel punishment, are naturally countered by Saint Francis and his simple Gospel of love. The superstition that gave rise to the witch trials, which occupied some of the best and brightest minds of the day was countered by the founding of hospitals and universities.
Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner has said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.”
And yet, the Christian leader came to see that in ending up with the Bible, they had come out the better for the trade. For while the Bible was used to justify the evil of Apartheid, the Gospel was also the only way that its chains could be broken without violence. Tutu led his people to a peaceful overthrow of an unjust system and helped guide the reconciliation process which made lasting peace possible.
The stories are seemingly endless. We humans distort Jesus’ teachings and God works to correct our course and get us back on the path to life. In stories ancient and modern the battle has been fought to see if we would bend the Bible to fit our will or bend our wills to fit the teachings found in scripture. And this is where I find the greatest gift of Christian History—within my own spiritual journey.
For all the great battles for the faith war within me. The potential for either the love of Saint Francis or the judgment of The Inquisition are within my heart. The potential for either the superstition based witch trials or the self-giving charity of hospitals are also within my heart. All the heresies lie within me, but also the champions for orthodoxy and orthopraxy—right belief and right actions—are within me as well.
Within the Christian story from the book of Acts to this very day I find examples of the faithful which speak to what Abraham Lincoln invoked as “the better angels of our nature.”
I have come to see that even if every single Christian got Jesus’ message wrong, even if we all fell horribly short, the truth of the Gospel will still live on. That truth will live not just in spite of us, but within us. For Jesus’ life and teachings contain within them the seeds for every course correction we will need.
It is when we stop breaking open the Bible to see how it can justify our desires that change occurs. If Christian history has taught me anything it is that those course corrections occur when we stop bringing our desires to the Bible and let the Bible break us open and replace our own distorted wills with God’s will. Even then, we won’t get it perfect, but God will work through us and through history to work all things together for the good.
(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church.)
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526