Culture At Large

The messiness of church history -- thoughts for a new year

Nathan Bierma

I took a course this past fall on church history, covering the time from the New Testament up until the Reformation. I got some good exposure to some historical figures that too often get buried in the past (Athanasius, Basil, and Egeria, to name a few--in addition to the big names like Chrysostom and Augustine)—especially for us Protestants, who tend to think that church history started with Martin Luther. But it was also discouraging for me to catalogue conflict after conflict in the Church's first millennium and feel all the ill will among people who were supposed to get along. What follows is an excerpt from my final paper, in which I tried to come to terms with my discomfort.

The messiness of church history frees us from the myth of early purity: the myth that the church was seamless and smooth in its earliest years and that dysfunction set it only recently. No, it has always been this way.

At first, this is disheartening. It was hard to meet such a long line of church leaders who denounced each other, who excommunicated each other, who colluded with the state for political purposes, who led violent military campaigns, and who caused major rifts over seemingly minor theological issues. The volatile councils of Nicaea, Ephesus and Toledo; the spats between Cyril and Nestorious and the schism between Patriarch Michael I  and Pope Leo IX—all the bad blood made it seem like the church forgot its primary reason to exist: to be the body of Christ in the world.

But this historical view of the messiness of church history can also come as some comfort.  First, no one can claim that the church was sailing along smoothly until only recently, as though a certain issue or group introduced discord into an otherwise harmonious choir.  The church has almost always been mired in controversy, always home to divergent views of what it means to live out the kingdom call. Controversy and conflict is not, historically speaking, a departure from normalcy in the church but, in a broken world, normalcy itself in the church. In fact, the messiness of church history testifies to our utter reliance on Christ as the foundation of the church. History has so much to teach us about the futility of grand imperial ambitions and self-reliance among Christians. In reality, the building of the kingdom is gradually advanced in fits and starts, with slips and setbacks, often despite the efforts of Christians rather than directly because of them. This humility can comfort and encourage us today: we know we will not bear fruit by our own

efforts, but only because God works through the church, through all its flaws and failings.

Update: I was preparing to read the New Testament text at my church in worship on Sunday, from Ephesians, and these sentences had special resonance:

You are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith