Unless you’ve been living far away and under a rock somewhere, you’re familiar with Christianity. There’s a chance you may even have been raised in or be a member of a Christian church. But how much do you know about the history of Christianity?
Many of us know about the life of Jesus and maybe the Crusades. But the history of Christianity is far longer and more tangled than that. Read on to discover a brief overview of the history of the Christian church through the ages.
Jesus’s Life and Teachings
Christianity began with the life of Jesus, a man who was born around 4 BCE. He is believed to have been the immaculately conceived son of the Hebrew God and the Messiah who was to save the world from sin.
In AD 28 or so when he was around thirty, Jesus began traveling around and preaching. His message enraged the Jewish leaders, who conspired with the Roman Empire to have him executed between 30 and 36 AD.
Jesus preached a message of love, redemption, and freedom from the constraints of the Jewish law. He spoke of himself as the way into heaven.
Jesus’s followers believe that after Jesus was executed, he rose from the dead. This miracle is believed to have paid the moral debt that humans owed due to our sinful nature and giving all people entry into heaven.
After Jesus’s death and resurrection, his followers began spreading the message of his teachings. One man, in particular, Paul (circa 4 BCE – circa 63 AD), traveled widely around the Mediterranean. He started churches in Thessalonica, Corinth, Phillippi, Ephesus, and many other areas ranging from Italy all the way over to Syria and Arabia.
The early Christians suffered persecution from both Jewish and Roman leaders alike. The Jewish leaders believed that anyone claiming to follow the will of God must also follow Jewish law. They did not agree with Jesus’s teachings that the law was now obsolete and persecuted those who lived by those claims.
Meanwhile, the Roman Empire also didn’t appreciate the Christians’ refusal to honor their gods. Combined with the language Jesus used to refer to himself – the king of kings – the Roman empire viewed the new Christian religion as a dangerous uprising. For centuries after Jesus’s life and death, being a Christian was punishable by death.
The Conversion of Constantine
Christianity reached a turning point with the conversion of Constantine, the Roman emperor from 324 to 337. Some people believe that Constantine saw a vision on the battlefield that converted him to Christianity. Others believe that he saw the power the Christian movement was gaining and chose to bring that group into the fold rather than continue to fight a losing battle.
In either case, on his deathbed in 337, Constantine was baptized and issued the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity. Several years before in 325, Constantine also organized the Council of Nicaea. This gathering of church leaders solidified the core tenets and holy books of Christianity.
Between the Council of Nicaea and the Edict of Milan, Constantine forged the Christian church into an organized religion.
The Beginnings of the Catholic Church
Once Christianity was legalized, the church began to take on more official organizational roles. In 380, Emperor Theodosius I declared Catholicism to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. The Bishop of Rome was set up as the leader of the Catholic church, which at the time was synonymous with the Christian church.
After the fall of the Roman Empire in 486, factions began to split between the Eastern and Western Christians. In 1054, the Catholic church split for the first time.
The 1054 split formed the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. This division led to many years of arguments over who was the real pope and rightful leader of the Catholic church.
Beginning in 1095, the Roman Catholic Church decided they needed to take Jerusalem back from the Muslims who currently ruled it. Jerusalem is a holy site for Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and the three groups spent centuries fighting over who got to control it. The wars in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were called the Crusades and were the most concentrated efforts of Christians to take over Jerusalem.
The Crusades lasted until 1230, and during some of that time, the Christians were able to occupy Jerusalem. But in the end, they lost the wars and Muslims retained control of Jerusalem. However, the Crusades did help to forge the Catholic church into a wealthy, powerful organization on the world stage.
The Protestant Reformation
By the sixteenth century, the Catholic church had grown corrupt, and leaders within the church began to call for change.
In 1513, a German monk named Martin Luther published the 95 Theses. He protested the actions of the current pope and challenging the idea that the church was the only avenue for people to commune with God. His ideas sparked the Protestant reformation, a splitting of the Catholic church that lasted through most of the next century.
The Protestant Reformation saw persecution similar to what had happened in the early days of Christianity. Protestants were killed when Catholics were in power, and vice versa. By the time the wars ended, the Catholic church had splintered into several more denominations
Today, there are more than forty different Christian denominations worldwide. The Catholic church remains the dominant denomination, with more than 1.285 billion members worldwide. The various Protestant denominations, which include Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and more, account for another 920 million followers. And the Eastern Orthodox Church has about 270 million followers.
Modern Christian values vary widely among, and sometimes within, different denominations. Today the primary dividing issues revolve around social and political issues. But no matter their differences, on Sunday morning, millions of churches across the world alike hold church services.
Learn More About the History of Christianity
The history of Christianity is filled with violence, corruption, and revolution. It’s the story of humans trying to follow the will of a God whose messages can sometimes cause confusion. Knowing where the Christian church came from can help us understand the mistakes that have been made in the past and avoid them in the future.
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