We’re going to begin a series of lessons today about the various modern forms of Christianity. As we do a couple of clarifications are worth mentioning.
1. This has nothing to do with OTHER faiths (Judaism, Islam, Hinduism) – just the various forms of the Catholic (universal) Christian church.
2. The point of our study is not to bash other branches of our common Christian tree, and not to criticize or judge the various denominations of those branches.
The purpose of our study is to do a simple analysis of these other churches (little c) and to note their distinctive characteristics.
As we begin I believe it’s important to clarify a few terms and concepts that will come up during the study.
Let’s start with the word church. What is the church? The Greek word ecclesia is used in the New Testament to refer to the church. There it doesn’t refer to a building, but a group of people. The word literally means “those who are called out.” The church consists of those who have been called out of the world into a community of faith – those who God has “called out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).
The next term we need to be familiar with is ecclesiology, a noun defined as “theology as applied to the nature and structure of the Christian Church.” By now you are familiar enough with the Greek language to understand that the word comes from the Greek word we just talked about – ecclesia and the Greek word logia which means “words about, or knowledge of.”
The importance of our study is made clear by the host of issues addressed by ecclesiology such as:
• Who is the Church?
• What is the relationship between a believer and the Church?
• What is the authority of the Church?
• What does the Church do?
• How should the Church be governed? (polity of the church)
• What is the ultimate destiny of the Church? (Ecclesiastical eschatology!)
A few ecclesiastical statements we can make – or discern from Scripture are as follows:
1. The church is a spiritual society, the successor of Israel as the chosen people of God in the world.
2. All Christians are made one in Christ, despite their different origins and backgrounds.
3. The Church is the repository of true Christian teaching.
4. The church gathers the faithful throughout the world together, in order to enable them to grow in faith and holiness.
In recent years (the last 100 years or so) at least three movements have arisen that inform many believers’ ecclesiology.
1. Ecumenism – which means the principle or aim of promoting unity among the world’s Christian churches. Derived from the Greek word oikumene which means “the whole world.” The unity of the church is grounded in the saving work of God in Christ and yet makes allowance for adapting itself to local cultural conditions, leading to the formations of local churches. Throughout the New Testament the diversity of local churches is not regarded as compromising the unity of the church – the church possesses a common calling from God. Paul spoke of this in Ephesians 4:4-6 when he wrote “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of us all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
Today is World Communion Day, a day where we celebrate that diversity within our unity as the body of Christ. We may not look the same, we may not speak the same language, but all believers are the same in Christ.
2. Evangelicalism – which is another movement (in Protestant Christianity) which maintains the belief that the essence of the gospel consists of the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christs’ atonement. Evangelicals can be found in every denomination. They stress the centrality of conversion and of the “born again” experience in receiving salvation. They also emphasize the authority of the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity, and in spreading the Christian message.
3. The Charismatic Movement – which is mainly a 20th century movement. Although there are a few denominations that are specifically charismatic such as the Assembly of God, the charismatic movement (like evangelicalism) often takes the form of a trend within the mainline denominations. It is also a growing presence within the Catholic Church. We will talk more about this in our final session of this series, but for now just know that the movement emphasizes the power and activity of the Holy Spirit, informality, exuberance in its worship (hand-raising), and gifts of the Spirit such as speaking in tongues, miracles and direct personal revelation through the Holy Spirit.
We will learn more about these movements as we discuss the distinctive ethos of each major constituent element of modern Christianity.
Let’s begin with a timeline of the major branches within Christianity. I have a handout for you to look at. It was the easiest timeline I could find that gives an overview of the major branches of Christianity – some of the trees, timelines and charts I found were incredibly complex to the point of being overwhelming.
In general terms it is possible to divide modern Christianity into three broad categories resulting from two major divisions within Christian history. The first such division, known as the Great Schism, occurred in 1054 A.D. This division was the formal separation of the Latin-speaking western churches from the Greek-speaking eastern churches. Today we know these two branches of Catholicism as the Roman Catholic Church, headquartered in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Church, headquartered in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul).
The second division is called the Reformation, or Protestant Reformation was the break between the Roman Catholic church and the so-called “Protestants.” Legend has it that on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther defiantly nailed his “95 Theses,” a list of propositions and questions for debate, to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. We are children of the Reformation which was continued by John Calvin, John Wycliffe, William Tyndale and a host of other early Protestant Reformers in 16th-century Europe.
Of course, the story is much more complex than we will attempt to study in here, but suffice it to say that these two major divisions in the Church (known as schisms) gave us the three main movements we are going to discuss in our study: Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism. Since we are Protestants, we will dig a little deeper into that movement to cover Anglicanism (national church of England), the Baptists, Lutheranism, Methodism and the Reformed Churches (Presbyterians).