Institutionalism or experiencing Jesus–my take on church history (Part 1)

The history of Christianity is about the struggle between religious institutionalism and experiencing Jesus. The persecution of the first three centuries kept institutionalism to a minimum. There were no church buildings because they would have put unnecessary targets on Christians’ backs, so they had to meet in secret, underground gatherings instead.

Whenever organizational structure began to creep in, persecution would mess it up. If a leader began to dominate and control, the attention on him could get him arrested, tortured, and killed. Thus, early Christianity was mostly focused on individuals following and obeying the living Jesus and connecting with each other heart to heart.

That all changed in 311. Religious institutionalism rushed into Christianity like a flood. Roman Emperor Constantine released the Edict of Milan that proclaimed religious toleration and ended government persecution of Christians. (A later Emperor made Christianity the official religion of the Empire.)

Constantine became a strong advocate for Christianity. He called for and oversaw Empire-wide religious councils that helped to ignite a wave of institutionalization and formalism that began to organize, structure, and program Christianity, pushing personal experiences with Jesus to the side.

Constantine began to favor Christianity. He would confiscate pagan temples and give them to Christians who turned them into church buildings. Free from persecution, ordinary Christians were placed under a hierarchy of titled Christian leaders who made authoritative decisions about how to organize the religious institution that they were calling church. When they formally established the office of the “Bishop of Rome,” they modeled it after the power and prestige of the office of Roman Emperor. Over several centuries that office gained control over the Western church. Whoever held that office became known as the Pope.

On July 16, 1054, the Pope excommunicated (kicked out) the Patriarch of Constantinople (the leader of the churches in the Eastern Roman Empire) and split organized Christianity into two huge religious denominations. The Patriarch of Constantinople also kicked the Pope out of the churches he led. The church in the West called itself The Roman Catholic (universal) Church. The church in the East called itself The Orthodox (right doctrine) Church. Both groups closely allied themselves with secular human government.

The Catholic and Orthodox churches kept dissent to a minimum (often persecuting, with government help, individuals and groups who wanted to follow Jesus rather than blindly following church leadership). They also tried to minimize the effect of people who wanted to experience and follow Jesus, by trying to keep them away from passive and submissive church attendees. They encouraged them to go and experience Jesus in secluded places. Many went to the deserts of Egypt and became known as the Desert Fathers. Some lived alone. Others established monasteries where they could experience Jesus in small groups.

Those Christ-seekers were still considered to be part of the two huge institutional denominations, but they were mostly separated from ordinary church people. Many of them had incredible experiences with the living Jesus. Some people would seek out monks and hermits for prayer and often they would experience miracles. To further distance the monks and hermits from ordinary Christians, the two denominations began to give the most spiritual of them the title of Saint and to exalt them and their experiences with Jesus, implying that they were far beyond the possibilities of ordinary church attendees.

The Catholic and Orthodox churches were able distract most people from personally and radically following and obeying the living Jesus. They kept their institutional control mostly together until 1517. That period in the West was known as the Dark Ages. Then a German monk, who had personally experienced the grace of God in his own heart, nailed a list of 95 things that he thought were wrong with the Roman Catholic Church to a church door and greatly stirred things up.

Today Martin Luther is seen as a hero by most Protestant denominations and independent churches. However, if anyone dares to criticize them, they seem to quickly get offended. The Catholics were no exception. They took great offense at Luther, excommunicated him. and even tried to kill him. A German prince took Luther into his castle and hid him from the Catholic authorities. While there, Luther translated the Bible into German. The Western church was trying to keep the Bible inaccessible to people by keeping it in Latin or Greek/Hebrew.

The German people rallied around Martin Luther and broke away from the Catholic church. Rather than encouraging people to seek the living Jesus, Luther quickly organized them into another institutional church and began to focus more on order than on experience with Jesus. This quick re-institutionalization by the first Protestant Reformers promptly led to the Radical Reformation. It was a spiritual movement led by the Anabaptists, people who wanted to experience Jesus and obey His teaching in their daily life and who wanted to avoid religious institutionalization. When they came to Germany, Luther advocated persecuting them, even to death.

Here’s Part 2: Reforming an institutional church doesn’t change human hearts–my take on church history (Part 2)

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About Steve Simms

I like to look and think outside the box. In college I encountered Jesus Christ and I have been passionate about trying to get to know Him better ever since. My wife and I long to see the power and passion of the first Christ-followers come to life in our time. I have written a book about our experiences in non-traditional church, called, "Beyond Church: An Invitation To Experience The Lost Word Of The Bible--Ekklesia." If you need encouragement, search for: Elephants Encouraging The Room and/or check out my Amazon author page. Thank you!
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1 Response to Institutionalism or experiencing Jesus–my take on church history (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Reforming an institutional church doesn’t change human hearts–my take on church history (Part 2) | Free Gas For Your Think Tank (A blog to jog your mind and unclog your heart . . .)

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