A Cynics View of the History of Disciple-making

The adherents of Christian religions include upwards of 2 billion people – almost one-third of the world’s population, according to David Barrett, an Evangelical Christian who is the compiler of religious statistics for the Encyclopedia Britannica.[1] While Christianity began in the Middle East, it is generally considered a European/ American religion. Those areas, however, do not encompass the majority of adherents. More Christians, in fact, are found in the “third world” – those areas that were formerly colonized by various European powers.  The story of the spread of the world’s most prolific religion during the second millennia of Christianity is at least interesting, if not informative of the current political and military efforts of the West, most notably the U.S., seemingly aimed at making converts of another sort – disciples of Western democracy and capitalism.

Eight countries – Portugal, Spain, France, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and Italy – which in total square miles account for 1.6 percent of the world’s land mass, have at various times ruled, or at the least economically controlled, the vast majority of Africa, North and South America, Australasia, and much of Asia. The major similarities of the conquering countries are, of course, the facts that they are all European and Christian nations. Striking dissimilarities exist, however, in the colonized areas, the most obvious one being their current economic status in the world. Australia and North America, along with some other smaller Asian countries, are card-carrying members of the “First World”, while the rest are, at best, developing countries and, more commonly, underdeveloped or “Third World” nations.

While not unequivocally true, one major pattern creating this difference is the intent of the conquering efforts in the first place – imperialism or colonization. According to the dictionary, there is little difference, but in practice the distinction is profound. Both systems seek to gain economic and political hegemony over the territories being conquered but, unlike imperialism, a primary intent of colonialism was to transplant significant populations from the conquering nations. As will be seen, this distinction also had a major bearing on the manner and extent of Christian conversion.

In any discussion of Christian conversion efforts, the Crusades are invariably raised but, for various reasons, this period of time does not rightly belong in this discourse. The efforts in the periods of time discussed later in this paper had conversion as a common denominator, if not as a primary motivator of the campaign, then at least as a significant justification. Despite what anyone thinks of the Crusade period complete with all its atrocities, conversion to Christianity was, at the most, an occasional afterthought. The stated aims were largely the freeing of once Christian lands and people from the perceived onslaught of Muslim occupation. In the process, of course, situations displaying the worst of human nature resulted in myriad examples of carnage, murder, pillaging and mayhem. Some of these resulted in forced conversions by the sword at the threat of death. An example is the case of the town of Worms, lying between the cities of Mannheim and Mainz in the Rhineland, in which 800 Jews were massacred in the name of Christ and the Crusades[2]. Events such as this, as numerous as they may have been, represented the bloodthirsty over zealousness of individual commanders as opposed to activities that were justified by the Church.

The truly imperial or colonial efforts of world powers have not been confined to one specific period of time, but rather can be described as five periods, “the first expansion 1415-1733, the first contraction 1775-1824, the second expansion 1824-1912, unstable equilibrium 1914-39, and the final contraction 1940-1980.”[3] The brevity of this paper necessitates a concentration on the barest essentials for only the periods of expansion.

During the first expansion period, when it was authoritative but not in full control of the secular powers, the church actively instituted missionary efforts.  Invariably these missions were conducted along with, or even leading, military or imperial programs.  The following quotes speak to an attitude that was unequivocally present in the mission efforts of the church during much of the pre-reformation era and beyond:

“Among all the works offered to the divine Majesty & most desired by our hearts, without doubt the most preferable is the exaltation of the Catholic faith & Christian religion which … seek the salvation of souls, the dismantling of barbarian nations & the subjugation of the same to our faith.”[4] Pope Alexander VI, 1493

 “Receive this warlike sword in your always victorious and warlike hands. With this you will wage wars under the most happy auspices; you will subject the enemies of the Faith, as you have done up to now …. may you use your force, strength, and power against the fury of the infidels; may you consecrate, not only your most religious spirit, but also the kingdom itself, and the forces of the kingdom, to the giver of them, to God the best and the greatest, so that having received through this gift the help of heaven in battles, you may bring back abundant spoils and most famous triumphs.”[5] Pope Leo X to King Manoel of Portugal, 1515

 Many mission efforts were motivated in large part by the opening of new economic opportunities and supplies of resources for the church and for monarchies, governments or others favored by or supportive of the ecclesiastical power structures.  In this way, the church has historically participated in the enslavement, oppression and impoverishment of indigenous peoples, as well as the maintenance of such conditions, around the world. Of course, as the language of the quote indicates, the church also perceived this oppressive role as a justifiable tool to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19).  In this way militant evangelism, as legitimized by the Great Commission, continued to be intertwined with imperialism – by using oppression, enslavement and, if deemed necessary, eradication to convert larger populations and control their resources.

The first expansion period also saw the colonization of the North American and Australian continents. The aim was still the control of resources, but the needs were different, at least for the English. While wealth was acquired in the process and conversions made, the primary goal was the acquisition of land and space. London, especially, was overcrowded and contained significant numbers of people that needed either to escape oppressive treatment, usually based on religious ideals, or to be deported for “criminal” activity. Initially, then, evangelization played little or no role in motivating the colonial effort, but simply developed as a result of the immigrants’ transplanted culture or in later waves of religious zeal.

Efforts in the second expansion period utilized a “triple assault” on indigenous peoples, or hand-in-hand cooperation between military and government officials, church missionaries, and merchants, often with brutal results.[6] While not necessarily intentionally intertwined with civil or business interests, missionaries opened many new frontiers for imperial powers by revealing the existence and location of much desired resources. In this period England functioned fully as one of the imperialist nations, along with a new player, the United States. Western hegemony, many times maintained through the same use of oppression and violence as experienced in earlier times, continued to displace and enslave indigenous populations and exploit the natural resources. Economic oppression has had, perhaps, more far reaching implications for the subject countries as attested to by the fact that most are classified as Third World.

The church, according to T. Richard Snyder in Once We Were No People[7], has participated as an enabler or perpetuator of thoughts, actions and beliefs that serve to continue the alienation of many members of society – at times unwittingly and at other times purposefully.  Snyder agrees with Marx in his assessment that the church continues to play a significant role in the maintenance of subservience or superfluousness for the majority of the world’s population.[8]  Unlike Marx, however, Snyder sees hope for the future of the church by its participation in the social arena, as opposed to calling for the dismantling of religious organizations in order to make way for change.

Snyder’s cautious optimism may be well founded, since the church’s participation in the process of imperialism also presented some of the impetus for imperialism’s eventual demise. “That Christianity was an integral part of the triple assault demonstrates the self-defeating nature of colonialism. When products of mission schools cited the Bible chapter and verse to argue that colonialism [and imperialism] ran counter to God’s plan, rulers were placed on the defensive…The religion that inspired Europeans to go out to all the world eventually inspired people in other lands to indict the messengers for behavior contradicting the message.”[9] European colonial efforts also including building schools to educate colonial subjects, in part for economic reasons, but that too had the effect of being an undermining force for imperialism.

In today’s world, in which the United States is more frequently described as imperialist, similar patterns have developed. The US appears bent on transporting its current religion of free market democracy into the whole world by diplomatic means or military might, but is viewed as transparently serving its own interests in the process. Conservative Christianity, inextricably intertwined with Capitalism and the maintenance of the lifestyle of the New Israel, assists, intentionally or otherwise, by designing and implementing mission efforts into desired markets. One example is the development of the Eurasian Mission by the US Agency for International Development[10], in conjunction with Eurasian Baptist Mission[11] and efforts of other conservative and Pentecostal groups, designed to open economic and evangelical doors into the countries of Eastern Europe that became independent after the fall of the USSR.

            One can only hope that Snyder’s optimist outlook can be assessed against the perfidious role of some Christians in the furtherance of economic oppression against the vast majority of the world’s population. Is it too much to ask that the lessons of history would teach Christians to allow the Greatest Commandment (see below) to inform the use of the Great Commission (see below) in the service of evangelism?

The Greatest Commandment – “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” (Matthew 22:37-40, NRSV).

The Great Commission – “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28: 18-20, NRSV).  


[1] Adherents.com, Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents, <http://www.adherents.com/ Religions_By_Adherents.html>, accessed 5/2/03. This listing, used as a resource by many researchers of religious statistics, comes with myriad disclaimers.  Many of the churches represented in the Christian category would not align themselves with each other except on a statistical listing. Barrett maintains, however, that this situation is not limited to Christianity and, therefore, is not statistically relevant.

[2] The Knights Templar, “A Slaughter of Innocents – The Massacre at Worms”, Templar History website,   <http://www.templarhistory.com/worms.html&gt;, accessed 5/10/03.

[3] David Abernethy, The Dynamics of Global Dominance: European Overseas Empires – 1415-1980, New Haven: Conn: Yale University Press, 2001. p 34.

[4] Pope Alexander VI, The Bull Inter Caetera, May 4, 1493, “Resources for Indigenous Cultures around the World”, Native Web homepage, <http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/indig-inter-caetera.html&gt;, accessed 12/5/02. Emphasis added.

[5] Fr. Charles J. Borges, S.J., “Christianity and Colonialism in India”, Goa Today website, <http://www.goacom.com/goatoday/98/may/cstory2.html&gt;, accessed 5/16/03. Emphasis added.

[6] Abernethy, p 245.

[7] T.  Richard Snyder, Once You Were No People – The Church and the Transformation of Society, Bloomington, Indiana: Meyer-Stone Books, 1988.,

[8] Ibid, p.24. 

[9] Abernethy, p 411.

[10] USAID – Europe and Eurasia webpage, USAID website, <http://www.usaid.gov/regions/europe_eurasia/&gt;, accessed 5/14/03.

[11] The Eurasian Baptist Mission website, <http://www.eurasianbaptistmission.com/faqaboutus/&gt;, accessed 5/14/03.

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