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The approximately 2000 years of Christianity have been as brutal, violent, and fraught with human failures as any other human endeavor. Historically, the church has been both oppressed by the prevailing society within which it existed, and oppressing during some of the times when it represented the dominant culture. Its checkered and sometimes sordid history has led to the propagation of an amazing number of denominations (and factions within them) that have varying levels of difficulty co-existing due to dogma, doctrine and/or practice. A definitive history of the church is beyond the scope of this document; yet, a cursory examination of the significance history has played in bringing the church to its present state is necessary.
The exact beginning of the church is difficult to define, but many look to the New Testament book of Acts and its description of the church’s birth in Jerusalem at the Jewish festival of Pentecost circa 33 C.E. The modern yearning of some Christians to return to the functions and spirit of the early church exhibits a romantic naiveté in believing that it had some idyllic, unified behavior. It is impossible to categorize the myriad styles found in the early church, which was initially a sect within Judaism, into one reproducible characteristic. Despite the variety of beliefs and practices, however, the church was largely radically different from its surrounding cultures, whether Greco-Roman, Egyptian, or Persian. It actively engaged in a social ethic of servant care for the poor and widowed that stood in stark contrast to its environment – as Paul described it, reversing the order between servant and master (1 Cor 7:22) – turning the world order upside down.
Within approximately 300 years a change occurred that drastically altered the role of the church in the world; Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Shortly it transformed from being an organization in contrast with the dominant culture to being one participating in and, to some extent, defining and controlling the political environment. For some, this symbolizes the “fall” of the church because it became a temporal institution concerned with worldly matters and survival. For others, this time frame represents the church taking its rightful place as a power capable of changing the world. Loren B. Mead calls this transition the birthing of the “Christendom Paradigm” which entailed a gradual shift from the persecuted church at the time of Constantine’s conversion until the point at which church and Empire became one. The first period of the church, from its inception to the time of Constantine, Mead calls the “Apostolic Paradigm.” He observes that during the transition to an Imperial structure, just as in the church’s initial period, times of almost utter chaos existed as the church reordered its understanding of itself and the world.
What is certain is that the church, during the fourth century C.E., became an entity that shifted much of its focus to maintaining its own existence. The church became fully an institution, and moved away from its identity as communities or collections of people. Heretofore the diversity of beliefs that flourished under the general heading of Christianity had tenuous relationships with each other because a truly central ‘ruling’ body had not existed. With the advent of an Imperial Church came a desire to unify belief and control aberrant thought and/or behavior. Councils defined orthodox beliefs, which were somewhat dynamic depending on who held the seat(s) of power, and devised various methods to ensure adherence to the doctrines. Bargaining, coercion, exile and even death (methods that had previously been used by secular powers against Christians) became acceptable ways of maintaining order within the church.
Reform movements have been associated with the church since its earliest days. Many of the early monastic communities arose in protest to practices and excesses that developed and redeveloped. The situation that repeatedly developed was one in which the church, as an institution, was considered too focused on earthly or material matters, while it pressed its congregations to be paying attention to predominantly otherworldly concerns. John Chrysostom, in the late fourth century, wrote of the political intrigue, power struggles within the palace of the emperor and scandalous excesses being enjoyed by priests and laity of the church. He also restructured the finances of the church in Constantinople, selling many of the acquired luxuries of the clergy to feed and cloth the poor, thereby enraging many of the priests. One thousand years later, the Brethren of the Common Life, an order started by Gerard Groote, railed against many of the same problems, including the secularization of the church. Between these two examples and their respective timeframes, history tells of myriad other reform movements that sought to correct very similar patterns of behavior, resulting in a list of dissidents within which almost all Protestant denominations can find their roots – Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Wesley to name a few.
The church, according to T. Richard Snyder in Once We Were No People, 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. This remains true even today. With this heritage, 21st century Christians face a paradox: participation in the economic and political realities of our time while simultaneously challenging them as insufficient and counter to our values.
Parallel to the political development of the church in history is the development of theology. Indeed, the aforementioned reform movements were as much about theological reform as political reform. In considering church growth, therefore, theology is vital to the discussion.
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 The use of C.E. for “Common Era” is used in this document to acknowledge the academic practice of dating in a non-sectarian manner. C.E. is equivalent to the more traditional notation of A.D., which is the abbreviation of the Latin phrase Anno Domini, which translates as “the Year of Our Lord.”
 Loren B. Mead, Once and Future Church – Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier (Washington, DC: The Alban Institute, 1991), 14.
 Ibid, 10.
 Justo Gonzalez, Story of Christianity Vol. I (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1984), 196.
 William Gilbert, A History of the Renaissance, ch. 9, University of Kansas ‘Carrie’ website, yet unpublished, posthumously posted. <http://www.ukans.edu/~hisite/gilbert/text/> accessed 26 February 2003.