A Little Church History

Posted on February 1, 2020


How about a bit of “breaking” news to start our read today, kind of like all the network mavens dishing out the news to us each morning, afternoon, evening and night. Bad news never seems to end.

“America at the start of the twenty-first century was prosperous but morals were low.”

Or, how about this one: “People [are] lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy,  without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God—having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.”

Sounds like today doesn’t it?

In fact, I drew the first quote from the beginning of an article in a recent Christian History Institute online but substituted “America” for “Europe” and the “twenty-first” century for the “fourteenth.”[1]

And the second quote many of you will recognize was written by the Apostle Paul to his young follower Timothy about two thousand years ago (2 Timothy 3)

Continuing with the first article. “Ordinary people hungered for authentic Christianity, and several associations had arisen to meet that need, including the persecuted Waldensian movement and the Franciscan and Dominican orders.”

Sound familiar? The reference to the Waldensians and the Franciscans and Dominicans is a bit dated, but both Catholic Orders are still around and very much part of the Catholic Church religious structure.

And, “in the Netherlands the desire for authentic Christianity found expression in mysticism, the attempt to form a direct relationship with God through the spirit.” Have you heard a “spirit-filled” life mentioned or extolled in many, but most certainly not all, modern churches as a way of getting back to basics?

In fact, these efforts at restoring Christianity to its roots led a century later to the beginning of the Reformation championed by Martin Luther, beginning with the publication of his 95 Theses in 1517.

The Brethren of the Common Life founded in the 14th century promoted a direct relationship with God through the spirit, commonly understood then. as today, as the Holy Spirit. The Brethren devoted themselves in their houses to reading Scripture, living in the manner of the early Christians, sharing their goods in common, and devoting themselves to prayer and works of charity. The Brethren houses espoused free education, to make reading and writing available to both rich and poor, always emphasizing the Gospels, the early Church fathers (Paul and others) and practical skills.

Some of the more famous leaders in the subsequent Reformation, such as Thomas a Kempis, author of The Imitation of Christ, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and Luther himself had been influenced by the Brethren and Waldensians.

What has this to do with today’s church?

The earlier Waldensians, Franciscans, Dominicans and others felt estranged, and even betrayed, by the great Papal state that had risen around the Papacy. The magnificence of Rome, the great cathedrals, the rituals, and much corruption and concubinage among prelates and church leaders surrounded by so much wealth and power had pushed the Church, many reformers thought, far away from its roots so clearly described in Scripture.

The eruption of the Reformation was a direct response to the worldly Church. Luther’s clarion call was sola Scriptura, or “Scripture alone” as the source for Christian belief and practice. For example, he roundly condemned practices such as the sale of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins as an erroneous usurpation of the true meaning of forgiveness in Scripture.

With equal persistence has been Christianity’s almost predictable straying over the centuries from Scripture and accommodating to the world we all inhabit. This phenomenon is sometimes called the cultural captivity of the Bible, or Christians accommodating the church to the worldly culture of the times, whether in the fourteenth century, the early eighteenth century (think the First Great Awakening in America), or today.

Furthermore, periodic reforms in the Church have marked the history of Christianity ever since it came into existence 2000 years ago with the life of Jesus and especially through the teachings of the Apostle Paul.

The modern church, surrounded and very much part of the fabric of modern culture, has in many ways capitulated to the prevailing ethos and practices of our world. Reformers beginning in mid-twentieth century America championed a return to the foundations of Christianity as represented in Scripture.

Perhaps the most famous evangelist of our modern age was Billy Graham who spoke to millions and almost always invoked this phrase to drive his preaching, because “the Bible tells me so.”

In today’s digital universe virtual reality competes with reality for our attention, opioid addiction is rampant, suicides common, common civility and courtesy rare. The list of afflictions includes abandonment of Scripture to pandering to easy fixes in the realm of politics, social mores and the economy. Everything for everybody now. That’s not what Jesus taught.

The solution is both simple and complex. Turn to Scripture for the truth but don’t be surprised if it challenges you deeply to accept God’s will rather than your own.

[1] Christian History Institute online, https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/it-happened-today/8/20

Published as “A Little Church History” in the The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, Dec. 1 2019