What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done;
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Church history really intrigues me and leaves me with loads of mixed emotions. By church history I mean the timeframe since Jesus ascended into heaven until yesterday. Having been born and raised Pentecostal until I got drawn to the Anglican liturgy and found solace and hope there, I have had a somewhat front row seat into the ‘veiled’ evil and wickedness of man that church leaders have and continue to perpetuate in God’s Name, standing on God’s Word.
I neve cease to be amazed and aghast at how throughout history, church leaders prostituting with the political and wealthy class have colluded to defraud, merchandise and mete violence against their followers and followers of Jesus Christ. Two main reasons for this unholy alliances seem to be the recurring motivation: Money (is it a wonder that the Bible explicitly tells us that the love of money is the root cause of all evil) and Social acceptance (closely intertwined with a desire to maintain the status quo). On this duo alter, throughout church history, church leaders (mostly men) have figuratively and literally set ablaze anyone within the church who dared question them or go against them and their selfish corrupted interests.
Jesus vs. the Religious leaders of His Day
Well, just before the era of ‘Church History’ a Man walked on the face of earth, specifically in first century Palestine. This Man, was called Jesus. We are told from the Biblical accounts that He was born in Bethlehem of Judea and lived in Nazareth until he was 30 years of age. After that for three years he went about the region of first century Palestine proclaiming in words and actions that the Kingdom of God was here. Well as you can imagine, there was mixed reception to this Teacher who was disrupting the status quo. While the poor, the marginalized, the seekers, the sick and dying, the needy and quite a bit of the rich and educated class was attracted to Him and His teaching; the religious leaders would have none of it.
If you read the account of the four synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) you will see how Jesus, the Son of God and the Son of Man was vilified and eventually crucified by this class of religious bigots of his day. How convinced these religious leaders were that they, mere mortals were right and the Son of God was wrong. How they finally nailed the Son of God to the cross, In God’s Name standing on God’s Word; the irony.
The Inquisitions, burning at the stake
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Sir John Dalberg-Acton
This quote is from a letter that Lord Acton wrote to Archbishop Mandell Creighton on the matter of the ‘moral code’ as was being relatively applied by Creighton to the Papacy specifically highlighting the inquisition. This quote is an apt summary of the inquisition and all its documented and undocumented evils; the worst of which occurred under the infamous Spanish inquisition. How dissenting men and women within the church, which was in the heights of its adulterous relationship with the state, were quickly labelled as heretics and consequently sentenced to burning at the stake. The kind of ludicrous reasons for which these men and women became literal flaming torches included stating the scientifically proven fact that the earth is round and not flat. Church leaders were drunk with power, with the wealth that they amassed as a result of this power and the social standing and all its trapping it accorded them; and they were willing to do anything, go to any lengths including using God’s Name and stand on God’s Word to maintain the status quo.
Joan of Arc was my first introduction to this nefarious act that was burning at the stake courtesy of the inquisitions. I must have been in my mid teenage when I encountered this young lady, befitting to her age when she crossed with the religious elites of her times. I do not quite remember whether I first met her on screen through a TV show or in writing, either way when I did she stuck with me. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake on 30th May 1431, at 19 years old because she believed that God was directly inspiring her through the voices of St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret and that this direct inspiration was above Church authority. She was only a teenager! Why would church leaders be so intimidated by a teenagers profession of faith?
John Hus was my next most significant encounter who was a victim of the inquisitions as well. I met him in Seminary and wrote a book review on one of his biographies, On Fire For God by Victor Budgen. The man was on fire for God and that is how literally he went out, lit as a torch for God. John Hus was a man who strived to exult the Lordship of Christ and the superiority of Scripture above every other religious personality or custom of his day. Hus was pitied against the Roman Catholic church during his life. This Church was characterized by treachery, greediness and pursuance of everything else except the redemption of souls. And the church leaders would have none of John Hus’s dissenting voice, so they indicted him as a heretic and on 6th July 1415 he was burnt at the stake.
I would do a disservice to this article if I did not mention William Tyndale. While John Wycliffe back in the fourteenth century was credited with translating the first English Bible it is William Tyndale who lived in the age of the printing press who ‘finished’ the work and led to the eventual available of the Bible to the common man. This man was also burned at the stake for believing in the very scriptures he was intent on making available to the masses. Tyndale’s heretic accusations included “believing in the forgiveness of sins and that the mercy offered in the Gospels was enough for salvation”
In here lies the multifaced face of Scripture in the hands of mortal men. While in God’s Name and standing on God’s Word church leaders killed and ostracized anyone who dissented the popular views of the time, the martyrs in God’s Name and standing on God’s Word refused to recant their beliefs. Who was right? Who was wrong? History has vilified the money loving, power hungry, corruptible, decadent church leaders and upheld to sainthood the martyrs.
Saul of Tarsus now known as the Apostle Paul
Saul of Tarsus stand out for me in this long line of religious bigots because unlike many of his zealous predecessors and successors, he saw the Light! On the road to Damascus to persecute Christians , letters in hand, fiery zeal burning through his mortal frame, he was struck down and had an encounter with Jesus whom he was persecuting. The rest as they say is history. He became Paul the Apostle of Jesus to the Gentiles and a man whose lineage and patronage church leaders have been bickering about and claiming right to since his death. He also authored almost half of the New Testament and his writings have been used by Church leaders since then to date to oppress women, perpetuate and protect patriarchy, erase the place and contributions of women in Church history, ruthlessly deal with divergent views, excommunicate, merchandise followers. The list of atrocities committed all in God’s Name and standing on God’s Word is endless!
I always wonder what Paul would say to the throng of church leaders in history and presently who have made it their lifelong commitment to misinterpret and misrepresent him? I call them the followers of Paul and of Jesus only when He is aligned with Paul their beloved rubber stamp. I think, actually I am convinced, that Paul would rebuke these men throughout history, disassociate himself with them and set the record straight. And since these men are so committed to Paul and will not even hear Jesus calling them out, I guess that is why many have missed their ‘Damascus encounter’ So the scales continue to lodge in their eyes as they sit comfortably amongst those who went before them and await those who will come after them. As fiery zeal to maintain the status quo consumes their hearts and souls. Would this type of church leaders and their kin be amongst those Jesus spoke about in Matthew 7:21-23?
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
The Apostle Paul and his writings are juxtaposed between all the religious bigots in Church history and all the human lives that have been transformed, some to martyrdom. Think about the Church Father Augustine. A man whose conversion came about reading Romans 13:13. Think about all the martyrs throughout Church history who died for the faith, who died believing that they were sinners saved by grace through faith. Then think about all the church leaders in history who lived and died convinced that they were right and everybody else was wrong. That their actions not only pleased God but were sanctioned by Him through their fallible misguided interpretation of Scriptures.
Amazing Grace – John Newton
John Newton was the man who penned one of the greatest hymns in Christendom; Amazing Grace. Newton was born into a Christian family but as he grew up he turned away from the faith. Steeped in his evil ways and sold out to the cause of Slavery, he had an encounter with Jesus that left him a changed man. While in a ship overtaken by storm, Newton was reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kent. The phrase “uncertain continuance of life” on the backdrop of Proverbs 1:24-28 led to his conversion.
Because I have called and you refused to listen,
have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,
and you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
Like Saul of Tarsus before him and most profoundly Zacchaeus the tax collector before them both, after this encounter he slowly but surely reset the rest of his life repaying/reversing the wrongs he had done; he became a slave trade abolitionist. Reparation defines this conscious action: You acknowledge that you have done wrong. You sincerely ask for forgiveness. You commit to righting wrongs – action. The hymn Amazing Grace become a fuel for William Wilberforce and his legislative quest to end slave trade in the British Empire.
Unfortunately that is not the case of many Christian leaders throughout history who have been confronted both in private and in public; both by human beings and by the Divine of their moral and spiritual failures. Many like King Saul in the Old Testament have clung to mortal monetary gains and societal acceptance in lieu of eternal life!
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch; like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
It is not easy to agree that you are wretched and lost and blind and in need of help. But as this precious hymn says, grace, Amazing grace awaits to welcome those who do; Zacchaeus the Tax Collector, Saul the persecutor, John Newton. And their transformation cannot be argued with. Only God’s grace can do that to a human being!
There is nothing new under the sun what has been will be
If you are a Christian or have interacted with Christian folk, you have witnessed for yourself the decadence within the church, leadership, individuals and congregations that is firmly done in God’s Name and standing on God’s Word. In the same way you must have witnessed or experienced the disillusions that results from this continued abuse and misuse of God’s Name and His Word. It is easy to lose hope. It is even easier to let go of it all – Christianity with all its human induced corruption.
However, I would like to suggest to you that there is always a remnant. This term we infer from a conversation between God and Prophet Elijah. We find it in 1 Kings 18-19. The setting is Elijah showing up from 3 and a half years of hiding because he had declared famine upon the land. You can bet the King Ahab and all his peeps were not amused.
In one of the most dramatic showdowns in Bible records, Elijah is fed up with the yo-yoing stance of the children of Israel. So he sets of a fire contest on Mt. Carmel. The thesis is simple: If God is God, then worship Him and if Baal is god then worship him. And how will we distinguish who the real God is? The God who answers by fire is the True God! The contest begins and Elijah lets the Baal crew to go first. The rules of the contest are simple. Make an alter, get a bull and lay it on the alter then ask your God/god to set fire to the sacrifice. Elijah in his largesse, flamboyant, confident self goes a step further and drowns his altar in water which flows into and fill the trenches he got dug around the altar.
The prophets of Baal who are 350 against the lone Elijah, prophet of God get to work immediately. The Bible tells us that for almost and entire day they called upon Baal, much to the chagrin of Elijah who taunted them to no end. “Maybe he is sleeping”; “Maybe he is on a journey” Well when the sun was about to go down, Elijah takes his turn and in one magnificent, awestriking, statement making, debate finalizing instant God responds by fire that consumes the sacrifice, the alter and even licks the water we are told. The prophets of Baal are killed. The rain falls. Elijah outruns Ahab in his chariot.
What follows is Elijah running away from Jezebel the head of the Baal crew who has put a bounty on his head. Elijah is discouraged, disillusioned, suicidal, depressed and on the run. It is here that God in His Providence meets Elijah and first calms him down by providing him with physical nourishment and much needed bodily rest. Elijah then has an encounter with God where he claims to be the ONLY one left standing and it is here that God tells Elijah about the remnant; 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed to Baal nor kissed him.
There is hope
It might not look so, it might not feel so. What, when some of the most visible, most written about, most influential church leaders and individuals are also some of the most corrupt and morally wanting.
But, there is always a remnant.
And I am not talking about the few publicly known Christians who have stood firm and held onto the sanctity of the faith. I am talking about the billions of everyday regular Christians who are living a faithful life. The mothers, the fathers, the young men and women, the children who have made a commitment to obey and live by these words in Romans 12:1-2:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
The Christian faith is both, very much so, a communal as well as an individual affair. In one of the most beautiful symbiotic relationships I know, a healthy individual faith feeds into and off from a healthy communal faith and vice versa. If any or either of the two factions would drop the ball in their court then ‘illness’ and ‘disease’ creeps onto the individual and community and can consume them alive if not stopped.
There is a remnant of Christians who are amongst us, who live amongst us. This remnant has been there throughout Biblical and Church history since the days of Enoch who walked with God until he was not (Genesis 5:24). These are mortal men and women who individually and communally choose to daily take up their cross and follow Jesus. Those who in God’s Name and standing on God’s Word have made a lifelong commitment to Spiritual Formation. To a conscious minute by minute, day by day, Holy Spirit dependent transformation into the image of Jesus Christ to God’s glory and for the fame of His Name!