Church History: A Brief Summary. (2008)
What is the purpose of church history? The focus
of church history is the gradual execution of God’s plan of redemption. It
shows the growth of the
In studying church history, Christians will meet heroes of Christian faith—“a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrew 12:1)—and learn their thoughts and deeds, and be edified and encouraged to follow their holy example—to “run with endurance”.
First century Greek historian Diodorus said that history is “the handmaid of providence, the priestess of truth, and the mother of wisdom.” Church history certainly qualify for these descriptions.
By studying church history, one can strengthen one’s faith through the recognition of God’s pervasive guidance of the Church through the ages. Further, by holding the key to the present condition of Christianity, one gains the ability to avoid past errors and the knowledge to plan for future successes.
At the centre of human history is the coming of
Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son. He died on a cross, but rose triumphantly from
the grave in victory over sin and death. Before ascending to heaven, He
commanded His disciples to wait in
At Pentecost (Acts 2:1-41), with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the church was founded. This new group would eventually be called Christians (Acts 11:26). Believers were inspired to tell others of the good news of the forgiveness of sin.
In the early church, Christians met in homes. The leaders were called elders and deacons. The focal point of the worship services was the communion, celebrating the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Believers met to share a meal, to read Scripture, and to sing praises. Writings from the apostles were gradually circulated among the churches, providing much needed direction, counsel, and exhortation. These 1st-century Christians emphasized the teachings of the apostles, godly living, benevolence, and evangelism. By the end of the 1st-century, Christianity had spread to most of the Mediterranean region.
The spreading of Christianity was facilitated by
the existence of the
With the passing of the apostles, the church continued to develop, adapting to the cultural and intellectual forces of the day. A church hierarchy emerged, with the bishop as the head of each local church. This church government appeared first in the eastern regions and spread gradually to all churches.
Worship continued to focus on the person and work of Christ, on the forgiveness of sin, and the hope of life through the final resurrection. Believers were encouraged to live lives that were distinct and different from those who embraced the surrounding pagan culture of self-gratification and materialism. The communion remained the central feature of worship because it portrayed the church’s message of forgiveness through Christ. Baptism, the only other sacrament, provided the identity as part of the assembly of the saints on earth. There were no saints’ days or holy convocations at this time.
The church was frequently attacked by the
intellectuals of the day who ridiculed Christianity and questioned its
teachings. The Gnostics were the most formidable early opponents, and some of
the more scholarly bishops answered pagan charges in reasoned treatises. Among
the most visible and eloquent were Justin Martyr (100–165), Irenaeus (130–200),
Tertullian (160–215), Clement of Alexandria (155–220), and Origen (185–254). Many
of these came from the churches in
Besides internal struggles, the early church
also faced persecutions from the Roman government. Opposing Roman polytheism
and unwilling to participate in the emerging emperor cult, Christians were brought
under the wrath of the state as being treasonous and worthy of death.
Persecutions occurred intermittently throughout this period but the worst were
under Emperors Nero [54–68], when Peter and Paul were martyred, Domitian [81–96],
when John was exiled, Septimus Severus [202–211], Decius [249–251], and
Diocletian [292–305], who tried to destroy the church. Thousands of Christians
were killed, including Ignatius , Polycarp , Justin Martyr , and
a whole group mercilessly tortured at
Later, the authority of the church was gradually
centralized in the hands of religious leaders. Because of the challenges from different
heresies, bishops were appointed to decide on behalf of the whole church on
matters of faith. A hierarchy of clergy formed, holding great power. In the
first two centuries, the strongest churches were in Asia Minor and North Africa
but gradually, the Western church, led by the bishop in
This period marks Christianity rising from a
persecuted group to the prevailing religion of the
This triumph of the church brought both
advantages and disadvantages. Christianity was free of persecution and was
sanctioned by the empire to expand from the Atlantic coast to western Asia and
from central Europe to northern
One benefit, or perhaps setback, of the church’s triumph was that the state became intensely interested in the church’s struggles. When theological issues arose, emperors often called church leaders together to discuss them. The church, through large gatherings of bishops, could define its teachings and creeds as never before. For example, from the beginning, the church as a whole affirmed the deity of Christ and His co-equality with God.
Bishops from throughout the empire were summoned
The church leaders also sought to explain how divinity
and humanity were related in the incarnate Christ. Several ecumenical councils
took up Christological issues, culminating in the Council of Chalcedon .
The Chalcedonian Definition affirmed
the unity of the divine and human natures of Christ, the God-man. This
discussion caused the first permanent schism in the Catholic Church as
Monophysites, who believed that Christ possessed only a single divine nature,
The long and hard struggles for power between the church (religious power structure) and the state (political power structure) in the Middle Ages was foreshadowed in a dramatic confrontation between Bishop Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius  because of the latter’s cruelty against rioters. The emperor eventually yielded in a public penance.
As the emperor’s power declined, the Bishop of
Rome’s power increased. Pope Leo I [440–461] negotiated and saved
Dionysius Exiquus (d. 550), a monk in Rome, established modern system of dating, using events after Christ as “Anno Domini”—in the year of our Lord. However, he missed the date of Christ’s birth by a few years (now generally dated between 7 BC and 4 BC).
Monasticism was an isolationist and pietistic ideal, and a protest movement against worldliness. Later, the monasteries became the preserver of Christian scholarship as well as the source of Christian missions and education. When the church was in deep corruption, the monasteries acted as the centre of a revitalization movement.
The beginning of monasticism was traced to
Anthony of Egypt (251–357). In his youth, he sold his possessions, and went
into solitude, living as a hermit under the strictest self-denial, and engaging
in prayer and meditation. In the 6th-century, Benedict of Nursia put his
ascetic ideal into communal monasticism and founded the Benedictine Order
. While the papacy fell into its darkest period of corruption in the
10th-century, the monasteries became the place where order in the church
remained. The founding of the monastery of
More monastic orders were founded after 1000:  Cistercian Order , with emphasis on the rule of silence, contemplation, and poverty.  Carmelite Order .  The Franciscan Order  founded by Francis of Assisi (1182–1226), with emphasis preaching and poverty.  Dominican Order  founded by Dominic Guzman (1170–1221), with emphasis in scholarly studies and preaching.
Before this era, there were sporadic attempts to
spread the gospel to fringe areas of the
The invasion of pagan tribes, such as the Goths,
Franks, and Vandals brought an end to the
In the 6th-century, Recared, Visigoth king in
A distinctive character of this era was the
transition of the centre of the church from western Asia and
The emergence of the Islamic religion was a
major disaster for the future fortunes of Christianity. Invented by Muhammad
(570–632) based on a modified but corrupted Christianity, this militant
monotheistic religion took advantage of the power vacuum that followed the
collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, and the deep political and spiritual
divisions of the Byzantine Empire in the East. Islam faced no significant
military obstacles as it entered
The Franks, embracing Christianity since
The connection between the civil authority and
the ecclesiastical authority reached its summit with the reign of Pepin’s son
Charlemagne (Charles the Great, 742–814). In 800, Pope Leo III crowned
Charlemagne the first “Holy Roman Emperor” at St. Peter’s in
With the demise of the Carolingian dynasty,
which occurred at the time of Viking intrusions into
Pope John VIII [872–882] was murdered. After that, pope succeeded pope in rapid sequence. Some were strangled; some died of starvation in dungeons. At times, there were two popes, or even three, each claiming to be the one true pope. Between 882 and 1003, there were officially 32 popes, averaging less than 4 years per pope. In 1032, a 15-year old boy was named Pope Benedict IX. He abdicated for a financial reward , but then retracted and became pope again . He was deposed shortly after, became pope again , deposed again  and was excommunicated.
As the church accumulated land and wealth, church leaders such as bishops and abbots controlled public properties for personal use, enjoying luxurious way of life. All these corruptions awakened a deep yearning for renewal and reform among the faithful.
A long string of weak popes ended by the middle
of the 10th-century when some monks gained control of the papacy. Starting with
Pope Leo IX [1049–1054], some reform minded popes began a period of renewal.
Pope Gregory VII [1073–1085, Hildebrand] moved to reform the church with
emphasis on priestly celibacy and the abolition of simony. The struggle to free
the church from political control continued for a long time and was best
illustrated by the humiliation of the powerful Emperor Henry IV by Gregory VII
The growing dominance of the popes and bishops
in social and political affairs reached its peak with Pope Innocent III [1198–1216].
Not only did he wield authority over monarchs of all
The positive side of this church renewal, however,
was a new surge in missions that penetrated into
The Western church centred in
An even older feud had to do with a seemingly minor point of understanding regarding the Trinity. The Eastern church held that the Holy Spirit was proceeded from the Father alone, through the Son. The Western held that the Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son. An earlier conflict over spiritual jurisdiction and the doctrine of Trinity occurred when Photius (820–895), a renowned scholar, became Patriarch of Constantinople .
With the renewal of the church and growing papal
fortunes in the West, the hostilities between Eastern and Western churches once
again surfaced. Popes in
The vitality of the Western church, as well as
its increased political strength, was manifested clearly in its ability to deal
with the Islamic threat. When
A more successful front was the expulsion of
The atrocities and bloodshed of these wars were
to cause permanent tensions between Muslims and Christians. However, the
Crusades did stop the expansion of Islam into
The political and
economic stability in Western European society after the 10th-century hastened
the emergence of nation-states and the building of magnificent Gothic churches
A new breed of teachers, the scholastics, appeared.
John Scotus Erigena (810–877), one of greatest theologians of early Middle Ages, helped pave the way for scholasticism which was
characterized mainly by their method in dealing with theology, that is, the
application of reason to questions of faith. Anselm (1033–1109), archbishop of
The renewal movement lost its momentum after the
12th-century, and the church encountered many problems. The old question of the
authority of church over state continued. Under threat from surrounding secular
governments, Pope Clement V moved from
Under the urging of Catherine of Siena (1347–1380),
the Pope returned officially to the
The renewal of the Roman Church brought with it an attempt to deal with forces that threatened it both from within and without. Anti-clerical and anti-hierarchical movements emerged in the 10th-century. Among these were the Albigensians and the Waldensians [begun in 1173] who sought truth in the Bible rather than medieval tradition. They were branded as heretical and were subjected to cruel torture and execution. Later, Protestants came to regard the Waldensians as a positive response to the corruption in the church and as predecessors of Protestant reform.
The decline of prestige in the papacy was
accompanied by cries for ecclesiastical and spiritual renewal. Echoing the
complaint of the Waldensians, John Wycliffe (1329–1384) of
While the papacy sank in the worst moral and
spiritual decay, western civilization were stirred by
a new movement, known as the Renaissance. This movement was spawned by
humanists—the intellectual and artistic elite of the day—and it quickly spread
Preoccupied with wars, political intrigues, and
the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in
Modern church history is the age of conflicts, between Protestantism and Romanism, between religious liberty and authority, between individual Christianity and a traditional church system.
By the 16th-century, the corruption within the church had become so serious and widespread that the time of correction had arrived. In independent studies of the Bible, various groups came to the same conclusion that the church has deviated from the Biblical faith, and they could no longer submit to the authority of the pope. The largest groups were led by Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Tyndale, and the Anabaptists. While all of them attempted to recover the original faith from the Word of God—the Bible, each arrived at a slightly different conclusion so that there were some disagreements among various groups.
Another important factor which propelled the spread of Reformation was the invention of printing. The Bible became more available for the common person as Luther translated the Bible into German , and Tyndale into English . King James Version of the English Bible  became the most influential Bible in English speaking countries for many centuries.
The catalyst for the Reformation was the troubled soul of a German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther (1483–1546). Trying rigorously to pacify his guilty conscience through the sacramental system, he found failure in all his efforts. Eventually, he turned to the Bible and discovered that he had hopelessly tried to gain peace through his own effort instead of through faith in the work of Christ. He found peace with God. From then on, his emphasis in teaching became justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
On October 31, 1517, Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the
Another important leader of Reformation was the
Swiss theologian Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531). After becoming a priest in
French theologian John Calvin (1509–1564) wrote
the Institutes of Christian Religion 
to summarize his theology, based on his study of the Bible. This work was
revised many times during Calvin’s life and eventually influenced all
subsequent work in Protestant theology. While travelling through
Calvinism and the Reformed Church spread across
Europe, becoming the dominant Protestantism in
Calvinism was firmly established in
Historians have generally recognized two broad Reformation movements; the magisterial, linking the state and church together, and the radical, which opposed state alliances in order to be independent in their teachings. These radical reformists include a vast spectrum of theological opinions, including anti-trinitarians such as Michael Servetus (Socinianism), inner light advocates like the Schwenkfelders, pacifists such as Menno Simons (1496–1561, leader of the Mennonites), millennialists such as the Munsterites, and various Baptist groups.
The Baptist theology grew largely from Zwingli’s
The Puritan movement
(those who desired to purify the church of papal remnants) in
Puritans hoped for more decisive change and developed alternatives to state-episcopal rule—Presbyterianism under Thomas Cartwright, and Congregationalism under Henry Jacob. Classic works of Christian literature by Puritans at this time include John Milton’s Paradise Lost  and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress .
The ascension of James VI of
Before the English Civil War, the persecution of
nonconformist Puritans led to their mass migration to the English colonies
during the 1620s and 1630s. Many settled in
Even before the Protestant Reformation, some in
the Roman Catholic Church had attempted to revitalize the decadent medieval
church. The Inquisition was established  by the pope to get rid of false
Several monastic orders were created in an
effort to reform, such as the Oratory of Divine Love  and the Capuchins .
The most influential of the new orders was the Jesuits , founded by
Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556). Stressing a militant level of obedience to the
Pope, the order emphasized education, missions, and inquisition to preserve the
church and deter Protestants. Their missionary work was commendable; their
political intrigues and persecution of Protestants were not. Jesuit Francis
Xavier (1506–1552) carried the message of the church to the Far East;
Franciscans founded missions in
The grand reforming council of the church was at
The struggles between Protestantism and Romanism
led to the death of many thousands. In central
With roots stretching back to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment held that human reason was able to create a glorious future through the sciences. Traditional Christian views such as human depravity and dependence upon God were increasingly regarded as detrimental to progress. The religious expression of the Enlightenment was Deism, a belief that God was a clockmaker who had created the world and then abandoned it to natural law. God was effectively reduced to a force within nature.
Rene Descartes (1596–1650) has been called the first modern man because he embodied so much of Enlightenment thought. He sought truth from the starting point of reflective thinking, from “clear and distinct ideas,” not from the Bible. John Locke (1632–1704), the father of the British empiricism, suggested that knowledge could only be derived through data accumulated by the senses.
Gottfried von Leibniz (1646–1716) believed in “pre-established harmony” between matter and mind, and developed a kind of rationalism by which he attempted to reconcile the existence of matter with the existence of God. He was also, with Isaac Newton, a co-inventor of calculus which later facilitated advances in scientific theories.
Most approaches to knowledge proposed by philosophers ridiculed the role of revelation. Christianity now faced a serious philosophical opponent. Religious expressions of the Enlightenment—Unitarianism and Deism—attempted to reshape traditional Christianity by questioning the integrity of the Bible, the person of Jesus Christ, and the traditional teaching about the sinfulness of mankind. These were replaced by an optimism about human progress.
Because the Protestant Reformation was a movement that originated from the re-emphasis of the Bible, most of the efforts had concentrated on defining doctrines. But faith is more than rational arguments. Just as monasticism was a reaction to the dead medieval church, pietism and Methodism were a reaction to the dead orthodoxy in the post-Reformation church.
Pietism first emerged in
The Age of Reason, with its belief in human
ability to chart its own course and its hostility to imposed authority (religious
or civil), influenced the political thoughts. In
In the new
Republican ideals and religion coexisted in
Advances in philosophy, science, social science and historical studies all challenged the necessity of religious belief.
In philosophy, David Hume (1711–1776) tried to show that rationalistic approaches to knowledge would only lead to uncertainty and skepticism. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) proposed a theory of knowledge that denied the existence of purely objective knowledge and concluded that the pure rationality of rationalists is only an illusion. They undercut the foundation of rationalism.
In social science, Auguste Comte (1798–1857), father of positivism, advanced the theory that cultures were not static but evolved from a primitive stage to a mature stage, from theology to metaphysics to science. In other words, religion had now been eclipsed by philosophy and science.
In science, the challenge from Darwinism was particularly strong. The publication of On the Origin of Species  by Charles Darwin was influential because it suggested a mechanism by which the order of the universe could be accounted for by natural processes, thus eliminating the necessity of a Creator God.
In response to these challenges, some Protestants tried to redefine Christianity. Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the father of religious liberalism, argued that religious truth was a matter of subjective feeling, not objective knowledge. He sought to secure a place for religion by retreating to the inner realm to find its validity. Albrecht Ritschl (1822–1889) and Adolf von Harnack (1851–1930) continued the liberal movement by arguing that the Bible contained the revelation of God, but not by itself the Word of God. Christianity, therefore, could be studied scientifically, as a historical and cultural phenomenon, essentially reducing Christ to a caring human with deluded followers, thus denying the core of the gospel.
The reaction by the Roman Catholic church was very different. The church resisted the challenges by emphaszing on the role and dominance of the church’s leadership. In order to resist liberalism in the church and culture, Pius IX issued the Syllabus of Errors , which condemned specific new ideas, but the effect was pushing dissent underground. In the Council of Vatican I , the preservation of orthodoxy was achieved by the assertion of papal infallibility.
In late 18th-century was the vast overturning of
traditional ideas and institutions. Deism in
Drawing upon the renewal movements of the previous century, and responding to the social ills brought on by the emergence of uncontrolled capitalism and industrialization, this period was marked by Christian leadership in improving the society through social reforms. The record of accomplishments was impressive. For example, Robert Raikes (1735–1811) established what became known as the Sunday School Movement to educate poor children. Lord Shaftesbury (1801–1885) worked hard to secure child-labour laws. John Howard (1726–1790) sought prison reform. William Wilberforce (1759–1833) laboured to end the immoral slave trade. Influential lay Christian leaders cooperated to gain favourable legislation for the oppressed. Monumental results were achieved by the YMCA, founded by George Williams (1821–1905), and the Salvation Army, founded by William Booth (1829–1912) and Catherine Booth (1829–1890). Both helped to relieve the ravages of industrialization. Such good works were perceived as the natural fruit of being a Christian, never as merely an option.
While Christianity in Europe was under cultural
pressures to remodel to fit with the secular world, Christians in the
After the American Revolution, a Second Great Awakening
[1800s–1830s] swept the new nation. It affected every religious tradition, brought
in new denominations, and spawned a variety of cults. Revival first broke out
in colleges such as Yale, led by its president Timothy Dwight (1752–1817),
Jonathan Edwards’s grandson. They swept the eastern seaboard and rural
After the civil war, a Third Great Awakening [1880s–1900s] was led by Dwight Moody (1837–1899) and Ira Sankey (1840–1908) who preached to large gatherings calling people to repentance and salvation in Jesus Christ.
After these, revivalism would become a staple feature of American Christianity. The revival fervour led to the founding of new religious groups. Among them were the Restoration movement founded by Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone (objecting denominationalism, concentrating on the essential aspects of the Christian faith, allowing for a diversity of understanding with non-essentials); the Holiness movement (a renewed emphasis upon John Wesley’s views on complete sanctification); but also cults including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons, organized by Joseph Smith); the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Watch Tower Society (founded on the teachings of Charles Taze Russell); and Christian Science (founded by Mary Baker Eddy).
The most important impact of the Awakening was
the dominance of Christianity in the general culture;
Just as the 18th-century had been the great
century of renewal in many churches, so the 19th-century was the century of Protestant
missionary movements. William Carey (1761–1834), a principal founder of the
Baptist Foreign Missions Society , was called the founder of the modern
missionary movement for calling Christians to cooperate across denominations in
sending missionaries. In the
The Enlightenment promised a better world and unending
human progress through education, and advances in science and technology.
Science succeeded in conquering diseases leading to longer life; technology
provided economic prosperity and material wealth. The 20th-century opened
throughout much of the world in triumphal optimism. Yet the unstable political
situation in eastern Europe led to rivalry among
European powers. The World War I [1914–1918] destroyed the optimism. The
instability continued after the war. The Great Depression [1929–1939] brought
economic hardship to most of the world. The political and economic instability
brought fascism (and Nazism) into
These traumatic events continued with violent
confrontations in the form of worldwide revolt against colonialism. Many wars
of independence in Africa and
As answers from liberal theology was unable to cope with all the worldwide political and economic disasters, religious liberalism was greatly weakened. Yet, it still retained much of its power since it had dominated most of the seminaries which produced liberal church leaders. As a result, liberalism continued to erode traditionally conservative denominations.
Conservatives opposed liberalism’s continuous
influence, viewing its historical-critical theologies as a danger to the survival
of the Christian faith. At a meeting in
In 1920s, almost all denominations were divided over the issue of fundamentalism. Bible-centred pastors and laity frequently found themselves at odds with the hierarchy of their own denominations which were controlled by liberals. In response, they founded new denominations, erected new seminaries, and began new missionary agencies. Because the word “fundamentalism” has been corrupted by the recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the movement is now called “evangelicalism”.
Another movement opposing the domination of liberalism was neo-orthodoxy founded by Karl Barth (1886–1968), the most influential theologian in the 20th-century. Following historical orthodoxy faith, Barth’s reasserted the sinfulness of man, the transcendence of God, and the emphasis on biblical theology. However, his rejection of the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible deviated from historical orthodoxy. Barth’s followers—Reinhold Niebuhr (social application of the gospel), Rudolf Bultmann (demythologization of the Bible), and Paul Tillich (application of existentialism)—deviated even further from orthodox faith.
Since liberalism, by its nature, was not a cohesive interpretation of life or religion, the movement inevitably became fractured, especially during the 1960s, resulting in a proliferation of theologies, each attempting to make Christianity more relevant to mankind, but all failing miserably. Some of these include theology of hope, liberation theology, death-of-God theology, secular theology, process theology, black theology, feminist theology.
One of the great religious movements in the 20th-century
has been the Pentecostal/charismatic renewal. Pentecostals insisted that the “baptism
in the Spirit” was a normative second work of grace for all believers and was
evidenced by certain spiritual gifts, most of all speaking in tongues.
Pentecostalism grew out of the Wesleyan holiness movement. It began at Charles
Parham’s Bethel Bible Institute in
The movement was revitalized in the 1960s with
the emergence of a “charismatic movement” of the Spirit in existing churches from
different denominations. Pentecostals brought about renewal through lay
ministry and the gifts of the Spirit in both Protestant and Roman Catholic
In the 1980s, the so-called “third wave” of Holy Spirit-centred church renewal began, largely through the Vineyard movement, combining Pentecostal and charismatic emphases with traditional evangelical thought. These various charismatic movements have had a major impact on American religious life, particularly in the area of corporate worship and missions.
For many centuries, the Roman Catholic Church reacted to the modern world with fear and condemnation. The Council of Trent [1545–1563] condemned the Protestant Reformation. Pope Paul IV published the Index of Forbidden Books , prohibiting the faithful from reading books deemed to be even slightly non-orthodox. Pope Pius IX issued a Syllabus of Errors  rejecting contemporary ideas such as democracy. Pope Pius X condemned liberalism and modernistic ideas . With all these measures, the Roman Catholic Church was not threatened outwardly by liberal theology. However, they also restricted the church from reaching the modern mind.
New theological thoughts, overtly suppressed for the past centuries, increasingly divided the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th-century. The top of the papal authority structure clutched tenuously to traditional conservatism until Pope John XXIII [pope 1958–1963] supported both renewal and a more liberal theological outlook. He convened the Council of Vatican II [1962–1965] to revitalize the church. The council attempted to retain traditional theology, yet make the church more inviting to the young and the unchurched. Changes included the celebration of the Mass in common languages rather than Latin, a greater role in the work of the church for laity, and a more cordial relationship with other religious groups.
Under Pope John Paul II [pope 1978–2005], the church retrenched theologically; renewed its emphasis on adoration of the Virgin; but also promoted a more fervent revival and world presence; and published a new catechism. Despite this, the reform-minded Catholic theologians, rebels like Yves Congar, Hans Kung, and Edward Schillebeeckx, began to speak out against Catholic traditions and were more sympathetic to the Protestant cause.
The interdenominational cooperation in
missionary activities in the 19th-century led to the hope of many Christians to
further the collaboration among churches. The World Missionary Conference in
Out of the
This form of international cooperation by about 300 national churches appeared to manifest the unity of the church and the oneness in Christ. Unfortunately, the movement often sacrificed sound theology for structural union based on the lowest common denominator. Gradually, the focus on spreading the gospel gave way to an emphasis of social action which then led to support of left leaning policies and liberation theology, resembling communist propaganda.
Because of this problem, many conservative and evangelical national churches avoided the WCC and instead met to plan cooperation in world evangelization. The World Congress on Evangelism  led to the establishment of a permanent organization—International Congress on World Evangelization. The Lausanne Covenant  emphasized loyalty to the inspired Scripture as the infallible rule of faith and practice, and also stressed that social concern and action were a relevant part of the gospel.
As the second millennium drew to a close, there were hopeful evidence of the spread of Christianity to most
of the world. In the West, Christianity has been weakened by cultural
accommodation and materialism. The majority of the population
still profess as Christians but are in name only, not living a Christian
life and not participating in a church. In contrast, a disciplined
spirituality, prayer life, and passionate evangelism have brought explosive
growth to the
Since 1990, the dismantling of communism in the
All over the world, the proliferation of technology has aided growth by providing teaching and mass-evangelism opportunities. Radio, television, films, satellites, and the Internet have all opened new avenues for the gospel. It is now possible through radio and television for the gospel to be heard worldwide. The phenomenal use of technology by Billy Graham, for example, has brought unprecedented global impact. The aggressive vision of Bible translators, many of them with Wycliffe Bible Translators, makes feasible the goal of providing at least a part of the Bible in every existing language group.
While the light of the gospel seems to shine with increasing intensity across many parts of the globe, a cultural erosion has occurred in the original Christian nations. Scholars from a wide variety of disciplines are grappling with the demise of the Enlightenment and its confidence in reason and technology. In the last decades of the 20th-century, postmodernism has emerged, with its prevailing emphasis on the self as the centre of life and personal meaning. In postmodernism, values are not seen as universal truths but as individual and private preferences, leading to moral relativism. Self-realization and self-fulfilment become the gods of the age. Postmodernism owes much of its philosophical base to nihilism and combines the notion of a liberated self with an attitude of despair.
Concurrent with postmodernism is the rise of cults, a clear demonstration of the emptiness of human soul that looks for any kind of spiritual fulfilment. One main cult is New Age thought, an eclectic blend of Eastern mysticism, pre-Christian paganism, and spiritism. New Age borrows heavily from the vocabulary of traditional Christian beliefs yet redefines such terms to fit its pantheistic worldview. In addition, many cults report ever-increasing numbers of adherents.
The 20th-century witnessed a huge increase in
visible violent persecutions of Christians perpetrated by authoritarian political
regimes. These include right-wing totalitarian countries and left-wing
communist countries. With the democratization of many totalitarian governments
On the other hand, religious persecutions have
increased in scope and in intensity. In the past decade, the most brutal
persecutions are found in Islamic countries. The efforts by Muslims to suppress
the Christian faith has led to mass killings of Christians in many countries,
One may ask why Muslims and Hindus need to resort to violence in stopping the Christian gospel. The simple answer is that they feel threatened because of the fact that many people have converted to Christianity once they heard the gospel. In today’s supposedly free marketplace of religions, each person can freely choose his own religion. Truth will always win the heart of most people. Christians should always stride to win religious freedom for everyone.
While visible persecutions occur in the Third
World, less visible or even invisible persecutions occur in the former
Christian countries in Europe and
In the West, there is one clear trend in the last few decades—the decline of attendance in mainline liberal Protestant churches. In these churches, theological liberalism has eroded the entire system of Christian doctrine, leading to the evaporation of faith and the secularization of those churches. They become so identified with the culture that all distinctiveness disappears. Subsequently, there is no incentive for participation by members.
At the same time, most evangelical and charismatic churches report increase in attendance, with some national churches increasing by more than 30% in 10 years. Research has shown that orthodox Christian belief is the single best predictor of church participation.
As missionaries sent to the
While there are slightly different emphases by different evangelical groups, all agree on the highest priority of world evangelism. Evagelistic work by these churches are well-supported by a large variety of parachurch evangelical organizations which concentrate on youth evangelism, adult evangelism, publication and distribution of the Bible.
Whatever the state of Evangelicalism is, an emphasis upon the need for revival and renewal remains constant. Charismatics see hope in the restoration of extraordinary gifts of the Spirit; others look to the Church Growth movement for vitality; still others hope for a restoration of the Reformation emphases—grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, and Scripture alone.
Today is a time that combines elements of both triumph and discouragement for Christ’s kingdom. But Christians have assurance from God through His Word that He will be completely triumphant in the end. The God who controls history will bring His divine drama to consummation in a grand and glorious day.
The history of the Christian church is a witness to the providence of God. Schaff said it well:
“During this long succession of centuries it (the church) has outlived the destruction of Jerusalem, the dissolution of the Roman empire, fierce persecutions from without, and heretical corruptions from within, the barbarian invasion, the confusion of the dark ages, the papal tyranny, the shock of infidelity, the ravages of revolution, the attacks of enemies and the errors of friends, the rise and fall of proud kingdoms, empires, and republics, philosophical systems, and social organizations without number. And, behold, it still lives, and lives in greater strength and wider extent than ever; controlling the progress of civilization, and the destinies of the world; marching over the ruins of human wisdom and folly, ever forward and onward; spreading silently its heavenly blessings from generation to generation, and from country to country, to the ends of the earth.”
[from Schaff, Philip (1892): History of the Christian church, volume 1, Introduction.]
The goal for all Christians is the proclamation of the gospel to all nations as Christ said: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14, ESV) Today, this goal is in sight. Let us hasten in spreading the gospel till Christ’s glorious second coming.
Hannah, John D. (2000): The Kregel pictorial guide to church history.