Why the Church Matters: PART 1 – WHY BOTHER?


St Andrew’s UC - Rockland ON
Pentecost to Now
Why the Church Matters
A Manageable History
21 Jan, 2011




Non-Christians Reflect on Christian History

Comment from an Iranian Shiite

About 18 years ago my friend Mohammad Ahmadi, an Iranian studying in a PhD program at Ottawa U used to attend occasional services with me. We had many friendly conversations about the Faith. One day, he observed, “You Christians really don’t have many rules, do you?” I told him that one of our saints, Augustine had said, “Love God and do as you please.” A few days later he said, “That was quite interesting. Who was Saint Augustine?”

Anonymous Chinese Scholar

- Jennifer Green - Ottawa Citizen Saturday, March 03, 2007

“In 2002, a Chinese scholar told a delegation of Americans in Beijing that he and his colleagues had studied every aspect of western civilization to discover why it is so pre-eminent. The scholars looked at politics, economics and military power, but they finally came to one conclusion: “The heart of your culture is your religion, Christianity,” they said. “That is why the West has been so powerful. We don't have any doubt about that.” The scholars had been delving into the history of western civilization to see how it corrected itself rather than plunge into decline.”

“How had its moral foundation led to capitalism and then democracy? Unlike Buddhism or even Confucianism, Christianity argues that history is linear, not cyclical, and that it holds great hope, in this life and in the next, especially for those who follow its ethics. Christianity has always been more malleable than its Abrahamic siblings, with no centre like Jerusalem or Mecca, and no lengthy list of rules for daily life.”


Regardless of anyone’s religious stance few would deny that, for the past four or five hundred years, it has been Western Europe, England and America (the West) who have most influenced the rest of the world. Even the core philosophies (Marxism) of the former Soviet Union and China after 1949 originated among one of these three groups.

Linked to this phenomenon are the world immigration patterns of the 19th and 20th centuries. Movement has overwhelmingly been “to the West from the rest.” This suggests strongly that the West has something which the non-West wants.

Whatever other features the West has had since the Reformation, two of the most prominent have been the growth of science/technology in the presence of the Church in the West. In the past few centuries popular imagination has it that science has displaced religion as a route to what is real in human affairs.

A good illustration of this is the exchange between the Marquis de Laplace and Napoleon. In the early 1800s Laplace presented Napoleon with a copy of his works on the solar system. Aware that they contained no mention of God, Napoleon taunted him, “Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace answered, famously and brusquely: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la,” - “I have had no need of that hypothesis.”

Returning for a moment to the Chinese scholars, they are presumably well aware that science and technology developed alongside the Church in the West. Yet they did not cite these elements as being at the core of the West:

“The heart of your culture is your religion, Christianity,” they said. “That is why the West has been so powerful. We don't have any doubt about that.”

Some Reasons to Study our History

In a time when the Western Church appears to be having its struggles it might be useful to study our development.

1. Knowledge of Church history gives us a warning and an understanding of the present state of Christianity. Our past affects our present and probably the future.

2. Church history serves also as a good background on the Scriptures. It is a factual elaboration of what God has done in times past and may be doing now.

3. We do well to study the characters in Church history and learn from the illustrious lives. Let the lives of Teresa of Avila, Marguerite Bourgeois, John Calvin, Francis of Assisi, William Wilberforce, Tommy Douglas, William Carey and others enthuse and stimulate us to greater love for God and His kingdom.

Whom are these Studies are For

  • Committed but time-constrained, non-specialist believers who are not likely to tackle A History of Christianity - Volumes I and II by Kenneth Scott Latourette (1552 pages each volume!!) or The Rise of Christianity by W.H.C. Frend (1022pages). [And Frend’s work only covers the first 500 years of the Church]. If you have the time these are indeed wonderful publications but they do contain enormous detail.
  • Christian and non-Christian persons who could use a relatively quick summary of Church history and how it relates to the story of Western Europe and the Americas.

My Background

As a community college most of my life I tried to keep a kind of filter in mind, “Why would anyone need to know this?” As much as I can I’ve tried to include those developments in Church History which I perceive to survive the filter.

Flowering Tree - Line Drawing | Tree with twisted trunk and flowering branches. | Appears in the following categories: Plants / Trees -- Seasons / SpringFamily Stories

We all know our family stories and those humorous and occasionally tragic events which make them up. Baptism makes you a member of the Christian Church. Your family story now becomes part of another vaster story and more important story. If the tree is likened to the story of the church, the trunk could be seen as ancient Israel; different churches as the branches, our personal stories like the leaves on the tree. But this is no ordinary tree. This one never dies it just adds branches and leaves until the end of history.


These were some important developments in the launching of the Church.

The Diaspora

The Jews had been spreading into the Mediterranean Basin for centuries adopting the Greek language as Hebrew and Aramaic faded from memory. Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews estimates that there were twice as many Jews in the Diaspora (2M) as in Palestine (1M). The presence of these communities meant that when the Christian missionaries arrived there was a group of people who had at least some idea about The Story and would not have to be educated about it from scratch.

Greek Language and the Septuagint

Alexander the Great, though an evil exploiter, imposed on the world of his day a single language which long survived the dispersal of his empire. As English is to our world today, and as Aramaic was to the ancient Tigris-Euphrates valley, so was Greek to the Roman Empire and particularly along the shores of the Mediterranean. At the time of Christ, and for several centuries after, it is a bit ironic that Greek, not Latin, was the dominant and universal language of the Empire.

The 2 million Jews of the Diaspora understood Greek better than Hebrew so around the year 200BC, in Alexandria Egypt, 70 scholars are said to have independently translated important Hebrew texts into Greek. When the Greek manuscripts were compared the 70 translations were said to be identical. This is called The Legend of the Septuagint.

Initially the Church was an Aramaic speaking sect within ethnic Judaism. Within a few decades the shift toward a wholly gentile (Greek Speaking) Church was underway. Such a church could not read the Hebrew OT but the Greek Septuagint would be like us reading the Citizen. By the late 400’s AD Latin began, at last, to prevail over Greek and so St Jerome finally put the finishing touches to a Hebrew-to-Latin translation known as the Vulgate (from the Latin vulgaris – common) in 405 AD.

(Note that Jerome did not translate the Septuagint {Greek OT} into Latin as that would be a translation from another translation. He went from the Hebrew OT. Interestingly, this would not be done again for 1100 years when various Reformers preferred going Greek, whenever possible, to their various vernaculars.)

Knowing that the Alexander died around 330 BC gives the Greek language a dominance of about 700+ years.


The Romans needed good roads to protect their Empire from occasional uprisings. They were great civil engineers and road builders. Their roads were not equalled in Europe until the Scottish Engineer John MacAdam built his roads in the late 18th Century.

Moral Decline

Anglican Bishop Robert Wise has observed that we have a much better society today than in the ancient world. Theirs was a time of moral corruptness, sensuous despondency, immeasurable physical pain and despair.

The following material has been adapted from the Bethel Bible Series developed by the Adult Christian Education Foundation in Madison Wisconsin.

Vanished Borders

“The day of closed frontiers was over. The day of separate, self-sufficient, antagonistic nations, gazing suspiciously at one another across bristling defences, was done. All the way from the Atlantic to the Caspian, from Britain to the Nile, from Hadrian's Wall to the Euphrates, the Roman standards could be seen. Everywhere the barriers were down. The chaos had been welded and consolidated into a community. The world was one big neighbourhood.” The Romans had made the Mediterranean Basin into an early European Common Market. Bethel Bible Series.

Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) from the Bethel Series notes.

“Not before or since in the annals of recorded human history has the world enjoyed such an extended period of peace. To be sure, there was a jockeying for power within Rome's own house and maybe small skirmishes and uprisings to be put down in different parts of the sprawling empire. But during the Peace of Rome, no people lived with paralyzing fear that an enemy was about to vanquish them. Caesar's subjects, wherever they were, could scan the horizons and see no signs of an enemy anywhere. For Rome ruled with a strong hand, and there was no nation big enough or powerful enough to threaten that rule. How easy then for the world to hear the good news of God's love in Christ. No longer preoccupied with a struggle for survival, mortals at peace could lay down their swords and listen to the angels sing.”

Spiritual Confusion (The Classical world was looking for something)

The material in this section is from

From the Book “Civilization” by Sir Kenneth Clark


‘‘It took Gibbon six volumes to describe the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, so I shan't remark on that. But thinking about this almost incredible episode does tell one something about the nature of civilisation. It shows that however complex and solid it seems, it is actually quite fragile. lt can be destroyed. What are its enemies? Well, first of all fear - fear of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague and famine, that make it simply not worthwhile constructing things, or planting trees or even planting next year's crops. And fear of the supernatural*, which means that you daren't question anything or change anything. The late antique world was full of meaningless rituals, mystery religions, that destroyed self-confidence. And then exhaustion the feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people even with a high degree of material prosperity. There is a poem by the modern Greek poet, Cavafy, in which he imagines the people of an antique town like Alexandria waiting every day for the barbarians to come and sack the city. Finally the barbarians move off somewhere else and the city is saved but the people are disappointed - it would have been better than nothing. Of course, civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity - enough to provide a little leisure. But, far more, it requires confidence - confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one's own mental powers.”


* (Clark's book is about the development of art in the West. l think that when he says supernatural, we can assume here that Clark does not mean Christianity but the various other spiritualities which abounded in the Empire. In the rest of his book, Clark acknowledges the role of Christianity in the development of the visible arts.)


The material in this section is from

From “The Divine Conspiracy” - Dallas Willard


“The life and words that Jesus brought into the world came in the form of information and reality. He and his early associates overwhelmed the ancient world because they brought into it a stream of life at its deepest, along with the best information possible on the most important matters. These were matters with which the human mind had already been seriously struggling for a millennium or more without much success. The early message was, accordingly, not experienced as something its hearers acts to believe or do because otherwise something bad - something with no essential connection with real life -would happen to them. The people initially impacted by that message generally concluded that they would be fools to disregard it. That was the basis of their conversion.”

Crucial Question

What was it that made the Early Church grow at an average annual rate of 3.4 % per year so that they grew from 1000 in 40 AD to about 30M in the Mediterranean Basin by 300 AD? And this is the face of random brutal persecution.

- Figures from Rodney Stark in “The Rise of Christianity”

It had to be the extraordinary life of the Early Church

The remaining material is from

The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark

Social Misery

Urban Chaos using Antioch and Rome as examples:

Physical Ambience

People per acre in:

1st Century Antioch 117 Rome 200

20th Century Chicago 21 New York 37 Manhattan 100

· “The movie Ben Hur gives a totally unrealistic picture of life in the ancient world. The majority of the people did not live in spacious airy well ventilated accommodation but in tenements.

· “Tenements regularly collapsed because too lightly built and the poor in the less desirable upper stories subdivided them making them top-heavy so that that Rome was constantly filled with the noise of buildings imploding or being torn down to prevent it.”

· “Space shared with livestock.

· “Families in the tenements usually confined to one room. Privacy? Forget it.

· “Streets were so narrow (5-6.5 meters) that tenants could talk across the way without raising voices.

· “Cooking fires meant constant fear of fire among poor and rich. No soap. Water carried long distances in jugs. Stagnant untreated water in cisterns harboured many germs.

· “Some poor devils who found the stairs to the road too steep and the road to the pits too long would empty the contents of the chamber pots onto the street. So much for the passerby who intercepted this unwelcome gift.

In 600 years Antioch was:

· “Conquered 11 times; plundered on five of them

· “Burned entirely or in part four times

· “Hundreds of earthquakes; eight of which levelled everything and killed huge numbers.

· “Three epidemics killing 25% of the population

· “Five serious famines

ln all, 41 catastrophes for an average of one per 15 year period.

Social Ambience

· “Two sections of Antioch containing Syrians and Greeks were walled off to reduce race riots.

· “In addition there were Romans, Jews, Cretans and Cypriots. This was not a melting pot as no melting took place. (That the church could encompass this conglomerate into a cohesive community was remarkable.)

· “Night fell over the city like the shadow of a great danger, diffused, sinister and menacing. Everyone fled to his home, shut himself in, and barricaded the entrance. The shops fell silent, safety chains were drawn behind the doors - - Juvenal sighs that to go out to supper without having made your will was to expose yourself to reproach for carelessness.'' P 157

The Churches Response:

· “To cities filled with homeless and impoverished, the Church offered charity and hope.

· “To cities filled with newcomers and strangers, the Church provided an immediate basis for attachments.

· “To cities filled with orphans and widows Christianity provided a new and expanded sense of family.

· “To cities torn by violent ethnic strife the Church offered a new basis for social solidarity.

· “To cities filled with epidemics, fires and earthquakes, the Church offered effective nursing services.

Contrast the above with Saint Paul in Gal 3

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.”