The Christian Church’s Struggle to be Faithful

This article was written for Religion Online March 3, 1998.


If the Church is faithful, it will not be the same in the future as it is today. It will not use the same forms of organization, teach the same way, relate to society in the same way, or worry about the same issues. In a word, the church will be transformed.

The Christian Church throughout its history took on different forms and adopted different strategies as it interacted with changing cultures and technologies.

IMPLICATION: If the Church is faithful, it will not be the same in the future as it is today. I t will not use the same forms of organization, teach the same way, relate to society in the same way, or worry about the same issues. In a word, the church will be transformed.


An Uncomfortable Feeling

There is a growing consensus among Christian leaders in the United States that a critical task is to discover the institutional structures we must invent to carry us into the next century. As Loren Mead says, "We are being called to be midwives for a new church, working to help our present forms and structures give birth to forms appropriate for the new mission of the church." (The Once and Future Church, pg. 5)

Yet, trying to keep institutional structures from disintegrating or trying to convince others to accept the possibility of change consumes most church leadership energy. The second is more important. Loren Mead falls into this category. He is helping the church see that the current institutional structures are the result of historical process and the future will require new structures.

Not only organized religion, but U.S. society as a whole is experiencing a crisis. An inability to ensure quality urban environments, the continuing plagues of racism and sexism, a lack of consensus on a role for the U.S. in a post Cold War world, the increased violence in the streets and the media, and the disintegration of institutions from families to school districts are only symptoms of a society that does not have a clear vision of its past, present or future.

The followers of Jesus were in a similar state of disarray shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The inherent corruption of Roman civilization was already apparent in the disintegration of quality social life. So, it was not just the small group of Jesus’ followers who were confused about the future; many in Roman society were searching for a system of meaning that would make sense out of their experience of human life. The Bible tells us that it was a complete outsider, Paul, who developed a strategy to move the Christians into their first period of making an impact on society.


The Bible Tells About a Transformation

Paul took the tools of communication that were available in Roman culture and used them to articulate the Christian message. Specifically, he used the Roman road system and he wrote manuscripts that were duplicated by hand copying. The result of this outsider’s work was that people living in the Roman Empire could understand and appropriate the message of Jesus.

There are several details of Paul’s strategy that will become important for later arguments. First, the scriptures make it clear that Paul was not only involved in telling about Jesus, he was also involved in determining the content of the message. This is most clear in the discussion about whether converts to Christianity needed to follow all Jewish customs. The Bible says that this was an extremely hotly contested issue with Jesus’ followers taking different sides. It was impossible for Paul to simply take the practices and teachings of the Apostles and apply the strategy of using Roman transportation and manuscripts. He needed to rethink some of the teachings to make them work with his overall approach.

A second observation about Paul is that he did not expect the Apostles in Jerusalem to pay the costs of his bold moves of taking Christianity into the future. First, he developed his own system of support by making tents to earn his keep and pay the expenses of his work. Secondly, he continued to be concerned about the economic welfare of the Apostles in Jerusalem. Paul actually collected money to deliver to them. His goal was not to destroy the older form of the church that existed in Jerusalem.

It was important to Paul that the people he converted to Christianity did not follow the Jewish customs, but he was perfectly willing to have the Christian communities in Jerusalem practice Jewish customs. He even participated fully with them when he visited Jerusalem.

Since Paul is a biblical figure, one could argue that the Bible sets the standard for the nature of the church and, since that time, faithfulness requires that we do not deviate from the biblical standard. However, the Bible describes several forms of church organization. A closer look at Christian history shows that there have been two more transformations since Paul.


The Constantinian Transformation

The next transformation came at a time of great Christian growth when the Roman Empire became officially Christian. There was a need to quickly help the general population understand what Christianity was all about. Today it is easiest to see the result of this transformation in the Eastern Christian Churches, although the Western Church centered in Rome fully participated in this transformation.

In 330 the Roman Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the empire to a city he named Constantinople. The church faced two challenges. The first was how to quickly integrate the whole population of Roman civilization into the church. The second was how to convert the tribes that threatened Roman organization. Critical to the success of popularizing Christianity was the adoption of a strategy of using art and architecture. As Gregor Goethals says of this period, "Missionaries and apologists preaching and teaching the Christian gospel in the Mediterranean world came face to face with country and urban people who had learned their religious, social, and political views primarily from narrative images and objects. If the church wanted to appeal to these groups and communicate with them, it had to speak, at least in part, in that common visual language." (The Electronic Golden Calf, p. 15) The final split between the western church led by the Roman Pope and the Eastern Church did not come until the eleventh century. Long before this split the Christian church began to use images to communicate its message. Pope Gregory (540-604) made it clear that the church was committed to this strategy. He argued that art and architecture were the "Bible for the illiterate."

This transformation required settling related issues of practice and belief. An early question was whether Christian art should depict only Jesus. One consequence of this discussion was that Mary became extremely important in religious art and practice.

Clyde Manschreck described how Christians used art and architecture to tell their stories: "In the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia, a temple erected by Emperor Justinian (527-65), the harmony of Orthodoxy appears with dazzling brilliance. Against the towering heights of the dome, the Virgin Mary stands lifting her child unto the presence of God the Pantocrator, emperor of the Universe. This magnificent cathedral, still the most important structure in Eastern Christendom, captures in its stone and mosaic the Orthodox vision of the unity and harmony of the cosmos." (A History of Christianity in the World, pg. 112)

Paul would have found it very strange that the church used images to tell its stories. None of his letters even mention that Mary is important for Christian belief or devotion. Even more surprising to Paul would have been the cooperation between the government and the church. Yet, Paul probably would have supported the church of Emperor Justinian and Pope Gregory just as he supported the church in Jerusalem. He would have seen both as attempts to bring the meaning of Jesus’ life and death to a particular culture.


The Protestant Transformation

The third great transformation for the church came with the introduction of the printing press. Bibles, theological writing, devotional books and standardized liturgical services could all be mass-produced. Again there were not only profound changes in communication, but also church organization, theological teachings, and worship changed. The theology of the Protestant reformation was one of the results of this transformation. At about the same time the Roman Catholic Church had its own transformation in what is called the Catholic-reformation.

The German monk, Martin Luther (1483-1546), introduced, or in some cases reintroduced, bold new ideas. He translated the Bible into German and arranged for its publication and broad distribution. He also wrote extensive commentaries on the scriptures and encouraged everyone to read and study the Bible. Luther proposed new roles for church leaders and advocated what he called "the priesthood of all believers."

The Protestant reformation is often presented as if it were a religious reaction to the Roman Catholic Church. Certainly the reformation resulted in Protestant and Catholics taking different paths. However, it is more helpful (and more accurate) to see the reformation period as a time when Christians participated in a transformation that was made necessary by the introduction of printing technology into European culture.

Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1397-1468) introduced printing into European culture and produced the Mazarin Bible between 1450 and 1455. With incredible speed printing spread across Europe. At first the goal of printers was to replicate manuscript books. However, shortly after Gutenberg set up his press, Nicolas Jenson (c. 1420-1480), a Frenchman working in Venice, developed Roman type. Printed books were now a medium of communication that was distinct from manuscripts not only because of the technology used to produce them, but also because of the way they looked.

Printed works appeared in Italy (1453), Basel (1466), France (1470), Hungary (1473), Spain (1473), Poland (1474), Bruges (1474), England (1476), and Sweden (1483). We often think that rapid technological change has only occurred in the twentieth century, but the almost instantaneous adoption of printing shatters that idea. For example, by 1490 there were over one thousand public presses in Germany alone. This does not include the uncounted presses that were in private houses or monasteries. Within thirty-five years after Gutenberg produced the first printed page, every major city in Europe had a printing facility. When Martin Luther posted his famous 95 theses on the door of the castle church in Wittenberg in 1517, printed books and pamphlets were already well established as a dominant medium of communication.

Just as the cultural transformation we are experiencing in the last part of the twentieth century is extremely complex, the period of the Protestant reformation was a complex time of changes for Christianity. There were changes in economic systems, governmental systems, and family organizations. Church structures and teachings of the fifteenth century were not workable or sustainable in the early sixteenth century.

Looking back from the twentieth century, it is easy to identify mistakes that well-meaning Christian leaders made during the sixteenth century. Three mistakes stand out above the others. First there was the Catholic mistake, then there were two Protestant mistakes.


The Catholic Mistake

The Catholic mistake is one that honest observers must admit was probably unavoidable, but it is still tragic. As the church faced the cultural upheavals at the turn of the sixteenth century, the response was to attempt to preserve the established structures and to put a damper on creative initiative. If church leadership had recognized that the medieval form of Christianity needed to be transformed because print was becoming the dominant medium, then church leaders might have seen people like Martin Luther as creative leaders bringing Christianity into a new era. The Roman Catholic Church today bears little resemblance to the medieval church. Today, Bibles are published by the church and their use is promoted, priests are not allowed to hold political office, and members are encouraged to read the Bible and worship in their native language. If the church in the sixteenth century had only recognized that the communication revolution surrounding it called for a transformation, church leaders would have found within its ranks creative and energetic people eager to help the church find its way through the transformation. Sadly, the response of the church was to ban the translation or distribution of printed Bibles, to fight against separation of church and state, and to standardize and enforce the use of only Latin liturgies.


The First Protestant Mistake

The first Protestant mistake was that Protestant leaders adopted the medieval concept of valuing doctrinal uniformity. During the era when art and architectural images were the dominant mode of communication, the church needed to constantly be on guard against ideas that were completely contrary to Christianity. Attempts to articulate the essential features of the Christian faith and to identify ideas that fell outside Christianity provided an arena in which the church was protected from excesses of multiple interpretations that are possible with visual images. With creeds and hand-copied manuscripts, doctrinal uniformity could only be an aspiration. With the advent of printing, articles of faith, theological dissertations, and arguments about the fine points of doctrine were quickly produced and widely distributed. Subtle differences in doctrinal statements could easily be compared. The exact replications of printed material gave authority to each copy.

The tragedy is that the early Protestant leaders did not realize that the ideal of doctrinal uniformity needed to be abandoned with other medieval strategies. The result of the print culture church adopting the expectation that all Christians would agree to exactly the same doctrine resulted in the shattering of Christian fellowship and some bloodshed. Sadly, the leaders of the Protestant reformation did not realize that the definition of a church is a fellowship of people who share the stories of Jesus and are committed to following Jesus.

Today Protestants no longer practice doctrinal uniformity. People easily move their membership from a Lutheran to a Presbyterian to Methodist congregation. In most Protestant congregations today there is as much diversity of opinion on the fine points of Christian belief within the congregation as there was between leaders of sects at the time of the reformation. However, the error of doctrinal uniformity continues to plague the church as some groups are more concerned about articulating the errors of one group or another than in rejoicing with others that they share a belief in the same Lord and Savior.


The Second Protestant Mistake

The second Protestant mistake was most pronounced in the teachings of some of the Swiss reformers. John Calvin (1509-1564) rejected the use of images and art. He only conceded the use of a simple cross as a Christian symbol. Ulrich Zwingli (1481-1531) condemned the use of any object of art. These radical reformers were so committed to the new medium of communication that they saw art as competing with their use of the printed Bible. In their rush to embrace the new dominant medium of communication they refused to leave a place for the previous communication system. Unlike Paul who thought that his new gentile church could live in harmony with and even support the older form of Christianity, the reformers thought that they needed to destroy the Church of the previous era.


The Church Faces Another Transformation Period

Today the Christian Church faces the challenge of responding to a culture that has been radically transformed by the introduction of new communication technology. The global community adopted the use of electronic communication at a rate that can only be compared to the way printing was adopted. We can learn important lessons from previous transformations. This time we have the benefit of the experience of three previous transformations.

The necessary technological advances required to make television possible were made near the end of the 19th century. The first successful public broadcasts in 1935. In 1941 the Federal Communication commission authorized public broadcasting in the United States, but World War II interrupted the development of the television industry. After the war, black and white broadcasting developed rapidly in the United States, England, France and Germany. One million receivers were in use in America by 1949, 10,000,000 by 1951, and more than 100,000,000 by 1975. In forty years television became the dominant medium of communication.

While televisions were moving into almost every home in Europe and North America, other electronic communication technologies were rapidly finding a place in the culture. Movies, radio and telephones prepared the way for the television revolution. Now television may turn out to be only a small part of the multimedia communication systems that integrate sound, images, vast amounts of information and powerful searching and transmission tools. Today the Internet and related systems of distributing electronic signals are posed to complete this phase of the electronic communication revolution. More important than the vastness of the Internet with complex connections of thousands of computers, is the fact that every user of the Internet has the ability to distribute information to anyone else on the Internet.

Television is a social leveling technology because it provides the same information to all levels of society. It is democratic in the sense that it allows people to "be present" at events like John Kennedy’s funeral, the first steps by humans on the moon, and the war in Vietnam. The Internet takes this a step further by allowing individuals or groups to "publish" information.


Fundamental Issue for the Church Today

Today the Christian Church is faced with a challenge similar to that faced by Paul, church leaders in the fourth century, and the reformers. How can Christianity be translated into a culture where the dominant medium of communication is electronic? The question is not: How can the church use technology? Rather church leaders need to ask the questions: How can we be faithful to the message of Jesus in an age of electronic communication?

The answer to this last question is critical to finding the answer to many other questions. How can Christianity be reconciled with modern science? How can the church be managed for more efficiency and mission success? How can religious teachings become the foundation for a just and stable social order? How can people living in the twenty-first century find spiritual satisfaction and confidence?


Lessons from Past Transformations

Each transitional period offers opportunities or the Christian church. The most important lesson we can learn from past transitions is that Christian people need to recognize that transitions offer special opportunity for faithful Christian discipleship.

Because there have always been bold and creative Christian leaders for each transformation, we do not know what would have happened to the Christian message if the church had remained unchanged. We can only guess what might have happened if Paul had been rejected by the church in Jerusalem and forbidden to share Christianity with the Roman world. The Christian movement church might have died out after a few years. We do know that the church as it existed in Jerusalem in biblical times no longer exists.

The biblical report of the first transformation of Christianity is extremely helpful as the church looks toward its next transition. It is important that we do not completely reject the current expression of Christianity in the world. It is also important to learn from the experience of the transformation to a print dominated era. If we will view the transformation as a faithful response to a change in the dominant medium of communication in the culture, then the transformation of the church can be a time of developing greater Christian unity and, in the end, a more faithful presence of the Body of Christ.


Ken Bedell