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The apostles formed churches. Those churches formed churches. These churches had no leadership higher than the local city or town. Nonetheless, they were taught to carefully preserve the apostles’ teaching.
Over time, as the churches grew, some of the more prominent cities had “metropolitans.” These were bishops of major cities who led the churches of their city and surrounding small towns.
By the time of the Council of Nicea in AD 325, about 300 years after Jesus died and rose, the council gave official authority to the bishop of Alexandria over Egypt, Libya, and Pentapolis. It then said that the Roman bishop and the bishop of Antioch had similar authority (“the like is customary”; Canon 6). These bishops became known as “patriarchs,” and the bishop of Constantinople was added to them a few years later when Constantinople was built.
At that point, for the sake of such a quick history, all the churches were united (mostly). They were all “catholic,” which means “universal,” but in practice it meant “in communion with one another.”
A lot happened after the Council of Nicea, but let’s limit it to saying that the emperors of Rome got on board with Christianity and most Roman citizens became Christians, at least in name.
In the 5th century, the western Roman empire—all of Europe—fell to Barbarian kings. The other three patriarchs kept working with the Roman emperor in Constantinople. Over the next 300 years the Roman patriarch got the Barbarian kings to look to him as the spiritual leader of all western Christendom. That climaxed with the crowning of Emperor Charlemagne by the pope around 800.
A couple centuries later, in 1054, the patriarch of Rome excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople (very interesting story), and the patriarch of Rome became permanently separated from the other four patriarchs. (Moscow had been added as a fourth patriarch in the East.)
500 years later, around 1500, the Roman Catholic Church, as the western churches were now known, became so corrupt that people were leaving (e.g., Waldensians), being driven out of (e.g., also Waldensians), or being martyred by (e.g., Jan Huss, William Tyndale) the Catholic Church regularly.
Finally, though, they drove out someone with support from lords and nobles. Martin Luther was the first Reformer to gain the support of nobles: German nobles. Many of them stuck with Luther after he was excommunicated by Rome at the Diet of Worms [really].
Luther got the support of many German nobles after his excommunication in 1521. Around the same time, Ulrich Zwingli led a reform movement that was supported by the city council of Zurich, a city-state in Switzerland. About twenty years later, John Calvin gained the support of the Geneva city council.
Reform missionaries also reached England, where King Henry VIII had separated the church of England from Rome because the pope refused to annul a marriage for him so he could marry a second wife. They found great receptivity there to Calvin’s doctrines (“Calvinism“), and to this day many “Reformed” doctrines are part of Church of England theology.
All of these events involving Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and King Henry VIII are known as the Reformation. The Protestants—the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Plymouth Brethren, etc.—are all splits in the Protestant movement that have happened in the last 500 years.
Note: as often is the case, this blog post is an email sent in response to an inquiry. The following paragraphs more directly addressed his question. They seem pertinent to a brief church history, at least here in the western world, so I am including them.
Thus the Roman Catholic Church considers itself the original apostolic Church. I don’t agree because there wasn’t an original apostolic “Church.” There were original apostolic “churches,” and the Roman Catholic churches don’t look anything like what I read about in the apostles memoirs or in writings collected from their churches.
A great example of that wrong kind of thinking is in the very scholarly translation of the writings of Christians from before the Council of Nicea in AD 325 called The Ante-Nicene Fathers. In Volume 3, they title a chapter with “All Doctrine True Which Comes from the Church Through the Apostles,” yet the chapter never uses “Church,” but instead uses “churches” five times.
Yes, the early Christians do use “the Church,” just as Protestants do today. Like the Protestants, however, there was no organization that fit “the Church,” it was simply a general reference to all the churches. (Unlike the Protestants, they were united.)
An organization like the RCC did not exist in the first few centuries of Christianity.
The churches of the East never had a Protestant movement. Those churches are now known as Eastern Orthodox churches, or just Orthodox churches. The missionary movements of the last three or four centuries caused the Protestants and Catholics to reach eastern nations, and the Orthodox churches to reach America. Until the Reformation, however, in most of Asia and the Middle East, there were no churches except the national Orthodox churches.
The Orthodox churches in Syria and Egypt were excommunicated way back in the 5th century, Syria at the Council of Ephesus (432) and Egypt at the Council of Chalcedon (451), even before the Roman Catholics split off. The main Orthodox churches have appointed a new patriarch in Alexandria, but the old excommunicated church of Egypt still exists and is the primary church in Egypt, known as the Coptic Church. The Syrian church is now known by others as the Nestorian Church and by themselves as the Assyrian Orthodox Church of the East. They were the Christians persecuted by Sadam Hussein in Iraq.
One last thing.
The Pope and Roman Catholicism in the Second Century
The Roman Catholics claim that there was a pope from the time the apostle Peter came to Rome until now. The Eastern Orthodox reject that claim, and every non-Catholic historian rejects that claim. I have a great book by a Catholic scholar, a Notre Dame church history professor, rejecting that claim as well.
All the historical issues are addressed at “Is the Roman Catholic Church the One True Church?
I have a longer history on a one-hour video on Youtube.
What I would really love is question and answers. Whenever I speak on this subject, whether in informal or formal settings, there are always lots of questions. Almost always, though, if I speak formally, people come up afterwards and ask questions privately rather than publicly. So I end up answering the same questions over and over to two or three people.
So I know people are interested. How did we get from there to here? Leave questions in the comments, and I will use them for future blogs.