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Christianity, as its name suggests, is a religion practiced worldwide devoted to the worship and example of Jesus Christ. Jesus was a preacher who lived and taught in Israel two thousand years ago. The word Christ means “anointed” and refers to the fact that his followers believed he was anointed by God, whom many Christians believe to be his father, to redeem Israel. These disciples considered the work of Jesus to be the fulfillment of prophesies in the Hebrew scriptures, which they came to call the Old Testament. For a New Testament they added gospels (stories of his life) and epistles, which were letters to early Christian communities. These focus on the account of Jesus’ death by crucifixion, their belief that he was raised from the dead, and the idea that his disciples were commissioned to carry his message to the entire world.
The Jewish Heritage and Christian Expansion
Despite the common roots of Judaism and Christianity, almost at once Christians and Jews went separate ways and sometimes fell into conflict, which led to Christian anti-Semitism and frequent persecutions of Jews. In the twenty-first century serious efforts are bringing the two communities into conversation and often common action, but relations remain tense in some communities.
From their original home in Jerusalem, believers in Jesus quickly moved north and east, where at Antioch in Syria they were first named “Christians.” During the next four centuries this faith born in Asia also became a vigorous presence in North Africa, which was part of the Roman Empire, and in Europe, with which it came to be most identified until the twentieth century. In the fourth century Christianity, once harassed or forbidden, became the favorite of emperors and the established religion of the Roman Empire. In and after the sixteenth century missionaries and colonialists took the faith into South and North America, and in the early twenty-first century its churches prosper most in the Americas, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia. About two billion followers, almost onethird of the human race, consider themselves Christian.
Centuries of Conflict and Enterprise
Though Roman emperors were some of the first enemies of Christianity, the sudden rise of Islam in the seventh century led to Muslim conquests of most of North Africa, where Christianity eventually all but disappeared. Muslims also conquered Palestine—the “Holy Land” to Christians, Jews, and Muslims—and advanced in Europe. During the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries Christian leaders called for crusades to retake the holy places, especially in Jerusalem, and undertook many military ventures against then-Islamic territories.
Internal conflicts also beset Christianity. In the eleventh century the Eastern and Western churches, long in tension over doctrine and practice, separated. At issue in the separation was both the refusal of the Eastern Christians to regard the pope as the supreme authority and a doctrinal point about how Jesus Christ related to God the Father. Many political and cultural issues also led to the break. Within Western, or Roman Catholic, realms there was also conflict, some of it marked by the Inquisition, a name given to severe efforts by official Catholicism to purge itself of individuals and groups that were suspected of heresy against the church (which generally included anyone who was not a practicing Catholic or who refused to convert). The Protestant Reformation, beginning in the early sixteenth century, permanently divided the Western church. That Reformation was fought over, among other things, the authority of the church and the Bible, with Protestants claiming that they relied only on the divinely inspired scriptures and not on human authority, such as that of the pope (the leader of the Roman Catholic Church). In more recent times Protestants have argued among themselves over biblical authority: was the Bible the “inerrant” word of God, or might it be interpreted in such ways that its human elements also stand out?
Through it all the same zeal that produced crusades, inquisitions, schisms, and reformations inspired clerics and laypeople alike to create distinctive cultures marked by the invention of the university in the late Middle Ages, cathedrals, great art, and institutions for providing health care. Such energies also led to diversity in teaching and governance. Roman Catholics remained loyal to the pope. Lutheranism, inspired by the German religious reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546), eventually became recognized worldwide as another denomination of Christianity. Similarly the Church of England (Anglicanism), or in the United States the Episcopal Church, rejected papal authority. A third tradition, often called Reformed— informed by the writings of the French theologian and reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) in Switzerland, parts of Germany, and the Netherlands along with John Knox (1513–1572) in Scotland—stressed divine sovereignty. Still another cluster, sometimes called Radical or Anabaptist because its adherents “rebaptized” those who had been received into the church through infant baptism, spread, though its members were often persecuted by other Christians.
Stories, Doctrine, and Organization
While Christian teaching draws most deeply on the Bible, its leaders found it necessary to advance from telling informal stories to engaging in more formal expression in doctrines—official teachings that define the tenets of the faith. At a series of ecumenical (worldwide) councils during and after the fourth century, theologians, emperors, and bishops wrestled with basic questions. Christianity is strongly monotheistic, professing faith in one God (as is Judaism and Islam). But Christians also believe in a complex doctrine called the Holy Trinity, by which God is considered as existing in three persons: the Father (God), the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. They also wrestle with the ways to affirm and proclaim that the human Jesus also has divine status. Later councils dealt with the workings and effects of Christ in the church and in the greater community. According to Christian doctrine, Jesus is regarded as the “savior” of believers from their sin, which has distanced them from God, as well as the one who brings them salvation and inspires them to acts of love and justice.
Christians have worked with many forms of organization, usually stressing either episcopal government— which means rule by bishops, as in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism—or more “democratic” patterns, such as rule by elders or congregants themselves in the millions of local Protestant congregations or parishes. Referring to Christianity as a community may seem strained, because it is broken into around thirty thousand subcommunities called church bodies or in some places denominations. In the third millennium the most rapid new growth is in Pentecostalism, a movement of believers who profess the power of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Pentecostalism stresses the immediate experience of God through “signs,” such as healing or speaking in indecipherable spirit-guided vocalizations (speaking in tongues).
The central act of Christians everywhere is worship, usually guided by an ordained or specially appointed leader, named a priest, pastor, or preacher. Christian worship can be formal in cathedrals or informal in home and outdoor settings. Most Christians stress preaching at worship, meaning pronouncing judgment on erring believers and verbally offering forgiveness or grace to those who repent and set out to change their ways.
The other feature in most Christian assemblies is the sacramental life. Most Christians baptize new members with water and offer followers a sacrament, or Eucharist, which was instituted at Jesus’ Last Supper, where bread and wine are consecrated and consumed in remembrance of Jesus’ death (also called the Communion). Through this sacrament it is believed that members receive forgiveness, deepen their community life, and are empowered to serve God, especially by serving their neighbors and people in need.
Social and Cultural Contexts
Throughout its history Christianity has been influenced by the societies in which it thrives. After opposition within the Roman Empire early on, Christianity became the religion established and protected by law. The spectrum of attitudes within the Christian community includes everything from ascetic monasticism to artistic creations. In early Christianity church and regime were separate, and in modern free societies “church and state” remain legally distinct. At the same time Christian faith is very much a public affair, promoting movements of social reform and charity. Furthermore while Jesus’ own teaching inspires pacifists and other peacemakers, faith in a powerful and judgmental God has also authorized arbitrary rule and wars.
Devoted as Christians have been to social, cultural, and often political expressions, their creeds or statements of faith also teach that the world as it is now will someday end. While many Christians may agree that the future and the end are determined by God, they differ widely on the questions of how the end will come, though somehow most associate it with the “Second Coming” of Jesus Christ.
- Bowden, John, ed. 2005. Christianity: The Complete Guide. London: Continuum.
- Edwards, David Lawrence. 1997. Christianity: The First Two Thousand Years. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
- Littell, Franklin H. 2001. Historical Atlas of Christianity. 2nd ed. New York: Continuum.
- McManners, John, ed. 1990. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press.
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