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How did we Become the Church?
Some basic Church history

Anne Wetzel
Easter Eve, St. James Cathedral, Chicago   (Anne Wetzel)

The Early Church

After the resurrection, Scripture tells us, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to be with the disciples. When that happened, the Church was born. The Disciples began to gather more followers for Jesus, and continued to teach them. The more people learned about Jesus life, death, and resurrection, the more excited they became about changing their lives to be closer to Jesus and his followers’ example.

They sold their possessions and gave the money to the poor. They prayed and celebrated the resurrection every Sunday. They traveled throughout the region and one person in particular, whose name was Paul, felt that he was sent by God to bring this good news not just to the Jewish people, but to all people he could find.

The Church grew, in spite of tremendous persecution, first from the Jewish communities to whom they were preaching about Jesus, but then from the Romans. The Roman Empire was threatened by the Christians’ refusal to worship the Emperor, as well as by the “unnatural” ways in which they loved their enemies and did good to their persecutors. Many, many Christians were executed for their beliefs, and many of the “Saints” whose lives we celebrate still today were among them.

The Orders of Clergy: Deacons, Bishops, and Priests

As the communities grew, the disciples of Jesus (known by this point as “Apostles,” from the Greek word for “one who is sent”) could not manage to lead all the new churches and still keep up the work of caring for the poor and disenfranchised, so they appointed help. First, they chose “deacons” (from the Greek meaning “servant”) to carry on the work of feeding and caring. Next, they appointed “overseers,” whom we call bishops, to watch over the churches. As the Apostles died and the churches grew, the bishops appointed “priests” to help them. Thus the main “orders” of the clergy were founded: Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.

Over the first three centuries of the history of the Church, the Bishops established the fundamental doctrines and practices that still today govern the life of churches all over the world.

Different Kinds of Church

Through the first centuries of Christianity, the Church was a sort of loose association of worshipping communities, most of which met in people’s houses. This Church was referred to as “catholic,” which really means “universal.” “Catholic” technically means, “All the Baptized Members of Jesus Christ.” As Christianity spread, the bishops worked hard to standardize their beliefs and practices to make sure that everyone had the same story, even if their experiences of God were richly diverse. By the fourth century, the fundamental doctrines of the Church had been formalized into the Nicene Creed. There continued to be tension, however, across the Church concerning all sorts of matters, including worship and technicalities of theology. The geography and diversity of the Church grew until it finally split into two parts in the 11th Century between two cities: The Roman Catholic Church, based in Rome, Italy, and the Eastern Orthodox Church centered in Constantinople, now Istanbul in Turkey. Each part claimed to be the “true church.”

In Western Europe in the 16th Century, tensions in the Roman Catholic Church had grown again to the point that another “schism” (or split) took place, led by Martin Luther and is commonly referred to in Western history as the “Reformation.” The “Lutheran Church,” which grew out of Luther’s ideas, was the first of the so-called “Protestant” Churches (because of their “protest” of Rome). From that point on, the Church has continued to fracture into more and more denominations, depending largely on the way their governing bodies make decisions (called “polity”), their arguments about aspects of Christianity (at what age Christians should be baptized, for instance), or their styles of worship.