There are four main periods of Church history.
The first was the Apostolic age. This was the first four hundred years of the Church before becoming the official religion of Rome. During this time the Church was defined by close knit communities where Elders and Deacons led the Church in a more organic order focused on discipling individuals into God through the Spirit.
The second was the Patristic Period. This was the next four hundred years, from the fourth to the eight centuries, incorporating seven Church counsels called by Roman emperors (En.12). During this time the Church was defined by a growing consolidation of power and belief.
The third was the Medieval Era. This was a period of a thousand years, from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries, that was dominated by two strong political powers; the Catholic Church and Western Monarchies. During this time the Church was defined by a tight grip on all aspects of society. The defining phrase of this time was, “The King rules the country, but the Pope crowns the King” (En.13).
The fourth and final is the Modern Era. This spans the last five hundred years, from the Protestant Reformation, through the growth of modern democracies, up to today. During this time the Church has been defined by continuing division from governments and within itself.
History is a funny thing. It’s not the history of grand movements or governments. It’s the history people. The fact that we can paint history with broad and sweeping brush strokes shows our tendency to reframe it within our personal context. You can tell where a world map was made by what country is at the center. That’s how it is with history. We place ourselves at the center, and delineate everything else from there. But the truth of the history of the world is that there are only two main figures at its center. God and Satan. The history of humanity has always been about two spiritual principalities over two different and opposing spiritual kingdoms. The problem is, the movements and presence of these two principalities and their kingdoms is hard to see. The easiest way to see them is through the lens of their defining characteristics.
What are those characteristics? There are many ways we could define God and Satan, but the core qualities of both of these can be define in two simple words; Connection and Separation.
The defining characteristic of God is connection. God created us in connection and for connection. Other words we could use for this are Communion, Interdependence, Unity, Love, Life, and Eternity. God is about never-ending connection. God is the sustaining life of all things, in all things. To be apart from the sustaining life of God is hell. That’s why the defining characteristic of Satan is separation.
Everything about Satan’s kingdom is designed around what separates us. Satan wants to separate us from God, each other, and everything good. Satan lives in and out of separation. In his attempt to take over heaven, he was separated from God. Now he knows no other existence but separation from God, and wants to breath and breed that separation all over the earth. To say that Satan is everything opposite of God is to say that separation is the opposite of connection.
When we view human history, and the Church within it, we can best detect the movements of God and Satan through the two ideas of Connection and Separation.
The Church is God’s instrument in the world meant to draw all people back to Him. Jesus once said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32a NIV). Jesus stands at the center of the Church as God’s instrument to draw all people to Himself. As a part of that there is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Unity (Ephesians 4:3). In the next verse in Ephesians Paul wrote, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV). Another way to describe unity is Oneness. Jesus prayed in garden just before his death that we would all be One just as he was One with the Father (John 17:21-22).
This idea of Oneness is what Contemplation calls Mystical Union, or Unitive Consciousness. Contemplation developed out of the Desert Fathers in the third century as a means and method of prayer. Contemplative monks saw prayer as the center of everything Jesus came to teach. To the Desert Fathers, prayer wasn’t asking God to do things; it was a continual and growing communion with God. They saw Christ’s example on the earth as one lived out of communion with God, where everything Christ said and did was in concert with the Father. There was a unified and unifying will between Jesus and the Father. For the human Jesus, that unity was facilitated by the Holy Spirit. It was that kind of unity through communion that the Desert Fathers wanted to pursue and preserve. That is what became known as Contemplation. Contemplation was the attempt to be like Jesus, to develop a growing unity with God through prayer and communion.
With a deep God-communion at the heart and center of the Church, the Desert Father’s believed everything else about our Christ-communities would flow and fall into place naturally. There wouldn’t need to be a set and forced kind of Church leadership or doctrine. Truth and authority in a Church centered on God-communion would flow naturally out of that Oneness. The problem is that no one is truly unified with God as they should be.
There is always a gap between us and God, in the practical terms of our communion. Because of that, it is necessary to have some sort of leadership and truth structure. The hope is that this structure can be held loosely enough to guide people towards God-communion without taking its place. The danger is when the structure we create around God begins to take the place of our God-communion. The more we rely on human structures to facilitate Church, the more we can squeeze God out of the center. But this shifting from God at the center doesn’t happen overnight. It happens slowly, and can be hard to see. Sometimes, it takes an intuitive group of individuals to sense and follow the move of God for their time. The Desert Fathers where one such group.
What the Desert Fathers started and established in Contemplation and Monasticism would reverberate down through the centuries as an effective safeguard against the Church’s tendency to squeeze God out of the center. Time and again, as the Catholic Church got caught up in corruption and complacency, Monastic leaders would call it back to the original intent of Christ. They did this by being an example of holiness, by continuing to put God at the center of their lives and their monastic communities.
In a Church that would become consumed by its immense political power over all aspects of Medieval culture, monks and nuns were a shining and searing example of the opposite. They were a contrasting example of powerlessness and poverty in the face of the Church’s great power and wealth. They did this through a dedicated pursuit of God. They ordered and organized their communities around a multiplicity of spiritually mature Elders and Deacons discipling younger monks into relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. This was the original intent of Christ for the Church.
As the Church developed over the centuries, there came to exist two kinds of Churches. There was the Church focused on power and control, and the Church focused on community in Christ. Both of those Churches existed side by side. They co-existed, often appearing as the same thing, even in the same local body, operating out of two different driving forces. At the core of those two driving forces was the energy of connection and separation.
The Church consumed with power and control used separation to confirm and enforce its power. If that Church didn’t like what you were doing, it would separate you from itself. In the Middle Ages, this was called excommunication. At times, excommunication in the Catholic Church could lead to the ultimate form of separation. Excommunication could lead to execution.
For the average congregate, the Church was the Power of God unto salvation. It represented the things you needed, and needed to do to get right and stay right with God. You didn’t just need the power of the Holy Spirit to indwell and transform you. You needed the sacraments delivered by the priest to keep you in right standing with God. In this Church, salvation unto heaven was about a right relationship with an institution. That Church put itself at the center of Christianity, and Christianity at the center of culture. But it wasn’t the same kind of Christianity practiced during the Apostolic Age, or by monks in monasteries. It was a blending of Christianity with the power of the nation-state. It was the Kingdom of God mixed with the Kingdom of Satan. It wasn’t just Christianity. It was Christendom.
Christendom was focused, not just on discipling individuals into Christ, but on Christianizing entire nations. This was different than Jesus original intent for the Church, but that wasn’t always easy to see. The idea of painting the surface of an entire culture with the shiny veneer of Christianity looked like a good thing. It looked like the symbol of Christianity everywhere. That can be a good thing, depending on what’s beneath the surface of that symbol. A Church on every corner, and a cross around every neck can look like a whole nation of Christians. As long as the core of Christ’s mission is being carried out, it can be. Christianity and Christendom can co-exist side by side at the same time, appearing to be about the same thing. Even appearing to be the same thing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
Christ’ mission and commission was to go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Baptizing someone into life with God, and converting someone to a more surface religion isn’t the same thing. But they can look like the same thing. A Church can actually be doing both at the same time, side by side, and not always know the difference. A Church can be Christianizing people into Christendom, while still highlighting the need to go deeper into a true relationship with God through the Holy Spirit. The problem becomes when that deeper step becomes non-essential, when it becomes an extra step for the truly dedicated.
Though monasticism preserved a deeper knowing of God, it did so as a small subset of Christians within the larger context of the Church. For the average Christian, knowing God was being connected to the institution of Church through priests and sacraments. If you were baptized in water, and went to church regularly to receive communion and confession, you would go to heaven when you died.
During the second and third periods of Church history, you only had to give a little of your life to be right with God. If you wanted to do something more, something extra, you could dedicate your whole life to God. You could be a minister or a monk. But that was beyond the basic requirements, in a Church more focused on making everyone Christian for the sake of Christendom, for the sake of ruling over Christian nations.
When you hold the power of eternal life in heaven over an entire nation, you can force people to conform to the external trappings of Christian culture. But you can’t force them to give their hearts, minds, and lives to Jesus. That takes more than conformity to cultural and societal norms. It takes a radical transformation of the heart. Radical transformation is what Jesus came to offer.
Sin is separation from God. Salvation is reconnection. But in Christendom, you can have a connection to all things Christian without a connection to Christ. That was by design. That was the Plan. That was the Plan of Satan, to create a Church that mimicked all aspects of the Trinity on the surface, while being separated from God in practical, relational terms. God’s Plan was Himself, to give Himself to others through reconnection. Satan’s Plan was himself, to separate others from God so he could use them for his own purposes and Plan.
Christendom was the blending of two spiritual kingdoms into One Church, with One Leader and One Truth. Christianity was Oneness with a Tripartite God.
Over time, and through the centuries, Christianity became synonymous with Christendom, which comfortably co-existed as two different kinds of Churches side by side. One was a powerful institution exercising its control over cultures and nation-states. One was a community focused on an organic, growing connection to Christ. As it turns out, God would use both of these Churches to advance his Kingdom.
God always fold’s Satan’s Plan into His own. But it’s still good for us to stop and recognize which is which, and to be ever upward in our attempt to join God in growing His Church to be more the Bride of Christ, and less the Prostitute of Satan.
Satan’s Plan was to prostitute the Church to his form of power. This was the mixing of two kinds of Churches. It was the Bride of Christ on the Beast of his power. It was Christianity and Christendom co-existing side by side.