Wesley Koswara | Staff Writer
Looking back over 2,000 years, the Church has come a long way from its origins in a Nazarene carpenter and his motley crew of twelve. In 2012, the Pew Research Center reported that nearly 31 percent of the then 6.9 billion people on earth identified as Christian. That comes out to a staggering 2.2 billion people—making Christianity the largest religion on the planet.
The journey from splinter sect to globe-spanning phenomenon, however, was neither simple nor stable. The Church as a whole has fragmented dozens of times over hundreds of years before reaching its current state. Here are five of the most influential moments in the life of the Church that brought us to where we are today.
The Council of Jerusalem
Dated to sometime around A.D. 50, the Council of Jerusalem, along with the efforts of the Apostle Paul to minister to the Gentiles, is one of the most important events that helped Christianity move from a splinter sect of Judaism to a religion of its own. The council dealt with how much Mosaic Law new converts would have to adhere to, focusing most importantly on circumcision. As getting one’s foreskin cut off as an adult in the days before effective anesthesia (strong wine was your best option) tended to alienate potential converts, it was decided that the yoke of genital mutilation was an unnecessary hindrance to following Christ.
The Battle of Milvian Bridge
The year is A.D. 312. Roman Emperor Constantine I, later known as Constantine the Great, and his rival for the throne of the Western Roman Empire, Maxentius, draw their legions into formation in front of the Milvian Bridge. Sometime before the battle, Constantine had a vision of the sun with a cross of light over it, as well as words in Greek translating to “In this sign, [you shall] conquer.” One account details that Constantine painted his legionaries’ shields with a symbol for Christ in response to this vision. In any case, Constantine is decisively victorious, decapitates Maxentius’ drowned body and eventually gains control of the entire Roman Empire. It is Constantine’s conversion that sets Christianity down the path to becoming Europe’s dominant religion for centuries. Just one year later, the Edict of Milan is passed, stopping the persecution of Christians by the state, and in A.D. 380, Christianity is declared the state religion of the Roman Empire.
The First Council of Nicaea
Convened in A.D. 325 by Emperor Constantine, Nicaea was host to over 300 bishops from all corners of the known world. Representatives came from across the Eastern Roman Empire to the Church’s first ecumenical council in today’s Turkey to discuss, more importantly than any other issue, the theological deviations of Arius of Egypt. Arius, later branded a heretic and excommunicated, professed the belief that the Son was not equal to the Father, but a subservient created being. Apocryphal legend has it that St. Nicholas—the Santa Claus St. Nicholas—was not only in attendance, but was so outraged during the debate that he got up, crossed the debate hall floor and slapped Arius across the face. It was here the Nicene Creed was formulated, and the council agreed that the Father and Son were equal and of the same substance.
The East- West Schism
Remember when you and your best friend were kids, and you had a really, really bad fight? Remember when you were so angry that you started a club just so your best friend couldn’t join, and he did the exact same thing, and before you know it the Muslims have sacked Byzantium and you really wish the Church was a united body? The East-West Schism was a similar event. Tensions between Church communities had been strained over issues including the Pope’s insistence of his own superiority over other patriarchs and the policy toward the veneration of religious icons of Mary or the saints. In 1054, representatives sent by Pope Leo IX excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael I Cerularius, who returned the favor by excommunicating them back. The Church would continue to divide along cultural, linguistic and geographic lines to create the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches we know today.
The 95 Theses
Indulgences were grants from the Church that were supposed to lessen temporal punishment in purgatory—a sort of metaphysical “get out of jail free card.” These indulgences were sold under sanction from the Pope, a system that proved very lucrative to those cunning and corrupt enough to take advantage of it. In 1517, Martin Luther, a theology professor at Wittenberg University, nailed 95 Theses to the front door of the Wittenberg church, criticizing the practice to Archbishop Albert of Brandenburg. Luther refused to back down, even to the point of his excommunication four years later. Today, Luther is remembered for printing Bibles in common German for the common German, declaring the Pope to be the Antichrist and kicking off the Protestant Reformation.