Why a Church?

“But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.” (Matthew 2:6)

“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations.” (Matthew 24:14)

It took quite a journey, both literally and metaphorically, for Christianity to get from Bethlehem, a tiny village in a remote corner of the Roman Empire, to Rome itself, and from there to the far ends of the earth. It’s a fair question to ask, How did this happen? How did a religious movement that began in a relatively nondescript location and what would seem to have been the most inauspicious circumstances become a global Church?

One answer might be: “Christianity was adopted as the ‘official religion’ of the Roman Empire by Constantine.” That answer won’t do for several reasons. It doesn’t explain how Christianity survived and thrived for the first three centuries under what were at times horrible bouts of persecution. Or why it was by Constantine’s time attractive enough to draw the interest of an emperor when it had, not long before, been illegal. Or why it became dominant over pagan gods with much longer standing in the empire, devotion to whom many Romans believed was responsible for their greatness. And finally why specifically orthodox Christianity survived even though Constantine and other emperors after him embraced Arianism.

Another, better answer would be: “because of the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit.” And yet, since the effect of the Holy Spirit we’re looking for expressed itself in the concrete events of history – not merely, say, in the change of one person’s soul – we can ask how and by what means the Holy Spirit guided the Church.

In a similar way, if someone were to ask: “How was this child cured of malaria?” one good answer would be: “It was the work of the Holy Spirit.” But this answer wouldn’t be mutually exclusive from going on to add: “And one of the means by which the Holy Spirit brought about that effect was through the agency of Dr. Jones and the healing properties of quinine.”

In history, God works in and through natural causes, including human agency. It seems entirely appropriate, therefore, to ask “How (in the sense of “by what means concretely”) did the Holy Spirit guide and protect the early Church and make her successful when so many other ancient religions fell by the wayside?”

Creditable historians often point to two things in particular that the early Church had going in its favor, which distinguished it from the pagan religions it supplanted.

Virgin and Child, 4th century (Catacombs, Rome,)
Virgin and Child, 4th century (Catacombs, Rome,)

First, unlike most of the pagan religions of the ancient Roman world, where “worship” was undertaken either to placate the gods or to secure favor from them, Christianity made serious moral and spiritual claims on its adherents. Ancient Romans such as Cicero, Virgil, and Seneca looked to philosophy rather than religion for moral principles and guidance. The “scandal” of philosophy, however, was that there were many “schools” of philosophy – Stoic, Epicurean, Platonic, Aristotelian — and they did not agree about what constituted the best life. Christianity had a unified vision. Moreover the philosophy of the Greek “schools” required a great deal of education. Christianity did not. The mystery religions were expensive and focused on a small group of “elite.” Christianity was free and open to all.

The second factor was that it had a relatively well organized and stable administrative structure: local churches gathered into regional groupings under local bishops and deacons, further united under major “primates” and finally – at least on the Catholic understanding – all of these admirably diverse elements having a unity grounded in Rome. The Church, like the Triune God, included a multiplicity, local churches that did not tear apart its fundamental unity as “catholic,” and a unity that did not destroy its diversity.

What made the Church successful, in other words, was that it possessed precisely those characteristics that many people today dislike most about it. The Church is “religious” not just “spiritual.” It makes moral demands and isn’t merely another bit of moralistic therapeutic deism whereby God is there to make people “nice” and to make us “feel better” when things aren’t going our way.

So too the Church has an administrative structure that: (A) doesn’t allow people to do or believe whatever they want; (B) keeps it from becoming an elite “mystery cult”; and (C) depends upon the teaching authority of the successors of the apostles, the bishops, and the pope, which (D) keeps the Church from becoming merely a “regional” or “national” church.

All of these things can be at times both annoying and imperfect in practice – as they certainly were in the early Church. And yet history suggests that if we want Christianity to survive through the coming years, we’ll need to support precisely these elements that have traditionally made the Church strong enough to survive the storms of history. Our faith is in the Holy Spirit. But it is by means of these imperfect “earthen vessels” the Spirit has poured out His grace upon us.

He chose water for baptism, rather than fire; bread and wine for the Eucharist, rather than tea and rice; and formed an apostolic Church to preach the Gospel and to carry out His mission rather than depending upon a group of enlightened monks on a hilltop in Judea to send out mysterious oracular pronouncements at irregular intervals.

Plenty of people in history have imagined they could do away with the “institutional” Church and still retain the Spirit, pure and unadulterated. Where are they now?

If we toss aside the instruments of grace He has established, do we really imagine we’ll be able to stand in the winds that will blow then?

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.