Get Rid of Christendom
Early in the history of the church, the bishops came to believe Jesus intended the church to be a visible institution with bishops at the head and with a division of roles between clergy and laity. Over the circumstances of time, this morphed into Christendom in the west. In recent history, the Catholic Church has lost its grasp over the secular political realm, but the division between clergy and laity remains (as it should — the Church must have leaders).
In striving to defend the church from the enemies who wanted to destroy it (heretics, Roman emperors, schismatics, etc.) the bishops adapted to the primitive moral standards of the day rather than adhering to the high teachings of Christ. This caused the church to split and fragment (great schism between east and west, Protestant Reformation) and it prevents millions (billions?) today from taking the church seriously. How can a church that behaves so badly be true?
The Catholic Church should never have persecuted people of other faiths and religions, nor should it have practiced torture or burning at the stake. Jesus did not intend these sour developments in moral theology. But this did not invalidate God's plan for one universal church as an institution, just as bad behavior between a man and wife does not invalidate the institution of marriage.
Our modern concept of freedom of religion is superior to the old views of Christendom. The bishops should have maintained their proper authority over the church without sacrificing human dignity in the process. Sadly, as the recent priestly scandals demonstrate, the bishops have not yet learned their lessons. It seems they won't shape up until someone they've harmed speaks out and the strong arm of the secular law finally persuades them to honor the flock of Christ over which they have charge.
Christianity was born in a time of Roman rule when the state had absolute authority over secular matters. Certain harmless religions such as Judaism were tolerated and freedom of religion was the norm; adherents of these religions could worship as they pleased.
Christianity at first made no attempt to interfere with this state of affairs. For example, there was no Christian civil rights movement to free the slaves. Christians were to obey the civil government (even though it was corrupt and unrighteous) and to be good citizens.
The Old Testament nation of Israel was founded by God to be a visible worldly nation — this is clear from the Pentateuch. God inaugurated a priesthood ruling over secular affairs. In a later development, the people chose to have a secular king over them having authority similar to the Catholic Pope's authority over Catholics.
The question is whether or not God intended these aspects of the nation of Israel to be retained by the church. If he did, we should expect there to be a clear indication of this in the New Testament and in the apostolic church. Such evidence does indeed exist.
The New Testament church is both a spiritual nation and a human institution.
And when they had appointed him a day, there came many to him into his lodging; to whom he expounded and testified the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus, both out of the law of Moses, and out of the prophets, from morning till evening. (Acts 28:23)
The Old Testament was often used to demonstrate there would be a Messiah to redeem Israel and the world by establishing the kingdom of God.
For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. (Romans 14:17)
The kingdom of God is spiritual. The question is whether there is also a temporal institutional aspect.
I should note that the institutional aspect of the kingdom of God must be based on God's highest moral standards — it must not devolve into petty squabbling or worse, into horrific acts against people in the name of God.
Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof. (Matthew 21:43)
The church is to be a nation of the kind that Israel was. In this verse the phrase "kingdom of God" is used of the nation of Israel which was clearly established as a secular (and religious) nation. This "nationhood" was to be transferred to the church.
The Old Testament nation of Israel was founded by God to be a visible worldly nation — this is clear from the Pentateuch. The question is whether or not the Church should be a secular nation as Israel was. The early bishops under the guidance of the Holy Spirit discerned it should be and they established a priesthood, monarchical bishops, division of clergy and laity, and the usurpation of secular rule when possible.
It is easy to find references in the writings of the early church fathers supporting the notion of the church as a visible institution, so I won't discuss it further here.
The results of Christendom were not particularly good. Once Christianity became a state-sanctioned religion under Constantine many people of dubious faith converted. Later, with Christendom, it was a crime not to be a Christian. This violates the innate human rights of people in a society.
But the reality of lukewarm Christians began long before that, in the late 100's A.D. when the bishops began to establish the strong division between clergy and laity. The original zeal and enthusiasm of Christianity was dampened when there stopped being prophets and when bishops began to rule the churches.
These trends got worse as the bishops began to become secular rulers in their own right. Bishops who focused on secular concerns neglected the spiritual concerns of the Christians at large. Aristocratic bishops practiced simony and other corruptions. They began expensive building projects paid for by peasants who could not afford it.
This over-bearing control of the laity by the bishops was never intended by Jesus. I think the pastor-elder model of many Protestant churches better matches the New Testament and apostolic church and avoids the problems inherent in Christendom which were such prominent features of European history.
The problems I noted of Christendom were not on the list of things the Protestant Reformers attempted to reform. The Lutherans wanted the state to rule the church. Calvin expanded on this and created a religious police state in Geneva. There was certainly no freedom of religion in the early centuries after the Protestant Reformation. The Peace of Ausburg allowed each prince to determine whether everyone in his domain would be Catholic or Lutheran. People had to either convert or leave.
Luther's authority in the Lutheran Church was thought to be similar to the pope's authority in the Catholic world. We certainly don't see much evidence of a reform in this area. But over the centuries as the principles of the enlightenment began to become prominent, the Protestant Churches adapted. I have been to some single-race Baptist churches that seem to have a strong authoritarian culture similar to the Catholic Church, but in general, Protestant churches have conformed to the modern view of human freedoms.
The old world had unrighteous beliefs and practices. Examples:
It seems the church did not lift itself out of the culture of the day but retained unrighteous practices. However, as a result of "enlightened" modern thinking, we have now realized that humans should have certain rights and should be treated with dignity. This involves such concepts as:
Unfortunately, enforcing such freedoms has the side-effect of the state imposing its moral views on all citizens and thereby being a secular form of christendom.
Catholic defenders claim the Church teaches doctrinal development — that doctrine has developed over time and that such doctrines as monarchical bishops, apostolic succession, and the papacy are true developments guided by the Holy Spirit. However, the Magisterium of the Church does not teach doctrinal development at all preferring the claim that the Church has always taught these things, that they were passed-down from the apostles.
The seeds of the various distinctively Catholic teachings appear even in the New Testament, and the early church fathers rapidly established the institutional church as the norm.
The modern Catholic Church teaches the values of human dignity, human rights, and human freedom, but it should also incorporate these into their teachings about the nature of the church. Certainly Vatican II attempted to modernize the church but it still retained the old-world views about human society, insisting that the church as a visible institution should overly-control its members, especially regarding marriage, divorce, church membership, and unity with other Christian communities and churches.
There is a Catholic movement to modernize the church which includes such issues as women priests, married priests, and more rights for the laity; but it doesn't address the heart of the issue — it doesn't root out clerical abuses and reign-in the over-domineering church hierarchy. Sadly, the laity must complain to the secular law enforcers before the church takes it seriously.
Some Protestant churches of today have a tendency to think the clergy rules over the laity, but in general they have adopted the modern views. Unfortunately, a few churches seem to expect their members to obey the church leaders no matter what; these churches are a mini-society in their own right, some may be cults or cult-like.
For years, I felt that all these weird side-effects demonstrate something was wrong with the way the Catholic Church has enacted the institutional church with its monarchical bishops. I couldn't put my finger on the core objection — was it because the church was to be spiritual rather than institutional? or was I to believe that seemingly immoral behavior was actually OK because of the historical circumstances?
One morning the answer dawned on me: our modern concept of freedom of religion is actually morally superior to the old view of Christendom. Jesus and the apostles taught the modern view, but the bishops allowed the culture of the day to cloud their understanding of where to draw the line. You just don't burn someone at the stake because they reject the authority of the Catholic Church — it's wrong. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.
Here is the proper role in society of the church (or any religion for that matter). In a free and equitable society there should be:
The early days of the church do not fit this model — from the time the monarchical bishops first appeared until the end of Christendom — because the bishops dominated both Christians and non-Christians. But the New Testament apostolic churches honored people's freedom as do many modern churches of today. The Catholic Church still believes it should rule its members and wishes it could rule over the nations as well. But Christians should wholeheartedly return to our roots, to the freedoms of the apostolic Church and the laity should insist on it.