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Christianity Before Luther

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Before Luther

The original Lutherans were neither “original” nor “Lutheran.” They were faithful Christians trying to bring reform to the Church. And so, the telling of the Lutheran story must begin, at a minimum, with the story of the Church. The Church is not a building. The Church is “people," those who cling to Jesus Christ. By “Church” we either mean “all Christians” everywhere (the entire Church) or else a “gathering of Christians" of which there can be many forms.

The Earliest Church

After the experience of Pentecost (the time when the Spirit of the risen Lord Jesus came dramatically upon his disciples shortly after Easter), the followers of Jesus traveled to spread the message of Jesus. They mainly went to portions of the Roman Empire (which included all the lands and people around the Mediterranean Sea), particularly places like Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch in Syria, Ephesus in Turkey, Corinth in Greece and Rome in Italy. The message of Jesus was met with a mixed reaction. Some believed (about 10%), but the vast majority (90%) paid no attention to the message at all or else reject it. Those who believed tended to be urban people in the mid and lower classes of society, slaves, women and freemen (former slaves who gained their freedom). There was little reception by the highest classes and the elite. The non-Christian majority treated Christians either as marginal or dangerous. After all, the Christian founder (Jesus) was a criminal legally crucified under Roman law. The Christians held secret meetings at secret times and places. And rumor had it that they ate human body and drank human blood (a misunderstanding of Holy Communion). Christians didn't fight in wars or offer sacrifices to the emperor or the gods. To most Romans, they seemed unpatriotic, atheistic and a threat to their way of life. Some Christians were arrested, beaten, fined or put to death. Most were put down and ignored. There are no church buildings from this period for a very obvious reason—it was too dangerous. Christians met in homes, by rivers and in the catecombs (underground tunnels). But, Christians did get some positive recognition from those who knew them better. They cared for the poor. They treated women with respect. Their men did not cheat on their wives. And they valued all (even non-relatives) as family. They were kind, non-violent, and generous. Moreover, they “died well.” That is, they died trusting in their Lord Jesus. Those who died for their faith in Jesus were called “martyrs” (witnesses). A significant number became Christians, too, when they saw how confidently Christians died. In fact, one church father said, “The blood of the saints is the seed of the church.”

A Favored Religion

A major change took place around a.d. 313. By this time, Christianity has grown to be of significant size. Legend also has it that just before a major battle, the Roman Emperor Constantine saw a vision of the cross of Jesus in the sky. With it were the words, “In this victory.” He used the cross to lead his troops in action and won the battle. In grateful response, Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. Or, maybe he was just recognizing that Christianity had grown into a large enough force that it was politically wise to embrace it and ally with it. In any case, Now it was socially acceptable to be a Christian. And anybody who wanted a high office or job in the government could gain extra favor with the emperor by becoming a Christian, too. The Roman emperors soon discovered that Christianity helped to unify their vast empire of many languages and cultures. This was because all Christians had one common Lord (Jesus), common statements of beliefs (called “creeds”), a common book of writings (the “bible”), common hymns and respected leaders in major cities (called “bishops”). Christianity, in turn, discovered that it helped to be an official religion supported by the emperor. This allowed the message of Jesus to spread further into new countries like the Germany, France, Poland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Russia, England. It also allowed for the building of churches, hospitals, schools and universities. Since Rome was the capital of the empire, the bishop of Rome tended to be considered the chief bishop. He was called the “pope” (papa), or “Holy Father.” But, he also had competition from bishops of other some of the major cities in the east who thought they also had a claim to primacy and there were many complicated struggles for power theologically and politically.

The Need for Reform

The Church adopted many Roman methods and ways of thinking to organize itself and preach the message of Jesus. Christians built churches in the same style as basilicas (Roman administrative buildings). They divided areas up into dioceses (a Roman unit of organization). They used Platonic and Aristotelian forms of reasoning and logic to communicate the Christian message and systematize church teaching resulting in many thoughts and concepts that were not part of the original preaching and teaching of Jesus. As time went by, the Roman government got weaker and the Church grew stronger. As the government of Rome deteriorated, the pope, bishops, and other church leaders found themselves taking over more and more the functions of government (for example, building bridges, appointing civic officials and serving as judges in court cases). Some did so wisely. Others used their position in the church to increase their personal wealth, power and standing. Many leaders and common people seemed Christian in name only and not in word or deed. The church went through centuries of struggle over describing the divine and human nature of Jesus, an understanding of the Trinity, and determining the centers of church administration and power. Much involved differences of culture, politics, and social needs between the eastern and western halves of the church. In a.d. 1054 a “Great Schism” (or split) took place. The western half of the church with its center in Roman became the Roman Catholic Church. The eastern half became the Orthodox Church. It was led by a collection of patriarchs in major cities such as Constantinople (Istanbul in Turkey), Antioch in Syria, and Jerusalem in Palestine. Long before Martin Luther many saw the need for change and worked for reform in the church. This included countless monks and nuns (religious men and women) who took oaths of poverty, celibacy and obedience. They drew apart from ordinary, daily life into monasteries and nunneries where they could seek to live a more authentic Christian life. It also included high-profile, early reformers like John Wycliffe (1328-1384) in England, John Huss (1373-1416) in Bohemia, Catherine of Siena (1373-1380), and Savonarola (1452-1498) also in Italy. In addition a number of Councils (gatherings of bishops) also called for and enacted reforms. By the time that Martin Luther was born at Eisleben, Germany in 1483, there were many conflicts within and without Christianity. Christian rulers fought against each other and engaged in power struggles with the pope. Christians fought against the Muslims in battles called “crusades.” Different orders of monks competed with each other. Most common people lived short, hard and difficult lives. Their only hope was a better life in heaven, which was offered through the ministry of the church.

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