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high degree of misinformation I had received from traditional teachings about the church and the beginning of Christianity. Moreover, I was struck by the notion that most other people in the Western world receive this same degree of intentional misinformation, so much so that I have even heard people defend the idea that knowledge of the historical church is irrelevant to modern Christianity. Reading through the class material, I was struck by how critical this historical information was to the understanding of the actual church. One critical piece of information is the idea of Jesus as the head of the church, despite him not establishing Christianity as a separate religion. Another critical idea was that prophets could play a continuing role in Christianity, when my traditional understanding had suggested that after Jesus there would be no more Jewish prophets. I also found myself wondering about the very obvious and significant differences between historical biblical elders and leaders and the leaders of the modern church. Prior to this course, I had a historical awareness of the interrelationship between the church and monarchs, but the reading really helped me understand how that relationship developed. I also had a strong belief in the notion of original sin, and it was not until this class that I learned that the notion was not only not found in the New Testament, but also that the person who coined it was considered a heretic. Finally, the reading helped me understand Gnosticism.
For most Christians, membership in a church and adherence to the rules and norms established by the earthly leaders of those churches is considered an integral part of Christianity. However, in Matthew, Jesus makes it clear that he is establishing his church on himself, not on Peter. This notion was subverted throughout much of early Christianity when popes were considered to be necessary interceders between men and God. In fact, a huge portion of modern day Christians still consider earthly leaders to be able to define elements of Christianity and what it means to be devout. This contravenes the idea that Jesus alone is the foundation of the Church, which is specifically mentioned in the church. To me, this notion encourages Christians to consider the Gospel from a personal perspective and interpret the message that God/Jesus is trying to send. That does not mean that a person should not consult earthly spiritual leaders for guidance or help when confronted with difficult spiritual issues, but it does suggest that a person should not place another human's judgment above his or her own because of the personal nature of the relationship with Christ.
Another element that made me reconsider what I knew was the idea of prophets in the Christian church. Stepping outside of the classroom setting for a moment, I know that one of the problems that Christians have with Islam is that Mohammed is said to be a prophet who lived after the time of Jesus. Islam does recognize the existence of Jesus, though not His divinity. However, if one approaches Christianity from the viewpoint that there can be no prophets after Jesus, then Mohammed is necessarily a false prophet. I felt that the information about the Apostle Paul writing about there being prophets after Jesus helped clarify this matter. It certainly made me think of a possible reconciliation between Islam and Christianity, despite the fact that certain elements of the two faiths have previously been seen as irreconcilable.
In fact, the entire discussion of leadership in the emerging church made me question much of what I know about leadership in the modern Christian church. There was a separation between local churches that seemed aimed at limiting the impact of the individual elders in each church. Moreover, there was a rule that each local church was to have two elders. In some modern church environments this is replicated by deacons and other church leaders. However, the reality is that most churches have only a symbolic number of elders and that the power in the individual church is often concentrated in a single individual. This also leads me to think about the popularity of mega churches who reach thousands and thousands of people through television broadcasts. Do these mega churches, with their charismatic and popular leaders, follow the biblical precepts about the number of elders that should be available to a church? Do they follow the idea that a local church's influence is ideally supposed to remain local? I do not think that they do. However, I do not know if this is a necessary consequence of a world where communication and population has changed so tremendously from what they were in biblical times that following a biblical model is impractical or whether it is a sign of people using the church to amass power.
Another "wow" moment in the reading came with an explanation of how the relationship between Christianity and the European monarchy developed. Honestly, until this course, I had assumed that European leaders had always claimed to either be divine or to have some special relationship to the divine. I based this off of my understanding of religious and social practices in ancient Egypt as well as the Greco-Roman practice of claiming some type of divinity or supernatural power. However, seeing that biblical leadership in each church came to reside in one elder and that, as populations grew, some of these elders were able to amass increasing amounts of power, helped me understand the eventual rise of the papacy. Furthermore, as this power increased, it made sense that those in power would shape rules and regulations designed to keep them in power. Eventually, the idea that the bishops would wield a tremendous amount of power became the predominant model of religious leadership throughout Europe. This led to the development of Super-Bishops and eventually the Pope, in much the same form as the modern Catholic Church. However, these bishops were not wielding their power in a vacuum. Regions that embraced Christianity as it developed were already ruled by people, generally in monarchies, though some had oligarchies or even rudimentary representative democracies. However, the men who held secular power were unwilling to sacrifice a portion of that power to those who wielded power in religious circles. Therefore, the two distinct types of power had to be united.
One of the most profound "aha" moments from the reading focused on the notion of original sin. A friend's child attended a Christian summer camp over this summer and was told that she was the "enemy of God" because she was born in sin. The concept of original sin, though it may not be the focus of many modern sermons, continues to form the backbone of belief in many modern evangelical denominations. Therefore, I always assumed that there was a basis for the notion in the Bible, though I could find no references to original sin in either the Old Testament or the New Testament. Learning that the Super Bishop Origen fused Greek philosophy with Christian teaching to come up with the idea of original sin was very interesting, as was discovering that the notion of original sin is not contained in the New Testament. In fact, even reading the Old Testament does not support the notion of people being born in sin; the noted fall in the garden means that people are given the knowledge of sin, not that they are inherently sinners. I was very pleasantly surprised to hear that Origen was branded a heretic by the Roman Church, though his notion of original sin continues to thrive.
Finally, prior to this course I was very confused by the idea of Gnosticism and the Gnostic gospels. My exposure to them did not help me understand why they were so controversial. However, learning that they believed that everything physical was evil, and, therefore, denied the humanity of Jesus, helped me understand why they were controversial. That one fact surprised me. It also made me wonder how they could interpret Jesus' life in any manner without acknowledging his humanity. To me, the most compelling part of Jesus as a leader is not his divinity, but his humanity. Perhaps my opinion is influenced by some of my reading outside of the coursework, such as the new book Zealot, which explores the life of the historical Jesus. However, to me, understanding Jesus as God means, necessarily, understanding Jesus as a man. He came and lived the human condition in circumstances that had him living, if not among the least of people, certainly not among the privileged. As a result, his humanity dictates, to me, the type of charity and compassion that is associated with the best of Christians. To deny Jesus of his humanity is, to me, almost worse than denying his divinity, because, as God, the struggles he faced as a human would have been insignificant.
2. Part 1 of your reading material showed you what the Christian church believed and taught in the first century AD.…[continue]
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