The Rejection of Orthodox Christianity. Reading time: About 8-9 minutes.

This is the last segment of my four-part series on who are “Real Christians”. This discussion began with the first hint of the new religion and has focused on the divisiveness that has characterized Christianity ever since. In this segment I want to explore why so many groups of people have rejected orthodox Christianity, even though it often held the power to make them conform.

The creation of a clergy

One thing many Christian sects objected to was the clergy. The early Christian home churches had no clergy, only people who volunteered to host and conduct the gatherings. There were few, if any, sermons or hymns. There were no scriptures or creeds. Those who gathered just shared the spirit of the new religion that so excited them.

But, by the end of the first century, Christianity began to develop a tiered hierarchy, mirroring the administration of the Roman Empire. The proto-orthodox Christians (the sect which would evolve into orthodoxy) wanted Rome to look favorably upon them so they could expand their reach. Many Bible scholars today accept the fact that certain parts of the canonical Gospels were written or edited to make the Romans, specifically Pontius Pilate, appear sympathetic to Jesus. That allowed the Christian writers to turn the Jews into the villains of their stories. This was all part of the strategy to gain Rome’s favor, but it had a lasting and tragic effect.

The clergy’s rise to prominence

Once Christians began to allow clergy to serve as intermediaries between them and their God, things got a little more complicated. The word clergy comes from the Latin word clericatus meaning “those with learning.” First, elders began to exercise certain functions in their churches. Many of the home churches had been led by women, but the orthodox clergy eventually became entirely male based on certain suspicious verses of scripture.

With time, clerics gradually took more control of churches and regions of churches, known as dioceses. After all, someone had to lead the flock, and they were “the learned ones”. As the centuries progressed, the clergy continued to gain power. The average churchgoer eventually came to see the clergy as being more in touch with God than they were. Clergymen exploited that perception and made themselves the intercessors in all holy sacraments. They even convinced people that they needed to hear their most intimate confessions to absolved them from sin.

In the fourth century, when Constantine began favoring Christians over pagans, he elevated the status of priests and bishops. He allowed them to avoid paying taxes, have free transportation to Church councils, dress as royalty, and be relieved of the duties of a normal citizen. He provided them with whatever they needed, and it wasn’t long before the clerical jobs were about the most coveted ones in the empire.

Those drawn to the clergy

The elite citizens of the empire were often drawn to those positions because they offered esteem, power, and wealth—in other words, a relatively easy life and all the respect the wealthy thought they deserved. They could dress elegantly, wield power, appoint relatives and friends to church offices, threaten people with excommunication, and delight in their voices echoing throughout their basilicas.

I’m sure many or most of the clergy were well-intentioned, but many others were in the business only for selfish reasons. There were no regulating agencies to assure the clergymen were trustworthy or even competent in their knowledge of Christian theology. That would be the subject of many reform movements in the Church.

When was the human Jesus abandoned?

Somehow, the human Jesus seems to have been abandoned along the road to imperial religion. Jesus’s ascetic lifestyle, rejection of violence, compassion for the downtrodden, respect for people of different cultures, and acceptance of different lifestyles were not emphasized in orthodox doctrine. It all makes sense when you realize that at the time the Nicene Creed was being written in AD 325, Christianity was becoming the religion of a military empire, and the Roman Empire had no use for any of those kinder traits. The empire preferred their Jesus hovering in the sky leading them to victory in battle, stenciled on their tunics and shields, and giving them a heavenly reward for their service.

Probably not all Christians knew of the Gospel Jesus. The New Testament wasn’t universally approved until AD 393, and even after that it would take many years for it to be accepted throughout the empire. Until that happened, many communities used whatever gospels, epistles, or other “scriptures” were available. Since almost everyone was illiterate at that time, it was only clergy and scholars that had access to writings. The clergy could decide what parts of the scripture to present to their congregations. So, it’s anybody’s guess what the average Christian would have known about the homeless, ascetic Jesus of the Gospels.

For me, that had been a big stumbling block. When I was younger I had assumed all Christians were tuned into the kind and compassionate teachings of Jesus and had made those the main focus of their lives. That was a wrong assumption on my part.

Scripture in a locked vault

Even if someone was fortunate enough to be able to read, they still most likely didn’t have access to scriptures. Before the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, very few copies of the hand-written material existed. In addition, it was all written in Latin, Greek, Coptic, or Syriac on expensive animal skins. Those who stood through church services—no pews in those daysprobably understood very little, if anything, of what was being said. Even a thousand years after Constantine’s time, the Roman Catholic Church forbade the translation of scripture into any common language. Anyone that did translate holy scripture to make it available to the average person was risking their life.

Many reasons for the rejection of orthodox Christianity

As can be seen, people rejected orthodox Christianity for various reasons—the affluent lifestyle of the clergy, the required beliefs, the increasing wealth of the Church, the removal of women from leadership roles, and deviations from Jesus’s message in the Gospels. Groups split off from orthodox Christendom due to different interpretations of scripture because those interpretations resulted in differences in theology.

Christians argued over whether there had to be an intermediary between the average person and God; the specific wording of creeds (down to literally one iota); the number of natures and wills that Jesus had; the substance from which he was made; whether he was a created being; the requirements for salvation; whether there was an actual heaven and hell; whether the Bible was to be taken literally or metaphorically; whether true Christians should live in society or apart from it; if humans were born with original sin; whether they should persecute Jews and others who refused to convert to their religion; if the Church should control humanity or serve it; if icons should be venerated; if Mary was the mother of God; and much more.

For every one of the hundreds of Christian denominations, their devotees would consider people of all other sects as false, or at least deviant, Christians. That means that everyone who thought they were a true Christian was considered a false Christians by those in all other sects. How can a religion succeed if it can’t even define itself?

One heresy that couldn’t be ended

Orthodox Christians believed they were destined to set the rules for all Christians to follow. Many, such as Saint Augustine, thought that Christianity was fated to control the entire world. But things didn’t always turn out the way the orthodox hoped they would. They tried to set the rules and lead the way, but a large percentage of humanity, even fellow Christians, chose not to follow. In the final analysis, Orthodox Christianity may have been one of the most rejected ideologies in history.

The Catholics, with their highly structured organizational, political, and military power, were able to eliminate most heresies—until the sixteenth century. When the Protestants in Germany and Switzerland successfully broke from Catholic Church, they did away with the centralized hierarchy of the Vatican. They also were less concerned with who could become a clergyman. The quality of the Catholic clergy had always been inconsistent, but it seems that Protestantism added a whole new factor to that equation. Any preacher, holding any theological view, could start his own church without the oversight of bishops or popes. That eventually led to even more chaos.

The explosion of Protestantism

During and after the Reformation of the sixteenth century, Protestants began to experience their own schisms. Protestant sects found plenty to dislike about each other’s version of Christianity. Their divisions were seemingly endless, although usually less violent than the Catholics. Beginning with Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans, it branched into Puritans, Separatists, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Quakers, Amish, Anabaptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Later Day Saints, Christian Scientists, Assemblies of God, Presbyterians, Church of God in Christ, Seventh Day Adventists, numerous African American churches, etc.

Jesus in Islam

Christians had a large impact in the Arabian Peninsula well before the religion of Islam came into existence. Islam and Christianity shared many similarities and many medieval Christians even thought Islam was another Christian heresy.

Muslims may have started as a version of Judaism or Christianity, but it wasn’t long before they created their own religion. In many ways what they did was like Martin Luther and other reformers had done with Catholicism. They retained a great deal of Jewish and Christian tradition but also rejected much of it. They still regarded Abraham as their patriarch, and Moses and Jesus as revered prophets.

The Koran, or Muslim holy book, mentions Jesus more than anyone else. That shows the great respect they have for him.

Muslims viewed Christians as polytheists because of what appeared to be the worship of three different gods of the Trinity. They rejected the resurrection and divinity of Jesus. Another important difference was that Muslims imposed no intermediaries between humans and God.

What about atheists?

Atheists didn’t seem to exist openly in the Christian world until about the seventeenth-century Enlightenment. The reason was that during Medieval times, disbelief in God was a crime, often punishable by death.

Although often accused of ignoring scripture, many atheists knew a great deal more about Christian scripture and theology than the average Christian. Because of that, they knew things about scripture that usually weren’t taught in churches. They saw Christianity from different perspectives than those who believed because their religious leaders told them what to believe.

So, heretics, schismatics, atheists, Jews, and Muslims have something in common. All these groups have rejected the orthodox version of Christianity.

Results of judgementalism

Like the Jewish Pharisees, orthodox Christians reveled in establishing policies and then judging people based on how well they followed those policies. The Church became obsessed with defining what was acceptable doctrine and behavior. Since they judged most deviations as heresies it’s not surprising that they had a long list of them.

Other victims

Orthodox Christians had sought unity for Christendom, but to obtain that, they found themselves in the roles of judges and enforcers. They made themselves the police of both theological belief and morality.

Their victims also included fellow orthodox Christians who held different views on certain doctrines, but sometimes not different enough to be considered heretics. That led to the excommunication and/or punishment of devoted Christians such as Origen, Arius, Nestorius, Peter Abelard, and Galileo.

Add to this list of victims those the Church persecuted, tortured, jailed, or even executed for the crime of blasphemy—speaking or acting irreverently toward God or the Church. The Church forced multitudes of victims to convert to orthodox Christianity against their will, shamed others into the Church with the baseless concept of original sin, threatened many millions more with the fear of hell, and shunned those who ran afoul of the Church’s policies on social and sexual issues.

It’s hard to imagine any organization in history doing a better job of making itself more unpopular than the orthodox Church did. Most people like to have some control of their own lives. They are opposed to having some authoritarian organization determine every aspect of their lives.

Even so, that Church was able to dominate Europe for over fourteen centuries by wielding ruthless military and civil power, issuing propaganda and forgeries, and rewarding those who reported undesirables to those in power.

The story isn’t over

As seen over the last two millennia, people from many diverse cultures have rejected orthodox Christianity. Those Christians who still try to dictate how people think, live, and act will keep inspiring more people to reject their religion. Especially if they are hypocrites and don’t practice what they preach.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Rethinking traditional interpretations of scripture and learning to be kinder and less judgmental would help tremendously. I wrote about reconciliation in the conclusion of my book. That can go a long way in healing some of the damage that bad interpretations of scripture have caused. Obviously, no one can apologize to those who are no longer alive. But, those who chose peace over confrontation can do much to heal those who are still living.

This brings me to the end of this series. As I readily admit, I’m not a professionally-trained historian, so my writings don’t carry academic weight. I’m just an average person who was indoctrinated into Christianity since childhood. I paid attention and tried to understand the concepts I was taught. In this series I’ve taken the various pieces that I understood and tried to fit them in place to solve my puzzle.  This is the most coherent picture of early Christianity that I can envision. Still, I’m always open to repositioning those pieces as I learn more.


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