A social media friend recently responded to a blog article I wrote, Are Christians Hypocrites, by asking whether I thought that “higher religious subscription correlated to fewer societal ills”. I think the answer is clearly, yes! (For a skeptic who agrees with me, see this dialogue on the podcast Unbelievable!)
But I know what he was getting at. Intermixed with that “progress” in the Western world are deep grains of corruption and evil in which the Church was not only complicit, but intimately involved.
My friend is a skeptic and an atheist. He believes that the world is better off without religion. He is critical of Christianity, and let’s face it: “the Church” has created its share of societal ills.
People are often critical of Christians and Christianity with some basis in fact for its checkered past. Christians often view that history differently than non-Christians, but a candid person must admit that corruption in “the church” evidenced in history is undeniable.
For skeptics, this vein of corruption running through the history of the Church “spoils the whole thing, undermines the truth of Christianity and justifies their rejection of it and the God Christians profess to believe. The fact that popular history focuses on that corruption, to the exclusion of all the good that Christianity has brought to the world, doesn’t negate the fact that such corruption existed and still exists.
When my friend posed his loaded question to me, I suspect that he sees a correlation between religion and societal ills. I did not argue with him about it because there is more than a kernel of truth to the statement.
But there is much more to the analysis. To begin with, all people are corruptible, not just church people. Corruption is, itself, dependent on the good that it corrupts. Corruption is the misuse, misapplication and exploitation of something good for bad purposes. Good must exist before corruption does its work.
One aspect of church history that correlates with that corruption is the “marriage” of church and state power. I think that Lord Acton was right when he said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When the church becomes intertwined with worldly kings and kingdoms, the influences of power, wealth and all that goes with it colors the church, and the church is inevitably corrupted by it.
After Emperor Constantine lifted the prohibition against Christianity, following his conversion in 312 AD, I can imagine that Christians came out of their private meeting places for the first time to dance in the streets. The declaration that Christians were free to worship as they chose didn’t prescribe Christianity as a state religion, as many seem to believe, but it spelled new-found freedom for Christians to live and worship freely without fear of state persecution that marked significant periods of the first three hundred years of the Church.
Christians probably didn’t imagine in 312 that Christianity would become the only state religion by decree around the beginning of the 5th Century. They also probably didn’t have any idea what a corrupting influence that state power would be.
The declaration of Christianity as the state religion by decree for the Roman Empire correlates with the early medieval period of western European history – the period historians call the Middle Ages (and some call the Dark Ages) (roughly 476-800 AD). Though we can’t (or shouldn’t) causally associate the two things with each other, necessarily, the timing seems significant.
The Early Middle Ages were marked by barbarian uprisings and threats to the Western Roman Empire by the Huns, Goths, Vandals, Bulgars, Alani, Suebi and Franks. The frequent warfare that marked the period between 500 AD and 1000 AD was not chiefly the result of a Christian/State alliance. Rather, the State, which was influenced by and intertwined with the Church at this time, fended off the barbarian surges. (See the Encyclopedia Britannica) Defense of the the relatively civilized world against these Barbarian threats was necessary.
The first Holy Roman Emperor didn’t exist until Pope John XII crowned Otto, Duke of Saxony, Emperor Otto I on February 3, 962. Otto’s power grew quickly to the chagrin of Pope John. Pope John began to rue the power he had given to Otto. When Otto got wind that Pope John was conspiring against him, he marched into Rome and replaced John with Leo VIII.
So began centuries of joint political and ecclesiastical power struggles and intrigue. As the Barbarian threat lessened, the intrigue of political and ecclesiastical infighting took center stage.
Though the late Middle Ages were not all marked by the stain of corruption in the church, it is the legacy we see in modern history books at the highest levels of ecclesiastical and kingly power. The church became embroiled in the political battles and struggles for power throughout the former Roman Empire because the Church was joined at the hip with the crown and the throne.
These things are undeniably true. Corruption at the level of power isn’t the whole story, but we can’t deny that corruption existed. There were many dark and disturbing episodes in which the church participated front and center, especially from about 1000 AD to well past the Reformation.
The truth is that the Church has never been free from its own corruption – going back to the beginning. We see vestiges of corruption as early as the letters of Paul.
And, we shouldn’t be surprised. Corruption is evident throughout the Old Testament. We can go all the way back to the beginning, to Adam and Eve, to see the roots of that corruption.
Things were great, virtually Edenic, in the beginning. Then Adam and Eve strayed. They ate the forbidden fruit (of the knowledge of good and evil), and the story took a turn for the worse. In the very next generation, Cain killed Abel.
Things went from bad to worse to the time when God could find few people on earth willing to bow to Him. We know the story: God instructed Noah, one man who was willing to listen to Him, to build an ark, and God destroyed the rest of the people in a flood.
A significant point of the story of Noah is God’s promise never to destroy the earth again for the corruption in it, though it didn’t take long for corruption to reappear. Noah’s own daughters got him drunk and had sex with him. Abraham, the father of faith had his issues too. He lied about his wife, offering her on multiple occasions to powerful men for fear of his life.
The history of the Abraham and his descendants, through whom God said he would bless all the nations of the earth, is full of corruption. Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a meal, and Jacob’s sons sold their brother, Joseph, into slavery. Just a few generations down the line from the father of faith (Abraham), lineage that would give rise to the Messiah, the Savior of the World, was veering off course.
Moses championed the people to lead them out of Israel by God’s command. God displayed his presence with them in spectacular fashion, but they grumbled every step along the way. While Moses was on the mountain top receiving God’s ten commandments, the people were making an idol of gold and worshiping it. They couldn’t even wait long enough to hear what news from God Moses had to give them.
The history of the world is a history of corruption, and the Church is not immune from that corruption that plagues mankind.
Years later God gave His people judges, but they wanted kings, like the other nations. The very first king, Saul, strayed from God. Even David, the man after God’s heart, had his episodes (quite a few of them) in which he was tempted and deceived into corruption. Solomon, the wisest man of his time, succumbed to the very corruptions he knew in his head were unwise.
This is the history of the people of God, always tending away from Him in their hearts, and especially at the level of power.
But there is always a remnant.
The remnant is a recurring theme throughout the Bible. A remnant of Israelites survived the Assyrian invasion (Isaiah 10:20-22). A remnant survived Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem. (Isaiah 37) A remnant was predicted to return back to the Promised Land after captivity (Isaiah 11:11-16); and the Jews who did return to the Promised Land after Babylonian captivity were called the remnant. (See Ezra 9:8, 13 and Haggai 1:12-14)
This theme is carried into the New Testament when Paul quotes Isaiah, “Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved.” (Romans 9:27)
Given the history of God’s people back to the very beginning, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the Church today tends toward corruption, especially at the level of power. The masses, too, tend to follow their leaders into that corruption, embracing corruption of their own. This isn’t just the history of the Church; it’s the history of mankind.
When my social media friend asked me whether I thought Christianity correlates in history to “fewer societal ills”, I had to answer candidly that I couldn’t be sure that it does. I wasn’t about to get into an argument with him because he would have plenty of negative ammunition on that point – never mind all the positives that have been produced by the salt and light of God’s remnant throughout history.
But the thrust of the history of people is not what defines the truth of the Gospel. Though every man be a liar, still God is true. (Romans 3:4)
God has worked in every age in and through the people who would bend their ears, and their hearts, toward Him – however few. It’s no different today than it ever was. Jesus also anticipated the corruption in the Church when he told the following parable in Matthew 13:24-30:
“He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants[of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
The tendency toward corruption that is demonstrated in the history of the church, and the history of humankind, comes as no surprise to God who knows the thoughts and intents of the heart. It shouldn’t surprise us either. What is amazing is that God can work his purposes in history in and through people, despite the inclination of people toward corruption.
Postscript: As a postscript, I would note that Christianity has actually provided a lot of benefit to western society. Tom Holland, an historian (who is incidentally an atheist), makes the observation that we are so steeped in the fabric of a society that is built out of the thread of Christianity that we don’t even see it or realize it. All the humanist, liberal values that characterize western society are built out of the fabric provided by Christianity. I have written about it here (The Observation of an Atheist Historian: What Makes Christianity Stand Out Among World Religions) where I have linked to a likely discussion on the topic by two historians taking different views.