The central presence of the church and the Christian worldview in European cultural history makes it a central project for the historian to figure out what they really are, and not merely what they claim to be, or what others label them to be.
It should be simple: ‘Christianity’ is the name given to body of thought presented by Jesus; ‘church’ is the human organization whose task is to implement those thoughts.
Jesus followers attempt to put distinctively Christian values into practice: peace, justice, equality, education, liberty, freedom, etc.
So we see, e.g., Francis of Assisi visiting Egypt to broker a ceasefire, or the Peace of Westphalia negotiated largely by clergy: peacemaking missions. We see women’s suffrage and other measures toward women’s legal equality from the Magna Carta of 1215 to the Wyoming legislature of 1869: the mission of equality. As Andrew Wilson writes,
In many ways, the story of Christianity is full of light — mission, education, art, healthcare, abolition, compassion, justice — and I have read, taught, and loved that story for many years.
A simple happy story, right?
Sadly, no. The words ‘Christian’ and ‘church’ have often been used by those who opposed the ideas of Jesus. Some who hate the church and hate Christianity often call themselves by these very words, for the purpose of undermining the credibility of them.
One need think only of the so-called “Westboro Baptist Church,” an institution which constantly works to oppose the Christian faith. The Westboro Baptist Church is a group of non-Christians, or anti-Christians, who ensure that they are publicly perceived as a ‘church’ or as ‘Christians’ and then commit outrages so that the name and reputation of both are smeared.
There are many examples of this in history. Andrew Wilson tells us that
But there is an undeniable dark side: attacking, burning, crusading, drowning, enslaving, flogging, ghettoizing, hunting, imprisoning, Jew-hating, killing, lynching, and so on.
Through the centuries, repeated attempts to discredit Christianity follow the same pattern: first, an individual or a group creates the impression of being ‘Christian’ or of being a ‘church.’
Once that false impression is firm in the minds of the public, they perpetrate all manner of evil, so that this evil is then blamed on Christianity. The church is held responsible for the misdeeds of those who actually oppress the church.
How is a historian to untangle this mess in which two opposing parties both claim the same title?
If Christianity is the collected ideas which Jesus presented, and if the church is the institution which seeks to make those ideas into reality, then we must start with those ideas.
Jesus, depending on your interpretation, is either moderately pacifistic or radically pacifistic, but in both cases, Jesus is pacifistic. By extrapolation, to be ‘Christian’ or to be a ‘church’ is to be pacifistic.
While there is some gray area regarding precise definitions, it is still clear that unprovoked aggression - that starting a war - is beyond Christianity. Nonetheless, throughout history, there are numerous examples of those who would call themselves ‘Christians’ and yet instigate conflict.
Such actions, despite the ubiquity of the label ‘Christian,’ cannot possibly be Christian. In fact, they are the very opposite: they constitute an opposition to, and an oppression of, Christianity.
History, then, suffers from a confusion of terminology on a massive scale.
Perhaps the best solution is to jettison the words ‘church’ and ‘Christianity’ altogether, and instead simply identify individuals, groups, and movements which either correspond to the ideas of Jesus or which oppose those ideas.