Understanding World Religions

Religion is the driving force behind much of what happens in the world today -- particularly when it comes to the "big three" religions -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Religious differences have and continue to spark wars, create nations, and spawn ongoing conflict down through the centuries. No matter what religion you adhere to (or even if you claim that you don't adhere to any religion at all), you need to have a basic understanding of the world's religions in order to understand what is happening in the world today so that you can be better informed and a more useful citizen of your nation and of the world. Without some knowledge of religion, you will not understand the underpinnings of what is happening in an increasingly global society.
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Understanding World Religions




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Now displaying: January, 2015
Jan 28, 2015

Our quote for today is from Mahatma Gandhi. He said, "It is easy enough to be friendly to one's friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." Garry Morgan is a Professor of Intercultural Studies at Northwestern College. He served with World Venture for 20 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

Our topic for today is, "Evangelical Christianity" 

Evangelicalism is a movement in Protestant Christianity that began in the twentieth century as a response to changes in the beliefs, or doctrines, of some Protestant churches, especially with regard to the Bible's authority. 

Modernism, and more recently postmodernism, have influenced the thinking of many and cast doubt in their minds about some scriptural teachings. While there is a broad range of belief within Protestantism, some see the Bible as an ancient, error-filled human record of religious experience rather than a divinely inspired revelation from God. As a result, they reject one or more foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. 

For example, some dismiss "Jesus as the only way to salvation" as arrogance. Some consider the need for salvation at all from "God's wrath" to be an abhorrent myth. They might say Jesus is a remarkable human teacher, but not the divine-human Son of God. They deny his miracles and his resurrection and, in the extreme, question whether he actually existed as a historical person. And, despite all these denials of historic orthodoxy, many who hold these beliefs still consider themselves Christian and remain active in churches and seminaries. They find the content of Jesus' teaching to be mostly a useful source of principles for right living. 

Catholicism has been impacted by the same philosophical and worldview trends, and many today, including some leaders, hold one or more of the above beliefs. Certainly this has brought dissension and debate into Catholic scholarship and writing. Unlike some Protestant denominations, though, the Roman Church's official teachings still reflect a more traditional stance with regard to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

How did these changes come about? In seventeenth-century Europe, new ways of thinking produced what is now called the Enlightenment. One key Enlightenment facet was its emphasis on rationalism, the elevation of human reason in determining truth. If something could not be understood by the human mind, it was rejected as false. 

There were positive aspects to rationalism—for example, the development of the scientific method—but it also rejected revealed religion and made humankind the ultimate authority. By the eighteenth century, a different way of studying the Scriptures emerged. Biblical accounts of miracles were assumed to be fictitious, since Europeans of that era couldn't produce miracles themselves. Biblical statements about Jesus' deity and resurrection were dismissed as the fabrications of "primitive" human minds in the ancient world. The worldview that evolved from these ideas was called modernism. The macroevolutionary hypotheses brought forth by Charles Darwin's theories further influenced modernism's focus on the material world and rejection of the supernatural. 

Initially, these humanistic ideas were limited to the educated elite and had little impact on the masses of European and North American Christians. But theological education would come to be influenced by modernistic views, and some Christian leaders became convinced that the church needed to change or else the faith would become irrelevant and die out. This process, over several decades, led some entire denominations to alter their doctrinal statements toward a modernist viewpoint. 

The reaction by those who still believed in the Bible as God's authoritative Word was strong. Dozens of new denominations were formed as churches split over belief in Jesus' virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection. By the 1920s, the labels “liberal” and “fundamentalist” were used to identify these two Christian groups. As modernist teachings grew in long-established seminaries, fundamentalists (so-called because they held to the "fundamentals" of biblical Christianity) started a number of Bible schools around the United States. 

By the mid-1940s, fundamentalists had become increasingly disengaged from American society, separating themselves even from other Christians who did not believe exactly the same way. Some within fundamentalism became uncomfortable with this rigidity and negativism. (Fundamentalists, it was said, "were known more for what they were against than what they were for.") While still holding to biblical fundamentals regarding Christ's person and work, this new movement sought increased cooperation with other Christians, engaged in the pursuit of scholarship (the fundamentalist movement had become strongly anti-intellectual), and generally became more involved in society. Those within this group came to be known as evangelicals. 

Today, “evangelical” has become an umbrella term for Christians who believe in the Bible's accuracy (its inerrancy) and full authority. They also believe in the necessity of being born again for salvation. 

The term is used broadly. It may describe an individual, a local church, or an entire denomination. It's used to identify subgroups within larger denominations, like the "evangelical wing" of the global Anglican Church. There are evangelical organizations, such as the Evangelical Theological Society. The World Evangelical Alliance is made up of more than a hundred national evangelical associations representing thousands of denominations, hundreds of thousands of churches, and approximately four hundred million Christians. 

As the movement has grown, it's become more diverse nationally, ethnically, and culturally. Since modernist or liberal churches no longer believed in the necessity of faith in Christ for salvation, most twentieth-century missionary work was carried out by evangelicals. Although Pentecostal Christianity had earlier and different origins and for decades remained separate from evangelicalism, the two are often considered part of the same branch of Christianity. Now almost all non-biological growth in Christianity, globally, is in the evangelical-Pentecostal wing.  

Now, for An Extra Minute 

What's in a label? Terms can be perplexing. In contrast to liberal Christians, evangelicals are often labeled conservative. But liberal may refer to politics as well as theology, or it may mean a person is generous. Someone who's theologically liberal may be politically conservative, and vice versa. Denominations that generally have liberal theology in the sense described above are also known as conciliar, mainline Protestant, and ecumenical. Denominational labels aren't always reliable guides either. For example, some Presbyterian denominations are conciliar/liberal and others are evangelical/conservative. And despite the name, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S., isn't evangelical, doctrinally speaking (there are individual ELCA churches that hold evangelical views). It's more reliable to listen with discernment to the preaching and teaching of a local church than to go by any label. 

Jan 22, 2015

Our quote for today is from Galileo. He said, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." Garry Morgan is a Professor of Intercultural Studies at Northwestern College. He served with World Venture for 20 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

Our topic for today is, "Protestant Christianity" 

Protestant is an umbrella term generally used to describe a vast variety of churches that are neither Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox. The name comes from the "protests" by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and many others against abuses of power and some doctrines in the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformers were people of the fourteenth through the seventeenth centuries who sought to bring change to Christianity in Europe. Their writings continue to exert substantial influence over hundreds of millions of believers today. 

Historically, the Protestant Reformation began as an attempt to, as the word implies, reform Christianity. Luther and the others saw their efforts not as bringing anything new to the faith but as restoring biblical teaching and practice established prior to the development of Rome's papal system. They didn't intend initially to form a new church organization—they did so only after they were excommunicated (removed from membership) and threatened with death by the Catholic Church hierarchy. The congregations that followed the Reformers became the Protestant churches. 

That the word “reformed” is utilized in countless ways today can be confusing. The Reformation period produced several organizations. The churches following Luther's teaching and leadership came to be called Lutheran, while those that followed Calvin were called Reformed, even though both were part of the Reformation and are relatively similar in doctrine. Over time, the Reformed churches subdivided, usually along national lines, into many denominations (such as the Dutch Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America). Calvin's doctrines, with additions by a number of others, came to be called Reformed Theology, best known for its doctrine of God's sovereignty, especially in election -- God's choosing of who will be saved. Over the years, newer denominations, notably the Presbyterians and many Baptist groups, embraced most of Calvin's "reformed" doctrines, while disagreeing with some beliefs and practices of the Reformed Church. 

Historically, two core issues framed the Protestant disagreement with Catholicism. The first concerns salvation, the way in which a person avoids God's righteous judgment on the sinful nature and is reconciled into right relationship with him. Protestants insist that the Bible clearly states salvation is "by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone," in contrast to a combination of grace and good works. The second, Sola Scriptura, is the belief that the Bible is the final authority for determining doctrine and practice rather than a combination of Scripture and tradition. Additional areas of divergence grew over time as Protestant leaders refined and developed their doctrines. 

The various Protestant churches survived Roman Catholic attempts to exterminate them, in part because many European political leaders saw in them the chance to escape papal oppression and attain greater regional autonomy. Ultimately, Protestants contributed considerably to the rise of nationalism and the development of today's European countries. This association developed into the state church system, in which a whole country officially recognized just one denomination (such as the Lutheran Church in Sweden or Norway). 

Unfortunately, this also led to a number of wars, both civil (within one country) and between Catholic and Protestant countries. Some nations were tolerant of those whose beliefs were not in step with the state church, such as Holland, which, although officially Dutch Reformed, became a haven for persecuted Christians from France, England, and elsewhere (such as the Pilgrims who later settled Plymouth Colony in North America). Elsewhere, persecution of dissenters ranged from moderate to severe. In some Protestant countries, Catholics were persecuted, and many Protestants were killed in France and other Catholic countries. 

Persecution extended even to other Protestants of the "wrong" variety. The Baptist pastor John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, spent much of his adult life in prison for refusal to "conform" to the Anglican Church. 

New denominations proliferated as Protestant Christianity spread across Europe and then into North America. Beginning in the nineteenth century, the changes reached Africa and Asia. Without the central leadership authority that characterizes the Catholic Church, formation of new organizations is much easier. Sometimes these groups began because of doctrinal disputes. For example, Freewill Baptists in England split from the majority of Baptists (who theologically were closer to the Reformed Church). Some developed due to geography and politics. After American independence, for instance, Presbyterians in the U.S. chose independence from their Scottish origins. Baptists and many other American denominations split over slavery (although it has been argued that this was more a doctrinal dispute than a political one). 

Spiritual revival has also led to the creation of denominations. The Azusa Street Revival of 1906, for example, led to the formation of the Apostolic Faith Movement, the Assemblies of God, and many other Pentecostal groups. Sometimes new groups form because of conflict of personality or conviction between leaders. 

The twentieth-century Ecumenical Movement attempted to reverse the trend of proliferation with the goal of merging Protestants into one organizational structure. They've seen limited success with the United and Uniting Churches in Canada and Australia respectively; in both countries Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists merged into one organization. The movement has had more success encouraging cooperation between denominations through the World Council of Churches and its national affiliates than in bringing about organizational mergers and a reduction in the number of denominations.

Now, for An Extra Minute 

How many Protestant denominations are there? The diversity and geographic expansion of Protestant Christianity makes counting difficult. There are more than fifty different Baptist groups just in the U.S., where the largest, the Southern Baptist Convention, has more than sixteen million members. Adding to the complications is globalization: If missionaries of one denomination in one country start new churches in another country and those churches form an association, is that a new denomination or part of the original? They are usually independent (though related) organizations, but not always. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, renowned researcher David Barrett counted 33,830 Protestant denominations globally. 

Jan 14, 2015

Our quote for today is from G.K. Chesterton. He said, "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." Garry Morgan is a Professor of Intercultural Studies at Northwestern College. He served with World Venture for 20 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

Our topic for today is, "Eastern Orthodox Christianity" 

Eastern Orthodoxy, the smallest of Christianity’s three major branches and perhaps the least-known by other Christians, has its geographic roots in the Middle East, where the faith began. As it spread, Orthodox Christianity developed regional variations, although most share similar beliefs and practices. Today, it remains dominant in Greece, Russia, and Romania (among other countries) and is the most common form of Christianity in Muslim-majority countries like Egypt and Turkey. 

Due to cultural and political differences, the Eastern Orthodox Church quickly developed differences with the Western form that became the Roman Catholic Church. It tended to be more contemplative; the Western church was more pragmatic. Although very much integrated into political life, especially during the Byzantine period, Eastern Christianity did not develop the Roman Church’s secular power. In fact, emperors tended to have influence over the running of the church, whereas the reverse was true in Rome.

Furthermore, after the seventh century, much of the Eastern Orthodox Church came under the political domination of Muslim rulers as Islam spread westward, and this influenced its theology and practice. Although the Western church lost territory to Islam in North Africa and Spain, Charles Martel’s decisive victory at the Battle of Tours in 732 kept most of Europe in Christian hands. 

In our last episode, we discussed other key historical and political factors that led to schism between the Western (Roman Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) branches; there were theological elements, too. Because it produced some of the early church’s most influential theologians and writers, the East resented the insistence that Rome have the final say in all matters. This unwillingness to bow to the pope’s authority was at the heart of this growing divide. 

One early theological controversy had to do with understanding relationships within the Trinity. Both branches agreed that God is one being who has existed eternally as three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. Both rejected poly-theism and mo-dal-ism, the heretical idea that God originally manifested himself as the Father, then became the Son, and now is the Holy Spirit. But the Western church held that the Spirit “proceeded from both the Father and the Son,” while the Eastern branch took Jesus’ words in John’s gospel about the Father sending the Spirit to mean that he “proceeded [only] from the Father.” 

More widely familiar was what has come to be called the “Icon-o-clas-tic Controversy.” The Western church used statues of Jesus, Mary, and many saints in their worship. To the Eastern church, this was idolatrous, in violation of the second commandment (to have no graven image). They developed a two-dimensional art form called the icon, a picture for use in worship and prayer. 

Before the final split in 1054, the Western church insisted on celibacy for priests, while marriage was permitted in the East. The West baptized infants by sprinkling; the East baptized infants by immersion. The West began giving laypeople only bread during Communion, whereas the laity in the East continued to receive both bread and wine. 

Language was important in how the two branches spread and developed. The West used Latin for worship and resisted further translation of the Bible into other tongues. The East used Greek and promoted translation of God’s Word into the vernacular. The Orthodox monk Cyril developed an alphabet for the Slavic languages that bears his name; Cy-rill-ic or-thog-ra-phy is used today for Russian, Polish, Czech, and Bulgarian, among other languages. 

Through the missionary work of dedicated monks, Eastern Christianity spread from the Middle East into Eastern Europe and northward into Russia, as well as into what is now Iraq and Iran. By the close of the first millennium, geographic expansion slowed and eventually halted. Leading up to and into the twentieth century, Eastern European and Russian immigrants brought the Orthodox faith to Australia and North America. Today, 270 million Eastern Orthodox members are organized into fellowships of independent churches, usually by country, including Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and the Orthodox Church in America, each with its own synod of bishops. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is given the honor of "first among equals" and holds significant influence but does not have the power or authority that the pope has over the Roman Catholic Church. 

The Eastern Orthodox Church is also officially known as the Orthodox Catholic Church. Similar to but separate from the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Oriental Orthodox Church (though oriental means "eastern"), which includes the Egyptian Coptic Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and several smaller groups. These differ from Eastern Orthodoxy in that they accept only the first three of seven ecumenical councils that Eastern Orthodoxy considers to be the definitive interpretation of Scripture for belief and practice. 

The Oriental Orthodox churches are of ancient origin. The Coptic Church traces its beginnings to Mark the Evangelist, while the Ethiopian Orthodox Church traces its beginning to the return of the eunuch who encountered Philip, in Acts 8. These churches refused the conclusions of the Council of Chal-ce-don (in 451) and broke away prior to the East-West split (in 1054). Note: The Orthodox Church of Alexandria, in Egypt, is part of Eastern (not Oriental) Orthodoxy. 

Now, for An Extra Minute 

How does the name Orthodox differ from the term orthodox? The term comes from two Greek words literally rendered "right belief." So the term orthodox means believing in line with accepted Christian teaching (as opposed to heresy, wrong belief). Any right-believing Christian is orthodox. The Eastern Church adopted the word into their name in the conviction that their belief was correct. 

Jan 9, 2015

Our quote for today is from Albert Camus. He said, "I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live as if there isn't and to die to find out that there is."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." Garry Morgan is a Professor of Intercultural Studies at Northwestern College. He served with World Venture for 20 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

Our topic for today is, "Roman Catholic Christianity" 

The first Christians had little organizational structure. Although local churches all around the Mediterranean world were in contact and even cooperated in activities (like sending support to Paul’s missionary team or providing financial assistance to the Jerusalem church during a famine), there was no central human authority. 

The apostles were a chosen group who established new churches and provided special guidance during the New Testament era. These men, primarily Peter and James in Jerusalem, and Paul, the church planter, were looked to for wisdom and advice on matters of doctrine and practice (e.g., see Acts 15 or Paul’s epistles—letters written to many of the local churches). However, the local assembly of believers in each city believed they drew their authority directly from Jesus Christ, led by the Scriptures and his Holy Spirit.

The New Testament describes three types of church leaders, always in connection with a given congregation. The first have traditionally been called bishops. The literal translation of the Greek word is “overseer,” which clearly describes their role. The second, elders, were responsible for teaching, leading, and spiritual care. Deacons primarily provided material care for the congregation, though their qualifications were similar to elders and many, like Stephen, the first Christian martyr, were gifted preachers and teachers. It seems likely there were also deaconesses. While their exact title is not certain, Paul mentions by name a number of women who served in a ministry capacity. 

This decentralized leadership aided the church’s survival through the waves of persecution it faced during its first three centuries. By the time the last of the apostles died (c. AD 90), each city where believers gathered had a bishop or overseer. Church buildings weren’t common for several centuries; groups of believers met in homes, usually with an elder present, while large, corporate gatherings were held outside or in rented facilities. 

Many bishops, especially in the larger cities, were gifted theologians, speakers, and writers— two of the better known are Athanasius and Augustine, both from North Africa. The writings of these and other influential bishops were circulated as the church refined ways of stating New Testament truths in doctrinal statements and dealt with questions and controversies that came up over the years in specific contexts. 

Persecution during the first three centuries was sporadic and sometimes localized. Begun initially by Jewish leaders, after Jerusalem’s fall (AD 70), the Romans became the persecutors. The most severe and widespread wave came under Emperor Diocletian (ruled AD 284–305). His successor, Constantine, abruptly reversed policy (through the Edict of Milan, AD 313) and granted Christianity legal status equal to all other religions in the empire. 

Constantine took two other actions that significantly shaped Christianity. In 325, he called the Council of Nicaea, to be held in present-day Turkey, inviting 1,800 bishops from all over the empire to discuss and settle questions regarding the nature of Christ. Several hundred were able to attend, and they produced the Nicene Creed, still used in some worship services today.

Then in 330, Constantine moved his political capital from Rome to Byzantium, which was renamed Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). In the western part of the empire, the church filled the political vacuum. The bishop in Rome already held great prestige and influence over the rest of the church, and although the New Testament doesn’t mention it, there’s a church tradition that says the apostle Peter traveled there and became its first bishop. 

This influence, increasing significantly after 330, also brought increased conflict with Christianity’s eastern branch, which resisted the Roman bishop’s claim to lead all Christians. Geography, politics, and theological differences all led to a gradual and often acrimonious separation that became complete in 1204, when Crusaders from the west, en route to the Holy Land, attacked and looted Constantinople. 

Within a century, the Christian church went from persecuted minority to appointing emperors and running political systems. After the Empire’s collapse, the church became the unifying force in Europe. But with more political influence came declining spiritual fervor. In response, monastic orders were formed by those who wanted to focus on the spiritual aspects of Christianity. Yet the monks did not simply withdraw from society. They taught the people in their areas, maintained centers of learning, and sent missionaries to other parts of the world. 

Early in the Middle Ages (roughly AD 500– 1500), the bishop of Rome became the recognized head of the Western church and was called the pope. He claimed authority over all Christians, and thus the church came to be called the Catholic Church, meaning “all-embracing” or universal. It was not until the Reformation, when some Christian groups broke away from the pope’s authority, that Roman Catholic came to describe the section of the church that recognized papal leadership. Today, Christianity is described as having three major branches: Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox. 

The Reformation produced an often violent reaction (the Counter-Reformation) from the Catholic Church but also brought some positive changes. Over time, the pope’s amassing of power and wealth had led to corruption and other outrages. The Council of Trent (1545) was an effort to stem the tide of Christians leaving the Catholic Church to join the Reformers. 

The sale of indulgences and other abuses were restrained, but certain doctrines were formulated to specifically “counter” Reformation beliefs and establish the claim to be the only true and legitimate form of Christianity. Opposing Protestant trust in the Bible’s sole authority, the Council stated that church tradition carried equal weight. Protestants promoted translating the Bible into common languages and providing it to all believers (with help from the recently invented printing press); the Council maintained that the Latin Bible was the only true Scripture, and only the Catholic Church could interpret it.

Although some new dogmas (official statements of belief) were added over the centuries, the doctrines established by Trent defined Roman Catholic Christianity until the middle of the twentieth century. The First Vatican Council (Vatican I, 1869) had added the dogma of papal infallibility: that the pope’s official pronouncements (ex cathedra) are without error. In 1962, Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), which met until 1965, and wrought momentous change. Best known for replacing Latin with vernacular languages in the mass, it also recognized Protestant and Orthodox believers as true Christians and allowed ordinary members to read the Bible for themselves. Today, the Roman Catholic Church, with 1.1 billion members globally, remains the largest Christian branch. 

Now, for An Extra Minute 

The organizational structure of the Roman Catholic Church is often used as a model in business management courses because of its “flatness,” that is, minimal layers from top to bottom. With more than a billion members, there are only six layers from pope to ordinary member (layperson). In between are the offices of cardinal, archbishop, bishop, and priest.

Jan 2, 2015

Our quote for today is from C.S. Lewis. He said, "Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither."

In this podcast, we are making our way through Garry R. Morgan's book, "Understanding World Religions in 15 Minutes a Day." Garry Morgan is a Professor of Intercultural Studies at Northwestern College. He served with World Venture for 20 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. 

Our topic for today is, "Christianity: What Sets It Apart?" 

“Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship!” We often hear this when someone’s trying to set Christianity apart from “religion.” Is it accurate? Is this the characteristic that makes Christianity unique? And if not, what does? 

Based on our description of religion, Christianity clearly fits the definition. It is an organized system of belief and practice that answers ultimate questions and guides daily life. But why have we come to think of religion as a negative term in the first place? 

Due to historical abuses, we tend to view it as something artificial or without true meaning. However, the New Testament uses the term in James 1:27 with the adjectives pure and undefiled. Religion can become tradition without meaning, yet that isn’t the fault of religion itself— responsibility would belong with those who wrongly practice a given faith. 

So believers could say that Christianity is the religious expression of our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our faith uses the Bible to answer ultimate questions about God and life. Because the Christian’s relationship with God through Christ is lived out with other followers of Jesus (what the New Testament calls “the body of Christ”), we worship and engage in other activities as a unified group, and this also is what characterizes religion. 

Also, regarding the “religion vs. relationship” debate, we should keep in mind that other religious systems claim a relationship with the god or gods they revere and worship. The Qur’an says, “God is nearer [to a man] than [his] jugular vein”. The Bha-ga-vad Gita describes an incarnation of the god Krishna who helps a warrior king make significant life decisions. Many animists maintain relationships with ancestral spirits. 

If relationship itself is not what makes Christianity unique, what does? Starting with stating the obvious, Jesus of Nazareth is the most compelling religious figure of all time. Historians, scholars, and even leaders of other religions widely acknowledge and admire (although sometimes distort) the unique quality of his life and teachings. 

For the Christian, however, it is not Jesus’ teachings or even his earthly life that are most important. We look to Jesus not just as a gifted teacher and moral example but as our Savior. His death and resurrection are the watershed events that stand at the center of our faith. By them, Jesus established the truth of his claim to be God’s unique Son— fully human and fully divine— and provided the means of salvation for humankind, separated from God by sin. 

Another way to describe the faith’s uniqueness is with the word grace. Grace means giving someone something they don’t deserve. Because the God of the Bible is a God of grace, he takes the first step to repair our relationship with him after disobedience (sin). Because of grace, God provides the way of salvation in Jesus, who takes our punishment for wrongdoing. Because of grace, God can be both just (punishing sin) and forgiving (removing sin).

All other religious systems believe the main responsibility for solving life’s problems rests upon people. Christianity reveals and demonstrates that we cannot set things right by our own efforts, which makes grace all the more astounding and precious. 

Historically, the Christian church is widely regarded to have begun on the day of Pentecost (described in Acts 2). It spread widely and grew quickly over the next several centuries. Early on, even as seen within the pages of the New Testament, it began developing religious forms. Initially, these were heavily influenced by Judaism. The first Christians worshiped in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and used the Hebrew Scriptures we now call the Old Testament. 

But as non-Jews accepted the Christian message (the gospel) and became followers of Jesus, the church began adopting Hellenistic (Greek) forms, especially in how the message of Jesus was explained to others. John’s gospel, for example, describes Jesus as the Logos (Word), a term with significant meaning to those influenced by Greek philosophy.

Indeed, Christianity can flourish in any culture. The New Testament focuses more on principles for living and the type of people we’re supposed to be (i.e., character qualities) than on specific behaviors, so its practices and forms tend to take on the local flavor of surrounding cultures. For example, the apostle Paul commands husbands to love their wives; the specific ways Christians obey this order look different from culture to culture. 

This flexibility, coupled with extensive geographic expansion, political issues (especially after Christianity received favored status from the Roman Empire in the late fourth century), and theological differences of opinion, eventually led to divisions. The Western church, centered in Rome, became what is now the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern church, based in Constantinople, became the (Eastern) Orthodox Church with its regional fellowships (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.). 

Later, near the end of the fifteenth century, various reformers protested against abuses within the Catholic Church. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others, largely after being excommunicated, organized new expressions of the Christian faith that came to be known as Protestant churches. While there are smaller branches on the Christian church tree, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant form the largest or primary three. 

From AD 500, and for more than a millennium, the Christian message was largely spread by groups of Catholic monks, reaching eastward as far as Japan and west to the New World. By the eighteenth century, Protestants began what came to be called the modern missionary movement, taking the gospel to every part of the world. Today, Christianity truly is a global faith. While there are still areas and people groups that have not heard the name of Jesus Christ, he has followers in virtually every country.

Now, for An Extra Minute

Christians of all walks comprise about a third of the world’s population (about 2.1 billion in 2010). Approximately 1.1 billion belong to the Roman Catholic Church, about 600 million to Protestant churches, and about 270 million are Eastern Orthodox, with the balance in independent groups. In 1900, about 68 percent of the world’s Christians lived on the European continent, with about 14 percent in North America. By 2050, Africa is likely to have about 29 percent of the world’s Christians, followed by Asia with 20 percent. Church historians refer to this trend as Christianity’s “global center” shifting from north to south.