Jesus said that He didn't come to bring peace to the earth, but division. And that has definitely happened.Vertical Thought recently interviewed Ronald Wroblewski, who has been an instructor at Spoon River College in Canton, Illinois, for the past 12 years. He teaches such courses as World Religions, Introduction to Philosophy, Ethics, and Logic and Critical Thinking.
Mr. Wroblewski earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and a master's degree in health care administration from the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois. He received a bachelor's degree in theology and a master's degree in religious studies from Ambassador College in Pasadena, California.
Mr. Wroblewski attends the Canton, Illinois, congregation of the United Church of God and is currently pursuing his Ph.D. from Bernelli University.
Vertical Thought: At the beginning of your World Religions course, you mention that there are thousands of different Christian churches. If they all trace their beliefs to the Bible, are they really all that different?
Ron Wroblewski: Yes. There are major differences in governance, how rituals are carried out and many other things. It also seems there is a different church for each variation of doctrine that has occurred during the centuries.
There are major differences between Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches, of course. Then you have the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and the Church of God groups. And then there are Pentecostal churches, which are very different from traditional mainline churches like Lutherans and Methodists.
Jesus said that He didn't come to bring peace to the earth, but division. And that has definitely happened.
VT: When did all the differences first start to appear, and why did these Christians—whose name indicates that they are followers of Christ—deviate from what He and His disciples taught?
RW: As we know, differences were referred to in the letters of the New Testament. By the middle of the second century, several major doctrinal divisions were developing. For example, debate began on what happens after death. The controversy over whether human beings have an immortal soul versus whether they are waiting to be resurrected is still with Christianity today.
My personal feelings are that since the early Church expected Christ to return quickly, hope of that was fading after two generations and people began to look for other explanations of what happens after death. When the hope of the early Church didn't come to pass, many people gave up on it.
VT: Where did the alternative ideas originate?
RW: It looks like the Gnostics were the first to attempt to combine portions of Christianity with Greek philosophy. They rejected the resurrection of the body and replaced it with Plato's doctrine of the immortality of the soul. They believed the spirit is everything, the body nothing, and fell into moral licentiousness. Much of their time was spent learning the "correct" magic passwords that would enable the delivered soul to pass back to its heavenly home.
In the second century, [the Catholic theologian] Origen taught that souls might be eternal—preexisting birth and surviving death through reincarnation. He was very sympathetic to the Platonic doctrine of the soul as being akin to God but obliged to live in a material world that is not its true home.
Another church father, Augustine, also attempted to combine Plato's ideas about the immortality of the soul with Christian teachings. Many of these doctrinal divisions came to a head in the fourth century when the Roman emperor Constantine forced them to be settled by the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325.
VT: How did the Roman emperor get involved in Christianity? Didn't the Romans persecute Christians?
RW: At first, many Christians were killed for refusing to worship the emperor. Later, Constantine saw Christianity as something that could bring unity to his far-flung empire. But to do so, the disputes that divided Christianity had to be resolved. He called for a meeting of all bishops at Nicaea [in what is now northwestern Turkey] in A.D. 325 to discuss these issues.
After heated debate at the Council of Nicaea, Constantine made several declarations, one of which established Sunday as the official day of worship. It is noteworthy that Constantine's stated motive for introducing this custom was respect for the sun. He was not aware of any mutual exclusiveness between Christianity and his faith in the sun. The transition from solar monotheism (the most popular form of contemporary paganism) to Christianity was not difficult.
Constantine also decreed that Christians would observe Easter, and it would be forbidden to keep Passover. In fact, he stated that Christians were to stay away from anything that was "Jewish."
VT: Is that why other observances listed in the Bible, like Passover, the Days of Unleavened Bread and Pentecost, disappeared from modern Christianity?
RW: Yes. The Romans turned to persecuting all things Jewish, and Christians often had to decide whether to hold what appeared to be Jewish beliefs and likely suffer persecution or to worship on different dates and avoid that persecution.
Easter definitely replaced Passover. Wiccans claim Christians stole Easter from them. One text I use in class, Phyllis Curott's Book of Shadows , explains that the name Easter comes from the name of the German fertility goddess Eostre. Eggs and rabbits—commonly associated with the holiday—are symbols of fertility.
The Catholic Church timed Easter to coincide with the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox, another remnant of the old (pagan) religion just below the surface of the new.
VT: Did this happen with other modern Christian holidays?
RW: Other holidays were adopted to add numbers to the church without requiring people to give up their cherished practices. There are letters between bishops that discuss ways to convert pagans. The answer was to attempt to eliminate the worst of the practices and put the others under the umbrella of Christianity. They simply changed the name of who was being worshipped. Christmas, originally the birthday of the sun god, became the day to worship the Son of God.
VT: So did the controversy stop after the Council of Nicaea?
RW: No. The [Catholic] church split in A.D. 1054 into the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the East. Some of the issues that led to this split included the pope's authority, the use of statues in worship versus the use of icons and whether priests would be allowed to marry.
A second major split—known as the Protestant Reformation—happened in the 16th century. There had been growing dissatisfaction with some of the church's teachings and in 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to stimulate discussion on several of these issues, such as the belief in purgatory, the sale of indulgences [buying one's or another's way out of purgatory] and confession to priests. Ultimately, this led to the start of the Lutheran Church.
King Henry VIII of England also broke away from the Catholic Church to establish the Anglican Church. Still other issues led to further splits within the Christian community. Some of those include transubstantiation (whether the bread and wine become Christ's actual body and blood or whether they are just symbols) and whether works (good deeds) were necessary for salvation. Others debate what happens to people when they die, at what age one must be baptized and whether immersion in water is necessary for baptism or whether sprinkling is sufficient.
VT: Which doctrinal shift do you think changed Christianity most?
RW: The Council of Nicaea was definitely a major shifting point, with the settling of the controversial questions. The Protestant Reformation was another major turning point. But the Protestants, while eliminating several of the serious abuses of the Catholic Church, didn't go far enough in restoring the original faith of the first-century Church. VT
Editor's note: If you'd like to learn more about the original Christianity taught by Jesus and practiced by the first-century Church, request our free booklet The Church Jesus Built .