A Bleak History of Christian Mission
Christianity is a missionary religion.
Preaching and teaching is a central component of its dogma, and the injunction to make converts appears in the earliest of Church writings.
The Gospel of Matthew gives the church “The Great Commission,” 28:19 – 20
“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (NAB)
This same commission is reflected in an earlier narrative in the Gospel of Mark 16:15
“Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” (NAB)
In the early years of the church, in the years leading to the writing of the Gospels, Christianity was not known as Christianity, and Christians were not known as Christians.
Jesus of Nazareth, known in his home town as Joshua son of Joseph, had been given the title of Christ, from the Greek Kyrios, the anointed one, but he was not worshipped as a God.
Those following the teachings of Jesus, referred to those teachings as The Way, and they saw themselves as followers and keepers of The Way. They saw themselves as students of The Way, disciples, from the Latin discipulos, the saw the church as a school, from the Latin schola, and the symbol they used to identify themselves was not the symbol of Jesus’ torture and death, the crucifix, it was a fish, because the faithful disciples of the way swam together as do a school of fish. They lived together, they prayed together, they took care of one another, and protected each other.
Those in the way did not rely on any other power to carry out their mission; not the army, not the empire, not kings, and queens, and princes. They cared for one another, and preached the forgiveness of sins, to friend and stranger alike.
The way was transformative, it was a grass roots movement, it cast aside social norms, and it threatened to overthrow the exiting power structures.
It was dynamic, and it lent itself to rapid growth throughout the communities of the oppressed.
The great commission was well suited to the simple mission of the early movement; to love God with all your strength and all your heart, and all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.
The exact time is not clear, but within a couple of hundred years after the death of Jesus, prior to the ascendancy of Saint Constantine (c. 300 CE), the Emperor who de-criminalized Christianity, endorsed it, and made it the official religion of the state, as Christianity was becoming a dominant force in the Major urban centers of the Empire, Christian mission began to spread via the political machinations of civil government, and through the use of violent coercion.
Coercion and violence became the modus operandi of Christian mission almost immediately upon the transformation of the Church into an arm of the Roman Empire.
There is some evidence for inter-Christian violence before the Constantinian era, especially during the persecution of the so-called “Gnostic” groups, which orthodox (right thinking) Christians viewed as heretical, heterodox (wrong thinking) Christianity. In the second and third centuries of the church, many so-called heterodox Christians were forcibly converted to orthodox norms, they were killed, murdered, exiled.
In the era before Constantine, Christians experienced regular persecution from the civil authorities that governed them.
The periods of persecution that the early Church endured gave Christians a consciousness of how political power and violence can be used to injure one’s opponents.
St. Augustine of Hippo (4th and 5th Century CE) wrote extensively on the use of political power and violence in defense of the faith. In his dealings with the Donatists he called upon the army to suppress dissent,[i] and he praised the passage of laws that allowed bishops to crucify those that refused to submit to the authority of the Church.[ii]
The persecution of the Gnostics by Christians and the later persecution of Christian heretics in the imperial Church were analogous, and even identical to the types of persecutions that orthodox Christians endured at the hands of the Roman government in the pre-imperial Church and the types of persecutions that the Roman government regularly engaged in, in relation to other secret societies, burial-groups and guilds etc….[iii]
Persecution and Christian mission are not inherently related activities, but they share a common, and a bleak history.
The use of violence in defense of Christianity may seem absurd to some, as it does to me, bu violence in the defense of “right beliefs” is subtly different from violence used to spread Christianity in the mission field.
The persecutory activities that the early Christians engaged in, were the active proponents of, had primarily to do with a felt need to defend orthodoxy.
Violence perpetrated against non-Christians, in order to force them to become Christians, is something else.
Violence, coercion, and the tactics of persecution represent an intrinsic betrayal of The Way, that Jesus taught, lived and died for.
Violence in defense of one’s beliefs and traditions is one kind of betrayal.
The justification of the use of violence to make converts out of non-Christians is a different kind of betrayal.
With the advent of the imperial Church (early 4th century CE), Christian missionaries, teachers of the faith, began to be used as a means of spreading the civic apparatus of the Roman Empire.
Ulfilas, the “apostle to the Goths” was instrumental in bringing the Gothic people into the fold of the Roman Empire.[iv] He brought the Gospels to the Gothic people, written in their own language, but he did not teach them that Jesus of Nazareth, Joshua son of Joseph, was God, or the son of God, he preached the traditional understanding of who Jesus was, a man who had led an extraordinary life, a prophet who proclaimed The Way, and was killed for his faith. Ulfilas was a follower of Arius, and in the early fourth century the church was tearing itself apart over the question of whether it would adhere to the traditional understanding of who Jesus was, and the new understanding, championed by Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, that in Jesus, the creator of the universe, God almighty had become incarnate.
The Emperor Saint Constantine called the first Plenary Council of the Church at Nicea to settle the question once and for all. It was cast as a zero-sum game. The Church would not be allowed to hold both views, and the council was evenly divided.
The party of Athanasius won the day, the party of Arius lost. Many in Arius’ party relented, adopting the new teaching. Many did not. Those who did not adopt the new teaching become known as Arian Christians, heretics, they fled into exile, Ulfilas among them, or failing to flee, they were tortured and killed.
If it was not for the unfortunate events of the Council of Nicea, and the emergence of Arian Christianity as a heretical sect, his missionary activities, the use of the political power of the Roman Empire to convert the Gothic people would be fondly remembered by all Christians.
As it turned out, his conversion of the Goths to Arian Christianity set the stage for the first in a long (perhaps endless) series of inter-Christian wars.
The prosecution of war against the Arians, by the Christian leadership of the Roman Empire, may be seen as another example of orthodox Christianity in defense of itself, like the earlier persecution of the Gnostics, the Marcionites, the Marionites, etc…but there were distinct differences.
- Christianity was now the official religion of the Roman Empire and co-extensive with its government.
- The version of Christianity promulgated by Athanasius and codified at the Council of Nicea, was a departure from the traditional form of Christianity preached in the Apostolic Age.
It is important to note that the missionary work of Ulfilas, the conversion of the Goths, marked the beginning of the Church’s role in the growth of the Empire, despite the fact that the outcome of Nicea led to centuries of conflict rather than cohesion and stability.
When the imperial Church began the process of the missionizing Northern Europe they took over a process that had already been underway since as least the time of Julius Caesar’s encounter with the Germans.
The earlier process was not missionary work, the Ancient Romans were not spreading the faith. It was the work of bringing the Northern trines into the Roman Empire, it was the work of federalizing, or federating, from the Latin foederati.
Cicero gives us the earliest known use of the term foederati,[v] which the Romans used to classify the tribes of “barbarians” that were migrating South, into the Roman provinces, attracted by the stability of Roman society, and who sought a peaceful coexistence with the Romans as allies, instead of conflict, and war.
The foederati system allowed members of the federated tribes to serve in the Roman army, and after 20 years of service they could muster out with a portion of the rights of a Roman citizen, or even full citizenship if they had distinguished themselves.
For the migrating tribes of barbarians (Germanic people) the only alternative to becoming foederati was war with the Romans. War with the Romans had been the ruin of countless tribes, either one of those two choices, or remain beyond the reach of Roman power, beyond access to coveted Roman goods and markets.
When the Church took over this process, when missionization replaced federation, it systematized what had been a haphazard process. Both functions changed in relation to each other.
Traditional Missionary work, like that of Saint Paul in the first generation of Christian after the death of Jesus, resulted in the formation of grass-roots communities spread in urban centers throughout the Empire. Those communities eventually grew, becoming the most dominant party in the Roman Empire, In the early fourth century they received the support of the Army, under Saint Constantine, Constantine became the Emperor, and the Church became co-extensive with the Empire itself.
What immediately followed were two centuries of religious wars, conflict between opposing groups of Christians. By the time these conflicts were resolved, both the Church and the Empire were ready and eager for renewed expansion.
In the 6th century, when Saint Gregory the great sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury to England as a missionary to the Angles, he officially inaugurated this new era.
The new form of Christian mission/Roman federalization, resulted in the name “Christian” being given to the societies that it penetrated, but it was no longer a grass roots/ emergent movement as in the time of Saint Paul. Christianization was now a top down transformation of those societies.[vi]
It was a slow process and it took centuries for the Church to reform those cultures into its own image. The Church was forced to assert it control aggressively and continuously over the worship life of its flock, and the Church never hesitated to use violent coercion, and every other form of persecution to this end.
Barbarian leaders, attracted by the stability of the Christian world, including the access to lucrative markets, education for their children, stable laws turned to Christianity primarily as means to improve the material conditions of their societies and as a means of promoting their own dynastic aspirations.[vii]
By the 10th century, the Church had become the sole arbiter of royal power.
Even though powerful war-lords were able to exercise power in their own right, almost invariably those war-lords sought to have their powers ratified by the Church whose authority it was to hand out royal crowns and other titles including that of emperor.[viii]
Often the only difference between a bandit and a prince was ecclesiastical sanction.
The Church took over another function of Roman government as it entered the imperial phase, the distribution of grain distribution.
Prior to the advent of the Imperial Church, Christian communities in urban centers throughout the Empire had already assumed this function. The Church more than any other group distributed bread to the hungry. In the third and fourth centuries CE, as the bureaucracy of the Empire was collapsing, the Church stepped into this role.
This explains in part the rapid growth of the Church, why it was seen as a threat and persecuted by traditional Roman institutions, and why the support of the Church was a crucial part of Saint Constantine’s successful bid to become Emperor.
Grain distribution was vital to the life of the Empire. Most of the grain consumed in Europe was grown and milled by the Church. The major agricultural estates were centered at monasteries and other ecclesiastical holdings. Grain was the single greatest source of revenue in feudal Europe. In addition to farming, religious institutions throughout Europe, both monastic and diocesan, were vital centers of culture; housing schools, and markets, and the crafts-guilds that supported them. The European nobility coveted these estates as sources of prestige, income and political power.
As Christianity spread into Northern Europe various methods were devised by various parties to help them secure their legal claim to the most profitable lands. Many wars were fought and much violence was perpetrated by Christians against each other, as well as between secular powers and the Church, over the issue of who had the right to make appointments to high ecclesiastical office, and over the legitimacy of hereditary control of Church property.
This practice, known as simony, was the subject of centuries of reform movements within the Church. Yet, it was precisely the practice of simony that helped to spread and stabilize the Church in Northern Europe.
The European royal families and those barbarians, who wished to join them, looked to the Church to be a faithful arbitrator of their rights. Barbarian lords converted to Christianity because they believed that by doing so their dynasty, and their family holdings would be secure. They saw in the Church a vehicle for the preservation of their families and their family wealth. Christian lords, both secular and ecclesiastical promoted the spread of Christianity not so much for the cure of souls but for the territories that would fall into their possession upon their success.
The greatest example of this corrupt system is found in the period of the encomenderos, during the Spanish conquest of America. Secular Christians and those in holy orders rushed to the “New World” to divide up its lands and enslave its people.[ix] They worked whole populations to death. The crimes the Church committed against humanity were so horrific that it was ultimately forced by its “conscience” to pass a decree which ordered that some attempt should be made to convert the natives, that they should not be held as slaves but as friends and pupils, but it was a hollow gesture.
The native populations in the West Indies were completely destroyed. Those who came into contact with Europeans on the American continents were more than decimated. Christians began to import slaves from Africa. Centuries passed, with almost no attempt at all given to converting those people or making them citizens in the feudal system. The Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) even operated a seminary for the training of priests especially for its slave holding plantations in the New World.[x]
Christendom had been a slave holding society from the very beginning. Even the Gospels encourage slaves to remain with their masters if their masters are just, a bargain that the early church made with the Imperial powers. The question on whether it is lawful for Christians to hold other Christians as slaves, had one consistent answer up until around the eighteenth century, and it was yes.
Christians had always authorized to hold slaves, if they had been captured in a lawful manner; as say through war, where the lives of the captives are forfeit. In addition, people could be sentenced to slavery or indentured servitude through the secular or ecclesiastical courts. Any person who owed a debt to another could be forced into servitude. This included nearly the total non-land holding population of the Christian world.
That the history of Christian mission is characterized by political power and violence is in no way assignable to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus did not advocate the use of political power and violence. His ministry opposed to it.
The great sins Christians have perpetrated on so many helpless people have less to do with the fact that they are Christian, and more to do with the fact that we are human.
[i] St. Augustine, Treatise on the Correction of the Donatists, The Political Writings, edited with an introduction by Henry Paolucci, including an interpretive analysis by Dino Bigongiari (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing Inc., 1962), 223.
[ii] Ibid, Power to Crucify and Power to Release, 340 – 342.
[iii] Robert Wilkin, The Christians as the Romans saw Them (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), 16 – 17.
[iv] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, From Paganism to Christianity (New York: A Marion Wood Book, Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 66.
[v] The Latin Oxford Dictionary, the combined edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), foederati.
[vi] Ibid, 236.
[vii] Ibid, 237.
[viii] Ibid, 238.
[ix] Mario Rodriguez Leon, Invasion and Evangelization in the Sixteenth Century, The Church in Latin America 1492 - 1992, edited by Enrique Dussel, Commission for the Study of Church History in Latin America (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992), 43.
[x] Laënnec Hurbon, The Church and Afro-American Slavery, The Church in Latin America 1492 - 1992, edited by Enrique Dussel, Commission for the Study of Church History in Latin America (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992), 369.