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Alternate Activity 3: From Minority to Majority (20 minutes), Workshop 11: Christianity 1

In "Building Bridges," a Tapestry of Faith program

Materials for Activity

Description of Activity

The history of the early church is explained.

Christianity begins with the birth and death of Jesus. Jesus was Jewish and the story of his life was played out primarily among the Jewish people. Following Jesus' death, his followers created a new faith, with Judaic roots. In the beginning, these believers were spread out and disorganized. Adherents were persecuted, sometimes even to the death. Still, the beliefs spread. Parker Palmer, a Quaker theologian, wrote, "In the early church, it was said of the Christians, 'See how they love one another.'" This message of love—as evidenced in the parables, Beatitudes, the Lord's Prayer, and many other words attributed to Jesus—was so strong, that this new faith gained great popularity in Rome, despite hundreds of other competing religious sects at the time.

It was around 318 CE, when the leader of the Holy Roman Empire, Constantine, converted to Christianity that the Catholic Church came into being. With Constantine's conversion, the Catholic Church begin to attain more and more power. Remind participants of the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, that made disbelief in the Trinity blasphemy and turned other beliefs —including many, like the Trinity, not found in the Bible—into church doctrine. The word "catholic" means "universal" and for nearly 1,500 years, the Catholic Church was the dominant Christian church in the Western world.

In 1054, the Great Schism divided the Church into to major forms of Christianity. This East/West divide finalized differences in doctrine between the Western world and Eastern areas, creating the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox religions. No other Christian denominations—Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, etc.—came into being until after 1517 with the Protestant Reformation.

During the Middle Ages, as Christianity became the dominant religion in the Western world, the church and its doctrines and practices continued to change from its origins in the early Church. Some significant changes included:

  • The crucifix (cross with the figure of Jesus on it) did not exist for nearly a thousand years. The image appeared after 900 CE.
  • There were women theologians and church leaders in the early church for several hundred years. It was a mid-first millennium change to exclude them from leadership in the Catholic Church. That has changed again over time.
  • Early church teachings focused on abundant, joyful life on earth. Only later (second millennium) did the focus shift to Christ's suffering, and the human fate to endure this life and strive to be rewarded in heaven after death.
  • The Eucharist (communion) originally was the embodiment of the living Christ and his living teachings. Again, after 900 CE the official explanation darkened, the Eucharist becoming the body and blood of the crucified Christ.
  • As the Church's organization, centered in Rome, grew in size, complexity and power, corruption and abuse of power also grew. Popes had their own armies and engaged in military campaigns to acquire, preserve or extend their power and finances. Clerics sold fake "relics" and indulgences—promises of reduced punishment for sins after death- to believers.

Not only did imagery and doctrine become grimmer, the Roman Catholic Church became more militant. In 1095 CE, the Catholic Church leadership called for a military assault on Jerusalem to reclaim it from "the infidels"—the city was held by Muslims at that time. These religiously sanctioned military campaigns against Muslims—and at times, Greek Orthodox Christians—were called the Crusades. Between 1095 and 1291, a series of attempts to reclaim Jerusalem and what the Church considered the Holy Land were conducted with initial successes, but ultimate failures. The Crusades may have also served to distract people from the troubles at home and give them something to work on together. Distribute Handout 2, Brief Overview of the Crusades.

Give participants time to look at the handout. Then lead a discussion with questions such as the following:

  • What are your thoughts about the Crusades?
  • Could the Crusades happen today?
  • Could the Children's Crusade happen today—groups of tens of thousands of children traveling without adults, recruiting more children as they went, on a religious quest? Why or why not?
  • How could Christians reconcile the pain and suffering caused by war with the teachings of Jesus?
  • Have there been violent periods in any other faith histories we have explored?
  • Do the Crusades have a legacy that is relevant today? In what way? (Christian/Muslim relations, territorial issues in the Middle East, the man in Norway who murdered over 80 people in 2011 in his private war against Muslims and a multicultural Norway, etc.)

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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