Christianity began in the days of the Roman Empire. From the time of Jesus and the Apostles, the Christian church visibly spread throughout the world, with the geographical boundaries of majority-Christian areas often shifting according to movements in the church. During the Apostolic age, the church spread from Jerusalem to Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). With the establishment of visible churches in gentile lands—beginning with the church in Antioch—Christianity prospered in the developing world in spite of the persecution that converts endured at the hands of pagan rulers. From the fourth to the fifteenth centuries, professing Christians lived in the Eastern region of the Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, making up a church with a liturgy and theology mainly in Greek. During the same period, professing Christians lived in the Western portion of the Roman Empire, making up a church whose liturgy and theology were mainly in Latin. With the rise of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, significant geographical changes occurred as portions of the Western church in Europe became Protestant and both Protestants and Roman Catholics moved into the New World. Subsequently, the modern missionary movement of the nineteenth century saw the gospel take root or expand in Asia, India, and sub-Saharan Africa. Today, the church is increasing throughout Asia and in Africa.
Under the influence of Emperor Constantine, the Eastern Roman Empire became the first area where Christianity was officially tolerated, and there it enjoyed considerable cultural influence. The Eastern empire, often known today as the Byzantine Empire, lasted from roughly AD 330, with the establishment of the city of Constantinople, to 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Significantly, Constantinople was the location of the second and fifth ecumenical councils (381 and 553).
In the West, missionaries such as Patrick, Columba, Augustine of Canterbury, and Boniface took the gospel to the pagan nations of Europe between the fifth and eighth centuries. The Frankish king Clovis I (481–511) welcomed Christianity into his territories. With the ascendancy of Gregory the Great to the office of the bishop of Rome (the papacy) in 590, the influence of the already important office of pope began to increase significantly in the West. In keeping with this trend, Western Christianity in the Middle Ages became dominated by Latin thought. Throughout the medieval era, the Eastern and the Western churches grew more and more apart culturally, politically, and theologically, though both churches remained in official communion. Eventually, the Great Schism of 1054 marked a decisive break between Eastern and Western Christianity.
In the West, the papacy came to fill the power vacuum left after the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the barbarians in 476 and the transfer of the imperial capital to Constantinople in 330. European monarchs found it to their advantage to garner papal approval. Popes frequently crowned the Germanic and Frankish rulers of the Holy Roman Empire, and Spanish rulers sought to enforce papal orthodoxy on their subjects. During this era, Islam had largely overrun the Eastern church and even posed a threat to the Western church, and the papacy initiated the Crusades to try to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. The papacy also sought to crush heresy in Europe, beginning with the inquisitions of the twelfth century, which morphed into the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Protestant Reformation pushed back against the political claims of the papacy and the distorted theology and tradition that had come to characterize the church in the West. This ultimately reshaped the Western church theologically and geographically. Nations such as the Netherlands and England, as well as significant portions of Germany and Switzerland, became largely Protestant. In response, Pope Paul III in 1545 convoked the Council of Trent, whose decrees formed the basis of modern Roman Catholicism. Portions of Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and other nations remained committed to the pope.
Over time in England, differences in the Church of England led to the Puritan movement. Many Puritans traveled to North America, ensuring that Protestantism would have a significant influence in the settlement of the American Colonies. During the Age of Discovery, Roman Catholic missionaries traveled from Spain and elsewhere, establishing Roman Catholic churches in Central and South America. The modern missionary movement that began in the nineteenth century saw British Protestant missionaries carrying the gospel to unreached peoples in Asia and India. By the end of the twentieth century, American evangelical Protestants were playing a prominent role in world missions as well. As a result of all these efforts, missiologists are now documenting the tremendous growth of the church in Asia and Africa. In the present, South Korea has surpassed the United States in sending missionaries to carry the gospel to the nations.
Christianity originated in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire, in the midst of a very peculiar people. At first, it was entirely out of relation to the larger life of the time. The atmosphere of the Gospels is as un-Greek as could be imagined; the very conception of Messiahship is distinctively Jewish. Yet this Jewish sect soon entered upon the conquest of the empire, and the Jewish Messiah became the Savior of the world. Starting from Jerusalem, the new sect spread within a few decades almost to the remotest corners of the civilized world. This remarkable extension was not the work of any one man or group of men. It seemed rather to be due to some mysterious power of growth, operating in many directions and in many ways. In this manifold extension of the gospel, however, the central event of to-day’s lesson stands out with special clearness. Christianity began as a Jewish movement, quite incongruous with the larger life of the empire.
The Literature and History of New Testament Times
The spirit of the Crusades arose in Europe in the eleventh century and continued as an ideal at least until the sixteenth century. Between 1096 and 1229, five major crusades were mounted in the name of recapturing Jerusalem from the infidels. Those who preached the Crusades remembered that the Middle East and North Africa had been lands with a predominantly Christian population until the Islamic conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries. Mohammed died in 632, and Islamic forces had captured Jerusalem by 638. Indeed, Islamic armies had pushed into Italy, Spain, and France from the south. Their farthest push north was stopped at Poitiers in France in 732. In 841, Islamic forces sacked St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, a revitalized Islam threatened Europe from the east, conquering Constantinople (in 1453) and advancing as far as the gates of Vienna.”
The Spanish Inquisition occurred in the larger enterprise of ecclesial and secular courts imposing conformity to the Roman Catholic Church and stamping out all dissent. Rome sponsored inquisitions as early as the eleventh century. But the Spanish Inquisition was unique. First, it was controlled by the monarchy, rather than the papacy, and would be even more politically motivated than other inquisitions. The Spanish Inquisition was also unique in regard to its setting in Spain. For centuries, Muslims ruled the Iberian Peninsula; it was not until 1250 that Catholics reconquered the area. And even afterward, many Muslims remained, and large Jewish populations also dotted Spain. Popular persecution broke out against these Spanish Jews and Muslims, forcing them to convert to Catholicism and be baptized or be killed. Thousands converted under duress and were known as conversos. The Inquisition later targeted the conversos, seeking to determine whether their conversions were genuine or whether they continued to practice their old faith, a crime punishable by death. Principled Jews and Muslims either fled or faced the savagery of the Inquisition.”
[God] will be exalted among the nations, He will inherit what rightfully belongs to Him, and He will do it according to Christ, the Word, the Spirit, and through His body, the church. He repeatedly calls us to preach, teach, and serve according to His ways and throughout the whole world.