Around 2 billion people all over the world are part of the Christian community. From a gathering of just a handful of people 2,000 years ago to becoming the world’s largest institution, there have been numerous key points on the way.
Here we highlight seven of the most important dates and incidents in Church history which have made us what we are today, and which possibly point the way to the future…
1. 50 AD: The Council at Jerusalem
Though we mark Pentecost as the birth of the Church, the Council at Jerusalem is where it began to take shape. The account is to be found in Acts 15. With the two most significant figures in early Christianity, Paul and Peter, present, a major decision was made. ‘Some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses,’ we read. The response was foundational for the Church – in the words of James, ‘God first looked favourably on the Gentiles.’ This meant that from now on, the Church wasn’t just to be composed of observant Jewish followers of Jesus, but also of Gentile Christians. Without this council, the billions of Gentile Christians in history wouldn’t have been a full part of the Church.
2. May 20–June 19, 325: The Council of Nicea
3. July 16, 1054: The Great Schism
Although there had already been one split in the Church, in 451, the Great Schism was the first time that Christendom had been entirely divided into two camps. The Eastern and Western Churches had been growing apart in their theology and practice for hundreds of years. In 1054, the divide was formalised by the excommunication of the leaders of what became Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy by each other. There were a number of theological differences which caused the split, along with a power struggle. The Church remains divided almost 1,000 years later. Most Christians in the West are the inheritors of that western Christian tradition which formally dates from 1054. During the fourth Crusade, western Christian soldiers sacked Constantinople in 1204, which ensured centuries of enmity which are only beginning to be resolved now.
4. October 31, 1517: The beginnings of the Reformation
FIve hundred years ago, in 1517, Martin Luther sparked the Reformation. Though he wasn’t the first dissident in western Europe, he was articulate, obstinate and forceful. The Western Church itself would divide as a result into Catholic and Protestant. Hot on the heels of Luther, other giant figures such as Jean Calvin in Geneva, John Knox in Scotland, Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich and Thomas Cranmer in England began to reform the Church; again, a mix of theology and politics was at play. Now, so many years later, there is good dialogue between Catholics and Protestants, but the formal division remains.
5. May 24, 1738: John Wesley’s heart is strangely warmed
If the Reformation had created Protestantism, then it would be in England that what we now know as evangelicalism began. On May 24, 1738, John Wesley was sitting in a church in the City of London when he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed’. This began a revival in England which was powered by what became known as Methodism. Alongside his hymn-writing brother Charles and his sometime sparring partner George Whitfield, Wesley became the pioneer of a revival which spread widely. He preached to vast crowds and inspired millions with his message. That message was carried across both sides of the Atlantic and led to the evangelical Church we know today.
6. April 9, 1906: Azusa Street Revival
In 1906, a movement began in California which would shape the face of the future of Christianity. The Azusa Street revival is considered to be the start of what we now know as the Pentecostal movement. Speaking in tongues, miraculous healings and other ‘signs and wonders’ were part of the movement from early on. Rapidly spreading across the United States, Pentecostalism has become a major player in world Christianity with countries as diverse as Brazil, South Korea and Nigeria emerging as powerhouses of Pentecostal Christianity. There are thought to be hundreds of millions of Pentecostal Christians in thousands of churches worldwide.
7. 21st century China
Though the first evidence of Christianity in China goes back as far as the 6th century it is the present day that is seeing China emerge as a global centre of Christianity. From negligible numbers 100 years ago, there are now at least 67 million Christians in China – a number which looks set to grow. With China poised to become the world’s biggest economic power during the 21st century, the future of the Church is in some part dependent on the form that Christian faith takes in China, and the way in which the government – which still partially represses Christian faith – reacts to it.