I once attended a fundamentalist Baptist church for a few years, shortly after college. One of the most common phrases you would hear at it—being a King James-only, traditional revivalist style church—was, “We need to stick to the old paths, the ones that have worked for generations.” The complaint was that these modern newfangled churches were abandoning the old paths in search for being ‘current’ and that this was watering down Christianity.
You may in fact hear me saying similar things from time to time (as a few recent rants have done!), but when I talk about "old paths" I mean something entirely different from them.
When most Baptists and Evangelicals today talk about 'old time religion', then mean when people used to sit in pews and sing “I’ll Fly Away” and hear a sulfur-and-brimstone sermon and have an altar call. Those were the old ways, after all, weren’t they?
Uh, no. No they weren’t.
We Americans have lost a bit of perspective on the history of the church. So I’m going to try to help you get it.
Imagine the history of Christianity (starting with the birth of Jesus) as a single day. Jesus’ birth was 12:01 am, and right now, as you read this, is 11:59 pm. So what does the history of the church of God look like in this analogy? Well, let’s find out.
Jesus is born in a tumbledown manger in a small village in a forgotten corner of the Empire. Some lowly and unknown shepherds receive the news from angels.
Jesus, now a grown man, begins His public ministry with a baptism and period of fasting in the desert.
Jesus’ ministry angers the local religious leaders, and they convince the Roman Empire that He is a terrorist. He is crucified, buried, and rises from the grave. His followers begin to worship what they see as completed Messianic Judaism, which they call “The Way of Jesus.” They worship this in synagogues with other Jews.
Their fellow Jews, angered by the preaching of the followers of the Way, begin to persecute them. This drives them throughout the Empire, which ironically ignites the spread of the Way. It is accepted by many Gentiles, and the religion goes viral. It is called “Christianity” by Jews as a term to insult them, but eventually the disciples of The Way accept the term and make it their own, calling themselves “Christians.”
Christianity has spread throughout the Roman Empire, and is being seen as a real threat. Most Christian apostles, including Paul and Peter, have already been martyred. The Jews raise an unrelated rebellion in Judea, causing a massive Roman response called the Jewish-Roman War. Jerusalem is burned to the ground, and the Temple of the Jews is desecrated and destroyed.
It is the end of Mosaic Judaism. The sacrificial system will never again be practiced by mainstream Jews.
All of the apostles have died, but they have founded churches throughout the Empire. Their letters—which will later make up the New Testament—are being spread and copied from church to church. Very early documents like the Didache and the Apostles Creed are circulated to aid Christians in this post-apostolic period.
For a while, Christianity remains mostly in this pure, suffering, post-apostolic model. Its churches mostly meet underground, and the Roman Empire persecutes them mercilessly. Christians are fed to lions to try and force them to abandon their faith. They are misunderstood as cannibals (due to the Lord’s Supper) and atheists (due to their denial of Roman gods).
The New Testament is more or less formed during this period. Some of the great early writers of the church come around.
By about 4:00, the bishops of the various churches are looking to the bishops of the four oldest major churches—Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome—as “patriarchs” of the Church, to help them through doctrinal questions and tough decisions.
Christianity spreads into politics when the Emperor becomes a convert. Constantine makes Christianity legal and, very shortly after, the official state religion. Christianity begins to grow in power, and the bishops of Rome and Constantinople surpass all other bishops in power and influence, due to their great political authority.
For the rest of the Roman Empire, Christianity will continue to become more political, and the Bishop of Rome grow more powerful. By the end of the Roman Empire he is seen as the “greatest among equals” of the other bishops.
At 5:25 AM, Rome falls. Leo, the Bishop of Rome at the time, negotiates on behalf of the city with the invaders, establishing the Roman Church for the first time as the central political body of the Roman Empire.
For the past four hours—about half of the entire history of Christianity to this point—the Roman church grows in power. The other bishops begin to call the bishop of Rome papa (“Father”), and the organizational structure we think of as Catholicism begins to form.
This proto-Catholic, Dark Ages church develops many things, from liturgy to new doctrines.
It reaches its ultimate height of power when, at 9:35 AM, the Pope is allowed to crown Charlemagne as “Holy Roman Emperor.” The mixture of church and state is complete. The Roman Empire—which so devastated the early church—is reborn…this time with the help of someone claiming to be Christian.
The popes which followed were, for the most part, brutal and politically motivated men. It was the darkest period in Christianity history.
Eventually Christianity splits down the middle in the Great Schism. Several doctrinal issues had piled up over the time, and there was a major disagreement over the authority of the Bishop of Rome as Pope. Also, though, the growing ethnic tensions between East and West figured into it as well.
At this time we have the founding of our most ancient modern churches: the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Both were descended from the proto-Catholic church of the Dark Ages, but really neither can call themselves as existing in any sense of their modern version before 1054 AD, or about noon on our Christian clock.
Things would keep going this way for another 20% of Christian history. The Eastern Orthodox church formed its own Christian tradition, and the Roman Catholic Church formed its own. Both claimed to be the most similar to the early church of 1-4 AM.
In 5:20, the Muslims would sack Constantinople and destroy the Eastern third of the Empire. Eastern Orthodoxy would fade into a much smaller branch of Christianity, and Catholicism (due to its luck of being further away from the growing Muslim power) grew.
However, the longtime mixture with politics had also made it extremely corrupt, and people were beginning to wish for a return to classical Christianity.
Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, posts a debate on the door of the cathedral at his university. His 95 points of debate would ignite a movement we now call the Protestant Reformation.
The Reformation was aided by the ability of Christians to—for the first time—own their own Bibles. As they began to study it, they began to seek a return to the early Christian church methods and to deny the power of the Papacy (many calling it the Antichrist of Revelation).
Dozens of denominations of Christianity formed, and this inquiry and challenge of Catholicism helped lead to the Scientific Revolution which followed.
It’s already nighttime during our “Christian history day” when the Puritans leave England and spread Protestant Christianity over to America. They would remain a colony until about 9:12 PM, when America becomes a nation, the first to truly allow religious freedom and have no State religion.
The Second and Third Great Awakenings occur in Christianity, leading to Methodist, Pentecostal, and Baptist denominations. This is the “Old Time Religion” that I mentioned at the beginning of the post…a religion which started some 90% of the way through Christianity history.
The Protestant denominations from the 6-9 pm timeframe begin to wane in popularity, while the Great Awakening-led “Old Time Religion” churches morph into the Evangelical and Religious Right movements. By about 11:45 AM, many of these would start following the megachurch “seeker” model to get those disillusioned with religion into the fold.
I hope this gives you a little bit of scope and scale here. If Jesus died 12:30 am and right now is the next midnight, then Christianity remained in its pure form until about 4 am, when it began to get political. About noon, it split in half as those in the East denied the Pope’s self-proclaimed authority. About 6 pm, the Protestants came along and began to try to use the Bible only (sola scriptura) as a path to return back to that 12-4 am style of Christianity. After all of this, the “old time religion” group started about an hour and a half ago, and the seeker megachurch movements is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame.
In other words—we all are trying to ‘reboot’ back to that pure form of Christianity which existed from 1 am – 4 am. The Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches have been at this for about 12 hours. The Protestant Reformed churches have been working at it for about the last 6 hours. The Baptists and Methodists have about 1 hour of experience. And the non-denominational megachurches about 15 minutes.
Yes, gimee that old time religion. But I mean really old time: like, 2000 years old. Not 150.