Christian Church is the most powerful organisation the world has ever
known. It has lasted for two millennia, survived internal and external
catastrophe, and earned the ongoing loyalty of billions of devotees.
And yet the vast majority of those who belong to the Church seldom,
if ever, reflect on what it is to which they belong. They have little or
no awareness of the deep historical roots which lie beneath the present
of everyday Church life.
Meanwhile, parts of the once great tree which is supported and fed by
those roots appear to be wilting. Some say this is a temporary thing,
brought on by a drought of faith. Others say that the Church is wilting
because it is dying of old age. If we want a healthy, growing tree, they
say, we have to start again by planting a new seed. The essence of the
tree will stay the same, but it will be better suited to a radically changed
By far the largest section of the worldwide Church tree is the Roman
Catholic branch. It accounts for about a billion Christian
adherents. The remaining 600 million or so are split between some 50
smaller churches. Of the total of about 1.7 billion adherents only about
a fifth at the most can be said to be staunch supporters
. In effect, about one in four people on earth today regard
themselves as deriving their identity in part from a Christian heritage.
It's a fair bet that most Christians think that the Church was
founded by Jesus of Nazareth. However, very few Christian scholars today think
the evidence supports this conclusion. Nothing in the historical record
of what Jesus said and did to indicates that he set out to found a
They are almost unanimous that the Church grew from an initial small
group of disciples in and around Galilee in Palestine. As the Roman
Catholic theologian Hans Kung puts it:
The New Testament itself does not begin by laying down a doctrine
of the Church which has then to be worked out in practice; it starts
with the Church as reality, and reflection upon it comes later.
The first Christians were in fact Hebrews who regarded themselves as
disciples of another Hebrew they believed was the long-awaited Messiah (Christ
in Greek) predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures.
By the fourth century the Church had become the official religion of
a declining Roman Empire. Over the next thousand years Christianity
grew to be the ruling religion of the West. Then, as European power
spread worldwide in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Church established
itself in tandem with the secular agencies in every part of the globe.
A powerful factor affecting the persistence of the Church through
thick and thin has been the teaching that it is invincible. This is
based on the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus is portrayed addressing
his disciples. He says of Peter that "You are the rock upon which I will
build my church" and continues:
... and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
As it turns out, this passage is almost certainly the work of the
editor of the Gospel. It is not an accurate reflection of what Jesus
actually said. But because this teaching about the Church was formulated
long before history as we know it today was invented, it became the
received wisdom of the Church.
Behind this improbable claim, however, lies an even more
deeply-rooted assumption. It is that the invincibility of the Church
derives from other than the natural order. God sustains and protects the
institution as the instrument of divine purposes on earth. If that is
true, then the Church has access to a type and quality of information
and strength not available to those whose perceptions are limited to the
Because the Church claims access to absolute truth and eternal power,
it is also able to claim an unalterable continuity over the vast reaches
of historical time. In other words, its form and essence are
coterminous. You can't have one without the other. No matter how much
the externals of the Church change, there remains an unalterable essence
which is not subject to the time and tides of history. Historical
research can be applied to the accidents of the Church, but not to its
everlasting, underlying essential form.
Hans Kung and others suggest that this assumption is mistaken. Kung
We can only glimpse the real Church if we see the essence of the
Church as existing in its historical form, rather than as existing
beyond and above it. 
In other words, insomuch as the Church does display a certain continuity, that
continuity is founded in its history, not in its ability to access the
supernatural for special knowledge or guidance. Its essence can remain
the same regardless of its form.
However, if the essence of the Church derives from its past and not
from the supernatural, an important corollary follows, one which is
consistently shied away from by most churches. It is that the Church is
a human organisation, no more, no less. Its various forms over time are
the result of human choice, not divine influence. And it is as much subject
to decay and death as any other organisation.
Burton Mack has written about Jesus and the Church in this light. He
suggests that we move away from an inspirational interpretation of the
origins of the Church towards a sociological interpretation. The mixture
of myth and history of the early Church recounted in the Acts of the
Apostles overlays a development process shared with all other organisations.
He asks how the Church might appear to us if we think of it as
resulting from the same tides and currents which have formed every other
organisation in history. That is, he proposes that the Church be
recognised for what it is - the creation of those who sought to promote
the Church's holy alliance with God. Not that this creation was in any
... much of what strikes us moderns as fantastic about the early
Christian myths was actually quite in keeping with the worldviews of
the ancients ... such things as the cosmos penetrated by divine powers
... divine appearances, revelations ... miracles, magic and cults of
the divine presence. 
Dishonest or not, the Church's mythmaking has given birth to negative
features based on its claim to absolute truth and invincibility. Its
members have thought themselves justified in behaving in ways which can
no longer be reconciled with the Jesus of history:
Anti-Semitism The culture of Roman Empire
into which the first Christians emerged validated itself in part by
referring back to a golden past. The ew Christianity could not do the
same because its origins were patently too recent. It had to search
out ancient origins if it was to make its way.
These origins were found in the Hebrew Scriptures - a process
consolidated by Paul within two decades of the death of Jesus. The
Scriptures were no longer to be construed only as the story of the
Hebrew nation. Instead they had to be read differently. The hidden
the text could now be explained by the "New Israel" who had
identified the real Messiah.
In the process of re-reading the Hebrew Scriptures (long before the
New Testament was created) the Church evolved a deep-seated antipathy
to the Jews. What we today call anti-Semitism can be seen in embryonic
form in the Gospel of Matthew and in more developed form in the Gospel
of John. It develops into a substantial body of anti-Jewish work in
the various writings of the Christian Fathers in the first four
And, as we know all-too-well today, it flowered later into the
poisonous blooms of genocidal pogroms and death camps of many European
nations. Tragically, the virus of anti-Semitism has even been passed
on through contact with Europeans to some groups in Africa.
Persecution The same conviction of divine
inspiration, access to absolute truth, and ultimate invincibility
demanded that everyone within the Church's ranks keep in step with the
dictates of a divinely-inspired hierarchy. Anyone who did not, either
by promoting false teachings or by immoral behaviour, was to be
Persecution of dissenters could be bloody - witness the many
thousands, perhaps millions, who were put to the sword over the
centuries in Europe. Orthodoxy required recantation of false belief
under threat of hellfire and damnation. And recantation was usually
achieved, if not by persuasion, then by torture. The demented
reasoning and self-righteousness of the European Inquisition in its
many forms remains a terrible stain on the Church's character.
So strong was the Church's drive to control dissenting views that
persecution was inevitably extended to all competing ways of
discerning the human-divine relationship. Muslims and others could
expect no mercy. In the massacres of the Crusades they received none.
Far worse to the believer's untrained mind was, however, the threat
of expulsion from the Church. To be excommunicated was to be cast not
into mere physical, temporal suffering, but into the eternal fires of
hell. Only a few could face this ultimate sanction. None could face it
with complete equanimity.
Persecution of unbelief continues to this day. Excommunication is
still a viable threat to some - though the extremes of the past are no
longer tolerated in the secular West.
- An early myth created by the
Church was essential to its later expansion, first through the Roman
Empire and later into the whole of Europe and then the world.
This was the supposed instruction by Jesus to "Go and make disciples
of all nations, baptising them ... and teaching them to obey
everything that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28.19-20; Luke 24.47).
Until the modern era, it was to be expected that cultures which were
Christianised would willy-nilly be dominated by their new masters. The
decline and eventual destruction of the Saxon culture by Norman
invaders of England in the 11th century witnesses to the ruthlessness
which Christian conquerors of the time could and did impose their
But the degree of cultural difference between conquerors and
conquered were then comparatively small. Much greater were the changes
imposed by sophisticated Western invaders of the 19th century on their
new subjects in Africa and Asia.
The result of missionary work in comparatively simple cultures turns
out, with hindsight, to have been profoundly polluting. The Church
suffers to this day from the indignant reactions of those who wish to
restore the integrity of their traditional ways. The backlash from
those seeking to rediscover their cultural heritage may yet turn out
to be profoundly painful to the Church at large.
Bigotry Mission in the sense of convincing
others to repent, change and adopt a Christian way of life, is
predicated on the belief that the only ultimate truth is
This has given birth to offspring of dubious character.
First, all other religions are to be tolerated - but preferably
dismissed - as at best misguided. Their adherents are, if at all
possible and sometimes by any means, to be convinced of the genuine
truth contained in Christian orthodoxy.
Second, the scientific and analytical foundations of secular society
are to be tolerated, for they bring undeniable benefits when correctly
pursued. But the true Christian will put aside worldly wisdom when it
clashes with the wisdom of God as preached by the Church. Roman
Catholic demands to banish birth control are a good example.
The claim to absolute truth clashes with the way the modern era
regards the world. There has been a fundamental shift towards a
sceptical outlook on the problems of life. Truth is something which
shifts and changes according to human perceptions and understanding.
It is never absolute.
This way of construing the world naturally regards the Church's
claims as bigotry - with considerable justice. The result is a
developing alienation between the Church and the very cultures which
gave it birth.
The same unshakeable conviction of God-given wisdom and moral
rectitude has, of course, powered as much good as bad. Yet despite the
many positives of Christianity, the Church in the West appears now to be
in steep decline. Only in those parts of the world not yet deeply
affected by secular norms does it grow apace.
But if history has
any lessons to teach, the Church will eventually whither there also.
Wherever the thought patterns of analytical rationality prevail at the
heart of a culture, the Church is likely to decline and perhaps die. As a
secular outlook on life takes hold, the mythical structures of Christian
thinking will tend to fade away.
It is fitting, therefore, to ask
questions about the Church of the future. Can it survive as a meaningful
influence? Is the Church necessarily incompatible with a scientific,
secular culture? Will a new tree rise from ancient roots, or must a new
seed be planted?
Bishop John Spong suspects that the fundamental
propositions which have driven the Church over two millennia are no longer
intact. That is, the very roots are diseased. A new tree must arise from
the earth. He thinks that
... the symbols of a Church in radical transition are present,
waiting to be observed and interpreted ... the forms the Church
assumed in the past inevitably must die. Those forms and their
defenders simply cannot evolve fast enough to prevent
institutional, ecclesiastical death from becoming a reality.
What he and others don't recognise is that unless the Church admits
that it is an organisation just like any other, it is likely to
sink into eventual obscurity as an unimportant cultic curiosity.
Charles Handy puts in perspective the the Church's organisational nature
as bearer of the essence of Jesus :
Organizations, of course, are not objects. They are
micro-societies. Those who lead them have to understand the needs and
motivations of the people in them. Rulers can only rule effectively
with the consent of those whom they govern, which means that they have
to think about power and the sources of power, about the
constituencies and factions they can rely on and about the techniques
of communication and persuasion, in other words - politics.
The irony is that this is already how most churches operate
behind the scenes. That is, de facto the Church is already in
practice light years away from the doctrines and myths it espouses. And
yet - and this is a double irony - it maintains power and authority,
structures, rules and procedures better fitted to a long-gone social
model. Its form has lost touch with its essence.
To put the issue
another way: No organisation can survive for long if it is at odds with
its environment. Losing touch with the world around spells organisational
death. An organisation dedicated to peace tends to fail if there is no war
or other violent conflict. No business can continue if its products or
services are not wanted. Similarly, a faith which answers needs of a
bygone age can only become irrelevant.
Why should the Church be any
Some will point out the remarkable endurance of the Church as proof that
its supra-organisational nature helps it to survive any and all
vicissitudes. I suggest that this may have been largely true in the past
when Christian citizens saw little essential difference between the
culture they lived in and the Church. Indeed, from Constantine onwards
until the late Middle Ages, there would have been no distinction between
Church and State. It is only today that it has become normative to
separate Church and State. In the United States of America, for example,
the separation is laid down by that country's constitution.
implication of the Church as an organisation whose form follows its
essence, is that it must be able potentially to relate to people
regardless of their culture. As an organisation it should be one thing in
the Congo River valley and another in the East End of London. Amongst
nomads a church building is nonsensical. And amongst drug dependent
teenagers in a city slum a bishop who insists on doctrinal purity is in
the end worse than useless.
The question now arises, "What is common
to the Church regardless of the organisational form it takes? What is its
Hans Kung attempts to distinguish between the essence of
the Church and its form. They are not identical, he says.
The essence and the form of the Church should not be equated, but
must be recognised and distinguished. Even if the distinction between
essence and form is a conceptual one, it is none the less necessary.
It is that essence which is currently at the centre of
the fierce debates which disturb the self-satisfied slumber of orthodox
Christians in the parish pews.
On one side are those determined
to preserve the traditional essence of the orthodox faithful at all
costs. On the other are exiles from the traditional Church who maintain
that only by stripping away age-old accretions will the original essence
lived out by Jesus be re-discovered and adequately lived out.
will tell which is correct.
 See the estimates at
 The Church, Burns & Oates, 1967
 Matthew 16.18
 The Christian Myth, Continuum, 2001
 Why the Church Must Change Or Die, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999
 Understanding Organisations, Penguin, 1999