Why So Many Religions All Claiming to Be Christian?
ABOUT one quarter of the world’s population claim to be Christian. They all profess to follow Jesus Christ, yet they are very divided. Some 580,000,000 are said to be Roman Catholic. But since Vatican II there has been a division into Catholic liberals and pro-Latin traditionalists. The estimated 74,000,000 members of the Eastern Orthodox religion are divided into various national churches, with differing liturgical rites. As for upwards of 343,000,000 Protestants, they are separated into numerous Episcopalian, Lutheran, Calvinist (Presbyterian, Reformed), Baptist, Methodist and other churches.
All these churches consider themselves to be “established,” “orthodox,” “respectable” religions. To these must be added the hundreds of so-called sects that are looked down upon disdainfully by the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant mainstream.
“Orthodox” or “Heretical”?
Actually, when examined according to unbiased historical methods, not one of the traditional “Christian” churches can claim to be the original Christian religion. They all started as offshoots—sects—yes, even the one that claims to be the oldest of them all, the Roman Catholic Church!
Historically, several cities could claim precedence over Rome as early centers of Christianity. When Christianity was founded at Pentecost 33 C.E., there was not a single follower of Christ in Rome. The first headquarters of the Christian congregation was unquestionably Jerusalem. True, Jews and proselytes from Rome were present in Jerusalem during Pentecost, and some of them no doubt became Christians and returned to Rome, there to found a Christian congregation. But this was also true of many other places mentioned in the Bible. In fact, sojourners from Rome are mentioned well down the list, being third from last, just before Cretans and Arabians.—Acts 2:5-11.
In those early days, Rome was not a centrally located headquarters for organizing Christian activities. It was not in Rome but in Syrian Antioch that Jesus’ disciples were first called Christians. (Acts 11:26) And it was from Antioch, not Rome, that the apostle Paul undertook his three missionary journeys. (Acts 13:1-4; 14:26; 15:35, 36; 18:22, 23) True, Paul was most likely executed in Rome. But he was not one of Jesus’ 12 apostles, Judas Iscariot having been replaced by Matthias. (Acts 1:23-26) In fact, there is absolutely no Biblical proof that any of the 12 apostles went to Rome or died there. The last of the apostles to die was John, probably in or near Ephesus. Their death left the door wide open for apostasy to develop.—1 John 2:18, 19; 2 Thessalonians 2:3, 4.
As time went by, other cities came into prominence as centers of apostate Christianity. Among these were Alexandria and Carthage, in North Africa, and Byzantium (later to become Constantinople), at the frontier between Asia and Europe. In the West, a rich and powerful church developed in Rome, the capital of the Empire.
With the rise of the apostasy foretold by the apostles, a clergy class developed. Prominent men rose up above the flock and became so-called bishops. These vied for power and became the heads of rival tendencies or sects of apostate Christianity. In early times no single city or bishop clearly dominated the others. But a power struggle developed as to which sect or apostate offshoot of original Biblical Christianity would establish itself as “orthodox,” making the others “heretical.”
All Were Sects at the Start
One of the most recently published works on this subject states: “What was Christian heresy? And, for that matter, what was the Church? . . . [Apostate] Christianity began in confusion, controversy and schism and so it continued. A dominant orthodox Church, with a recognizable ecclesiastical structure, emerged only very gradually. . . . And, as with such struggles, it was not particularly edifying. . . . The central and eastern Mediterranean in the first and second centuries AD swarmed with an infinite multitude of religious ideas, struggling to propagate themselves. . . . From the start, then, there were numerous varieties of Christianity which had little in common. . . . Before the last half of the third century it is inaccurate to speak of a dominant strain of Christianity. So far as we can judge, by the end of the first century, and virtually throughout the second, the majority of Christians believed in varieties of Christian-gnosticism, or belonged to revivalist sects grouped round charismatics. . . . Orthodoxy was merely one of several forms of Christianity during the third century, and may not have become dominant until Eusebius’s time [early 4th century].”—A History of Christianity, by Paul Johnson.
Such a turn of events had been foretold by the apostle Paul, who wrote: “The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”—2 Timothy 4:3, 4, New International Version.
Some of these apostate teachers became what Christendom’s churches call church fathers. They are generally divided into ante-Nicene and post-Nicene fathers, the turning point being the so-called First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, convened in that city of Asia Minor by pagan Roman Emperor Constantine in 325 C.E.
Efforts to Establish Rome’s Primacy
It is noteworthy that by far the greater number of second- and third-century “fathers” were not based in Rome, and they wrote in Greek, not Latin. Confirming this, the Encyclopædia Britannica states: “Until about 250 most Western Christian leaders were Greek, not Latin, speakers (e.g., Irenaeus and Hippolytus). The main Latin theology came not from Rome but from North Africa (e.g., Tertullian and Cyprian).”
In those early centuries of the apostasy, what cities were the great centers of so-called Christian theology? Not Rome, but Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage, Caesarea, Jerusalem and various cities in Asia Minor. The Catholic Encyclopedia admits: “Though Rome was powerful and venerated in the second century, . . . the break in her literature is complete. Latin literature is thus . . . practically two centuries and a half younger [than the Greek]. Tertullian stands alone, and he became a heretic. Until the middle of the fourth century there had appeared but one Latin Father [Cyprian, of Carthage, North Africa]. . . . From Cyprian (d[ied] 258) to Hilary [died about 367] . . . there was no theology at all.”
How, then, did the church in Rome succeed in establishing its primacy over the churches in other cities that had been far more prominent in producing “church fathers”? Undoubtedly, one factor was the prestige of being located in the capital of the Empire. It was a rich church that sent financial aid to poorer churches in other cities, and this gave a certain power to its bishop. He began to claim the right to hear appeals against decisions made by local bishops in matters of church discipline.
Additionally, even as pagan Roman Emperor Constantine realized that he could use apostate Christianity to consolidate the declining Empire, so the bishop of Rome saw that paganism could provide popular appeal to his variety of apostate Christianity. The Roman church had adopted the pagan Sunday as the day to celebrate Easter, whereas churches in Eastern cities had been celebrating it on whatever day of the week Nisan 14 of the Jewish calendar fell. Also, whereas several Eastern churches were inclined to follow Arius, who denied the Trinity doctrine, Rome quickly adopted this pagan idea of a triune god.
On both of these matters, Emperor Constantine came out in favor of Rome. This he did by making a Sunday observance law in 321 C.E. and by imposing the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea in 325 C.E. He fused apostate Christianity with the pagan Roman cult and made this “universal” or “catholic” form of worship the state religion.
Then, in 382 C.E., Emperor Gratian issued a constitution granting Damasus, bishop of Rome, the right to hear appeals by other bishops, even those in “more distant regions” of the Empire. Although this decision was contested by Eastern bishops, and even by some in the West, it undoubtedly gave ascendancy to the bishop of Rome. Bishop Damasus accepted the insignia of Pontifex Maximus, a pagan title and office that Emperor Gratian eventually had renounced, considering it unbefitting a Christian! Damasus had no such scruples. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, Pontifex Maximus is still considered to be one of the “most noteworthy of the titles” borne by the pope. In French the pope is still called le souverain pontife, the supreme pontiff.
Schisms, Dissidence and Reformation
Naturally, this claimed supremacy of the bishop of Rome did not go uncontested. The leaders of apostate Christianity in such eastern cities as Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and especially Constantinople, challenged this usurpation. However, although the religious leaders in these cities were united in their opposition to Rome’s domination, they did not see eye to eye on doctrinal matters. There were rival schools of thought in these and other cities, giving rise to different sects, all claiming to be Christian.
In efforts to heal the growing breach between the rival apostate Christian sects whose headquarters were in Rome and Constantinople and to brand as heretical apostate Christian teachers in other cities, various “Ecumenical (Universal) Church Councils” were organized over the centuries. The first one was held in Nicaea, in 325 C.E., in order to condemn the Arian anti-Trinitarian “heresy.” Others were held in Constantinople (four times), Ephesus, Chalcedon (just opposite Constantinople across the Bosporus), and again in Nicaea. These first seven councils are recognized by both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. The body of doctrine forged at these councils included the Trinity, belief in Mary as the “mother of God” and other dogmas that have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity. These church councils also condemned various “heresies,” thus contributing to the creation of still further subdivisions (sects) of apostate Christianity.
Interestingly, not one of these “universal” church councils was held in Rome, the city that claimed to be the universal headquarters of Christianity. It was not until 1123 C.E. that the first so-called Ecumenical Council was held in Rome. But by then the “great schism” had taken place between Rome and the Eastern churches, the first split having occurred in 867 C.E., and the final schism in 1054. So, from a strictly historical standpoint, no truly ecumenical or universal council was ever held in Rome.
The Eastern variety of apostate Christianity that broke away from Rome did not unite around some other bishop who claimed to be the vicar of Christ on earth. The Church of Constantinople (also called New Rome) would have liked to become the “Rome” of the Eastern Orthodox religion. But it did not succeed. In time, Eastern Orthodoxy became divided into 15 self-governing national churches that grant merely honorary primacy to the patriarch in Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Moreover, there are several independent eastern churches that recognize neither Rome nor Constantinople. Decidedly, Eastern “Christianity” is a divided house.
After the schism with the East, the Roman Church, while still hoping to bring the Eastern churches back into line, at least reckoned on being the undisputed mistress in her own house—the West. But her troubles were not over. Dissenters soon began to appear. This was intolerable, and drastic measures were taken against these “heretics.” The Inquisition was instituted, but the dissent continued. In the 16th century a general revolt broke out, first on religious grounds and later on political grounds.
This revolt, called the Reformation, produced a third group of religions also claiming to be Christian. But rather than restoring the original unity and doctrinal truths of Biblical Christianity, Protestantism has produced a crop of divided churches and sects.
Why So Many?
If you belong to a church or sect that claims to be Christian, doubtless you have wondered why there are so many religions all claiming to follow Christ and the Bible. Perhaps you have become disgusted with such divisions, especially when they lead to religious persecution and wars of religion, as they have throughout the centuries and still do. For these and other reasons you may have stopped going to church, contenting yourself with your own concept of Christianity. Yet in your heart you know that there must be more to Christianity than that. You know from the Bible that the very first Christians made up a happy, united spiritual family.—John 13:34, 35; Ephesians 4:1-6.
Today, Jehovah’s Witnesses make up such a happy family of Christians. They are not a sect, inasmuch as they are neither the disciples of some human teacher or leader nor an offshoot of any one church or sect. The Witnesses come from all walks of life. They follow no man but rather God and His Son Jesus Christ. In answer to your question “Why so many religions all claiming to be Christian?” they reply: “Because such religious groups have followed men, not the Bible.” Jehovah’s Witnesses would be happy to help you find true Biblical Christianity. So please speak to the person who provided you with this magazine or write to its publishers.
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Principal centers of apostate Christianity
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Christendom’s churches—hopelessly divided!