Great Sins of the Church

written by Dr. Joe Thomas, Assistant Professor of Church History

I was recently asked to speak about the “Great Sins” of the church in history. What are we to make, as Christians, of the crusades, southern slavery, and the impotency of the German church during the Nazi era, to name just a few of the most egregious actions taken by past Christians? How are we to reconcile the high calling of the Christian church with such blatant social sin? These events raise very important questions about the legitimacy of the Christian gospel and its claims to transform the people of God. Indeed, I have had more than one person, upon discovering that I research, write and teach Christian history, ask me how I continue to be a Christian. That is a serious question that is raised by seekers and skeptics alike. Here are a few of my thoughts on the matter.

It has been my observation that when the church perpetuates, or even creates, grievous social sins, it is usually an indication that a serious compromise has been made with a current or dominant ideology (a way of viewing or understanding the world) of the era. For sure it is always difficult to see how the church is compromised during the time in which you live. This is why we always need prophetic voices speaking scriptural truth to the church, even when it is unpopular. Still, it seems to me that an overriding reason for the horrible acts perpetrated by Christians is strongly related to the embrace of false ideologies.

So for example, while it is helpful when reflecting upon the Crusades to remember that this was part of a larger battle spanning over 500 years between Christians and Muslims, that alone does not get us to the underlying cause. What is more important to consider is the adoption among Christians of the Middle Ages of the idea that there was such a thing as sacred space, a unique place where God was to be worshiped, a sacred space above other spaces. True among Jews and Gentiles, it was not to be true for Christians. In John 4:21-23 Jesus declared to a Samaritan woman, “Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem…the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth….” The Crusades were a misbegotten attempt to take land thought to possess a sacredness – a place of pilgrimage – that no longer applied to the Christian. Sacred space was an unbiblical idea, steeped in the belief systems (ideology) of the ancient world, which compromised the church. Certainly there were other reasons for the Crusades, even other false ideologies, but at its root the crusading spirit was energized by the false idea of sacred space as it related to the Holy Land.

A second example involves the institution of slavery in the southern states of America during the 19th century. The strongly evangelical South created a false ideology, even a false god, when it combined its evangelical beliefs with a nationalism that was based on racial superiority and purity. During the 19th century the European identification of nationalism with a specific race grew in prominence. This had an impact on southern apologists. Interestingly enough the defeat of the South in the American Civil War did not have sufficient force to end the false god of southern nationalism. It simply took a different form known as the Lost Cause, notwithstanding the freeing of the African-Americans slaves. Compromised by the ideology of racial nationalism, southerners missed the clear biblical truth that God is bringing together all peoples, Jew and Gentiles, to form a new people (Eph. 2). It would be another hundred years before the stranglehold of Jim Crowism was broken, and then another 30 years before black and white churches started to hold reconciliation services. The work is still not complete.

My final example considers the Christian church during the era of Nazi Germany. Though a few brave souls such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood up against Nazi terror, it is nevertheless true that the Christian church as whole, including most individual Christians, succumbed to serving the brutality of the Nazi regime. While it is true that Hitler and the Nazis were a deeply Anti-Christian movement, the root cause of the church’s compromise runs deeper still and in a different direction. The German church had drunk too deeply of modernity. On one level, the mass industrialization of Germany played a role in the Holocaust. The approach to the mass killing of the Jews operated on the same level as regular factory work. Creating a rational process that was efficient, impersonal, and which segmented a person’s role along a long assembly line of activity, highlights the role that modern industrial processes played in the Holocaust. But deeper still was the role that modernity played in the dismantling of orthodox and biblical Christianity in German seminaries and pulpits. By the time of the coming of Adolf Hitler, much of the German church stood like an empty vessel ready to be filled up by a false god.

Viewing the social sins of the church as periods when the church compromised with current and even dominant ideologies has been helpful to me as a Christian historian. The problem has never been the gospel teachings of Christ and the apostles, but the tendency among Christians to syncretize their faith with worldly ideologies. Of course, this should not negate all the great contributions that Christians have made to the world. Nonetheless, it should cause us to evaluate ourselves and see where we might be compromising with the unbiblical ideologies of our own day.