Every 500 years or so in the history of the Christian church, a significant restructuring seems to take place.
Around the year 500, a church council at Chalcedon published what most of Christendom calls the clearest explanation of orthodox Christology: Christ is one person with two natures. However, large swaths of Christians—the Oriental Orthodox (such as the Coptic, Syrian, and Ethiopian churches) and the Church of the East—found the Chalcedon Definition lacking. And so the first major division in Christianity occurred.
About 500 years later, a hot-headed Bishop of Rome (or at least his hot-headed legates) and an angry Bishop of Constantinople mutually excommunicated each other,1 leading to nearly 1000 years of division between the western Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
Some 500 years after that, a tempermental Augustinian monk in Germany posted some theses for academic disputation that started a firestorm of theological controversy, reformation, and church divisions—resulting in the proliferation of thousands of Protestant denominations.2
Now, the historian in me is obligated to note that using a clean, round number (500 years) to delineate these dates is somewhat artificial. There’s nothing inherently special about the passage of 500 years that leads Christians to say to one another, “I don’t like how you do church anymore.” But humans enjoy describing the past in easy-to-remember terms that serve as useful baselines for historical knowledge, whether or not they encompass the totality of historical truth (476, 1492, or July 4th, anyone?). Even so, given Christianity’s track record so far, you might expect another monumental moment to occur any year now, since it’s been about 500 years since the last major shakeup in Christendom.
The argument I wish to make in this article, is that we’ve already begun to see the next great restructuring of Christianity: the rise of non-denominational Christianity. Continue reading