The church is God’s family, gathered by the Holy Spirit from all nations and peoples of the earth and redeemed by Jesus, its bridegroom. But how much do you know about the family history since that great outpouring of grace really got things going at Pentecost?
We’re hoping the highlights on this timeline—of course we couldn’t include them all—will whet your appetite to learn more about the ways God has been working and the ways humans have responded, sometimes wisely but often sinfully.
Despite the deep divisions that still plague us, we live in eager expectation of the day when the timeline finds its fulfillment, when all who have come out of the great ordeal and “washed their robes . . . in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7) shall be truly and evermore one in the Spirit, one in the Lord.
What do these pages tell you?
AD 30 The first and busiest year in the history of the church included the crucifixion of Christ, his resurrection and ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. These events set in motion the informal meetings of believers that would, over time, become the organized church. Passing around peppermints during the service followed soon after.
AD 35-46 Stephen is martyred in AD 35. Over the next few years, Paul is converted and begins his missionary journeys to the Gentiles. In AD 57 he dictates his letter to the Romans to his amanuensis Tertius. The legal battle over royalties continues to this day.
AD 64 Fire breaks out in Rome. Emperor Nero blames Christians and launches persecutions. According to second-century historian Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, Nero was also responsible for the deaths of Peter and Paul in AD 65. He did not, however, fiddle while Rome burned—the violin wasn’t invented for another 1,500 years.
AD 230 The first churches are built. In AD 231 the first building and grounds committee is formed.
AD 303 Emperor Diocletian commands that all subjects of Rome worship Roman gods. The Diocletian or “Great” Persecution results in thousands of deaths. Emperor Constantine, who converts to Christianity in AD 312, issues the Edict of Milan in AD 313, ending the persecution of Christians and restoring their property. Also at this time we stop using “AD” inn front of dates.
325-451 The age of the great ecumenical councils: Nicea (settling the issue of the Trinity), Constantinople (repudiating Arianism and clarifying the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and Son), Ephesus (proclaiming Mary the mother of God), and Chalcedon (clarifying the two natures of Christ, human and divine). Chalcedon II and III and Nicea II follow, but the sequels aren’t as exciting as the originals.
410 Rome is sacked by the Visigoths. For the next few centuries, churches and monasteries protect Roman and Greek texts, preserving them through the Dark Ages—something to think about next time you check out a book from the church library.
800 Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor. During his reign the “Carolingian Renaissance” takes hold, leading to a rebirth of learning, arts, and culture. Subsequent Holy Roman administrations slash funding to the arts.
1054 The Great Schism splits Eastern and Western churches over theological issues. The Western churches become the Roman Catholic Church; the Eastern churches become the Eastern Orthodox Church, headquartered in Constantinople (now Istanbul), and a giant row develops over which pope, the one chosen by westerners or the one chose by easterners, is the real pope.
1095 The Council of Clermont launches the first Crusade in response to a request for military assistance from the emperor of Byzantium. A speech by Pope Urban II convinces leaders to take action and inspires Aaron Sorkin to write The West Wing.
1150 Universities of Paris and Oxford are founded. Centuries later, the study of the humanities ultimately leads to the Renaissance and Reformation—but immediately results in lots of black turtlenecks and bad undergraduate poetry.
1456 Gutenberg produces the first printed Bible. This puts Scripture directly into the hands of people everywhere, allowing more folks to read it for themselves.
1517 Martin Luther posts his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg—customary university practice and not at all unusual. But these theses go “viral” through the hot new communication medium of the day: moveable type.
1518-1648 Age of the Reformation. What begins in 1517 with Martin Luther is amplified by such Reformers as Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simons, and John Knox. In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia ends the Thirty Years’ War and more than a century of schism, war, and scandal.
1536 John Calvin publishes his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Destined to become required reading for Reformed seminarians, these books become a cash cow for the Calvin College bookstore.
1611 The King James Version of the Bible is published. Despite its flaws, the KJV is arguably one of the greatest achievements of Western literature and is the reason so many people can recite Psalm 23 with every “thou” in its proper place.
1633 The Roman Catholic Church forces Galileo Galilei to recant his theory about the earth revolving around the sun. Later popes are embarrassed by this as it becomes increasingly clear that the earth revolves around Toronto, Ontario.
1703 Johann Sebastian Bach begins writing music. “The aim and final end of all music,” he wrote, “should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Three of Bach’s works are included on the “Golden Record” carried by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which last year became the first human-made object to exit our solar system.
1740 The First Great Awakening sweeps through Protestant Europe and British America. Revivalist preachers bring a message of personal morality, individual responsibility, and the need for a personal relationship with Jesus. This not only transforms American Christianity but gives shape to an emerging nation.
1789 The French Revolution signals a new age of secular government throughout Europe. This also has a lasting effect on the culture of the West—as well as on musical theater.
1859 Darwin’s On the Origin of Species hits the shelves. The implications of his book are not fully appreciated until Charlton Heston stars in the original Planet of the Apes.
1870 First Vatican Council declares papal infallibility. Galileo is not amused.
1898 Abraham Kuyper’s Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary call for the development of a Christian worldview encompassing all of life. Reformed church immediately appoints subcommittee to define “life,” “encompassing,” and “all.”
1914 World War I begins. Veterans of that war, including C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, become some of the leading Christian writers and thinkers of the 20th century.
1949 Evangelist Billy Graham preaches his first crusade, launching the age of mass revival meetings, televangelism, and BEH—big evangelical hair.
1962 Vatican II—a council devoted to modernizing the Roman Catholic Church—opens in Rome.
1968 American preacher and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated.
2007 After 80 years of schism, the Russian Orthodox Church reunifies, providing hope that in the end, we may realize this fundamental truth: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:3-6).