The Roman Church is the most complete and best-organized totalitarian regime in the sphere of religion--the logical conclusion of the assumption that the Ekklesia is institutional in character. For more than a thousand years it held the Christianity of Europe in its grip, and in cooperation with worldly powers, was able to have complete sway over all Europe.
This unified control was exercised through consolidating dogmas hierarchical organizations, and enforcing discipline upon members. Note the three sides to this sectarian triangle: consolidation of dogmas, hierarchical organization and the enforcement of discipline.
To achieve conformity the Church used the severe punishment of excommunication, which meant that the condemned lost his privileges of citizenship and legal protection from the state, as well as membership in the Church and hope of salvation. This was extended by the system of Inquisition, in which those who were against the dogmas, teachings or laws and institutions of the Roman Church were given over to the civil government for execution as heretics.
This combination of ecclesiastical and political powers, with the oppression and persecutions practiced by them, had a tremendous influence on European nations which subsequent history has not yet effaced. Men were so afraid of being branded heretics that few dared to even think of criticizing the doctrines of the Church. Hardly anyone had the courage to study these doctrines to determine whether they were really true. In this way the Catholic teachings, organizations and hierarchical authority came to be thought inherently holy and above criticism. The people of Europe, with very few exceptions, submitted to this ecclesiastical domination and thus came to be the faithful defenders of the Roman Church.
Persecution of the opposition is an inevitable evil policy of all totalitarian systems. This is true in the East as well as in the West. During the two and one-half centuries of the Tokugawa regime in Japan (1623-1867) that government had absolute control over the entire country. When the Portuguese empire expanded and its Roman missionaries promised to become the enemy of the totalitarian Tokugawa government, Christianity was prohibited. All Christians were very severely persecuted and Christianity suffered almost total annihilation.
Now, in order to have their people approve this policy, the Japanese authorities spread abroad horrible, unfounded rumors that the Christian religion was so abominable in its practices and teachings that it would destroy the nation. Thus the people in general, without knowing what Christianity was, believed it to be the most pernicious religion in the world and therefore justified the persecution of it by the government. This mental attitude has persisted even until the present day, so that most Japanese try to keep away from Christianity and abhor from their heart the conversion of one of their family. You see, the Japanese were educated to hate Christianity and to feel a patriotic responsibility to annihilate this dangerous faith.
This is an excellent illustration of the principle that operated among the European peoples under the domination of the Roman Church throughout the Middle Ages. When men are under the same social and religious conditions, over a period of time they come to accept the existing order as the unchangeable truth. Since the Roman Church order taught the people to hate heretics and defend the integrity of the Church's teachings, the people believed it their duty to do so and, therefore, had no toleration for heretics.
The reformers themselves were educated in this same atmosphere so they also thought it necessary to defend the true faith intolerant of any heretics. The only difference was that for the Protestants, Catholics were heretics and true faith was now the evangelical faith. Also the Protestants, for the most part, lacked the power to persecute the Roman Church, so they only fought against it. Because they could not exterminate Catholicism, they had to be satisfied with merely separating themselves from the bondage of its authority.
However, the reformers did not stop with separation from Rome; for having broken free from its bondage, they made their own institutional church: Then, almost immediately there appeared differences of opinion among them, and having learned well the lesson of sectarianism from the mother of that spirit, they now believed themselves to be the defenders of the true faith. Their only recourse to difference of opinion was separation, so there started an endless principle of division. This has been especially widespread where there is much individual liberty, as in England and the United States of America. In such countries, where religious freedom makes the development of differences easy, people who are very earnest in defending and propagating what they think to be the only truth have no qualms about separating themselves from others, though they cannot persecute them.
In Germany and Scandinavia where political powers supported the Reformation movements, things did not go so far, but even there the spirit of excluding heretics persists. Naturally, ways of expressing an attitude vary with each generation. Because separation from other believers with whom we do not fully agree no longer involves actual physical persecution, it is thought to be right--and, therefore, is all the more serious.
Since the great reformation leaders themselves took this intolerant spirit, even against the other Protestants, their followers could not be expected to do otherwise. The persecution of the Puritans and other independents by the Anglican Church, the resistance against the free church movement among the Lutherans, the intolerance of the New England Puritans, and many other divisions in Europe and America have come from this spirit of sectarianism still living among Protestants10.
Thus the Body of Christ has been divided into innumerable sections. And even more lamentable is the spirit of pride in boasting about such separation as a defense of he purity of faith, while actually disregarding the central essence of true Christianity. Oh, beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, this sectarian spirit, which sees heresy in even small differences of theology, practice and institution, should never have been brought over from the Roman Church. It has no place in the fellowship of true Christians. Such a spirit is inevitable in such an institutional System as Romanism since it is the only way to achieve unity in an institution; but the Spirit of God living in the Ekklesia makes sectarianism not only unnecessary but a sin.
May God grant each of us grace to simply rise above man's church and dare to realize the freedom and reality of the simple Church Jesus of Nazareth founded.
10For a thorough historical study of this principle through the centuries since Christ, we recommend the dynamic new book, The Torch of the Testimony by John Kennedy (distributed by Voice Christian Publications).to top