When it comes to church history, there are two common but misguided approaches: Some celebrate an unbroken series of triumphs by God’s people, while others decry a record of immoral acts carried out by hypocrites. The true story, however, is much more complex, with Christians sometimes conforming to Christ’s teachings and sometimes falling far short, as historian John Dickson documents in Bullies and Saints: An Honest Look at the Good and Evil of Christian History. Christopher Reese, freelance writer and editor of The Worldview Bulletin, spoke with Dickson about coming to terms with the wrongs of church history while also answering skeptics who deny the church’s many accomplishments over the past two millennia.

How do Christians today benefit from learning about church history?

Learning about any kind of history has multiple benefits. For one thing, it can lead to humility. Knowing more about epoch-changing figures of the past puts our own achievements and self-importance into perspective. And the shameful deeds of the past, especially the Christian past, should cause us to wonder what blind spots future generations will see in us. The more I study history, the less judgmental I am about our forebears—not because the wrongs they committed were not wrong, but because I fear I cannot see my own evil.

The other great thing about learning history is that it invites us to draw from a much deeper well of human experience and wisdom. It’s like taking the ultimate democratic opinion poll. We hear the best ideas not just of our moment but of ages past. And we see how the whole Christian family wrestled with God’s wisdom in very different contexts.

Which popular myths about Christian history would you most like to correct?

Where to begin! One popular myth is that the very first Christians adopted an ethic of love and humility only because they were society’s “losers”—peasants, paupers, the persecuted. Nothing could be further from the truth. The more I read primary documents from those founding Christian centuries, the more convinced I am that these Christians felt they could afford to be good losers because they had already won! This conviction freed them to sit loosely beside politics and power, knowing that the glorification of Christ and the vindication of his suffering people are assured.

Plenty of other myths deserve a bit of clarity: for example, the popular notion that the West entered a “Dark Ages” following the fall of Rome and the ascendancy of the church. True, many important structures were lost. Yet the church continued its work establishing communities of care, building hospitals and schools, and inspiring a huge industry of classical study and copying. Many don’t realize that the vast majority of classical Latin texts—pagan as well as Christian—were preserved by diligent monks in the so-called Dark Ages.

Article continues below

Of course, Christians can have their own myths about the near-complete rosiness of the Christian story. I see no value in whitewashing the awful things done in Jesus’ name: the burning of synagogues in the fourth century, the closing of pagan temples in the sixth century, or the 12th-century reinterpretation of Paul’s metaphorical “armor of God” to justify using real swords against unbelievers.

Is there a historical figure in the book that Christians should know more about?

If I have to choose just one, it’s Alcuin of York, perhaps the greatest European we never hear about. He was a devout church deacon and was known as the world’s most learned man in the eighth century. He introduced a broad education program throughout Europe under the patronage of Charlemagne. Students—girls and boys, rich and poor—would learn grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, basic astronomy, and what you might call the philosophy of music, which prepared them to study advanced subjects like history, theology, and law.

This transformed Europe in a way the Romans never could have done—and never would have attempted. Eventually, it gave us the grand cathedral schools and major universities of the late Middle Ages. But Alcuin’s contribution was not merely academic. As one of Charlemagne’s most beloved advisers, he somehow convinced the great king to shun his brutal policy of “conversion or the sword.” Alcuin wanted to convert pagan Europe through sweet persuasion, not violence and taxation.

How do you respond to skeptics who list events like the Inquisition or the Crusades as reasons to reject Christianity?

Rejecting Christianity based on the terrible performance of some Christians is like dismissing Bach after hearing my feeble attempts to play his Cello Suites. We all know to distinguish between the composition and the performance. And the same applies to church history. The original message of Christ resounded through the centuries like a beautiful melody, even as many Christians failed to play in tune.

Article continues below

In any case, no honest appraisal of world history can treat the bigotry and violence of the church as unique. Savagery appears to be universal. What’s not universal are things like free schooling, hospitals, and charity for all. These were the special contributions of Christianity.

What do you think the world might look like today if the church had never existed?

We can only wildly speculate, of course—so let me do that! The fact is: Greeks and Romans did not believe in what we call charity. Since they didn’t regard humility as a virtue, they never dreamt of providing hospitals for the public. And they had a profoundly demeaning view of women and sex. Despite many tragic failures, the church redressed these wrongs.

One striking thing about Christian history is this built-in corrective at the heart of the faith. When the church was at its worst, some prophet figure would emerge, point out how far from the gospel everyone had strayed, and inspire a reform movement that brought people back on track—until the next period of systemic failure.

As much as our world sees the church as merely traditional and even antiprogressive, the opposite is really the case. That might be a good description of republican and imperial Rome, but it doesn’t describe the dominant trajectory of church history, which was characterized by repentance, improvement, and straining toward a greater embodiment of Christ’s perfection. In some ways, the modern secular passions for exposing hypocrisy and demanding progress are pieces of the Christian legacy that have become dislodged from their spiritual source.

What message do you hope readers will take away from this survey of Christian history?

My hope for skeptics is that, despite having their worst fears about the church confirmed at points, they will also find themselves surprised at the extent to which Christians at their best gave us some of the things secular humanists love today.

I would love to think, too, that Christians will simultaneously feel humbled and inspired by the church’s performance through its 20 centuries. The potential to go astray from the way of Christ is ever present. It happened in the past, and it will happen again. This should cause us grief and fear, keeping us alert to our own blind spots. But I trust that the stories of heroic faith in every century will keep us believing that, despite our failures, Christ can work his wonderful purposes through frail flesh like ours.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.