Christianity's Global Reach Through History

As I uncovered biographies and journals of these revolutionaries, I was surprised to find that there has never been a dark age for the Church of Jesus Christ. The solid and steadfast theme is clear-cut:  God has used people throughout the entirety of human history, and not one generation or century has been left out.

For much of our Church history, we are at the mercy of what was written down and by whom.  The epoch from the 5th  to the 15th centuries has largely been forgotten by a majority of Church historians, although this thousand-year-period is brimming with incredible accounts. 

Because of this fact, the story of global Christianity is little known, especially in the East and Middle East. 

In his recently published book, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and How it Died, Philip Jenkins presents another masterpiece on eastern Christians.

In his account, Jenkins shares the story of eastern Christians (such as the Assyrian Church of the East), who were labeled around the 5th century as heretical Nestorians or Jacobites.  Nestorians believe that the divine and human natures in Jesus are joined, but separate.  (Nestorius, for example, objected to Mary being called the mother of God, since, he said, God was without beginning or end and therefore could not have a physical mother; she should be called, instead, the mother of Christ.) The First Council of Ephesus of 431 AD declared Nestorius and his followers as heretics, and that the two natures of Jesus—divine and human—were inseparable.

This eastern Christian movement continued even into the early 20th century.  Until about 1920, 48% of the population of Iraq was Christian, with similar numbers in other Middle Eastern countries.  It was finally quenched in large part by Islamic extremism.  Because of rampant persecution, many eastern Christians fled for their lives, while others faced martyrdom by the thousands.  Experts tell us that there have been more martyrs in the past century that the previous nineteen centuries combined.

At its zenith, around the 13th century, Eastern Christianity consisted of two-thirds of the Christians on the earth, with bishoprics and aggressive mission centers as far as the coast of China.  During this time period, one of the greatest paradoxes of Christian history occurred.  Two Chinese Nestorian monks made history.  The first, Markos, born near Beijing, was elected as Patriarch, and ‘exercised ecclesiastical sovereignty over more of the earth’s surface than even the pontiff in Rome.’ 

The other, a man named Bar Sauma, served as a remarkable Church diplomat to the western world, which viewed Nestorians as some sort of strange breed.  In Philip Jenkins’ own words:

Bar Sauma’s mission offers a glimpse of an encounter between radically different versions of Christianity, each with its ancient traditions…

In 1287, the Mongol overlord of the Middle East—the Ilkhan—sent him on a journey to enlist the help of Christian Europe …European kings and bishops were amazed to find that this strange creature was a Christian bishop who seemed perfectly orthodox.  Interestingly, even in light of the dismissive ‘Nestorian’ name, he stated his creed in terms they found perfectly acceptable, and the king of England himself took Communion from his hands …

Europeans were further shocked to discover that the Christian world stretched much farther than they had ever dreamed, to the shores of the Pacific…Bar Sauma told them how ‘many of our Fathers have gone into the countries of the Mongols, and Turks, and Chinese and have taught them the Gospel, and at the present time there are many Mongols who are Christians.’ 

Christianity, it seems, was already a true, global phenomenon.