I learned that the biggest changes were often made by those who had no intention of making big changes. Those who tried to start new movements and sects more often than not end up as short lived footnotes in the history books. The lasting changes sometimes happen more or less by accident. Luther and the other Reformers never intended to start the Protestant faith. All Luther set out to do with his 95 Theses was to try and fix something he saw as broken in the Catholic Church. All the Reformers wanted was, well, reform. They liked the Catholic Church just fine, they just thought it had started to go astray and they were trying to fix it. Of course that well meant suggestion went down about as well as husband making a well meaning suggestion that his wife perhaps lose some weight would. Similarly the Wesley brothers never intended to form the Methodist Church. John was an Anglican priest and remained one to his death - he really only intended for his movement to be a society within the Anglican church.
I learned that many of the sainted leaders in the Christian faith were anything but sainted. Martin Luther? Kind of a douche! Anyone who disagreed with him on anything was attacked from a dizzying height. From Anabaptists to Jews, anyone who crossed him had to face his wrath. I found some wry amusement reading one author defending Calvin burning at the stake a Spanish heretic who sought sanctuary from the Inquisition in Geneva. His defence was basically that it wasn't so bad because that was common church practice at the time and Calvin was really just doing what everyone else was doing. Wow...
That leads me to arguably the saddest lesson from Church History, that when it comes to persecution, Christians are fast learners. You would think that after nearly three centuries of almost constant persecution of the most brutal kind imaginable, the Christians would be the one group who would grasp just how precious religious tolerance in society is. You would think that, but you would be wrong. In almost no time they went from being persecuted by the Pagans to being the ones persecuting the Pagans. Why would the very people who experienced the horror of the Empire razing their churches and burning their Scriptures find it so easy to legislate against the Pagan faith, burn down the sacred groves (as a form of evangelism no less!!) and order the closure of the schools of Greek philosophy?
I learned that Christianity was at its best when it had no power, when it exists as a counter-culture movement. There was a time when the Christian faith was one of beautiful simplicity. But boy did that go spectacularly south when the Christians gained the upper hand! I read that a recent study showed that the top three perceptions of Christians in the U. S. among young non-Christians are that Christians are 1) antigay, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical. Now contrast that with the perception of the Pagan Governor Pliny around 111 AD who described Christians as follows:
"on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn by turns to Christ, as to a god, and to bind themselves by an oath, not for the commission of any crime but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery and breach of faith, and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed".That's right, we somehow went from a point where the persecutors of Christianity basically described them as "a bunch of weirdo's really into being good and not committing crimes" to a point where Christian seems to be a synonym for "bigoted hypocrite". It seems that power is like crack to the Church - once it gets a taste it just craves more and from there its a terrible spiral downward. Before they had power Christians worshipped Jesus with simple adoration and focused on doing good and having character. After gaining the upper hand the simplicity was replaced by endless bickering over theological minutia, various schisms and much ugliness. I really liked the way Shane Claiborne put it, "Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination". One of the worst ideas of all time was spreading Christianity by legislation.
The monastic movement especially gave me a lot of "what if's" to ponder. For the first time, I think I grasp the "why" of it better. As decadence grew in the Roman Empire and with Pagans and Barbarians being forced into the Church - which partially paganized Christianity - monasteries became havens for men and women who were serious about their faith. But what if they instead stayed and tried to make a difference? What if they tried being the salt and light in a dark world like Jesus commanded instead of running from the scary darkness? How different would our history have been if generation after generation of the brightest, most moral and sensitive people of the land didn't go live in isolation and die childless? Would the Dark Ages even have happened?
So what did I learn from Church history? That the Church should stay out of politics, say no to power and instead stay humble, trying to end poverty not purgatory. That Christians should remember the atrocities committed against them and let that motivate them to oppose those atrocities when they are committed against others - whether they agree with those others or not. Most of all I learned that the Church is not great when it arrays itself in gold and power. The Church is great when it follows the lead of its Founder, when it does good, cares for the outcasts and the marginalised. The Church will be great when it starts treating others the way it would like others to treat it. When it brings change through kindness and self sacrifice, not through intimidation and legislation. Especially when it leads by example, offering light and warmth to world in need.
But then, I could be wrong. After all, I've only been studying Church history for a month now