The Holocaust. The Crusades. Racism. These all have been used to accuse Christianity of breeding violence. At first glance, history seems to back up the accusation that great violence has been done in the name of Christianity. It can cower some of us into shying away from sharing the message of Jesus Christ, but this doesn’t have to be the case. This accusation is an example of skewing the information. Since the theme of this issue of Truth Aflame is Sharing the Gospel, let’s begin with a tract story. (AUTHOR’S NOTE: The hope is that this series of articles will one day be made into book form with expanded chapters and room to deal with other events.)
One year, during Family Camp week at Northern Grace Youth Camp in Gillett, Wisconsin, I went with a few other campers to hand out tracts at homes around the lake. One camper came back to tell a story of an exchange he had with an older gentleman. This older gentleman was aggressively against anything God-centered. One of the accusations that he gave was, “The Christians killed all those Jews during the Middle Ages.” After contemplating it for a while, I finally figured out that He was referring to the Crusades.
In order to fully understand the Crusades, you need to understand the history that got them to that point. Before the A.D. 300’s, Christianity never came into direct contact with matters of the state until Emperor Constantine announced Christianity as the official religion of Rome, after which the church and politics quickly became adjoined. Constantine’s embracing of Christianity was always, at least in part, politically motivated. As you can imagine, joining the state and the church led to corruption, greed, abuse of power, and loss of spiritual truth, which characterizes the state of the church in Rome during the time of the Crusades. Roman citizens were considered “Christians” under the authority of the church. Leaders abused their power by threatening eternal damnation for those who did not give enough financially or bow to their demands, and they kept their power by encouraging the people to remain Biblically ignorant. The people were told they could not understand the Bible without a priest to interpret it for them, and they could not reach God without a priest interceding. The church leaders professed to have the same authority as the Bible’s truth, with the option to make up or change rules to fit their need.
As the years passed, the Roman empire weakened and splintered into two parts: the Holy Roman Empire in the west and the Byzantine Empire in the east. The west had Rome as its capital and later became the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. The Byzantines selected Constantinople as their capital. The Eastern and Greek Orthodox churches grew from this area. Decades before the Crusades, the west and east had excommunicated each other from what they considered the “true church.”
Meanwhile, Mohammad, the founder of Islam, had died. After his death, his followers continued his holy war. Islamists overtook Persia, Palestine (including Jerusalem), Northern Africa (including Egypt), and had moved into Europe. Just before the Crusades, they had already gained influence in Spain and were now preparing to attack Constantinople.
Despite the differences between the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, the threat of Islam in the east forced the west to come to the Byzantine’s defense. If defense were the only cause of the war, only the most extreme anti-war protestors would have had a problem. Unfortunately, Pope Urban the Second waged a crusade under the guise of pilgrimage; he made it a holy war (crusaders were “those signed by the cross”) by not placing the defense of Constantinople as the end goal, but, instead, the capture of Jerusalem. Three of the world’s major religions lay claim to Jerusalem: the Jews, the Christians, and the Muslims. The Holy Roman Empire saw this as their opportunity to take the holy city under their control.
By making it a war on behalf of religion, several blasphemous and horrendous things happened. First, you had a Pope, a supposed vicar (“one who was acting in place of another”) of Christ, claiming to speak God’s revelation by telling people: “God has instituted in our time holy wars, so that the order of knights and the crowd running in their wake…might find a new way of gaining salvation.”* The church did not have to justify their cause from the Bible, because Roman Catholicism believes that a pope’s words can supersede (“overrule”) the teachings of Scripture.
Second, is the claim of a “new way of salvation.” With those words by Pope Urban the Second, a way of salvation was proclaimed that was not through redemption in Christ alone. The new “way of salvation” was that men willing to go to war would find the forgiveness of their sins. This was especially tempting for hardened criminals. The church had taught them that their sins were unforgiveable; now the church was saying they could obtain forgiveness if they were willing to fight. When you motivate rapists, murderers, and thieves to go to war for a holy cause, things tend to get out of hand very quickly.
The third blasphemy during the Crusades was the leaders’ act of twisting Scripture to fit their agenda. They used Matthew 16:24 to threaten anyone unwilling to take up the cross of the Crusades. They wrongfully used Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:29 to promise salvation to those who abandoned their families to fight in the Crusades. They stated that God used soldiers to do His will in the past and in the present, justifying it by misinterpreting the passages of the centurion in Matthew Chapter eight and Luke Chapter seven. The Roman Church was guilty of twisting the Scriptures as they used them in a way to promote their selfish agenda.
The last wrong that I will point out is the false pretense of the war, which led to disastrous results. False pretenses and the make-up of the pilgrims (“one who is on a pilgrimage”) led to the perceived enemy expanding from the immediate threat (Islamic warriors and Turks) to all infidels, identified as anyone who did not line-up with the Roman Catholic church. This sounds eerily similar to those labeled “Islamic extremists” today. [NOTE: For more on Islam, see Joel McGarvey’s DVD “Islam: A Brief Overview. It’s available through Bible Doctrines To Live By.]
Because the church worked everyone up into a fervor to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem but had little control over who actually went on the pilgrimage (only a small minority were actually knights), it led to the senseless slaughter of many people, including Jews. Unlike what the older gentleman near Northern Grace Youth Camp was led to believe, the “Christians” didn’t necessarily target Jews. It is more honest to say the Jews (and others) were the victims of the Roman church stirring its adherents, including criminals, to be motivated by uncontrolled rage, greed, and/or senseless violence. The Roman church did an awful thing in their presentation of the Crusade; however, the Christianity leading the crusade was NOT Scriptural Christianity! It was a politicized religion that was motivated by power and money. It was used to keep people in line. Inferring that true believers went to war against Judaism is erroneous. It is more correct to say that Catholicism went to war. Biblical Christianity and Catholicism are not synonymous.
Not every person who calls themselves a Christian is a believer in redemption through Christ’s work alone. Not every Christian church is preaching the mandates from the Bible. The Apostle Paul warned against false believers coming into churches to lead people from the truth. He worries about “false brethren” in Galatians 2:4 and warns the Ephesian leaders of “grievous wolves” in Acts 20:29. This serves as a reminder that not everyone who operates under the cloak of Christianity is actually a true believer (i.e., “born from above” or a “new creation”). It is even possible for a person to think he/she is doing God’s will and be absolutely wrong (e.g., the Apostle Paul though he was helping God when he led the persecution against Christ’s followers). It should not surprise us, because Satan knows how effective it is to present himself as good and moral and righteous, even though his goal is to lead people away from true goodness and morality and righteousness. I will write it again: Not everyone who labels themselves a “Christian” is a true believer.
Romans 3:24 announces that we are “… justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” God has sent His Son to pay for our sins and to defeat death in order that we can have life. It is not enough for someone to think they are a Christian, they must have trusted in only the finished work of Christ. Attending church or being a pastor does not make you a Christian. Leading a state sponsored religion does not make you a Christian. A Christian is one who has been identified with Christ through faith in His redemption.
It is not a valid argument to point to someone who claims to be a Christian but is doing awful things and assume all Christians must do awful things any more than it is correct to point to an Atheist who does a horrific act and proclaim that all atheists do horrific acts.
My message to Christians is to not forget why God saved you. “For He hath made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). This position of righteousness should be seen in a practical way in the way we live. We are declared righteous, so we should live righteously. I understand why unbelievers look at some of the awful things done in the name of Christ and become bitter toward Christianity. They are not able to discern between Bible-based Christianity and self-obsessed in-name-only Christianity.
Do not let such accusations keep you from sharing the wonderful grace and love that comes through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. If someone you are trying to share with accuses of being privy to the violence done in the name of the Lord, remind them of the point of our article today.
Skeptic, have horrible things been done in God’s name? Yes. The Roman Church should have heeded Paul’s warning in Galatians 1:9: “As we said before, so say I now again, if any [man] preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” Has God been pleased with them? No. Do not let the actions of some keep you from experiencing the goodness of God.
*Riley, Smith, Jonathan. The Crusades: A History. London, New Delhi, New York, Sydney: Bloomsburg Publishing, 2014. Page 34.