There have been three big splits in Christianity, one in the mid-400’s, one in the mid 1000’s, and one in the 1500’s.
To understand the first split, we need to start at the beginning. We know very little about the first 250 or so years of Christianity. Very little in the historical record has survived. From the few things that did survive, we know Christian beliefs went in many different directions. There was not one version of Christianity; there were many, with many different beliefs.
But, about 300 years after the time of Jesus, the Roman Emperor Constantine created “The Church,” and Christianity became an institutionalized religion. Constantine’s church officials decided on “correct” beliefs. Christian beliefs became standardized. This process of deciding correct beliefs, though, didn’t happen overnight. It happened over a period of several hundred years. As this process happened, beliefs that did not fit the official version were outlawed, and those versions of Christianity disappeared.
That’s one reason so little has survived from the earliest history of Christianity. Writings that did not agree with the “correct” beliefs were destroyed. They tried to sanitize the historical record of whatever did not agree with them.
At a late point in this process, something was decided that a large number of Christians could not accept. There was controversy over what was called the “nature” of Jesus. Christians believed Jesus was God coming to us as a human being. When you look at Jesus, you see a real human being, but you also see God. There was controversy over exactly how that resulted.
One faction said Jesus had two separate “natures” combined into one person: a human nature and a divine nature. Jesus had two different things living inside Him, human nature and divine nature.
The other faction said Jesus had only one nature, a unique nature that was a combination of human and divine.
Christianity split over this. We may think this is splitting hairs, but back then, people saw a real difference between the two positions. The institutional church took the position that Jesus had two separate natures, and that became the official position.
Here’s a good way to understand the different positions: Assume you have a bowl with macaroni and rice in it. You see pieces of macaroni, and you see pieces of rice. This is the position that Jesus had two separate natures. There were pieces of human nature inside Jesus, and there were pieces of divine nature inside Jesus. There were two separate substances inside Jesus, distinct from each other.
The position that Jesus had only one nature can be thought of in this way: Assume you have a bowl that has only one thing in it, a product that was made, in the manufacturing process, out of both macaroni and rice mixed together. When you look at what’s in this bowl, you only see one thing. You don’t see separate pieces of macaroni and separate pieces of rice in there; you see only this one product made out of macaroni and rice.
Why is this distinction so important? Because seeing Jesus with two separate natures basically says that Jesus was a conflicted individual with two separate parts inside Him warring against each other. This pictures Jesus as having multiple personalities, an individual with two separate personalities inside, each one always fighting against the other.
Although the institutional church said this was the correct way to look at Jesus, a large number of Christians could not agree with that. They split off from Christianity and went their separate way. This happened in the year 451. The Christians who insisted Jesus had only one nature split off and became known as Oriental Orthodox.
They were mostly located in Egypt, Syria, Ethiopia, parts of the Middle East, and India. They were in areas where the Roman Empire, at this point in its history, had little control. That’s how they were able to get by with splitting off.
From that point on, the Oriental Orthodox went a completely different direction than the official Roman church, and today they have beliefs that in many ways are very different from what most American Christians think of as correct beliefs.
They are represented by several organizations, including the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Church. Most of these have some congregations located in the United States, but they don’t have a large presence here. As a result, we seldom hear about them. However, they do have a large presence in other parts of the world.