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 second split, we’ll go back to official, institutional Christianity.
Rome had originally been the center of the Roman Empire, which meant that it was also the center of Christianity. But in the year 476, according to historians, the Roman Empire in the West officially fell. The West is, in general, what we think of as Europe. When the Roman Empire fell in the West, Europe was plunged into what historians call the Dark Ages.
However, a vestige of the Roman Empire continued in the East, with its capitol at Constantinople, which today is modern-day Istanbul, Turkey. This remaining part of the Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire. It comprised the area of modern-day Egypt, Greece, Syria, and Turkey.
The official center of Christianity was now seen to be in Constantinople. But, there were beginning to be significant disagreements between Christians in the West and Christians in the East.
A generation or so earlier, a man named Augustine, from the West, had come up with an idea called “original sin.” According to Augustine, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden that God told them not to eat, God got angry. So angry, in fact, that He completely changed human nature. God made it so that everyone, from the moment of their birth, was 100% evil through and through, so evil in fact, that no one could do anything good at all. Every person was nothing but evil and could do nothing but evil. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, God became furious, and, in a fit of rage, caused these changes to occur.
This idea was attractive to many in the West, and Christians in the West began adopting it. However, it was rejected by Christians in the East. Their rejection was significant because, after all, the East, in Constantinople, was where the center of Christianity now was.
But having the center of Christianity in Constantinople didn’t sit well with Christians in the West, and there was a period of time when Christianity was in chaos. Law and order broke down in the West when the western Roman Empire fell, and church officials murdered each other. There were at times competing popes, and some of these murdered their rivals and competitors. Christianity went in two different directions—one in the West, based on Augustine’s idea of original sin, and one in the East, which held to the older Christian beliefs.
As time moved on, beginning in the 800’s, Europe began to recover from the Dark Ages, and what’s known as the main Medieval Period began. The Medieval Period was characterized by feudalism. Feudalism is a system of organization of society that is a pyramid scheme. One person, the king, owns all the land in a country. The king then leases out large tracts of land to others. These people then lease out smaller tracts of land to others. These are the “classes of nobility.” The nobility have serfs to work the land, and the profits from the land flow up the pyramid. Serfs don’t own any land and don’t get any profits from the land. The profits from the land go to the people who lease it out and to the king who owns it. Serfs do what their “lords” above them tell them to do.
By the 900’s, the Dark Ages were ending, as some semblance of law and order and societal organization had returned to Europe because of feudalism. It’s important to remember, though, that feudalism never developed in the East.
The fact is that whether we like it or not, any group of people will interpret Christianity in terms of its own society. In Europe, as feudalism came on the scene, Christianity was reinterpreted in terms of feudalism. Remember from the segment about the first split in Christianity, Christianity in the West had changed once through the adoption of original sin. Now it changed even more as it was reinterpreted in terms of feudalism.
But, Eastern Christianity had rejected original sin. Plus, feudalism never developed in the East. All those changes in Christianity that were so profound in the West never happened in the East.
Eventually, because they had reinterpreted Christianity so many times, the West developed an entirely new interpretation of Jesus. By the 1000’s, the idea had arisen in the West that Jesus was a completely separate divine being from God.
A new idea of salvation was developing in the West—the idea that Jesus sacrificed Himself to God as payment for human sin. That idea did not find full expression until it was promoted by a man named Anselm in the late 1000’s, but the beginnings of it were there much earlier.
With all those changes going on in the way Western Christians looked at things, Eastern Christians felt there was no longer enough commonality between them and Western Christians for both to be together in one organization.
And so in the year 1054, Christianity split again, into Roman Catholic Christianity in the West, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the East. From this point on, Christianity in the West and Christianity in the East went in two completely different directions.
Eastern Orthodox Christians are represented in modern times by Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and a number of other Orthodox groups, all under a loose umbrella group referred to as the Eastern Orthodox Church or Orthodox Catholic church.