In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul used the analogy of the human body to describe the interdependence of the church of Jesus Christ. Paul’s motivation was so that the Corinthian church understood that certain spiritual gifts should not be seen as more valuable than others. The Corinthian church also represented a wealthier demographic in comparison to other churches that feature in the NT. Paul has this in mind when reminding them throughout his letters not to place too high a value on human social capital (1 Cor 1:22–25). After describing the unity of the body of Christ, Paul turns his attention to the need to place special emphasis on parts of the body that are considered less important: “Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment” (12:22–24). Paul exhorts the church of Jesus Christ to direct its energy and resources in support of parts of the body that experience greater marginalization in this world.
The church’s actions are to be a direct reflection of God: “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it” (12:24). God is the one who has decided that, while all people are created equally, the energies and resources of the church are not equally distributed. In fact, the focus of the church should be a mirror opposite of the world: Those who are marginalized by the world are to be given special priority in the church, for they are already given this position in the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20). What is interesting are the words that follow in Paul’s message: “so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor 12:225). God’s Word calls God’s people to prioritize the marginalized. However, lest one think that this can lead to some sort of “reverse discrimination” or militancy, Paul clarifies that the goal of the redistribution of resources is unity. It is interesting to note, however, that the means to unity is identifying and prioritizing those on the margins. While our concern is equal, prioritization is not. The NT laid the DNA for Christianity to be a movement that highlights the “least of these” (Matt 25:40–45). Lamentably, much of Christian history following the NT has represented the opposite trend. Instead of centering the voices on the margins, much of Christian history has centered the perspectives and interests of those in power.
The vast majority of what features in books and classes on church history can often better be described as Western church history. Without adding an ethnic, geographical, or cultural modifier, the overwhelming majority of what appears as church history in fact represents the history of Western Christians. One of the most insidious aspects of Eurocentrism in Christian historiography is the way the Western world dominates the narrative without naming it as such.
Non-Western cultural contexts are often identified as such, but Western history is just presented as “normal.” During the Middle Ages, the concept of the West built itself in most respects on the memory of the Roman Empire. As Christianity took shape in the Roman Empire during the patristic period, there were several important ways that Christianity became “Romanized”—specifically, the areas of empire, theology, and race. The various facets of Romanized Christianity would later form the foundation for how Western Christian history appeared with a Eurocentric focus. These features of Romanized and Eurocentric historiography still dominate discourses on Church history.
The Romans believed that the culture of the Roman empire was superior to all others. As the Roman Empire conquered and colonized surrounding “barbarians,” there was a complex process of incorporating indigenous cultures into the dominant Roman imperial culture while also viewing these cultural influences as a threat to romanitas. An early-second-century Roman historian named Florus exemplifies this in an admonition to Greeks to avoid Syrian cultural influences: “You, by Hercules, being men of Mars, must take care and escape as quickly as possible from the amenities of Asia: such power have these foreign pleasures to smother vigour of character; so powerful is the impact of contact with the way of life and customs of the natives” (Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity ([Princeton University Press, 2004], 307).
The Roman Empire inherited a social worldview from the Greeks that demeaned people outside of the Greco-Roman world as barbarians who were culturally inferior. This attitude carried into the periods following the Christianization of the Roman Empire. According to the church historian Eusebius, Emperor Constantine became a Christian and banned the practice of indigenous Roman religion. While inscriptions commissioned by Constantine himself do not verify this perception, many Christians of the Roman Empire followed Eusebius’s lead and characterized the emperor as God’s imperial representative on earth. Thus, the cultural superiority that was extant before the Christianization of the Roman Empire found expression in a Roman Christian vision of superiority. Eusebius demonstrates this in his biography of Constantine: “Thus then the Emperor, serving God the overseer of all with his every action, took untiring care of his churches. God repaid him by putting all the barbarian nations beneath his feet, so that always and everywhere he raised trophies over his foes, and by proclaiming him Victor among them all, and making him a terror to foes and enemies, though he was not naturally such, but the gentlest, mildest, and kindest man there ever was” (Life of Constantine, ed. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall [Clarendon Press, 1999], 88).
As one expression of Christianity became dominant across the Roman Empire, its theological, ministerial, and liturgical norms took on a normative role in the early church. This is evident most poignantly in the emergence of imperially sanctioned councils. Such councils were convened in collaboration with the Roman Empire and attempted to represent orthodox theology for the entire Christian world. The Roman Empire was not the first Christian Empire. Empires such as Osrhoene and Armenia were predominately Christian years prior to Rome. Also, the first empire-wide church council—the Council of Nicaea (325 CE)—was not the first imperial council in the global church. The church of the Persian Empire had councils before Nicaea.
However, councils such as Nicaea began to articulate Christian orthodoxy in Greco-Roman terminology and normalize their creeds throughout the Roman world and beyond. While most Christians in the early global church affirmed the central claim of the Council of Nicaea—that Jesus is God in every sense that the Father is—the way this doctrine was articulated using non-biblical terminology (homoousias, “same essence”) represented the beginning of a dilemma of associating Christian orthodoxy with its Greco-Roman expression. This came to a head at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, where the imperially backed council followed Bishop Leo of Rome in his articulation of Jesus being one “person” (hypostasis) with two “natures” (physis). This doctrine was heretical for the majority of Christians in the African and Asian continents, most of whom were considered heretics by the dominant Roman Church from that time on.
Dominant Roman Christian leaders, with the support of the Roman emperor and his military, began to enforce the theology of Chalcedon throughout the churches of Africa and the Middle East. An example of this was the sixth-century Egyptian monastic leader Abraham of Farshut. Abraham was the leader of a monastic community of Pbow, started by the famous Egyptian monk Pachomius two centuries earlier. The Roman Emperor Justinian was attempting to enforce Chalcedonian doctrine in Egypt, and forced Abraham to come to the imperial capital city of Constantinople. Justinian threatened Abraham that if he did not subscribe to Chalcedonian doctrine, he would lose his position as head of the monastery. Abraham’s biography reports imperial officials slandering Abraham in a way that demonstrates how the Roman Empire and its church became contrasted with the Christians of Egypt: “He (Abraham) went into the gathering place, every place where your men stood and where they sat, he had all the brothers draw water and wash the entire assembly hall since he loathed you our lord emperor, and all who are under the authority of the Roman Empire. So now send for him, bring him here and punish him as a criminal until everyone knows what it means to oppose the emperor” (Panegyric on Manasseh, ed. James E. Goehring, Politics, Monasticism, and Miracles in Sixth Century Upper Egypt: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Coptic Texts on Abraham of Farshut, [Mohr Siebeck, 2012], 112).
Abraham was stripped of his leadership and replaced by a leader who was loyal to the Roman Emperor. Notice how the text presents ascription to a particular doctrine as synonymous with loyalty to the Roman Empire. The Chalcedonian Schism is the first major schism in the history of the church whose effects are still felt to this day. The dominant Roman Church excommunicated the Persian Church that brought the gospel all across the continent of Asia as well as the majority of Christians in the Middle East and Africa. It is for this reason that much of the history of these ancient churches remains unknown to most people today. This schism also formed the foundation of a tendency in Western Christendom to perceive itself as the primary arbiter of Christian doctrine.
The sense of superiority that characterized the Greco-Roman world manifested in political, militaristic, religious, and cultural expressions. Another way this sense of superiority manifested was in human varieties in genotype and phenotype, or what is referred to as “race” in the modern world. Romans believed that certain people were biologically superior to others. Those whom the Romans deemed as “white” were considered superior to those who were called “black.” The fourth-century Roman poet Ausonius also associated whiteness with purity and blackness with immorality in his recollection of his dark-complected grandmother: “[H]er name was given as a joke, because of her dark skin (cute fusca) she was called “Moor” (Maura) back then. But her soul was not black (atra); it was brighter (clarior) than a swan and whiter (candidor) than untrodden snow” (Ausonius, Parentalia, ed. Hugh G. Evelyn White [Harvard University Press, 1919], 66. See also, John H. Starks Jr., “Was Black Beautiful in Vandal Africa?,” in African Athena: New Agendas, ed. Daniel Orrells, Gurminder K. Bhambra and Tessa Roynon [Oxford University Press, 2011], 255). The late antique stratification along skin color and physical features blended with many of the leading Christians in the Roman Empire. Jerome, one of the most influential theologians in the fourth-century Roman Empire, said about “Ethiopians” (that is, “burned-faced ones,” i.e., “Black people”): “At one time we were Ethiopians in our vices and sins. How so? Because our sins had blackened us. But afterwards we heard the words: ‘Wash yourselves clean!’ And we said: ‘Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.’ We are Ethiopians, therefore, who have been transformed from blackness into whiteness” (Gay Byron, Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature [Routledge, 2002], 32).
The Roman Empire and later, Western Europe, continued to be the geographical context that positioned itself as the representative of the church of Jesus on earth. The Western world and its church viewed its culture, empires, theology, and skin color as divinely destined to lead the global church. These dynamics form the backdrop to the prioritization of Western church history throughout the history of Christian proclamation.
In the modern world, Christians and non-Christians alike tell the story of Christianity in a manner that centers the Western Christian story that developed in the Roman Empire, Europe, and North America. Typically, cultural contexts outside of the West are not given significant attention until the twentieth century. Indeed, the perception is common that Christianity “became” a global faith during the modern period. The way that history—notably, Christian history—is periodized centers the Western world. Terms such as “classical antiquity,” “late antiquity,” “medieval,” “modern,” and “post-modern” divide up human history according to historical and cultural phenomena that largely affected the West. However, these periods may have had little-to-no affect on other contexts. The Dark Ages in Europe were the Golden Ages in the Islamic World, China, Georgia, and Nubia, to name a few.
Church history is often divided by the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the emergence of the Protestant Reformation in Europe, and the advent of Western modernity. However, world events such as the rise of the Mongolian Empire, the emergence of the Solomonic Dynasty, and the establishment of the Abassid Caliphate proved to be much more decisive events for Christians in other parts of the world. The alternative theological communities are often marginalized in church history books, while the Western, Chalcedonian view occupies the center. It is of utmost importance to tell the story of Christianity in a way that has no geo-cultural center.
Moreover, the majority of church history books and teachers are white males. It is also of paramount importance to also empower and highlight the historical work of women and men of color in the narration of church history. There is a multitude of Christian theologians and leaders who wrote volumes of theology that are largely unknown to most people. Even if one has not studied much church history, most people have heard the names of Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, or Jonathan Edwards. Conversely, even many theologians and church historians have not heard of figures such as Narsai, Walatta Petros, or Eznik of Kolb. (For a more in-depth treatment of these figures, see Vince L. Bantu, A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity [IVP Academic, 2020].) The contributions of African and Asian Christians prior to the modern period have been diminished because many of these Christians were not classified as “white” in ancient times, because they wrote in languages other than Greek or Latin, because they lived outside of the Roman Empire, and because they espoused a theology considered heretical by the Western Church. Today, we must deconstruct the Westernized approach to historiography—specifically Christian history—and reconstruct an inclusive story that embraces the whole of the global Christian tradition.