Books Christianity History the Church Theology

Learning from Theology – Bullies and Saints Review – Part 2

This was first published in Australian Presbyterian here –  in it we look at just war, state violence, what is the Gospel? What is humanity?  What is the church?


Bullies and Saints is a church history book, and, as we saw In part 1

it is an excellent church history book.  In part 2 I want to consider the theological questions raised, even though it is not a theological work.  Nonetheless the theology is important – because the history of the church is also a history of its theology.  Our theology will often be the lens through which we interpret the history.    Furthermore, when the Church goes wrong in theology it ends up going wrong in everything.   As Broughton Knox wrote in a letter to Marcus Loane: “I believe it is this neglect of theology which for the past 40 years has been the curse of English Evangelicalism, particularly in the Church of England”. (Marcia Cameron – An Enigmatic Life,  p.114). 

Henry Chadwick noted of Augustine of Hippo, that he loved the church, but “the failures of its members, both clerical and lay, gave him moments of dark gloom.” Dickson comments: “I know the feeling” (p.133).

Saints and Bullies is to some extent a book of frustration (and apology) – the frustration of the author, (which many of us share), that the Church is not as she should be.   The basic narrative (which I do not share – see part 1), is that the Church started so well for the first three centuries, singing the harmonious love song of Christ – then allowed disharmony to creep in – to the extent  that sometimes one does not want to be part of the band.   But rather than just be frustrated, or apologise for what we are not responsible for, we need to consider the wider picture, so in this review we will look at three theological points that the book opens up for discussion.

What is the Church? 

The crusades were violent and often misguided, from my perspective, but they were not successful” (p. 20).

It usually doesn’t take long in any discussion for a militant atheist to raise the question of the Crusades. A discussion then ensues between people who have little knowledge on which to base their views, other than that the Crusades were obviously bad and were the fault of the Church.  John provides us with some much-needed balance and perspective.  My problem is that I struggle to see the Church of Jesus Christ as being responsible for the Crusades.  To some extent it all depends on your ecclesiology – your view of the Church.

In this respect the use of the term ‘Church’ in Saints and Bullies is sometimes confused and ambiguous. The title and style of the book suggests that the church is divided into bullies and saints.  Gregory is a saint; Ambrose is a bully.  I’m not convinced that this ‘George Bush’ like theology (there are the good guys and the bad guys) works.  The church consists of the saints who are also sinners.   Paul did not write to the saints and bullies in Corinth – it was to the saints, to the brothers and sisters.  John rightly accepts that we are all flawed – read any honest biography of any church ‘great’ and that becomes apparent.  What he is saying here is that the church at sometimes behaves in a bullying manner.  That is undeniable.  But it is true of all churches at all times.     The church in the first three centuries was as full of sin as the church in the next seventeen!  Just read any of the epistles.  One church was even described by Jesus as the church that made him sick (Revelation 3:16).  And yet the church is also the Bride of Christ, being beautified and cleansed for the great wedding feast of the Lamb.

It helps when we recognise that not every religious organisation that self-identifies as a church, is one.  It is even possible for such an organisation to become a “synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 3:9).   This was recognised in the early church.  For example, in his History of the Arians Athanasius has this to say about the Emperor Constantius: “Terrible indeed, and worse than terrible are such proceedings; yet conduct suitable to him who assumes the character of antichrist.  Who that behold him taking the lead of his pretended Bishops, and presiding in Ecclesiastical causes, would not justly say that this was ‘the abomination of desolation’ spoken of by Daniel.  For having put on the profession of Christianity, and entering into the holy places, and standing therein, he lays waste the Churches, transgressing their Canons, and enforcing the observance of his own decrees” (paragraph 77).    In today’s Australia the Primate of the Anglican church recently wrote to the bishops expressing concern at the ‘divisiveness’ of Gafcon, without recognising that it is those bishops who have departed from the Apostolic church who are the ones dividing the Church.  I have no doubt that Athanasius (aka Rev David Ould –

would have declared them to be ‘pretended bishops’ and not part of the Church of Christ.  Why should we accept as the sins of the church, the sins of those who have departed from the Christian faith?

In addition to this, John’s analysis of the church sometimes seems to be done more through a 21st Century Western ‘liberal’ lens, than a biblical one.  For example, in the statement on p.126  we’re told that “In the fifth century church leaders began to devise a distinctively Christian account of state violence” (p.126). This is unnecessarily pejorative and somewhat inaccurate.  It was Paul, not Augustine, who wrote about the state having the power of the sword and being God’s ‘agents of wrath’ (Romans 13:1-7). Was he advocating ‘state violence’?  When Augustine wrote to the Roman authorities asking them to protect his people from being attacked by marauding bands of Sahara tribesmen, John suggests: “this is something new:  a Christian leader directly urging state powers to fight” (p.134).  Given Paul’s appeal to the Romans some 350 years earlier is this accurate?  Were the early Christians really the first ‘defund the police/army’ agitators?  What if it takes force to protect life and property?  What if it takes force to set slaves free?  Should the British navy not have used ‘state violence’ in the 19th Century to stop slave traders?

It is also questionable whether Augustine really did open up the church in the West to Christian holy war which cumulated in the Crusades.  The picture is more complex than that.  What about the church in the East, in Constantinople? Furthermore, the Crusades do not fit Augustine’s concept of a just war, and I’m not sure that it is any fairer to blame them on him than it is to blame them on Paul or Jesus!

The New Testament, especially Jesus and Revelation also make use of some pretty violent language.  How does that fit with the pure, pacifist church myth of the first three centuries?

What is Humanity?

“Christ did not teach that we are hopeless failures destined only to be immoral” (p.39). While, in context John is rightly arguing that we are flawed.  But the Bible goes way beyond seeing us as just being flawed.  We are dead in sins and trespasses (Ephesians 2:1-5).  Jesus us tells us that we are all enslaved to sin and need to be set free (John 8:34).   It is from within our hearts that immorality comes (Mark 7:20-23) and without a radical change we are destined only to be immoral.  The change that is required is so deep that it requires a rebirth by the Holy Spirit.  Without Christ there is no hope for us to be anything other than immoral.   Until we realise that we are hopeless failures destined only to be immoral, we won’t come to an end of ourselves, and we won’t seek the radical solution that is Christ.

Not for a moment would I suggest that someone needs to believe in Christ in order to pursue the ethics of Christ (p.284).  Tom Holland may be ‘ethically Christian’, but, whilst we can be thankful for those such as Holland and Jordan Peterson who recognise the fruit of Christianity, what ultimate good is that?    At best it is a form of ‘godliness without power’ (2 Timothy 3:5).  It is true that they can pursue, but it is a fruitless pursuit.  To continue John’s analogy, it’s like asking someone who is tone deaf to sing in harmony!   The Bible does not teach that we can have the fruit of Christ (the ethics) without the root of Christ (Christ himself and the gift of the Holy Spirit).  Not for a moment would I suggest that an individual, church or society could pursue the ethics of Christ, without Christ.  The Church in the West has fallen into the trap of what is called moralistic, therapeutic Deism.   We must escape it.

What is the Gospel? 

Here is the central moral logic, the original melody of Christianity.  God’s love must animate the Christian’s love for all.  The obvious fact that this moral logic did not translate into a consistent moral history is the dilemma at the heart of this book (p.30). This statement can be read in many different ways.  If I was a liberal progressive, I would say Amen…an evangelical likewise.  But what does it mean?  Christianity is not just about loving your neighbour as yourself, it is also about loving the Lord your God with all your soul, and all your might.   The love of God should be something within us that animates love for others but the question is how does it do that?  Is it just moral example, or is it something deeper?

Does Scripture cause us to expect that the moral logic of God’s love would translate into a consistent moral history’?   I would argue that the Bible has translated into a consistent moral history – one of success and failure.  The kind of history we would exactly expect, if we accepted the Bible’s own teaching that all of us are flawed and sinful.  If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Cor. 10:12)

Some readers will dislike the proselytizing zeal of Boniface, Danile and Pope Gregory (I and II). That’s fine.”   Whilst I agree with John that it is of course people’s right to disagree I would be a little more positive about their evangelising!  If someone says that giving food to the starving is a waste of time, or that racism is ok, I am not going to say that it’s fine for you to disagree.    You have the right to disagree – but I also have the right to say you are wrong. Wanting people to know the love of Christ, wanting to share the Good News, and wanting to save people from a lost eternity is a good and desirable thing.  As the atheists Penn and Teller point out, if you believe what Christians believe,  what kind of hatred must you have for people, not to tell them?!   Secular society is very happy for us to provide all kinds of social care – as long as we don’t do the ‘God stuff’.  That’s not fine!


In summary, I don’t think I have any major theological disagreement with John here, and I am thankful for the stimulus his book has provided (although you may think I have over thunk things!).  But I don’t think he goes far enough and at times it is unclear what he means.    Perhaps this is best summed up in the little phrase  “Christ makes Christians look bad” (p24).  That is because we are.  We are sinners the same as everyone else and would not claim anything else.  Our message is not, or shouldn’t be,  ‘look at us – we are wonderful – you can become like us too!”      But we also need to remember that Christ also makes Christians look good. He gives us beauty for ashes.  That is what he is about.

If we had a more radical (i.e., biblical) view of the Church, of humanity and of the Gospel, we would not be surprised at the history of the Church – we would expect it.  And whilst we mourn for her sins we also rejoice in her beauty and won’t stand silently by whilst the Bride of Christ is trashed by the Father of Lies.

Quantum 157 – The One for Intelligent Listeners – including the Olympics, Californian madness and Hatun Tush




  1. “If we had a more radical (i.e., biblical) view of the Church, of humanity and of the Gospel, we would not be surprised at the history of the Church – we would expect it.”

    Agreed therefore perhaps sometimes in order to engage effectively it is our expectations of the church that need to come into line with reality. The truth is that there is biblical precedence with the nation of Israel cycling through being in favour wiht God, to apostacy, to repentance and back to being in favour with God and so on in Old Testament Narratives. And as you rightly say David, Paul did address the congregation of the church in Corinth as “saints” right before ironically pointing out issues in the church that were anything but saintly!

    It was important to Paul that such things be addressed. If they were not and the church merely reflected the same sicknesses as the surrounding culture then what would that mean with the from of godliness that lacks power that you talk of David? Somewhat less one would suspect than that experienced on the day of Pentecost with earlier followers of Jesus.

    There is a price to pay in following Jesus. On earth his moment of glory was to be risen on a cross. To follow Jesus means to be be persecuted and hated along with having a share in his glory. When the going gets tough there will be the option to walk away or find an easier road. Jesus doesn’t force his will on anyone but allows for free will. Love does that. But it’s that kind of pseudo-Christ likeness that prophets have something to say about.

    And inheritably prophets will be without honour among their own people now, as then. There’s nothing new under the sun. Thankfully in the west it’s unlikely to result in a stoning and death for the prophet but they may struggle to be welcomed and listened to in the institutionalised church and may have to find creative ways for fellowship and worship, perhaps emptying some churches as they do.

  2. How does this book compare to Nick Needham’s three volumes on church history?
    I’ve nearly bought them on a couple of occasions!
    But I’m now at a stage in life that I look to the future and ever certain that if I found a perfect church I ‘d not join it, lest I spoil it.
    But, church leadership is where I look for orthodox creedal beliefs, fidelity, not church membership, whose beliefs may be all over the shop: even when orthopraxy slides we are to
    return to look to Christ.
    A large dose, interveinous
    drip, of The Whole Christ by Sinclair Ferguson is to be prescribed.

    1. Hi Geoff,
      Nick’s a friend of mine so I may be baised but his books (of which there are now four volumes) were the basis for my lectures at college on Church history. They are excellent books – quite humorous at times – and well worth getting. I haven’t yet found a better series on Church history. Hope that helps.

  3. I totally agree with David’s statement that: “The basic narrative (which I do not share – see part 1), is that the Church started so well for the first three centuries, singing the harmonious love song of Christ – then allowed disharmony to creep in..”
    Rod Bennett has written an excellent book (‘The Apostasy That Never Was’) on this very subject. To quote a few sentences from the book: “The great Christian thinker Origen … says flat out that the Church was ‘whoring’ in the third century.” “The abuses were so bad that many local Church synods were called to try and bring in some reform. One of these, the Council of Elvira, was held in Spain in 300 and its surviving records give us a pretty harrowing list of crimes going on well before the ‘deep blackness and the Dark Ages’ set in. The catalogue includes the following: pastors loan-sharking the faithful; money-grubbing bishops living the high life out of church funds; presbyters shacking up with female parishioners; deacons visiting and participating in pagan worship; a clergy winking at and routinely partaking in gambling, divorce and adultery.”

    I also found this statement of David’s interesting: “It helps when we recognise that not every religious organisation that self-identifies as a church, is one.” Indeed. When St Paul wrote to the Corinthians he did not write to the Anglicans in Corinth or the Presbyterians in Corinth or the Methodists in Corinth. He wrote to THE Church in Corinth. When St John wrote about the seven churches he did not write about the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Ephesus or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ephesus; he wrote about THE church in Ephesus. St Paul would have had no truck with people creating their own organisations and calling them churches.

    I was, however, somewhat amused by Dickson saying that the Crusades were violent. What? War was violent? Perish the thought.

  4. “We are sinners the same as everyone else and would not claim anything else. ”

    Agreed! However, on my own blog, I recently reminded readers that the disciple of Jesus is “justified”, and shared the simple mnemonic this means that that, because of Calvary, Father God treats me “just as if I’d” never sinned.

    Of course, I am also being sanctified – a process that will not be completed in this mortal body – but my justification is complete, and I may approach the throne of grace, in the name of the Lord Jesus. Hallelujah!

  5. The best description of Christians was that of Tacitus , i.e., ‘exitiabilis superstitio’ , a term that the Roman scholar employed to reference a sect of Jewish nihilists .

    Ring any Marxist history buff bells ?

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