Things I am asked: What about the bad behaviour of the Christian church in history?


The Christian Church is a paradox. It is simultaneously a community of people who are (or should be) infused with the presence of God’s Holy Spirit who empowers their ministry and grows the character of Jesus within them (Galatians 5:22-23; Ephesians 4:15-16). Yet it is also composed of fallible, failing and unfaithful human beings (Colossians 2:19). As such, what you see in the institutional church (both today and in history) depends on which bit of the church you are looking at – the true church or the unfaithful church. One is beautiful, and you see in it the sacrificial love that transforms people, families, communities and nations. The other is vile and you see the worst of things: the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the sectarian violence of Northern Ireland and, more recently, the abuse perpetrated by sex addicts who have infiltrated church institutions in order to prey on the vulnerable.

This brings us to the first point: Christianity is authentic only when it reflects the teaching and values of Jesus Christ. It is inauthentic when it doesn’t. It is as simple as that. This brings to mind a quote by the English writer, philosopher and lay theologian, G.K. Chesterton. He wrote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”[1]

One of the greatest dangers for the Christian Church occurs when it becomes institutionalised.

The toxicity of the unfaithful Christian church in history should in no way be minimised, but it is also true that it has been exaggerated, particularly in recent years by today’s celebrity atheists who claim that religion has caused most of the world’s wars.[2]  So, what is the reality? According to the Encyclopedia of Wars, out of all 1,763 known/recorded historical conflicts, 121, or 6.87 per cent, had religion as their primary cause.[3] In the last 100 years, it has been the very unchristian ideology of Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao and Pol Pot that has killed most people. It is significant that scholarly works such as that by Tom Holland (an agnostic) have reported on the extraordinary civilising effect of Christianity on Western human history.[4]  He reminds us that Christianity has been responsible for our hospital system, legal system, educational system and our social welfare.

One of the greatest dangers for the Christian Church occurs when it becomes institutionalised. When this happens, it can be easy for people take their eyes off Jesus and allow themselves to become corrupted by power and greed. Despots throughout history have tried to use Christianity to legitimise their ambitions and claim to power – and this includes leaders of church institutions. It is sobering to remember that Jesus’ fiercest enemies were the leaders of the religious institution of his day.

The other reality that needs to be appreciated is that no Christian is perfect. Every Christian is a “work in progress,” therefore all of us need God’s continual forgiveness. Christians are in the process of being transformed as they surrender more and more to Jesus’ lordship (Romans 12:1; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Having said this, people should be able to look at Christians and see something of the grace and truth of Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18; 1 Peter 2:12).

You too should expect it, and probably have – perhaps without knowing. Here’s a little exercise to illustrate this. Picture yourself stepping out on a dark city night in a none-too-salubrious precinct … and four swarthy men step onto the street behind you. How would you feel? And here’s the thing: Would you feel any better if you knew that those four swarthy men had just been to a Bible study?

When human societies discard Christianity, they invariably default to the behaviour of the plant and animal world.

The reality is, God is good for you. The Australian journalist, Greg Sheridan, popularised this phrase with his book God is Good for You.[5]

Organisms in the plant and animal world will generally seek to kill off anything that threatens their ability to thrive. They will eat or enslave other organisms in order to survive. In this dangerous world, everything comes under the all-consuming instinct to dominate, thrive and reproduce. Here’s the thing: When human societies discard Christianity, they invariably default to the behaviour of the plant and animal world. When Christian principles are absent, you get Cambodia’s “killing fields.” When Christian principles are absent because the church has been corrupted or muzzled, Auschwitz happens. When Christian principles are absent, it becomes expedient to kill 47 million people through starvation in order to institute a collective farming ideology in China. Without the morality, hope and principles of Christianity, humanity falls back into the harsh pragmatism of the animal and plant kingdom. The truth is, when people stop ruling “under God,” they will seek to rule like God.

Despite the West gradually letting go of its Christian heritage, it still retains an “encultured” understanding of Christian values which it instinctively holds to be right – generally. However, without a true Christian foundation, it cannot last. The eroding of Christian notions of “truth” and “right” will gradually result in the West becoming uncivil. This inevitability was one that greatly troubled the atheist philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. He despised Christianity, but he feared what society would look like without it.

So, what can we say in conclusion? Perhaps this: A mouse visiting a cookie jar is not a cookie. In the same way, a person attending a Christian institution is not necessarily a Christian. Real Christianity does not feature abuse. It features Jesus dying on a cross to take the blame for all those things that would disqualify you from sharing in God’s eternal hope. Please see the difference.

[1]   G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, (1910), Part 1, Chapter V.
[2]   Richard Dawkins begins his book, The God Delusion, (Bantam Books, 2006) by quoting John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ (1971), which portrays a world with no religion or wars.
[3]   Alan Axelrod and Charles Phillips eds. (2004). Encyclopedia of Wars (Vol.3). Facts on File. “Religious wars”, pp 1484–1485.
[4]   Tom Holland, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind, (Little, Brown, 2019).
[5] Greg Sheridan, God is Good for You (Allen Unwin, 2018).

This topic is explored more deeply in For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined,
a documentary by the Centre for Public Christianity.

Dr Nick Hawkes is a scientist, pastor, apologist, writer and broadcaster. He also describes himself as an absent-minded, slightly obsessive man who is pathetically weak due to cancer and chemo, who has experienced, and needs to experience, the grace of God each day.

This article is part of a series, Things I am asked.

Nick has written a book Soar above the Storm in which he draws on his experience of cancer to encourage anyone walking through a storm in life to find rest and hope in God. It offers a 40-day retreat to be refreshed and strengthened and find deep peace in God. Order it at Koorong.

He blogs and records podcasts at

Nick told his life story to Eternity here: Deadly storms, heroin addicts, cancer and my faith.