Sometimes it is hard to remember just how I'm connected to some of my relatives. Beyond first cousins, it can be tricky to explain (or remember) what the relationship is. One of my cousins even calls himself my "imaginary cousin." (My father's parents fostered his mother. I don't know what that makes me to him. Yet we feel related.)

My father must have had a similar difficulty remembering family connections. After his death, I found a scroll (how positively biblical!) made of 10 sheets from a yellow legal pad. On the scroll, he diagrammed the descendants of my paternal great-grandmother's nine siblings. One of those nine had a daughter who married a prominent anti-alcohol crusader. He headed up the American Temperance Society and befriended Muslim leaders who appreciated Christians who didn't drink. I knew him as Uncle Billy, but I sure don't know how to label that relationship.

Like families, the church has a genealogy. And just as my family has regional concentrations in Illinois, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Pennsylvania, so the early church had regional concentrations in Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome. Eventually, Jerusalem and Constantinople joined the list. Each center had a family history that helped the churches in their sphere know who they were and tell true believers from wayward ones.

Protestantism was, in part, an argument with Rome over the right version of the Western church's family history. The true heirs of the apostles who planted the church in Rome were those who treasured and taught true biblical faith, the Reformers taught, not necessarily those who occupied a place in a succession of officeholders.

This Western family dispute dominated, of course, because ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Past Imperfect
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
Previous Past Imperfect Columns:
Issue: