A world religion which regards Jesus Christ as its founder, Christianity was originally a social movement in Judaism , emerging in Jerusalem during the Roman occupation. With the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Christianity became increasingly a religion of Gentiles, partly as a consequence of the preaching of the apostle Paul, who established Gentile churches.
In Rome, these Christian groups became the targets of political repression, especially under Nero. This persecution resulted in the new institutions of martyrdom and sainthood. Although Christianity spread among the lower classes, it eventually won favour among the powerful, and in 313 CE Constantine established it as the religion of the Roman Empire. Karl Kautsky's argument (Foundations of Christianity: A Study of Christian Origins, 1908) that early Christianity was a proletarian religion requires qualification.
By the eleventh century, there was a clear divide between Western and Eastern Orthodoxy. The bishop of Rome was transformed into the Pope with authority over Western Christendom. The Roman Catholic Church had a major impact on Western culture, especially through the educational function of monasteries. There was a profound split in the Church as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Christianity is founded on the belief in an omnipotent and just God who is responsible for all Creation. Although humanity has sinned, and therefore fallen from grace, salvation from punishment has been made possible by God's mercy in sending a saviour-Jesus Christ-to atone for these sins. Christians therefore believe that faith in Christ as the Son of God ensures everlasting salvation. However, contemporary Christianity is an extradordinarily diverse belief system, embodying various doctrines emphasizing not only faith but also all manner of good works. A fascinating account of the historical emergence of the doctrines and organization of the Christian church is given in Elaine Pagels's book, The Gnostic Gospels (1979).
Much of the sociology of religion has been concerned with the social consequences of specifically Christian beliefs. Max Weber's protestant ethic thesis is one of the best-known examples. There has also been much debate about the impact of Christianity on Western civilization generally, for example in promoting democracy or scientific innovation, and about the contemporary secularization of the Christian religion. See also chiliasm ; church ; religion, sociology of ; sect.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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