The often cryptic character of Christ’s teachings, combined with his emphasis on an extra-legal form of inward purity, made the religion founded in his name extremely adaptable — in the sense that it could take root anywhere and appeal to anyone, but also in the sense that it could mesh and merge with any number of different political systems and cultures. And it did. Which is one reason why the first two centuries after Christ’s death were a time of dogmatic and doctrinal chaos in the nascent Christian world — and why the Council of Nicea in 325 set out to define Christian dogma and doctrine once and for all, and to draw bright lines between orthodoxy and heterodoxy (heresy). Historically speaking, one of the most important roles of the Catholic Church ever since has been to uphold those definitions and police those lines, keeping global Christianity from reverting to chaos.
But it’s important to recognize that in taking on this role, the church modeled itself on a form of imperial Roman legalism with no warrant at all in the text of gospels. Born of and eventually taking over administrative duties from the Roman Empire, the Catholic Church quickly became an aristocratic institution. The Christian monarchies and aristocracies of medieval Europe developed along parallel (and sometimes competing) hierarchical lines. In this way, a religion founded in an attack upon the authority and privileges of the Jewish high priests became a church claiming far more authority for itself than any Pharisee could have imagined.
Of course, the church took another shape in the Eastern part of the declining Roman Empire, leading to theological, doctrinal, and administrative differences that eventually split Christendom in two. Far more splintering took place with the Protestant Reformation, and again as the church has spread around the globe into the developing world. Over the past century, Christianity has showed itself to be individualist and capitalist in northern Europe and North America, charismatic and quasi-Marxist in Latin America, capable of being synthesized with animism and other traditional forms of religious practice in Africa — and yes, more than a little gnostic in the United States.
Which is the real Christianity?