Found this question difficult and can’t say that I was particularly happy with my answer. What would you have said?


UPDATE #1: My good colleague through the wall, Dr Bill Vandoodewaard,  comes to my rescue with this answer:

There were certainly atrocities committed as part of the Crusades: the sack of Jerusalem stands as one glaring example which we should lament as Christians. 

However, to be fair the Crusades as a whole must be set against both the backdrop, and immediate context of Islamic expansion through warfare and conquest.  The Byzantine Empire, the great empire of eastern Christendom, was under continued assault and invasion.  North Africa had fallen to the Muslims; Spain had been invaded.  While the French mainland invasions from Spain had been repelled prior, there were regular attacks by Muslim raiding parties along  Mediterranean coastal France, Italy, Greece, etc.  This is one reasons why medieval (and later!) Greek, Italian and French villages along the coasts sit atop fortified hills – Muslim raiding parties which killed the men, sexually assaulted/captured the women, and took the children as slaves back to North Africa/Palestine.

The medieval world was a religio-political world.  The two were not separated as they are today in a secular West.  As such, when the Byzantines asked Western Europe (in part via the Pope) for assistance, it was seen as Christians asking Christians for help in defending their national boundaries and the lives of their citizens.  Why the move during the Crusades to take Palestine/Jerusalem?  One reason is the errant medieval theology of meritorious pilgrimages to pray at sacred locations/relics where grace was believed to be more accessible.  Another is that these were still seen as lands wrongfully and forcefully conquered by the Muslims.  Thirdly, in terms of military and geo-political strategy attempting to retake Jerusalem and the surrounding regions was seen as beneficial in aiding the Byzantines in their self-defense by opening a second front.  This was for a good deal of time effective in minimizing Muslim military attempts against the Byzantines.

The Byzantines despite being “Christian” had plenty of issues themselves, as did the other European “Christian” kingdoms.  This was abundantly evident in the Fourth Crusade, perhaps the worst of them all in terms of violence against civilians.  It occurred when the “Christian” Venetians decided to take the opportunity to take out their chief economic competitor, “Christian” Byzantium/Constantinople.

I believe there were genuine Christians caught in the midst of it all.  Undoubtedly some who sinned and failed.  Others were simply seeking to be faithful in their context.  Bernard of Clairvaux, the great medieval preacher, appreciated by Calvin and Luther, was an instrumental figure in raising some of the Crusader support: to me it seems likely he was a believer.  Historically I think there are some good reasons to see him as promoting a just war, despite the evident failures (theologically and militarily) in the midst of it all.


A great book related to the topic is Bat Yeor’s The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude.


UPDATE#2: James Hakim serves as a PCA Pastor in Orange City, Iowa. Although, he is from Detroit, Michigan, his family is of Coptic origin, his father having been a Presbyterian elder in Egypt. He sent in this perspective as someone who holds North Africa dear to his heart:

I’m responding to your blog post/clip on the crusades; I would like to add a little context that is pretty undisputed, to supplement Dr. Vandoodewaard’s answer.

For centuries, North Africa was the most Christian region in the world. That region produced many great pastors and theologians, whom we now know as “church fathers”: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine. 

The hard work and simple living of such simple societies produced a large amount of wealth and civilization that made them a tempting target for the Muslims. 

Just doing the math, one can see that the Muslim genocide of Arabia, Near Asia, and North Africa went basically unanswered for around 500 years. That in itself is astounding. 

What is more astounding is the amount of self-sacrifice that was involved for the people going on the crusades. Treasure could not be a motivation. One could barely carry enough back to compensate him for the cost of the journey. Many gave up the best years of their lives, leaving house and home behind. Many went, not knowing what would happen to their families while they were gone. 

But it was for their families, first, that they went–so that what had happened in North Africa would not soon repeat itself in Europe. And, too, being faced with the possibility of such horrors at home, it became no small thing that their own brothers and sisters in Christ had been facing the reality of these horrors (not merely the possibility!) for centuries.

And, of course, there is the cause of Christ, which is served more out of loving your brother than securing parcels of land in the Near East. It cannot be denied that this last was part of the “marketing” of the thing, and some good old North African “City of God” theology might have spared them this as well.

So, was Christianity responsible for the crusades? Christianity was responsible for sons and fathers and brothers and husbands willing to lay down their lives for the defense of those at home. Christianity was responsible for fair skinned Europeans being willing to die in the defense of men whose language and appearance was very different than their own–simply because they belonged to each other in Christ. Christianity was responsible for thousands of men doing thankless work, with no promise of any reward in this life. Christianity was responsible for many who loved not their life even to death.

The fall, and remaining sin, were responsible for a number of things that are now associated with the crusades. But there are many aspects of the crusades that pastors pray to see lived out in the boys and men of their congregations. And if anything will produce such character from the heart, it must be Christianity.

It is very easy to fingerpoint at Christians of another generation. If the crusading Christians could see how self-serving, worldly, inconsiderate, gender-confused, lazy, and demanding the Christians of today are, I certainly hope that they would not think that our “Christianity” is responsible for that! 

Yes, Christianity certainly teaches me to turn the other cheek when it is only my life or property that is at stake. But it also teaches me to love my brother and to love my neighbor, even unto the laying down of my life. And, sometimes, if it is the last option available to me in defense of brother and neighbor, loving my enemy will mean taking his life to prevent him from the bloodguilt of yet another murder at the judgment.

I know that you did not have so much time to say all of these things in the interview, and I am grateful for the answers that both you and Dr. Vandoodewaard have already provided. 

I just think that getting the actual dates of things in front of people, and having them swap shoes with believers from other centuries can be helpful. Perhaps then, they may see that Christianity really does result in much genuine good in the lives and history of Christians–and that the Crusades are actually an example of that!

As you made clear in your video answer, it is easy to demonstrate that Christians are still sinners. However, I think that we bring glory to Christ when we point out the good fruit that His grace has borne in the lives of many believers, even in this life.

Thanks again for taking the time to read this.

 UPDATE #3: Bill Vandoodewaard concludes with this caution.

By defending aspects of the Crusades as just war, I hope readers understand that we are not saying just war = preaching the gospel. Mixing the two in the wrong way has historically led to many difficulties and problems.  A helpful distinction is that soldiers who are Christians are called to be good soldiers, preachers are called to preach, not to careers of wielding the sword, and of course, Scripture does not call preachers to use the sword to encourage faith and repentance. 

  • Scot

    I would have said the Roman Catholic Church, acting as a political organization, was responsible, in corroboration with the governments (in the sense of the governments of that day – 12th century robber barons) who raised troops and money. Any oversimplification of history is automatically suspect.

  • Philip Larson

    Was the Muslim conquest of lands a just conquest? If not, was the defense of these lands permissible?

  • Iain

    It was a challenging question on the Crusades! The answers given certainly contribute to the discussion. However, there is one point that has not been made. Although some good people were caught up in the these issues [as in other instances of so-called Christian warfare] yet significant underlying factors should be noted. The Church of the Crusading era was far from being spiritually healthy. In the prolonged era of the Inquisition and during the Covenanting times in Scotland Christianity was used as a battering ram by enemies of the Gospel. I am not aware of the Christian Church being involved in crusading-type conduct whenever the focus was on declaring Christ crucified. The conduct of true Christians during the persecuting eras of Europe was always defensive. Certainly there was always an associated lunatic fringe claiming to be fighting for Christ. But Christians of a Reformed persuasion live by the philosophy established by the Master:John 18:36 My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.

  • Carl

    this stuff is so bogus, and far from the truth

  • Arthur Sido

    “soldiers who are Christians are called to be good soldiers”Being a good soldier means obeying orders, orders which often include taking the life of someone because they live in one country and the person they are to kill lives in another country. How exactly is any Christian called to be a “good solider”? The distinction you make is every bit as baffling. “Preachers”, i.e. professional clergy, are called to preach sermons and not take up the sword but other Christians are called to kill? The notion that some members of the church are called to a different standard of morality on such a huge issue, killing another human being, is indefensible.

  • Carl

    you are right, no matter what this guy says or the legacy of Bush or any other person in charge

  • Carl

    good point, well madeFrom: Posterous <

  • Michael

    I think before we ask if Christianity is responsible for the Crusades, we need to ask if the Crusades were all that bad? Which takes us into the just war issue and what the Bible says about this? It appears that everyone today believers the Crusades were indeed reprehensible. I think the two updates above address these issues better than the video.Even if one presupposes the Crusades were all evil, the question asked in this video is akin to asking” Was “Christianity” responsible for slavery?” or “Were the Nazi’s “Christians”? What about the Norway terrorist recently, wasn’t he a Christian?

  • Carl

    not really

  • Random Guy

    What Scot said!

  • Arthur Sido

    I totally missed the update #2 from James :”Yes, Christianity certainly teaches me to turn the other cheek when it is only my life or property that is at stake. But it also teaches me to love my brother and to love my neighbor, even unto the laying down of my life. And, sometimes, if it is the last option available to me in defense of brother and neighbor, loving my enemy will mean taking his life to prevent him from the bloodguilt of yet another murder at the judgment.”Loving your enemy sometimes means killing him so he doesn’t sin again? That is utterly unsupportable from Scripture and is a perversion of the words of Christ.