3 The Shift from a Suffering Church to an Institution of Ease
The early church grew and prospered incredibly without having church buildings or being protected by the state. In fact, from apostolic times to the ascension of Constantine the church went through cycles of intense persecution spearheaded by the ruling powers. These times of persecution are well documented in such books as Persecution in the Early Church by H. B. Workman and Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church by W. H. C. Friend.5
However, the advent of the emperor Constantine in 312 A.D. brought great changes, most of them for the worse. Money from state funds was used to erect Christian church buildings and support Christian clergy. Ultimately, Christianity was declared to be the state religion.
From Constantine onwards the visible church became enmeshed in political intrigue, and the state mingled in the determination of church affairs. As Louis Berkhof notes regarding the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. [which Constantine convened and presided over]: "A settlement forced upon the Church by the strong hand of the emperor could not satisfy and was also of uncertain duration. It made the determination of the Christian faith dependent on imperial caprice and even on court intrigues." This is exactly what happened repeatedly in subsequent history.
Constantine set in motion the ideal of a territorial state religion with Christianity at the helm. This ideal was the death knell of all that the Gospel stood for. It signaled the end of believers gathering separately from the pagan culture as a counter-culture where the way of Christ was displayed in simplicity.
Now the church was conceived of as all the people in a nation who were born as citizens of the state and constituted as part of the visible church by infant baptism. Church and politics were fused together, creating immense confusion. Ron VanOverloop notes this phenomenon operation from the post-apostolic church to the Reformation: "As was the case in the early church when emperors called the great ecumenical councils together, so was the progress of the Reformation to a great extent determined by the political maneuvering taking place in each country."
In the early church the disciples banded together in homes and other places as communities "called out" from the world; but Constantinianism erased this distinction and defined "church" as all citizens in a given territory. This had the practical effect of watering down true discipleship and creating a worthless nominal Christianity.
Werner Elert contrasts the early days with the rise of Constantinianism: "[In the early church] the strength of their ties with one another is matched by the strength of the boundary they draw to the outside. In business dealings with one another they do not choose an unbeliever to arbitrate; they transact their business "before the saints" and between "brother and brother" (1 Cor. 6:1.5). One is to throw in one's lot with those who fear the Lord, consider their common good, and daily visit the saints face to face ...After Constantine things changed radically with the influx of the masses. This did not prosper the Christian brotherhood. If we can believe only half of what Salvian says, there was not much left of it a hundred years later in many parts of western Christendom."
The shift from a suffering church to an institution sanctioned and promoted by the state forces us to face a crucial question: Was the Constantinian change the rise or fall of the church? How you answer that question will greatly define your whole view of the church and its mission.
In light of New Testament revelation about the church Christ purposed to build, I submit that Constantinianism was a wretched stone thrown into the sea of church history, the ripples of which still lap on our shores today.
We must make a choice. Are we going to cast our lot in with the New Testament vision for the body of Christ [simplicity, suffering, servanthood], or in with the Constantinian model [powerful institution, clergy dominance, rule by political maneuvering]? Are we going to devote the energies of our short life-span to perpetuating the post-apostolic shifts that moved away from the simplicity of Christ, or to restoring the spirit of the New Testament vision?
4 The Shift from a Spirit-Dependent Church to a Letter-Dependent Institution
Twice in his epistles Paul refers to the fact that the church serves Christ "in [the] newness of the Spirit and not in [the] oldness of the letter" (Rom. 7:6; 2 Cor. 3:6). The church was a community of the Spirit from the Day of Pentecost. In light of this reality the early church did not trust in fixed forms to maintain and guard her existence. There was an openness of the body to be led by the Spirit in light of Christ's Gospel-word.
This can be seen, for example, in the glimpse of an early church service revealed in 1 Cor. 14. Edification was the goal which was to be reached by the Spirit-led participation of the body. The balance Paul desired can perhaps be summed up like this: no form of order in the service must be allowed to stifle the free expression of edifying gifts in the body; no expression of spontaneity in the body must be allowed to blossom into unprofitable disorder. William Barclay isolates these important points from 1 Cor. 14: "[Paul] is determined that anyone who possesses a gift should receive every chance to exercise that gift, but he is equally determined that the services of the Church should not thereby become a kind of competitive disorder. ...There must be liberty but there must be no disorder. ...There was obviously a freedom and an informality about [this service] which is completely strange to our ideas. ...Clearly the church had no professional ministry. ...It was open to anyone who had a gift to use that gift. ...There was obviously a flexibility about the order of service in the early church which is now totally lacking. There was clearly no settled order at all. Everything was informal enough to allow any man who felt that he had a message ...to give it. ...The really notable thing about an early Church service must have been that almost everyone came feeling that he had both the privilege and the obligation of contribution something to it."
Unfortunately, as time went on this Spirit-dependence gave way to more and more fixed forms of worship, which phased out body participation and committed ministry only to an ever-growing web of ecclesiastical hierarchy. By 250 A.D. church order was set in concrete with one bishop ruling over various territories. The momentum of this church bureaucracy was accelerated when Constantine and his successors sanctioned the church and contributed moneys and resources to this increasingly powerful institution. What began as a Spirit-led organism ended up as a letter-dependent institution. The leaders no longer trusted in the Spirit to hold the body together; instead they leaned on intricate human contrivances and rules to feign outward unity.
One of the saddest features of this shift to letter-dependence, combined with the church's new collusion with the state, was the employment of coercion both to gain and maintain adherents. Simply trusting in the Spirit would have resulted in a spiritual reality too vulnerable to be controlled by human contrivances; the use of raw power backed by the weapons of the state seemed to promise greater stability.
Eric Hoffer makes this tragic observation which church history, unfortunately, verifies: "There is hardly an example of a mass movement achieving vast proportions and a durable organization solely by persuasion ...It was the temporal sword that made Christianity a world religion. Conquest and conversion went hand in hand. ...Where Christianity failed to gain or retain the backing of state power, it achieved neither a wide nor permanent hold. ...It also seems that, where a mass movement can either persuade or coerce, it usually chooses the letter. Persuasion is clumsy and its results uncertain."
Again we must ask ourselves, "Are we going to be a part of perpetuating this shift to trusting in outward carnal hedges to hold the church together, or are we going to purpose to contribute to a return of child-like trust in the Spirit of Christ to build and sustain His body?'
We have examined four clear shifts in early church history. These shifts are acknowledged by church historians of all theological persuasions. James D. G. Dunn, one of the foremost New Testament scholars of our time, summarizes the essence of these four shifts like this: "Increasing institutionalism is the clearest mark of early Catholicism - when church becomes increasingly identified with institution, when authority becomes increasingly coterminous with office, when a basic distinction between clergy and laity becomes increasingly self-evident, when grace becomes increasingly narrowed to well-defined ritual acts."
We saw above that such features were absent from first generation Christianity, though in the second generation the picture was beginning to change. Such features were absent from first generation Christianity, that is, they are not found in the New Testament.
Does this concern you? Is your heart burdened by the chasm between the original work of the Spirit and the hardened institution that quickly emerged in the post-apostolic days? Does it bother you that most of what we associate with 'church' has little to do with the New Testament, and more to do with patterns that reflect a drift away from it?
Further, and this is the key question, were the shifts we have studied a faithful extension of New Testament ideals, or a tacit denial of all that they stand for? If the answer is the latter, then it is incumbent upon believers to work for the recovery of Christ's ways and to stop contributing to the perpetuation of non-edifying ecclesiastical patterns.
I commend my thoughts on the four shifts and the upcoming collaborating materials to your discerning conscience. May the Lord guide you into appropriate responses as 'the worthy walk' is set before us in the Gospel.