My wife, parents, and I recently watched a stage production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. As I watched it I couldn’t help but imagine what the ghosts of church past, present, and future might say to those of us who follow Jesus. I started with the the ghost of church past by looking at the earliest church (click here for that post). Now we turn to the much-maligned Constantine and the era that he is said to have begun.
- Basics — A man named Constantine was the emperor during the time in which Christianity became a legitimized religion in the Roman empire. This meant that persecution slowed down to a great degree. The followers of Jesus could come out of hiding and express their religious beliefs and practices more freely. The believers began to become more centralized. They were allowed to construct buildings in which they could meet. This led to more and more people associating church with the meeting place rather than the people themselves. Good things happened during this period too; it was during this time that many of our theological issues were ironed out and when Christian scholarship in general flourished.
- How Leadership Worked — This centralization and localization of the church in a building meant that the preachers and teachers began to rise in influence over the apostles, prophets, and evangelists. These preachers and teachers began to become the authorities on all things related to Christianity.
- Problems — Naturally, with Christians being able to rise from the shadows produced some issues. Chief among them was the professionalization of ministry. As we saw already, the church had become centralized and localized, which allowed for people to have great levels of training for leading as a teacher or preacher. And this produced some good benefits, such as doctrinal orthodoxy and a continuity of messages being preached throughout Christendom, but it also created a situation in which some (those who had been trained) were seen as responsible for almost all the work of the gospel.
- Place in Society — Over some time the believers became entrenched in their societies, influencing them and being influenced by them. Followers of Jesus also began to find themselves in positions of power, from emperors, to military people, to business people. This development helped lead the church to become, at times, a defender of the status quo instead of being people who radically follow Jesus wherever he might lead.
- Great Commission — The churches during the period beginning with Constantine sought to draw people toward themselves, toward their buildings, their programs, and their teaching. For a long, long time this worked! Disciples were made and many, many people grew in their faith. Of course, this was due, primarily, to the culture of the church being similar to the culture of society at large. In places where the society at large had a vastly different culture from the church (places outside of or on the fringes of the Roman Empire), preachers and teachers found it much more difficult to draw people to them.
So this part of the visit from the ghost of Christmas past is not as positive as the first one. Hopefully we are seeing some areas for growth here and some things to avoid.
So, when you think of Constantine and the period of church history that he is said to have begun, what comes to mind for you?
(FYI — much of the content of this blog was inspired by Alan Hirsch’s book Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. I highly recommend it!)