Month: June 2018

Aligning Christianity to the Roman Empire Negatively Impacted the Church

Introduction

The Christian message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ alone had spread since the time of Jesus’ ascension to heaven and it constantly met opposition from the leaders of the dominant Roman Empire. Acts 17:5-7 is just one biblical example of Jesus’ followers causing a stir in Rome because of their faithfulness to God’s mission. Christian persecution increased after the time of the Apostles. Roman Emperor Septimius Severus ruled from 193-211 and passed an edict in 202 that all people under Roman rule were forbidden under penalty of death to become Christians. New converts were sought out and killed in public arenas.[1] Perpetua was a twenty-two year old Christian in Carthage when she was condemned to death for her faith in 203. She wrote a journal while imprisoned that has been preserved and is likely the oldest document in existence that is written by a Christian woman. The journal records conversations she had with her father during imprisonment as well as encouragements for Christians to be faithful. The account of her death along with four others in the public arena is brutal and difficult to hear. After surviving through attacks of wild animals, she was beheaded, although the inexperienced executioner’s first blow to her neck missed the intended spot and left her marred and bloody. Perpetua, confident in her faith, is said to have placed the sword back on her mangled neck in the right spot so the executioner finished her with one more strike.[2]

Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was condemned to death by burning at the stake in A.D. 202. His famous response when asked to renounce his faith was, “For eighty-six years I have been [Christ’s] servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?”[3]

These examples are just a couple among many of Christian martyrs who suffered at the hands of wicked Roman rulers. The first Christian Emperor, Constantine, should be perceived as a relief to the Christian world. In the sense of less persecution, his reign was relieving. However, the Church became directly aligned to the Roman Empire under Constantine’s leadership and that alignment negatively impacted the church’s understanding of salvation and leadership organization that would forever deter God’s mission through His Church.  

The Edict of Milan

Christian history volumes will briefly explain, “in 313 Constantine and the Eastern emperor Licinus issued the Edict of Milan, granting full toleration to Christianity.”[4] It was not that easy, however.

Peter Leithart explains that Constantine and Licinus were together in 313 in Milan  to celebrate Licinus’ wedding. They did confer in Milan about imperial policy toward Christianity but there was no official edict given there. Two letters were signed from the emperors and sent to Nicomedia and Caesarea that contained the language that is usually credited as the Edict of Milan. In part, they wrote “it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best . . . all Christians are to be permitted, freely and absolutely, to remain in it, and not to be disturbed in any ways, or molested.”[5]

The Edict of Milan, or these letters to Nicomedia and Caesarea, were significant for Christianity, but circumstances around them must be understood. In 306, the Roman Empire was divided between four leaders:  Constantine, Licinus, Maximinus Daia, and Maxentius. Constantine marched into Rome, Maxentius’ territory, and defeated him by a surprise attack. Tradition records that on the eve of this battle, Constantine had a dream where he was commanded to place the Christian symbols of Chi and Rho, the first two Greek letters of the name Christ, on the shields of his soldiers. Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, of which its authenticity is debated, is believed to have started with this vision. Constantine met up with Licinus after this victory and formed an alliance, which included agreeing then to stop Christian persecution. However, Maximinus Daia was still persecuting Christians.[6]

Despite the agreement between Constantine and Licinus, Licinus eventually balked and started persecuting Christians again. Maximinus Daia committed suicide in 313 when Licinus’ armies moved in on him, leaving Constantine and Licinus as the two Augusti. In 317, the two made a peace treaty at Serdica which led to six years of placid rule. After that six years, Licinus changed his attitude toward Christianity and began persecution again. Battles ensued between the armies of the Augusti, resulting in Constantine’s victory in 324.[7] Constantine then become sole emperor in Rome.

Christianity was at least another political tool on Constantine’s arsenal. Westbury-Jones summarized the relationship of the Church and State:

Aligning Christianity to the Roman Empire Negatively Impacted the Church

Christianity made an impact on Rome. Constantine founded Constantinople (currently Istanbul) in 330, making it a symbolic capital of Christianity.[9] Laws became more humane, such as abolishing executions by leg breaking and the branding of felons on the forehead. Criminals who would have faced gladiatorial contests were sent to the mines instead, resulting in a decrease of the cruelties long associated with the gladiator arena. New laws were created upholding the sanctity of the family and the home. Adultery and seduction became punishable crimes. Edward Johnson explains further:

Earlier discriminatory measures against the unmarried and the childless were repealed. The exposing of sickly and unwanted infants was ended, and provision was made for children whose parents could not support them. A program for the emancipation of slaves was enacted, with Christian priests performing the ritual of manumission in the churches. Only such manumission was permitted on the Christian sabbath along with agri- cultural labor. All courts and government offices were ordered closed on the sabbath. Soldiers on active duty attended services in the open fields.[10]

Christianity changed Rome and Rome changed the Christian Church. However, the church’s changed understanding of church leadership and salvation were detrimental to the Church.

A Changed Understanding of Church Leadership

Constantine ran his political leadership into the church. Church historian Eusebius wrote:

Hence it was not without reason that once, on the occasion of his entertaining a company of bishops, he let fall the expression, “that he himself too was a bishop,” addressing them in my hearing in the following words: “You are bishops whose jurisdiction is within the Church: I also am a bishop, ordained by God to overlook whatever is external to the Church.” And truly his measures corresponded with his words; for he watched over his subjects with an episcopal care, and exhorted them as far as in him lay to follow a godly life.[11]

Eusebius is known for viewing Constantine very highly, so while his writing sounds like Constantine benefitted the Church, the greater mixing of the Church and State brought confusion to church leadership.

Constantine felt like Christianity would help unify the Roman empire so he was still open to pagan practices. People would become Christians out of a personal conviction, but after Constantine, some were becoming Christians to please the emperor.  Unauthentic conversions led to immorality in the church. Pagan practices like objects of adoration, saints, and the cult of relics mixed into the church and weakened the strong faith there.[12]

A generally weakened church would naturally lead to weakened leadership. However, Constantine’s pro-Christian laws actually negatively impacted church leadership. Laws were created that exempted clergy from paying tribute money or fulfilling civic duties, resulting in an influx of men desiring clergy positions.[13] Of course the result was that men were seeking clergy positions to escape the demands of the State, not because they felt called by God to serve the Church according to the way He gifted them.

Robert Baker notes that in the early church, leaders had equal status to the people in the church because they realized that they all were serving according to the ways the Holy Spirit gifted them. However, during the second and third centuries, this view changed and led to a disparity among leaders and people in the church. Certain positions were singled out and exalted, which would ultimately lead to problems in the church. Writings exist from the year 150 that indicate a president of the ministers in a single church. As time went on, a separation developed between bishops and other ministers called presbyters, although the Bible uses those titles to describe different functions of the same office. This development was evident in the time of Constantine when he convened a council in Nicea in 325 to try to solve a theological dispute. Writings from that council reveal that directions were given for the bishop of Alexandria to exercise authority over Egypt, Alexandria, and Pentapolis. The bishop of Antioch would have power in areas adjacent to his city and the bishop of Rome would exercise dominant influence over areas around his city.[14]

Constantine intensified this practice of taking the leadership of the church away from the biblical pattern.  He made a division into “external” and “internal” administration, giving leadership of the internal affairs, mainly doctrinal matters, to Church councils and bishops. But He directly handled the external affairs like ministerial disputes, property divisions, trespass arguments and similar affairs.[15]

This changing leadership organization was leading the church away from the biblical instructions of two offices of church leadership, pastors and deacons, and would pave the way for the hierarchical structure later seen in the Roman Catholic Church.

A Changed Understanding of Salvation

The changed understanding of leadership contributed to a changed view of salvation. The New Testament is clear that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8) and this was the proclamation of the early church. However, as bishops developed to oversee groups of churches and give instruction to all of them, churches became known more as a collection of bishops rather than all believers. Consequently, those church leaders were exalted to positions of having spiritual influence that should have only belonged to Jesus Christ and the practices of the church began to reflect that misunderstanding.

Baker summarized this change well by writing:

By 325 faith had lost its personal character as a person’s direct dependence on the person and work of Jesus Christ. Although Christ was a part of the system, faith was to be directed toward the institution called the church; and salvation did not result from the immediate regenerating power of the Holy Spirit but was mediated by the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.[16]

This departure from biblical teaching about salvation would increase as the Roman Catholic Church developed later and became a great stumbling block to many people who were deceived into thinking that salvation came through an institution instead of through Jesus Christ alone.

Conclusion

It would be easy to think that aligning the Christian Church to the Roman Empire would be advantageous for the Church. Those who were being persecuted and executed for the faith would find solace in the protection offered by the empire. Other benefits like financial breaks would be enjoyed by the Church. However, Constantine used the Church more as a political tool to keep peace and coerce people into confirming to his ideals, leading to some great hindrances for the Church that still plague it today:  different understandings of church leadership and salvation.

 

Footnotes

  1. Sandra Sweeny Silver, Rome Versus Christiantiy 30-313 AD (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2013), 32.
  2. Ibid., 34-40.
  3. Joseph Early Jr., A History of Christianity: An Introductory Survey (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2015), 21.
  4. Robert Baker and John Landers, A Summary of Christian History. 3rd ed. (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2005), 25.
  5. Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine: The Twilight of An Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 99.
  6. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1 (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1984), 107.
  7. Leithart, Defending Constantine, 99-105.
  8. . Westbury-Jones, Roman and Christian Imperialism (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Pres, 1971), 201-202.
  9. Early, A History of Christianity, 71.
  10. Edward A. Johnson. “Constantine the great: imperial benefactor of the early Christian church.” Journal Of The Evangelical Theological Society 22, no. 2 (1979): 165.
  11. Eusebius of Caesaria, “The Life of the Blessed Emperor Constantine,” in Eusebius: Church History, Life of Constantine the Great, and Oration in Praise of Constantine, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. Ernest Cushing Richardson, vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 546.
  12. Early, A History of Christianity, 72.
  13. Westbury-Jones, Roman and Christian Imperialism, 204.
  14. Baker and Landers, A Summary of Christian History, 46.
  15. Edward Johnson, “Constantine the great”, 165.
  16. Baker and Landers, A Summary of Christian History, 44.

Five To Focus 37. Wait on the Lord

When the Bible tells us to wait on the Lord, it is talking about a hopeful trust and dependence that the Lord will work out His good and perfect will. This episode is 4 of 4 of the natural worship service order seen in Psalm 33.

 

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Serving The Lord Can Be Depressing If You Forget This

 

If you think you have ever faced a difficult task, listen to what Jesus told His disciples to do: “. . .you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, ESV)

Wait—to where?

How were 11 men and the other few faithful followers of Jesus at that time ever going to be able to accomplish that mission? They didn’t even know yet how large the earth was, let alone how to get to all of it!

If you think your work for the Lord is overwhelming or impossible, then you’ve forgotten that God’s mission is fueled by God’s Spirit. It is easy to begin working out of human strength to do divine work because we are naturally proud. We have the intellect or skills to get the job done. Or so we think.

If you keep reading in Acts, you will see how Acts 1:8 unfolded.

Jerusalem. The believers were in Jerusalem when Acts 1:8 was spoken, and once the Holy Spirit was poured out on them at Pentecost (recorded in Acts 2), they began proclaiming the good news about Jesus. Their ministry focused in Jerusalem until Acts 8, after Stephen’s martyrdom: “And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1)

Judea and Samaria. So, ministry began in these regions when believers were dispersed from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria. “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ” (Acts 8:4–5, ESV).

It wasn’t like the disciples sat down one day and drew out a map of how they could get to the end of the earth—they didn’t even know where those places were! The Holy Spirit will orchestrate God’s plan better than you ever could.

I learned this lesson the hard way. I was really disappointed after my first Easter weekend at my current church. So much planning went into the events of that weekend several months before. The events were organized well, the promotion was catching, and the services were very thoughtful and designed for impact. Lots of time and work went into it and when it finally came around, less people attended that Easter service than what the attendance had been for the couple weeks before.

I spent days wondering why more people didn’t show up and why there weren’t salvation decisions and people coming forward for prayer. I realized with some help from godly men that I am not in control of the Lord’s work. I’m just the vessel he occasionally chooses to use, and the Holy Spirit empowers the work just like He did with the disciples.

It was the powerful movement of the Holy Spirit that moved God’s people out beyond Jerusalem, and it is the Holy Spirit who continues to empower the work of His servants in taking the gospel to the end of the earth.

It’s true—serving the Lord can be depressing if you forget that God’s mission is fueled by God’s Spirit.

Five To Focus 36. Don’t Throw Marshmallows at A Brick Wall

The counsel of the Lord and His plans stand forever. In a chaotic world, v.18 tells us that we can be thankful that God has his eye on those who fear him and who hope in his steadfast love. This episode is 3 of 4 of the natural worship service order seen in Psalm 33.

 

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Gaze and Go: God’s Glory Motivates Us To Mission

In Acts 1, Jesus told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  He reminded them of their mission (verse 8) and then the disciples saw something indescribable: Jesus ascending to heaven.

He had already been crucified and resurrected and lived on the earth another 40 days to speak about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). But the ascension of Jesus to heaven was more glorious than any bride’s first appearance before walking down an aisle.

The disciples just stand there gazing into heaven. I’m convinced that they were experiencing the glorious presence of God in a paralyzing way. “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (Acts 1:9, ESV)

God’s presence has been symbolized by a cloud before—  

And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.” (Exodus 13:21–22, ESV)

And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord.” (1 Kings 8:10–11, ESV)  

Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17, ESV)  

We probably would have been staring too.

Then in verse 11, two men in white clothes suddenly appear to the disciples and say “. . .why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” In other words, Jesus will return the same way you see Him going now. Don’t worry about Him coming back. Instead, be occupied with what He told you to do.

As they are marveling at Jesus and His glory, these two angels had to redirect their mission. They were gazing at the King, all while forgetting that they were to be building up the kingdom.

Some Christians spend all their time gazing into heaven while the world around them is going to hell.  

Don’t misunderstand—it’s a good thing to gaze into heaven.  “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:2, ESV)  It’s a good thing to be occupied with the glory of God and give Him praise for who He is.

But God’s glory should motivate us to God’s mission.

Abraham understood this.  Just by hearing the glory in God’s voice alone give him instruction, he left every comfort to follow God.

Moses understood this.  The glory found in the burning bush moved him past his insufficiencies.

Nehemiah understood this.  Seeing the wall of his city torn down and desiring to see the glory of God to be seen in his city again, He went through the pain of organizing the people and rebuilding the wall.

Isaiah understood this.  When he saw the glory of God fill the temple, He said “Here I Am” without knowing any details.

Jesus understood this. He humbled Himself to come to this earth to take the sin of the world on himself and reconcile sinners to God for God’s glory to continually be revealed on this earth.

The temptation for many Christians is to stand and gaze into heaven and forget our mission in this world.  

We can be great at gazing into heaven: attending worship services, reading our Bibles, singing praises, praying for people, reading Christian books. But God’s glory should motivate us to God’s mission.

Yes, gaze upon his beauty and glory, and go be his witness. How can you gaze and go this week?

Five To Focus 35. Praise God for His Powerful Word

If God’s Word brought forth everything in this earth and in the heavens, then surely His Word that we can read can transform our lives as we live it out! This episode is 2 of 4 of the natural worship service order seen in Psalm 33.

 

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Be That Somebody Else

Note: This article was written by Kelly Marsh, communications director at Central Baptist Church, Marion, OH, and used with her permission.

 

Somebody should, Someone needs to……

It’s a phrase I hear often today and it’s a phrase that tends to bug me when I hear it. It’s an attitude that so many take and it’s a frame of mind that is growing, and I don’t think it’s a good thing. As a mother of teenagers I would often get frustrated when I would find empty plates or cups lying around, clothes dropped in the middle of the living room carpet. I would gripe at the kids, “Who do you think is going to pick this up? “Do you think if you just leave it there and walk away, somebody will take care of it?”

It frustrated me to no end that they were so self absorbed, and disrespectful to not pick up after themselves and just assume they could leave things for someone else to take care of.

Last weekend my husband and I took the afternoon to ride the full Tallgrass bike trail. On our way down the trail we passed a much older gentleman on a trike bike, riding along and balancing a leaf blower at the same time. He was peddling down the trail blowing off the leaves. I was blown away (no pun intended) at his thoughtfulness of doing this.

It was amazing how much nicer the ride was with the path blown off for us and so many others. It was not for just a small section, but his path went on for miles. I thought of him my whole ride just how neat it was for him to do this.

Yesterday we again went to the trail to get a ride in, and not to my surprise we passed him on his quest to clear the trail. I tried to say hello and thank him as we rode by, but I felt a bit guilty because he did not hear us coming over the blower and jumped a bit when I said “thank you” as we rode by :).

Since yesterday I have not stopped thinking of him and his willingness and kindness to serve others in this way.

Two things strike me I feel compelled to write about.

First….at a stage in his life when some things are more challenging and frustrating, he is still finding a way to contribute and help others. How much easier and natural would it be for him to sit at home, feel sorry for himself, throw his towel in and say “someone else can take care of that.”  

He has seen a need and he finds a way to step up and serve his community. He may not be able to do all things he wants and would like to do, but this is something he can do, and he does it. He could resolve to thinking a task like this should be done by someone else, someone younger, someone more agile, yet he finds a way to still contribute and fill a role that is important and needed.

Maybe there are parts of things that each of us can’t do, that’s ok…find what you can do and be selfless enough to do it. Thank you sir for stepping up and doing a job that means so much to many. You are a fine example to so many and a reminder to me of the blessing you can be when you put yourself aside and serve others. You ARE a blessing to me and I appreciate you and your selfless heart.

Second…no matter what age and stage you are in life, try to BE that somebody else. Too many people sit back in the peanut gallery and constantly offer up their contribution statements of “someone should” or “someone needs to”. Who is that someone? Who is the somebody that needs to? Why can’t YOU be that someone?

It’s easier to sit back and pop shots on what all should be done than to step up and lead these needs. It’s like we think in every school function, church ministry, work project, and community need- there is a mystery staff of people behind the curtain that is responsible for making things happen. We offer our opinions of how it should be done, criticize how it is being done, and even suggest ideas of how it needs to be done.

Who do we think is responsible for DOING it and why aren’t we asking ourselves what part of this can I step up and help do? We are all busy and we are all stretched thin, I get it, I live in this same busy life too.

I’m not suggesting that we need to jump in and lead in everything, this can be very unhealthy as well. But I will be as forthcoming to say I’m tired of the attitude that someone else will do it. Someone else will lead that group, someone else will plan the meals, someone needs to pick up this conference room, and I wish someone would organize  _________ (you fill in the blank).

BE that someone else. Try switching your mind from thinking someone needs to step up and lead and fix or do something better, and accept that you can be that somebody else.

Five To Focus 34. Tie-Dye Shirts and Your Heart for Worship

When you live in this state of praise, your relationship with the Lord is constantly refreshed. This episode is 1 of 4 of the natural worship service order seen in Psalm 33.

 

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