Most of what we do today as Christians comes out of two periods of church history. The origin of many of our present-day practices is clustered around the year A.D. 324. The other large segment of our present "New Testament practices" came to us on October 31, 1517, and in the fifty years that followed.
Constantine became Caesar of the Roman Empire in 313, a turning point in church history; a turning downward, I might add. And on October 31, 1517, a date symbolically denoting the beginning of the Reformation, Luther nailed ninety-five subjects he would like to debate (all written in Latin) onto a church door. Those two periods of time are like two mountains around which most of the practice of present-day Christianity (not its theology, but its practice) originated.
A few of our present practices were introduced in the Middle Ages (such as the education of the clergy), and a few things evolved in the last hundred years or so; some have even begun in the last forty years. But in the greater scheme of things, there have been two gigantic peaks from which we have received our present-day practices of the Christian faith, with a few hills scattered along the way.
Let us look first at (1) the pre-Constantine age, 100-313, and then (2) the age of Constantine, including the years immediately thereafter.
Not long before Constantine's time, the Christian church experienced under the emperor Diocletian, the period of its worst persecution. In modem times the persecution of the Christian church during the first three centuries has been glamorized and exaggerated, but the period just before Constantine was truly a terrible time for the church.
The severest part of Diocletian's persecution was that it crippled the church's leadership. This left the church wide open to the tragedy that befell it when Constantine came along and befriended the beleaguered church leaders while professing to be a Christian. The church, withered by persecution, was caught with her guard down, and her leadership weak. One of the great mysteries is why no prophet arose in that hour to denounce what took place under Constantine.
Constantine was the first "medieval" believer. He had the mind of a Caesar (an emperor). He had absolute authority in everything, and that definitely included the Department of Religion. Secondly, he had the mind of a pagan - which is a world that sees darkness, spookiness, weirdness, ghosts, apparitions, worship of idols: in a word, superstition. In another word, paganism! However, in fairness to Catholicism, he was reported and defended as having a sudden and miraculous conversion upon beholding a cross appearing in the heavens that bore the inscription "By this thou shalt conquer." Nonetheless this tradition is very doubtful and the fact is that he had very little Christian thinking which reformed his predominantly paganistic values.
Blend all that together, and you have the basic ingredients of the mind of a medieval "Christian." Eventually this happened on a grand scale. The Christian faith, paganism and the mind of the Roman Empire flowed together to produce the Christian outlook of post-A.D. 500. That outlook began to change again, arguably, not long before Martin Luther nailed those ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenburg church.
Let us look now at a very special date in church history, the year 324. In fact, we picked up more traditions, made more blunders, and changed the course more radically from 323 to 327 than any other period in history. Look what happened during this time. The city of Constantinople was founded in 323. The first Council of Nicaea occurred in 325. The first church buildings ever erected on this planet were planned and begun in 323. In 326 Constantine's mother made a trip to the Holy Land (becoming the first Christian tourist), to seek out the place of Christ's birth and crucifixion. Finally in 327 Constantine left Rome and bequeathed his place to Syelrest, the senior minister of the church in Rome.
Let us look at Constantine's founding of the city of Constantinople (Istanbul). He planned a gigantic capital which he called New Rome. This city sat, literally, half in the Orient and half in the Occident.
He built a new and uninhabited city from the ground up. In it he commissioned the building of pagan temples, and something he designated as buildings for Christians to meet in. A pagan temple of that time was a small, round building, with stairs leading up to an altar in the middle. Usually the people gathered around the temple and worshipped while standing outside. Across the street from some of these pagan temples, Constantine commissioned Christian meeting places. These buildings were not shaped like pagan temples, but like the government civic auditoriums. (Christians had always met inside. But it was inside of homes). Here, for the first time, stood officially designated places for Christians to meet. This was a wonder which no Christian had ever seen before. Put another way, it was in 324, almost three hundred years after the birth of the church, that Christians first met in something we now call a "church building." For all three hundred years before that the church met in living rooms!
Constantine built these assembly buildings for Christians not only in Constantinople, but also in Rome, Jerusalem, and in many parts of Italy, all in A.D. 324. This triggered a massive "church building" fad in large cities all over the Empire.
Out of his pagan mentality, Constantine ordered each building to be named after one of the Christians in the New Testament, because pagan temples had always been named after gods. So the builders put a word like "Joseph" on the front of each building, or "Mary" or "Peter" or "Paul." The die is beginning to be cast. We are headed straight for a totally different kind of Christian worship, in a totally different atmosphere, than the first century believer had ever dreamed of (had nightmares about?).
Constantinople was finally completed, and people moved there in droves from Rome. Imagine a typical Christian walking into one of these strange looking "Christian buildings." He had never seen anything like this! I suppose he walked into the building and sat down on the cold stone floor (Constantine had forgotten to invent the pew). This definitely was no comfortable living room.
But trying to figure out whether to sit on the cold floor of a building or stand throughout the whole meeting (as the pagans did across the street) caused one of the marked differences between the Eastern church and the Western church. The Italians dragged in benches and got comfortable. The Greeks stood up. (The Western church grew, the Eastern church did not).
By now people were coming into the church en masse out of paganism, following the example of their emperor, Constantine. The church was changing to accommodate them, introducing ritual in the meetings, with chanting and pageantry - all things familiar to these ex-pagans. The clergy (a word used originally to designate a pagan priest) began to wear strange clothing (costumes, if you please) to set themselves apart from the laity. Church buildings sprouted up everywhere on the crest of state tax money pouring into the church's coffers all over the Roman Empire. Soon the living room meetings were but a memory, and even that memory seems to have been stamped out.
Until that time tax money had been channeled exclusively to the pagan religions. By A.D. 400 it flowed exclusively to the church. Pagan priests were becoming Christian priests to keep up with the whereabouts of their money. Government officials were becoming Christian priests because it was lucrative to do so.
Now you know where such (Biblical?) things as church buildings, pews, and preachers dressed in suits came from. By the way, the pagan temple's choir was also transplanted over into the Christian buildings in the mid-400's.
This is a call, dear reader, for the believers of our age to make a clean break with Constantine and Constantinople! For some, the time has arrived to go back to where the church of the Lord Jesus Christ met for the first three hundred years of her history - in living rooms, ritual-less, choir-less, pew-less, pulpit-less and clergy-less.
Around 500 A.D. a gentleman whom history has given the name Gregory the Great was serving as bishop of Rome. At that time Rome was not much more than a cow pasture, the city long in ruins; yet despite this the power of the bishop of Rome was growing. Gregory invented and decreed one order of worship for all churches in Christendom. And he got it! Furthermore that "order of worship" has not been changed for Catholics in fifteen hundred years. It may be about as dead and boring as anything man has ever created, but it is repeated every Sunday in literally millions of places. Before you, the Protestants, go "tut-tut" at such unimaginative, hidebound ritualism, you should know that Martin Luther invented the Protestant way of worship on Sunday morning, and it has not changed in over four hundred years! Furthermore, it is just as unimaginative, ossified, hidebound, ridiculous, unchanging, boring and dead as what Gregory invented!!
It is a funny thing about religion; once "deified," certain elements never change. A total revolution is needed in the way Christians gather. Rejoice, poor, bored soul, for church life brings with it an infinite number of ways to gather and to worship.
Let us look at one last man of this era. He and his contribution are often overlooked. I refer to John Chrysostom. What he left us (unlike the other traditions we have viewed so far) might appear at first glance to be very scriptural. There is a fine line between the oratorical skills Chrysostom gave to the Christian tradition and the speaking of called men as it existed in the first century. Nonetheless, that fine line is really a vast gorge.
John Chrysostom - for better or for worse - left us with pulpiteerism. Trust me, it is not quite the New Testament business of prophetic utterance. The modern sermon, sermonics, homiletics, hermeneutics, forensics, rhetoric, oratory, or whatever you may call it, finds its origins not in the first century prophet, but in the Graeco-Roman tradition of rhetoric. Then, it was the rhetorical gift. Today, it is pulpiteerism!
As a pagan, Chrysostom was a student of rhetoric. You might call him the son of Demosthenes (the fellow who taught himself to make speeches with pebbles in his mouth). He was the most promising young orator in the Empire. His name, Chrysostom, means Golden Mouth. Then he got saved and ended up as a spellbinding bishop of the church in Antioch. History has judged him to be both courageous, foolhardy, and an egomaniac. He and two of three other orators-turned-Christian pulpiteers caused the Greek oratorical skills to replace the Judaeo-Christian practice of the prophet. As a result, today we have an awful lot of pulpiteers while the freewheeling prophet has become an endangered species.
What we hear on Sunday morning is in the tradition of Greek orators, and not in the lineage of the church planters such as Peter, or Paul of Tarsus and his fierce, bold and sporadic proclamation of the gospel in marketplaces and open homes.
Now, take a look at the central practices of the evangelical Christian faith. Remove these and you remove most of what Christians do and practice. Remove these and you lose your concept of what Christianity is. Yet none of them has any root in Scripture. Every one of them can be traced back to its historical beginnings. All come after Constantine: church buildings, pews, sermons, choirs, church at 11 a.m., rituals in church worship, a costumed clergy, dressing up to "go to church," funerals, pastors - I repeat, these practices all grew up in the post-apostolic period. Furthermore, every one of them stands as a barrier to the restoration of a living experience of church life. They have been doing just that for the last seventeen hundred years. (To Be Continued.)