Paradise Forgotten: Christianity Gets Religious
As her legions spread out across three continents, “Rome the conqueror became the conquered.” Whenever a new culture was absorbed, its practices and beliefs deeply impacted the increasingly pluralistic empire. Religion was certainly no exception. If you lived in Rome during the second and third centuries, you had a “cafeteria line” of religions to choose from. In reality, though, most of the religions were cooked from the same few ingredients. Only the “presentation” changed.
The main ingredient and underlying assumption of any pagan religion was polytheism. There were literally thousands of “gods” and semi-divine “heroes.” Each had authority over a specific area of the natural world or human society, it was believed. Some were big, governing the ocean or the sun or the sky. Others were much more local, with a sphere of influence that might not reach past a specific river or hill. But all were considered divine, and it was thought appropriate to worship any or all of them—which is why the empire could so easily welcome new religions into the pagan mix.
There was another key assumption in paganism: the “gods” had a nasty temper, and you wouldn’t like them if they got angry. They were petty, jealous, volatile, and criminally unconcerned about “collateral damage” from their tantrums. Was your city threatened by barbarian raiders? It was because the “god of war” was upset about something. Better tie up his idol with chains to restrain him! Was a plague devastating your entire region? Probably the “earth goddess” was resenting the fact that the “sun god” had killed her child a thousand years earlier. Better set up a statue of the “sun god” holding bow and arrows so that he could “shoot away” the disease. Did an earthquake damage your town, even knocking down the pillars in one of your pagan temples? Obviously the “god of quakes” was angry with that temple’s “god.” Better enlist a third “god” to rebuke him for you.
These illustrations are not fiction. They are actual examples from Roman history showing how people interpreted crises. And they demonstrate two other core beliefs of paganism.
First, human suffering wasn’t caused by human sin, but by “divine” sin. In Greek and Roman myths, the “gods” and “heroes” committed acts of murder, infanticide, immorality, deception, and betrayal. Their unpredictable anger at humans or at each other was the true source of human misery. And second, the important thing in religion was to appease the “gods” with the proper ritual performed at the proper place and time. Personal holiness in thought and conduct, twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week, really wasn’t necessary. The “gods” didn’t really care if your thoughts were free from greed or lust as you walked through the marketplace. They were much more concerned with getting your respect as you passed by their shrines. Religion, then, was a lot like office politics: it was about knowing how to keep a bad-tempered boss—who could either make you or break you—on your side.
In a typical Roman city, you could worship at the pagan “denomination” of your choice, with a variety of temples and shrines dedicated to various “gods.” The temple would have an idol of some sort and an altar, housed in an ornate structure. In practical terms, appeasing the “gods” meant keeping their idols clean and tidy, offering them daily animal sacrifices, and honoring them with special festivals. Once a year, perhaps, the idol would be taken out on a parade around the city, led by special “worship teams” of musicians, singers, and dancers.
Temples or shrines were also a place where you might go for religious advice. At some, you could throw dice or choose letters of the alphabet, which would let you pick from a list of general answers, which read something like fortune cookies in a Chinese restaurant. Other shrines had much more elaborate oracles. Cities hundreds of miles away might send whole delegations, complete with choirboys, to the oracle to ask how to avert a plague or end a famine. Individuals also might make the pilgrimage to inquire about their future prospects or to settle their philosophical questions. These shrines combined the concept of “special place” and “special men.” A typical oracle required the services of a “priest” to perform sacrifices, a “prophet” to groan and mutter incoherently, and a “thespode” to interpret these noises of alleged inspiration and phrase them in a verse or two of Greek poetry for the paying customers.
God, then, was viewed as neither friendly nor accessible nor immediate. He was—or in the pagan view, “they were”—almost safely confined in the “box” provided by religion. Roman paganism illustrates clearly what happened to human society after the Fall. Humanity felt in its heart its separation from God. Human beings could not deny God’s existence or their own need for His favor for survival on a fallen planet. Still, humans craved as much independence from God as they could get. The solution was religion. The citizens of the empire attached the notion of “god” to certain special places and times and to rituals conducted by trained specialists. By attending to this religion, they hoped to avoid divine anger and attain divine blessing for their crops and families and towns. This external religion “freed” them from needing to worry about personal sin or submission to God on any intimate daily basis.
The pagan twist on theology explains why they so hated the early Christians: these followers of the crucified carpenter were “atheists” who refused to honor the “gods” with ritualistic worship. By being so stubborn, the Christians were inviting disaster. No one cared what they believed; the empire was willing to absorb another religion. But their rejection of tradition and their refusal to make even a token offering of incense was viewed as a threat to society. Earthquake, famine, plague, and war could at any moment decimate the most cultured and technologically advanced empire the world had ever seen. If it happened, it would be because the Christians had insulted the “gods.”
Respect was the last thing the early Christians felt for paganism, however. The Christians weren’t really “atheists” when it came to the “gods” of Rome. They rejected the notion that an idol could be a “god,” but they accepted that there was nevertheless some sort of spiritual power at work in the pagan religions. As Paul wrote, “My dear friends, flee from idolatry…Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Corinthians 10:14, 19-20).
Yes, you heard right: Paul called the Roman “gods” demons, and this language was no more politically correct in the pluralistic Roman empire of the first century than it would be in the pluralistic western world of our own day. Christian writers and teachers of the second and third centuries agreed with Paul. In their disputes with pagans, they did not try to deny stories of miracles associated with particular shrines or idols. They did, however, attribute those miracles to the power of demons. Pagan religions did not include the concept of a satan or devil, but the Christians countered that all of pagan worship was directed towards the “spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms.”
During these centuries, then, the Christians were a small minority “in, but not of” a hostile world. They were threatened within and without: within, by the “gravitational attraction” of human flesh for human religion, and without, by the pressure of an antagonistic pagan majority.
“Going to Church” with the New Generation
We should certainly not think that the believers during this period lowered their standards and happily blended in with paganism. Quite the opposite is true; they actually went to great lengths to remain separate. Christians visiting or relocating to a community were not welcomed into assemblies without at least one good letter of recommendation and a vote of confidence from at least one member. During gatherings, many churches posted guards at the door to discourage unattested people from entering. These practices were common not only during times of persecution, but in times of peace, earning Christians the label “exclusive” from their derisive pagan neighbors.
Conversion to the faith never took place by a pagan deciding to “go to church,” where he heard a good “sermon” and an “altar call,” and then responded by praying with a “counselor.” These modern practices were entirely unknown during the second and third centuries. Instead, conversion was a rigorous three-year apprenticeship, during which the candidate was told to stop sinning and was watched closely for any lapses in behavior. Apprentices received teaching in the basics of the faith but were not allowed to meet with the church, to take the Lord’s Supper, or even to receive baptism until the three-year trial was over.
It’s safe to say, then, that Christians during this era remained loyal to the concept of being a “holy nation” and a “separate people.” But what of the warnings of the apostles and prophets—and of Jesus Himself—that brought the New Testament revelation to a close? Did the “terrible times” they envisioned come to pass? One way to answer that question is to look for the hallmarks of human religion. Did these Christians drift from an interwoven life of simple submission and trust? Did they instead start compartmentalizing life and designating certain places, times, or people as “special” and the rest, by implication, as “common”?
In the matter of “holy places,” the answer appears to be “no.” We are certain of this: there were no “church buildings” erected on public grounds until the end of the third century—none at all. Christians continued to meet primarily in homes. The only hints that spiritual life was starting to become “located” in special places came near the end of this period, when well-to-do Christians began remodeling their houses to accommodate larger gatherings. Archaeologists tell us that in the town of Duro-Europos, near the Euphrates, Christians began meeting in a private home with a room that could hold around thirty people. Sometime around the year 240, the owner of the house did some remodeling, knocking down a wall to create a larger room that could accommodate sixty. A tub was also installed around this time, presumably for use in baptisms. But this structure remained a private home. It was not a “sanctuary” or “church building,” let alone a cathedral. There is no suggestion, either from archaeology or in the numerous early Christian writings that such structures existed for over two centuries after Pentecost.
When it comes to “special times,” however, we do find significant evidence that “the faith that was given the holy people of God once and for all time” was steadily morphing into something quite different. For the earliest Christians, remember, the “holy day” was any day called “today.” But by the mid-second century, we read the earliest known reference to Sunday as a special day for Christians. It comes from the pen of Justin, a converted pagan philosopher who taught theology in Rome.
But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Savior on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, He rose. (Justin Martyr, The First Apology, Chapter 67)
It took five generations after Pentecost. But in Rome, at least, a “Christian holy day” had been born, and with it a twin known as the “Sunday service.” It was a development of historic importance. Christianity had always been focused on relationship, not meetings. Change was on the way.
A third-century work from Syria called the “Didascalia” gave rules for the worship service. There was to be assigned seating or standing room for specific ages and genders. A reader was to stand “upon some high place” and present two selections from the Old Testament. Then a soloist was to sing some Psalms, with the people “joining at the conclusion of the verses.” The singing was followed by readings from the New Testament. The congregation then was to rise, face the east, and pray. After the members greeted one another with a kiss, they were to come forward “by ranks” to partake of the bread and wine. Apparently the service was not expected to be too exciting; a deacon was appointed to “oversee the people, that nobody may whisper, nor slumber, nor laugh, nor nod; for all ought in the church to stand wisely, and soberly, and attentively, having their attention fixed upon the word of the Lord.”
Contrast that description with the only instruction in the entire New Testament about how Christians should handle their corporate gatherings, found in Paul’s correction of the Corinthian ekklesia:
What then shall we say, brothers? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church. If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God. Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. (1 Corinthians 14:26-33)
Notice that the first century church had no need of a deacon assigned to keep people awake! Also conspicuously absent? Assigned seating, a “high place” to stand on, a preplanned “order of worship,” a ceremony around the “eucharist,” a “worship leader” or “audience”—in short, all of the features of “worship services” in the third century and beyond. When Christians gathered in the first century, there was no assigned anything. There was no preplanned anything. There was no designated reader or speaker or teacher who always gave the “message of the hour.” The time together was free-flowing, dynamic, and interruptible (“when revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop”). The Spirit of Jesus, rather than tradition, ran the meeting. Each believer was a participant. Each person considered what gift he or she could offer to build up the entire Body. Everyone came prepared to share.
Gatherings in the third century were safe; gatherings in the first century sometimes weren’t. That’s why Paul had to offer correction! There was risk. But there was also life. Life! When God’s people gathered, they discovered Him afresh in one another. They walked and talked with Him “in the cool of the day” together, as He had always longed for His people to do.
Beginnings of “Clergy” and “Laity”
In the matter of “holy men,” the developments may be even more disquieting. In a radical break with New Testament experience and teaching, a defined religious hierarchy was beginning to emerge. By the end of the third century, we find each local assembly governed by a single “bishop,” wielding a high level of authority and enjoying a lifetime appointment.
It was absolutely not always so. As we have seen, Jesus forbade religious titles of any kind. Even the apostles were not to “lord it over” or “exercise authority” over others. Jesus took great pains to remind them, “You have only one Master and you are all brothers.” Throughout the first century, leaders of great ability and faith nevertheless honored Jesus’ command. When a local leader in an assembly stepped over the line and began “loving to be first,” an apostle was quick to warn and rebuke him (3 John 9).
It is true that Paul had recognized elders in each ekklesia when he revisited it some years after its birth. These “elders” were to nurture, feed, and protect those who were “younger” in the faith. But these older believers were never to emulate the gentile model of “authority,” and never did they degenerate into one-man rule or settle into a hierarchy. Paul’s farewell to the elders of his beloved Ephesus is clear: a group of men—perhaps even a roomful—called “elders” in the text were exhorted, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which He bought with His own blood.” In a passage of inspired scripture, we find the same men referred to as “elders,” “shepherds,” and “overseers”—the words that have been rendered in traditional religious vocabulary as “presbyters,” “pastors,” and “bishops.” But in the world of Paul, these Greek words had no religious connotations whatsoever. They were certainly not “titles” designating “office” or “position.” They were simply descriptions of people who had the capacity for mature faith and discernment (elders), who could feed and protect God’s lambs (shepherds), and who were spiritually “taller” and therefore capable of greater vision and a clearer perspective (overseers). These word-pictures always described a group of men who by virtue of gifting and maturity were able to serve the local ekklesia. They never describe a one-man rule.
We know enough historical details to at least sketch the evolution of the creature known as a third-century bishop. In the 90’s, a letter from a Christian in Rome to the church in Corinth still used the term “bishops” in plural for men in the local assembly. But by 110, a letter sent to the largest churches in the province of Asia—many of whom had received a letter from Jesus Himself in Revelation just a generation earlier—mentions a single bishop in each. Not everyone felt enthusiastic support of the emerging hierarchy. The “Shepherd of Hermas,” written about this same time, closes with a figure symbolizing the Church issuing this warning: “Now therefore I say unto you that are rulers of the Church, and that occupy the chief seats; be not like the sorcerers. The sorcerers indeed carry their drugs in boxes, but you carry your drug and your poison in your heart”—the poison, it is implied, of ambition.
But in the second century, the signs steadily grew more alarming. Ignatius wrote that the bishop was “the image of the Father” and that the man who didn’t recognize him as such “deceives not the bishop, who is seen, but deceives God, who is invisible.” People should even feel “reverence” for a bishop. Those who tried to act independently of a bishop’s authority were “servants of the devil.” Or as Cyprian put it in the third century, opposition to God’s “minister” was opposition to God Himself. By the mid-third century, the “laity” in Rome were reported to say, “One God, one Christ, one Holy Spirit, and in a church there ought to be one bishop.”
The teacher Origen took a dim view of this development:
We [leaders] terrify people and make ourselves inaccessible, especially if they are poor. To people who come to ask us to do something for them, we behave as no tyrant, even, would: we are more savage to petitioners than any civil rulers are. You can see this happening in many recognized churches, especially in the bigger cities. (Origen, Commentary on Matthew 16:8)
Surely others opposed the development of the professional “holy man” in Christianity; if everything had gone smoothly, men like Ignatius would never have felt the need to prop up the bishops’ authority. Yet year by year, the “bishopric” came more and more to resemble an ecclesiastical dictatorship.
Even in the third century, bishops did not wear distinctive clothing, nor did they receive salaries. They might receive a share in the free-will offerings of the believers, but they were not guaranteed wages. Salaries during that period were only found in certain heretical groups and were considered scandalous among the churches. And there was no notion of a hierarchy larger than the local assembly; there was no “bishop of bishops” during these centuries. Yet the slide down the slippery slope of religion was already picking up speed. From this point on, the rarely questioned assumption of most professing Christians was that they needed a professional, titled clergyman to stand between mere “laity” and their God.
It was during this same period that Christians took another large step towards surrendering their birthright of an intimate, immediate relationship with Jesus. Ironically, it came through the one thing we most admire about the believers during this era—their courage and steadfastness in spite of persecution. To this day, we are still stirred by the trust and tranquility of believers like Perpetua or Polycarp, even in the face of torture and death.
It’s not hard to imagine the impact of the martyrs’ faith on their contemporaries. Christians who were imprisoned for their beliefs, yet continued to speak boldly for Jesus while awaiting sentencing and execution, were honored as superheroes of the faith. It was widely believed that Christians on “death row” enjoyed an unmatched closeness to God. Surely, then, their prayers would be especially effective. Fellow believers began begging their imprisoned brothers and sisters to pray for personal sins or other concerns. After their execution, martyrs were continually held up as exemplary Christians in nearly every assembly. The dates of their deaths were remembered and commemorated each year, reinforcing the “special day” mentality that was taking root among the local assemblies.
The whole concept of martyrdom steadily grew more twisted. Melito, who carried the title of “bishop of Sardis” in the late second century, wrote: “There are two things which give remission of sins: baptism and suffering for the sake of Christ.” Tertullian, the North African leader, put it even more bluntly just a generation later: “Your blood is the key to Paradise.” Some Christians even began volunteering for martyrdom, much to the puzzlement of pagan governors.
By the third century, people had begun collecting mementos of martyred believers—bits of clothing, personal effects, even bones—partly for the inspiration, partly as “spiritual good luck charms.” People took the notion of asking martyrs for prayers even further. Visitors to their graves would request intercessory prayer from the dead believers. The practice of “venerating saints” and their relics had begun.
The consequences to faith were monumental. Veneration was another layer of insulation separating people from intimacy with God. On earth, the burgeoning hierarchy stood between God and man. In heaven, the growing honor roll of “saints” did the same. The “right here, right now” closeness to Jesus that the early disciples had enjoyed—both before and after His ascension—was itself becoming a relic of the past.
The “Conversion” of Constantine
He was one of the few truly pivotal figures in history. In a very real sense, he founded a religion. His name was Constantine.
His father had been designated one of four co-rulers of the Roman Empire. Constantine was bitterly hurt that he had not also been included among the four. He accompanied his father to the Roman outpost in Britain and bided his time. When his father died, Constantine had the troops proclaim him a new co-emperor. For the next three years, he fought and maneuvered his way to greater power. Finally, in the year 312, Constantine was ready to move his troops south in hopes of taking the big prize: Rome. To get to the city, his army had to cross Milvian Bridge, a stone structure across the Tiber River. His rival’s army came out of the city to defend the bridge. It was there that something happened that would affect church history for at least the next two thousand years.
We do not have Constantine’s personal account of the events. We only have the story told by two of his acquaintances.
Just four years after the event, Lactantius, the future tutor to the emperor’s sons, wrote that Constantine had seen a dream “on the eve of battle” in which he had been ordered to mark his soldiers’ shields with the “heavenly sign of God.”
We also have the Roman senate’s version of the events, preserved for us in a monument known as the Arch of Constantine. Built in 315, only three years after Constantine’s “conversion” and subsequent victory, the arch shows the earliest known record of the events. Its inscription simply states that Constantine had won his battles “at the instigation of divinity,” without specifying which divinity the senate had in mind. The emperor’s personal guard is depicted, but there is no “sign of the cross” on their shields. Above them hover the traditional images of the pagan “gods.” The senators were pagans creating a monument for other pagans. Perhaps that is why they omitted from the arch any reference to Christianity. Still, it seems strange that Constantine never had the monument “corrected,” if indeed he found it offensive.
Eusebius, writing a full quarter century later and at least a dozen years after hearing Constantine’s description of the events, told a much more elaborate version. He stated that the future emperor had learned that his political rival in Rome was using spells and sacrifices to drum up support from the pagan gods. Constantine was feeling the need for divine aid for his army, too. It was then, according to Eusebius, that Constantine and “all the troops” saw the sign of the cross in the noonday sky, with the legend “By this, conquer” emblazoned under it. That night, it was claimed, Constantine saw Jesus in a dream, ordering him to use the sign of the cross “in his engagements with the enemy.” The next day, Constantine ordered his men to paint a cross on their shields. He now launched the attack, which succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The empire was his.
We will never know for sure exactly what happened at Milvian Bridge in 312. But we can say this with certainty: none of the three narrations of the “event,” whether chiseled in stone by Roman pagans or written on parchment by professing Christians, make any mention of sin, the Blood, forgiveness, repentance, reconciliation, or a new birth. It is a strange “conversion.”
For many years afterwards, Constantine demonstrated a broad toleration, to the point of compromise, with the majority pagan religion. He retained the traditional imperial title of pontifex maximus, the high priest of the ancient Roman pagan religion.The image of the pagan “sun god,” worshipped by Constantine’s father and previous emperors, appears three times on the Arch of Constantine. Official imperial documents, including coinage, continued to display this “sun god” until 324.
In 325, Constantine convened two “ecumenical church councils” to deal with the problem of heresy. Bishops and other leaders were summoned from all over the empire. In a speech attributed to him at the first of these councils, Constantine quoted freely and at great length from two pagan religious sources, one a legendary prophetess and the other a classical Roman poet. Remarkably, he not only took their words as authoritative but even tried to extract Christian principles and proof texts from them. The very next year, when a prominent pagan priest wished to make a pilgrimage to Egypt to see an idol that was said to make noises like a human voice, Constantine footed the bill.
Constantine disliked the city of Rome, so he decided to build a new capital, Constantinople, in the east. At its dedication in 330, he arranged for a ceremony that was half Christian, half pagan, and placed an image of the cross over the chariot of the “sun god” in the marketplace.
It was not until shortly before his death in 337 that Constantine was finally baptized. He apparently was afraid that sins committed after baptism would not be forgiven and so waited until the last possible moment to perform the ritual, as he understood it.
There were indeed sins to be concerned about. Shortly after Constantine took Rome, his former ally—now perceived as a competitor—was found strangled to death. In 326, Constantine executed his eldest son because of scandalous accusations against him. A few months later, when he realized he had been misled about the young man, he executed the accuser—his own wife, Fausta. There can be little doubt that Constantine was ambitious and ruthless when it came to securing and protecting his image and position.
Such was Constantine’s “conversion” and its effect on his life. Yet while the authenticity of his conversion can be questioned, the impact of it cannot. The emperor threw himself into his new cause with characteristic energy, passion, and shrewdness. The changes that he brought to his religion during a single generation are nothing short of revolutionary.
The “Conversion” of Christianity
Constantine’s goal was to unify his empire under the “the sign of the cross.” He viewed himself as a creature of destiny, a mighty instrument in God’s hands. In an open letter, dated about 324, he wrote:
Surely it cannot be deemed arrogance in one who has received benefits from God, to acknowledge them in the loftiest terms of praise. I myself, then, was the instrument whose services He chose, and esteemed suited for the accomplishment of His will. Accordingly, beginning at the remote Britannic ocean…through the aid of divine power I banished and utterly removed every form of evil which prevailed, in the hope that the human race, enlightened through my instrumentality, might be recalled to a due observance of the holy laws of God, and at the same time our most blessed faith might prosper under the guidance of His almighty hand. (Eusebius, Life of Constantine II, Chapter 28)
These are the words of a man who viewed himself in almost Messianic terms. He was a man with a mission: to root out evil and enlighten the human race, so that Christianity might prosper. How would he accomplish such a lofty goal?
For starters, he would build “church buildings.”
At the start of the fourth century, only a few local assemblies had made the conceptual leap from gathering in remodeled private houses to erecting religiously-purposed buildings. We know from historical documents of one town in Egypt with two “church buildings,” one synagogue, and twelve pagan temples. An eyewitness to the great persecution in Egypt in 303 tells of three other cities where “basilicas” of some type were burned down. Still, these were unimpressive structures, probably of simple wooden construction. They were not fit for an imperial religion, apparently.
Constantine began his career as a builder by erecting a huge statue of himself, “ten times larger than life,” holding a “lofty spear in the shape of a cross” in the busiest section of Rome. He then constructed his first of many “church buildings,” also in Rome. It was magnificent, a palace, really: the Lateran Basilica, which eventually passed to the control of the “bishop of Rome” and to this day belongs to the Roman pope.
His mother, Helena, also encouraged and helped bankroll this fourth-century building program. She had made a “pilgrimage” to Palestine in 326, immediately after the executions of her daughter-in-law and grandson. Upon her return, Helena built an elaborate basilica around a room in her imperial palace, covering its floor with soil from Jerusalem. It was intended to serve as a shrine for the souvenir relics she brought back from the “holy land.” Included among the trinkets, it was said, was a bone from Thomas’ index finger, the very digit that he used to test Jesus’ wounds. The shrine is still standing today.
So began an unprecedented wave of religious construction. For the next twenty-five years, Constantine financed a series of magnificent, lavish religious structures throughout the empire. He ordered the bishop of Jerusalem to build at public expense a “Church of the Holy Sepulchre” on the supposed site of Golgotha. He also constructed a mammoth basilica over a shrine in Rome where Peter was believed to be buried. He continued by building similar shrines, rivaling any pagan temple in magnificence, in Bethlehem, Mamre, Nicomedia, and Heliopolis. His own city, Constantinople, was not to be left out. Gradually, it became filled with martyrs’ shrines, taking the place of the polytheistic shrine on every street corner that the pagans had always known.
Constantine did not confine himself to constructing “special places,” however. He made his mark in legislating “special days” as well. In 321, he decreed that dies Solis—the day of the sun, or “Sunday”—would be a day of rest throughout the empire:
On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost. (Constantine, Decree of March 7, 321)
Here again we see a curious blend between paganism and Christianity, as Constantine conceived it. The “venerable day” of the sun-god, the deity Constantine’s father had worshipped, was now to be commemorated with a Sabbath-like observance. The concept of a “Sunday service” had been taken to a completely new level, with the opportunity to take a day off work and meet in the luxurious new “church buildings.”
Constantine was certainly making his mark. But his biggest impact perhaps came in his vision for the developing clergy. Constantine gave them enormous privilege and power. In the cities of the Roman empire, the funds for most public works, including games and celebrations, came not from taxes, but from the personal fortunes of officeholders. “Love of your hometown,” if you were a member of the Roman upper class, meant spending huge amounts of your personal wealth to finance public works. It was in essence a very steeply graduated income tax. Legally, no substantial property owner was exempt. Constantine changed the custom with the stroke of a pen. From 313 on, bishops and Christian “clergy” were exempted from the burden of holding office. So great was this financial reward, that the emperor had to issue a second decree forbidding wealthy pagans from pretending to be bishops so that they could avoid public service!
At the same time, he broadly extended the bishops’ powers. In a civil or even criminal suit, a bishop could issue a judgment that was binding on any other court of law. Constantine also convened empire-wide meetings of clergy to legislate on particular religious questions. Increasingly, the clergy imitated the form and function of a secular government. At the end of the third century, Roman governors had been given deputies called “vicars” and provinces had been grouped into bigger regions called “dioceses.” These words were appropriated by the growing religious bureaucracy only a generation later. Under Constantine, the religious hierarchy was growing from a local expression to a global one.
What had begun, then, as a gradual slide down a slippery slope in the second and third centuries had accelerated into a freefall by the fourth. Christianity had been transformed into a religion. It certainly bore all the hallmarks of human religion, with special places, days, and men. Constantine had done much to formulate and promote this change. But perhaps his biggest impact was in opening the doors of the church to a new breed of “convert” much like himself. “Church” in the fourth century meant something radically different than it had to Paul or Peter or John. “Membership” was now politically correct. It was even fashionable, the logical choice for the upwardly mobile Roman young professional who wished to get ahead in the brave new “Christian empire.” Above all, the church was now viewed as something attendable. Instead of meeting furtively in private homes, fearing the pounding on the door that would signify the start of another round of persecution, these new “Christians” could gather openly in some of the most magnificent buildings in the empire. And instead of sharing life together, seven days a week, it was now possible to “attend services” on the “venerable day of the Sun” without interfering too much with one’s private life.
It was easier to be this sort of Christian than not. And by the time Rome fell and the “dark ages” began, every single person in continental Europe—with the exception of a few Jewish holdouts—would profess to be a Christian.
The Accommodation of Paganism
Because of Constantine and the leaders who came after him, the clergy had a perplexing problem on their hands. “Christianity,” as Constantine had envisioned it, was to become the state religion. Citizenship in the empire (and in the kingdoms that followed it) would eventually become equated with membership in the “catholic” (i.e., universal) church. But how do you “christianize” the citizens of a pagan empire, many of whom were now “converting” in the hopes of social advancement or in the face of heavy peer pressure—or even at the point of the sword?
In the first few generations of Christianity, every single person who joined his or her heart with the ekklesia did so voluntarily, despite pressure from antagonistic, deeply entrenched political and religious powers. The vigor of this complete abandonment, freely given, was undeniable. Christians not only endured a hostile environment—they thrived in it. As the writer of Hebrews put it,
Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. (Hebrews 10:32-34)
The ekklesia lived as a close-knit family who had counted the cost of commitment, yet had decided to follow Jesus anyway, because they thought He was worth it.
Christianity as a state religion was quite different, however. The “church” was now supposed to encompass a vast populace who frankly might prefer their pagan religion but were “joining” the new one because they felt they had to. Hence the problem facing the religious leaders: How do you force loyalty? How do you get someone to like something they don’t love? How do you make someone reject a pagan religion externally when they still embrace it internally?
One strategy is instruction, under the assumption that people want to hang on to pagan beliefs and practices only because they are ignorant of the beliefs of a “better” religion. The strategy was applied, with extremely limited success. The assumption proved to be a naïve one. Most people preferred their old life to the new, even when the new was explained to them.
A second strategy is coercion. Throughout the middle ages, in various times and places, from the local actions of religious leaders right up to the widespread horrors of the Inquisition, coercion was applied, often with a great deal of diligence. But wiser heads eventually discovered the truth: compulsion can produce a grudging, external compliance, but it can never effect heart-level change. Coercion and conversion are, in fact, complete opposites.
A third strategy is accommodation. If most people prefer the old way of life, one can simply try to adjust the “new” way of life to look, sound, and feel like the old. The religious leadership embraced this strategy—sometimes subconsciously, but often quite deliberately—and at last achieved the results they hoped for. Many pagan religious elements were introduced into Christianity, with their most objectionable qualities sanitized and their most sentimentally valued qualities “christianized” with new names and modestly tweaked practices. Christianity was little by little nudged closer to the old pagan religions, until the populace of Europe by and large felt that the newer religion was sufficiently within their comfort zones to be acceptable.
Jesus, of course, had a different idea. He never desired to create a state religion—or any other religion, for that matter. He described His way, the way to Life, as a narrow and difficult road. The road was open to anyone, but only a few would ever decide to venture on it (Matthew 7:14). Jesus’ strategy was primarily a proclamation and demonstration of the Kingdom of God and an invitation to “any who had ears to hear” to abandon their previous lives and embrace His. He had no need of coercion and no interest whatsoever in accommodation. He already knew that “tidying up” a religion through minor adjustments and repairs simply wouldn’t work. As He explained:
No one tears a piece of cloth from a new garment and uses it to patch an old garment. For then the new garment would be ruined, and the new patch wouldn’t even match the old garment. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the new wine would burst the wineskins, spilling the wine and ruining the skins. New wine must be stored in new wineskins. But no one who drinks the old wine seems to want the new wine. “The old is just fine,” they say. (Luke 5:36-39)
The religious officials of the fourth through fourteenth centuries largely ignored this advice. They had to. They had an agenda of transforming Christianity into a religion that everyone could and would accept. Somehow, they had to transform Christianity into a superhighway that everyone would travel on, even if the travelers would have preferred something else. To achieve that goal, they tore patches from the religion of Jesus and tried to cover up the most embarrassing holes in paganism. They poured the new wine of Jesus into the old skins of traditional European religion. They achieved their goal; the populace finally complied with the new state religion.
True, the new wine was spilled. But most folks thought the old wine was just fine, anyway.
1 Please note that we are not advocating the “apprenticeship” model. Certainly these early believers recognized that only truly saved people should be regarded as members of the church, a priority that seems conspicuously lacking in most Christian circles in our era. Surely we can appreciate the very biblical concern of these early Christians for separation from the world (see, for example, 2 Corinthians 6:14-18) without imitating their rather legal and regimented implementation of this concern. At least they cared. Will we?
2 It is a true irony of history that a few generations after Constantine, when the emperors of Rome abandoned the pagan religious title pontifex (English “pontiff”), the “bishops” of Rome began using it! The term is still used today by one religious body for the head of its leadership hierarchy.