Friday, March 30, 2007

The Constantinian Christendom Myth

Many popular books on church renewal perpetuate the myth that the early church worshipped in homes in a simple non-ritualized style much like the house churches of today, and that things began to go terribly wrong when the emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and adopted a “Christendom” model of church-state alliance. The problem with all of this is that the scholarship on the early church doesn’t really bear this explanation out. The early Christians borrowed the pattern of Jewish synagogue worship, with its simple public ritual of prayer, praise, singing (or chanting) and scripture reading and exhortation, and then added its distinctively Christian content, most uniquely the Eucharist. Though many people today tell us that “we need to get back to worshipping the way the early church did” one is struck by reading accounts of worship in the first few centuries with how very similar it all seems to what still takes place in the typical suburban church in today’s world. In addition to the elements alrready listed above, an offering was taken, and there are words of greeting to commence and blessing to conclude the service, all of which is being overseen by an “up-front” leader. The degree of continuity found in these elements across time is quite striking.

It is true that the early Christians often met in homes, and the house church movement of today sees this as a worthy pattern to be followed. There is certainly nothing wrong with meeting in homes and it may well be a preferred mode of gathering in certain situations. However, it should be noted that meeting in homes was a practical matter for the early Christians, not a theological one. Until they could be sure that they would not be subjected to further imperial persecution they needed to meet discreetly in private. Often the homes in which they met were the homes of wealthy members of the Christian community who had large enough rooms to accommodate crowds. Archaeological finds have uncovered evidence of the demolition of walls to create auditorium-like spaces within these homes. So the space within an early Christian “house church” functioned much more like that in a typical suburban church today than a “house church” meeting marked by informality and a relaxed “homey” atmosphere. (One major difference is that there were no pews. Not until much later did churches begin installing pews. People stood throughout the entire liturgy, and this is still the practice in most Orthodox churches today). Once the state gave them freedom to build their own public meeting halls they quickly adopted the Roman basillica model and went public.

Many writers of popular books on church renewal continue to perpetuate the myth that the age of “Christendom” begins with the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD. Poor old Con gets the blame for a great deal of things he probably wasn’t responsible for! He’s a favourite whipping boy of the Adventists who say he invented Sunday worship which is nonsense since Christians had worshipped on Sunday since the day Jesus rose from the dead. Constantine gave Christianity legal status but he did not create a “Christian Empire” - though he dreamed of it. It was Theodosius I (emperor from 379-395), not Constantine, who first made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Even then this by no means meant that the church had a monopoly on the late antique world of the first few centuries. Constantine simply gave Christians legal status alongside of other religions including the old Roman paganism. If by “Christendom” we mean a situation in which the church and state are closely aligned and the church completely dominates society, we really do not see this prevailing until 700 years or so AFTER Constantine - at the height of the Medieval period. For centuries before that was accomplished, the church existed in a cosmopolitan world of religious ideas much like our own, without special privileges or carte blanche state sanction. Even cities we think of as Christian centres, such as Antioch, Rome, and Constantinople, were by no means fully Christianized, as Christian bishops charged with the task of evangelising them knew all too well. Once barbarian tribes such as Goths, Vandals and Huns began to impinge upon and ultimately invade and conquer the Empire, the church was on the backfoot again. It had a good amount of success converting the barbarians - a missional activity if ever there was one - (though the Arians seemed to fare better than the Orthodox on this score), but you can be assured the church often had a very tenuous hold on the populace of any given urban area for at least the first thousand years of its existence. Hardly the Christendom model. If nothing else, all this demonstrates is that people who write books on what the church should be in the future need to seriously engage with people who write books on what the church actually has been in the past so that popular myths are not perpetuated.


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