666 and all that, 5 – The Imperial Church, 2

As long as the Christians faced—or feared—persecution by the Roman authorities…the book of Revelation provided consolation for their present sufferings, real or imagined, and the promise of a bloody revenge in the end-times.  But the contempt for imperial Rome that suffuses the book of Revelation was rendered suddenly and wholly obsolete when the Emperor Constantine (ca. 280-337) embraced Christianity in the early fourth century…. the Christian church was elevated from a marginalized and criminalized sect into the favored and protected faith of the imperial family, and, eventually, a kind of shadow government whose reach extended throughout the Roman Empire…. the condemnation of imperial Rome in the book of Revelation no longer made sense.  Indeed, the Christian church now styled itself as “the Church Militant and Triumphant.”

Jonathan Kirsch, A History of the End of the World.  (HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), p. 108

(Photo credit Wikipedia Pope Gregory 1)

The conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity (traditionally dated in 312 CE) was indeed one of the most revolutionary events of history, ancient or modern.  Within a generation, the once hounded and persecuted Christian minority within the Roman world went from underdog to top dog.  As that world fractured and withered on the vine, the Church became more and more the one truly cohesive social force within the Roman state, and increasingly a political power supplementing and sometimes even replacing the broken ligaments of the imperial administration.  Bishops became as powerful as governors in some instances.  As Kirsch puts it — “a kind of shadow government”.

When Constantinople became the primary imperial capital, the Bishop of Rome began to exercise an increasingly assertive role of overall leader of the Christian world, thus providing a counter-point to the distant Emperor for the Christians of the Western Empire, as long as it continued.  When the Western Empire died with a whimper in 476 CE, the Pope still stood in Christianity’s western regions as the symbol of Roman leadership, although no longer in the political sphere.

From that point on the divergence of the East and West of the old Roman world in culture, faith, and politics became sharper and sharper as the centuries passed.  We cannot rehash the whole tale here.  Plenty of accounts—short or lengthy—are available to the curious.  What is of interest in our reflection is how the Church was henceforth haunted by the memory and the nostalgia of its first 200 years even as it became anchored in its imperial identity.

Henceforth the Christian Church suffered from a dual personality, an inner tension between those who longed for and strove to recover the early days of innocence and total devotion to the true King, Jesus the Messiah, whose Kingdom is “not of this world” (or this age), and those who adopted a posture of “realism”, employing methods and models long used in human affairs for exercising power and influence and gaining control of the social and political agenda.  Increasing economic power followed, sometimes through huge donations and bequests of the rich and powerful seeking to buy “fire insurance” as death raised its spectral head in their path.

The resultant tension and sometimes open conflict between the two personalities inevitably resulted in a pendulum of guilty attempts by the “realists” to find ways of appeasing and even accommodating the prophetic elements confronting them with their sell-outs and compromises, punctuated by occasional outright repressions and persecutions of the fanatics, who were usually officially excommunicated as heretics before force was called out to either bring them to heel or eliminate them altogether.

The earliest of these brutal episodes was the infamous Donatist suppression in the fifth century CE.  In that case, there was abuse and guilt enough to go round on both sides.  The interested reader is invited to consult any competent history of the Church, such as Kenneth Scott Latourette’s.

The tension was quite visible well before that, when the first hermits appeared and became best known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers.  Yes, Mothers too!  There were thousands of women who also adopted withdrawal from the world and its affairs.  [i]  The hermits and desert communities of disciples gave rise to the whole monastic movement, which was born out of the need to provide, for those wanting and needing it, a release from the increasingly compromised and syncretised lifestyle of the now “official” religion of the Empire.

Another clear signal of a growing hybridization was the adoption of an elevated view of the Church’s leaders from that of “servants” to “Clergy” – an elite class of persons called out and set apart to lead and direct from a position set above the rest of the believing congregation.  It is significant that the chief proponents of this kind of elitism were people like Ignatius of Antioch, Cyprian of Carthage, and Pope Gregory 1 (the “Great”), bishops recommending the veneration of bishops especially, but presbyters (local congregational leaders, or elders) as well.

All these changes, along with the early adoption of liturgy to formulize ceremonies and practices along with the selected “ministers” for these, created the “Church” as an institution sharing many of the same characteristics and ceremonial of the Jewish priesthood and even some pagan garb and titles.  When the priests of Jupiter in Rome ceased to carry the title “Pontifex Maximus” (greatest High Priest or ‘bridge-maker’ [between humans and the gods] the Bishop of Rome quickly lay claim to it as appropriate for the leading “Patriarch” (a Greek word meaning ‘father-ruler’) of the Christian world.  By that point the leading Bishops (Greek episkopoi) of the Church had adopted that title as appropriate for the highest-ranking prelates in a few of the great metropolitan centers (e.g., Rome, Alexandria, Ephesus, Corinth).  Not all “Metropolitans” were equal either.  Eventually it boiled down to a supreme rivalry between the Patriarch of Rome (affectionately styled ‘Papa’ – Daddy, now rendered ‘Pope’ in English, ‘Pape’ in French, but still “Papa” in Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese) by the Roman populace, and the Johnny-come-lately upstart Patriarch of Constantinople who only gained that dignity because of his close connection to the Emperor, now based in that city on the frontier between Europe and Asia.

Thus we see that by the end of the Fourth Century CE, the Imperial Church had emerged full-blooded, while the original sense of Jesus calling His followers apart to follow a different path was far from lost among millions of his followers who looked with alarm on this heavy-footed march into full-blown political and social involvement of the most injurious kind for a movement supposed to lead people into the peaceable and love-based Kingdom of God rather than a holy-water-sprinkled repurposing of “Caesar-is-Lord” (even of the Church) as per the Roman (morphing into Byzantine by that point) model.


[i]  The very important and significant role of women in the early Church has been mostly buried since the 5th Century.  It is a tale which men have too often refused to admit took place and that their counterparts of those generations actively sought to suppress. 

Published by VJM

Vincent is a retired High School teacher, Educational Consultant, and author in Ontario, Canada. He is an enthusiastic student of History, life, and human nature. He has loved writing since he was a kid. He has been happily married for almost 50 years and has 4 grown children and ten grandchildren. He and his wife ran a nationally successful Canadian Educational Supply business for home educators and private schools for fifteen years. Vincent has published Study Guides for Canadian Social Studies, a biography of a Canadian Father of Confederation, and short semi-fictional accounts of episodes in Canadian History. He has recently published his first novel, Book One in a Historical Fantasy series called "Dragoonen". The first book is "Awakening" and is available on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback. He is currently working on further books in this series and a number of other writing projects in both non-fiction and fiction. Vincent is a gifted teacher and communicator.

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