Picture yourself this fine day at the hospital and you have just come in from the waiting room to the doctor’s office. What’s the first question the doctor has for you?: “Tell me where it hurts?” You answer,“Oh, Doc, I had some bad food last night and my stomach hurts terribly.” Now imagine that your “condition” has no obvious symptoms and that you have had this condition from birth!!
Also imagine that it has been passed on to you from your father, who got it from his father, etc. If your doctor were to ask you where it hurts, you couldn’t give him any answer, even though he could clearly see the problem on your X-ray. In some ways, I think this small scenario accurately describes the Church today, 2000 years after its inception. We aren’t aware of any major “hurts” (i.e. symptoms) and, therefore, can’t get an accurate diagnosis of our condition.
The premise of this newsletter is to explore with you the idea that New Testament Christianity died in the year 313 A.D., the year Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan and made Christianity a legal religion. The tragedy is that so many of us are completely unaware of the global impact this event had on the church of Jesus Christ for the last 1,700 years.
33 A.D. The First Church On Earth
The early church, in spite of all her faults, was an explosive movement!
From the initial outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost in Jerusalem until Paul’s final words from prison in Rome, nearly thirty years later, the book of Acts continually records that the church “multiplied greatly”, by men and women who “turned the world upside down”. Without stretching our imagination too much we could calculate the church in Jerusalem, just three or four years after Pentecost, to be as large as 30,000. You do the math!
* On the day of Pentecost, “there were added that day about three thousand souls… And the Lord was adding to their number daily” (Acts 2:41,47). 3,120+
* Not long after that, “many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of men came to be about five thousand” (Acts 4:4). 8000+ (see Mtt. 14:21 re. only men being counted. jjg)
* “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women…The people also gathered from towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. (Acts 5:14, 16 RSV). 15,000+
* “We strictly charged you not to teach in this Name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” (Acts 5:28)
* “And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number…” (Acts 5:42-6:1) 20,000+
* “And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). 30,000+
What were the keys to their growth? Was their spiritual breakthrough the result of prayer and fasting and strategic warfare? Or was it great leadership and vision? The Holy Spirit working in power? Great organizational skills? Can we expect to see similar results today? Read on!
I am not alone in stating that when Constantine "Christianised" the Roman Empire, he created untold problems. The Swiss Brethren (later known as the Anabaptists), of the 1500’s, also believed that the “fall of the church” — to use their terms — was during Constantine’s reign. By recognizing Christianity as a legal religion (including making Sunday a legal holiday), he slowly strangled what was once a vibrant, close-knit, committed fellowship of persecuted believers, and turned it into a religion that would become, by law, at the end of that century, the official state religion of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE).
The Roman Empire of that day, headquartered in Constantinople- modern day Istanbul, was huge and very powerful, something that is hard to grasp today. A close analogy might be the monolithic Soviet Empire of the 20th century. The HRE spread throughout most of Europe and northern Africa: from London in the north to Egypt in the south, from Kuwait in the east to Spain in the west. Many, if not most, were “converted” by means of the sword; fined and tortured for not “going to church” on Sunday. Philip Yancey has well said that “a coziness between church and state is good for the state and bad for the church.”
Who Was Constantine the Great?
To give you a short glimpse into the life and times of Constantine, I offer the following bio:
Following the example of his father and earlier 3rd-century emperors, Constantine in his early life was a solar henotheist [belief in or worship of one god without denying the existence of others]. He believed that the Roman sun god, Sol, was the visible manifestation of an invisible "Highest God", who was the principle behind the universe. This god was thought to be the companion of the Roman emperor.
Constantine’s adherence to this faith is evident from his claim of having had a vision of the sun god in 310 while in Gaul. In 312, on the eve of a battle against Maxentius, his rival in Italy, Constantine is reported to have dreamed that Christ appeared to him and told him to inscribe the first two letters of his name (XP in Greek) on the shields of his troops. The next day he is said to have seen a cross superimposed on the sun and the words "in this sign you will be the victor". Constantine then defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, near Rome.
The Senate hailed the victor as saviour of the Roman people. Thus, Constantine, who had been a pagan solar worshiper, now looked upon the Christian deity as a bringer of victory. Persecution of the Christians was ended, and Constantine’s co-emperor, Licinius, joined him in issuing the Edict of Milan (313), which mandated toleration of Christians in the Roman Empire. As guardian of Constantine’s favoured religion, the church was then given legal rights and large financial donations. (Almanac)
James H. Rutz, describes yet another phenomena of this era:
“It was in 323 AD, 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 between 323 and 327! This then triggered a massive ‘church building’ fad in large cities all over the Empire.” (The Open Church)
“One God, one Logos, one emperor, one empire”
The Swiss Brethren went on record saying they rejected the HRE mantra of that day: “One God, one Logos, one emperor, one empire”. The other Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, the Swiss Brethren claimed put the “fall of the church” much later. A better example for them was Menno Simons (later to become the leader of the Mennonites) who put the “fall” earlier at 407 AD, when infant baptism was made compulsory.
After the Edict of Milan (which church historians pinpoint as the beginning of the Imperial Church age), we start to see glaring failures handed down to us by our church fathers and church tradition that caused Christianity to die and a religious institution to be born. The New Testament gathering of believers that met “every day in the temple and at home” (Acts 5:42) deteriorated to a Sunday-only, cathedral environment where church life became institutionalised and formal.
A Reformation That’s Not Finished Yet…
Many point to the Reformation as the “rebirth” of Christianity in our modern era: releasing the church from the grip of the few, mighty and powerful, and handing it over to the common man. But the Reformation, simply put, didn’t go far enough! The Swiss Brethren’s constant cry to the Reformers was that they had stopped short of going all the way with what the Scriptures clearly held forth as a model for church and New Testament lifestyle! "Let’s establish a free church composed of voluntary believers", they argued. Unfortunately, they paid with their lives and their voice was snuffed out.
To be sure, Luther’s impact on the church cannot be underestimated. But we must realise that Luther changed the theology of the church not its form, its structure. To his credit, Luther did envision a church free of the institutional power but was not able to attain it. Luther expressed a belief in a "third kind of church" (a direct quote), what we would today call a cell-based church! It was a gathering of the truly Christian into an "inner church model." Author E.H. Broadbent in The Pilgrim Church describes this dilemma: “Luther had seen the Divine pattern for the churches, and it was not without an inward struggle that he abandoned the New Testament teaching of independent assemblies of real believers, in favour of the National or State Church system which outward circumstances pressed upon him”.
In Luther’s vision of “the Divine pattern” we can rightly assume it was separated from the state system and its structure emphasised a return to lay-led, multiplying, committed small fellowships. Dr. Ralph Neighbor, one of the pioneers of the Cell Church Movement, has spoken long and hard on this point:
“It’s the structure. Period. The American church is unhealthy because it has an unbiblical structure. By denying this and continuing to live under the illusion that the basic problem of the church is something other than "ecclesiology" we have a chronic condition.”
But there is hope. There is a cloud as small as a man’s hand on the horizon. Some have been hearing the sound of rain for many years. Others are just now beginning to hear it. It’s time to jump in our chariots and head down the mountain because it has started to rain! “The heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain.” (I Kings 18: 45)
As Patrick Johnstone has written: “We are being compelled to return to a much more biblical and radical position — that of being a minority in the world but not of it. Whether we like it or not, the concept of the imperial Church dominated the thinking of Roman Emperors from Constantine onwards through the papacy, the Reformation and the 19th century mission movement…We need to return to the concept of a pilgrim Church, a Church that will be hated, rejected, despised, victorious minority which, one day soon, will be ready for its Heavenly Bridegroom as the Perfected Bride.”
Yours for the Least in the Kingdom,
PS. Feedback welcome!