313 A.D. The death of Christianity and the birth of the Christian religion.

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 e-letter 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.)

* “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. jjg).
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. (emphasis added)
      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 favored
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)

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, they claimed- Luther, Calvin, Zwingli- put the “fall of the
church” much later. Menno Simons, later to become the leader of the
Mennonites, put the “fall” earlier at 407 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 institutionalized 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 realize 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 favor of the National or State Church system
which outward circumstances pressed upon him” (emphasis added).

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,
Jeff Gilbertson

One thought on “313 A.D. The death of Christianity and the birth of the Christian religion.”

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