Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Effect Upon the Church of the Legalization of Christianity Under Constantine

The legalization of Christianity under the rule of Caesar Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus Augustus, or Constantine I, was a landmark decision for persecuted Christians. It would, eventually, change everything. What Constantine would implement during his reign would cause Christianity to become the official religion of the empire. It would bring tremendous changes for good for believers as well as many changes of questionable value. When Constantine signed his infamous Edict of Milan it would grant religious freedom to the kingdom for all religions but with a decidedly Christian bias on the part of Constantine. This favorable bias toward Christianity would endure for centuries.


Constantine the Great became the Christian's patron. Financial support flowed church-ward. Not only did Constantine build churches but tax exemptions were available for the clergy. Constantine began a church building program in the Holy Land. For the purpose of evangelism and increasing wealth for the clergy, under his or his mother's (Helena) support, he ordered the following churches built: Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem to be constructed; in Rome, St. Peter's Basilica, an oratory now the Basilica di San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls¸ and in Constantinople, Hagia Sophia, plus the Church of the Holy Apostles.

Employment in prestigious positions never before allowed for Christians were suddenly available. Property of great value was granted to the church as well as land taken during the persecution of Diocletian was returned. Constantine's Christian biased proved to provide an unprecedented acceptance into the society at large.

Constantine's pro-Christian reforms were enforced as law. These reforms favored not only Christians but had an effect for the non-Christian. Capital punishment and prison reforms were implemented affecting all, Christian or pagan alike. This, however, did not prevent and increasing pagan hostility toward Christians to whom to was obvious Constantine favored. What had to add to this growing hostility was the fact that Constantine, while building Christian churches, was not building pagan temples. In fact, as he no doubt grew in his faith, he became less and less likely to mix pagan with Christian, which he did very early in his profession of faith in Christ, and grew to the point of limiting his patronage Christian-ward.

The newly emboldened church resulted in internal strives which Constantine saw as his duty to deal with in the forms of "councils". He ordered in 314 A.D. The council of Arles to settle the Donatist controversy and to deal with the Arian error he ordered the First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

These were certain advantages never before experienced by the church. To have an Emperor who not only claimed to be a Christian but who more often than not consistently demonstrated his conversion with reforms and favor toward a previously persecuted God's Elect.


Mostly certainly a negative point to consider, and which garnered much enmity and resentment toward the Christian from the pagan camp, was that Constantine eventually got around to closing their temples and forking over the pagan wealth into the Emperor's bank to fund his Christian favoritism. Some scholars say the motive was to teach the pagan to come to the point of despising their paganism and to convert to Christianity. Well heeled Roman families began to be deprived of key government appointed jobs for their rejection of Christ. This could not bode well for the Church.

Another point to consider requires a bit of history. During Constantine's time and previously to his alleged conversion, there were four stages with which someone engaged to become a Christian. According to Ian Mugford's paper, Constantine's Impact on Christianity when someone became an inquirer into the faith he would meet with believers to express his desire to become one of them. In other words, he would make application to the church and submit himself for examination. If deemed worthy he would proceed to step two.

Step two was the instructional stage in the faith that could take up to five years. During this instructional phase the candidate's life was examined and judged. If found acceptable, he would then be permitted to advance toward stage three.

Stage three centered on the beliefs of the potential Christian. More intense teaching ensued. After much additional orthodox teaching and severe examination to test the sincerity of the candidate and his knowledge of church doctrine and practice, he was baptized.

Stage four was the "mystagogy"-the explanation of the baptism and communion the "new Christian" had just experienced.

Constantine completely changed this process. He had not submitted to this four step or stage process. He spoke of church leaders as his brethren and would eventually regard himself as "fellow servants" within the church. Yet, he had not submitted to this process of examination and scrutiny. By example Constantine gave people the chance of becoming a Christian without submitting to baptism or being instructed by the church. After all, the Emperor didn't submit to these requirements, why should the people? It wasn't until the end of his life that he did submit to baptism and teaching. There wasn't time to judge his life as to determine the sincerity of his professed conversion which was what the four step process provided. Regardless of the Emperor's conversion and its sincerity, during the next twenty years of his reign would prove problematic for the church.

The impact upon the church was significant. The four step process that one would normally need to go through was the opportunity for the church leaders to judge a candidate's sincerity or motive for becoming a Christian seemed to decline in importance. During Constantine's rule the motive for conversion changed. Constantine did not coerce people to become Christians but he did bribe them. Not only did he change the conversion landscape by ignoring the four step process for becoming a Christian, he polluted the church's membership with those with nefarious motives. How could those who responded to the Emperor's conversion bribes of cash for the convert and church, better jobs and promotions, and the social status for being a member of the Emperor's religion be sincere? The sad thing is that this bribery continued after the Emperor's death. Edicts made it impossible for pagans to get jobs or advance n their positions.


How to judge the effect of the legalization of Christianity during Constantine's reign is difficult. Granted that before his reign Christians were on the Empire's extinction list. By the time of Constantine's death, Christians were in all levels of government positions and institutionalized persecution was gone from within the empire.. Whether one believes Constantine's conversion was real or not, he was definitely "christianized" and his subsequent "christianized" reforms changed everything.



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A Plurality of Leadership

And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” (Acts 14:23 NIV)

In the New Testament, the church, each local, earthly expression of Christ’s body, was expected to appoint a plurality as its leadership called elders. Deacons were also to be appointed and, again, in the plural sense. Missions in the New Testament also sought to establish a plurality of leadership where churches were established.

Today, in the array of church denominations existing in our Western societies, there is a confusing string of terms describing church leadership. There are pastors, elders, bishops, overseers, deacons, and even, in some cases, the word apostle is used. In the first century church, there were two offices, elder and deacon, used to describe how the church was to be “set up” and how it was to function.

“Elder” (presbureros) is what the man is called who shares leadership with at least one other Elder within the church’s government. Bishop or Overseer (episcopos) is the work of the Elder. He “oversees” the church and its needs. Pastor (poimen) is the means by which the Elder accomplishes oversight of the flock. He shepherds or pastors it. In the English translations of the Greek text of the New Testament, these English terms are often interchangeable.

For example, in Titus 1:5-7, in the New American Standard Bible, Paul is giving instruction for the appointment of Elders in the church in Crete (verse 5). He goes on to list the qualifications for Elders (verse 6). Then he says, “For the overseer must be…” (verse 7), and he delineates additional qualifications for the Elder or Overseer. Elder and Overseer are equated as the same thing. The word “for” links verse 7 with 5 and 6.

In the King James Version, in verse 7 of the same passage, Paul says, “For a bishop must be…” using “bishop” in place of overseer. Here bishop, as is overseer in the NASB, is equated with elder (see Titus 1:5-7 in the King James Version). It is the same word, episcopos, in the Greek text.

In I Peter 5: 1-2, the function of the Elder, what the Elder does, is defined. Peter writes to “exhort the Elders” to pastor the flock. The word pastor, the Greek word poimen, is translated “shepherd” in the NASB and “feed” in the KJV. In the same passage, Peter also shows how they are to shepherd or feed the flock and that is by “exercising” or “taking” the oversight (episcopos).

In Acts 20:17 and 28, Luke links Elders to Overseers to Pastors. Luke records in the text that Paul met with the Elders (presbureros) of the church admonishing them to take heed of themselves as well as the flock over whom they had been made, by the Holy Spirit, overseers (episcopos) to shepherd (poimen) the church of God.

In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word elder is used. The word chosen to render the Hebrew word for elder into Greek is presbuteros. Elders in the Old Testament led the Israelites. They would represent the Jews in spiritual issues, represent them before Kings, and settle political matters. (See II Sam. 5:3; II Sam 17:4; I Kings 20:7; Exodus 7:17; 24:1-9)

Therefore, Elder is the office a male within the church holds; Overseeing is what the male does in the office of Elder; and Shepherding or Pastoring is how he carries out oversight as an Elder. But, what of the Deacon? Is there a difference in what a Deacon is and does within the church?

From the Greek word “diakonos,” we get our English word, “deacon.” It means a “servant.” Though this word has a general sense in its various usages, it also has a specific use. When diakonos is used in a technical sense, it is tied to the office of “deacon” within the church. Quite simply, when it is used to refer to the office of deacon, it has the meaning of serving others within the church. A deacon is a male who is in the office of ministry to others within the church. A deacon renders service.

The qualifications for a deacon are almost exactly the same moral attributes as that for an elder. In I Timothy 3:1-13, Paul spells out first the qualifications for the office of Elder. He lists the attributes, “above reproach, husband of one wife, temperate, self-control, respectable, hospitable, not addicted to the drink, etc…” Then, when the Apostle gets to verse 8, he writes, “Deacons, likewise, are to be men…” Likewise or “in the same way” indicates a link between the Elder qualifications and those for the Deacon.

There is no confusion in the mind of Paul as he penned the qualifications of both Elder and Deacon. While the office of Elder was different from the office of Deacon in function, neither office should be regarded frivolously. Both should be the husband of one wife, making it necessary the offices being filled with males. They should have exceptional character and run their homes according to Scripture. He, of course, has to be a believer and walk in a manner worthy of his calling.

So why are so many church governments set up with one man running the entire show rather than a plurality of leadership? Is it as some suggest that the primitive church government was only a workable solution for the first century church?

The normal church government you see today is an organization with a man or woman called a “pastor” who runs everything. If there are Elders or Deacons, they are more often than not little more than figureheads. A church building growth program is usually their reign of influence. Since “pastor” is not a church office but a function of the Elder, then churches set up on this type of top to bottom structure is not biblical.

In the Orthodox Presbyterian Church I belonged to in the States, there was a ruling Elder (the pastor), Elders, and Deacons. This triangular or pyramid structure had the “ruling elder” at the top, then came the “lower” Elders, then the Deacons, then the church members. This is not the biblical example. One Elder is never above another no matter what you call them. They are all equal.

An excellent example of an entirely Elder ruled, viable church government is found in the Plymouth Brethren Assemblies.[1]



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