Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Impact of Constantine on the Christian church

For the first three centuries of their religion's existence, Christians were a persecuted, but growing, minority in the Roman Empire.  But with the ascent of Emperor Constantine, who claimed to be a Christian, everything changed.  In his book The Story of Christianity, historian Justo Gonzalez describes the impact of this change on the church:

"After Constantine's conversion, Christian worship began to be influenced by imperial protocol.  Incense, which was used as a sign of respect for the emperor, began appearing in Christian churches.  Officiating ministers, who until then had worn everyday clothes, began dressing in more luxurious garments.  Likewise, a number of gestures indicating respect, which were normally made before the emperor, now became part of Christian worship.  The custom was introduced of beginning services with a processional.  Choirs were developed, partly in order to give body to that procession,  Eventually, the congregation came to have a less active role in worship.

Theology was being accommodated to fit the new situation.  First of all, it is clear that, in the New Testament as well as in the early church, it was affirmed that the Gospel was first of all good news to the poor, and that the rich had particular difficulty in hearing it and receiving it.  Actually, one of the theological issues that caused some concern for earlier Christians was how it was possible for a rich person to be saved.  But now, beginning with Constantine, riches and pomp came to be seen as signs of divine favor…Eusebius (an early historian)--and the thousands of others for whom he probably spoke--does not seem to have been aware of the radical change that was taking place as the persecuted church became the church of the powerful, nor of the dangers involved with that change.

Likewise, Eusebius described with great joy and pride the ornate churches that were being built [early Christians had met in homes and catacombs].  But the net result of these buildings, and of the liturgy that evolved to fit them, was the development of a clerical aristocracy, similar to the imperial aristocracy, and often as far from the common people as were the great officers of the Empire.  The church imitated the uses of the Empire, not only in its liturgy, but also in its social structure" (pgs. 125, 134)

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