Blame It On Ignatius and Constantine!

criminal-defenseSometimes it’s necessary to point a finger.  Every crime requires a criminal.  Every wreck has a cause.  The past helps us understand our present.  History is a friend with secrets.

That’s why we need to look back to understand a few things.  Today’s 21C version of the Church is vastly different from the revealed version in the book of Acts and the epistles (not to mention the first three hundred years of its history)…but WHY and HOW?

Where did the Church go wrong?  What was the turning point, historically, for a vibrant, attractive decentralized Faith community (as revealed in the New Testament) to turn into an ecclesiastical, political and eventual corporate system?  Well, the answer emerges fairly early in the Christian story.  Somehow it doesn’t take long for man to mess up what God intended.

One finger points to Ignatius of Antioch, a late first-century/early second-century church leader who wrote extensively on congregational matters.  Ignatius favored the idea of a single bishop (elder) to rule a church (some argue because he himself was a disgruntled elder).  Essentially, he wanted to centralize a local church around one person and a group of churches around a single ruling bishop.  A few followed his lead, particularly in Rome.  For example, Evaristus (c. 105) reportedly divided Rome into parishes with a supervising priest while a hundred years later, Fabian (c. 240) further divided the city into districts (ruled by a single deacon).  Still most Christian churches remained decentralized for the first three hundred years.

But then Roman emperor Constantine legalizes Christianity in Rome (Edict of Milan, AD 313).  By the early fourth century, a centralized congregational frame was now widely accepted and, consequently, easily assimilated into a Roman political system.  As a result, the fourth century “Catholic” church blossomed as “Christendom” (or Christ’s Kingdom).  Pagan temples were converted into churches. Bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes emerged.  Tax exempt status was granted to churches.  And the wall of separation between clergy and laity was erected.  Nearly all these reforms stand to this day.

So the verdict is in…you can point the finger (largely) at Ignatius and Constantine.  But I would respectfully protest that doesn’t make them (or their adherents) right to reframe and centralize Christianity around a single bishop, archbishop, pope or even city (Rome) any more than it was right for Israel to request a “king”.  Ironically, “Catholic” (from Greek καθολικισμός, katholikismos) literally means “universal.”   And yet today is known, rather oxymoronic, as the Roman Catholic Church.

For 1700 years, including 500 years of Protestant Reformation, we have missed the point and created a centralized religion.

In fact, I continue to contend the Original DNA was (and still is) a decentralized frame of congregational government.  Power spread throughout.  Everyone pulling their weight.  Multiple leaders guiding the vision and values, doing the preaching and teaching, in a local congregation.  No single individual in charge and no single apostle, priest or pastor more important.  No denominational hierarchy or headquarters.  Most Christians have never experienced such a church.  

It’s definitely what we find revealed in the Scriptures.

As Peter wrote, we are ALL priests in God’s Kingdom.  We all have a voice and vision.  We all can evangelize, preach, teach, sing and serve.  Or as Paul added, there are now no more barriers between race, gender or profession.  We are ONE Body.  The Church isn’t a place we go to.  Church isn’t defined by an address, a time or a program and it’s certainly not a “personality-driven” enterprise (which is common in so many megachurches today) or “priest-/preacher-centered.”  The Church is PEOPLE.  Messy, imperfect and broken people who embrace Jesus and Holy Spirit empowerment.  Maybe that’s why early churches were small–a couple dozen people at best–worshipping in a home rather than like we do today, in a Christian event, service or program.

Imagine if we could RADICALLY RESTORE the Church to its Original DNA!  What if we reclaimed a decentralized Body, led by multiple pastors, gathering in homes but living their faith publicly, empowering every person to “go and teach” the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Why would this model be more powerful in a postmodern America?  Here are a few reasons:

  • Most non-churched/former churched Americans have a negative view of a church building and her leaders and a general distrust of institutional Christianity.
  • Americans don’t mind gathering in private homes (for parties, reunions, etc.).  It’s a comfortable place for conversation.
  • House churches operate faster, leaner and better contextualized to individual neighborhoods.  Change will be key to survival.
  • The emerging persecution of Christians will drive faith communities underground.  In persecuted countries, a decentralized frame succeeds.

In the coming weeks, I’ll continue to unpack these ideas.  Just know that God IS working.

He’s always working.


About rickchromey

Dr. Rick Chromey is a theologian, philosopher, historian and cultural expert. He has empowered leaders to lead, teachers to teach and parents to parent since 1985.

Posted on September 23, 2015, in Acts, American church, Christianity, Church History, Leadership and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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