In this piece, we explore how the church morphed from a people on a journey to a place where religious goods and services are peddled. Because of the compressed nature of these pieces, I will make some broad generalizations to which we have plenty of counter stories, but still these generalizations are helpful in grasping the much more complicated history. Throughout Christian history, the church has been a mixed people, wheat and weeds, growing alongside one another. So, please, grant me some allowances in my generalizations.
Perhaps the first “wrong” turn in the life of the church happened at the beginning of the second century as a response to rapidly multiplying heresy. The Romans arrested Ignatius, a bishop of Antioch, and were transporting him to Rome for trial. Along the way, Ignatius is allowed to write some churches along the way and, in these letters, he encourages them to not interfere with his journey to Rome because his destiny is to give his life for Christ. He further instructs the various churches to be loyal to their bishop (episkopos), a designation of leadership that is now placed above the other elders (presbyters) caring for the church.
Ignatius’s comments are the first we have that a hierarchal arrangement is being formed in the life of some early churches. So, for these churches, we now have a single bishop, multiple elders, deacons, and the congregation. Prior to this, so the evidence shows, congregations were led by a plurality of elders in each local setting (though the evidence does support some variation in this mode of functioning). The dynamic change noted in Ignatius’s writings is that a single person is now leading point. Nonetheless, this move neglects one of Jesus’s most important teachings:
You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:42–45).
Jesus apparently had something different in mind. I have often taught playfully that in the Christian community there are two levels: “those who serve and those who serve more. If you serve more, you are a leader.” Ideal Christian community envisions the priesthood of all believers. Ignatius’s call for a single key leader might not have been such a bad move for a season of crisis, but over the years the hierarchy continued to grow particularly after the church became the legal official religion of the Roman Empire, but I get ahead of myself.
Until the year 311, Christians were sporadically persecuted and generally illegal from the Roman perspective. During the earliest years of Christian history, the church best exemplified the “caravan” style of doing life together (see the previous blog). However, in that fateful year, emperor Galerius stopped persecution by means of the Edict of Toleration so that Christians would be free to worship as they desired. Two years later Constantine declared in the Edict of Milan that freedom of religions would be allows in the empire. The Roman empire never outlawed paganism but this is the turning point for Christians when they moved from outsiders to insiders among the powerful in the empire. The early church in quick moves, gave up much of their prophetic—speaking truth to power—witness and became willingly chaplains of the State. With the tables now turned, the Christians became, well, un-Christian. For the “Christian” emperor enacting the kingdom of God was in direct tensions, if not in contradictions, with the needs of the state. For the “average” congregant, one was now virtually born into the church because one was born in the “Christian” empire. Commitment was no longer costly and perhaps even unnecessary.
Formerly the church would have met in homes and rented quarters if necessary but after Constantine’s conversion, the church built free standing structures (such as the elaborate basilicas). Here, I think, that the second “wrong” turn was made. The church transformed from a people on the move to a place where things happen. This transformation is critical for understanding how the Western church came to be where it is. Even the Reformation could not shake this reality. We call this new arrangement with the state Christendom—the church as institution and supporter of those in powerful places.
I would now like to offer a counter-metaphor to “Caravan” to capture the church in Christendom. The church morphed from being a Caravan, a people on a journey, to a company store (i.e., commissary, Costco or Sam’s Club as analogies). A company store would be a place where people who already belong to the company seeks goods and services they believe they need. Membership in the company store is low-risk and the only cost is that you belong to the company (empire?). The leaders of the company store are there to take care of the company’s interest although often in the guise of “keeping the customer happy.” If the customer is unhappy they need only to find another store—which short-circuits the process of maturing disciples for Jesus. Unlike leading people in a caravan, the leaders in the company store finds their most exciting activity to be dusting the shelves and keeping the stock of religious goods well supplied.
In our next piece, we will look at how the “company store” acted now that the pressure was on the church constantly to serve the imperial demands of the company.