Beginning with Constantine and moving into the medieval period of Western Christianity, the Western church became intricately intertwined with the governmental powers of the declining Roman Empire. This relationship had far reaching consequences that continue to impact us today.
Constantine moved his capitol to Constantinople in 324 which left the Roman church without immediate access to the new seat of power. The move placed the capitol more central to the whole empire, but Constantine was also attracted to the East because of its greater wealth, commerce, culture, and educational opportunities (Everett Ferguson, Church History: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, 2nd ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013], 183). Constantine’s policies increasingly extended political privilege and prestige to the church. For example, bishops could now adjudicate civil disputes and their decision carried the weight of the municipal judges. In time, the church established their own courts which impinged on the authority given to imperial courts (Ferguson, 184). A long-lasting accomplishment of Constantine was his impressive building projects which created many church buildings, usually basilicas, to honour holy places in the Christian story. Constantine, given his role at the Council of Nicea, used Christianity as the glue he needed to unify the empire.
But the departure of the capitol from Rome had some large ramifications for the city of Rome itself and the church left behind. With the government moving to Constantinople, the church in Rome was left to fill gaps and fill the gaps it did. For instance, the bishop of Rome gained authority over the city. He soon controlled the election of other bishops, judged in matters of the church, and imposed laws (or canons) of discipline. In reference to missionary work taking place to the west of Rome, the Roman church grew into a patriarchy that supervised those missions. Inversely, the churches to the west of Rome sought out Roman advice and counsel for matters of church polity. Eventually, Rome’s influence spread to North Africa and in the East the Roman church served as a counter balance to the power held by the patriarch of Constantinople. The distance between the two kept the pope at arm’s length from the matters of imperial government. (See the entry “Rome” by Ch. Pietri and M. Ghilardi in the Encyclopedia of Ancient Christianity, 3.425–26, if you want to learn more).
The short story is the Roman Church became the empire in the West. One might hope for a different outcome in the East, but the Eastern Church likewise found itself in the role of sponsoring the state. But that is a story of another time. I understand my commentary of the state of things at this historical time is broad—there were many good things the church did—I think, however, this is an accurate way to understand how deeply intertwined the church and the state became.
Now let’s fast forward to the year AD 785. By this point in history, the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne, the king of the Franks, would within five years become the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire when Pope Leo III appointed him such on Christmas Day in AD 800. However, let’s take a step back. In 785, as king of the Franks, he made the following policy: “If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbaptized, and if he scorns to come to baptism and wishes to absent himself and stay a pagan, let him die.” According to official annals, Charlemagne determined ten years earlier “to attack the treacherous and treaty-breaking tribe of the Saxons and to persist in this war until they were either defeated and forced to accept the Christian religion or entirely exterminated.” Jesus certainly called people to die to themselves, but this is far removed from what Jesus had in mind. Charlemagne defeated the Saxons and forced mass baptisms occurred during the next two years. Lee Camp, who tells this sad story in his book Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 31–33, comments “Though Charlemagne’s grandson believed that the ‘true Christian religion’ had converted Saxon culture, it rather appears instead that the war-making Roman culture had converted Christianity.”
I agree. When Christianity becomes Empire, the emperor’s clothes do not fit either Jesus or his followers. In our next piece, we will explore how the Reformation did not fundamentally change this imperial way of being church.