Friday, April 11, 2008

CONSTANTINE AND THE MODERN CHURCH

If you want to blow your mind and challenge your idea of what the modern Church is up to I'd recommend reading a little on Emperor Constantine. I picked up the book "Constantine, The Great" by Michael Grant on sale at Barnes and Noble a while back and it is a real eye-opening book about how the modern church was shaped by this one person. Fascinating stuff, and a little disturbing to be honest.

Barna and Viola have re-published "Pagan Christianity" recently which I am sure contains a lot of the same ideas as what I discovered by reading about the History of the early church and what Constantine did to shape our modern Christian practice.

What's fascinating to me is that, even after Constantine stepped in and protected the Christians, gave them the pagan temples to worship in, and stopped the persecutions, many kept meeting in homes and Constantine actually had to make it illegal for them to keep doing this in order to funnel believers into his new way of meeting.

I've not written anything yet on the effects of Constantine on the practice of the modern Church, but this is a pretty fascinating subject for me.

I mean, yes, God has used this form of church for over 1,700 years now. And, yes, God certainly "allowed" this change to take place and to remain up until this very day, predominantly around the world...but it still troubles me that our modern forms of worship are built upon setting up a
royal clergy, handing them a castle, creating a peasant congregation for them to "tax" and support the royalty and the upkeep of the castle, etc.

This just doesn't seem right to me...or Biblical either.

We try to make connections between this modern form of church and the OT synagogue/temple form of worship...but clearly this was not Constantine's intention. He simply removed pagan priests and installed Christian "priests", adding a cross to the back of the room and changing the subject
of the worship to God.

So, to this very day, we have a paganized form of Christianity? I guess I never noticed before, but now it does trouble me. Every Christian Holiday is a Christianization of a pagan feast or holiday, (not a jewish one...except for Pentecost and Passover), and I'm not so sure that Constantine himself
really "got it". At least according to the book I'm reading now. Constantine had a problem with the crucifixion, rebuked his own sister for worshiping Jesus, and mainly wanted to re-define God as a warlike "Zeus" figure, a god of war and power and victory, not a God who, as Jesus suggested, was like Him, a loving, compassionate, merciful God.

Honestly, these ideas disturb me. What do I do with them? How do I reconcile these thoughts in my own head?

I'm really still grappling with these thoughts and trying to understand how to communicate the truth of what I'm learning with the Grace and Love that God expects of me.

More later...

Keith Giles

8 comments:

The Cosby Family said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Cosby Family said...

Keith, we've just recently read the revised version of "Pagan Christianity" as well. We are still processing and trying to swallow and respond, I mean we've struggled with traditions not coinciding with the bible, but it was so detailed and specific where these things arrived from; that was profound to us. We'd love to converse on this topic with you sometime.

In HIM,
Daniel & Heather

The Dan Ward said...

The fact that some (many?) Christian practices have pagan roots never really bothered me, because that seems so perfectly consistent with the Gospel message of conversion.

We all have pagan roots, in a manner of speaking. But the Gospel transforms us into new creatures. The hands that once resisted God are now sanctified to serve God - but they're the same hands. And if an older, pagan religion used candles (for example) as a symbol of light, um, that's just because candles are good symbols of light, and light is a good symbol of goodness. And you don't have to be a genius to figure out that dark and cold December is a good time for a warm, enheartening celebration of life. It meets a real, human need and speaks to our fears. People figured that out before Christ, and (while I haven't read the book) apparently Constantine decided they were on to something. Perhaps he managed to avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The correlation between pagan and Christian practices also strikes me as consistent with the idea of God revealing himself in subtle ways to the whole wide world. The fact that certain ancient societies had a concept of a "corn king" who died and was reborn does not negate Christ's resurrection, or prove that He is merely a "corn king" archetype. In fact, the corn king myths point to Christ, making his story sound familiar even on the first hearing.

I would have been surprised if Christianity *didn't* copy a lot of that stuff. We share the same physical world as the pagans, and the imagery, seasons, observations of the natural world, etc are a common experience for us all. The pagans didn't get *everything* wrong. But it wasn't until Christ came along that we saw the real reason behind it all...

Keith Giles said...

Dan,

I think you're missing what we're saying here.

Constantine took everything the early church was doing up to that point (after 300 years of practice) and pretty much overnight, arbitrarily re-wrote the rulebook and told the Church they would not be persecuted if they played the game according to his brand new rules.

Those new rules meant the end of a family-based gathering, a peer-led worship, a shared meal as the Communion Supper, and a participatory, discipleship-based form of Church life.

Instead, Constantine set up a new system of Church, pretty much overnight, which re-made the Church into a Kingdom with a King (Pastor) who taxed (tithe) the peasants (laity) to keep the castle (pagan temples retrofitted with crosses) open and decorated.

That's not the same as adopting things which were pagan in order to spread the Truth of the Gospel.

kg

Anthony Mathenia said...

I've noticed that while Constantine's influence on Church practice is often critiqued, his shaping of Christian theology is not given as much attention. He had a prominent role in shaping the Nicene creed. It interesting to me that this individual, with murky Christian beliefs, defines the relationship between Jesus and the Father, that becomes the unquestioned Orthodox for centuries thereafter.

The Dan Ward said...

Ah, I did indeed misunderstand. I guess I should have read the book, eh? :) So I agree, the transition from organic, family-oriented, participatory worship to the more structured, corporate, heirarchal stuff - yeah, that's not cool.

I suppose I was responding to other discussion I've heard over the years, that Christmas is really a pagan holiday just because pagans used to celebrate something in mid/late Dec (and so is Easter, for the same reasons, etc), or even that the cross is a pagan symbol.

So yes, I too am wrestling with what it means to be a Christian in the early 21st century. How much of what we do is simply cultural, how much is from Constantine (and others), and how much is truly faithful to God's call?

And speaking of missing the point, I'm reading a fascinating book titled "Adventures In Missing The Point." No kidding - it's definitely worth picking up...

Keith Giles said...

I think it's a point worth mentioning that, yes, Constantine (who was not a Church leader, member, or apostle) was allowed to dictate to the Church how and when and in what fashion it would worship, gather and relate.

Several of the early church fathers did rebel against this interference in the church affairs and left to the desert (which is where we find the "Desert Fathers") to continue to worship and relate as they had for the first 300 years.

Again, while this all certainly troubles me, I am left not really knowing what to do about all of this, other than what I am already doing which is to worship and relate in that New Testament fasion myself and to encourage others to do the same.

Jilliefl1 said...

I've read the book, too, and was struck by how many of the practices of the church today conflict with God's design for His Church. I think Viola and Barna are trying to help us see the harm these traditions cause to the Body of Christ. As you said, Keith, the family-based gathering where every member participates has been replaced by an organizational system. I've been participating in organic church life for several years and have to say the Lord's original plan works beautifully. It's such an amazing thing to see Christ lead the meetings and to see the Body built up in love through every member bringing a portion of Christ to the meeting.

If you like satire, check out the new spoof video for "Pagan Christianity?". Very funny.

http://youtube.com/watch?v=hslswIal9u4