The early Christian communities were compassionate and caring – and charismatic and creative, when it came to their ministry and rituals. Men and women, who were heads of households, presided at Eucharist. They considered themselves a community of believers not an institutional church.
The communities gathered regularly, breaking-bread in memory of Jesus the Christ, and they created rituals for welcoming new members, reconciling members who had fallen away, and comforting and supporting those who were sick or close to death.
Their spirit and lives were anchored in the exhortation of Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)
Tertullian (c. 155 AD – c. 220), the early Christian author from ancient Carthage in the Roman province of Africa, imagined pagans looking at Christians and saying, “Look . . . see how they love one another (for they themselves the pagans hate one another). And see how they are ready to die for each other (for the pagans themselves are more ready to kill each other).”
The early Christian community elected and evaluated their leaders. The first century Christian document known as the Didache tells Christians “You must, then, elect for yourselves overseers [i.e. “bishops”] and deacons who are a credit to the Lord…who are gentle, generous, faithful, and reliable.”
In his Apostolic Tradition, Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170 – 236), an influential second-century theologian, emphasized that “The one who is ordained as an overseer, being chosen by all the people, must be irreproachable.” Cyprian (c. 210 – 256), writer and bishop of Carthage in North Africa, stressed that, by virtue of the community’s divine authority, the bishop should be elected by all the faithful. He added that the people “have the power of choosing worthy priests and of rejecting unworthy ones.”
Speaking of the election of Cornelius (died in 253) as bishop of Rome in 251, Cyprian remarked “Cornelius was made overseer by the judgment of God and his Christ, by the testimony of almost all the clergy, by the vote of the people who were present, and by the college of mature priests and good people.”
Christian social and cultural identity shifted dramatically, however, under Emperor Constantine (c. 272 – 337) who made Christianity an important and legitimate religion in his Roman Empire and under Emperor Theodosius I (347 – 395) who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380.
As Christianity developed a well defined institutional structure, thanks especially to strong Constantinian support, a major ecclesiastical paradigm shift was underway.
Sometimes people and leaders don’t see and don’t understand the long-term implications of what they are getting into. True yesterday. True today. Antiquated structures get formalized into stone-like monuments. Leadership people lose sight of their real purpose and focus more and more on promoting their own egos and power.
In the autumn of 312 CE, according to the old legend, Constantine and his soldiers had a profound military-religious experience which encouraging them to fight under the sign of Christ. Fighting under the insignia of Christ, at the Battle of the Tiber’s Milvian Bridge, Constantine’s troops defeated his major rivals, especially fellow emperor Maxentius (c. 283 – 312), whose head was triumphantly carried through the streets of Rome.
Constantine became the single Roman Emperor. He converted to Christianity (but was not baptized until shortly before his death in 337). Historians wonder if he really became a Christian or very pragmatically used the growing Christian religion to tie together his unsteady empire. Personally I think he was a very pragmatic politician and a very distorted Christian. In any event, Constantine hoped to unify his Roman Empire by promoting (and taking advantage of) just one religion for all. His was the earliest form of Christian nationalism.
In 313 Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, making Christianity one of the legally recognized religions in the Roman Empire. Then, in 325, he convened a council of all Christian bishops in Nicaea (now İznik, Turkey). They formulated the Nicene Creed – still used today — and demanded that all Christians accept it. For Constantine it was another step in unifying his empire. Constantine desired unity in the church not for the sake of Christianity but for the welfare of his empire.
Basically he annexed the church to use it as an agent of political and social control. Bishops became civil judges. Although Constantine died in 337, forty-three years after his death his dream was realized with the Edict of Thessalonica, which declared Nicene Christianity to be the ONLY legitimate religion for the Roman Empire. Church and state were becoming one. Church leaders became imperial leaders in power and influence, as well as courtly attire, and institutional protocol. The bishops of Rome gloried in it.
Constantinian Christianity clearly mirrored Constantine more than Christ. Although Constantine really preached a false gospel, church leaders marched to to beat of his imperial drum because he had eliminated persecution and had given them great power and status.
Curiously, the Nicene Creed of 325 said nothing about what Jesus had taught, beyond the idea that God is a Father. It said nothing about loving one another, about compassion, or forgiveness, or helping the poor and needy, or renouncing violence, or building bridges with one’s enemies. Christianity shifted its identity focus from correct Christian conduct to doctrinal fidelity and institutional obedience. Jesus had empowered people to change their lives. Constantinian Christianity exercised power over people. Compassion was replaced by control.
The episcopal office evolved into an excessively organized institutional bureaucracy. The Council of Trent, held between 1545 and 1563 in Trento, Italy, reinforced the power and position of bishops. Already in the medieval period, Christian bishops had assumed the place of Roman commanders, making secular decisions for their cities, and even leading their own troops in military battles when necessary. Let us not forget that the popes had their own army and navy up until the fall of the Papal States in 1870. The last ships of the papal flotilla were sold in France after the death of Pius IX in 1878.
Under the princely acting bishops, relations with ordinary people were not always cordial. The institutional church had become an administrative pyramid and the bishops were at the top. They controlled not only ministry (ministerium) but also theological teaching (magisterium). Bishops became powerful men who had not only institutional power but considerable economic and political power. They had once been called “Father,” but their titles became what they are today “Excellency” or “Eminence.” And of course they began to dress like Renaissance princes in luxurious clothing.
Church members, back then as today, had no voice in electing or critiquing their institutional leaders. We should change that today. Certainly the synodal movements point in that direction. But will they be effective? We need a more horizontal leadership structure and a reform much more extensive than the 16th century Reformation. The church should not be an authoritarian pyramid.
I think J. P. Grayland, a presbyter of Palmerston North Catholic Diocese in New Zealand, says it very well in an October 26 article in LaCroix:
“The Catholic Church cannot avoid institutional change much longer because its institutional model, at least in the West, has passed its ‘use-by’ date. One of the dominant models of perceiving the Church is the model of institution. This model’s decision-making structure is more oligarchical than collegial, and its approach to contemporary questions is preservationist rather than integrationist. Whether we like it or not, the Western Church’s operating model as a hierarchical edifice is challenged by the forces of institutional collapse.”