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.”

10 thoughts on “From Compassionate and Caring Community to Imperial Church

  1. I’d be curious about your take on the recent synodality efforts. Like the Council of Constance, will that process result in a movement towards conciliarism?

  2. Dear Jack,
    Your historical narrative has really hit the mark in analyzing where we seem to be today. Of course, one parish does not an entire church make, but I have noticed a return to the practices of the 1950’s here in our parish with many traditional formal rituals; e.g., novenas, rosary and benediction before mass, evening prayers and the like. A significant number of our “elderly” parishioners seem to thrive on them. While they do represent one kind of spirituality, there isn’t a vibrant alternative offered to us in the vein of the early church you described. Many people seem comfortable “following the rules.” Perhaps it takes the element of personal judgment and responsibility away from spirituality. “Doctrinal fidelity and institutional obedience,” as you stated, can be comforting and easy. A simple illustration of this mindset: Our pastor, as many have, has re-introduced the Prayer to St. Michael, the Archangel at the end of mass. Privately, I offered to replace it with prayer cards, at my personal expense, with the Prayer of St. Francis. He politely and courteously rejected my offer because, he said, “The Prayer of St. Michael is a ‘vertical prayer,’ while The Prayer of St. Francis is a ‘horizontal prayer’.” Needless to say, I was left speechless and somewhat understood what is happening in the Catholic church today. I am anxiously awaiting the results of the worldwide synods. I pray that we will revert back to the compassionate and caring church you described.

    1. Many thanks Frank. Living in the past is only a temporary delight because it is a fantasy. Indeed the present brings problems, frustrations, and even at time anxiety. BUT it is in the present that we do meet the Living God — our source of real life and our anchor in difficult days.

    2. Frank,

      Horizontal prayer, especially verbalized in Liturgy by those really participating, are prayers of awakening the spirit within each person to reach out beyond the boundaries erected to keep oneself in isolation, safe and anesthetized.

      Those horizontal prayers must be responded in strong voice: “People, hear our prayer”, and not Lord, hear our prayer.

      God already knows our prayer, and God’s answer is for us to listen-up, listen-up, take affirmative action, be responsible for needed change and making it happen, be supportive with all our love.

      Not just simply throwing out “thoughts and prayers” that God will come to the rescue.

  3. The main “hold over” item that, for me, still needs to be addressed is the concept of sin and how we are continually told we are born sinful-broken, bad. The Nicene Creed and the Our Father are prime examples. As your post today traces the history of the Catholic church over the years, it clearly shows how the main focus was, and still is, turned from community to control by the use of the word sin. When will we be freed to express our beliefs without being held accountable to anyone but ourselves and find the comfort of the God within us? Rewriting a more positive and inclusive versions of The Nicene Creed and Our Father might be a good way to start.

  4. Was Zacchaeus a collaborator during the occupation, working for the Romans to keep the peace in Jericho? How is this different from the Temple authorities who collaborated in Jerusalem with the Roman garrison down the main street? We know now how that worked out. In the gospel passage, Jesus has a wider scope, an aperspectival observation, embedded in the evangelist’s phrase “to seek and to save,” which employs the same verb forms in the Greek version, terms used to depict the intentions of both Jesus and Zacchaeus, in an ironic parallel. Irony is a key element in parables as well as in narration, which is often lost in the “official” English translations “sanctioned” by the church.

    And there’s the rub, the itch that needs scratching, a particular tree that needs climbing for a longer perspective: what good comes from worshipping the church as an institution, even if it is construed as a divine concession to human weakness? Jesus Himself seems to have more faith in an individual’s abilities and willingness to respond to beauty, goodness, truth and integrity than the crowds milling about the Temple. According to the written tradition, it is as much a matter of Jesus seeking out and rescuing individuals from themselves, in private, away from the crowd, those who seem to have lost their voice. In every instance recorded, the individual also sought out Jesus, even mutedly, absurdly, quietly, responding to the call of the Living God.

    Yesterday, the homilist referred to the Zacchaeus story as the ideal of “salvation,” the English term in the official translation propping up a theoretical vertical soteriology, an “economy of salvation.” I was waiting for a deep dive into the wider implications of the Greek term, i.e., the concrete horizontal aspects of rescuing, keeping alive, and returning home, but it didn’t arrive. Assuming Luke’s gospel was first written in Greek for readers in his own time, after Masada and the sacking of the Temple, that was the end of the hope for salvation, restoration, retribution. To a certain extent, our time isn’t much different for those who revert to theological institutional fantasies. However, progress is in our hands, if we take hold of the plow, and love one another as Jesus loved.

    The lectionary gospel yesterday meshes miraculously with a meditation on the UN’s “Agenda 2030” especially No. 10, and the World Council of Churches’ “Zacchaeus Tax Campaign,” both based on a proposal by Thomas Piketty for reducing inequality WITHIN the EU. Could you even imagine that a similar proposal would likely pass through the US Congress, even if it were introduced? A skeptic in the crowd might say No, but ironically a rebel would agitate for resistance against the absurd, the muted irony behind the scene, on the fringes of the crowd, up a tree with a different perspective on the horizon.

    So the lesson for me is that the phantastical system, the institutional structures, the absurd idols of our current crumbling tribal Babel, is less likely to turn on a dime to work against inequality and for climate reparation, but I can. As a private individual I can at least make the donations, and possibly put hand to the plow, as a pensioner at this time of my life, for making a ripple of change, horizontally, on behalf of grandchildren and for all Life on this fragile Earth, our island home. At least, rewrite a creed that is not an historical oath of political loyalty, or take an Aramaic approach to the Pater Noster, like Neil Douglas-Klotz does in “Prayers of the Cosmos.” As you said, “We can make it happen,” because “we” are not alone.

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