The Church in the Christian Empire

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The Church in the Christian Empire

   Church History   October 6, 2017  Comments Off on The Church in the Christian Empire

I. The Church in the Christian Empire

A. The Church of Constantine
1. In 313 A.D. peace reigned in the church. There was a new relationship between the church and the empire. The state intervened in the church and expected it to support it. The emperor tried to smooth over doctrinal conflicts which upset the law and order of the land and even took the initiative to convoke councils. The church and those in it received from the state certain financial, material and legal advantages. The church expected the emperor to fight against paganism and heresy. For some historians, the church of Constantine only came to an end when the Vatican II Council was over and the church firmly distanced itself from civil powers.

B. or of Theodosius?
The church really did not come to become the church of the empire until around 380 A.D. under the reign of Theodosius. It was a slow process, not one that happened overnight. It was a slow absorption of the church into the cultural and legal atmosphere that surrounded it.

II. From Religious Freedom to State Religion

A. The religion of Constantine–the circumstances of his conversion to Christianity is as uncertain as was the nature of his faith. The edifying legend of the battle at the Milvian bridge allows us to say that something happened there and that the emperor thought of himself as a Christian from that time onward. He was never a model Christian. He was baptized on his death bed. His crimes against morality are many: executed members of his own family; ordering the deaths of his father-in-law, three brothers-in-law, a son and his wife.

1. Constantine, sole emperor-in 313 A.D. in the West and Licinius ruled the East. When the two clashed Lucinius persecuted the Christians and Constantine appeared to come to their rescue by waging a religious war on their behalf. He assassinated Lucinius in 324 A.D. and became the sole emperor of the empire. This is the real starting date of the Christian Empire.

2. The foundation of Constantinople–he stayed in the East and founded a new capital for the empire in a small town called Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople. The choice of the site came to him in a dream sent to him by God. This switch in capitals had some long range ramifications on the church and the empire. He sought to make it a second Rome and attracted Christians from the Greek culture. This was the germ of a future major division within the church in years to come.

3. The Christian emperors–the emperors called themselves pontifex maximus (great pontiff; i.e., head of the traditional religion. The emperor looked upon himself as equal to the apostles and therefore could interfere with the church as he saw fit. Christians now accepted the sacred nature of the emperor, whom they naturally enough viewed as the head of the Christian people. It was under this title that he convened the councils.

a. Imperial favors–the emperor gave Christians official buildings (basilicas) and palaces to put to religious use. He had beautified places of worship built, such as the basilicas of St. Peter of the Vatican, the Holy Sepulchre, Bethlehem, and all of the churches of Constantinople. He gave lavish gifts to the bishops. The churches were allowed to received bequests and he allowed it to inherit enormous legacies in property and wealth. That meant that the clergy became upper class in society rather quickly.

b. Policing worship–the emperor was expected to intervene in religious conflicts in order to maintain stability within the empire. In 313 A.D. Christians in Africa asked for his help when Caecilian was elected to be bishop of Carthage. Those who consecrated him were said to be guilty of apostasy during Diocletian’s persecution. They appointed another bishop named Donatus. This conflict spread throughout Africa and the two bishops were openly fighting. Since the emperor only gave money to a legal bishop and Caecilian was the legal bishop the Donatist’s appealed to Constantine to recognize their bishop. Constantine put the problem to the Italian bishops and the bishops in France. They condemned Donatus and Constantine sent in troops to throw them out of the churches they were occupying. There was no peaceful solution to the problem so Constantine allowed freedom of worship for all.

4. The slow elimination of paganism– since Constantine gave all freedom of religion, less than half the empire was Christian by this time and paganism was still very entrenched at both ends of the social scale. Roman senators and intellectuals remained loyal to the cultural and political traditions with its religious dimension. Country people kept their rites of fertility of the land and livestock. Paganism reigned for the country-dweller. During the fourth century legislation became increasingly more favorable to the pagan religions. The emperors, under pressure from the Christians, slowly began to forbid pagan cults. Constantine prohibited: consulting the entrails of animals; performing sacrifices and he closed temples. The laws against paganism became more severe and in 356 A.D. A decree of a death sentence was imposed on those who disobeyed. The law was not rigorously applied.

5. Julian and the return of paganism–Emperor Julian (361-3 A.D.) was called the Apostate by Christians. He was raised a Christian but denounced it when he became emperor and returned to the traditional old religion and tried to revive it in the culture. He denounced Christianity and was killed in battle shortly thereafter. This was considered to be just punishment by the Christians.

6. Outlawed paganism–in 379 A.D. Gratian rejected the title of Great Pontiff. In 380 A.D. Christianity became the state religion by Theodosius. Heretics were persecuted and by 392 A.D. all paganism was outlawed seriously this time. Christians destroyed their temples and killed those who resisted conversion. The reversal was complete. Once the persecutors, the pagans were now the persecuted. Religion was still the foundation and the cement of society. Only the religion had changed.

7. Persuasion or repression–Emperor Maximus in 385 A.D. stepped in to arbitrate an accusation against two Spanish bishops accused of Manichaeism. Martin, bishop of Tours, urged the bishops to step down and the emperor to not shed their blood. “It would be an unheard of thing and monstrous to have an ecclesiastical affair judged by a secular court.” The emperor tried them anyway and found them guilty of immorality and practicing magic and had them executed. These were the first heretics to die under the impact of Christian state justice.

B. Society transformed by the gospel–Christianity gave rhythms to the social life of the empire. From 325 A.D. onward, Sundays and the great Christian festivals became holidays. Laws were passed; i.e., adultery was prohibited with slaves; obstacles were placed in the way of divorce; though the church had slaves, slave owners could not break up slave families; slaves could be set free by proclamation in front of a clergyman; prisoners were treated a little more humanely and could not be starved to death and must be shone the light of the sun at least once a day. Finally the clergy could visit those in prison.

1. Charitable Institutions–almsgiving flourished in the new Christian empire. St.Basil, bishop of Caesarea, founded a truly Christian city which boasted a church, monastery, hospice and hospital. Travelers and the sick were welcome there.

2. Limited Christianizing–the law forbade infanticide, but not leaving children exposed to the elements to die. The prohibition of gladiator fights did not really end until the end of the fourth century. The empire became a police state and the implementation of torture as a form of justice was commonplace. Emperor Theodosius ordered seven thousand people killed in Thessalonica and was required by St. Ambrose to do public penance before he could receive eucharist.

III. The Development of Worship and the Progress of Evangelization

A. The evolution of baptism and penance–it was in the best interest of citizens to become Christians, but many were unwilling to accept the moral demands made on them by baptism. The rites of baptism did not change, but the practice of them was modified.

1. Baptism–many were marked by the sign of the cross, received elementary instructions, tasted blessed salt, and went no further. The catechumenate became a lifelong process and they postponed baptism until imminent death. Penance could only be granted once in a lifetime. Many thought that they would wait until all of their bodily desires had been spent. The church basically ignored this group of catechumenates and concentrated itself on those truly willing to be baptized earlier. This group presented themselves as candidates at the beginning of Lent. The catechesis consisted of progressively unfolding the faith through the creed. Catechumenates were expected to live out the faith in their moral life. The theology emphasized the value of the rites of initiation and God’s gift of grace. St.Augustine, hoping to encourage infant baptism, stressed his original sin theology, which called for divine intervention even in the absence of personal sin.

2. Penance–a Christian who committed a serious sin confessed it to the bishop in secret and then given a public penance like this: the bishop laid his hands on their heads and clothed them in a hair shirt, a garment made of goat’s hair. They formed a special group, order, within the church and no longer took part in the offertory or in communion. During Lent the priests again laid their hands on the penitents. At the end of their time, which varied according to the seriousness of the sin (months to years), the bishop absolved the penitents by a laying on of hands. Penance could be severe: wear special garments of a pauper, go unwashed, fast, not eat meat, give alms, forbidden to engage in certain trades, abstain from all sexual relations and even after absolution the prohibitions on trade and sex lasted until death. Those who failed to follow this penance were considered apostates for which their was no forgiveness. Penance became a pastoral measure for those old and dying only.

3. The splendor of worship–eucharist became more and more a time of pomp and circumstance through the richness of the dress, buildings, liturgical objects, speeches, processions. Daily eucharist grew in the West. The Eastern customs varied.

a. The liturgical year–by the end of the second century the celebration of Easter lasted fifty days. The festival of Pentecost only dates back to the fourth century. The forty days of Lent came into practice after there was peace between church and state. The fasting for forty days was to imitate the forty days which Jesus fasted in the desert before he began his public ministry. In the East January 6th, Epiphany, celebrated the appearance of God on earth, the birth of Jesus and his baptism. January 6th was also the Egyptian solar festival celebrating the beginning of longer days of sunlight. In the West, circa 330 A.D. the birth of Jesus was celebrated on December 25th. This was the pagan day of celebration of the solar festival.

b. The cult of martyrs and pilgrimages–the cult of martyrs grew tremendously during this time, which was borrowed from the pagan religions; i.e., refregerium, the custom of placing food on tombs. Huge basilicas were built on the mortal remains of martyrs; i.e., St. Peter’s in the Vatican. The cult of martyrs spread rapidly during the fifth century onward and amazingly everything from the cross of Christ and anything else that had to do with the Bible suddenly appeared from guides who could sell it to you for a price.

4. The progress of evangelization

a. Within the boundaries of the empire– Christianity spread throughout the empire, especially into the rural areas. This resulted in large numbers of parishes outside of the empire cities and these were entrusted to priests.

b. Beyond the empire–the Persian church reorganized after 410 A.D. and spread towards the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. The Armenian church reorganized in 441 A.D. producing St. Mesrop who invented the alphabet. The African church joined to the Alexandrian church. The church in Germany spread to the caucasian countries.

IV. The Beginnings of Monasticism

A. The origins of a life dedicated to the church–from the very beginning the virtues of virginity and chastity for the sake of the kingdom was held in high honor in Christian communities based on the example of Jesus Christ ( Mt. 19:22,30), (1 Cor.7) (I Tim. 5), (Acts 21:8-9). Throughout the second and third centuries more and more men and women chose the way of asceticism and chastity as a way of life. Distaste for the prevailing morality led women to choose chastity and virginity; for women it meant freeing them from the social oppression of marriage–the beginnings of emancipation. This is the time when the theme “married to Christ” made its first appearance.


a. MONK: Greek (Monachos), solitary; originally the monastery was the abode of a monk.

b. HERMIT: Greek (Eremos), desert, someone who lives in the desert away from society.

c. ANCHORITE: Greek (Anachorein), withdraw, take to the hills, someone who has left this world. Synonymous with hermit.

d. CENOBITE: Greek (Koinos bios), common life, someone who lives in an organized community.

e. ABBA/APA: father, abbot or superior.

f. AMMA: mother, abbess, or superior.

g. MONASTICISM: state of life for those dedicated to God away from the world. Two forms: solitary life; common life.

B. The first Eastern monks- when martyrdom vanished and peace in the church meant no risk for Christians, many slackened off in their faith. Some who wanted to live a more intense Christian life and get away from the affairs of the world went off into the desert. This was the beginning of monasticisrn.

1. Antony (251-356 A.D.), lived to be 105 years old. He is the father of hermits and anchorites in the Egyptian deserts. His example was followed by many. In the upper Nile, Pachomius (286-346 A.D.), founded a monastic life for men, cenobites, and his sister Mary established one for women. This primitive monasticism spread throughout Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. A candidate placed himself under the direction of a spiritual master, a father or abbot, until he was able to stand on his own feet. Dendrites lived in trees; Recluses huddled in hovels; Stylites perched on the tops of pillars; Adamites threw off their clothes and left them behind. Monasticism became a popular form of Christianity. Monasticism was an attempt to return humankind back before the fall of Adam. That is why they tamed wild animals. They showed hospitality to travelers. They refused to study and this often led them into strange obsessions and dubious ventures into dogma.

2. St. Basil of Caesarea (330-379 A.D.) reacted against monastic eccentricities and wrote a Rule for his monks. They had to live in communities. They had to study and care for the poor. Their first duty was obedience to the abbot. The monastery became the ideal Christian society which would replace society here on earth.

C. Monastic life in the West–great numbers of virgins existed in Rome around 350 A.D. and were established by women of high birth. Liturgies for the dedication of virgins, ceremonies for taking the veil was established, drawing from the inspiration and symbolism of marriage.

1. St. Ambrose suggested the virgin Mary as a model for virgins.

2. St. Jerome (347-419 A.D.) defended the superiority of virginity over the married state in life. What monasticism owes Jerome is the taste for the culture of the Bible.

3. St. Augustine (354-435 A.D.) established a new hallmark of monastic life. He assimilated priests into monks and required celibacy as a part of his Rule of Life. He wrote The Rule of St. Augustine, which outlined general observations and advice on the religious life.

4. St. John Cassian (360-435 A.D.) visited monasteries in the East, returned to Marseilles, France and established monasteries for men and women which formed a bridge between the monks of the East and West.

5. The Rule of St. Benedict–(480-547 A.D.) was the inspiration of all the monasteries of the West up to the twelfth century. It insisted on stability: the monk had to promise to live in his monastery. The abbot was the spiritual master and head of the community. He was elected for life by the monks, who owed him absolute obedience. Stability, obedience and humility made for an inner asceticism. The day was divided between Opus Dei, work of God, prayer and worship, reading and meditating on the scriptures, manual work and rest. The Benedictine monasteries contributed to the birth of Europe after the empire faded away in the West.

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