Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please” Luke 6.5f NRSV
In 312 CE when Emperor Constantine adopts a favorable stance towards the church and ends roughly 150 years of various levels of persecution a major change takes place. Christianity moves from the position of powerless to powerful, from being viewed as atheistic to becoming the religion of the empire (although this move is not completed under Constantine, it begins here) from being a persecuted and scattered minority to being an institution able to build large buildings, gather and deliberate in public and to freely communicate back and forth. In short the world that the church knows is turned upside down and it raises a lot of questions then and now. For some the church sold its soul to the devil and aligned itself with Rome, was corrupted and would never be the same. For others this was the Church’s great triumph and it ushered in the new age for the Christian Church. Reality is probably somewhere between these two extremes, but this was an era of such remarkable change in the church’s identity and authority that we need to spend a little time here.
People flocked into the now suddenly popular church. Church buildings became large structures like the temples of other religions, priests and leaders who had previously dressed in common clothes began to wear formal dress, and even incense once the province of the Imperial court became an aspect of the church’s worship. There also is a sense in which the leaders began to model themselves after the Old Testament priesthood and to occupy more of a priestly role within the church and society. Those in the church who viewed the emperor’s favor as a positive thing began to look upon the emperor as the one anointed by God to bring both history and the empire to its apex. But this sudden rise was certainly not without its own set of crises and problems.
There was a major crisis of authenticity within the church. Many Christians had faithfully endured shame, suffering and in several cases death and had not renounced their faith-but others, including some leaders had under the pressure of interrogation or the threat of death sworn an oath of allegiance to Caesar, had handed over Christian scriptures or in some other way renounced their faith. Others had simply fled away from the persecution rather than to become a martyr for various reasons. Now that Christianity was no longer a persecuted religion it raised many new questions: “Do those members and leaders of the community who renounced their faith still have a place within the community?” “Does the work of leaders who renounced their faith still have a valid standing (for example does a person baptized by a leader who renounced the faith need to be re-baptized)?” “How do we accept new members who have not had to go through the struggles we went through when we became Christians?” “Are these new converts to the faith doing this for reasons of social advancement or are they doing it because of a sincere devotion to God?” These were not questions answered easily or quickly.
One of the early controversies within this change has to do with leaders who failed to remain faithful through the persecution. The Donatist controversy, where the question of “did the faithfulness of the leader impact the efficacy of an act (like baptism or eucharist or forgiveness) or not?” Paired with this question was the secondary question of whether a lapsed or unfaithful leader could return to leadership within the church. Ultimately the church answered that the ministry they did was valid and that it was possible (although not necessarily automatic) that a leader who under pressure had renounced his faith (and it was almost always a male leader at this point) could return to an active role in the leadership of the church. With this new members were welcomed and many quickly joined the Christian church now that it was no longer a persecuted minority. When in 380 CE Christianity becomes the official religion of the Roman Empire under Emperor Theodosius the church is still trying to sort through the effects of the transition to being the dominant religion.
For some this was a severe dilution of the holiness of the church and they would in many cases flee from the cities and attempt to live a holy life in isolation or in communities. This is not the beginning of Monasticism, where monks and nuns would retreat from the world around them in order to live holy lives, but it certainly marked an escalation in the number of people trying to pull away in order to be faithful. In contrast to the regality that clergy and worship throughout the empire were beginning to adopt, the monks and nuns fled into the wilderness or out of the cities to practice a simpler and more constant devotion. These monks and nuns would provide one of the major institutions that would be important for the centuries to come. The monks and sisters would evolve into one of the major reforming voices in the church. Monks would both pose a challenge to the bishops and their sometimes very worldly lives and at other times they would find themselves called upon to be leaders of the church. The monks would also be responsible for preserving much of the knowledge that would otherwise be lost in the conflicts of the coming centuries.
Even with all of these challenges the position of the church had changed dramatically. With that change came the ability to focus internally on how it would determine what it would believe, to formalize its doctrine and its cannon, and to move towards becoming the authority the society would look to in the coming collapse. The authority of the church would not go unchallenged, but as the church addressed these challenges it would centralize its authority, its doctrine, and in this age of the theologian bishops two major authorities would hold power-the emperor and the council and it is to this reality that we will turn next.