History is messy. Historians make it seem more neat. The history of the Church, and nation-states, is often written through the lens of those in power. But the true history of the Church is always firmly in the hands of God. And the true history of nation-states has always been firmly in the hands of Satan. The nation-state is to Satan’s kingdom as the Holy Spirit is to God’s. This is the lens through which to properly view both.
The history of the Church is firmly enmeshed with the history of Western nation-states. That all began with the rise of Constantine. The rise of Constantine as the Emperor of Rome was the single most formative development for the early Church, besides Jesus’ life and Paul’s missionary journeys.
Born towards the end of the third century, over a hundred and fifty years after the execution of Ignatius, Constantine did more to establish the early Church than any other single figure. Without the favorable actions of Constantine, the Church might have remained a small, fringe sect of Judaism. Because of Constantine, Christianity took center stage as the favored religion that would dominate the most powerful Western nations for the next seventeen-hundred years. Those states were Rome, Constantinople, and the European Monarchies.
Constantine’s favorable connection to Christianity came through his mother, Helena, who was a Greek Christian. He was a great military leader who was able to concentrate power at a time when the leadership of the Roman Empire was fractured by civil war between himself and the other two Roman Emperors, Maxentius and Licinius. The two most significant things Constantine did for the Church were The Edict of Milan and the First Council of Nicaea (En.6).
The first four hundred years of the Church were marked by the ebb and flow of persecution. Because of that, the focus of the early Church was survival. During this period, it was not easy or popular to be a Christian. The two most dominant political forces effecting the early Church were Judaism and Rome. Both proved to be hostile towards Christianity at times. What held the Church together during that time was a close-knit, cloistered community, centered on the mission of Jesus, to make disciples and baptize them into the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The life of the Church was simple in scope and function. The life of the Church was individual, local church bodies with a multiplicity of mature Elders and Deacons helping foster an environment for growing individuals up into relationship with God through the active role of the Holy Spirit. This is often called Spiritual Development. Spiritual Development was the focus of the early Church.
In between the time of Ignatius of Antioch, and the rise of Emperor Constantine, local churches remained autonomous, developing individually under a fairly loose organizational structure and orthodoxy. There was no human hierarchy of authority outside the local church body, and no codification of Christian truth. The early churches would have had the Jewish Old Testament as their scriptures, and the letters of some of the first Apostles as a guide for further instruction and organization. The early Church was centered firmly on the three personalities of the Trinity, and what they represented. In the early Church, the leader was Jesus, the organization was the Father, and the truth was the Spirit. It was the centrality of that more organic kind of order that Satan wanted to attack.
Satan had already laid out his full Plan through the three temptations of Christ. The first step of that Plan was One Leader. Ignatius had been the first tiptoe towards that. This hadn’t directly affected Jesus as the true Head of the Church, but it had laid the ground work for that. It had begun to focus each individual church under the leadership and power of one individual, instead of a group of leaders. That One Leader, over and above all the other mature spiritual Elders, wasn’t necessarily in contradiction to the way Jesus and Paul had already organized the Church. But it was about to be. The next move of Satan came through another great leader. That leader was Constantine.
Keep in mind, the people Satan uses for his schemes are the same people God uses. God is ever countering Satan’s move, not just in the Church at large, but in the lives of individual Christians.
We’re all a mix of sinner and saint. We’re all given to God by degrees. God uses imperfect people, because that’s all He has available. So, I’m not saying that Ignatius, Constantine, or any other great Christian leader was the sole instrument of Satan. They were great leaders for God. But they were not perfect, and they were not wholly aware of the strongholds of the enemy within them. As a result, the Church has never been perfect, or pure.
The Church isn’t something that started out good, and has gone downhill from there. The Church is something that started out small, and has grown up from there. As a result, the history of the Church is a history of Godly individuals working towards what God wants, while at the same time having to deal with the constant counter Plan of Satan. As a result, the history of the Church is a mixed picture of Jesus’ Bride and Satan’s Prostitute. The hope of God for the Church, is that it is becoming ever more The Bride, and ever less The Prostitute.
As the Church has grown up, so has Satan’s counter Plan within it. That Plan was moved forward by Constantine’s attempts to protect and solidify the power of the Church. The first step was The Edict of Milan.
The early Church experienced a lot of persecution, mostly from Rome, and Roman Emperors. For some reason, Christians were seen as a contradiction to the power of Rome by some of its leaders, and thus persecuted accordingly. At the time of Constantine, Rome itself was not in good shape. It was beginning to fracture and split between the Western and Easter Roman Empires. The Western Roman Empire eventually fell to the barbaric tribes of the Goths, Visigoths, Gauls, and Franks, which would later form the flourish European Monarchies, which would also establish Christianity in the Roman Catholic Church. The Easter Roman Empire would eventually become Constantinople, under Constantine, which we now call Byzantium, and which would also establish Christianity in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
During the time of Constantine’s rise to power, much of the Church’s persecution came through Maxentius. The first break in that persecution wasn’t the Edict of Milan. It was the edict of toleration in 311 by the previous Roman Emperor Galerious, who had chosen Maxentius as one of his successors. The Edict of Milan came in 313 when both Roman Emperors, Constantine and Licinius, agreed to change polices of persecution towards Christians. But the Edict of Milan wasn’t just for Christians, and it didn’t make Christianity the state religion. It offered tolerance for every religion. But since Constantine already favored Christianity, the Edict of Milan did represent a big shift in circumstances for the Church (En.7).
For the first time in its history, the Church had a powerful benefactor in its corner. That change bolstered the fate of the Church. It was the beginning of better times for Christians. The second step of Constantine in favoring the Church was the First Counsel of Nicaea.
The First Counsel of Nicaea was the beginning of a period in the history of the Church known as the Patristic Period. Patristic is just a fancy Greek word for “Father”. The Patristic Period was the time in Church history of the Church Fathers, also called the Holy Fathers. The First Counsel of Nicaea was the first of seven counsels during this period.
Up to this point, what individual churches taught was up to individual churches. It’s not that individual churches had no concern for sister churches. There was interaction and mutual support between churches, as we see in the New Testament. There was also concern for what was being taught. In his letters, Paul often addressed doctrinal issues. But the central focus of the early Church wasn’t doctrinal. It was about forming Christ in others through the process of Discipleship and Spiritual Formation. The Church’s role was helping individuals grow in relationship with God through the Holy Spirit, so the Holy Spirit could guide each person into Truth. Truth was not an abstract set of beliefs, but a Person we should come to know and walk with. The main focus and function of the Church was spiritual, not theological.
Even the Apostle John, in addressing false truth and false teachers, made this statement in his first letter; “and as for you, the anointing which you received from Him remains in you and you have no need for anyone to teach you; but as His anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you remain in Him” (1 John 2:27). The focus of Spiritual Development was helping Christians grow in their connection to God through life in the Spirit. It was that life within every Christian that was the source of all things, including truth and understanding. But the First Counsel of Nicaea began a trend towards a different focus in the Church.
At the time, doctrinal differences among individual churches and church leaders was becoming more apparent. There was some discussion and argument over certain beliefs, and whether they should be taught. The particular issue which prompted Emperor Constantine to convene the First Counsel of Nicaea concerned the divinity of Jesus. Was Jesus created or eternal, subservient to or co-equal with God the Father?
Arius, one of the elders from the church in Alexandria, believed that Jesus was created, and not co-equal, while his Bishop, Alexander, believed Jesus was co-equal, and thus eternal like the Father. Over three hundred Bishops answered the call of Emperor Constantine to gather and decide what the Church at large would accept concerning this issue. In the end, Arius was ruled a heretic and banished to the remote region of Illyria (En.8).
For the first time in the history of the Church, a group of Church Bishops got together and established some core Christian beliefs and practices, codifying them in what became known as the Nicaean Creed. But this first counsel and its creed did more than establish some consistency in Church belief and practice. It also set a precedent. It empowered a small set of Church leaders in a new way. They weren’t just empowered by the Holy Spirit to know God, speak truth, and lead the Church. They were empowered by a Roman Emperor to enforce what they thought was right in the Church as a whole.
One of the actions of the First Council of Nicaea was to banish an elder of a church for what he taught and believed. The other aspect of the council was its attendance. One thousand eight hundred Church Bishops were invited by Constantine, but only around three hundred showed up. Three hundred Church Elders at that first council made decisions that would affect the whole Church, how it was organized, and what it could believe. The local autonomy of individual churches was now under siege. By the time of the second Church counsel in Constantinople, the Nicaea Creed was ratified and enforced. Individual Bishops over Churches could be disciplined and deposed if they did not adhere to the tenants of the Nicaea Creed (En.9).
For the first time in the history of the Church, what you believed became as important as who you believed in.
For the first time in the history of the Church, political power was now in the hands of the Church, and the Church in the hands of political power.