In AD 313, Constantine, soon to be emperor of Rome, legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire. Actually, he legalized freedom of religion in general. Before this edict, Christianity had been outlawed because Christians insisted that Jesus, not the emperor, was their king. Furthermore, they refused to accept any emperor as divine. Consequently, the church suffered localized but intense persecution for the first three hundred years of its existence. This was especially true during the reigns of emperors Nero, Domitian, and Diocletian. Even during periods of reprieve, Christians were barred from positions of authority, ostracized by their communities, charged with random crimes, and stripped of property. Gathering was difficult and dangerous. But with the arrival of Constantine, things began to change.
In the beginning, few rulers paid attention to the edict. As Constantine’s power grew, however, tolerance for Christianity grew as well. Then something really big happened. Constantine declared himself a Christian. Imagine the shock waves that ran though the empire. A Christian emperor. After generations of failed attempts to stamp out this Jewish knockoff religion centered around a Galilean carpenter, the emperor himself had joined the cult. Unbelievable. Suddenly, it became fashionable to be Christian.
Before Constantine’s rise to power, Christian worship was relatively informal. Believers met in homes, enjoying what they called “love feasts,” the ancient equivalent of a potluck banquet. After a meal, they sang hymns, read Scripture, discussed theology, and shared communion. In rare cases, a gathering of Christians in a tolerant city might dedicate a special room or small building for their meetings, but these were nothing more than ordinary buildings decorated with simple murals. After Constantine’s conversion, powerful people brought their former notions of worship with them as they professed belief in Christ and began influencing Christian communities. Christian worship began to incorporate elements of imperial protocol, including incense, ornate clothing, processionals, choirs, and pageantry. Worship became formal and hierarchical, relegating the congregation to mere spectators.
Before the rise of Constantine, it was not unusual for believers to commemorate the anniversary of a martyr’s death by sharing communion near his or her grave. As Christianity became the religion of the Roman elite, they used their influence to take this practice to a new level. They began erecting buildings dedicated to worship on the sites identified with a martyr’s death. When they could not build on a martyr’s grave, they exhumed the bones, transported them to a place of worship, and placed them under the communion table at the front of the sanctuary.
Within a decade, the ekklesia ceased to be a movement. It was no longer an expanding group of people sharing a unique identity and purpose. It had become a location. The Romans called each of these gathering places a basilica, the Latin word used to denote a public building or official meeting place. Gothic (or Germanic) cultures, also influenced by Christianity, used the word kirika, which became kirche in modern German. The word meant “house of the lord,” and was used to refer to any ritual gathering place, Christian or pagan.
This Germanic term became the one used most often to refer to the ekklesia of Jesus, and from it we get the word church. Whereas the majority of your English Bible is a word-for-word translation of the Greek text, not so in this case. The word church is not a translation from the Greek. It is a substitution for the Greek. And a bad one at that. The German term kirche and the Greek term ekklesia refer to two very different ideas. A kirche is a location. An ekklesia is a purposeful gathering of people. You can lock the doors of a kirche. Not so with the ekklesia of Jesus.
This shift in vocabulary signaled a dramatic shift in emphasis and direction. The church was no longer a grassroots movement built upon the simple understanding of who Jesus is. The church became synonymous with a location. This created a new and unexpected dynamic for the church. Whoever controlled the church building now controlled the church. Worse yet, in the fourth century and beyond, whoever controlled the church building, controlled the Scriptures. By the Middle Ages in Europe, the Bible was literally chained to the pulpit! This led to an even greater tragedy. Those who controlled the church property and controlled the Scriptures eventually controlled the people. And ultimately the government.
What began as a movement, dedicated to carrying the truth of Jesus Christ to every corner of the world, had become an insider-focused, hierarchical, ritualized institution that bore little resemblance to its origins. This shift led to an era of church history that can only be described as horrific. The atrocities carried out in the name of the church would be considered terrorism by modern standards. Cruelty wore a cross around its neck. Hypocrisy draped itself in priestly robes. Torture and murder were justified as rites of purification. The church grew rich and powerful. Kings were beholden. The people lived in fear of excommunication. While it’s amazing that the church survived the persecution of the first century, it may be more amazing that it survived the institutionalization and corruption of the centuries that followed.
But it did survive.
Jesus promised it would.
As it turned out, the kirche of man could not contain the ekklesia of Jesus.
Stanley, A. (2012). Deep and wide: Creating churches unchurched people love to attend. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.