Monday, November 29, 2010

Constantine & The Institutionalization of Church

My wife and I spent a couple days in York, England recently. While there we saw a statue to Constantine erected just beside the main cathedral in the area--the York Minster. While beautiful and impressive in many ways, we were reminded by the cathedral of how far from the original intent of the church people had taken her.

The early church was organic and a movement for the first couple hundred years. Driven underground by waves of Roman persecution, it remained a viral movement that could not be contained or stopped. Though many tried to stomp it out all attempts only made it stronger.

All that changed in 313 AD when the emperor Constantine declared that the empire would not only tolerate Christianity but restore to the church all lost property. He was the first “Christian” emperor and Christianity went instantly from the margins to the mainstream and everything changed. Christianity became the state religion and the church did not change much from that point on. Our enemy, the devil himself, learned that if he cannot stop the church, he might as well join it and change it from the inside so that it is ineffective and less a threat. But for occasional breakouts of remnant expressions he succeeded. He used Constantine to launch this sinister attack.

Over the centuries, after Constantine, the Western church has evolved in many ways, but none have been a significant systemic change. There was the establishment of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodoxed Church and for hundreds of years there were very little changes. The Reformation split the Western church into the Roman Church and the volatile protestant church. But as an institution, in spite of the differences, the institutional system remained mostly unchanged. The Anabaptists were set lose by the reformation (and persecuted by it) but quickly would institutionalize as well.

Whether the church adapts to reach coal miners in the 18th century England or postmodern pilgrims in the 21st century, most of the changes have been minor shifts. Whether you are talking about high church or low, Pentecostal or Presbyterian the church has remained institutional in its approach. From Baptist to Brethren, from Mennonite to Methodist, the changes in the system are relatively untouched over the centuries. Music or no music? Pipe organ or electric guitar? Tall ceilings with stained-glass widows or meeting in a box building without windows, the actual system of church has gone relatively unchanged.

You have the priests or pastors, the Sunday service with singing and a sermon, the weekly offering, the pulpit with pews and the church building. These have been constants since the forth century. Even if you move the whole show into a house instead of a church building, if the system hasn’t changed you have only shrunk the church, not transformed it. Changing the style of music does not upgrade the system. Turning down the lights and turning up the volume is a simple patch to the same old system. Choirs and hymns or praise bands and fog machines, kneeling or standing the system is changed very little. Sermonizing with topical messages or expositional ones is not changing the system just making minor adjustments. Sunday Schools or small groups as secondary learning environments are not a systemic change at all, just a variation on the same old operational system.

Constantine was declared Caesar while in York in 306 AD. Today, near the spot where he was named the emperor is a statue of him beside a large cathedral, which I find quite symbolic. Constantine turned the church into an institution and in that state it remained for for 1700 years. He is now remembered beside a very institutional expression of what church is--the York Minster Cathedral. Today we are seeing a rapid shift back to organic and viral expressions of ecclesiology.

We should remember Constantine so as not to make the same mistake. We must begin to awaken once again to the true nature and expression of Christ's body, not as a building, a program, an event or an organization, but as a spiritual family called out on mission together. We must come to realize once again that the form of church is not the issue, but the way we relate--to God, one another and the world.


BelleArtMom said...

Have you ever attended an Eastern Orthodox service? I have been attending them for the past year and a half, and they are *nothing* like the Protestant or Roman Catholic services. The homily by the priest is not the main focus of the service at all. I went to an RC mass a few months ago out of curiosity; it was almost exactly like the MO Synod Lutheran church I used to attend! I fully respect everyone else's right to worship as they please, but *so much* has been removed from the original Orthodox services.
That said, I am still curious about pre-institutional church worship, which is why I am here.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this, Neil. I believe that you're right. The institution only serves to stifle Christianity. I'm excited about what God is doing through organic churches today. I'm hoping to eventually find one in my area as I'm finding myself less and less content in the institutional setting.

Anonymous said...

The worst part is, today's Christians are still blamed for the actions of those in fourth century Rome. I don't know how to explain.. 1. that's Catholicism, 2. I highly doubt that Constantine was a Christian, 3. Rome was violent because it was Rome, not because it became "Christian," 4. churches of Christ are the protestants OF the Protestants, since the Restoration Movement was born out of a view that Protestant churches were retaining too much of Catholicism. ;)

Even still, though, denominational coC gets way institutionalized too, when it begins to stray from the Bible...Satan just can't leave us alone, can he?

Mathias said...

Good post again :)!
The problem is not the buildings and structures themselves, but that the buildings and structures are shaping our understanding of Church and fellowship instead by being shaped by God. It has changed our view of what being Church actually means to something far of the track of what Jesus lived and expressed...

Unknown said...

I agree in a sense that church as an institution can steer us the wrong way but at the same time it may not be the institution that's the problem rather the people running it. It's hard to judge Constantine's place before God, whether he truly believed or if he saw Christianity as a way to control the masses. The reality is that the church has flourished and many parts of the world have heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Phil. 1:15-18 Paul talks about how many have preached the gospel for different reasons, many did it in an effort to cause trouble for him but he rejoices because "Christ is preached." I am not sure that institutions are the problem because no matter the how over or under developed it is, it is still designed by people who are broken and full of sin. Violence, greed, selfishness, lust, and generally unloving attitudes is nothing new. The difficult thing for us today is the desire to connect, to grow in our faith as a community of believers but when that fails we always seem to blame the system in which it failed rather then pointing the finger at sin and our broken nature. My fear for our generation is that we will become overly distracted with systems and lack of institutions that we forget that God can, will, and does work anywhere. Thank you for your blog and your insight. God Bless.

Hugo said...

Very good, Neil.I'm currently translating this post into Portuguese. I hope it is OK.

Neil Cole said...

Hugo, yes of course it is alright.

Hugo said...

Tks a lot, brother. Here is the link for the article:

Anonymous said...

Thanx for a little reminder of the reality of the institutional component of the visible church in western civilization. We must learn to admit this reality and yet not become "anti institutional". There are large numbers of true brothers and sisters in Christ in the various institutions and always will be. Yes, God is at work calling His people once again to keep the organic/spiritual nature at the center. One of the most helpful concepts outside of Scripture for me comes from JC Ryle's book "Holiness" and chapter 13 entitled "the Church Christ builds".It reminds us that the exalted Christ Himself is a hands-on administrator of His Church. Ryle, in speaking of the institutional part (he was an Anglican priest) says "the scaffolding will soon be taken down...yet a little ,and the full beauty of the Church which is building shall be clearly seen". The scaffolding is a very necessary 'functional' part of the stone-masons work. In advocating our true unity across all the divisions, that is how I deal w/ the reality of the institutional part.

pcNielsen said...

Is there any precedent for a significant movement — such as early Christianity — to continue for such an extended period of time without either fizzling or institutionalizing? As much as I like the organic house church idea, it seems to me the institutionalization of the church isn't necessarily the problem in the grand scheme of things (and, frankly, there isn't anything we can do about it now anyway), IMO.

I grew up in such a way that I'm usually VERY cynical when it comes to large organizations. I despise their inept bureaucracy and intellectual laziness; they are slow out of the gate when decisions often need to be made quickly. The modern institution that is the Church is often guilty of these things.

HOWEVER, there are also good reasons to institutionalize, namely to keep ideas alive. I read a couple years back that ideas (movements) aren't likely to cross generations unless they are institutionalized. There are exceptions, as in every case.

As fast as the organic movement may be coming 'round I have to wonder what will make it any different from similar subcultural movements of the past. Why will it persist, what will keep its ideas going. AND how will the good ideas within the organic movement find their way into mainstream church? Because mainstream church isn't going away, in all likelihood.

Enough for this morning. Maybe you've talked about these things in the past, but this is the first I've read your blog . . .

Paul said...

I thought your typo--"Orthodoxed" rather than "Orthodox"--was perhaps significant. May God protect us from being orthodoxed!

A Presbyterian pastor told me about you. How amazing to find a man in the direct center of "the system" calling people to organic church life. Now THAT is the work of God, and I'm thinking you had a hand in that.

Grace be with you!

Anonymous said...

There a couple of issues with institutions: one is that it can provide a platform for the few people who want to make a name for themselves; and the second (and probably the most significant) is that either a minority are too busy running it (regardless of whether this is a denomination or a single congregation) with the majority being effectively spectators. So no-one is really developing in terms of discipleship (unless they have another avenue to achieve this outwith the local congregation).

Another issue that I have is that there can be so little time to develop meaningful relationships. So we may never be in a position to trust and be truly open with each other - and learn to be both natural and confident when talking about Jesus.

Anonymous said...

not to rain on your parade , but it may do you well to read some history the church was very inst. well before const. I mean it was and is highly liturgical , hierarchial ( with the bishop of Rome leading the way, apost. succession being the rule ) and though underground it was well structured etc . Sorry but the church was and is still today Catholic ( rem. those words upon this rock , Thou art Peter... yeah Catholic from day 1

Neil Cole said...

I agree that there was a strong undercurrent toward institutionalization in the church prior to Constantine. Even while the NT was being written there was a pull toward clergification which is what I believe Jesus railed against when he said he HATES the nicolaitans. However, when Constantine became emperor the church waived the white flag and and surrendered to institutionalization and we have suffered under its weight for almost two thousand years. I believe that when Jesus said to Peter, "upon this rock I will build my church" he was firmly placing the apostolic as a foundation, not up high in the hierarchy but underneath in the basement. Apostles are not at the top of the food chain looking down from a papal throne, but unnoticed in the foundation.

Craig said...

Thanks Neil. I remember when i studied Constantine for the first time, my immediate reaction was that he was a "hero" of sorts for finally allowing Christians to live in peace without fear for their lives. For years now I look at him and realize how quickly the Church twisted and corrupted itself because of the new power and freedom it had been given. It became the very thing it used to fear.

I don't understand why this history is not taught in Churches. It is part of our heritage and would cause people to think twice about why we do what we do as followers of Christ. I think your point about the devil warping the Church from the inside out is spot on. He learned to best way to minimize the Church is to give it everything it wants and make it comfortable.

Is it then our responsibility to call the Church out of comfort? Have the prophets been silent for too long or have we become deaf to their cries once again?

sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks.

Sandy said...

Very good post Neil...and I have to ditto what Craig says!...I don't understand why this history is not taught in Churches. It is part of our heritage and would cause people to think twice about why we do what we do as followers of Christ. I think your point about the devil warping the Church from the inside out is spot on. He learned the best way to minimize the Church is to give it everything it wants and make it comfortable.

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