If you stop to think about it, it is amazing that the early believers, the early church, survived the first century. Both Rome and the Jews were persecuting it and trying to stop its growth. But these early Christ-followers were convinced of the resurrection of Jesus, and this belief sparked a movement that persecution and even death could not thwart.
That movement lasted three centuries. Then, in A.D. 313, something happened. Constantine ascended to power in Rome and he legalized Christianity. At first, few people paid attention to Constantine’s edict, but as his power grew, tolerance for Christianity grew as well.
Then the unthinkable happened: Constantine declared himself a Christian. After centuries of trying to stamp out this cult known to follow a Jewish carpenter, the emperor himself joined the cult and suddenly it became fashionable to be a Christian.
While you would think that was a good thing, and it was in many aspects, it also created a new problem for the church. Until A.D. 313 Christian worship was relatively informal, and people met wherever they could, usually in homes around a fellowship meal, and then they would sing a few songs, read the Scriptures, discuss its teachings, share communion and set about living their lives in the community.
After Constantine was converted, Christian worship began to incorporate elements of imperial protocol in the process. Constantine built basilica’s for Christian worship and militarized Christianity.
Constantine did a lot of good for early Christianity, leading some counsels that dealt with some pretty serious heresies that had slipped into the church. But because you are dealing with fallen men, two unexpected consequences resulted from Constantine’s reforms.
First, the church became a formal hierarchy of designated leaders and the congregation was relegated to become mere spectators. Buildings began to be erected and the Scriptures were taken out of the hands of the common, unlearned people who might corrupt it, and Bibles were chained to the podium, where only the designated priest could read and interpret it for the people.
Second, the church, once the persecuted, with the power of Rome behind, it became the persecutors. The ekklesia of the New Testament ceased to be a movement and became a monument.
By and large, the church today reflects more of the changes began in A.D. 313 then the movement Christ had in mind when He introduced the concept of the church. We have followed the “our house our rules” mentality and, if the statisticians are right, that is exactly why we are losing ground at such an alarming pace.
It is time we change. We who call ourselves Christ followers need to stop doing church and once again be the church. We need to change our message from “Change and then you can join us” to “Come join us and you’ll change.”
Let’s recapture the power and the conviction that a focus on the one essential — the resurrection of Jesus Chris — can bring. It worked for four centuries. Let’s cease our monumental thinking and become the powerful movement Jesus intended us to be.
Dr. John Pearrell is pastor of Gateway Community Church in Covington. For more information, visit the Gateway Web site at www.gatewaycommunity.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.