The premise of this blog is to explore with you the idea that New Testament Christianity died in the year 313 A.D., the year Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan and made Christianity a legal religion. The tragedy is that so many of us are completely unaware of the global impact this event had on the church of Jesus Christ for the last 1,700 years.
33 A.D. The First Church On Earth
The early church, in spite of all her faults, was an explosive movement!
From the initial outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost in Jerusalem until Paul’s final words from prison in Rome, nearly thirty years later, the book of Acts continually records that the church “multiplied greatly”, by men and women who “turned the world upside down”. Without stretching our imagination too much we could calculate the church in Jerusalem, just three or four years after Pentecost, to be as large as 30,000. You do the math!
On the day of Pentecost, “there were added that day about three thousand souls… And the Lord was adding to their number daily” (Acts 2:41,47). 3,120+
Not long after that, “many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of men came to be about five thousand” (Acts 4:4). 8000+ (see Mtt. 14:21 re. only men being counted. JG)
“And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women…The people also gathered from towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed. (Acts 5:14, 16 RSV). 15,000+
“We strictly charged you not to teach in this Name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” (Acts 5:28)
“And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number…” (Acts 5:42-6:1) 20,000+
“And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). 30,000+
What were the keys to their growth? Was their spiritual breakthrough the result of prayer and fasting and strategic warfare? Or was it great leadership and vision? The Holy Spirit working in power? Great organizational skills? Can we expect to see similar results today? Read on!
I am not alone in stating that when Constantine “Christianised” the Roman Empire, he created untold problems. The Swiss Brethren (later known as the Anabaptists), of the 1500’s, also believed that the “fall of the church” – to use their terms – was during Constantine’s reign. By recognizing Christianity as a legal religion (including making Sunday a legal holiday), he slowly strangled what was once a vibrant, close-knit, committed fellowship of persecuted believers, and turned it into a religion that would become, by law, at the end of that century, the official state religion of the Holy Roman Empire (HRE).
The Roman Empire of that day, headquartered in Constantinople- modern day Istanbul, was huge and very powerful, something that is hard to grasp today. A close analogy might be the monolithic Soviet Empire of the 20th century. The HRE spread throughout most of Europe and northern Africa: from London in the north to Egypt in the south, from Kuwait in the east to Spain in the west. Many, if not most, were “converted” by means of the sword; fined and tortured for not “going to church” on Sunday. Philip Yancey has well said that
“a coziness between church and state is good for the state and bad for the church.”
Just Who Was Constantine the Great?
To give you a short glimpse into the life and times of Constantine, I offer the following bio:
Following the example of his father and earlier 3rd-century emperors, Constantine in his early life was a solar henotheist [belief in or worship of one god without denying the existence of others]. He believed that the Roman sun god, Sol, was the visible manifestation of an invisible “Highest God”, who was the principle behind the universe. This god was thought to be the companion of the Roman emperor.
Constantine’s adherence to this faith is evident from his claim of having had a vision of the sun god in 310 while in Gaul. In 312, on the eve of a battle against Maxentius, his rival in Italy, Constantine is reported to have dreamed that Christ appeared to him and told him to inscribe the first two letters of his name (XP in Greek) on the shields of his troops. The next day he is said to have seen a cross superimposed on the sun and the words “in this sign you will be the victor”. Constantine then defeated Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, near Rome.
The Senate hailed the victor as saviour of the Roman people. Thus, Constantine, who had been a pagan solar worshiper, now looked upon the Christian deity as a bringer of victory. Persecution of the Christians was ended, and Constantine’s co-emperor, Licinius, joined him in issuing the Edict of Milan (313), which mandated toleration of Christians in the Roman Empire. As guardian of Constantine’s favoured religion, the church was then given legal rights and large financial donations. (Almanac)
James H. Rutz, describes yet another phenomena of this era:
“It was in 323 AD, almost three hundred years after the birth of the church, that Christians first met in something we now call a ‘church building’. For all three hundred years before that, the church met in living rooms! Constantine built these assembly buildings for Christians not only in Constantinople, but also in Rome, Jerusalem, and in many parts of Italy, all between 323 and 327! This then triggered a massive ‘church building’ fad in large cities all over the Empire.” (The Open Church)
“One God, one Logos, one emperor, one empire”
The Swiss Brethren went on record saying they rejected the HRE mantra of that day: “One God, one Logos, one emperor, one empire”. The other Reformers, such as Luther and Calvin, the Swiss Brethren claimed put the “fall of the church” much later. A better example for them was Menno Simons (later to become the leader of the Mennonites) who put the “fall” earlier at 407 AD, when infant baptism was made compulsory.
After the Edict of Milan (which church historians pinpoint as the beginning of the Imperial Church age), we start to see glaring failures handed down to us by our church fathers and church tradition that caused Christianity to die and a religious institution to be born. The New Testament gathering of believers that met “every day in the temple and at home” (Acts 5:42) deteriorated to a Sunday-only, cathedral environment where church life became institutionalized and formal.
A Reformation That’s Not Finished Yet…
Many point to the Reformation as the “rebirth” of Christianity in our modern era: releasing the church from the grip of the few, mighty and powerful, and handing it over to the common man. But the Reformation, simply put, didn’t go far enough! The Swiss Brethren’s constant cry to the Reformers was that they had stopped short of going all the way with what the Scriptures clearly held forth as a model for church and New Testament lifestyle! “Let’s establish a free church composed of voluntary believers”, they argued. Unfortunately, they paid with their lives and their voice was snuffed out.
To be sure, Luther’s impact on the church cannot be underestimated. But we must realize that Luther changed the theology of the church not its form, its structure. To his credit, Luther did envision a church free of the institutional power but was not able to attain it. Luther expressed a belief in a “third kind of church” (a direct quote), what we would today call a cell-based church! It was a gathering of the truly Christian into an “inner church model.”
Author E.H. Broadbent in The Pilgrim Church describes this dilemma:
“Luther had seen the Divine pattern for the churches, and it was not without an inward struggle that he abandoned the New Testament teaching of independent assemblies of real believers, in favour of the National or State Church system which outward circumstances pressed upon him”.
In Luther’s vision of “the Divine pattern” we can rightly assume it was separated from the state system and its structure emphasized a return to lay-led, multiplying, committed small fellowships. Dr. Ralph Neighbor, one of the pioneers of the Cell Church Movement, has spoken long and hard on this point:
“It’s the structure. Period. The American church is unhealthy because it has an unbiblical structure. By denying this and continuing to live under the illusion that the basic problem of the church is something other than “ecclesiology” we have a chronic condition.”
But there is hope. There is a cloud as small as a man’s hand on the horizon. Some have been hearing the sound of rain for many years. Others are just now beginning to hear it. It’s time to jump in our chariots and head down the mountain because it has started to rain! “The heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain.” (I Kings 18: 45)
As Patrick Johnstone has written:
“We are being compelled to return to a much more biblical and radical position — that of being a minority in the world but not of it. Whether we like it or not, the concept of the imperial Church dominated the thinking of Roman Emperors from Constantine onwards through the papacy, the Reformation and the 19th century mission movement…We need to return to the concept of a pilgrim Church, a Church that will be hated, rejected, despised, victorious minority which, one day soon, will be ready for its Heavenly Bridegroom as the Perfected Bride.”
Yours for the Least in the Kingdom,
Truth be told, I most likely would have never have quit the job I loved if we had never landed in Tajikistan in the spring of 2000.
We had felt for some years prior to that move, that God wanted us to live in the 10/40 Window as a family. We sensed the Lord leading us to Tajikistan primarily because of its Muslim population and its seemingly “pioneer setting” for church planting. In the fifteen years previous to moving to Tajikistan, we had been involved in full-time missions work in Austria, Germany, Ireland, Hungary, the Philippines and the US.
We loved what we were doing and believed we were having a real impact on the people we reached out to. All of that suddenly changed as we set foot in Dushanbe, Tajikistan on a quiet spring morning in March 2000. It was our first real exposure to the Muslim world and overwhelming poverty.
The two together create a mind-boggling, incredibly difficult environment to preach the Kingdom of God.
Earlier on we had experienced the harsh realities of extreme poverty in Guatemala and the Philippines and had “dabbled” with the Muslim world in Istanbul, Turkey but nothing prepared us for what we were to live through for the next four years. By living in Tajikistan, “pre and post 9/11”, we were confronted (and challenged) with everything we knew as church and missions.
We saw a tremendous amount of dependency created by Western (and sometimes not so Western) missions and their respective agencies. For example, one church that was started by foreigners and “passed on to the locals”, when we met them several years later the congregation could not even afford to pay the electric bills of the church, let alone any other financial obligations.
We saw well-trained and well intentioned missionary doctors who, along with their supporting churches and agencies, tried to introduce western medicine to the nation, only later to be frustrated to see that after the conferences, special training, free supplies and such, the natives reverted back to the “ancient paths” of folk medicine and talisman objects.
We also heard of “small businesses” created by well-meaning foreigners that led to jealousy amongst family clans. Some small businesses succeeded, yet some businesses were snuffed out by the local Mafia as the new businesses took some of their profits at the local bazaar.
In all honesty, it was more than we could deal with. We continually went back to the Lord and the NT for help! We felt that what we had to offer was not going to help but only add to the problem!
“An unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates
It was in studying the book of Acts and the entire New Testament that we started to hear clearly from the Holy Spirit and experienced quite definitely being “guided into all the truth” (John 16:13) about what God intended for the church and missions. Some have felt that in this we are elitist or haughty. Hopefully that is not the case and is more the insight born out of real conflicts we lived through living in the Muslim world as we did.
Now we feel like EMT (Emergency Medical Technicians) trainees, who after just their first day in class, are legally responsible to respond to emergencies they come into contact with because they know a little more than the average person.
Below is a short listing of what we came to know:
1. For us the answer started in seeing that the only church the New Testament knew was the house church. When Paul wrote his letters to churches he also sent his greetings to “the church that meets in their house.” (Rom 16:5, I Cor 16:19; Col. 4:15)
The NT church was a simple as that: a gathering of believers meeting in their own homes. We knew that everybody in Tajikistan had a home, therefore they had all the necessary equipment needed for a church planting movement to happen in their land without one foreign dollar supporting it!
“If you had asked, ‘Where is the church?’ in any important city of the ancient world where Christianity had penetrated in the first century, you would have been directed to a group of worshiping people gathered in a house. There was no special building or other tangible wealth with which to associate ‘church’, only people!” (Walter Oetting, The Church of the Catacombs)
2. The next thing we started to see was the great discrepancy between the apostolic church planting method clearly seen in the NT and current missionary practice.
For example, we noticed that Paul and his co-workers were never more than 3-4 persons as they entered a foreign, unreached mission field for the first time. Contrast this with the current practice of sending in teams upon teams of young people to cities already teeming with missionaries.
When we got to Tajikistan in 2000 there were already well over 50 foreign missionaries in the capital alone. Each mission organization brought with them their own form of doing church and theological doctrine!
To make matters worse, in poorer nations the missionary is quickly labeled “Teacher” and is recognized as an expert in any field just because he/she is a foreigner or “white-skinned” — even though they may or may not have had any higher education in a given field.
Jesus recommended something much simpler and much more below the radar: take no bread, no money, no bag, no tunic, no shoes or staff.
“When Jesus sent the 12 apostles on a ministry trip, He said, ‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.’ To the seventy, He actually said, ‘Like lambs among wolves.’ (Luke 10:3) The point is that they would never be a match for their opposition! Jesus sent His followers out in a helpless condition even telling them not to take any supplies with them (Luke 10:4ff). He didn’t want them to have any illusion of self-sufficiency. No lamb is self sufficient. Jesus, the “Good Shepherd”, who was willing to lay down His life for His sheep was their only real resource and hope. And He proved Himself to be more than sufficient.” (Dr. Tom Griffith; rolcboston.org)
Is There a Missionary in the Bible?
3. Another discrepancy that we started to question and examine was the fact that there is not one person in the NT called a “missionary”.
The NT calls them apostles and they were few in number, most were uniquely hand-picked (Acts 16:3) and they were always traveling about in small bands — never staying in the same place very long.
On the other hand, huge numbers of missionaries have flooded the world on every continent today. This year over 1 million short-term missionaries (2 weeks – 2 months) will leave the shores of the USA! Add another million to the group from Europe and Australia.
Somewhere we have to admit the math just doesn’t add up!
Of course, in saying all this we are not pointing fingers at what people have done for the sake of Christ in foreign fields since William Carey left for India in 1793. (BTW, Carey is considered to be the “Father of Modern Missions” and stayed on in India for 40 years.) We are profoundly aware of the costs and commitment made daily by many awesome people who have ventured out to take the Gospel “where Christ is not known”!
My wife and I are just examining the “apostolic principles” that are laid down for us in Scriptures.
In the footsteps of Paul
The apostle Paul considered his apostolic mission finished when there was just a fledgling group of believers gathering together in Christ in a given location. Often this happened within a year! He considered that area reached and he pressed on further to the utter most ends of the earth. “There is no more place for me to work in these regions.” (Rom 15:23)
Why would we want to do it any different?
What I dream about in the future of missions and apostolic work is the emotional equivalent of “the church that meets at their house.” There would be no structure, no name, no money, but simple tent makers, fishermen and tax collectors with nothing but “dung” for a resume.
Inauspicious and benign yet the most powerful spiritual force on earth!
Yours for the least in the Kingdom,
Jeff and Maria Gilbertson
In the last days of His ministry His return to the world largely occupied His own thoughts, and He kept it prominently before the minds of His disciples.
During His last journey to Jerusalem He foreshadowed His own history in the parable of the nobleman going into a far country to receive a kingdom and return, who left His servants behind with the command, “Occupy till I come”(Luke 19:12,13). One evening during the last week He sat on the Mount of Olives, looking down no doubt upon the massive buildings of the temple, the total destruction of which He had just foretold. The disciples gathered about Him with the request:
“Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of Thy coming and of the end of the world?” Matthew 24:3.
It is evident from the form of this question that His coming was no new thought to them. It was occupying their minds already. They knew that He was coming again, and they wished to know how to recognize the approach of that event. In answer to the question, the Lord unfolded a panorama of intervening history, and emphasized the need of watchfulness because the time of His coming would he uncertain.
The apostles taught their converts to wait for the coming of the Lord. All the New Testament churches have the expectant attitude. No matter in what part of the world or in what stage of development they are found, they have this characteristic in common.
The conversion of the Thessalonians is described as “turning to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven” 1 Thessalonians 1:9,10.
The Corinthians “come behind in no gift, waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” 1 Corinthians 1:7.
To the Galatians Paul writes, “We through the Spirit by faith wait for the hope of righteousness” Galatians 5:5
To the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, whence also we wait for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” Philippians 3:20.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews the same attitude is disclosed, for there we read: “Christ also, having been once offered to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time, apart from sin, to them that wait for Him, unto salvation” Hebrews 9:28
It is evident that the early Christians not only looked back to a Saviour who had died for them, but forward to a Saviour who was to come. There were two poles in their conversion. Their faith was anchored in the past in the facts of the death and resurrection of the Lord, and also in the future in the assured hope of His return. It is manifest, therefore, that the second coming of the Saviour occupied a most important place in the Gospel which the apostles preached, and which these Christians received.
The whole life and work of the New Testament Church has the coming of the Lord in view. All the lines of her activity and experience lead to this event. The sanctification of the disciple is a preparation for the coming of the Lord.
Paul writes to the Thessalonians: “The very God of peace sanctify you wholly, and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” 1 Thessalonians 5:23.
John puts the same thing in his own tender way: “And now, little children, abide in Him, that, when He shall appear, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” 1 John 2:28. Christian service gets its encouragement in the same inspiring issue.
Paul exhorts Timothy to fidelity, charging him to “keep the commandment, without spot, without reproach, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” 1 Timothy 6:14.
Peter writes to his fellow elders: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, and when the Chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away” 1 Peter 5:2,4.
James – The patience of the early Christians in suffering and trial is hounded by the same event. “Be patient therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand” James 5:7,8.
“Let your forbearance be known unto all men, the Lord is at hand” Philippians 4:5. Their life of fellowship and brotherly love reaches its holy consummation at the Lord’s return.
“The Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men, even as we also do toward you, to the end He may establish your hearts un-blameable in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ with all his saints” 1 Thessalonians 3:12,13.
Their acts of worship; as for example, their observance of the Lord’s supper, have the same end in view. “As often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till He come” 1 Corinthians 11:26.
Thus, whatever aspect of the Church’s life and work we consider, we find it to be a stream which moves on towards one glorious future –“The Lord Jesus Himself fills the whole horizon.”