Purpose of this Session
Decades of deterioration led to a powerless and compromised church. The world’s values flooded the house of God and much of the early church purity and power was lost.
Emperor Constantine and the Edict of Toleration
Emperor Constantine had an experience during a battle in 312AD in which he saw a cross in the sky, and the words, “in this sign conquer’. He went into battle under the banner of Christianity and won. Following this he granted “Christians and all others full liberty of following that religion which each may choose.”
As a result of this seemingly positive proclamation the church passed from a time of persecution into a time of prosperity, politics and power, which precipitated its decline. The spiritual nature of the church gradually disappeared and it became more a political organisation after the spirit and pattern of imperial Rome.
Most Church historians agree that Constantine’s ‘Edict of Toleration’ was the most damaging thing that could have happened to the ‘spiritual church’, although it resulted in the growth and influence of the ‘structural church’.
As the natural and political nature of man took the ascendancy in the ‘church’’, civilisation declined into what is referred to by historians as the dark ages.
Because many of the aristocracy in Rome refused to embrace Christianity and forsake pagan religions, Constantine also moved the capital of the Empire to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople. For centuries Rome and Constantinople struggled for supremacy in the Roman Empire, and this eventually resulted in the formation of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Roman Catholic Church.
Whereas Constantine strongly encouraged his subjects to embrace the new religion, 70 years later Emperor Theodosius made it compulsory. His decree forced all to become ‘Christian’ in order to maintain citizenship, conduct business, or hold any office in the empire. Heathens were forcibly ‘converted’ or destroyed. The spirit of Rome entered the structural church, and a perverted religion bearing the name ‘Christian’ conquered the Empire. With this change (although bringing favourable changes socially as Christian moral values filtered throughout the empire) the spiritual virility and life of the true church was drained.
Although the church retained an essential dedication to monotheism, and to the Apostle’s creed, it fell further and further from its primitive roots. During this period of decline many practices crept into the form of worship in the structural church.
Formal Worship and idolatry
The simple passionate worship of the early church in spirit and truth developed into a formal and elaborate ceremony, focussed on outward pomp and splendour, reminiscent of the pagan temples. As more and more heathen embraced a nominal Christian faith they demanded images and physical replicas to aid their worship of an invisible God, as they were unable to truly worship Him in spirit, because they were unregenerate men and women.
As the dark ages continued, more and more elements were added; candles, robes, incense, signs and symbols, elaborate priestly robes and headpieces.
As Christianity absorbed more and more pagans into its ranks, it became filled with compromised pagan customs and festivals. As Roman emperors forced heathens to ‘convert’ they also conceded to the new ‘converts’ by Christianising pagan festivals. The sun worshippers celebration of the birth of the ‘Sun-god’ on the 25th December, for example, became the celebrated birthday of Christ. Likewise, Constantine renamed the recognised day of Christian worship ‘the venerable day of the Sun’, Sunday.
Veneration of Mary
The worship of many goddess figures such as Artemis, Diana, and Isis, transferred their allegiance to Mary, who was deified in direct contradiction to the commandments.
Veneration and prayer to departed saints
Departed saints were claimed to be in a position to offer petitions to the Father on behalf of the ardent worshipper. Some were claimed to be able to cure barrenness, protect during a journey, or any number of other mystical helps. Shrines became places of pilgrimage for the deceived.
In the absence of Bibles the masses were subject to the corrupt and spiritually ignorant Clergy. People were purposefully kept ignorant of truth, and subjected to fear and superstition in order to control them.
Popes (papas) and the deterioration of the ministries of the church
The early church acknowledged the five fold ministry gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher, and the placement of spiritually anointed men as overseers and servants within the Body of Christ. These were as placed by Christ Himself, and not as positions of hierarchy. The title of ‘priest’ was not given to ministers until after the second century. Unfortunately, as the church declined the desire for prestige and power increased.
As the apostolic age came to a close independent churches were self governing bodies of believers in a locality. The pastors serving these bodies became known as bishops, which means overseer. In 220AD Bishop Calixtus of Rome claimed pre-eminence based on Jesus’ statements to Peter in Matthew 16:18. His claim to be a bishop of bishops was challenged, but the idea was unleashed and just over a century later, at the council of Nicea in 325AD, Constantine accorded the bishops of Alexandria, Antioch and Rome full jurisdiction over their provinces.
By the end of the fourth century the bishops were called patriarchs, five of which carried equal authority, presiding over various provinces in the empire. After the division of the Roman Empire into East and West, the competing centres for the leadership of Christendom became Constantinople and Rome. Slowly, and amid much controversy, the idea that the Bishop of Rome should preside as universal bishop over the Christian Church grew. By AD500 the bishop of Rome became known as Pope (arising from the title ‘papa’ accorded to bishops in the preceding century). By the middle of the dark ages the pope’s unrighteous reign over Christendom had climbed to its height of power and jurisdiction. The history of these ‘universal bishops’ is a horrific tale of treachery, dominance, fear and outright anti-Christ ungodliness.
The church began to splinter through heretical teachings and the absorption of pagan cultures and philosophies, most of which centred upon interpretations of the Godhead, and the humanity or divinity of Christ. Church councils sought to deal with these heresies, rightly rejecting many of the philosophies purported by the Gnostics, Ebionites, Montanists, Manichaeists, Sabellianists and Pelagianists to name just a few.
Ironically, the Catholic church was instrumental in preserving the essential declarations of the Apostle’s Creed, and belief in One God in three Persons. They sadly added many of their own heretical teachings and practices such as worship of Mary and prayer to saints, purgatory, penance, the sale of indulgences (the selling of papal forgiveness for sins past, present or future), simony (the purchase of office within the church), and of course the papacy itself.
The Rise of Islam
It was also during the period that Islam was established as a religion. The severe deterioration of the church both spiritually and morally left an open door for false religion to gain a foothold. Following a visitation by an angel of light claiming to be Gabriel in 622AD, Mohammed, who was horrified at the idolatry of Christendom, set about forcefully removing idolatry and converting people to this new religion called Islam (meaning submission). The Arab world came largely under the control of this militant religious spirit, and remains so today. The barbarous treatment of Christians in Palestine at this time led to the equally barbarous crusades.
Light in the darkness
Against the black backdrop of a heartless and powerless church, and the fear driven reign of the popes over Christendom, there were glimpses of Christ’s light that pierced the darkness. Particularly in the Celtic church with Patrick and Columba, and Peter Waldo and the poor men of Lyons, Christ’s light shone through. But it was not until the ‘morning star’ of the reformation, the Englishman, John Wycliffe that the dawn was glimpsed over the horizon, and the promise of a new day for the spiritual church began to be realised.