Sunday 1 December 2013

Set Texts: The Early Church

In the Beginning. . .

In the beginning, Holy Communion was part of a meal and all you needed was a table, bread, wine, and baptized worshippers; in the beginning, each Christian was a saint, a cleric, and a martyr.  What it meant to be a Christian was developing and changing as the church organization became more complex. Even as the apostles dispersed to spread the Good News after Pentecost, interpretations of what the new religion stood for (dogma), how to conduct worship (liturgy), and how to behave both inside and outside the church began to differ radically.  Given the seriousness of not getting it right, arguments amongst the apostles and the churches each founded could be heated and bitter, as every New Testament reader knows.

The new religion began as a movement of Messianic Judaism and the Jerusalem leaders, led by Christ’s brother James, believed that circumcision was as necessary as baptism for church membership. Paul, the great preacher to the world beyond Palestine, realized that grown men in the Roman world would simply baulk at the mechanics of the operation (at the time it involved a rabbi taking the penis into his mouth to remove the foreskin (1)), and argued just as heatedly that it was not.  The argument was not just about the removal of the genital foreskin but about what the nature of the new covenant with God after the Incarnation should be. Paul won the circumcision battle so soundly that few Christians today realize what a near thing it was. Other issues would prove thornier.

Which Laws put forward in the Old Testament, should still be valid after Christ’s resurrection is still a major issue for many Christians.  Imagine how much more difficult it must have been for Paul and the other apostles who did not have anything close to an authorized body of Christian writings, just a bundle of reported saying of the Master. It was early days and early Christianity was more of an oral than a written ministry. Paul, whose pronouncements have had the most profound historical effect, did not himself have any clear idea of the Trinity, the basis of the today’s Christian Creed. His mission, as he traveled and founded churches, seems to me to have had a kind of ‘seat of the pants’ quality to it; he had to deal quickly and authoritatively with congregational issues as they arose in the field.

In those days converts invariably came from another religious milieu; there were no atheists back then.  People were used to specific rituals of sacrifice and worship, rules for liturgical correctness, and rules for  purification. They would have wanted rules and directions for their sect as well. A Mystery religion like the budding Christianity, was, by its very nature, hard to explain in ‘real time’ and worshippers were often confused. Paul, not only realized the possibilities for misunderstanding and misinterpretation, but he saw them in practice. His guidance had to be geared to the context of contemporary mores and the understanding of the new converts. This reality both worried and frustrated Paul who often complained in his letters about having to tailor the message for the ears of fractious, stubborn, and often unsophisticated listeners.

When he propounded rules about marriage, celibacy, and deportment, Paul was under the impression that the Parousia, the Second Coming as Christ had promised would occur in his lifetime.  This misconception would have profound effects on the role of women and sexuality in particular. One wonders how they would have differed if Paul knew then what we know now.

The New Testament as we know did not reach its present canonical form until 382. What got in and what did not, still reverberates. Some books, the apocrypha, literally the ‘hidden books,’ never became official although many were believed to be true and became part of a growing body of Orthodox Tradition. Protestants, who after rejecting Catholicism, decided to make do with the Holy Bible alone  as the Word of God, sometimes forget that the Bible they rely on was edited by the Orthodox Church (which, of course, until 1075 included the  Roman Catholic church).
Even after reaching its final edited form (2), the complexity, contradictions, and layers of potential meanings of both Testaments made a variety of interpretations inevitable. The Orthodox  Church, perhaps clearly aware of this, forbade individuals to interpret the Bible on their own and still discourages the kind of Bible study that characterizes so many Protestant sects today.

As early as Paul’s time a church hierarchy began to emerge. Larger congregations demanded a division of labour: people to deal with initiation (baptism), others to oversee the care of the converts according to Christian precepts, and still others to preach the Good News. Paul, after witnessing some hysterical outbursts by new converts in the churches he had founded, suggested that not everyone was suited to lead a service, to speak at one, or to expound the Faith. He never lost sight of each Christian’s equal status before God but, in the here and now, some were to be more equal than others. The word ‘clergy’ – the inheritors –had originally denoted all Christian converts over time came to refer to the church hierarchy. Deacons would assist priests who had bishops who had super-bishops in larger centers to guide them.
Another reason for the early emergence of some sort of division of labour was intellectual. As early Christian theology met Greek philosophy, a more sophisticated form of Christianity emerged, a playing field neither for the faint-hearted nor the non-literate. Subtle arguments, already a Greek specialty, were required more than ever by Orthodox thinkers to counter not just Pagans, but other equally devout and opinionated Christians. These new specialists became known as the Church Fathers when their views coincided with the larger body of the Christian hierarchy and as heretics when they did not.

Irenaeus, an early Church Father, coined the word heresy in 180 AD  to describe wrong opinions. The word itself meant ‘choice’ or ‘things chosen’, but there was no doubt that a heretic as defined by Irenaeus  was making the wrong one. To make this crystal clear, he coined the word Orthodox (literally upright belief) to denote correct belief. Both terms have had a long run in the complicated and fractious history of Christianity.

In the early days, Roman governors could not understand why Christians did not pay lip service to state gods as did other new cults and periodically carried out pogroms against this new sect whose very exclusivity made it seem subversive. The brutal tortures and punishments meted out were the same as those suffered by all presumed offenders in the empire. There were times of peace as well and the Christian church’s organization, cohesion, fervor, moral rectitude, and belief in eternal salvation ensured its growth.

By the early 300s it had so impressed the Roman Emperor Constantine that he abandoned his championship of Sol Invictus, a sun god, and instead bestowed the halo of this old god upon the new Christian One. An edict of toleration for Christianity in Roman lands was declared in 313. By 380, under the emperor Theodosios 1st, Christianity would be made the official state  religion.)  

Whether or not Constantine converted to Christianity on his death bed is a moot point, but that he saw himself as a major player in the new religion is not. In this he was a man of his times. It would have seemed normal and correct to the citizens at the time that an emperor should be in control of religious matters; his role as Pontifex Maximus in the old religion was already a fixed tradition.  Also, the Christians in the empire at that time could not agree on how to interpret the word of God.  Far too many strands of belief contradicted each other and this was not what an efficient leader like Constantine needed or wanted in a state sanctioned religion.

The Council of Nicaea 325

    In 325 AD the first great Council (the first of 7 great Councils that are the basis of Orthodoxy today) was convened by Constantine at Niceae (today’s Iznik), south of Constantinople.  Constantine paid the bishops’ way, offered magnificent gifts, and took a lively part in all subsequent debates He gave up the custom of Roman emperors making themselves gods, but he could and did claim a special religious status as the Vicar of Christ, His icon in the material world, a world in which he and his empire would be a model of heavenly order.

This transformation did not happen all at once, but the seeds were there from the beginning. At its height the Byzantine or Roman Empire as it called itself perceived church and state as two sides of the same coin.  If in practice, when church and state would disagree his secular power made it  almost inevitable that “heads” (of state)  would win , that does not detract from the ideal and the church would have its innings as well during the course of time.
The kind of power implied by this partnership of Church and state seems alien to our modern conception of the separation of church and state but in those days of Kings and God-kings no one even blinked not even when after his death Constantine’s sarcophagus was placed in the middle of twelve pillars, six on each side, representing the twelve apostles of Jesus, thus symbolizing his position as the Thirteenth Apostle.
 Chutzpah maybe, but it changed the face and future of Christianity.
 The right thinking, right worshipping, and right practicing Orthodox Church now had cohesion, access to wealth, and a power base that guaranteed both obedience and expansion. Furthermore, in Constantinople it had a brand new Christian capital, one with no visible pagan past like Rome, and one far safer than Rome which was being besieged by barbarians.  Not only did the church get more ‘civilized’ in the sense that it became even more of an urban movement it became positively imperial.
It also became the church against which all other existing and future branches of Christianity would be measured, at least from the Greek perspective. This is the church that Greek Orthodox worshippers today see as their inheritance.  For them it was and is The Church; there was and is no other.  As a corollary, any other Christian sect would inevitably be judged and found wanting to one degree or another.

(1) See   Paul, the Mind of the Apostle by A.N.Wilson, W.W. Norton and Company, c 1997, p. 131.
 (2)  Northop Frye used to say in his lectures on the subject of editing:  In the Old Testament the New Testament is concealed; in the New Testament the Old Testament is revealed.

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