Anyone who has read the accounts of the church in its earliest days cannot miss the fact that “the word (of Christ) went everywhere.” The contagiousness of such an awesome message, so consumed those who heard it that they could not keep it to themselves. That “word of Christ,” as the apostolic writings make inescapable, was unfettered and so it found its way into every place that God’s people went, both locally and in their travels. The church was growing exponentially into the whole human community, and quite quickly. It sounds almost unreal to us, doesn’t it? What happened, then, to quench (or at least slow down) that spontaneous growth?

Well, … it’s an interesting bit of history, but a long in the fourth century, or so, when the Christian church became one of the most influential realities in a turbulent world, and after it had been outlawed to no effect, the Emperor Constantine testified to having been converted t it at a critical moment of his life, and gave Jesus the credit for some major accomplishments, and in appreciation made the church, not only legal, but the religion of the empire. He wanted it to be prestigious, and so used his influence and wealth to build for it temples, as well as encouraging it to appropriate all of the trappings of the pagan religions, such as priests, and choirs, and the like.

Granted, I’m generalizing a bit, but essentially the Christian church became the official religion of the empire. From that point on, to be a part of the empire and to be part of the Christian church were almost synonymous. After several centuries of persecution, this probably brought forth a sigh of relief from a whole lot of Christian folk. But it was one of the greatest subversions, or disservices that could have been foisted off on the Christian church.

What took place (not instantly, of course, but irreversibly over time) was that the ‘church’ inadvertently ceased being focused on obeying Christ’s mandate to mission, and became, rather, a more custodial religion in which there were official priests/clergy who were the controlling class of the church, and then there were the passive-dependent laity attending liturgical rites. Before that transition, the church leaders were those in that rapidly growing new community who were the mature, wise practitioners/models of the Word of Christ. They emerged from the ranks, and became responsible to see to it that all in the community were equipped to be also mature and functioning agents in the mission of God to see the gospel of the Kingdom taken into the corners of the world.

Up until that point the church was by its very nature reproductive. Every baptized person was expected to become part of the gospel enterprise. After that point, one could be a part of what was called ‘the church’ and be comfortably (what we term as) passive-dependent—so that we now divide the church into two classes: clergy and laity. What is more, those clergy did not then actually have to emerge from the community, or to be the wise and mature practitioners of the Word of Christ, just so long as they were officially sanctioned by some higher church officials.

And the church’s participants were no longer expected to be reproductive. The church’s growth slowed perceptibly, and the church engaged itself in many internecine squabbles, alas!

I saw this graphically exhibited at one point in my life when I was asked to teach a typical, venerable old adult Sunday school class in a church, which class was populated by the church’s leading members, and who were mostly significant professionals in the city. The problem was that the class had been in existence for nearly a century and had never, ever, produced its own teachers, and essentially had no mission except to provide a pleasant spiritual social context on Sunday morning—while remaining Biblically illiterate. Spontaneous reproduction was the last thing on their agenda. Such passive-dependency is a most effective and devastating weapon of the Prince of Darkness against the church. (Next time: Four essential gifts to the church.)

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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