In the previous post, I provided a brief overview of Christendom. I mentioned that while a definitive definition of the term is complex, Christendom is generally used to describe the relationship between the church and the Roman Empire (and subsequently the nation-states of Europe) over the past seventeen centuries.
Here I want to provide a brief history of how the whole Christendom project began. Much of this may simply be a review, but hopefully, you’ll find it helpful.
You don’t need to be a history scholar to know that the church and the Roman Empire did not get on all that well. The Romans executed Jesus, Peter, Paul, and well, this list gets really long, really fast.
The cry of the early church, “Jesus is Lord”, was a loaded statement as it also declared that Caesar was not. The people above were not killed because they advocated loving their neighbours but because they were seen as a direct threat to the Empire.
For the first 200-plus years of the church’s existence, it faced persecution. While Christians practised patience and living at peace with all, including their enemies, the Empire was highly skilled at eliminating its enemies.
Martyrdom became a reasonable outcome for anyone joining the church during this time. Religious instruction would include how to walk through that process should it come to you.
Occasionally a Roman emperor would show up who was ambivalent to the church or perhaps even favourable. However, those periods tended not to last all that long.
In the 4th Century, Constantine declared Christianity the empire’s official religion. The church shifted from being a persecuted minority sect and became the most powerful religious institution in the world.
You have probably heard the story. Constantine was preparing for a battle and saw a vision of the cross. After being victorious on the battlefield, he “repaid” Jesus by granting official status to the church and making Christianity the official religion of the Empire.
The church would no longer be on the margins of society. Instead, it would be at the centre of Roman power and influence.
The advent of Christendom is often credited largely to Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. Conversion is probably not the right word. While Constantine identified as a Christian in 312 CE, he was not baptised until 25 years later while on his deathbed.
To join the church at this point in history, you were required to go through a process of catechism where you learned about the beliefs of the faith but also showed evidence in how you lived that your faith was genuine. And if you didn’t measure up, you would be refused entry. Constantine put off catechism as well until shortly before his death.
He also continued to consult other gods. While Constantine seems to have genuinely believed that Jesus had the power to ensure the success of his reign and of the empire, it would be a stretch to call him a disciple.
Constantine’s influence on the church and his refusal to submit to catechism and baptism demonstrates that he shaped the church and its faith far more than he was shaped by them.
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
While the church not being hunted down is something to celebrate, the advent of Christendom changed the world and the church. You would have difficulty listing anything that shaped our world more over the past 2000 years than the church of Christendom. Some of that was incredibly positive. Some was utterly horrific.
The next couple of posts will examine some positive and negative consequences of this Christendom.
Photo: from a trip to Rome in 2014.