Just about finished The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider. Toward the end of the book, he draws a contrast between the practices of the early church in regard to formation and witness, with the emergence of imperial influence (Constantine) on those practices.
When Roman Emperor Constantine began to identify with the Christian faith (around 312AD) subtle shifts emerged in Christian theology and practice which have continued to be factors to the present day. Constantine refused to submit to the normal catechetical practice of the Christian community -- a process of formation, over several years, which focused on reformation of behaviour to match the teachings of Jesus, then baptism and entry in the faith family via the Lord's supper, when biblical teaching and theology moved to the forefront of the ongoing formation process. Constantine said, "thanks, but I will figure it out through my own study." Effectively moving belief to the forefront and behaviour as optional. Constantine was only baptized shortly before his death because he felt the submission of his behaviour to Christian community and teaching might be incompatible with the tasks required of an emperor.
So what changed because of the influence of Constantine and the emergence of Christendom? Kreider suggests 5 areas.
- Control. Christians had long experience of trusting God for the future. They were reluctant to engage in any kind of strategic thinking about mission (it's completely absent from early church writings). There was no need to manipulate people or events -- it was the exemplary life of Christian communities that attracted people to Jesus. Constantine, on the other hand believed and encouraged church leaders to use means to obtain their desired outcomes. He thought about planning, control and instrumentality all the time, as emperor, why shouldn't church leaders think the same way?
- Use of Power. Early Christians had no temporal power, so couldn't imagine its use as an instrument of conversion. Any "power" they had was in their own financial resource base and sacrificial service to the needy. The development of generosity and service came about as the result of Christian formation, without the intention of wielding them as a power base. Constantine, on the other hand, offered the power of the state to promote conversion to Christianity. State funds were given for the relief of the poor "as an incentive to turn to the Saviour's teaching." State funds subsidized the construction of Christian worship facilities.
- Religious coercion. Early Christians didn't believe that worship could be compelled. Tertullian said "compulsion is not God's way of working." Lactantius, an early teacher of Constantine, emphasized, "we teach, we show, we demonstrate." Constantine, on the other hand, used force to crush Christian minority (heretical?) groups and used legislation to intimidate, purify and reject dissent.
- Urgency. Early Christians trusted in God's goodness, were relaxed and patient about God's purposes coming to fruition. Christian formation took place over time (up to 3 years of intentional development) to reform behaviour and worldview according to Jesus' teaching and practices. Then seekers were baptized and admitted to the Lord's supper as well as the full Christian community. Constantine, on the other hand had a sense of urgency to standardize, to bring conformity or "homogenization" (perhaps he felt this was necessary for stability in the empire). He was too impatient for the normal catechesis process and baptism. By this impatience he set a precedent, that baptism was not necessary to enter into life as a follower of Jesus, but only to avert eternal damnation. Behavioural formation was not as significant as right belief.
- Conversion. Early Christians were convinced that conversion was a process that took place over time, it was not an instantaneous or speedy thing. It went deep, it was not superficial. Constantine set the precedent for adhering without submitting to the Christian community or the Christian life. You could pick and choose which parts of the Christian faith fit your lifestyle.
Kreider's summary thought is that it became very difficult for Christian leaders to maintain their beliefs, values and practices once they were presented with power, resources and legitimacy.
...for those with ears to hear...