From Participants to Spectators:

The Incredible Untold Story of How

We Got So Far Off the Track


Welcome to Part Two, the most shocking section of the book. By now, I hope you've found that it's not designed to pile yet another layer of goose feathers on top of the institutional church, but to peel away the gummy shell of traditions which have encrusted the real church to the place where you need a team of archaeologists (literally) to find the original shape. You're about to find out how artificial that shell really is. Just remember, this isn't criticism, it's plain history, history as you've probably never seen it before.

Grab your smelling salts and dive in!

Chapter 6: The Emperor's New Church:

The Naked Truth About How Constantine Stripped the Church Of Its Power and Reclothed It With Invisible Finery

by Gene Edwards

with humor and comments by James Rutz

Most of what you do today as a participant in the church was set in concrete during two short periods of history, neither of them in the New Testament period. The first was AD 323-327, and it was almost all bad. Dreadful, actually. The second was the fifty years following October 31, 1517, and it was a mix of bad and good. This chapter is about the first, the next chapter is about the second. Constantine became Caesar of the Roman empire in 306, the biggest turning point in church history - a downward turn, by the way. And on October 31, 1517, a date symbolically denoting the beginning of the Reformation, Luther nailed ninety-five subjects he would like to debate (all written in Latin) onto a church door.

Those two periods of time are like two gigantic cauldrons out of which have flowed most of the practices of present-day Christianity (not its theology, mind you, but its practice). A few of our present practices were introduced in the Middle Ages (like the education of the clergy). And a few things evolved in the last hundred years or so, some even in the last forty years. But in the greater scheme of things, these two periods formed most of what you see when you watch the church in action today.

Let's look first at the pre-Constantine age, 100-313, and then at the age of Constantine, including the years immediately thereafter. Once upon a time, Christians used to do lunch with lions. And we were the lunch. Such heavy persecution was unusual, though, despite what Hollywood says. In fact, it was quite sporadic for most of the first three centuries. And even in the worst times, there were many areas where the authorities simply didn't bear down on us at all. But then came February 23, 303. Now that was persecution. On that date, Diocletian, who was otherwise a pretty good emperor, signed his first general edict against Christians. It mandated that all copies of the Scriptures were to be banned, that all Christian worship be banned, all meeting places closed, and all church leaders rounded up wholesale and forced to recant. The torture and bloodshed were so great that even the pagan citizens were sickened and repulsed.

The worst part of Diocletian's persecution was that it crippled our leadership and left the church with her guard down, wide open to the tragedy that quickly befell her when Constantine, professing to be the first Christian emperor, came along and befriended the beleaguered leaders. He took over as undisputed emperor after his victorious battle at the Milvian Bridge in 312. At that time, apparently, not a single prophet was left to arise and denounce what took place under the new regime.

Constantine has been called the first "medieval" believer. That means, roughly: complete dedication, little knowledge, less fruit. He had the mind of a Caesar (an emperor). He had absolute authority in everything, and that definitely included the empire's Department of Religion.

Secondly, he also had the mind of a pagan, which sees a world filled with darkness, spookiness, weirdness, ghosts, apparitions, worship of idols and magic - in a word, superstition. In another word, paganism! Yes, he was reported to have had a sudden and miraculous conversation upon beholding a cross appearing in the heavens that bore the inscription, "By this sign shalt thou conquer (in hoc signo vinces)." But this tradition is very doubtful, and the fact is that he had very little Christian understanding to enlighten his pagan values.[1]

He was also a megalomaniac. For example, in one of his grander church buildings, he set thirteen statues of the "thirteen apostles," he himself being the thirteenth and having a larger statue than all the others!

Blend all that together, and you have the basic ingredients of medieval "Christianity," a blight that eventually spread across Europe on a grand scale. It was a mixture of Christian faith, paganism, and the values of the Roman Empire, which all flowed together to produce the Christian worldview of post-A.D. 500. (That outlook did begin to change again, arguably, not long before Luther nailed those ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg church.)

The Years When the Church Collapsed

Let's look now at this watershed period in church history. We picked up more traditions, make more blunders, and changed the course of the church more radically from 323 to 327 than in any other period of history. Look what happened during this time.

When Constantine founded the city of Constantinople (Istanbul), he planned a gigantic capital which he called New Rome. It sat, literally, half in the Orient and half in the Occident. He built a new and uninhabited city from the ground up. In it he commissioned the building of pagan temples and something he designated as buildings for Christians to meet in.

A pagan temple of that time was a small, round building with stairs leading up to an altar in the middle. Usually the people gathered around the temple and worshiped while standing outside. Across the street from some of these pagan temples, Constantine commissioned Christian meeting places. These were not shaped like pagan temples, but like the government civic auditoriums. (Christians had met inside for three centuries. But it was inside homes.) Here, for the first time, stood officially designated places for Christians to meet. This was a wonder which no Christian had ever seen before. Put another way, it was in 323, almost three hundred years after the birth of the church, that Christians first met in something we now call a "church building." For all three hundred years before that, the church met in living rooms!

Constantine built these assembly buildings for Christians not only in Constantinople, but also in Rome, Jerusalem, and in many parts of Italy, all between 323 and 327! This then triggered a massive "church building" fad in large cities all over the Empire. Many thousands of pagans came into these buildings. One could only wish they had all become saved and grown to maturity.

In his pagan mentality, Constantine ordered each building to be named after one of the Christians in the New Testament. Why? Well, mark the answer well: because pagan temples had always been named after pagan gods. So the builders put a word like "Joseph" on the front of each building, or "Mary" or "Peter" or "Paul," just as pagan temples had on them "Apollo" or "Zeus." The die was beginning to be cast. We were headed straight for a totally different kind of Christian worship in a wholly different atmosphere from what the first century believer had ever dreamed of.

Incidentally, researchers have recently discovered that only after Constantine slapped Biblical names on his Constantinople church buildings did gentile Christians begin to name their children after Biblical characters. Until that time, believers had always given local or family names to their children. After Constantine, Christians fell into pagan ways of naming. (Pagans had long named their children after religious figures, and we simply began to copy them.)

Constantinople was finally completed, and people moved there in droves from Rome. Imagine a typical Christian walking into one of these strange looking "Christian buildings." He had never seen anything like this! I suppose he walked into the building and sat down on the cold stone floor. (Constantine had forgotten to invent the pew.) This definitely was no comfortable living room. In fact, trying to figure out whether to sit on the cold floor or stand throughout the whole meeting (as the pagans did across the street) caused one of the great debates and marked differences between the Eastern church and the Western church. The Italians dragged in benches and got comfortable. The Greeks stood up. (The Western church grew, the Eastern church didn't!)

By now people were coming into the church en masse out of paganism, following the strong example of their emperor, Constantine. The church was changing to accommodate them, introducing structure and ritual into the meetings, with chanting and pageantry - all things familiar to these ex-pagans. The clergy - this very word had previously been used to designate a pagan priest - began to wear strange clothing (costumes, if you please) to set themselves apart from the laity. Church buildings sprouted up everywhere on the crest of state tax money pouring into the church's coffers all over the Roman empire. Soon the living room church meetings were but a memory, and even that memory seems to have been stamped out.

Until that time, any tax money that went to religion had been channeled exclusively to the pagan religions. By A.D. 400 it flowed exclusively to the church. Pagan priests were becoming "Christians" to keep up with the whereabouts of their money. Government officials and politicians were becoming Christian priests in droves because it was lucrative to do so.

A.D. 380 is the date when you could probably say that Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Or you might put it another way: In 380, Christianity was merged with the pagan Roman state religion.

Now, if you are exceptionally quick, you may be asking yourself, "And just when was Christianity unmerged from paganism? When did the Church repudiate and divorce herself from neo-paganism?" Well, I'm still researching that one. If I ever come across an unmerge date, I'll be sure to let you know.

By the mid-400s, the pagan temples choir was also transplanted over into the Christian buildings. So was the ambo. What's an ambo? You know it by the name pulpit.

Always on Sunday

To emphasize the homogenous nature of the new pagan-Christian religion, the state decreed that the first day of the week would be a holiday. The idea was to encourage pagans to observe it along with Christians. Rather than calling it "the Lord's Day" or something, they retained one of the names that had been used for a couple of centuries, dies solis, the "day of the Sun." Pagans were used to worshiping the Sun, not Jehovah, so the state gave preference to them on this point.

Thus to this day, we pay unwilling homage to the Sun on Sunday, along with the Moon on Monday, plus a mini-pantheon of Norse, Teutonic, Germanic, and Roman gods: Tiu, Woden, Thor, Frigg, and Saturn.

Sleep well tonight. In case there's anything to these other religions, we're covered.

Where Did Our "Order of Worship" Come From?

Around A.D. 500, a gentleman whom history has given the name Gregory the Great was serving as bishop of Rome. At that time Rome had long lain in ruins and wasn't much more than a cow pasture. Yet despite this, the power of the bishop of Rome was growing. Gregory invented an order of worship and then decreed that it would be the only one for all churches in Christendom.

For Catholics, that "order of worship" has not been changed in fifteen hundred years. But dead or alive, it is repeated every Sunday in literally millions of places. But before you (likely a Protestant) say "tut-tut" at such lifeless ritualism, you should know that Martin Luther and John Calvin invented the Protestant way of worship, and it hasn't changed in over four hundred years! Furthermore, it is just as unimaginative, ossified, hidebound, ridiculous, boring, dead, and irrelevant to modern man as what Gregory invented!

It's a funny thing about religion: Once "deified," certain elements never change. A total revolution is needed in the way Christians gather. But rejoice! An exciting new Christian revival - the open church life - now brings with it an infinite number of ways to gather and to worship.

Where We Got the Sermon

Let us look at one man of this era. He and his contribution are often overlooked. I refer to John Chrysostom, who bequeathed to us Christian oratory. Unlike the other traditions I mentioned so far, this one might appear at first glance to be very scriptural. The powerful sermons of Spurgeon's, Ironside, and Jonathan Edwards, for example, will reverberate though history. There is a difference, however, between the speaking skills Chrysostom gave to the Christian tradition and the speaking of called men in the first century. That difference is not a fine line, but a vast gorge.

John Chrysostom - for better or for worse - left us with polished professional pulpiteerism, a far cry from the New Testament business of prophetic utterance. Modern sermonics, homiletics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, oratory, and all related fields find their origins not in the first century prophets, but in the Graeco-Roman tradition of rhetoric. (Rhetoric is the structure and style of what you say.) Then, it was a rhetorical gift.

Today, it's platform science. For instance, seminaries today teach us that the ideal sermon has an introduction, three memorable main points, and a conclusion. That's exactly what Aristotle said in his Rhetoric (no coincidence). A good sermon in a seminary classroom is a brilliant, well-thought-out message that flows from the mind; a good "sermon" around a kitchen table in A.D. 100 was a brief but sound message that flowed from the heart and sprang from the situation at hand rather than being etched in marble beforehand.

In his early pagan years, Chrysostom was a student of rhetoric. In fact, he was the most promising young orator in the Empire. His name, Chrysostom, means Golden-Mouth. Then he got saved and ended up as the spellbinding bishop of the church in Antioch. History has judged him to be both courageous and foolhardy - and an egomaniac. He and two or three other oratory-turned-Christian-pulpiteers caused the Greek oratorical skills to replace the Judaeo-Christian practice of the prophet. As a result, today we have an awful lot of pulpit pros, while the old-fashioned, free-speaking prophet has become an endangered species.

What we hear on Sunday morning is in the tradition of Greek orators and not in the lineage of the church planters, men like Peter - or Paul of Tarsus - with their fierce, bold proclamation of the gospel in marketplaces and open homes. Such Hebrew preachers spoke sporadically, as prompted by the Holy Spirit. We get our preaching today every Sunday between 11:25 and 11:59, Holy Spirit or no.

They spoke extemporaneously, with little or no formal speech training. Someday you and I may be forced to abandon our polished platform rhetoric and follow their pattern - when the Scripture is fulfilled: When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you should say. (Lk. 12:11-12)

The Church That Didn't Like Titles

What was church life like from A.D. 100 to 323? The question is important because the closer you can get to those original Biblical patterns of a participatory church, the closer you'll be to having a happy, lively fellowship of believers.

Unfortunately, I have to tell you that we don't have a lot of direct descriptions of church life in that period. They're rare. But we do have some things. Most notably, we have a vast array of random letters. Counting all types of written documents and correspondence, archaeologists have about 500,000 specimens from this era, with about 25,000 of them categorized as "Christian" or "probably Christian." That means they make reference to church events, Christian concepts, etc. And here's the mind-blowing discovery they've made: Not one of these 25,000 pieces of papyrus, etc., makes any reference to a clergyman. There is absolutely no mention of a "minister" or "priest" or "pastor" or any other term for any office or any kind of leadership.

The leaders did exist, but their role certainly didn't fill up any space in the brains of the believers who wrote the letters! Or their lives! To the early Christian, his church elder (bishop) was a "regular guy" who was an integral "part of the family," not a member of a special class that was ever, ever referred to by a title![3]

Science Upsets the Rotten-Apple Cart

What about archeological documents after A.D. 330? After that date, they are replete with references to titles! But there's one big difference: Most of the surviving literature after 330 was penned by pagan philosophers-turned-Christian. Although their hearts had latched onto Jesus Christ, their minds made a slower transition. Nonetheless, they took it upon themselves to write philosophical and theological treatises on just about everything imaginable, and they tell us very little that is useful - and even less that's reliable about church life. What church life looked like after 330 virtually never comes up as a subject. Most everything is ex-pagan philosophers dueling with pagan philosophers!

A study of many such writers will give you a very mistaken impression of what church life was like. Their half-pagan, neo-Christian descent into philosophical nothingism is mind-boggling. Unfortunately, when you read these volumes (and almost nothing else has survived), you come away with the impression that all Christians were caught up in a philosophical, theological, and intellectual study in abstract tedium!

That is not so, of course. If today all Christian writings on earth burned in an atomic holocaust except for one library full of scholarly theology, a thousand years from now, people might think that today's Sunday schools and church socials consisted of normal families sitting around and philosophizing about millennial eschatology, process theology, situation ethics, infralapsarianism, and other academic chewing gum.

It looked for awhile like we would forever have to live with the distorted perspective that the church of that era was made up 100% of erudite theologians! Make no mistake, those men's writings are held in highest esteem, despite the fact that every one of them wrote from a solidly Socratic-Platonic-Aristotelian perspective.

So what did early Christianity actually look like after you peel off the accumulated layers of Ambrose, Gregory, Augustine, Tertullian, Jerome, Origen, and a few hundred others? Until 1989, you couldn't have known (unless you spoke French and happened to know about the one and only book on the subject). Hold on to your hat. Modern archeology has very recently come up with a whole potful of fascinating, if not downright unbelievable discoveries. To understand just how astonishing these findings are, and how contrary to all past interpretations of this era they are, we need to note a fact or two about Christian archeology itself.

A Trip Through the Catacombs

Modern Christian archeology was launched by Roman Catholic scholars about 1630. They "got their first," and until recently their interpretation of the evidence left to us in literature, documents, and objects has been the accepted interpretation. And naturally, their interpretations were filtered through the mindset of Roman Catholic theologians. These men saw everything they looked at as reinforcing the Catholic view of the church.

Unfortunately (and incredibly), when Protestant archeology and even taught them. The view of church history (A.D. 100 to 280) passed on even in our best seminaries was that of a church elaborate in ritual, with a powerful and well-defined clergy and a prescribed liturgy. It was a scenario that made the believers of that time took terribly religious, pious, and ascetic. We were taught that a distinct, powerful clergy over lorded virtually everything.

I came face to face with Roman school of archeology just after finishing my first year in seminary at Ruschlikon, Switzerland. I spent that summer in Rome, and I was privileged to be able to get a personal guided tour of the catacombs by a priest versed in the history of the catacombs. We took candles and descended into that fantastic labyrinth. Along the way, he pointed out the Christian graffiti left on the walls, allegedly during the middle and late 200s and early 300s.

At one place he pointed to a Latin inscription and said, "This is early second century." With horror, I read the inscription: "Peter and Paul, pray for us." Every instinct in me rebelled. I just knew the statement scribbled on the ceiling of that underground trench was not part of the mind-set of second-century Christians. Recent redating of this graffiti puts that very inscription after the Constantine era.

What we were being told was this: The second, third and fourth centuries were as full of ritual, clergy, liturgy, sobriety, austerity, pomp, and sacerdotalism as the fifth, sixth and seventh. That interpretation buttressed Roman Catholicism mightily, and the Protestants, blushing with embarrassment at such Catholic one-upmanship, could only mumble sadly, "Well, after A.D. 100 there was a great falling away of the faith." And when Protestants themselves get tied up in pomp, ritual and clerical rule, they even point to the practices ascribed to the second and third century church. After all, it appears that it was doing nicely even though it was full of formality and dominated by an active ministry and a silent laity.

Well, it's not so. During the last decade archaeologists have been turning up new and revolutionary findings which have caused the archeological community to begin, for the first time, to re-examine past interpretations of known data. What has emerged is nothing less than stunning. Some of the recent archaeologists who have been instrumental in the complete reinterpretation of second century Christianity are evangelical, others are liberal; but the conclusions are the same.[4] First of all, this new, emerging school is far more honest and scientific than was the Roman school. Secondly, it is working with far more data. Thirdly, these men are not taking their cue from Augustine, Ambrose, etc. As one scholar recently wrote in the Chicago Seminary Theological Review:

"Trying to find out what the early church was like by studying the theologians of the second, third and fourth centuries would be the same thing as someone five thousand years from now reading nothing but the writings of Barth, Tillich and Neibuhr, and drawing from their writings a picture of what twentieth-century Christianity was like." (There is virtually nothing in these men's writings that describes what the church is like today.)

No Church Buildings

What has been discovered? Let's begin with Christian architecture - that is, church buildings. The Roman school declared that church buildings have been with us from the second century on. It further taught that the church buildings erected during the Constantinian era were built on the sites of previous church structures. This dogma was universally accepted as fact. But recently, Christian archeology has gone back to reinvestigate those sites. The findings: Without exception, there was no church building or any other kind of Christian meeting place to be buried beneath any Constantinian-era church buildings. Archaeologists found either virgin land or pagan temples or marketplaces or maybe even an occasional Pizza Hut, but no evidence anywhere of any kind of building used for Christian gatherings.

The implications were staggering - and still are! They are a call to the whole church, Catholic and Protestant, to rethink the nature of what we call "church." In one way, the most remarkable discovery was that of a single Christian meeting place - the only one ever found from the pre-Constantine era! Even it was not a church building, but a home that had been converted into a meeting place for Christians. The site is a town in Syria with the odd name of Duro-Europa. Exhaustive studies have been made of this building. The upshot is this: It was just a home used in the mid-200s as a place for Christians to gather. One of its peculiarities: A wall had been torn out between two bedrooms to make one large room that would hold about seventy-five people sitting on the floor. The point? Until Constantine, there was no such thing as a church building or "Christian" architecture. A church building had never been dreamed of in a dream. That which we know as the Christian faith was a living room movement! The Christian faith was the first and only religion ever to exist that did not use special temples of worship; it is the only "living room" religion in human history.

House Churches in Africa

Let's look at yet another surprising archeological find. Imagine, if you will, a group of Christian archaeologists plowing their way through thousands of deeds and property records of towns and cities in North Africa. These deeds, surveys, title changes and tax records of towns and cities in North Africa. These deeds, surveys, title changes and tax records all dated from A.D. 100 to 400, and often stated the uses being made of each building.

Some of these documents tell the name of the family that lived in each house, the occupation of those employed, and their religion. Some of these records also tell what other activities the building was used for besides living quarters. ("Baking located here"; "Pots made here," etc.) Lo and behold, from time to time notations are found that say, essentially, "The Christian ecclesia sometimes holds meetings in this house"!

Exciting? Well, on some occasions archaeologists have been able to locate these very sites and do a dig. The invariable findings: an ordinary house. No more, no less. All scientific evidence of this era rises up to declare to us that the Christian faith was utterly informal in its expression, and homes were its base!

A formalized Christianity in a ceremonial setting was invented during and immediately after the age of Constantine. It did not grow out of a slow, natural progression to a more mature church, but out of a sudden captivity to a half-converted, neo-pagan worldview. The institutionalization of the church was not a step up, but a step off the precipice into a chasm of slavery to unbiblical traditions.

We are still in that chasm. Your own church may be as orthodox as sunshine in July, but chances are that 50% to 90% of its practices are hand-me-downs from Mr. Constantine. Small wonder that noted Temple University historian Franklin Littell calls Constantine, "that great whale that broke the net."

Christian Art

Early Christian stonework and carvings have now presented us with yet another surprise. At some point in your cultural upbringing, you may have groaned your way through a museum full of old Christian art. You saw painting after painting of fat baby Jesuses with sallow-faced Marys, and sickly, tragic-looking Jesuses with the trademark halo and the hands held just so - all of which were codified and required by rigid convention.What makes these works even more depressing is that you and I have been told that no matter how far back we go, Christian art always looked about like this. Well, that's just not so - and now we have the research to prove it.

The old Roman school of archeology dated almost all of the dreary, miserable-looking stonework, carving, and other artifacts quite early. But a more enlightened and unprejudiced dating has now been able to divide these findings into four groups: 1) early; 2) just prior to Constantine; 3) the Constantinian era; and 4) the post-Constantinian era. Generally speaking, here is what emerges. In groups one and two, you see depicted happy crowds of people following a joyful, charismatic, and itinerant Lord. In the post-Constantinian era, you see a sober, grave, unhappy, austere Christ sitting on a throne, garbed in the robes of a Caesar with bolts of lightning breaking around Him.

Two points: First, men tend to depict in art what they see in their minds. A radical and terrible change in the minds of Christians as to what Christ was like and what a Christian should look like had taken place in less than seventy years. Second, powerful men seeking total power had to depict a ruling Savior to justify their own rule. A poor, itinerant model would not do.

One of the most telling proofs of the enormous change that occurred at that point in time is found in those artworks depicting the Lord's Supper. Incredibly, art that has to do with the Lord's Supper never depicts the night before the crucifixion, but rather shows the Lord feeding the five thousand! The early artists saw the Lord's Supper as a time of joy, with the Lord providing for five thousand of His people. Later you find depicted a dismal Christ staring morbidly at a cup, with the dozen around him sober-faced and sad.

Which do you think reflects the first-century mind? And which do you think depicts our present attitude toward the Lord's Supper? In conclusion, most of our heritage of "Christian practices" in today's Protestant church is not legitimate. The doctrine is correct, the rest of the Christian picture is not. When Protestants left the Catholic church, they did not leave behind everything that was in error. It's time to face the facts: You and I have been sold a bill of goods.


[1] Tedious footnote for historians: These two chapters aren't intended to be a balanced dissertation showing the evidence for and against everything. History books do that very well, but this is just a short, popular summary of the evidence about man-made customs in the church, trying to show events as clearly and forcefully as possible. It's possible, for example, to give much evidence to suggest Constantine was a brave and sincere Christian.

Unfortunately, the preponderance of evidence shows that his motivations were mixed - mixed with large doses of paganism. Also, any reading of church history will show that God has been infinitely powerful and gracious in working through the church, His bride, during even the worst periods and through the most flawed structures. And the very institutions skewered in these pages (sermons, choirs, etc.) have been used by Him to draw millions of people to Himself. Praise to His name for each one!

If you feel a strong loyalty to the customs discussed in these two chapters, you may be bothered by the zest with which they are dispatched. But when you examine the evidence closely, you must conclude that, on balance, it is inescapably negative. -J.R.

[2] See in bibliography, Graydon F. Snyder, Church Life Before Constantine.

[3] Incidentally, although most Romans had three or four names, Christians refused to use even their family surnames. It sounded too conceited and prideful to them. It gave away their standing in society. Using only first names, slaves and rich people could be on the same level, an arrangement that astounded outsiders!

[4] Almost all of them are French or German. We English-speakers are too busy digging up Old Testament ruins in Israel!