Popes and monks and other stuff

Constantine’s confession and avowal of Christianity was a mixed blessing for the Church. On the one hand, they were free from persecution—free to build churches and invite people to join them for worship, free to share their faith with neighbors and family and friends, free from fear that they might be arrested, tortured, and killed for their faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, this freedom opened the doors for nominal Christians, for those who claimed a place in the Church without true faith in the Savior, for those who sought to use the Church for their own purposes rather than joining the Church from a commitment to Jesus Christ.

Moreover, Constantine’s embrace of Christianity brought worldliness into the Church. Now the Church could receive gifts of money and property and could maintain that property—for the service of the Lord, but also for worldly profit and gain. Now the Church could become involved in worldly politics—in the name of Jesus, but sometimes contradicting his will and his purposes for the Church. Becoming respectable in the world encouraged some Christian leaders to imitate the world and to judge their service to God by the world’s standards of success. These challenges remain for Christians to face in the twenty-first century Church.

Constantine and the eastern (Byzantine) emperors after him believed that they answered only to God. Church leaders answered to God and to the emperors. A structure of authority had developed within the Church, acknowledging various ministries in each congregation with a head pastor or bishop, along with regional leaders who could be considered archbishops. Five of those archbishops had pre-eminence in the Church because of the size and antiquity of their congregations—those in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. The most important decisions about faith and practice were made in councils—the few great councils, and many smaller regional councils that handled lesser matters and affirmed the conclusions of the great councils. Much later, three of the pre-eminent congregations would be overwhelmed by the growth of Islam, leaving Rome and Constantinople to quarrel over leadership of Christianity on earth. By this time, the head pastor in Rome had already assumed political power, filling the vacuum left as Roman power retreated to the east. Power battles between Rome and Constantinople, and between the pope and secular leaders in western Europe, would fill the pages of history in later centuries.

Even before Constantine, the practice of monasticism had already begun in the Church. Some Christians sought closeness with God, closeness that could not reach its fullness in congregational life. They went into the wilderness to pray, to meditate, to escape worldly temptations, and to test themselves with ascetic practices. They survived with minimal food, minimal clothing, minimal shelter, and no social commitments. In some ways, these monastic practices were informed by the same Greek distrust of the physical world that had energized Gnostic beliefs. Yet these monks and hermits also offered a way for Christianity to survive and flourish in spite of the challenges of worldliness that the Church faced in those centuries.

One of the most famous Christians to practice monasticism was Anthony, who lived in Egypt. He had a reputation of holiness, of total commitment to Jesus Christ, and even of being capable of working miracles. To escape the world, he made his home in the desert. Because of his reputation, other Christians sought him in the desert and asked to join him. Anthony might have asked them, “What part of ‘alone’ do you not understand?” Instead, accepting the inevitable, Anthony made a set of rules about asceticism and self-denial. He did not require those rules of all Christians, but only of those who insisted on living near him.

Many other early Christians followed Anthony’s rules, or sets of rules that were similar. What worked in the Egyptian desert—especially regarding clothing and food—was not suited for life in Europe; Benedict of Nursia (480-550) developed the Benedictine Rule that some Christians still follow today. Common patterns in monastic life included poverty, chastity, and obedience. Bread, water, and some green vegetables were frequently the diet of monastic Christians—lettuce, but no dressing; bread, but no butter; no meat or dairy; no wine or other alcoholic beverages; no luxuries, and only the bare necessities. Jerome—a monk living in Bethlehem, famous for his Bible translation—disparaged Christians who paid too much attention to hygiene. Jerome claimed that you could distinguish the real monks from the imitators, because you could smell the real monks even before they entered the room.

Monastic communities developed forms of Christian worship that many congregations still use today. They preserved and copied Christian literature—not only the Bible, but also the writings of many Church Fathers. As non-Christian groups invaded Europe and devastated many centers of civilization, monastic Christianity preserved what was best from Roman times. Patrick, a Christian from Britain, was kidnapped as a boy, taken by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. After a few years, he escaped, and ended up living for a time in a monetary in France. Patrick remembered the pagans of Ireland and felt burdened to bring them the Gospel. When he became the great Saint Patrick, missionary to Ireland, he also imported monasticism from France. In later generations, when France had been overrun by Germanic groups, missionaries came from Ireland, bringing back the Gospel and the monastic life that Patrick had transplanted to their island. In this way, Christian faith and Roman traditions remained alive in western Europe during the region’s most troubled times.

For a time, then, early Christianity was the prevailing culture of the Mediterranean world. J.