Before Constantine, Christian worship followed the synagogue pattern of word and prayer. After Constantine, the Temple pattern of priest and sacrifice became the norm. What did we lose in that transition?
We lost the priesthood of all believers. After Constantine, the ordained ministry served in a kind of intermediary function between Christ and his community. The immediacy of the priesthood of all believers was weakened before Constantine, but afterward, it gets lost.
The whole notion of the Eucharist as a sacrifice pushes in the same direction. Because if there is a sacrifice, there have to be priests bringing the sacrifice. And that is the business of the ordained ministry rather than the general priesthood of all believers.
It’s not all that which was lost, of course. We gained the institutional church, which, among other things, became an engine for discovery and learning during the Dark Ages, and well into modern times. We lost the primacy of the individual believer,where Christ dwells as surely as he does in the eucharist.
The institutional church can seem to have been mostly about preserving itself. Like any other human institution, and, worse, the evil that the church does, is done in the name of God. For which there will be many clerics, bishops, and popes, frying in whatever circle of hell is reserved for those who do evil in the name of Christ.
Today’s Roman Catholic Church isn’t that of even your grandparents. It has reformed, lower-case “r.” And has much to recommend it, over what many Protestant churches have become. My purpose here isn’t to proselytize, either way. Just making some observations.
One of worst consequences of the Emperor Constantine’s conversion and establishment of a national church in 313 was just that: it violated Christ’s injunction “”My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Church and state became intertwined; something Jesus clearly would not have preferred (render unto Caesar, and all of that…).
In today’s world, we still have some national churches, and they tend towards being ethnic ghettos. But no more so than so-called Afro-centric churches are. And, to be wickedly blunt, no more than any whitebread mainline churches are. We all seem to prefer going to a church that looks as much like ourselves as we can find.
Having been Catholic, now Protestant (Baptist), I must repeat what I’ve said before: regardless of history, regardless of the form of worship, regardless of exclusionary rules and official dogmas, what we share is much greater than what we do not.
We are bound by ties mightier than the strongest steel: the love of Christ Jesus.