In its 2,000 year history, the Christian church has been shaped by numerous key events and key figures. Coming up with a definitive list of the most important events is practically impossible, as the history of the church is still being written and contemporary events that seem to us now insignificant may, retrospectively, be seen as absolutely pivotal. Jackson Presbyterian Examiner would like to explore ten events that, if not the overall most monumental, must certainly be recognized as some of the most crucial.
The list is confined to post-apostolic events that shaped the Body of Christ universally, not just at a local level, and it transcends all denominational barriers. Though none of these events happened in Jackson, they continue to affect Christians in our neck of the woods. Let’s now explore the events in more detail.
1. Roman persecution of Christians, from the first to the fourth century.
As ironic as it may seem, the Christian church may never have grown as it did in the early centuries had it not been for the fierce persecution it experienced at the hands of the Roman Empire. With the exception of John, all of Christ’s original apostles were martyred for their faith. Peter was crucified in Rome; Paul was beheaded.
1st century emperor Nero is famous for his persecution of the church. Some Bible scholars interpret the “beast” of Revelation to be a reference to Nero (the numerical value of his name was 666). In the early church, Rome was often referred to in code as “Babylon”, indicating the extent to which the church viewed Rome as an enemy of God. Depending on when one believes the book was authored, Diocletian, another infamous emperor of the late first century, is also often associated with Revelation’s antichrist,
Why, then, did the persecution actually grow the church? For several reasons: first, disciples willingly laying down their lives for their beliefs testified to the outside world the degree to which they held to them in sincerity; secondly, disciples dying with such serenity of spirit and lack of malice towards their executioners testified to the outside world of something supernatural at work within them; and thirdly, disciples living under the constant threat of death helped ensure that people who did join the church were their for the right motives. “Nominal Christianity” is antithetical to persecuted Christianity; when the cost is high, usually only those who count the cost stay.
If the apostles themselves had fabricated the story of Christ’s resurrection, one is left having to explain why they would have all died for a lie, knowing it was a lie. Josh McDowell elaborates on this dilemma in much more detail in his classic Evidence that Demands a Verdict.
The persecution also forced believers to leave their homes and migrate elsewhere, carrying the gospel with them to the uttermost parts of the earth. Had it been more comfortable to stay in Rome, no doubt the gospel would’ve traveled much more slowly. For more information on this turbulent period of the church’s history, read Eusebius’ The Church History.
2. The legalization of Christianity by Constantine, the Roman Emperor
In 312, Constantine saw a vision of the cross in the sky, which was accompanied by the words, “In this, you will conquer.” Believing it to be a divine sign, Constantine declared Christianity the established faith of the Roman Empire and was himself baptized as a Christian before he died.
Christian scholars are divided about whether Christianity becoming the official religion of the empire was good or bad for the Body of Christ. On one hand, of course it ended centuries of bitter persecution and made it safe for Christians to gather for worship. On the other hand, it politicized the church, making it socially expedient to join, which means many joined the church without genuinely experiencing conversion.
The age of the ecumenical councils (325 to 787 A.D.) could hardly have happened without the empire facilitating. We bemoan how Christianity is too fragmented today to have truly ecumenical councils, but the reason all bishops from all across the world were able to assemble in the early centuries of the church was because the emperor had the authority to arrange it. Disunity in the church was considered a threat to the stability of the empire, and so resolving doctrinal quarrels was hailed as a political priority as much as anything else.
When Constantine made Byzantium his new capitol, this eventually led to Byzantine Christianity becoming more and more distinct from Latin Christianity. The increasing prominence of the patriarch of Constantinople can be partly explained on political grounds, just as the prominence of the bishop of Rome can also be explained on political grounds. Again, the writings of Eusebius, who was a close friend of Constantine, are helpful in learning more about this period.