Full disclosure: I was ordained 27 years ago. This may surprise you when you read what I write below.
Those of us who are aware of Christian history know that the year 313 AD was an eventful year for the Christian faith. What had originally seemed like an incredible victory for the Christians soon began to be viewed as a mixed blessing. Now, with nearly 1,700 years of hindsight, many view Feb. 3, 313AD as one of the darkest days in Christian history. So what happened in that day? On that day the new Roman emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Milan, which officially recognized and tolerated Christianity. Even more, it tolerated other religions, but did so because it chose to tolerate Christianity. In other words, Christianity was first among supposed equals. All other religions had to credit their toleration due to Christianity.
Obviously this seemed like good news to the Christians. But, given the historic context it went beyond good, it seemed like the miracle of miracles. Just seven years before the Christians were in the midst of the most severe persecution they had ever suffered in the Roman Empire; the Diocletian persecution under an emperor by that name. Any Christian found, both adults and children, were forced to sacrifice to the pagan gods on pain of death. Many chose death. Now, seven years later the Christians were being not only tolerated but considered the most important religion in the empire. A miracle right?
So what happened at the dramatic switch? Very quickly a number of things happened. Romans, who could see who the emperor was favoring were “becoming Christians” in droves. But these weren’t necessarily new disciples of Christ as much as converts in name only. Second, in order to handle the influx of “new Christians” the church asked the government to be able to use large buildings (instead of homes and apartments) for their meetings. To do this they were given access to the Roman courthouses, called basilicas. This reinforced their tie to the government. Third, leaders of the Christians, called at that time elders or bishops, were quickly organized into a copy of the Roman government’s hierarchical leadership structure. These leaders were even validated by copying the Roman ritual of being installed into official governmental office, called ordination. This concept of ordination was completely foreign to Christianity until the Church became associated with the Roman government.
Wow, this is all great right? The most experienced Christians must have been ecstatic? Not so much. Here’s what happened. Christian leaders, who had been informal leaders, recognized and respected for their Christian maturity, now became “officials” with an “office” and began to act like their government counterparts; as if they had power and control over those “below” them. Very rapidly their spiritual lives began to deteriorate. For more on this read Chapter 5: The Crumbling of a Viral Jesus Movement in my book Viral Jesus. The experienced Christians soon became disgusted by their own leadership. Some retreated to the desert to seek the holiness that was no longer being demonstrated by their leaders. These desert pilgrims became known to history as the Desert Fathers. This was the beginning of the monastic movement, which was a direct response to the degradation of Christian leadership.
One of these Desert Fathers was named Pachomius. Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk, writing of this response to the carnality and veniality of the new clergy wrote this about Pachomius. “Power of any sort was suspect, even that of the ordained clergy. Pachomius, like many other early monks, took a dim view of the priesthood, seeing ordination as ‘the beginning of the thought of love of command.’”
So how long did this process take? Pachomius was about 21 years old at the signing of the Edict of Milan. And he died only 35 years after its signing. The total degradation of Christian leadership didn’t take long at all, well within one lifetime. And that degradation started when Christian leaders were given official positions, titles, power and command; this in contrast to merely being respected for maturity and holy living. In 1870 Lord Acton famously said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He was writing that comment about Pope Pius IX; but he wasn’t the first Christian to realize that giving official power to Christian leaders harms them and harms the Church. Pachomius could have told him that about 1,550 years earlier.
- Were you aware that monasticism was a response to the degradation of the Christian leadership after they became “clergy”?
- The hierarchicalization of the Church started before the Edict of Milan but was vague and sporadic before then. Are you surprised by how rapidly the leadership of the Church deteriorated after the Edict of Milan?
- Did you know that the idea of ordination comes from the pagan Roman government and was non-existent before the 4th Century? How do you feel about that?
- Do you think title, power and control are necessary for Christian leadership to function? If they don’t have these things, how can they lead?
 Thomas Merton, Wisdom of the Desert, p.5.