How did “church” begin life as a collection of called-out people meeting in homes, but end up as a vastly adorned building containing all sorts of people. Was it expansion in numbers that forced them out of their homes into larger halls? Was it the lack of space in homes for special seating for the clergy? Was it because they suddenly had a lot of cash and decided to invest in real estate?
To borrow an image from the evolutionists, when did the first Christians emerge blinking from the safety of their homes and book some property viewings with the ecclesiastical estate agent?
When was the first church built? Interestingly not until the 4th Century. This means that, even though by then we had the beginning of the hierarchies and the rise of the clergy, they were still crammed into living rooms in folk’s homes for at least a couple of hundred years. So the first few Popes in Rome were in much humbler surroundings than their counterparts in later times (though the title itself was not used until the 3rd Century). No doubt this was far better for their soul, if not for their self-image. You can imagine such a conversation held at that time: “Come on Cornelius, others may think you’re a big shot but in this house you’ll be on the washing-up rota like everyone else!”
That’s not the mental image we have of the churches in those first couple of centuries – the great congregations in Antioch, Ephesus, Rome and Alexandria. They were all house churches, which is not surprising when we realise that much of that period was a time of intense Roman persecution. So it makes sense that the first purpose-built churches are not going to appear in the Roman world until things had become a lot safer.
Then, near the start of the 4th Century, came Emperor Constantine, the fiend who posed as a friend of Christianity. As described in my books, he not only secularised the Christian faith, but formalised the persecution of the Jews as a matter of Church policy. He made Christianity the State religion and, by doing so, created an environment for power-mongers, chancers and out-and-out villains to flourish, under the guise of religious practitioners. The clergy, so persecuted by the previous Emperor Diocletian, eventually became the persecutors, although this was disguised as protecting the doctrine at the time. One of Constantine’s weapons was the new programme of church building that he initiated.
In the city that bears his name, Constantinople, he commissioned the building of “holy” meeting places, both pagan and Christian, no doubt to cover all bases. This building programme was repeated in Rome, Jerusalem and all over the Empire, the major churches mainly being built over the tombs of dead saints, because of the supposed power of these “sacred places”, an idea that was thoroughly pagan.
Now Christians were enticed out of their home churches and told that, as the Emperor had converted, one now had to look to him and his clergy rather than the Holy Spirit on such matters as where to meet. This was the birth of State Christianity, still with us today, albeit in the watered-down form of the Church of England and now being Church had subtly changed to going to church. These Christian meeting places were based on Greek civic buildings, the basilica, a perfect design to accommodate active performers and passive onlookers. Any sense of interactivity or personal involvement was going to be squeezed out of one’s “church experience”. The stage was literally set for the clergy to “do their thing”.
Suddenly, people who had been pagans for their whole lives were told to throw away their idols because they were Christians now and had to join real Christians and congregate every week in these new churches. They witnessed, from their seats near the back, the awesome mystery of Holy Communion, an activity of such great awe and power that it could only be administered in a dry and solemn ritual, performed by a special person in strange clothing, at a sacred place in the centre of the room called an altar. This person, called a bishop, sat on an elevated throne, surrounded by lower ranked members of the clergy and, at one point in the proceedings, was to give a long speech, called a sermon. The warm, supportive and godly gatherings of the early Church had become a ritualised costume drama acted out by career churchmen. The job of the congregation was simply to listen and only speak when told to.
This was the normal Christian experience in the 4th Century, once the Church had ceased to be a collective of called-out believers in the risen Christ and was now the place where citizens – believers and unbelievers – met together under State-authorised worship. And, you can say, this is the experience in many churches to this day.
Now, in an earlier article, we noticed that the actual Greek word, kyriakon, that transliterates as “church”, only appears twice in the New Testament, with the meaning, “belonging to the Lord”. Yet the word that is commonly translated as “church” is ekklesia, meaning “called out”. Why aren’t we called out into “ekkleses”, then? This was a question posed by William Tyndale, in the 16th Century. He was a Protestant who was the first to translate much of the Greek and Hebrew Scriptures of the Bible into English and ended his life burnt at the stake as a heretic by the Catholics. (By that time the definition of heresy had changed somewhat from the early days of the Church, into something political and sinister.)
Tyndale saw what had happened to Christendom, now a ritualised, materialistic corporation administered from Rome and propagated through a network of richly adorned churches and cathedrals by purveyors of greed and faulty theology. So when he turned to the word ekklesia, with the original meaning of the people of God, rather than translate it as “church”, as everyone else did, he chose the word “congregation”, focussing on the people, the called-out ones. This attack on the Church authorities brought him into conflict with them and no doubt contributed to his demise. Nevertheless, the King James Bible drew on his work, but ekklesia was translated as “church”. Most subsequent translations have done so too. So, ever since, Western Christianity has been viewed as more about what goes on inside these buildings, hidden and insulated from the real world, rather than the activities of Christians outside the building.
So we have seen how “church” may have started as called-out ones, but, once Greek thinking and personal ambition had been added to the mix, it had reverse metamorphosised, from the beautiful free butterfly of the earliest expressions to the ugly caterpillar of State control.
A question demands to be asked. Is this process reversible? Can we return to those exciting days of Peter and Paul and the first apostles, or have we just moved too far away … ?
(This is an abridged extract from Steve’s book To Life!)
When was the first Church built?
Written by: Miriam Emenike
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