If the Christian community decided the canon over three centuries then inescapably it plays a critical role in interpretation. Church comes prior to scripture, if only in order of time. So, in turn, this begs the question of church. What in fact is church? What is the community of interpretation?
The content to this question is so big, spanning so much time, we can’t cover everything. What we’re interested in are key elements which can bring us to where we are today, with some degree of insight. We will approach the topic in bite-size chunks which hopefully move us forward swiftly to our present situation.
Any gathering of Christians is a church, an ekklesia, a calling of people to come together, in the name of Christ. The individual, local sense is almost always the sense Paul gives the word. (And it is always the case in Acts.) The name chosen, “ekklesia,” was entirely neutral in this way. It had no religious connotation. A “church” is a particular community.
But Paul also gives it a general and ideal sense at 1 Corinthians 12:27-28. Here, there is an emergent order of authority, but it’s to be underlined at once that all the roles are charismatic and non-institutional, i.e. they are conferred by the Spirit, not by institutional office and power.
Matthew 16:19 (“On this rock I will build my church”) is famous as a text conferring on Peter special power and office. These Matthean verses could certainly be analyzed in detail, but there can be little doubt that the term Cephas/Rock, as a nickname or metonym for Simon the brother of Andrew, had come to mean some kind of overall role and jurisdiction in the community tradition in which Matthew was writing. It is the emergence of the Petrine church.
In our study it was not a matter of debating the theological merits of the text, but recognizing it as reflective of something real in history.
The Johannine literature provides an essential context and counterpoint to this reality, beginning with the third letter, 3 John. The Elder (author) “wrote something to the church” (the first time the word is used in the Johannine literature), but a certain individual, Diotrephes, who “loving to be first of them, he does not welcome us” (v.9). Moreover this first-in-the-church person “refuses to welcome the brothers,” and those who want to receive them “he puts out of the church” (v.10). Raymond Brown analyzes this as the emergence of the Petrine church, its asserting authority over the much more “anarchic” Johannine communities based in direct personal mimesis, love and constant visiting and welcoming.
Brown also believes that the gospel of John with its edgy tensions between Peter and the Beloved Disciple in chapters 20 and 21 , represents both an ultimate recognition of Petrine authority and a subtle non-conformity.
But why should the Johannine groups come under the emerging hierarchy in the first place? It is because the non-institutionalized communities were particularly vulnerable to the emerging threat of other, dualist, world-denying viewpoints (docetism and gnosticism) which were multiplying around them. There was the constant possibility of any new leader asserting himself, claiming a brilliant new non-fleshly “truth” (2 John: 7), and the insistence then on listening solely to him. Only a legally constituted identity system could provide an effective counter to them.
Here then is the beginning of hierarchical orthodoxy, a.k.a. what most people have come to understand as “church.”
The number of Christians grew progressively through the second and third centuries, so at the beginning of the fourth they were estimated to be about 10% of the Roman Empire, about 6 million people. They also grew in social status and intellectual self-confidence, with an author such as Tertullian arguing trenchantly and wittily against pagan practices and beliefs. Pagans read Tertullian simply for the pleasure of his writing. By the end of the third century Christians constituted a sufficient body to become politically recognizable and significant. The Emperor Diocletian and his understudy Galerius adopted an ideology of restoring the ancient pieties and virtues of Rome. This quickly turned to persecution of Christians, involving the destruction of buildings and scriptures and the demand for sacrifice to and for the emperor. The persecution was severe in many places, but mostly centered in the eastern part of the empire.
Constantine was a Caesar in Britain and Gaul, and was positioning himself as a contender for the imperial throne. He seems simply to have ignored Diocletian’s decrees of persecution. Advancing on Rome in the year 311 to do battle with his rival, Maxentius, he claimed to have had a vision and a dream of Christ, telling him to adopt Christian symbols for his army. According to the church historian Eusebius he constructed a battle standard with a spear and a crossbar depicting the cross, surmounted by the first two letters of Christ’s Greek name, Chi and Ro (X & P, the latter intersecting the former). The whole thing was hung with a jewel-encrusted cloth on which was attached a portrait of Constantine and his children. With this “sign” at the front of his troops he proceeded to win the battle, and many subsequent battles in his eventual conquest of the whole Roman empire.
Constantine was a master of imperial propaganda, already proclaiming himself a Sol Invictus (sun deity) on his coins, and engaging in energetic building programs. The sudden adoption of Christian signs in the midst of a deadly persecution and before a pitched battle for control of the imperial city amounted to a semiotic revolution of blinding force. Whatever Christianity represented to paganism it was in one stroke turned into a mimetic reflection, a mirroring back, of all the Roman violence that lay before it, both physically and historically. Those who had not directly experienced the compassion of Jesus would only see this strange transcendence turning the violence offered to it, by Diocletian, around on its enemies. For this is de facto what happened: Constantine won all his battles carrying the “labarum” (as the battle standard came to be known), or with the Chi Ro emblazoned on his soldiers helmets. As far as the church was concerned the immediate cessation of persecution in the West, followed by the declaring of Christianity a “licensed religion” in 313 (Edict of Milan), would have made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to refuse Constantine’s version of events. What was the hierarchical church to do? Throw the new-found toleration and status back in Constantine’s face and say “We prefer to be persecuted”? As it is, Constantine is regarded as a saint in the East, and by the Anglicans. In the Roman Catholic tradition the story is even more impacted: the popes assumed the right for the church itself to wield the sword and have final rule over emperors.
In every case two conclusions are necessary.
The labarum was a masterstroke of revisionist, generative symbolism, in one stroke twisting the cross out of its native compassion, making it instead a talisman of violence. Its infinite compassion was obscured beneath the machinery of imperial force and instead the raw event of killing was made to stand forth. It was a cultural intervention of incalculable import whose threads reach through to the “taking the cross” in the crusades, to Anselm’s reading of the cross as an event of violence to “satisfy” a higher divine violence, all the way to its full displacement as swastika, “the crooked cross.”
Secondly–and this is the arrival point of this study–the meaning of “church” was militarized, in as much as it became compatible with military force. Before Constantine, even if Christianity was not coherently pacifist through all of its believers, as a movement it was politically indifferent to the endless foreign and civil wars of the emperors. In contemporary terms it could be called, at the very least, neutral and non-combatant in the empire’s wars. After Constantine all that changed. Empire became suddenly and progressively identified with Christianity, and we’re still more or less in the same situation today. And as we study the community of interpretation derived from the first millennium of Christianity, this is clearly and implicitly part of what “church” means.
One of our members concluded that, “We don’t really know what ‘Christian’ means. We don’t understand all the paths by which Christianity has got to be what it is and means now.”
In a parallel vein, someone else concluded: “Reading the bible like we’re doing is like early Christians pushing against the structures of Judaism, trying to open something new. Except today we’re pushing against the churches, all of them, from Baptist fundamentalism to Catholicism.”