The early church was not primarily a religious gathering, but a social movement where individuals opted out of participation in the dominant society and began constructing a new social ordering within their own little community. It was as if they were realizing Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven on a micro scale, with the hope that the more people who joined, the more communities would form, and one day they would wake up and see a world transformed not by force but through sacrificial love and devotion to the way of Jesus.
Now of course things didn’t work out so well – within a few hundred years after Jesus’ crucifixion, this subversive religiopolitical movement had been co-opted by the empire, seriously diluting the true power of Jesus’ followers, and replacing it with the power and privilege of empire. On one hand, this was a brilliant strategy of the imperial forces – instead of seeking to destroy this rapidly spreading religious movement, it was far more effective to hijack it and baptize it in the wealth, power, and authority of the emperor. How easy it was for Constantine to seduce the leaders of the early church into official, state-sanctioned religious positions that came with authority, access, and great wealth.
Very soon, these bishops were answering not to God but to Constantine, who became the final say in Christian theology and practice and is largely responsible for establishing much of the beliefs and practices of Christians that continue to this day. The empire created Christianity by simply inserting Christian language and beliefs into the scaffolding of the pagan religions of the Roman world, and in doing so reduced Christianity to a religious practice rather than the radical sociopolitical movement that it was. In this move, Jesus was replaced as Lord with imperial power once again, which has remained the status quo of Christianity for the past 1,800 years or so. How many empires have declared themselves to be empowered by Christ? How often have Christian leaders cozied up to governments and tyrants, offering the blessing of God and the use of their faith to justify the actions of these leaders? Western history is littered with tragic examples.
From “Filled to Be Emptied: The Path to Liberation for Privileged People” by Brandan Robertson – Westminster John Knox Press