How did the church go from no land or property at the resurrection of Jesus, to one of the wealthiest land-owners in the entire world today? As we have summarized previously here and here), a lot of it had to do with the rise to prominence from a persecuted religion in the Roman Empire, to the time when Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD.
In a culture where there was no distinction between religion and politics, such a declaration had far-reaching effects. People as far away as Germania (Germany) and Britannia (Great Britain), who knew next to nothing about Christianity, were told that the Empire was now Christian, and it would be prudent for them to convert.
Conversion of the Masses
But how does one convert when nothing is known about the religion you are converting to? The answer is simple: you change what you call yourself, but go on doing what you have always done. It was not like anybody around could tell you that you were doing it wrong. Priests of other religions continued to be priests, but they were now Christian priests. Pagan holidays continued to be practiced and observed, but they were adopted and adapted by Christianity, and given new meaning and interpretations that fit better with Christian theology and ideas.
Conversion of the Temples
One of the most influential additions to Christianity was the mass inclusion of thousands of temples across the entire Roman Empire. Temples and shrines that used to be part of the Emperor cult now became Christian temples. However, other than who the prayers were said to, little else changed in these buildings as far as decorations and service structure. It was thought that destroying or abandoning them would be unwise and unproductive. Besides, the new religion of the Empire needed somewhere to teach and train all the new converts about their new faith.
There were, of course, numerous Christian voices that sounded the alarm about all the ideas and practices being adopted into Christianity by the ignorant masses. So several of these leaders developed an approved set of doctrines and teachings which should be taught to all the new “converts” in all the churches, and quickly developed a system to train and send out a small army of teachers and priests to distribute these empire-approved church doctrines.
The Development of a Defense
To defend and explain many of these developments, newly empowered church leaders quickly developed a theological defense for the priesthood, the hierarchy, the power, the money, and the buildings. The overall defense rested primarily on the idea that Kingdom of God was overtaking the kingdoms of the world, and the riches and power of the worldly kingdoms were being used to help expand the Kingdom of God.
The defense of church buildings consisted largely of looking back to the Temple of the Jews in Jerusalem, and to the future rule and reign of Jesus Christ on earth. It was argued that since God allowed Solomon to build a grand and glorious temple where the Jews could worship Him, it was necessary for Christians to worship God in a similar fashion. Many in the church argued further that the conversion of the pagan temples brought the world one step closer the ultimate goal of spreading Christianity over the entire earth. Other pagan nations would become Christian nations, and pagan rulers would become Christian rulers, just as had happened to Rome.
Eventually, the entire world would become Christian, thus ushering in the return of Jesus and the eternal kingdom, when Jesus would return and rule the earth in peace and prosperity for all. The money and the power of the church, represented in large part by the buildings, were viewed as both the means and the signs that God’s Kingdom was advancing.
Has much changed today?