Miracles, Morality and the Power of the Local Church

We’ve been enjoying Edward Gibbon’s references to the Christian church in the latter years of the Roman Empire. We’ve seen that he emphasised three factors which assisted the growth of the Church and the influence of Christianity through the Roman world.

Firstly, he mentioned their zeal, their passion. They were on a mission to reach the world. Secondly, he emphasised that their confidence in their eternal security made them courageous even in the face of danger. Thirdly, he noted that these Christians were not only zealous and bold, but that they also prayed for the sick successfully, moved in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and were able to evangelise not with persuasive words of wisdom but in a demonstration of the Spirit’s power that clearly showed to a pagan world that Jesus Christ was indeed ‘Lord’. (see 1 Cor 2:4)

Before we leave Gibbon I want to draw on his further two observations as these will serve as a safeguard to us. Having shown us the impressive nature of their gifts and works, he also mentions the morality of the believers. He notes that there was a harmony of charismatic passion and personal integrity. Indeed, in beautifully quaint language he points to ‘the reformation of manners which was introduced into the world by the preaching of the Gospel.’ (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin Classic edition ibid. p.283)

This process began, obviously, in evangelism: ‘The friends of Christianity may acknowledge without a blush that many of the most eminent saints had been before their baptism the most abandoned sinners.’ (ibid. p.284)

But the conversion of a person to the Christian faith produced not only an immediate moral impact in their lives but an ongoing one, so that they turned from their past sins, sought to support the social and economic structures of the society of which they were a part, became reliable workers, fair in business, honest in labour, modest in behaviour and faithful to both spouse and family. This notably different Christian lifestyle commended itself to those who were living close to them.

Lastly, Gibbon mentions the unity and discipline of the local churches as a factor in the sustained growth and spread of the Christian faith. The believers were locally organised under spiritually qualified elders, who cared for them, teaching them and supporting them in their new found faith. There were miracles but there were relationships and pastoral oversight.

Interestingly, Gibbon notes, ‘Independence and equality formed the basis of their internal constitution.’ (ibid. p.293) Somewhat different from the view that a single ecclesiastical power-structure oversaw all the churches, it seems that the churches were led by their own elders who drew on the wisdom of those who were apostolically or prophetically gifted.

Indeed, as we will later see, the local church has always been a key in the spread of the Christian faith in a nation or time period, and a sustainer of those powerful impulses in revival that have so impacted the world.

But, before we get there, we must look at some questions around the relationship between church and state. Just imagine if you were a Christian living in those days, wouldn’t you have prayed for the conversion of those in authority – and even the conversion of the Emperor himself? Well, early in the fourth century, after so many years of persecution, it happened!

The conversion to the Christian faith of Emperor Constantine brought a sudden and much longed-for release from persecution and an elevation and respect for the Christian faith. This was indeed an answer to prayer – but was it all good? And, what was the nature of his ‘conversion’?

We’ll see next time.

© 2008 Lex Loizides

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