3rd – 4th century: Empire

Unity became a priority for the church.  An issue that had to be faced was whether Christians who had forsaken their faith during the decades of persecution should be accepted back.  In North Africa a bishop was caught up in the controversy and local Christians elected another bishop instead.  Emperor Constantine judged in favour of the original bishop, but didn’t enforce it.  So the African Christians went on selecting their own bishops.

It began a problem which has troubled the church throughout its history.  What should happen when people disagree over a matter of principle?  Should a local congregation be allowed to hold a view which disagrees with the majority?  Or should the view of the overall leaders be enforced?  In succeeding generations this has led to groups breaking away or attempts to suppress them.  Augustine, an outstanding bishop of the area of North Africa called Hippo, urged that the whole church had authority over any individual part.  But after his death a once-thriving church in the region declined, especially as Islam advanced in the eighth century.

Preventing rifts became a priority, and in 325 Constantine gathered the leaders of the Christian church throughout the world together.  He held an international council in Nicaea (present-day Turkey).  The aim was to define and record what should be understood as orthodox Christian belief.

This council and subsequent ones in Constantinople (now known as Istanbul, in 381) and Chalcedon (in Turkey, in 451) shaped the way Christian theology has been explained ever since.  The Nicene Creed, which was created there, is still read aloud as part of worship in many churches as a statement of belief.  In particular the council was designed to suppress the views of a popular priest called Arius.  He believed that Jesus was inferior to God the Creator.  His teaching was becoming so popular that it was in danger of splitting the church.

An Egyptian bishop called Athanasius did much to clarify the way Christians understand God to this day.  At the time churches in different cities put more emphasis on Jesus the man or Jesus the God.  The councils asserted that Jesus was not a half-man-half-God hybrid.  Rather he was one person who had two natures.  God the Creator (or Father), Jesus and the Holy Spirit were all rightly worshipped.  But the council made clear that the Christian faith does not have three gods.  Rather it has one God, an inseparable Trinity of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

The success of the councils came at a cost.  Big egos led to big rows.  A substantial group called the Monophysites broke away and appointed their own leaders.  Their successors today are known as the Oriental Orthodox Church.

Continue the story of the Christian faith in the next century here.


What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

Jesus, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death —
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Where to find it:

Philippians 2: 6-11

About these words:

Paul explained the nature of Jesus to a church in Philippi about twenty years after Jesus’ life.  It is written as verse, so it may have been a hymn.


And they said…

Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, 296 – 373:

God became what we are so that he might make us what he is.

Augustine, bishop of Hippo, North Africa, 354 – 430:

How late I came to love you, O beauty so ancient and so fresh, how late I came to love you!  You were within me while I had gone outside to seek you … Always you were with me, and I was not with you … You called, you cried, you shattered my deafness.  You sparkled, you blazed, you drove away my blindness.  You shed your fragrance, and I drew in my breath, and I pant for you.  I tasted and now I hunger and thirst.  You touched me, and now I burn with longing for your peace.