Column by Jim Davies.
Exclusive to STR
World history was radically changed, in the small Turkish town presently known as Iznik. It affected a vast range of human activities during the last 17 centuries; it housed an event more significant than Rome itself with its claim to dominate Christendom, than Paris with its thousand years of prominence in trade and culture, than Florence or Venice with their launching of the Renaissance six centuries ago, than London as the heart of an empire that spanned the whole world but lasted a mere 200 years, and certainly more than Washington, which has dominated world events for only 60 years. What happened in what was then Nicea, in 325 AD, was that the Christian Church got its act together and made a deal with the state--the Roman one, led by Emperor Constantine.
Thanks to the conference held there that year at his bidding, Christianity changed from a spontaneous religion growing rather fast from bottom upwards, as each member introduced his friends to his faith, into one subsidized by the state to grow by central management. Christians changed from being a generally despised and persecuted minority, into leaders of the official state religion. That was an amazing transformation that the bishops accepted, and the only price was that they made it a uniform faith and honored the Emperor. So heretics were defined and excluded from then on. A declaration of belief was formed and published, consisting of the central doctrines of the religion, and the Nicene Creed still serves as a well crafted summary of what the New Testament is all about. Some recite it verbatim, and all denominations accept it, sometimes with minor word changes. A little extra wording was added for clarity later in the Fourth Century.
Was the deal a sell-out, or a fair bargain? Although I pick the former, the latter could be argued. Suddenly, there was a massive boost to the spread of the faith. State-sponsored missionaries were sent to the remotest corners of the Empire, to preach and convert. Roman influence in Britain was about to end, so for those islands the deal came in the nick of time. All Europe, North Africa and the mid-East was Christianized, and no price was imposed, other than the stated conditions of loyalty and uniformity. But the hitherto remarkable spontaneous growth, person to person, was no longer the main way it grew.
Constantine's motive was simple enough: The Empire was so vast that squabbles were constant and he desperately needed some factor to improve unity. There were dozens of religions, all of them tolerated (except, previously and ironically, those that insisted on exclusivity and refused to acknowledge the Emperor as supreme), but by 325, the largest single one was Christianity. So Constantine got his unifying factor. It didn't work (because as shown in A Denarius for Your Thoughts, there was no free market) but it might have done. It was a smart thing for him to try.
In the event, the Empire lasted only another century. The religion he helped spread has lasted 17.
Nicea was not far from one of the two key cities of the Empire, and was and is a pleasant lakeside town among the hills. Probably it was a kind of resort for prominent bureaucrats, maybe with a Winn's and a Flamingo and certainly a Caesar's Palace. So it was a good choice to get a bunch of bishops to confer and bang their heads together.
Ever since Nicea played host to them, this religion has been Established. It sprinkled the state (everywhere) with the illusion of morality, while the state continues to endow it with privileges and favors, like tax exemption and the suppression of competitors. Each wins. The losers are those who wish not to embrace or support either myth, Church or state.
Undoubtedly the state has done well out of the deal that began in Nicea, and continues to this day. Most American churches display the state flag in their place of worship and actively support the war machine the state operates, praying for soldiers and honoring them without criticism. Such support makes a big difference to its ability to maintain and extend its empire. But has the church done so well out of the state?
While not an “insider,” I suggest it has not. Tax exemption is valuable, but it comes at a price; preachers are not allowed to criticize certain of the state's practices, on pain of losing a huge amount of revenue that comes thanks to “501(c)(3)” status. One principled group of ministers makes this explicit on a web site called Hush Money.
Second, the advantage of state support from Rome in the years after 325 did help rapid expansion, but the church was expanding quite fast anyway. Check the numbers. Between AD 33 and 325 – three centuries, say -- membership had grown without state help (in spite of its persecution, in fact) from 12 to about 6 million, or 10% of the Empire's population. That growth came by one-to-one introduction to the faith and averaged 4.4% per year. Imagine the Nicean offer had been rejected and all future growth had continued at just the same rate. Over the next 1,700 years (to 2025, say) church membership would have grown to far in excess of the actual world population today. That is, except for hard cases like me, virtually the whole human population would be Christian instead of only one-third of it.
Clearly, therefore, in the long run church membership growth has been hindered by its close ties to the state, not helped; and the bishops at Nicea might reasonably have expected that, given the success of the first three centuries of which they well knew.
Nicea was a sell-out. Bargains with the state don't work.