Once the first century ended and all of Christ's Apostles had "graduated," the Church spent the majority of its time avoiding the authorities. Persecution from the Romans, the Jews, and the heathen kept Christians so busy that they didn't have a lot of time to debate over doctrine. With the exception of a few thorns in the side of the Body of Christ, the Church was united. Then change happened. Emperor Galerius issued an edict ending the Diocletian persecution of the Church in A.D. 311. Two years later, emperors Constantine I and Licinius issued an edict legalizing Christianity. Within sixty-seven years of Christianity becoming legal, Theodosius I made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Most would view this as a good thing, right?
It turned out to be the beginning of the end of Christ's desire for Christian unity. Immediately, the Church adopted the geographical boundaries of the provinces of the Empire as religious sees (seats). The bishops of the five most important sees were now the authority over Church matters in their province. Five became more powerful than the rest. They were Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. Even before Christianity had been given official sanctions of Rome, the potential for division existed. In A.D. 325, Constantine gathered Church leaders to an ecumenical council to discuss Arianism (Arian, from Alexandria, challenged the doctrine of the Trinity). He was deemed a heretic and the council established the Nicene Creed. Even though the council declared Arianism heretical, it remained a problem for the Church. In A.D. 381, the second ecumenical council was convened in Constantinople to put an end to the debate. It seems that Maximus, the Bishop of Constantinople, held Arian's view of the Godhead. He was deposed and, to pacify the Eastern Church, Constantinople was declared second only to Rome, thus reducing the five leaders into just two.
There were more ecumenical councils that followed, but Constantinople would not accept the decisions of any of them; they instead held their own councils. Finally, in A.D. 1054 with the excommunication of the Patriarch Cerularius of Constantinople, the Eastern Church officially split from the rest of the Church, now controlled solely by Rome. Rome was so angered by the "betrayal," that conflict between the two festered for one hundred fifty years, leading to the Fourth Crusade in A.D.1204, which captured and sacked Constantinople. Weakened and vulnerable, the entire area eventually came under the control of Islam.
It does not appear that freedom accomplished much more than producing a thirst for power. Even though the twenty-seven books of the New Testament were clearly accepted as the completed cannon of Scripture by A.D. 367, apparently few were reading them. They were too busy "conquering for Christ." Tradition became equal to the Word of God, and things went down hill from there. Tomorrow, Lord willing, I will try to show how the political devolution of the Church eventually led to its evolving into what we see today.