The Rise to Power: How the Early Church Gained Political Influence

Christian Life & Theology, Christian Womanhood, Podcast Episodes

In this last episode of the early church history series, we learn how the church in Rome rose to power during the fall of the Empire. Uniquely suited to governing roles, clergy quickly replaced the missing emperors and began a centuries’ long role of raising kings. Listen for how they did it. *Church history series pauses here as we begin a new series for new believers*


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Welcome to Verity podcast. I’m your host, Phylicia Masonheimer, and I am here to teach you how to know what you believe, to live it boldly, and to communicate it graciously to the world around you. I believe that women are ready to go deeper in their faith than ever before and they don’t have to go to seminary to do it. I am so glad you’re here and I hope you’ll join me on this journey because every woman is a theologian. Hello, friends, and welcome back to Verity podcast. It has been a little while since I have recorded an episode, and thank you so much for your grace. I meant to record our next episode in the church history series way back in February, but as many of you know, we have been just going through a lot of stress as a family over the last 2 months, and I have not been able to sit down and do the research necessary to continue another episode. So as I thought and prayed about what to do in this season with the different demands on our time and the challenges that we’re facing in our personal life, I decided that it would be best to pause the church history series after this early church section and start a new series for beginner believers.

Now I know that this is not the original plan. Back in December, I planned to spend an entire year doing church history, and I am a little bit bummed about it. I know many of you are bummed about it too. However, I don’t have the time to dedicate to researching what I need to research to give you the best quality episodes. Because I’m sharing history with you, it’s important to me that what I share is accurate. Well, that’s always important, but especially with history. And so I know that I don’t have the time in this season to dedicate to research. That’s why there’s been such big gaps in between the episodes that I’ve released is the amount of research time that it takes for me to produce these.

So we’re gonna pause after the early church series. I think it’s awesome that we have this nice, succinct little series on the first 500 years of the church, and then we’re gonna start with this beginner believer series, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I already know a lot of the content for it, so I can produce it much faster and in much more bite sized chunks. But do not worry, we are going to come back to church history again. I hope that when we finish the beginner believer series, we can then pick up again in the medieval church and do another little 6 or 7 episode chunk on the medieval church, and then maybe go back to another theology series, and then go on to the Reformation, and so on until we get to modern day. I know it’s a little bit different than the original plan, but hopefully it still is helpful to you and you will have these episodes to refer back to whenever you have questions about the early church. So we are going to finish off the series with this episode today. This episode is a little bit shorter and it’s talking about how the church, specifically the Roman Catholic Church, came to gain so much power at the end of the first 500 years.

When Rome fell, how did the church fill that void? Now remember that as we’ve studied so far, the church began in Israel in the Middle East, and it actually quickly moved to Africa first and into Asia before it came up into Europe and specifically to Rome. And there were multiple parts of the church, specifically the east and the west. And so in the east, which we now look to as the Eastern Orthodox Church, the church developed in the Byzantine Empire or the eastern part of the Roman Empire. But in the West, the church was centered in Rome, and this would be the Latin speaking Western Roman Empire. So the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, was Greek speaking and was ceded in Constantinople, modern day Istanbul. And then the Western Roman Empire was ceded in Rome. So you had 2 very different churches, and the beginnings of conflict between these 2 churches when they were still 1 church, the beginnings were rumbling very early on because you have 2 different languages. You even have different theologies to a degree.

So we talked about in the series about the different approaches or or the verbiage that is used in certain creeds, differences over communion and how communion is viewed. And so over time, the rift between the east and west is going to continue to widen until we get to the year 1056, which is when the east and the west split in something called the great schism. But I won’t get ahead of myself. For now, I just want you to be thinking about the fact that the church’s development in the east and the west is increasing at the same time. And at first, the east was actually the dominant church, but over time, the power kind of shifted to Rome. And that was not always a positive thing. And, actually, eventually, it became a very negative thing. But it wasn’t always a very wasn’t viewed positively.

It wasn’t taken positively by the east because sometimes the reason that Rome and the Western church grew in power was because they were taking power. They were exerting and exercising power in ways that the Eastern church did not believe they had the right to do, which is eventually why they split. So just a little bit of what’s going on culturally between the two branches of the church, that gives us a little bit of a setting as we move to talk about how the church gained so much political influence because and here’s why this matters. When we get to the medieval church, which we’re going to be covering from about the year 600 to the year 1500. So it’s like a 1000 years, and we might have to split it in half. When we get to the medieval church, we quickly see pros and cons, but one of the things that we see that’s quite interesting is the amount of power that the medieval church had, specifically in Europe, to raise and lower kings. Like, they were deciding who is the emperor. They’re, like, crowning kings.

So how does that happen? Like, how does the church end up having the right to do this when for the first 500 years, almost, they’re persecuted. At least the first 300, persecution after persecution. And then suddenly, they go from being persecuted to literally putting the crown on a king’s head. And eventually, the state, so the different nations, are seeking the approval of the church on whoever is crowned. Fascinating shift. So let’s start with what happened in the Roman Empire, secular Roman Empire. After the death of Theodosius the great, the Western Roman Empire began to crumble. So in the 5th century, there was actually no real emperor running the empire.

It was just this series of generals who were seated on the emperor’s throne, but, like, there was no emperor who was placed on the throne the way the the previous ones had, like, legitimately. As this is happening, as this chaos is beginning to ensue across the Roman empire, barbarian tribes begin to invade the territory from the north. So this is the Vandals, you know, these tribes coming in from Germany that are coming into Rome. And I’ve always thought this is so fascinating. You have this Roman empire with buildings that have lasted for 2 1000 years and they have this extremely robust, well developed political system, all of this art, philosophy, amazing amount of culture that’s been produced, and they fall. To Vandals and barbarians. What on earth? Like, how does this happen? And of course I am not thinking about the Roman Empire every minute of the day like apparently some men are doing, but if you guys have seen that trend on social media. But I do find it so intriguing that an empire like this could fall to people who were so different and so uncultured in Roman philosophy and ideas.

And one of the reasons some people think this happened was because of the moral decay of Rome. So towards the end of the end of the Roman Empire, the family had decayed significantly. So families were not unified the way that we see in Judeo Christianity. Rome was celebrating sex in any and every form that you want. Abortion and infanticide was rampant. It was extremely unjust. Like you could pay to get the trial that you wanted. You, you are entertained by death and violence.

You know, think of the entertainment that they were consuming. They’re interested only in pleasure and they can’t even run their own government. It’s just like anarchy basically all the time. So their complete lack of moral justice and an adherence to social values, like real truthful values caused a rot in the core of Rome that eventually decayed the empire and made it fall apart. And so they were susceptible to a people group that they would have been like, these people have nothing cultured about them. You know, the Romans looked down on the barbarians and the Vandals. That’s why they called them barbarians. Like, they did not have respect for them, and yet the Vandals defeated Rome because of this utter rot, this moral rot that eventually led to social rot and weakness.

When something rots, if you’ve ever seen a rotting tree, it starts to rot out, you know, from the inside. Right? It’s the wood starts to get soft and it starts to decay, and it’s a slow process. But once it pervades the whole tree, as soon as a wind comes through, a windstorm comes through, it can’t stand up against it anymore, and it falls down. And that is one of the ideas about how Rome fell. If you’re a parent like me, your hope is that your children will grow up to develop an unshakable faith, To be followers of Jesus Christ and live out his call in their lives in a way that brings glory to God, but you also know that our kids live in a world that can be challenging to follow Christ faithfully. As one mom shared, I can’t teach my kids all the things they learn at the summit. I homeschool them and we read a lot of great books together, but nothing compares to what they’ve internalized after attending Summit. Summit takes the best of the best of the best speakers, and they plan each session in such a way that the kids can get the most out of it.

That means having downtime, having fun activities, good food, thoughtful dialogue, access to speakers, staff, connection, all of it. I tell fellow moms they must send their kids to the summit. If you have a child between the ages of 16 and 22, send them to a 2 week conference in Colorado or Georgia this summer. Learn more at Save $200 when you use the code, verity 24. Register today at slash verity. In the year 380 AD, under Emperor Theodosius, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire by the decree of the emperor. So if you remember, earlier, about 60, 70 years earlier, is when Constantine legalized Christianity.

So he made it so you couldn’t persecute Christians anymore. It was a big deal because suddenly the church went from hiding in secret, being burned and killed and thrown to lions, to suddenly they are allowed to move freely, and they’re allowed to be part of society. And by the time of 380, you have Christianity not just legalized, but now made the state religion. So what happens when you make a faith, a movement, the state religion? Well, once that happens, suddenly, if you are a leader in that religion and it’s the state religion, you have a role in the state. And this is the beginning of the integration of the church and the Roman empire, which eventually would lead to the influence of the Roman Catholic church. So at the same time, the church at Rome is gaining power and gaining influence in the global church. And we’re going to talk about that more in a second. So as the Roman Empire fell, so the the church begins growing in influence.

Now it’s the state religion. If you’re a bishop or a clergy person within the church, you are also growing in influence now because it’s a state religion. Roman Empire is falling and the church is growing and expanding. And at this time, some of the greatest leaders in history, Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, they’re developing in this period, and their work is being put out there. It’s an amazing, amazing work in the early church fathers. We talked about them in the figures of the early church episode. And then in 8440, so about a 100 years later 80 years later, Pope Leo is appointed. Now there are 44 popes, According to Franciscan Media, there are 44 popes between Peter and Leo.

Okay? Which when I was looking at that, I’m like, okay. That’s 440 divided by 44. That’s like a 10 year reign for each from Jesus all the way to 440. We don’t have a complete list of these popes, and as a Protestant, I will admit my bias, I have some skepticism about Peter actually being the Bishop of Rome. It’s something that’s on my list to do a little bit more research into. I would like to see more evidence for this. I find it so curious. Again, admitting my bias here, I find it so curious that Peter would have been the Bishop of Rome.

I feel like if Paul had not been killed, he would have been a much better suited person to be the Bishop of Rome because he was a Roman citizen. Peter was Jewish, and he was a fisherman before he was a disciple. And, yes, he was a bold preacher, pastor, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of person and, again, I know this is, like, speculation. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who would be suited to be the bishop of Rome in a Gentile city because he specifically ministered to the Jews. For the most part, he ministered to the Jews and Paul ministered to the Gentiles, and Peter’s ministry was largely centered around Jerusalem. So I I know that there’s pretty much good documentation that he was killed in Rome, Peter was, but I’m curious what documentation there is for Peter’s role as the Bishop of Rome. I’d be totally open. You’re welcome to email it to me if you have some documentation of that.

So you’ve got Pope Leo appointed in AD 440, and the reason he’s significant is that he helped to move the church of Rome forward in its influence and move it forward towards this political influence, which wasn’t always a bad thing. Pope Leo was extremely prolific in his writing. I believe we have 96 of his sermons still remaining, which is crazy considering that it was, like, the year 500. And so we have these sermons to look at to read about, like, how he was navigating a lot of the cultural things that they were dealing with at the time, and that was fascinating to me. So after the fall of Rome, you have the church positioned to offer stability and security to a people that are in chaos. So they’ve already been on the moral decline. The vandals come in and the church gets is remaining after Rome is destroyed. And so the church played an important role in the preservation of things like classical education and tradition, art, music, culture.

They did this mostly through monasteries and through schools. But they were also very evangelistic. They sent ministers to the northern tribal lands from whence the barbarians even came. So that’s interesting to me too. A lot of the Vandals and barbarians who are coming in were actually being Christianized by the Roman church, and so they’re reaching more and more of these people in those northern lands. One of the people, one of the missionaries, was Saint Patrick, who we know took the gospel to Ireland. When Clovis, the king of France or Gaul, converted to Catholicism in 496 AD, This played a huge role in the Catholic church’s unification with governing bodies. So when you have a king converting to Catholicism, and there’s a famous painting of Clovis being baptized, you now are connecting the leadership of countries with the leadership of the church.

And now they’re kind of working together. And also, this is a really interesting thing to me. I read this in Lumen Learning. It said in 530 AD, Saint Benedict wrote his Rule of Saint BenedictI love Saint Benedictas a practical guide for monastic community life, and its message spread to monasteries throughout Europe. Monasteries became major conduits of civilization, preserving craft and artistic skills while maintaining intellectual culture within their schools, scriptoria, and libraries. They function as centers for spiritual life as well as for agriculture, economy, and production. If you have read the book The Benedict Option by Rod Dreher, I loved this book and it talks a ton about this, about the preservation of Western culture in the monasteries during the dark ages. And this was a huge role that the church played and this was a good thing.

They were preserving the amazing art and literature and architecture, music, all of that was being preserved so that we could read it and experience it today. And these are really significant contributions to society. The Greek and Roman culture, the classical influence, it has impacted the world, I mean, for 3000 years or 2,500 years, however long the Roman Empire was lasting. So you have this amazing influence and it was the church that actually preserved that. Why? Because the only people or the primary people who could read and write after Rome fell were the clergy. They could read and write, and they could read and write Latin and Greek, depending on which church you’re in, whether East or West, but we’re talking mainly about the West right now. So they were able to preserve these traditions, preserve this literature, and move and preserve that culture for generations to come. So this, again, having people who can read and write, who know and understand Roman culture, began to create along with the legalization of Christianity and making it the state religion.

It began to create this opportunity for the church to step into a void and to, in one sense, have an amazing ministry opportunity to kings, unless, of course, they began to idolize the power. I wanna do one quick little segue into why Rome specifically was gaining so much traction. So Rome became a major center of spiritual life and significance. It gave the Roman church more power than the rest. So it was already a destination. Right? Paul had to go there. Peter had to go there. But as I said earlier, Rome began to overstep as one of the main churches.

There were many churches, church heads. So when they would do a council, the bishops would come from all these different locations where these churches at Ephesus, a church in Carthage in Africa, church in Alexandria, also in Africa. And, you know, all of them coming together while Rome started to take a more prominent position even overstepping their power. And one of the areas where Rome’s primacy was kind of described is in Against Heresies, which was written by the church father, Irenaeus. And he says this, quote, with the church of Rome, because of its superior origin, all the churches must agree. It is in her that the faithful everywhere have maintained the apostolic tradition, end quote. And so some people point to this quote where he’s saying, look, Rome is the, like, premier church. It’s the head church.

This is where we’re looking. They are basically making the decisions. But the time and place where Rome specifically exerted its authority and kind of changed the tides, like moving it towards, okay, Rome’s in charge. The Western Roman church is the one that’s trying to call the shots here, was the Quartodeciman controversy. And I’m recording this podcast about a week and a half before Easter, And that’s what this was all about. It was all about the date of Easter and how to determine it. And the difference was that in the Eastern church, they were determining the date of Easter by the Hebrew calendar. So the 14th of Nisan, they were going to have Easter based on when that fell, but the Western church was determining the date of Easter by the spring equinox.

So wherever the moon was and how that was determined, that was when they decided to do their resurrection day celebration. So this controversy between the two in deciding when the date of Easter should be, because Easter was a really big deal in the early church, and it was called, you know, Pasha, Christian Passover. You have 2 churches trying to determine the date of Easter. They’re both celebrating their highest Christian holiday on different days, and this is and this was a big deal. And so the Roman church said, kind of in a smack down, nope. We’re excommunicating you quarto decimans. We’re done with you. You’re kicked out.

This is the date of Easter. And that move was like a major push towards the division between the East and the West. Now there were other things that happened. And then 500 years later, it took, you know, several centuries, but eventually it resulted in a split. So this is all moving towards the power of the church in Rome growing and growing, their influence growing, their connection to governing bodies growing to kings. All of that is growing. When Christianity was made the state religion, this also increased their power. But when Pope Leo the 3rd crowned Charlemagne as Roman emperor in 800, so now we are moving into medieval just a little bit, he established the precedent that in Western Europe, no man would be emperor without being crowned by a pope.

And so they began to seek after the pope’s approval because he’s the vicar of God. Right? He’s speaking. He’s representative of God. He’s not completely, like, flawless or perfect. He’s not like, you know, Jesus, but he is operating with God’s authority, and he is, like, the vessel of God’s approval to raise up a king. So he sought after because then you can know that you are king in God’s will. And this comes up again when we get to King James and King Henry the eighth, etcetera. So this idea of the connection between the pope and the kings, this is gonna be really important in the Middle Ages in the church, whenever we get to that series.

But for now, as we’re concluding this series, I wanted to just kind of show you this is how we moved from persecuted church to church that is intertwined with government. And when the church allowed itself to become the state religion, When it was okay with that, it got in bed with a secular government, and we see how this plays out. Very, very quickly, the desire for power began to crowd out the authenticity of the gospel. Very quickly, you could pay to get into certain clergy positions, or you could jockey to get closer to the places of power. And by the time of Luther, once we get into the 1500’s, it’s so corrupt and it’s been doing this for so long that it’s impossible for it to be reformed from the inside. And Luther chose to separate. So we’ll get to that, I promise, in a future series. But for now, I hope this early church series was interesting to you.

I hope it was helpful and encouraging to know that many of the things that we face today, people have faced in the past. Christians have faced in the past. They’re still navigating it. It also should be very convicting for us to note the temptation to intertwine Christianity with government or think that if we can Christianize our government, then we can come up with a much better system and society. But what often happens when you try to Christianize a government is that Christianity, not the government, gets changed. Christianity becomes sold out to a political agenda, and the people who were supposed to be in there doing things authentically for Christ and for the gospel begin to have their heads turned by government, power, bribes, influence, and opportunities. This is what happened with the church in Rome in the Middle Ages. But the places where Christianity survived best and where culture was preserved best was actually in the remote places.

It was in the monasteries. It was in the places where people were quietly going about their work. They were creating things, whether they were growing things agriculturally or they were creating things like beautiful books, preserving literature and music and art. The people who were doing that work were actually preserving a Christian tradition that would last for centuries. Meanwhile, in Rome, we begin to see corruption and compromise. It’s something to think about and to keep in mind for when we do return to this series and start again in the middle ages. If you enjoy the early church series, please leave us a review. You can leave a review specifically for a series on the podcast or for the podcast in general.

We always appreciate your reviews. It tells other people what to look for on the podcast and how to find us. And thank you for your grace since we had to change plans with the podcast schedule. I hope you will enjoy our next series, the beginner believer series. If you have ideas for questions you want answered in that series, please feel free to email me at Now remember, you’re part of a story bigger than yourself, and everything that’s happened in church history should encourage you that you’re not alone in what you’re facing. Other Christians have faced it before. Thank you so much for listening to this week’s episode of Verity podcast.

If you enjoyed this episode, would you take the time to leave us a review? It helps so many other women around the world find out about Verity and about every woman a theologian as a ministry in a shop. We appreciate you, and I hope you’ll be back next week as we continue to go deeper into God’s word and the heart of Jesus Christ.


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