Q. Why is the Catholic Church so different from the Protestant church

A. I can answer that question in one word -- Constantine. He was the Roman emperor who in the beginning of the fourth century claimed to convert to Christianity. But his actions and the cooperations of the church made for far reaching changes that have influenced Christianity even to the present day.

Many of the things we do every Sunday started with Constantine. The emperor's very position gave him tremendous influence. The church, relieved to be free of persecution, went along with much of this, not realizing how these changes would affect the church. The pagan populace, ready to follow the emperor, entered the church in droves, bringing a lot of non-Christain ideas and practices along with them. More than the church converted Constantine, he converted the church.

The biggest change made by Constantine's conversion was the introduction of the clergy-laity division. In the Roman Empire, religion was financed by the state. When Constantine announced that he was becoming a Christian, many pagan priests decided to follow the money and become leaders in the church. This introduced the pagan concept of a clergy-laity division. The early church had leaders -- bishops and deacons -- but nothing like a special clergy class (1 Tim. 3). Also the early church saw itself as the Body of Christ, where everyone had a spiritual gift and ministered to the other members of the Body (1 Cor. 12.12-31). But with the clergy concept, the priests were seen as being closer to God and higher than the people. Eventually, all the duties of ministry were handed over to the clergy. This created the laity, passive masses of believers who sit and watch while the clergyman does all the religious work. The pagan masses who followed Constantine were used to this arrangement, and their sheer numbers overwhelmed the true Christians who entered the church during the persecution and knew how to minister to each other. The result was disasterous. Instead of an active fellowship with full participation, the church became a support group for the clergy, their main contribution reduced to bodies and bucks. This legacy continues even today. The Biblical doctrine of the priesthood of the believer was recovered during the Reformation but largely has not been put in practice. Many Protestant churches still have the clergy-laity division in place. The solution is for the church to practice the priesthood of the believer (1 Pet. 2.5,9).

Another change Constantine introduced was the religious building. Originally, the word 'church' or 'ecclesia' (Strong's Greek Dictionary # 1577) meant "an assembly" or "a called out group of people" and they met in homes (Rom16.5; 1 Cor. 1.2, 16.19; Col 4.15; Philemon 2). Pagans were used to sacred places like temples and Constantine accomodated this custom. The emperor modeled the form of the new church building on the Roman civic auditorium and started erecting them all over the Empire. The very word "church" went from meaning people to "building" and remains so even today. Protestants have continued this custom which largely hampers the growth and ministry of the Body of Christ. Moving the church into an auditorium destroyed the warm intimacy of the home church. People no longer interacted with each other but focused their attention on the clergyman. Also clergy began to look at the congregation, not as the Body of Christ but as a source of funds to put up and maintain the building. In response, the congregation began to look at the clergyman as a fundraiser first and spiritual leader second. The main casualty was the fellowship and ministry of the church. The building became more important than the purpose for which it was set up! Some churches today start out the right way, meeting in homes. But once the church grows, they believe their goal is to put up a building instead of spreading to other homes. The congregation may even fondly remember the early days of home fellowship as "the best of times." But in spite of this experience, the congregation will insist on a religious building that stifles the very fellowship they claim they want!

Even small details of Sunday worship are influenced by Constantine. Most Christians, from childhood to adulthood, have endured the ritual of dressing up in their "Sunday best." Men are expected to wear a suit and tie to church even in sweltering summer weather and are told "Christians don't sweat." Women are cinched up in a girdle and hose and told to endure the discomfort as their Christian duty. We are told that the reason for dressing up is to honor God. But is it really? The early church, following the exhortations of James (Jas. 2.1-13), dressed plainly so they would attract all classes of people. Dressing up began in church, not to honor God, but the emperor. Constantine built many churches across the Roman Empire and visited them often. So Christians began dressing up in case the Emperor showed up at their church on Sunday.

This brief summary covers some of the differences between the Catholic and Protestant churches. The Reformation was started by people who wanted to remove Constantine's additions to the church. But the Reformation did not go far enough. It retained many of of Constantine's traditions and added some of its own non-Biblical practices. The real challenge for the church is to complete the task of returning to New Testament Christianity.

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MaryAlice B. Kelly
E-mail: kelly1@kconline.com