Over the past two thousands years, the Christian Church has experienced a rapid increase of converts as well as increased influence on the world stage. With over two billion Christians in this world and Western Culture being shaped by Christianity as well as numerous places around the world, Christianity can be seen as the most influential religion in the world today. But that certainly was not always the case. For hundreds of years following the death of Jesus, Christianity could accurately be described as a sect. In Jewish and Roman cultures, Christianity was against the law and Roman authorities set forth hundreds if not thousands of crucifixions of Christians. Of Jesus’ twelve disciples, only John died of natural causes while the other eleven were put to death for their belief and preaching of the divinity of Jesus. Christians were on the fringe of society during that time. And even after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Roman culture, the old established religions that served Rome for a thousand years, would not die easily but rather there was a slowly but steady progression from the Christian sect to the Christian Church that seemed to dominate Western culture throughout the middle ages in a way that no other force ever did.
Early Christianity began as a Jewish sect of the followers of Jesus during the late Second Temple period of the 1st century. From the beginning, Christians were subject to various persecutions. “This involved even death for Christians such as Stephen and James the brother of John. Saul, who later converted to Christianity and is best known as Paul of Tarsus, the “Apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom 11:13, Gal 2:8), was a vigorous agent (Acts 9:1-2, Acts 22:5) in the persecution by the Jerusalem authorities, having been present at the stoning of Stephen and approving it.” Larger persecutions followed at the hands of the authorities of the Roman Empire, beginning in the year 64, when the Emperor Nero blamed them for that year’s great Fire of Rome. In spite of these persecutions, the Christian religion continued its spread throughout the Mediterranean Basin. “During this time, Christianity continued many of the patterns of Judaism, adapting to Christian use of synagogue worship, prayer, use of Sacred Scripture, a priesthood, a religious calendar commemorating on certain days each year certain events and/or beliefs, use of music in worship, giving material support to the religious leadership, and practices such as fasting, charity and baptism.” So in that way, the religion was still considered a sect and had not made its own name as an independent religion on its own.
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One of the reasons Christianity went from a sect to what could be considered a church was the steady increase of size and influence of Christianity. Christians went from worshiping in secret in the homes of other believers out of fear of persecution and death, to having the emperor of Rome, Constantine, shared in their belief in Jesus. Constantine still kept a part of his old Roman religions but this conversion was one of the most important aspects in the increase of the Church’s role in world history and its transformation from a sect to a church. The Christian church during the Dark Ages was distinctly different than of its ancestors in the pre-Constantine era. From that time on, pagan temples throughout the Roman Empire were torn down or refurbished as “Christian” churches. The fourth Church Council of Carthage in 398 prohibited everybody, including “Christian” bishops, from studying pagan books on penalty of death. Roman society by the fifth century was becoming ever more rigid and hierarchical, with eroding social and geographic mobility and an immense and widening gulf between rich and poor.
And the influence of the Christian Church continued to grow. Christendom was given a firmer meaning with the creation of Charlemagne’s kingdom, the Christian Empire of the West. On Christmas Day, 800, Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope as ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, a title which would exist up until 1806. Tensions between the popes and secular rulers ran high, as the pontiffs attempted to retain control over their temporal counterparts. Popes because of the moral laxity of the pontiffs and their willingness to make war, peace, and alliances like secular rulers. Christendom was given a firmer meaning with the creation of Charlemagne’s kingdom, the Christian Empire of the West. The idea of Christendom was already greatly discredited by the time of the Renaissance Popes because of the moral laxity of the pontiffs and their willingness to make war, peace, and alliances like secular rulers.
However, from this mess, emerged a form of Christianity that would be so intertwined with the West that it would help to coin the term “Western Civilization”. Christianity permeated numerous aspects of The High Middle Ages and contributed to much of the culture of that period in European History. The High Middle Ages produced many different forms of intellectual, spiritual and artistic works. This age saw the rise of modern nation-states in Western Europe and the ascent of the great Italian city-states. The still-powerful Roman Church called armies from across Europe to a series of Crusades against the Seljuk Turks, who occupied the Holy Land. The rediscovery of the works of Aristotle led Thomas Aquinas and other thinkers to develop the philosophy of Scholasticism. In architecture, many of the most notable Gothic cathedrals were built or completed during this era.
The transformation of Christianity from a sect, on the fringe of society, having to worship in private under fear of extreme persecution and death to being able to boast about it being able to affect almost every aspect of life during the Dark and High Middle Ages was due to a number of important events. The Council of Nicea in 325 AD, the rule of Charlemagne as the Holy Roman Emperor in 800 AD to Christian culture influencing a majority of the art by way of paintings and cathedrals serve as standing testimonies to a religion that went from the fringe of society to the center of society and the dominant influence of the Dark, High and Middle Ages within Western Christendom.