The Institutional Structure of the Church and its Role in the Late Roman Empire
The late Roman Empire saw the rise of Christianity which was marked by divisions over theological debates involving the definition of God. The role of Christianity in the empire was also characterized by conflicts between secular political power and the church, as well as the development of new social spheres, particularly in the form of asceticism and monasticism.
Table of Contents
- The Church and Its Institutional Structure
- Christianity and Pagan Political Practice
- Theological Divisions Over the Nature of Christ
- Asceticism and Monasticism
- Political Decision-Making in Late Roman Empire
Q: How did the institutional structure of the church allow it to survive the political fragmentation of the fifth century?
A: The institutional structure of the church was organized in a hierarchical manner. This structure allowed for a centralized authority which helped the church to survive political fragmentation. Bishops were appointed based on their proximity to the Roman administrative centres which gave the church a presence in different regions. The bishop of Rome emerged as the pre-eminent figure in the church due to the city’s political importance. The bishop of Rome’s influence extended beyond Rome and was recognized in other regions. This institutional structure also gave rise to a new form of societal order which was centered around Christianity.
Q: How was Christianity different from pagan political practice?
A: Christianity differed from pagan political practice on several fronts. Firstly, Christianity placed a high value on religious conformity which allowed for the development of strong social cohesion among its adherents. Secondly, there were sharp divisions over variations in religious belief which led to conflicts. Thirdly, Christianity mobilized large numbers of people, including the peasantry, who were loyal to their bishops and other religious leaders. Finally, Christianity was not tied to any particular region or political entity.
Q: What were the theological debates involving the definition of God?
A: There were two major theological debates involving the definition of God. The first was the dispute between Donatists and Caecilianists in Africa over whether bishops with a compromised faith could continue to consecrate bishops. The second was over the nature of Christ which was the most divisive issue in the East. The third ecumenical council at Ephesos condemned and deposed Nestorios because his position saw humanity and divinity as distinct. The fourth council at Chalcedon rejected the Alexandrian ‘Monophysite’ position and declared Christ existed ‘in two natures,’ divine and human, while remaining one person.
Q: What were the forms of asceticism that emerged in committed Christianity?
A: The development of new spheres for social behavior in committed Christianity involved self-deprivation of food or comfort, self-harm, and avoidance of human society, which was regarded by some as a way to get closer to God. These forms of asceticism were popularized by Athanasios’ Life of Antony and influenced the monasticism which mostly consisted of absolute obedience to an abbot’s rule in a fixed daily routine. Benedict’s rule, which became the gold standard in the West, was as striking for its insistence on the equal treatment of monks of different social status as it was for its moderate ascesis.
Q: How did politics take place in the late Roman Empire?
A: Politics in the late Roman Empire took place outside private housing, which was regarded as separate from public activity, with households centring on a nuclear family of husband, wife, and children. Political decision-making had a substantial public element, including public disputations, speech-making in the forum, and imperial laws being proclaimed. Bishops developed formal processions between urban churches as part of their local power presentation, which appropriated the Roman public practices.
The institutional structure of the church allowed it to survive the political fragmentation of the fifth century and played a significant role in the late Roman Empire. Christianity was different from pagan political practice and the theological debates over the nature of God marked its development. The emergence of new social spheres through asceticism and monasticism also contributed to the societal order centered around Christianity. Politics in the late Roman Empire took place outside private housing and bishops developed formal processions between urban churches as part of their local power presentation, which appropriated the Roman public practices.