Yesterday's post (thank you for all the comments, all very informative and thought provoking) caused me to have a rather long walk and thought session during lunch (as we had rain the night before, it made for a day one could actually walk at lunch). The subject was simply "When did the Church get off track into governing and structure?"
Yes, I have an odd mind and things like this get stuck there.
It matters, of course, because 1) there is a lot of arguing about it; and 2) in point of fact, "The Church of The Apostles" is something that virtually every reforming group, division, and movement has been trying to get back to since The Desert Fathers and Benedict of Nursia decided they needed to do something differently than what the Church (a uniform church, at that time) was doing.
To be clear, this is a rather embarrassingly high level thought construct. Entire careers have been made over this and entire churches have split over it. Mine is, by default, a very brief thought exercise.
I think it will come as a surprise to no-one that the first great change in the Church came with acceptance of Christianity by Constantine The Great in 312 AD. The church prior to this point was at best a movement that existed in the semi-shadows, at worst was coming out of the persecutions of Diocletian. Suddenly, Christianity was the religion of the Emperor - and, like any social movement of the day, instantly grasped as being a means to moving up in society. Christianity moved from being something that one specifically chose to be at the risk of one's life to a form of social advancement. Did everyone convert for that reason? Surely not; not having the tinge of potential apostacy and death likely encouraged many who were on the fence to join. But there was a group (there always is, of course) that saw this as just one more method to move up the ladder.
The second - and this was not the Church's fault initially - was the 5th and early 6th Century, when the Church government started to function as an actual political government. The Western Empire was dying and then died of course, and over time the only group that maintained a sort of structure and ability to get things done was the Church. Bishops began to act as political figures because they had to. It was only later that they took for granted that they were meant to.
The third was the sparring for predominance amongst the Patriarchs of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople (It is kind of an interesting history if you are into such things). What this did - eventually - was to break the sense of ecumenism that had been present, more or less, in the previous centuries, and started the division of Christianity into East and West. Once one disagreed with the other side, it was easy enough to see them as wrong and slightly (but only slightly) better than the heretics, leading to the Schism of 1054 A.D. This one action eventually cost the Byzantine Empire its existence and Western Europe its buffer from invasion and irretrievably split the Church into an Eastern and Western part in both practice, philosophy, and thought that has held true for the next 1,000 years.
So in the space of 1000 years we have made Christianity the dominant theme of how to get ahead in the world, a seat of political power, and then split it apart due to largely political machinations. How, you wonder, could things get better?
Marin Luther, of course. The Reformation. 1517. The Western church split yet again, mostly a split (in retrospect) that could have been avoided if things had been handled differently. What that created in turn was the sense that anyone could split off from the Church of their day if they decided they were not being "true to the Faith as handed down by the Apostles", which of course everyone wants.
Could things have gone differently? Possibly. What if Constantine had not legalized Christianity? It would not have had the same pull and power and the Church might have remained more focused on the teachings of Christ and the Bible. What if they had refused to exercise political power and instead of arguing for pre-eminence, had continued to operate as the first Non-governmental agency (NGO) and ecumenically? Perhaps they would have been turned from the need for worldly power; perhaps all the councils of the church would have been truly Ecumenical. And with establishing the ability to disagree and reform the Church from the inside, Martin Luther would have been a reformer with a small "r", and history would not have 450 years of Internecine war between Christians.
That is a great deal of speculation, of course. And it leaves out a lot of "what ifs", such as what would have been the chosen form of worship (would we have temples to Zeus, Woden, and Thor today in abundance?) and what would have happened to those millions through the ages that did believe but, under this possibility, might have never heard the Gospel. There are the imponderables, of course (although it is fun to think about them).
It strikes me, of course, that almost all Christians would tell you they are trying to get back to Christ's church. The Protestant and Non-denominationals would say we merely need to model ourselves on the New Testament; the Catholic and Orthodox churches would say that they have an unbroken tradition back to the early Church if we would only look at them and their history.
I do not know that I have an answer, per se. It does strike me, though, that the Church continues to disperse its impact instead of increasing it. That, I suspect, is not what Christ had in mind at all.