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Extra resources for Christianity: History, Belief, and Practice (The Britannica Guide to Religion)

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By the clergy and laity assembled together. But the consent of the laity decreased in importance as recognition by other churches increased. The metropolitan and other provincial bishops soon became just as important as the congregation as a whole; and, though they could never successfully impose a man on a solidly hostile community, they could often prevent the appointment falling under the control of one powerful lay family or faction. From the 4th century on, the emperors occasionally intervened to fill important sees, but such occurrences were not a regular phenomenon (until the 6th century in Merovingian Gaul).

Soon thereafter, however, the profession of Christianity was defined as a capital crime—though of a special kind, because one gained pardon by apostasy (rejection of a faith once confessed) demonstrated by offering sacrifice to the pagan gods or to the emperor. Popular gossip soon accused the Christians of secret vices, such as eating murdered infants (due to the secrecy surrounding the Lord’s Supper and the use of the words body and blood) and sexual promiscuity (due to the practice of Christians calling each other “brother” or “sister” while living as husband and wife).

Christians did not need to be disaffected from the empire, though the deification of the emperor was offensive to them. Moreover, although as an agency of social welfare the church offered much to the downtrodden elements in society, the Christians did not at any stage represent a social and political threat. After the example of their master, the Christians encouraged humility and patience before wicked men. Even the institution of slavery was not the subject of fundamental Christian criticism before the 4th century.

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