Christianity’s Role in the Development
of Modern Institutions

The earliest Christians had little interest in the institutions of the Roman Empire, which they were inclined to view as hopelessly corrupt and idolatrous, and in any case destined to be destroyed in the Last Judgment, which they regarded as imminent. Inevitably, though, they had to develop their own institutions (to support the preaching of the gospel, for the care of the poor, or to defend themselves against persecution).

All this changed when the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century embraced Christianity (at least in part because he hoped that it would strengthen imperial institutions). By the end of that century, when Christianity had become the established religion in the empire, the relationship of church and state had become problematic, and continues to be so. Sometimes there was a straightforward institutional continuity: the diocese, for example, was a Roman administrative unity adapted by the Western Church. Roman legal concepts formed the basis of the legal code of the church (canon law) which in turn powerfully influenced the legal traditions of every part of Western and Central Europe except Britain (and therefore, the United States) and some of the Scandinavian countries. However Christians also created institutions which were unknown to the Roman Empire, but vital to modern culture.

The university is one example. The earliest universities, in early medieval Italy, trained their students in canon law; subsequently theology came to be studied, and then the humanities. Almost every university and college founded in the U.S. and Europe until the mid-19th century—and many afterwards—was founded by some religious organization (including Wesleyan, of course). The degree of control exercised by these varied, but it is safe to say that no college or university has been unaffected by the Christian background of the university.

The development of parliaments and other representative institutions was also influenced by Christian institutions, since there was (at least nominal) election of the higher church officials and, besides being constituents in representative assemblies, regularly met in their own convocations or synods.

In most countries relief of the poor was a responsibility of the churches, and modern welfare legislation, although administered by the state, inherits the sense of moral responsibility for the poor which grows out of Christian social teaching. Hospitals also were founded by religious orders, and medical care was overseen by officials of the church. Economic institutions also grew out of the practices of the church (monks invented double-entry bookkeeping) and out of certain aspects of Protestant piety (Max Weber’s famous “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”). The interaction of Christianity and modern institutions continues, and poses a distinctive set of challenges for the choices facing policy-makers today.