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In this lesson, we explore the Christian Church in the Byzantine Empire, and the history of the issues the bishop in Constantinople had with other Christian bishops, especially in Rome.

Byzantine Church

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Even though you likely shared plenty in common with the person you were dating, for whatever reason things just weren’t clicking anymore; it happens. While this happens so frequently between couples today that people rarely bat an eye, when it comes to worldwide organizations, breakups are a bit more newsworthy. Such was the case in the Christian Church in the early Middle Ages.In this lesson, we will examine the characteristics and differences of the Christian Church in the Byzantine Empire with that of the Western Church based in Rome, as well as their eventual split.


The Roman Empire was one of the greatest states in human history. From the British Isles to Asia Minor and everywhere in between, Rome’s power was felt everywhere in the ancient world. However, after several centuries of dominance, Rome’s stranglehold on the Western world began to weaken. In the 4th century A.D., the Empire eventually split into two, with the Western half being ruled by Rome and the Eastern half being ruled by the capital built by Constantine, Constantinople.

In the West, invaders cut down weakened Roman legions and sacked Rome itself. The Eastern half, however, maintained its power and became one of the premier empires of the Middle Ages: the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire shared something in common with the unlucky Western half: the Christian church.

In the first few centuries A.D., Christianity had remained a small, secretive cult often practiced in private homes rather than out in the open as it is today. Though Christianity was generally tolerated in the Empire, Christians also faced intermittent periods of persecution at the hands of Roman authorities who often used Christians as scapegoats in times of economic or political distress. This all changed in the early 4th century, when the Roman emperor Constantine officially converted to Christianity. By the end of the century, Christianity was the official state religion of the entire Roman Empire.

Byzantine Christianity

Christianity remained an important part of the Byzantine Empire long after the split between the Eastern and Western Roman Empires.

As the state religion, Byzantine emperors considered all non-Christians to be heretics, though they often did little to impose Christianity upon the populace. Furthermore, most Eastern emperors, especially Justinian the Great in the 6th century, considered it their duty to impose Christianity and foster its spread within the borders of the empire. However, according to some scholars, it’s likely that Christianity remained the minority religion for several centuries despite imperial decrees.Christianity spread throughout the Byzantine Empire, but did so gradually. Nonetheless, Constantinople, along with Rome, Antioch, Alexandria, and others, became an important center for early Christianity.

Constantinople’s bishop was considered one of the most powerful in the Empire, and he often held complex theological debates with the bishop in Rome and those elsewhere. These debates centered on important issues of disagreement between the Eastern and Western churches, which had developed different customs and practices over the years. For example, in the Byzantine Empire, praying to or the worship of icons – that is, images or symbols that represent important religious figures – allowed the worshiper to communicate directly with that deity.


So vociferous were these various Church factions that Roman emperors and Church officials called for several ecumenical councils where Church leaders would hopefully arrive at some sort of compromise and present a united theology to Christian followers. The most important of these occurred at Chalcedon in 451 A.D.

At this council, various important facets of Christianity were decided, such as the idea that God and Christ are one entity, which existed and exists in both a supernatural sense and in a material body on Earth, in the form of Jesus Christ.While these theological matters were certainly important, perhaps the most important development for the history of the Church in both the East and West was the challenge to Church hierarchy. Prior to Chalcedon, the bishop in Rome had primacy over the entire hierarchy of the Christian Church – a position which came to be known as the Pope. Constantinople’s place in the Church was generally secondary.

However, in Chalcedon, the bishops confirmed the bishop of Constantinople as having the same legitimacy and power as the bishop of Rome. The Pope and his officials were not present when this decision was made, and they later claimed this declaration was illegitimate.

Great Schism

The theological and cultural differences between Eastern and Western Christianity continued to grow over the following centuries. Matters came to a head in 1054, when an envoy from the Pope in Rome traveled to Constantinople to demand that the bishop of Constantine recognize the primacy of Rome’s position in the Church. When Constantinople’s bishop refused, the Pope’s envoy excommunicated the bishop, who in turned excommunicated the Pope’s officials. After this event, known as the Great Schism, the differences between Eastern and Western Christianity calcified into the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Churches as we know today.

Lesson Summary

Though Christianity began as a small, secretive cult within the Roman Empire, its popularity grew to the point that in the early 4th century, the Roman Emperor Constantine himself had converted! Even as Christianity grew popular across the empire, its leaders grew increasingly divided over important theological and administrative issues.When an ecumenical council at Chalcedon in 451 claimed that Constantinople, the Church’s most important city in the Byzantine Empire, had the same legitimacy as Rome, the Church in the East and that in the West had reached an impasse. Not only did they have deep theological differences separating the two, but now they also claimed to have the same authority.These divisions festered over the following centuries until an incident between an envoy from the Pope and the bishop of Constantinople severed relations between the two for good, an event known today as the Great Schism.

Learning Outcomes

Review the lesson and transcript on the Byzantine Church so that you can subsequently:

  • State the reasons for the division among Christian leaders
  • Discuss some of the theological differences between Eastern and Western Roman Christianity
  • Realize the purpose and outcome of the council at Chalcedon
  • Outline the events that resulted in the creation of two Christian churches

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