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Faith and Politics: A Historical Christian Perspective Part 2

by Mike Chaddick

Faith and Politics: A Historical Christian Perspective Part 2

This article is part 2 of a 3 part series written by Michael Chaddick. You can find part 1 here: calvarychapel.com

In our previous article, we explored the fact that for the first 300 years or so of Christian history, the Church had no official place or say in politics. But even so, Christians through the power of prayer, personal influence, and the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, began to influence the world around them, including the emperor of Rome! But as we will see in this week’s article, for better or worse, things would never be the same.

The Road Our People Have Traveled: The Middle Years

In 313 A.D., the Roman Emperor Constantine issued the edict of Milan, which granted Christianity a legitimate social status for the first time in the Church’s history. And later, in 380 A.D. the Roman Emperor Theodosius went so far as to make Christianity the state religion. This meant that for the first time in history, a faith that had little or no say in the temporal, political processes suddenly became an integral part of that process. This set the stage for the major doctrinal controversies in church history. One reason that many theological points were argued with such vigor was not simply because of the spiritual significance of those points (which is still a partially valid reason I think), but also because those points now represented political persons or entities, and thus religious belief became almost equal to political opinion in some cases. [For example, one of Constantine’s three sons, Constantius, might have supported the Arian belief system, not simply due to sincere theological belief that the Son was a created being, but also because he ruled the East where there just so happened to be a large constituency of Arians. It is no accident that his two brothers were what we would call “orthodox” in their Christology, and would soon go to war with each other over consolidation of the Empire.¹] 

Christian opinion within the Church differed as to whether or not this new political development was a good thing. Some believed that by becoming political, the church had stopped being an otherworldly institution, and became just another worldly political institution--albeit with better morals. (In fact, this is what caused some to seek refuge in monasticism. Monasticism became a viable alternative to a Church perceived to be infiltrated by the world.) In fact, it has become quite fashionable in academic circles to blame the downfall of the Church on Constantine. In particular, there are a number of scholars who assume a Marxist-sociological approach to the study of Christian history and theology in which Church .vs. Empire becomes the controlling paradigm for them. While there is definitely some truth to such a conception, it is quite obvious that it is also a political ideology, which presupposes the validity of a certain conception of what “this-worldly” government ought to be.

Other results of this church-state fusion were that the “pomp and pageantry” of the Roman state, previously foreign to the Christian Church, radically transformed its worship. And then came the practice of “simony”, which was the buying and selling of church offices for money! As strange as this sounds, the only reason anyone would pay money to work for the Church was that it essentially became a political office. Lastly, many Protestants would say that the corruption of doctrine in the Roman Church was at least partly the result of the ungodly alliance of Church and state. On the other hand, there were great reasons to believe that this joining, or fusion of Church-state was nothing less than a gift from above.

Listen to this story from Church history: 

[They poured in by boat, caravan and mule cart from across the Roman Empire–from Asia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, Thrace–and beyond from as far as Persia and Scythia, 318 bishops by one count, along with their attendants more than one thousand travelers in all, descending upon the bustling commercial city of Nicea in the month of May 325. The emperor, Constantine the Great, had summoned them, and the bishops willingly answered his urgent call. It was he, after all, who had finally put a halt to the torture, enslavement and death that the Roman Empire had, from time to time, visited upon the Christians for the past three centuries, never more severely than in the earlier reign of Diocletian, and its immediate aftermath. So when Bishop Patamon of Egypt, who had lost an eye in the persecutions, received Constantine’s invitation, he responded eagerly. So did Paphnutius, who had one of his eyes bored out, and both of his legs cut off under the reign of Daia; and Paul of Neocaesarea (now Niksar, Turkey), his hands twisted into permanent claws by red-hot irons, under orders of Licinius. Along with those who carried the scars of persecution in their bodies came delegates who, wrote the historian Eusebius of Caesarea, ‘were celebrated for their wisdom, others for the austerity of their lives and for their patience, others for their modesty; some were very old, some full of the freshness of youth.’ All had taken the journey to Nicea to assemble in the Christian church’s first-ever general council. They were to consider a growing controversy, one that threatened not only the church, but the hard-won unity of the empire itself.²]

Not only this, but some Catholics would point out that what appeared as the church bowing to the state, was in some cases, the opposite. The state sometimes bowed to the Church! The most vivid example of this was when Bishop Ambrose of Milan (340-397 AD) refused to serve Emperor Theodosius the Eucharist until he had publicly repented of his role in slaughtering thousands of villagers in revenge for a riot. In this case, the Emperor conceded to the Bishop. The state bowed to the church. While it is not difficult to admit that the Constantinian era invited compromise, it is also easy to see why some viewed this positive relationship between the Church and state as a gift from God. After all, did Paul the Apostle not say, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18)?

So what have we learned that would help us frame the modern Church-state discussion? First, when Christians had no power, they were persecuted. And while it may be glorious to choose to suffer for Christ’s sake, it would be much harder to watch your spouse, children, and fellow believers hauled away to prison and death. Being politically engaged helped avert such atrocities. Second, we saw how political allegiance with the state altered the Church in such a way that the Church was changed significantly. While seeking to influence the state, Christians ought be very wary about the fact that political engagement often involves compromise. Next week, we will look at the unique position we Christians find ourselves in the United States of America.

¹See Justo L. Gonzalez’s excellent book The Story of Christianity, vol.1. 
²Taken from: www.christianhistoryproject.org