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Church & State: Blessing or Blunder?

Excerpt taken from Escaping The Beast: Politics, Allegiance, and Kingdom by Michael Burns, used with permission.

 

Just two years later, in AD 313, an unimaginable blessing occurred. Constantine and his co-ruler Licinius made Christianity a legal religion in Rome. Overnight, the threat of persecution was gone. Over the next few years, state money flowed to restore seized land to the churches and build them places of worship. Constantine converted to Christianity (although he would not be officially baptized until he was on his deathbed), and its influence grew.


It must have seemed like an incredible blessing. But was it?

Earlier, in AD 244, the emperor of Rome, Phillip the Arab, wished to attend a Christian celebration of Easter along with his wife, who had become a Christian. The leaders of the church, however, would not allow him to partake in all aspects of the gathering. Unless he truly repented, walked away from his position of power, and submitted his allegiance to Jesus, he would have to stand with the visitors and leave the church when it was time to take communion.


Unfortunately, this same level of commitment to the kingdom standard of separateness was not observed with Constantine. Once the church accepted the authority and support of the empire, it blurred the separation between state and kingdom. Before long, Constantine was inserting himself into church decisions and authority. He is often demonized today and charged with everything from deciding which

books would be in the New Testament to changing the day of worship to Sunday, and many other things that are not true. But he did initiate a series of decisions that would lead the church down a path of compromise that would change the nature of the church faster than anyone might have imagined.


Within a few decades, the church was intertwining itself with the state. They went from centuries of opposing military participation for Christians or violence of any kind for any reason, to allowing the Roman army to call itself Christian and persecute heretics for holding different beliefs. The distinction between the kingdom of God and the Roman empire blurred to the point that Rome became a nation under God in the mind of the church. Many Romans joined the church, but they were no longer held to strict allegiance to Jesus and his kingdom view of the world. Right doctrine, church membership, and obedience to the authority of the bishop were now the expectation.


Constantine eventually exempted church leaders from paying taxes and called for formally paying church leaders a salary. They were also given the authority to decide many civil law cases, rather than people going before judges. Constantine did hold to the historic position of the church that people could not be coerced to be members. But by AD 380, Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity to be the official religion of Rome, outlawed all other religions, and began a program of destroying pagan temples and persecuting those who did not convert to Christianity.


The church grew, but the kingdom was nowhere in sight.


The actions of the church of the fourth century were at odds with the historic teaching of Christians in the first, second, and third centuries. A theologian named Ambrose rose to prominence in the latter half of the fourth century. He came from the schools of natural law and human logic and argued that Rome was a Christian nation and to defend the Roman Empire was to defend Christianity. He introduced the philosophy that if someone was in danger, it was immoral not to use violence to defend them if necessary.


This was in stark contrast to the teaching of the first three centuries.

Shortly after Ambrose, Augustine became the most influential leader in the Christian world. He taught that individuals could not control their sin and that it was up to the state to curb violence and keep order. War, he believed, was an inevitable tool that was a moral positive in the hands of a godly state. In his theology, it was now the state that would restore order in the world rather than the kingdom of peace. Augustine justified the use of violence by pointing to the violence of the Old Testament, though he did not advocate continuing other elements of the old covenant period such as animal sacrifice, a seemingly inconsistent position. He convinced the church to turn its back on the longstanding prohibition of violence in self defense, and he eventually came to advocate for coerced conversions.


To justify the turn in philosophy toward embracing empire and advocating for violence and war, Ambrose and Augustine developed guidelines for “just war.” These principles are still largely accepted and followed to this day in much of Christendom, with only minor tweaks over the centuries.


There have always been small groups that have held to the gospel of King Jesus and his kingdom of peace, operating as alternative societies. But since the revolution of Constantine, Ambrose, and Augustine, the face of Christianity to the world has been very different than it was for the three hundred years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, and most of those small kingdom movements were harshly persecuted by the dominant strains of Christendom.


As we continue to move forward, considering the role that Christians and the church can and should play in the world of politics, there is a reason that I have spent the first twelve chapters of this book talking primarily about the kingdom of God and very little about politics. For many Christians today, our vision of the kingdom is too small.


If we do not grasp the vastness of the kingdom and what allegiance to Jesus truly demands, we are bound to develop grotesque caricatures of God’s kingdom rather than the radical vision of the future that it is supposed to be.


We will create Christian movements that mix Christian morals with the methods of the world and sound godly but are a far cry from what the kingdom is to be.


Without a biblical vision of how the kingdom should direct our lives, values, and passions, we will get off track rather quickly when we engage the world in difficult areas like politics and justice. Without the complete transformation of thinking that the kingdom is designed to bring about, we will be conformed, in one way or another, to the patterns of the world.


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