Freedom and Temptation – the Church as Pilgrim and Politician

Or, the First Signs of the Confusion of Secular and Church Authority

Constantine

By 311, the Roman Empire was divided into east and west with a struggle by rival would-be emperors to gain control.  One of these rivals was Constantine who, as he became increasingly hungry for power lost faith in the traditional Roman gods.  They weren’t delivering as promised.

Finally, at Milvian Bridge near Rome, Constantine won a vital battle and became the new Emperor.  The important thing for us to note is that shortly before the battle Constantine is said to have seen a vision. In this so-called vision a flaming cross appeared in the sky with the words inscribed on it “By this conquer”.

Constantine promptly ordered crosses to be painted on to all his soldiers’ shields and went to war fancying he had the approval of the Christian God.  It was an important victory for him. Assessing the nature of Constantine’s ‘conversion’ is obviously difficult. His story and some of his later conduct (he is also said to have built temples to Roman deities in Constantinople some years later) make us tend to think his was a religious, outward ‘conversion’ rather than regeneration by the Spirit, producing repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, there were clearly many great benefits of Constantine’s gratitude to the Christian’s God.  Persecution, which had raged for so long practically ceased.  The churches enjoyed peace and even a new found admiration from society.  But the terrible dangers of nominalism soon flooded in upon the community of faith.

One historian writes:
‘The vibrant evangelism that was conducted during the first two centuries of the church began to wane in the early fourth century during the reign of Emperor Constantine.  Christianity became a state religion, and as a result the churches were flooded with nominal Christians who had less concern for spiritual matters than for political and social prestige.

Christianity became the fashion.  Elaborate structures replaced the simple house-churches, and creeds replaced the spontaneous testimonies and prayers.  The need for aggressive evangelism seemed superfluous – at least within the civilised Roman world.’  (Tucker ‘From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya’, Zondervan p.28)

As the Roman church began to form itself, often yielding to the temptation to align its authority with the Roman state, (with eager help from Constantine, who presumed himself to be a kind of spiritual overseer to the church) so the spread of the church tended to parallel Rome’s political advances.

Although many believers and self-sacrificing leaders continued in communion with the Roman church, and even though the Greek churches and other church movements eventually excommunicated the church of Rome, the spread of the Christian message across the world was often less than spiritual in its progress and nature.

Tucker continues:
‘From the beginning, Roman Catholic missions were closely tied to political and military exploits, and mass conversions were the major factor in church growth.  Political leaders were sought out and through promises of military aid became nominal Christians, their subjects generally following suit.  In some instances the need for military aid was mixed with a superstitious belief that the Christian God was a better ally in battle than a pagan god or gods.’ (ibid p.43)

It is critical for us to remember where the source of the church’s spiritual influence lies. Although it is important to see Christians active in every sphere of life, including the political sphere, we must never forget that the influence and spread of authentic Christianity is essentially, ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit’ says the Lord.’ (Zech 4:6)

That means we continue to look to God to raise up gifted leaders: Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers (see Ephesians 4), to preach His word in the power of the Spirit, make disciples, plant churches, train leaders and go on until the knowledge of the glory of God covers the earth like the waters cover the sea.

© 2008 Lex Loizides