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

Miracles, Morality and the Power of the Local Church

We’ve been enjoying Edward Gibbon’s references to the Christian church in the latter years of the Roman Empire. We’ve seen that he emphasised three factors which assisted the growth of the Church and the influence of Christianity through the Roman world.

Firstly, he mentioned their zeal, their passion. They were on a mission to reach the world. Secondly, he emphasised that their confidence in their eternal security made them courageous even in the face of danger. Thirdly, he noted that these Christians were not only zealous and bold, but that they also prayed for the sick successfully, moved in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and were able to evangelise not with persuasive words of wisdom but in a demonstration of the Spirit’s power that clearly showed to a pagan world that Jesus Christ was indeed ‘Lord’. (see 1 Cor 2:4)

Before we leave Gibbon I want to draw on his further two observations as these will serve as a safeguard to us. Having shown us the impressive nature of their gifts and works, he also mentions the morality of the believers. He notes that there was a harmony of charismatic passion and personal integrity. Indeed, in beautifully quaint language he points to ‘the reformation of manners which was introduced into the world by the preaching of the Gospel.’ (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin Classic edition ibid. p.283)

This process began, obviously, in evangelism: ‘The friends of Christianity may acknowledge without a blush that many of the most eminent saints had been before their baptism the most abandoned sinners.’ (ibid. p.284)

But the conversion of a person to the Christian faith produced not only an immediate moral impact in their lives but an ongoing one, so that they turned from their past sins, sought to support the social and economic structures of the society of which they were a part, became reliable workers, fair in business, honest in labour, modest in behaviour and faithful to both spouse and family. This notably different Christian lifestyle commended itself to those who were living close to them.

Lastly, Gibbon mentions the unity and discipline of the local churches as a factor in the sustained growth and spread of the Christian faith. The believers were locally organised under spiritually qualified elders, who cared for them, teaching them and supporting them in their new found faith. There were miracles but there were relationships and pastoral oversight.

Interestingly, Gibbon notes, ‘Independence and equality formed the basis of their internal constitution.’ (ibid. p.293) Somewhat different from the view that a single ecclesiastical power-structure oversaw all the churches, it seems that the churches were led by their own elders who drew on the wisdom of those who were apostolically or prophetically gifted.

Indeed, as we will later see, the local church has always been a key in the spread of the Christian faith in a nation or time period, and a sustainer of those powerful impulses in revival that have so impacted the world.

But, before we get there, we must look at some questions around the relationship between church and state. Just imagine if you were a Christian living in those days, wouldn’t you have prayed for the conversion of those in authority – and even the conversion of the Emperor himself? Well, early in the fourth century, after so many years of persecution, it happened!

The conversion to the Christian faith of Emperor Constantine brought a sudden and much longed-for release from persecution and an elevation and respect for the Christian faith. This was indeed an answer to prayer – but was it all good? And, what was the nature of his ‘conversion’?

We’ll see next time.

© 2008 Lex Loizides