The First Signs of the Confusion of Secular and Church Authority
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 believing he had the approval of the Christians’ God. It was an important victory. Assessing the nature of Constantine’s ‘conversion’ is 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 a genuine internal spiritual work. Paul describes Christian converts as having ‘turned from idols’. (i)
Nevertheless, there were many significant benefits of Constantine’s gratitude to the Christian 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.
Church historian Ruth Tucker 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.’ (ii)
Predictably, the Roman church began to assert itself as superior to the outlying churches, and often yielded 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). The spread of the Roman Church tended to parallel Rome’s political prowess.
Although many believers and self-sacrificing leaders continued in communion with the Roman Church and, even though the Greek churches and other orthodox church 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.
‘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.’ (iii)
It is critical for us to remember where the source of the church’s spiritual influence lies. It’s important to see Christians active in every sphere of life, including the political sphere, but the church stumbles quickly when it forgets its essentially spiritual nature. ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit’ says the Lord.’ (Zech 4:6)
i. ‘you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God’ (1 Thess 1.9)
ii. Ruth Tucker From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Grand Rapids: Zondervan p.28
iii. Tucker, p.43
© 2018 Lex Loizides / Church History Review