Posted in reflections

Emperor Constantine or King Jesus?

constantinebust3
Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome

Constantine served an Empire founded upon military might. Jesus loved people, establishing a different kind of Kingdom altogether, the peaceable Kingdom of God. Where do our ultimate loyalties lie?

The Roman Emperor Constantine (280(?)-337 AD) represents the fusion of the state and Christianity. In the years following his 312 AD conversion at the Milvian Bridge, Christianity moved from being tolerated to being favored by the state as a way of uniting and advancing Empire. John Wesley (1703-91) argued that the People of God lost something essential in the process. Wesley lamented in his sermon, Of Former Times, that the “kingdoms of Christ and of the world” were so “unnaturally blended together” that the “power, riches and honour” that Constantine lavished upon both clergy and laity made the church a partner to evil.

I have been long convinced, from the whole tenor of ancient history, that this very event, Constantine’s calling himself a Christian, and pouring in that flood of wealth and honour [power] on the Christian Church, the Clergy in particular, was productive of more evil to the Church than all the ten persecutions put together. From the time that power, riches, and honour of all kinds were heaped upon the Christians, vice of all kinds came in like a flood, both on the Clergy and laity. From the time that the Church and State, the kingdoms of Christ and of the world, were so strangely and unnaturally blended together, Christianity and Heathenism were so thoroughly incorporated with each other, that they will hardly ever be divided till Christ comes to reign upon earth. – See more at: http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-102-Of-Former-Times#sthash.i51T1EXN.dpuf
I have been long convinced, from the whole tenor of ancient history, that this very event, Constantine’s calling himself a Christian, and pouring in that flood of wealth and honour [power] on the Christian Church, the Clergy in particular, was productive of more evil to the Church than all the ten persecutions put together. From the time that power, riches, and honour of all kinds were heaped upon the Christians, vice of all kinds came in like a flood, both on the Clergy and laity. From the time that the Church and State, the kingdoms of Christ and of the world, were so strangely and unnaturally blended together, Christianity and Heathenism were so thoroughly incorporated with each other, that they will hardly ever be divided till Christ comes to reign upon earth. – See more at: http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-102-Of-Former-Times#sthash.i51T1EXN.dpuf

Before Constantine, Christians always had a conflicted relationship with temporal powers, not encouraging their young to serve in the Roman legions and  looking to advance another way of doing things, a peaceable Kingdom not of this world (John 18:36). But with the ascent and apparent conversion of Constantine, Christian leaders over time gained a favored status, entree into the halls of power. Increasingly, bishops and pastors became more concerned with promoting their own importance and status and less concerned with enacting Christ’s prayer: “Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).

This caution from Wesley about the dangers of melding spiritual and temporal power appears to have been unheeded in recent decades by some conservative Christian leaders in the United States. Yes, there was the occasional prophetic warning from the likes of former Nixon White House counselor turned prison reform advocate, Chuck Colson: “The Kingdom of God will not arrive on Air Force One….” Still, many placed an emphasis upon getting the right Christian people into political office which would then assure that their most cherished values would be protected and promoted.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was caught up in this philosophy. Too much of my time and effort as a pastor were spent on  what might be called “moral environmentalism,” i.e. preaching about things ethical, writing letters to newspapers and opposing things I deemed nefarious. The result was predictable: I became known in town for what I was against rather than what I was for. My conviction was that elected officials should work to maintain a holy environment as conceived by my evangelical Christian worldview. I even distributed “voter guides” annually in our congregation, brochures produced by a quasi-Christian lobbying group that was a thin veneer for a political party.

Looking back, those lobbyists used me to promote their own political power as surely as Constantine used the church of his time to promote his. My complicity cheapened the witness of our local church. Ironically, in my zeal to keep a corner of America morally strong, I lost sight of the compassionate Jesus who always starts not by scolding sinful behavior but by graciously meeting people where they are and lovingly transforming the human heart.

Far from co-opting the system to advance a social agenda, Jesus promoted another system entirely, that of a non-violent Kingdom based upon love of God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-31), new wine in new wine skins and all confirmed with signs, wonders, and authority (Hebrews 2:4, Matthew 7:29). By his creation of an alternative, global community of character,  Jesus transcends the interests of political parties or nations, uniting believers from places as far-flung as Iran, China, the United States, Russia, France, Argentina and Zambia around a different task, that of making Christlike disciples. Verses 1 and 3 of William Dunkerley’s hymn say it well:

In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth…

Join hands, then, members of the faith,
Whatever your race may be!
Who serves my Father as His child
Is surely kin to me…

We live in a world of Empires. There are still Constantines who would co-opt Christianity to consolidate earthly power. As followers of Christ, the temptation remains to think that this can be a “win-win” for both state and church, yet history tells us a different story. The church always loses when with the best of intentions she seeks to promote herself through the political structures of this world.

So, what will it be, the Empire of Constantine or the Kingdom of Christ? It’s time to choose.

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Image credit: Constantine the Great Coins