Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How Constantine subverted the church

This is an introduction. I will be going over this for some time, and I imagine many people will disagree with me, but... that is what makes things fun. You can argue with me, and then we can go have a beer afterwards, and when you least expect it I can slap a choke on you.

I am pretty cynical, but this is the way I see things.

Constantine is struggling to unite Rome. He has already had a fight to consolidate his own leadership, and now he has to unite a fragmented empire, that is facing threats on all sides. He sees one group of people, that are growing like weeds. Even though they are outlawed, killed and persecuted everywhere, their influence grows and grows.

What is even worse, is that most of them are pacifist, and will not fight for the empire.

Now here I am willing to withhold my cynicism a bit, perhaps the emperor had a legitimate encounter with God. But I do not believe that the Father of Jesus would have showed Constantine that putting a symbol on his shields would allow him to militarily conquer the world.

So whether Constantine converts to Christianity because of an encounter with God or out of political expedience (which I seriously suspect), he now has the task of making the Christian religion, the official religion of the Roman Empire. And here things really start to get difficult.

You see this incredibly expanding movement was also incredibly diverse. There were many different autonomous communities, many theologies, many different practices, and even many different accepted scripture texts. It was in truth and anarchic movement. How can you make this the official religion of Rome, when you cannot even define what this is? So Constantine, thinking like a worldly official says, we have got to organize and control this. And calls a conference of all of the "bishops" within the church.

I believe there is some truth to the idea that some people were left out for expedience sake. However, I do believe that a proper cross section of people were there. I also believe that the majority won the day. I believe the scriptures that were chosen were the more correct ones. I do believe that the creed was what most of them believed. However, because of what Constantine initiated, we now have sharp dividing lines between those that "have it right" and those that dont. There are those that are in, and those that are out? In addition, we move from Christianity being largely based on orthopraxy (proper living) to orthodoxy (proper belief). Since we now know what is the proper beliefs we must instil them.

What happens is Christianity then moves into a place of power, and influence. Its meeting places become places of honor, its priesthood people of power and honor. And the state, upholds the rules, and rites of the church. The church then gives moral character and approval of the state. And soon, in only a generation actually, people are being murdered for not believing the right things. In only a generation, St. Augustine pens the Christian version of Cicero's just war theory and Christians are fighting for the state.

Christianity has never fully recovered from this, and the current church systems are built upon a subverted foundation. Which is why I often say... tear it all down, and lets start from scratch.

We will flesh this out more later, let the fighting begin :)



Patricia said...

Scot McNight is also calling for a reboot.

But I'm thinking that established church systems, like government programs, are not going to go away. As long as churches can toxicly manipulate or guilt or frighten people, they will squeeze people for the support they need to ensure their perpetuation. Until they get starved to death by enough people leaving them, they'll continue to wield their principal powers, because there's a lot of swaggering big fish in those little ponds, and a lot of tadpoles who can't imagine growing legs and jumping out on dry land.

My apologies for sounding so negative.

Punk Johnny Cash said...

I really want to hear more on this from you. Good stuff. Have you seen: Constantine's Sword? http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Constantine_s_Sword/70073043?trkid=2361637

Anonymous said...

Without the bulwark of Christian Rome (including the eastern empire centered in Constantinople) christianity would have been wiped off the map by the year 1000. Just like it was in the middle east and the far east … the first churches, the recipients of paul’s letters and their descendants were either put to the sword or converted. Or fled into exile to hide behind the shield that Rome offered until the mid 1400s. the holy roman empire in the west was the defender of western Europe against the moors – Charles martel, for example. The catholic monarchs re-conquered the Iberian peninsula …

No Constantine, no church. Its what happened in the middle east and in the far east to Nestorians.

In hoc signo vinces

urbanmonk said...

this might be a simplistic question an oldie but a goodie... to me the story of constantine sounds not that different to the stories of many OT leaders. (ie: Gods anointed military strategist and cheif head kicker)

a) How do you interpret/reconcile these similarities?

b)how do you relate the many constantines through out history to the over arching narrative of Gods people?

john jensen said...

dear anonymous, whoever you are :)

There are some holes in your theory in my opinion.

1. it presupposes that God needs to use the sword to "protect" His church. That there must be government in order to defend the church. This is a very naturalistic view which I reject

2. up until Constantine the church had not only survived the horrible attempts to wipe it out, by Diocletian and Nero, but thrived. In addition the church grew under the incredible persecution of the Chinese communist party, in Uganda under Idi Amin and during many other episodes through out history.

3. To speak about the inability for an already subverted Christianity, to withstand the assault of a violent opposing theology, or world view, does not in any way effect whether the subversion happened in the first place. In other words, if the Christian church rejected Constantines overtures, and stayed true to their anarchic and diverse traditions, how can you say they would not have enjoyed the protection of some governments including Rome, and the persecution of others?

In the end to not realize the incredible harm done to the church, but its marriage with the state, and its moving from a grass roots anarchic movement to the glorious state church, with honor and cathedrals and hierarchies is I think to deliberately put your head in the sand.

btw, just because you are way smarter and more learned than I, doesn't mean you are right :)


john jensen said...


Great questions. I have simplistic answers

Jesus, changed everything. He initiated a heavenly kingdom, in opposition to worldly ones. The narrative therefore changes. The fact that there rare many similarities between David, and Constantine and Charlemagne only shows that the worlds way is not God's way. Remember when the Israelis asked for a king, God said it was a rejection of Him and His leadership. Yet they wanted one so they could be "just like everyone else"

Of course the world continues down that path, and the church with it. We now want CEO's or motivational speakers as pastors, so our business can be just like all other successful businesses


Daniel said...

Morning (in the UK - late night video editing for the Greenbelt Festival).

I think I have two broad reservations re. 'it all went wrong with Constantine.' First, I think it can play to a form of early or primitive church nostalgia i.e. everything was great until the Milvian Bridge then it all went horribly wrong - I think I would suggest there is sufficient evidence from early church sources to indicate that there were problems of power, bureaucracy, institutionalism and violence within the church before Constantine pitched up. Second, the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Emperor did play a very significant role in the expansion of Christianity. Not so much through the military protection of the empire, but through the reputation it conferred. The Roman empire in the west was not attacked by gothic tribes who want to destroy the empire, but by those who wanted to join it. Christianity was the religion of the empire, and therefore held a strong appeal to the numerous 'pagan' germanic kings who wished to associate themselves with the fading glory of the empire, and in some cases proclaim themselves as rightful heirs to the physically vacant Christian imperial throne.

john jensen said...

You are definitely correct the church was far from perfect before Constantine. However with Constantine the church took all of it issues with power and gave them scope and range never before possible. Giant temples riches political power and prestige

As to the spreading of Christianity I reject that completely they spread Christianity like the missionaries to the native people in America and Australia did. " they had the bible we had the land. they said let us pray and we all bowed our head and closed our eyes. When we opened them they had the land and we had the bible"


Anonymous said...

Good response John, and I enjoy the counterfactual argument.

Regarding the spread of religion, in areas outside the roman sway or areas that converted after the fall of western Rome, was it always tied to missionary land grabs? I'm thinking of the Russian adoption of orthodoxy or the Scandinavian adoption of Christianity. The power structure did not change, and the kings religious duties lessened but not their powers.

john jensen said...

Not sure if you are being sarcastic or not? What did you mean by counter factual?

Of course there are times when the gospel spread without oppression the Celtic missionaries were wonderful. I was resinding to the idea that roman imperial life spread a true gospel and not a two kingdom gospel


gord said...

Good post John.

Constantine and Rome were used for His purpose. Nothing takes God by surprise. That of course doesn't change what you are saying. Maybe it's time for a new way of looking at church. Maybe it's guys like yourself that will bring about this change.

Anonymous said...

Some random thoughts:
If I do remember right, the church wa snot growing when Constantine came to power, it was almost dead. There was a strong persecution just before which destructed almost all structures. Scriptures were burnt etc. The fact that Constantine protected the church would possibly have saved the gospel for the world. Though, one has not to forget the christians in the east. In the middle ages, there were as many christians outside the European sphere than there were in Europe. There were large numbers in India, China and Persia, though they never were the rulers (On the other hand Jengis Khan's mother is said to have been Christian).

Constantine did indeed shape the church, and later on church got in a position of power, which does always corrupt a certain amount of people, be they of the church or whatever.

Yes, there have been decisions met that still have influence today.

BUT, as you say, you agree with them, at least the most part. So do I and many others of our brethren.
What we all do not like is the connection of the church to power and the corruption that comes out of this.

But this is not something Constantine has introduced, if you ask me. It belongs to man that he can and often does fall when gaining might. There have been fights about the power within the movement right before Constantine, as we know from the bible: Paul and Peter had their arguments as well...

I think what we need to do, in any case, is to find out ourselves, in how much some doctrine comes from God and in how far it comes from men. This is the reason we are Protestant: We can do this. Catholics and Orthodox christians must rely on bishops and popes. So let's use our freedom.