It has become fashionable of late for progressive-minded Christians to distance themselves from Constantine. Constantine, if you recall, was the Roman Emperor who in the fourth century first adopted Christianity (which had been criminalized under his predecessor, Diocletian) and made it the empire’s official religion. In a short time, Christianity was transformed from a marginal “rebel” religion that was constantly persecuted to a state-sanctioned, protected entity that became fused with the governing authorities. It was at this moment that the church-state relationship was born. It was the first time when Christians wielded power in the culture, and they would never again relinquish it.
Today, however, many Christians are seeking to shed the Constantinian cloak of power once and for all. After the Crusades, slavery, imperialism, and other such bad side effects of institutionalized, power-wielding Christianity, many Christians are hoping to return to a place of humility rather than power, quiet love rather than public force.
The recent Evangelical Manifesto, for example, has an entire section called “The way of Jesus, not Constantine,” in which the writers firmly situate their hope for evangelicalism outside the state-sanctioned, power-wielding tradition of Rome:
“We utterly deplore the dangerous alliance between church and state, and the oppression that was its dark fruit. We Evangelicals trace our heritage, not to Constantine, but to the very different stance of Jesus of Nazareth. While some of us are pacifists and others are advocates of just war, we all believe that Jesus’ Good News of justice for the whole world was promoted, not by a conqueror’s power and sword, but by a suffering servant emptied of power and ready to die for the ends he came to achieve.”
The thought here is that Christianity was never meant to be a powerful political force, and certainly not a violent one. It is often pointed out that Christianity thrives the most when it is underground and persecuted by culture, not when it runs the culture. Look at the world today: Christianity is on fire in places like China (where it is outlawed), while it is dying out in places like the U.S. and especially Europe, where it institutionalized and entrenched and, well, easy.
Is Christianity better as an underdog? Kierkegaard certainly thought so. In his Training in Christianity writings, the fiery Danish philosopher (a radical Protestant) argues that Christianity has been “done away with” by Christendom—“for it has become an easy thing, a superficial something that neither wounds nor heals profoundly enough.” He writes that Christendom has popularized Christianity and garnered many followers (because “people are only too eager to take part when there is nothing whatever to do but to triumph and join the parade”), but has lost the essential qualities of what he called “contemporaneousness with Christ.” For Kierkegaard, true Christianity requires a suffering and experience of offense that clearly separates followers of Christ (the Suffering Servant) from worldly pursuits. In established Christendom, he writes, “one becomes a Christian in the merriest possible way, without in the least becoming aware of the possibility of the offense.”
Clearly there is precedent for faulting Constantine (and the development of Christendom) for the failures of the church today. And I admit to sympathizing with these thoughts quite a bit. I do think that Christianity is better fit as an underdog movement rather than top dog institution, but part of me wonders: was Constantine really that bad for Christianity? Might he have been used by God—purposefully—to further His church on earth?
If we believe that God orchestrates history and has everything under control (and I, for one, believe this), don’t we have to see Constantine and his impact on Christianity as being God-ordained? Let’s think about the good things Constantine and the birth of Christendom did for Christianity. First of all, Constantine was the one who convened the pivotal Council of Nicea in 325, the first attempt at theological consensus and the birth of, among other things, the doctrine of the trinity, the holiday of Easter, and a concise articulation of Christian beliefs in the Nicene Creed. Without the precedent set by Nicea (which would likely not have happened without Constantine), Christian unity would have been long-delayed or otherwise impossible. And unity is crucial to Christian history.
Furthermore, perhaps we can look at the adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire as the event God used to really get His church disseminated throughout the world. Would Christianity have spread as fast and as far had it stayed underground? We’ll never know. But once Constantine sanctioned and protected it, Christianity was allowed to thrive and grow like never before. It also added a legitimacy to Christianity: the Roman Emperor breaking with tradition to adopt this upstart religion? People undoubtedly considered Christianity in a new light after this.
But I don’t want to offer an apologetic for Constantine, or Constantine-esque Christianity. I only want to suggest that before we go rushing to cut ourselves off from what we (and most secular people) perceive as a pretty suspicious institutional past, we should consider that 1) despite everything, the church is still thriving on earth; and 2) If you were Constantine and you discovered this amazing new way of thinking, wouldn’t you also want to us all your power to strengthen and spread it?
It’s easy for us in the comfy Christianized 21st century to scoff at Constantine, but I wonder: would we prefer that he had been as tenuous and apathetic about spreading Christianity then as we are now?