Monday, February 15, 2010


At the beginning of my on-line church history class, I ended up writing a little bit about Constantine. I remember learning about him while I was growing up--maybe in 6th grade history class or something--and getting the impression that he was this great guy because he made it okay to be a Christian. (I'm not sure I got that he made it well-nigh mandatory, but even if I had, I probably thought that was a good idea at the time, too.) Now I have some different views, although I suspect they are not entirely free of culturally-influenced thought. One of the "tutor"-type people for the class said that it was okay for me to copy my classwork responses to my blog, so for the sake of future discussion, I am duly posting my on-line discussion:

Discussion Question:
This question is simple. Has the role of Constantine been for the better or the worse throughout history?

Recently a non-Christian friend of mine accused me of having "something of an affliction fetish." I'm not sure that's exactly how I would term it (but I might as well get off to a shocking start with my interactivity assignments). However, I do think, as a follower of Jesus, that "trials" or "persecutions" or "afflictions" or whatever else we may want to call them, are probably meant to be par for the course. I suspect I have a tendency, from my comfy North American living room, to idealize and romanticize "the persecuted church." I don't feel quite right about saying, "Constantine should never have been part of church history because we as Christians should always be getting beat up for our faith." As cthayer [another student] states, "While it is clear throughout history that the church stunningly thrives under persecution, it makes it no less of an atrocity that men and women of faith throughout the centuries have had to undergo it."

On the other hand, I do think that in many if not most cases, our brothers and sisters in more "religiously dangerous" countries across the globe have a lot sturdier faiths than I or many of my compatriots have. I guess I'm grateful for my freedoms because I haven't experienced much of anything else, but it speaks volumes to me that many times people within what is termed the Persecuted Church ask for our prayers--not that the sufferings will end, but that they will bear up under them and not deny their Lord.

It seems to me that via Constantine (and by his successors in power-mongering), the lack of persecution did make the spread of Christianity easier and quicker, but it may also have declawed it in some senses and places. If we are not bearing a cross in the name of Christ, it's a lot harder for the Cross to be much more than a symbol [in the name of nationalism, like it was for Constantine]. It is, of course, possible, but it seems like, whatever his personal allegiances really were, Constantine did his best to imbue the Cross with power instead of with the humility and sacrifice that it actually portrays. I guess I have a mild, semi-conscious resentment of Constantine for kicking off the fat-cat Christianity that seems to have beleaguered Christ's Bride and her witness for the rest of history. I might also mention that when I'm trying to talk about Jesus to non-Christian friends like the aforementioned one, Constantine almost always comes up, in a negative light, and it's very difficult to witness around him.

Nevertheless, though on a personal level I feel that his influence was primarily negative, it seems to me too simplistic to term it that way. I tend to agree with kbacklund's reminder that God works all things together for good to those who love Him, and with awestmoreland's highlighting of God's hand is in history. The Church was able to work through certain doctrinal issues during Constantine's time that would not have been possible had it still been struggling with the persecution (though perhaps the Gospel would have remained a little more unadorned if the time for these things had not been available), and surely, whether God exactly ordained Constantine's rule or simply allowed it, He was not surprised by it and He is able to make good any situation. It seems that in some ways, He is still doing that up to this very day with all the church's past mistakes, and not just Constantine's.


Anonymous said...

Really good thoughts here, Jenn. A hearty Amen to the fact that God was not surprised at Constantine, and that He does work _everything_ out to His own purposes. I find I'm on the fence myself, although I lean toward the position of "overall, Constatntine was bad for the the Church", but a straight thumbs up or thumbs down either way is too simplistic. Would we have had a Council of Nicea with Constantine? And all that implies - being able to worship God as Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity?

And a whole new can of worms opens up as we contemplate the trickle down effect of Constantine in the founding of the US - was the US founded as a Christian nation? I would argue that the US was founded by many people who were Christians, and many people who were not. And the US was founded as a nation that was friendly to Christianity. But I would stop short of saying that the US was founded as a Christian nation.

Jeff said...

Very interesting.
My brain went in quite a different direction when I read the prompt... I went in the direction of making Christianity an official religion kind-of perverts Jesus role as counter-cultural and revlutionary...

I think the direction you went smacks a little less of my own personal preoccupations...

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chris e said...

The problem is, what do we really expect the Christians of that time to have done? Say something like "No thank you Constantine, we'd rather keep getting tortured thank you very much" ?

In any case Constantine's hand was forced - when the Treaty of Milan was signed around 50% of the Roman Empire were Christian of one sort or another. So maybe this is more a story of what happens when a culture is defacto a 'Christian' one.

Young Christian Woman said...

If Constantine was a true Christian (a question I lack the background to answer), I would tend to guess he was trying his best to do what God would have him do. Certainly one would not expect him to continue persecuting Christians.

(In the interests of providing a devil's advocate:)

And as enlightened Westerners, we may think that it would be best to grant others the freedom of religion that we enjoy. And we can come up with arguments from the Bible, like that God allows us the freedom to choose (until he throws those who have chosen wrongly into the lake of fire) and that we are to turn the other cheek (from a position as a servant, not as a king), and that we are told to pray for our enemies, love them, and desire their conversion (and of course, love is incompatible with punishment).

But the New Testament offered Constantine no examples of Christian kings, other than the Christ.

What of the kings that are mentioned--the rulers of Judah and Israel? Where were they praised for their tolerance of other religions and their forebearance of those who would not call on the Name of Yahweh? Oh, yeah, they were dissed for not destroying the places they worshipped and the idols they bowed to, because they were seducing God's chosen people away from their First Love. Even such mercy as allowing them to live in the ruler's country, by accident or no, was an offense.

Where would Constantine (even if he were a strong student of the Scriptures) have acquired the idea that tolerance toward the unbeliever was God's Will, moreso than the persecution of unbelievers we find practiced by the "good kings" of the Old Testament?

chris e said...

That's true - though there are biblical and not just Englightenment arguments to be made why a Christian-ruled kingdom should not act as a theocracy. We do live in a different era of redemptive history and the ethics of the sermon on the mount are that of forgiveness of our enemies, rather than the judgement pronounced on them from Sinai.

Perhaps it just took Constantine for us to find those.

Jennwith2ns said...

Bryan--I have a feeling my own reaction to US politics colours my feelings about Constantine.

Jeff--well, yes, that would've been another angle. I probably didn't think of it because even though I believe Jesus was counter-cultural, I don't believe it was for the SAKE of being counter-cultural. It's just that we had departed so far from the humanity God had designed us to have and that Jesus was living out in front of us. I think Constantine is an example of that departure . . . but so are we all.

Chris--good point. I think I thought of this somewhere in there, but due to the constraints of the assignment (and maybe my own personal laziness), I just left that by.

YCW--I agree that things seem different in different cultures. Interestingly, however, the very earliest generations of Christians, even though all they had as official Scriptures was the Old Testament, did not believe in warfare and refused to join the military. (They had some sort of proviso for people who converted and were already soldiers; I'd have to look it up to remember what it was.) I think this bears out Chris' point below yours, and makes me think that, whether his hand was forced or not, Constantine's policies were more about power than about the Christ-life.

Young Christian Woman said...

Interesting about the early Christians--my guess would be that soldiers who became Christians were not to change their position in life or were in a position similar to slavery (serving under a master, might face death if they refused to fight or left) (I Corinthians 7:17, 21).