Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Crimes of Constantine

Constantine the Great, who was once seen as a hero for stopping the persecution of the Christian church, is now often seen as the destroyer of the church. Nowhere is this more evident than in the claim that he made the church more institutional and subject to the state.  What are the facts on this?

When I look in the New Testament I do not find a detailed prescription for the organization of the church.  "Decently and in order" (1 Corinthians 14:40) forbids letting the situation become totally disorderly by allowing things like everyone speaking at once.  But there seems to have been very early some form of organization (Acts 14:23; Ephesians 4:11,12; Hebrews 13:17).  Even before the time of Constantine, things had become fairly structured.  The traditional church canons put forth detailed procedures for how the church organization was to be run.  There was a tendency toward greater centralization over time.  Whether this was legitimate or not may be argued.  But Scripture does not specify where to draw the line.  It is clear that when the authorities in the church try to put themselves over Scripture they are wrong (Galatians 1:8,9; Acts 17:11; Matthew 15:8,9). But between that and anarchy (which can also minimize the authority of Scripture), there is a large spectrum of options. Constantine may have made it possible for the church to better organize and centralize by giving it peace. But there is no basis for saying he changed the church's general direction.

The relation of the Christian church to the government is also a complicated issue.  Scripture calls for us to obey government (Romans 13:1-7: 1 Peter 2:13-17; Matthew 22:15-22), as long as it does not conflict with the truth of God (Acts 4:19,20; Daniel 3:17,18; Amos 7:14-17). But beyond this, the New Testament does not give clear-cut commandments, but requires us to apply the broad principles of Scripture to the issue.  Needless to say, people throughout the history of the Christian church have reached different conclusions.  The Christian church, both before and even after Constantine, opposed using the law to force their beliefs on other people.  But despite the disagreement of important individuals, such as Martin of Tours, this viewpoint changed.  There is always a temptation, when you are in control of the government, to use political power to perpetuate your viewpoint  But all Constantine did was force Christians to deal with the question by putting them in charge.

The real issue here is how to avoid being conformed to the world (Romans 12:1; 1 John 2:15-17; James 4:4) without withdrawing from it so far to be unable to reach it (1 Corinthians 9:19-23: Colossians 2:20-23; Luke 19:10).  This is particularly difficult if you are the ones in power and people want to join your ranks for worldly reasons. But while Constantine had his personal failings, the main thing he did was point up the problems by making them unavoidable.  The rest was, and is, up to us.

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