Constantine and Christendom
Perhaps Constantine did have some kind of mystical experience before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge; maybe he was influenced profoundly by his mother Helena; maybe he proved to be a shrewd calculator to achieve personal advantage; maybe they all played a part. Yet Christianity would become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire within a century of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312. Christianity, for all intents and purposes, had now become Christendom; the effects of popularity and political power on the faith remain to this day.
Before 312 the Roman authorities had at best warily tolerated Christianity, and at worst actively persecuted the faith, burning its Scriptures and killing its adherents. Christians had maintained an ambivalent relationship toward the Empire: they submitted to the Romans as the earthly authorities, yet perceived the power of the Evil One behind its arrogance and oppression (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18, Revelation 13:1-18).
All of that would change after Constantine gained victory over his rivals and presided over a unified Roman Empire. The Edict of Milan in 313 granted tolerance to all religions, including Christianity. Christians gained greater prominence in the Empire, as did its internal disputations. Constantine summoned the Council of Nicaea in 325 to settle some of the disagreements, representing an imperial civil authority seeking to establish a normative form of Christianity to uphold, and thus to suppress heretical variations. Basilicas would be built around the Empire; Christianity would continue to gain prominence throughout the fourth century, culminating in the Edict of Thessalonica of 381, enshrining “catholic” Christianity as the state religion, condemning traditional pagan religion and heretical Arianism. “Babylon” was now re-commissioned as a vehicle to promote and advance the “Bride”; the persecuted became the persecutors. “Christendom,” as societies, cultures, or nations professing to espouse Christianity, had been born.
Christendom would soon be rocked by the upheavals surrounding the collapse of the unity of the Roman Empire and the development of the medieval world. The eastern Roman Empire would continue as the Byzantine Empire for another millennium, and sought to fuse the secular power of the Byzantine Emperor with the spiritual purposes of the Orthodox Church: the Emperor would summon and preside over councils and appoint patriarchs, and the church would uphold and promote the empire. The czars of Russia would go on to maintain even greater authority over the Russian Orthodox Church than did the Byzantine Emperors.
In the west political power fragmented into all sorts of small duchies and kingdoms; fealty to the pope and the Roman Catholic Church provided consistency and unity across western Europe for a millennium. The papacy claimed both secular and spiritual power over the kingdoms of Europe, aided by Augustine’s arguments regarding the superiority of the spiritual authorities over secular authorities and the (forged) “Donation of Constantine,” in which Constantine purportedly gave the power over Rome and the western Roman Empire over to the pope. The secular authorities gained credibility and justification for rule from Roman Catholic authorities; Roman Catholicism received not only pride of place in return, but was able to induce secular authorities to actively persecute and kill those whom they deemed heretics, and launched crusades in an attempt to re-conquer Palestine from the Muslims.
The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century fragmented the perceived unity of Christendom, but did not meaningfully change the relationship of Christianity and power. Untold thousands died in bloodshed in the “Wars of Religion” that gripped Europe from 1524 to 1641, leading to the détente of cuius regio eius religio: the religious persuasion of a nation or duchy’s ruler would become the religion of that nation or duchy. Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Calvinists not only persecuted one another, but all actively persecuted and killed those whom they deemed “Anabaptists.” The state would continue to financially and politically support a particular brand of Christianity; in return, the religious authorities would support the state, advocate for its policies, and justify its behaviors.
Christendom’s grip on power would begin to loosen on account of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and the success of the American Revolution. States in America began to disestablish “official” churches as the premise of individual right to free expression in religion advanced. Even as various Christian denominations flourished in America on account of its religious “free market,” most in America continued to presume their country to be part of Christendom as a “Christian nation.” It has only been within the past century that the power of Christendom in America and Europe has been significantly weakened on account of Communist revolutions, spiritual disillusionment, the spread of secularism, and the decline in participation in various denominations and churches.
Christendom provided some benefits to the world: much of the philosophical underpinning of modern Western thought derives from the principles of Christianity, especially its emphases on the value of humility, the worth and fundamental equality of each individual, and the importance of charity. Not a few have grown to become faithful Christians in the Lord’s service by starting out with some notion, held consciously or unconsciously, that as an American or as a European they should practice Christianity if they would practice a religion.
And yet Christendom has also hindered the advancement of the purposes of God in the Kingdom of Jesus. Whenever the church is welcomed into the halls of power it has been tempted to compromise the more difficult teachings of Jesus in order to uphold and advance the ideals of the nation-state. The Kingdom of Jesus transcends nation-states and all parties and divisions of mankind, and is called to emulate and embody Jesus (Ephesians 2:1-3:12). To this end Christians are to love their enemies, seeking their welfare (Luke 6:30-36); they must understand that nation-states may have been empowered by God to maintain justice and order, but they all end up giving their power over to the forces of evil to build themselves up to the detriment of others (Ephesians 6:12, Revelation 13:1-18). Christians in the Kingdom of Jesus can embody Christ; a nation-state, even if its leaders are tenderly affectionate toward the faith in Jesus, cannot truly love their neighbors as Christ loved mankind, suffering for them to the point of death, and continue to be a going concern.
Christians faithful to the witness of the Kingdom of Jesus recognize that there cannot be any such thing as a “Christian nation”; if it were to be established, Jesus Himself would have done so. Faithful Christians lament all of the ungodly and ugly things done in Christendom to advance worldly conceptions of kingdoms and power which led to the suffering and death of thousands in the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the Wars of Religion, the oppression of missions throughout the Americas, Africa, and Asia, and even the arrogant presumptuousness that everyone in American society ought to be Christians, and thus to treat people in churches and in society in ways which do not glorify and honor Jesus. Jesus established His Kingdom in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension; He reigns over it as Lord, not as a particular nation or series of nations which deem themselves to be “Christian” as Christendom, but in ways which transcend all nation-states and their values. Jesus never intended the truth of His teachings to be decided by rulers; Jesus never imposed on others by the sword or through oppression; Jesus never hitched the wagon of His message to the colonizing projects of the Western world; Jesus did not entrust the proclamation of His message to the advancement of a particular nation-state and its cultural heritage. The faith in Christ is not glorified by the Christendom which has proven enduring and pervasive since Constantine; it is only in stripping our Christianity of Christendom that we can truly serve Jesus according to the faith proclaimed in the New Testament, seeking to advance Jesus’ true Kingdom which embodies Him in all things. May we participate in Jesus’ Kingdom, not in Christendom, and glorify God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry