Session 10 - Christianity and the State; Constantine

CoS 222 - Theological Heritage II: The Early Church

Session 10: Church and State in Early Christianity; Constantine

Intro.: In this session we will examine attitudes on the part of both Christians and outsiders toward the relation of the church to the Empire.

I. The two main attitudes among Christians toward the state, beginning in the NT:

A. Governments are ordained by God to further the welfare of all people, Christians included; we are therefore to pray for them and follow their laws. This is Paul's attitude in Romans 13.

B. Individual governments can and often do set themselves in direct opposition to the will of God, and Christians are called to serve a higher law in defiance of them. This is from Rev. 13.

II. Interplay of these ideas in Christian writings of the 2nd & 3rd centuries

A. Clement of Rome: Prays for wisdom for the justly appointed rulers that they might not require that which is contrary to the will of God.

B. Justin: Logos encompasses all reality, including the state. Nonetheless, he was himself martyred.

C. Hippolytus: list of occupations in which a Christian might not engage. These included soldiers and magistrates.

D. Tertullian: Apology addressed to the Emperor explains that Christians pray for the emperor, yet insist that he is only a man.

E. Matryrdom of Perpetua: Martyrdom as civil disobedience.

III. Attitudes toward Christianity on the part of outsiders:

A. Laissez faire toleration: “Ignore it and it will go away.”

B. Local persecution by officials: example of correspondence of Pliny and Trajan

C. Mob violence and intrigue

D. Official persecution on an empire-wide scale; this leads to next main point:

IV. The two general persecutions:

A. The Decian Persecution:

1. 247: Celebration of Rome’s “thousandth” year. Widespread feeling of malaise and glories lost. Christians often the scapegoat.

2. Decius becomes emperor in 249, begins large-scale persectution.

3. Many Christians apostasized, some were killed. By the end of 250 support for the persecution was wearing off, and it eventually just fizzled out.

B. Diocletian persecution:

1. Turn of 4th century, establishment of tetrarchy under Diocletian. Period of rebuilding in the empire; Diocletian desired uniformity, including religious.

2. Feb 23, 303: Edict of persecution. It would last 10 years, with periods of greater and lesser severity. However, by this time Christians were too numerous and too well-organized to be destroyed.

3. Constantius, ruler over Britain and Gaul. He probably never enforced the edict in his territory. He died and his son, Constantine, takes over. He sees his military victories as the gift of the Christian God. He would be graetful for the rest of his life.

4. Constantine begins quest for imperial chair; in 313 it comes down to him and Licinius. They agree to rule together, and in 313 make official the toleration of religions in the empire, with Christianity occupying a position of honor.

5. In 324 Constantine defeats Licinius and becomes sole emperor, further consolidating his support for Christianity.

V. Pros and Cons of situation under Constantine:

A. Pros

1. End of persecution.

2. Constantine’s financial support of the church.

3. The church now came to have a voice in civil affairs; illustration of Ambrose and Theodosius.

B. Cons

1. The state now comes to have a voice in the church’s affairs, often too much. Illustrate w/Niebuhr’s distinction between two attitudes toward religious liberty:

a. Religion falls under the state's protection, which in its benevolence can offer freedom of religious expression.

b. Religion stands within a realm of reality that transcends the state's prerogatives, and thus the state must guarantee freedom of religious expression because it can have no jurisdiction over it.

c. Constantine held to the first of these, which quite easily can pass over into the following: Like Diocletian, Constantine was concerned w/uniformity of religious belief, this time inside Christianity. Thus the long story of the state’s involvement in the 4th-century trinitarian controversy, at which we will look next time.

VI. Implications for contemporary ministry:

A. Constantine marked a significant shift in the church’s relationship not only to the state, but to the whole of society. Post-Constantine Christianity became the default religion of Europe and subsequently the Americas.

B. Through the centuries different Christian movements have arisen that try to reclaim the radical, counter-cultural nature of the gospel, in distinction to this Constantinian situation. The Wesleyan revival was just such a movement.

C. Christians today recognize the need for the gospel to “push back” at the prevailing culture. The problem is, we all want to push back against the issues that our political leanings dictate.

1. Liberals want Christians to denounce nationalism and militarism.

2. Conservatives want Christians to denounce abortion and homosexuality.

D. As pastors, we are called to lead our congregations into prophetic ministries. The trick is to recognize when gospel values are genuinely at stake, not simply our own political opinions.

VII. Online resources for the study of our subject.

A. Tertullian on Christian loyalty to the Emperor

B. The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas

C. For a discussion of persecution in the early church, click here.

D. Eusebius on the conversion of Constantine.

E. Ambose’s confrontation with the Emperor Theodosius.


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