The Political Church–Escaping the Shadow of Constantine

Church StateA very long time ago, the church was very nearly defeated by winning. The Roman Empire made Christianity not only legal but mandatory. Only Christians could enjoy the rights of citizenship. And so, to gain earthly privileges, pagans “converted” by the millions. Preachers were thrilled at the crowds in church, and they were excited by all the baptisms, but in the end, the Empire converted the church, not the other way around.

Because the church used the power of the Roman government to force conversions, many people entered the church without being truly converted. The church found itself learning to play Roman politics. Emperors had to be pleased because emperors provided free church buildings and financial support. Soon, the church was so severely compromised that it had become indistinguishable from the state.

The Roman church actually ruled much of Italy as an earthly potentate until about 100 years ago. The church crowned kings and emperors and declared holy wars, sending vast armies off to conquer territory and to pay tribute. The church became an earthly power.

With the Reformation, little changed. The Protestant church persecuted the Anabaptists cruelly because they refused to bow their knees to the civil government. The denominations that pledged loyalty to a king prospered. Those who served only God were burned at the stake. Indeed, in many Protestant countries, people were jailed if they failed to attend church–as though God would somehow be honored by forced church attendance. I don’t think this is what God had in mind.

Finally, the Enlightenment led to the separation of church and state so that Christians were free to worship–or not. And yet the Constantinian consensus still prevailed. The government and the church supported each other–and the church supported the government even when the government pursued wicked policies. During slavery, during wars of conquest, and during racial discrimination, the church passively accepted the status quo, supporting the government because the government let the church worship in peace. But the price was too high.

The 20th Century Church in America was syncretic, meaning that it took many of its values from society rather than God. The church did precious little to end racial discrimination, to help the poor, or to end apartheid. Rather, Christians largely did whatever seemed to serve their self-interest. And the church asked the government to do the church’s work–to care for the needy, to teach values, to build families, to encourage prayer. And when the state did all these things badly and contrary to church’s wishes, the church became angry. When the state refused to do the church’s work at all, the church became even angrier. But the church shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that only the church can do the church’s work.

Because the church was hardly the church at all, society very nearly became pagan once again. Many governmental institutions actively oppose the church, seeing the church as a rival rather than a friend. And this is, in a sense, a good thing. The church was never meant to be part of government or a part of the political system. Rather, the church’s role is to be the body of Christ on earth, living on earth as Jesus lived.

Jesus spent his career helping those in needs, preaching the good news, making disciples, and speaking truth to power. It got him in a lot of trouble, but it seems to have been a good plan. I think it still is.

The church needs to get used to the fact that the world, and the powers in the world, are not the church. Rather, the church is called to Jesus’ mission to redeem the world. But redemption only comes to those who voluntarily surrender to Christ. Earthly power is therefore of little help.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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