What Constantine Had Right

What Constantine Had Right

Shortly after the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity early in the fourth century A.D., he issued the Edict of Milan (in 313), not only legalizing Christianity, but actually making it the official religion of the Roman Empire. This resulted in such a close relationship between church and state—the “Christendom” arrangement—that infant baptism was for all practical purposes the entry-point into citizenship. Thus, often these days when some religion is seen as being too closely linked to political power, the specter of “Constantinianism” is quickly raised.

The criticisms of the Constantinian arrangement are legitimate. When the church allies itself too closely with political power it loses the freedom to be the kind of church that God wants it to be. The late Lesslie Newbigin, who served for many years during the twentieth century as a missionary in India, made this case very effectively. When Newbigin returned to the British Isles after his retirement, he was shocked by the major cultural changes that had taken place there, as well as on the European continent and in North America. When he had begun his career he had seen himself as being sent out from a Christian culture—where Christianity was “the established religion”— to a mission field. But now he realized that his own homeland had become a mission field. Christians in the West, Newbigin observed, could no longer take a dominant Christian influence for granted. We are now, he said, “post-Christendom.” But that is not a thing to be regretted, he quickly added. The church should always see itself as “missional.” The Christendom arrangement lured the church into a sense of “owning” the culture that kept it from full faithfulness to the gospel.

All of that is good and important. The problem, though, is that sometimes the folks who make much of the dangers of Constantinianism and Christendom are placing too strict limits on how Christians can relate to public life. This was made clear to me in a conversation with someone who thought that my own views were dangerously close to Constantinianism. I pushed the person to explain why he interpreted my perspective in that manner. His response came in the form of two questions: Do I think that Christians can work effectively for Christian goals “within the American political system”? And do I believe that Christians can not only endorse the use of violence in law enforcement and military campaigns, but actually themselves serve as police and members of the military?

I responded to both questions in the affirmative, but also with the necessary qualifications. I believe that there are limits to the kinds of political compromises that a Christian can agree to. And I also believe that police action and military campaigns must be conducted within the kind of moral framework associated with “just war doctrine.” The person’s response was an “Aha! So you admit it. You really are a Constantinian!”

Actually, I do think Constantine had something right. And here I take an important clue from Lesslie Newbigin. As critical as he was of the Constantinian/Christendom arrangement, he insisted (in his Foolishness to the Greeks, 100-101) that we must be careful in our assessment of the errors of that arrangement.  “Much has been written,” he observed, “about the harm done to the cause of the gospel when Constantine accepted baptism, and it is not difficult to expatiate on this theme.” There can be no question, Newbigin said, that the church has regularly fallen “into the temptation of worldly power.” But he goes on: Should we conclude from this that the proper alternative was for the church simply to “have … washed its hands of responsibility for the political order?” Do we really think, Newbigin asks, that the cause of the gospel would have been better served “if the church had refused all political responsibility, if there had never been a ‘Christian’ Europe?”  The fact is, he notes, that the Constantinian project had its origins in a creative response to a significant cultural challenge. There was in Constantine’s day, he says, a spiritual crisis in the larger culture, and people “turned to the church as the one society that could hold a disintegrating world together.” And for all the mistakes that were made along the way, it was nonetheless a good thing that the church actively took up this challenge.

That is insightful. There is nothing wrong with working within the present political structures to serve the cause of righteousness in the world. But we must always do so with an awareness of the Constantinian danger of forming an unhealthy—and unfaithful!—alliance between the church and political power.


  1. The answer to Newbigin’s question, “Do you you think the cause of the gospel would have been better served…if there had never been a ‘Christian’ Europe?”

    I would say, with very little question, “Yes.”

    Had Christians continued to obey the Great Commission to “go,” rather than cluster and fight endless wars against each other, maybe the Great Commission would have been fulfilled by now (a thought best served on those of us that are historic premillenialists).

    Christians do not have the right to be a majority anywhere until the gospel has been taken everywhere. Isn’t that clear from the scattering of the Jerusalem saints in the Book of Acts? Isn’t that clear by the synthesis of evangelical Christianity and idolatrous nationalism in the American Bible Belt? What is it about Christian Majoritarianism that resonates with a single verse of the New Testament?

    Comment by Paul — June 7, 2010 @ 6:55 pm

  2. I watched a movie last night that has just hit some local art houses called “Agora.” It is about the conflict of church and state found in 4th Century Alexandria. In light of this post I think you would enjoy it.

    Comment by The Good Seminarian — June 7, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

  3. I find it interesting that those who make such accusations will say that they are not strict pietists. That they should actively engage and shape culture as well as help those in need. Well, that is, everything except politics, supposedly because of the coercive nature of that area. Thus they will speak to government from without because they know the importance of political action to allieviate the causes of particular evils as a part of culture shaping responsibilities. Yet at the same time, I don’t know how they can avoid the charge of hypocrisy (simply suggesting one thing and then doing the opposite) because in the end to undo injustices and to seek justice and shape culture and for humans to carry out God-given respondsibilities they will have to change laws which in the end judicially coerce others.

    Comment by Brandon Blake — June 8, 2010 @ 7:22 am

  4. Brandon,

    I really hate hypocrisy, even when it’s in me.:) So, if Dr. Mouw will allow, let me give you opportunity to pick apart what I’ve said above and what I say here. My congregation will undoubtedly benefit.

    I am not a complete pietist, but, my, the Constantinians sure look like Moral Majority types to me–just divided into white collar and blue collar.

    Do I vote? Yes. Do I vote for who I think would serve the nation best, as I am informed by Scripture? Yes. Am I a member of a political party? No; it like deciding which crime family with which to align oneself.

    I do all that, but I have no emotion invested in it necessarily producing a better world, since I take 1 John 5:19 seriously and literally. I have about as much hope in the “right” President making the world better as I do in the Pittsburgh Penguins doing so (the NAE would be at about that level as well:)).

    Since I am neither a preterist or postmillenialist (the latter of which is a huge part of “Americanism”), I think our focus should be doing what Jesus did and the NT Church did–making disciples (as they understood the term, not as D. James Kennedy and other neo-Puritans have). Neo-Puritanism requires using the Old Covenant as a guideline, since there is no New Covenant guidelines in how to govern on earth. The Unitarians were a reaction to Puritan unbiblicism, and that reaction not only has never gone away, but still controls the American ethos. Trying to build the “city on the hill” has never, ever gone well–for Constantine or Cromwell. When will we ever learn?

    Would NT believers have voted in a democracy? I believe they would have (Paul certainly exercised his civil rights). But would they have made it their staple (Al Mohler’s posted summer reading list has 10 out of 10 books on America)?

    I can’t imagine so.

    I respect both Dr. Mouw and Dr. Mohler highly–that is why I read them (this is an attack on neither brother; I am only making a contemporary comparison), but this post reads like an Al Mohler post to me, albeit with a slightly whiter collar. That is why I find it so disappointing. I thought Dr. Mouw had gotten past Geneva.

    For me, in regards to civic perspective, I’m more William Penn than William Bradford. The former had gotten the Catholicism out of his system. More missional; more global. No cross; no crown.

    Comment by Paul (the FS Alum) — June 8, 2010 @ 5:45 pm

  5. Rich,
    I am puzzled as to why the choice as it is portrayed here is between accepting earthly power and its tools (including coercion by violence, murder) OR “washing our hands of responsibility for the social order.” If the latter means washing our hands of our responsibility for our neighbors’ good, then surely the answer is that we cannot. Xn faith must always respond in embodied love (as the church has consistently done and did well before Constantine). If “social order” here equals the empire, then it is not the primary mission of the church to save the empire, but rather to participate with Christ in his salvation of the world through word and deed. Christ’s sacrificial love for the other remains our model, just as the Spirit (the sword we wield) remains God’s means of convicting the world of sin and guiding us all into new ways of justice and peace — new ways of arranging our social order and common life.

    This seems a false set-up of the question, which is HOW the church serves the world so that all might come to know Christ alone as Lord and Savior.

    Comment by Erin D-H — June 11, 2010 @ 10:43 am

  6. Right, I said that there are those who are not strict pietists or as you say, complete pietists. Those pietists believe in engaging the culture. What I think is hypocritical of these pietists is when they seek to alleviate injustices via acts of mercy. But this is not necessarily in the best interests of those whom require justice. Even these pietists recognize that not only should human need be relieved (social SERVICE) but that social ACTION is required as well. That is, the removing of the causes of human need. As a part of seeking justice in this respect, they will not simply resort to good works outside of politics put rather seek governmental action via speaking to government from without. Hence, some will write letters to politicians or vote for certain politicians who are more in line with their political values ie., Right vs. Left. However, in the end, they are seeking to accomplish the same goal of alleviating human need. And a part of THAT is that someone will be coerced to do or not do certain behaviors.

    For example, say someone is travelling down the Jerusalem-Jericho road and they are attacked by thugs. What is needed is not simply to attend to the immediate needs of those attacked–their injuries, but for laws to eliminate such thuggery as well. If certain accidents are occurring at certain intersections? We don’t need more ambulances but the installation of traffic lights. Either way, someone will be “coerced.” So what does it matter to these pietists if someone speaks from within to get more laws against robbery or traffic lights put in? The same (coercive) goal is being accomplished by both parties whether from within or without. Greg Boyd is a supreme example of this. Jim Wallis and Ron Sider are also examples, Sider not as much as I believe he is willing to work more within the system than Wallis.

    Even if you want to see this sort of coercion as part and parcel of the “evil” of politics (which you seem to do via comparing political parties to crime families) I don’t have a problem with even that as I don’t see this sort of justice as ultimate justice but rather penultimate. Will love rule in the end? Yes. I believe it will, but we’re not there yet and in the mean time this will have to do. FWIW, I don’t hold all coercion as necessarily anti-Christian but rather as something good in creation.

    Concerning the Moral Majority. I’m more in favor of that movement. I use to be in favor of it. Then I moved toward a more negative stance. Now I’m back to being more in favor with it again with a few caveats. Overall, my take is that religion in public life in general is viewed negatively by almost everybody from media pundits to secular professors to the average Joe on the street. There are those who ignore, deride or marginalize or see religion as optional in public life. This seems to have its counter parts in the Christian world as well. However, when guys like Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson and Paul Weyrich made the decision for withdrawal from political life, by most observers, this was seen as nothing less than an admission of defeat and surrender. It occurred at a time when, apparently, there was success on many fronts. Thus, at such a crucial point, the question is, “Why do some people turn aside?” Well, there were some reasons for this having to do with George W. Bush’s statements regarding abortion and Clinton’s acquittal in his impeachment hearing. Plus Falwell’s support of Bush rather than Robertson in the ’98 election and evangelicals flocking to Bush over Bauer and Keyes.

    Regardless, in the end, it seemed as if evangelicalism and evangelicals are largely and passively and politically inert. One thing that could be said is that it is not that the evangelical world FAILED to shape politics or America but rather most of the evangelical world has never really been interested in the Religious Right. Why? Because most evangelicals are concerned more with passing through the world rather than changing it, ie., the day to day humdrum of life, getting the kids off to school, work, living pay check to pay check, yada, yada, yada. Thus, even though Dobson and Thomas decry the over-politicization by evangelicals, evangelicals have not been and are not very political to begin with.

    Indeed, it seems as if there is a swing or cycle which political involvement by evangelicals should be viewed against. Thus, the call against political involvement is nothing new or unusual. Now, it seems that evangelicals feel overwhelmed by America’s moral decay and fearful of government intrusion and control of their lives. But then what we end up with is a reaction to this. We get a crusade. The troops are rallied into a movement with militaristic and salvific metaphors. You know, “Bring America back to God” or to some pristine era. The movement is shaped by intuition rather than thought through. It is seen as being for “the little guy” contra some distant elitist who is manipulating the world for their own selfish and nefarious ends. And the effort by the movement is usually seen as against something rather than for something.

    So what we get is a fervent, frenetic and usually unfocused political activity in which some secular elitist becomes paranoid because they think they are being over run by a theocracy. Then you end up with some group like the People for the American way whose only existence is for the sole purpose of pushing back the Pat Robertson’s or Jerry Falwell’s of the world.
    If anything, there is no theological or philosophical root to evangelical (MM) views on politics. The Moral Majority was not professedly nor explicitly a religious organization. It included people of different religions or no religion contra your, “Christians do not have the right to be a majority anywhere until the gospel has been taken everywhere” (who is saying CHRISTIANS in the MM were attempting to a majority?). It was also formed in reaction to the liberalization of abortion, apparent exclusion of God from public schools (I don’t have to jump on board with the Moral Majority in order to see that injustice is occurring in public schools via lack of regard for the diversity), family break down, gay rights and increasing attempts by government to control religious bodies, especially schools. It seems as if there was and still is the need to contain this sort of triumphalism bordering on the fanatical and heretical. Regardless, this had its counterpart in a later defeatism. Essentially, what we have is a manic-depressive religious syndrome or bipolar political affliction. In it’s extreme form, at one and the same time it proclaims the inevitable moral decline of America and calls for campaigns to arrest that decline. The end of the world is near, let’s save the world!

    But this doesn’t take everyday politics seriously other than a pragmatic means to achieve some moral reform. It both overestimates and underestimates the power of government. Everything is judged by whether it has “worked” to achieve some particular (moral) goal. This was and is Thomas’ and Dobson’s complaint–Does it work? The fact that politics is an ongoing, necessary and inescapable feature of human life which will always affect and be affected by people whether they like it or not is lost in a welter of images that seem to imply that politics or government or the state is like a box that you take down off the shelf or put back as you will. This is soooo far removed and distant from lifelong political work that they often have little long-term effect for good or ill.

    Essentially, as I started out, against those who ignore religion I say it is a vital and important feature in society. Those who deride it overestimate the tendency of religion to produce conflict and underestimate the predilection of secularism to produce conflict. Those who would marginalize it are probably the most intolerant as they fail to see the degree to which they wish to impose their religious beliefs on everyone else. Those who see it as optional fail to see that politics is an escapable feature of human life.

    We don’t need more crusades, complaints of corruption, claims of cynicism but an exploration of the nature of politics itself in the world. Politics is more like raising a child than raising hell, more like gardening than grandstanding and more like work than warfare. It won’t bring in a utopia or anything like it. Nor will it conquer sin. Nor will it create a society that will not need reform after it is reformed. But it can make a difference in whether schools are better or worse, whether its safer to walk home on a dark night, whether people are healthy or hungry and whether or not we will live more at war or more at peace. There will be both victories and defeats and no final victory in which we can say, “We won!” or “We lost!” Politics is an ongoing part of life in the world to be pursue patiently and faithfully.

    So, the question is, does any of the above stance sound like the Religious Right or the Moral Majority? Not all Christians who believe in engaging politics approach it with the same tactics as the MM. There’s a HUGE difference. The Church’s influence is best described in terms of reform (ongoing) rather than redemption.

    About 1 John 5:19. How does that work out in your theology of politics? Admittedly, I’m anticipating something along the lines of your crime family analogy above. Nevertheless, Satan is considered a prince and not a King who at Jesus passsion and glorification is defeated. When Jesus was enthroned, Satan was dethroned. There is no doubt that Satan still holds some sway in this world, but that power is residual and is held in check via the Holy Spirit.

    As for Jesus and the New Testament disciples:

    A. Jesus didn’t simply make disciples but also went about doing good Acts 10:38. This is not reason enough to require engagement into politics, but it doesn’t exactly condemn it either. Again, connect the dots. To truly help those in need, one will have to frame and pass certain laws which requires political power.
    B. Pertaining to the New Testament disciples, its interesting how we can be selective with our history, (not that early church history will solve all moral or theological dilemmas). But we simply can’t ignore historical location. We have to remember that they were a tiny insignificant minority under a totalitarian regime. Legions were everywhere and were under orders to quash and suppress all dissent and preserve the status quo. The first century Christians COULD NOT take political action. Thus, the question is, “Is this the reason they did not?” But just because they could not is no reason why we should not–if we can. I’m all about figuring out how historical progress figures into the equation.

    This kinda gets to Mouw’s remarks about whether “the cause of the gospel would have been better served “if the church had refused all political responsibility, if there had never been a ‘Christian’ Europe?” I think there is a prior question. Would the church have been politically active if they had the opportunity to be or had there been the likelihood of success?

    I believe they would have. Again, without appropriate political action some social needs simply cannot be met. The apostle did not demand the abolition of slavery. But are we not glad and proud that nineteenth-century Christians did? These Christians based their campaign on the biblical teaching regarding human dignity and was a legitimate extrapolation from it. The apostles never built hospitals or required that they be built, but Christian hospitals are a legitimate extrapolation from Jesus’ compassionate concern for the sick. Even so, political action (which is love seeking justice for the oppressed) is a legitimate extrapolation from the teaching and ministry of Jesus.

    With regard to guidelines for governing, there is tradition in both the Catholic and Calvinistic circles. These are very good indicators for governing. Subsidarity and sphere-sovereignty. I tend to hold to the latter. Now, I don’t know how the disciples or the early church would have voted. I try not to read my own culture or times onto them ie., modern conceptions of democracy. But with Koyzis I tend to see all ideological stances as making idolatrous something in God’s good creation.

    Comment by Brandon Blake — June 11, 2010 @ 2:58 pm

  7. Erin is right that it is a false choice simply to pit “washing our hands of responsibility for the social order” and using “earthly power” to “save the empire.” The real question is whether there is a legitimate role for Christians to, for example, serve on police forces and in the military, and work within the political system to promote just policies. If Newbigin overstated the choice by his “washing our hands” image, then the anti-”Constantinians” also overstate the choice by asking the rest of us to decide whether we are going to be genuine disciples of Chris or whether we care going to try to “save the empire.”

    Comment by Richard Mouw — June 16, 2010 @ 2:36 am

  8. Dr. Mouw,

    Thank you so much for weighing in. The last time I had an opportunity to interact with you (in class years ago), it appeared that I had asked you the dumbest question you had ever heard. I just thought it was at a different level.:) Perhaps I can redeem myself here, although that is not a priority of mine. If I can either learn from or influence you in some small way, that will make my day.

    I agree that the discussion is unfortunately largely about false choices and charges of hypocrisy. Do I love my wife OR do I love God? Sometimes somethings must be held in tension (and the pun was originally unintended:)).

    I would qualify as an anti-Constantinian, largely because the contemporary madness (and Americanist evangelical solidarity) is on the Constantianian side of things. We seem to be light years away from a NT-informed balance. I am a restorationist, and it seems to me that we are stuck, with about another 300 years to retrace.

    Yes, I’m more Simons than Cromwell here, but do any of the following issues get raised from most American evangelical pulpits?

    1. The admonition of loving one’s enemies and how that applies to warfare.
    2. The dangers of nationalistic idolatry.
    3. The multiple NT strictures on the taking of oaths.
    4. Once one does take an oath, the meaning of “defend the Constitution” when the Supreme Court makes it mean what it clearly doesn’t mean? If one makes a vow, shouldn’t one keep it?
    5. What Bonhoeffer would say to those serving in the military of an empire gone mad.

    I’ll stop there. I could go on all day.

    My impression is that it goes beyond theological/denominational differences in interpretation. It appears to me that most Americans are not serious NT Christians, and that the vast majority of our evangelical leaders have fallen into the either the trap of neo-Puritanism or watered-down syncretistism, at best.

    If the chief competition to the gospel in India is Hinduism, in Saudi Arabia is Islam, I believe in America it is Americanism, but most don’t even to want to take a moment to explore if such exists or what is at its core.

    I hope this doesn’t seem as stupid to you as my question years ago…:)

    Comment by Paul — June 16, 2010 @ 11:13 am

  9. Rich,
    For a full reassessment of Constantine and what he got right, I hope you’ll take a look at Peter Leithart’s forthcoming Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom (IVP Academic, October, 2010). This is really a fascinating book, and it points out something Constantine got right that has been overlooked: the end of (Roman) sacrifice and its implications. But I’ll not give away anything yet.

    Oh yes, and Yoder and Hauerwas get taken to the woodshed of history too.

    Comment by Dan Reid — July 2, 2010 @ 9:20 am

  10. Dan,

    I trust what happens in the woodshed will not be as severe as what happened to those who went there before Yoder and Hauerwas 450 years ago.

    Contemporary Constantinians seem to reserve their greatest disgust for those who think that, as Jesus followers, they shouldn’t follow them into battle, killing the infidels.

    Having heard D. James Kennedy actually question my Christianity, I trust he has changed his mind by now.

    Thanks for the tip. I look forward to reading Leithart’s work.

    Comment by Paul — July 7, 2010 @ 9:41 am