Losing Christ Within the Empire
This past Saturday, Pastor Robert Jeffress led his church, First Baptist Church of Dallas, in a service at the Kennedy Center. The service, which they called a “Celebrate Freedom Rally,” was a thinly-veiled Trump rally that celebrated Donald Trump as God’s anointed leader for the United States of America. It blended Christianity with a patriotic fervor, climaxing in a choir-led performance of a song called “Make America Great Again,” written just for this event (if you want to watch the song, you can watch this queued-up video on YouTube).
I have written before about the intersection of faith and politics, so it should be no secret that I am opposed to the kind of faith-based nationalistic display led by Jeffress and his congregation, but the timing of this particular rally hit me especially hard. I’m in a Christian history class at Central Baptist Theological Seminary right now, and I’ve been working for the last couple of weeks on a paper summarizing and analyzing the early church’s growth from about 100 - 500 ᴄᴇ. It was in this era that Constantine began the formal adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire - a move that catapulted Christianity to the status as the prominent religion in the world and began a long marriage between the faithful practice of Christ’s teachings and the power of political influence.
The post below is a shortened version my essay, and I think it is particularly relevant for us today, on the eve of Independence Day, when we Americans have a tendency to conflate worship of our God with the celebration of our national heritage. This essay discusses two problems created by the early church: politicism within the church, and the wedding between the Christian faith and the secular empire.
Politics & Nationalism:
The Development of a Religious Identity
At the beginning of the Hellenic period of Christian history, around 100 ᴄᴇ, the Roman Empire was at its peak and dominated the western world. This dominance was seen clearly in a variety of ways: not only did it control a vast territory throughout the Mediterranean region, but its political systems transformed the ways cultures across continents interacted with one another, its infrastructure of roads and travel was a catalyst for trade that brought great wealth to the empire, and its unification of language made it possible for information and ideas to spread from one corner of the Empire to the other with unprecedented speed and accuracy.
During most of this time, Rome was not hostile to Christianity. In the second century, although the Empire did not endorse the Christian faith, it did tolerate it. The only widespread persecution of Christians occurred around 250-260 ᴄᴇ and 300-310 ᴄᴇ, although even in the years without mass persecutions, there were some instances of localized violence against Christians.
In 324 ᴄᴇ, Constantine gained sole authority over the Roman Empire and declared his adherence to the Christian religion. He legalized its practice and, in 380 ᴄᴇ, the Edict of Thessalonica established Christianity as the official religion of the state. In a span of seventy years, Christians went from being severely and systematically persecuted to being endorsed by the greatest empire in the world, and this change had a dramatic impact on Christian culture. From this time until around 500 ᴄᴇ, Christianity swelled in reach and influence throughout the western world.
Growth and Changes in Christianity
During these centuries, Christianity rose from being a relatively small, revolutionary community to a religious body that dominated the politics of the largest society on earth. This rapid rise was driven in part by Christianity’s ability to adapt to the particular regional cultures into which it spread, but that adaptability later led to significant theological conflict.
When Constantine embraced Christianity, he made it possible for the leadership of regional Christian communities to meet together publicly and codify the standards of Christian doctrine. As leaders of those communities were better able to communicate with one another, they saw that gaps had formed between their theological systems, and the leaders of various regions began fighting with one another for their own vision of “true” Christianity.
One of Constantine’s primary goals was to unify the various Christian factions into some form of agreement on these polemical issues (although it is unclear whether Constantine’s motives were purely religious or were influenced by a desire to use the Church to maintain the strength of his Empire).
In 325 ᴄᴇ, just one year after he formally embraced Christianity, Constantine called a council of bishops from all corners of the Empire to establish boundaries for the faith. Similar councils would be called over the following centuries and would form many of the classic creeds we still use today.
The Politics of Theology
In the period of about 100-300 ᴄᴇ, Christianity spread rapidly and organically, so church leaders had to focus on establishing the parameters of the Christian faith - on limiting theological sprawl - rather than on distributing the message of the gospel.
This movement of self-definition quickly became an assertion of political power rather than an innocent, earnest search for theological truth. As certain cities and bishops gained recognition as having a higher level of influence than others, the boundary-setting became a game of establishing the ideas of those in power and deeming all else to be heretical. Some scholarly and faithful theologians of the early church were shunned not because their doctrines were antithetical to Christianity (many of their beliefs have since come to be accepted), but because their positions clashed against the political aspirations of more authoritative bishops.
Constantine’s initiation of church council proceedings in 325 ᴄᴇ only served to exacerbate these political concerns. Whereas before the church could maintain some sense of regionalization, the councils established a practical (though not legally authoritative) governing body to consolidate and enforce the decisions of the powerful.
The machinations of religious authority were, at some level, by-products of the increasingly structured nature of the Church. Throughout time, humanity has demonstrated a propensity for taking advantage of organizational systems to perpetuate one’s political clout and, even though Christ himself modeled the subversion of this thirst for power, his followers proved unable to maintain a Christian discipline of self-sacrifice in the face of escalating political influence on the world stage.
The Problem of a Homeland
Perhaps the greatest failure of the Christian community in this era was in returning the embrace of the Roman Empire. The Church at this time came to see its adoption by Rome as the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God, and it became comfortable as a state-sanctioned religious standard, going so far as to theologically justify and pardon many of Rome’s most anti-Christ behaviors.
Prior to Christ, the Hebrew people had a tempestuous relationship with territory. One of the central elements of their religious and national identity was God’s promise to them as they left Egypt: to give them a land of their own. Israel proceeded to establish that territory, but experienced regular periods of exile and territorial loss. Though they had a cultural identity as God’s chosen people that, in many ways, transcended geography, the hope of Israel was tied to the idea that God had set aside a homeland for them and would, at some point, restore it as their possession.
Christianity dispelled the notion of a territorial homeland that had been held by Judaism. People joined the faith from a variety of cultures, nationalities, and ethnicities - it transcended those geographical boundaries that had existed within the Hebrew faith.
Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the de facto faith of the Roman Empire and Christianity’s subsequent embrace of that status turned the a-cultural perspective of the gospel on its head. Suddenly Roman citizenship became associated with citizenship in the Kingdom of God and Christianity became a socially and culturally dominant force in the world.
Christian practice became an assumed standard for citizens of the Empire and mixed its own priorities with the Empire’s pursuit of political influence and militaristic power. Furthermore, its marriage with Rome made it necessary for Christians to justify the anti-Christ wars and violence that perpetuated the Empire’s existence - they deemed such violence a necessary defense of the faith from pagan influence.
Christianity’s acceptance of the Roman Empire as its God-ordained homeland was just like ancient Israel’s demand for a human king: it polluted the very nature of the gospel message, orienting it around identity politics rather than the revolutionary emptying of oneself modeled by Jesus Christ.
Today’s Politicism and Nationalistic Identity
The politics of church have not changed in the millennia of Christianity’s existence. We are as obsessed with power and domination today as we were in the early centuries of the Church. We have divided the Church into distinct denominations, but that has not alleviated the tension or the need to draw strict boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable doctrine of the Christian faith, even within the context of an individual denominational affiliation.
And just as the church in those first few centuries embraced its adoption by the Roman Empire, American evangelicalism has clung to the idea that our government is the heir to the mission of the Church, fostering the conflation of Christian identity with national identity and stirring a movement to defend even the state’s most egregiously anti-Christian behaviors.
The United States has become evangelicalism’s homeland and, in contrast to the gospel teachings of Christ, American colonialism (the pursuit of converting world areas into clones of American governmental and theological systems) has become its mission.
History does not bear simple answers for us. The flaws of the early church - its embrace of internal politicism and its marriage to the Roman Empire - were critical parts of its formulation of self-identity, but we must see in its story a lesson as we form our own Christian identity today.
Although the conversations about differences in doctrine and experience are important, they should not be a cause for division; in a Church centered around the life and teachings of Christ, seeing the image of God within one another in the midst of such disagreements should be the heartbeat of our community. We should be woven together by the reality that, despite our disparate perspectives, we are joined in one mission and one faith, and that understanding should naturally drive us to deeper humility and self-giving rather than into an exercise of power and exclusive authority.
And such an emphasis on Christ as the center of our faith should guide our perceptions of national identity, leading us into perspectives of cross-cultural and transnational inclusivity. The life and message of Jesus should be an anchor for our faith that emboldens us to explore the richness and depth of our theology as it crosses through cultural and ideological boundaries. We should allow the thoughts and questions of our brothers and sisters in Christ in other contexts and times to inform our own perspectives. As we learn, we should grow together.