Since the time of Constantine (4th century) the church has been enabled, in various forms and expressions, to “share” power with the state. This was not all bad. As a result of Constantine the church was allowed the protection of law and the opportunity to create new institutions of learning and charity, to give but one grand example of a positive outcome. The church could also prosper in ways early Christians could never have understood. This may indeed be a double-edged sword but it has an edge that has done great good in the world in which we live. The result of this process was Western culture, a culture blessed with all of its art, education and growing prosperity. Personally, I think the anti-Constantinian argument is much too simple to conclude that this shift was an entirely bad one. Yet the Constantinian change allowed the church to share power without the church becoming a serious problem to those who used power, whether it was in the church or in the state. It wasn’t long until this great victory brought with it a host of deep and abiding problems. Let me elaborate a bit more.
The church has always flirted with ideologies of the left and the right since the time of Constantine. Socialists identify the church with their radical agenda and the newest secular theologies–Marxism, radical feminism and the sexual revolution all come to mind here. All of these, in one way or another, have been Christianized in some cultures and church-contexts. The political right has the exact same problem. It seeks to reform the world and the church by appealing to what makes sense on a practical level. Many times people on the right act as if the answers to problems are simply a matter of common sense, especially pragmatic American common sense. Have you listened to the continual drumbeat of the conservative right over the last forty years? Time and again Christians on the right appeal to what makes “perfect” sense, to what is commonly called American. But the gospel is not about common sense or what makes sense to American ideals or goals. It is about the foolishness of God, the stunning assertion that in Christ God rules the world and does so in mercy and justice. Each age, indeed each person, must come to see that the world can only be put right in Jesus Christ. This is precisely why the church is so obviously wrong to put its confidence in the election of the “right” people who will help turn the nation around, left or right. “Each age must come, fresh and new, to the realization that God, not nations, rules the world. This we can know, not through accommodation, but through conversion” (Resident Aliens, 28).
We cannot understand the world, or make any sense of the meaning or purpose of life in this world, until we are transformed by the renewing of our minds in Christ Jesus. We can only understand this present world when we use “the language of faith to describe the world right” (Resident Aliens, 28). People do not know what prayer means, or what sin is, or what grace does to a sinner, unless they are transformed by “the vision of a God who is righteous and just, who judges us on the basis of something more significant that merely what feels right to us” (Resident Aliens, 28). For me this is as clear as anything we read in the New Testament itself.
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