In the wake of emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity in the fourth century, practices and theology developed to support a close relationship between church and state. Patterns of behaviour and belief that grew out of the Constantinian epoch became embedded in the fabric of Western society, and some are still with us today.
These practices may seem little more than anachronistic irrelevances, harmless or romantic relics of a former age. Yet proposals to change such practices, or to do away with them, provoke vigorous objections. Could it be that we have not yet freed ourselves from the Constantinian mould? Perhaps it is time for the church to say that it no longer wants the state to support any ecclesiastical privilege.
Vestiges of Christendom are most obvious in established churches, but often appear in other denominations as well. These vestiges include:
1. Too much in a name
Constantinian assumptions stand behind familiar names such as “The Church of England”, “The Church in Wales”, or “The Church of Scotland”. All western countries now have many denominations. Today most Anglicans, for example, would accept that their church in fact is a church of England, one of many.
2. Loss of prophetic voice
An established church’s role is often seen (at least by the establishment) to be one of providing stability and continuity, rather than challenging accepted practices or charting new directions. Keeping pax is more important than making shalom. An established church which accepts such a limitation can be reduced to providing religious sanction for the social consensus. This can muzzle prophetic ministry in the church, and can lead to Bible interpretation that questions but does not really challenge the status quo. This orientation also may characterize denominations other than established churches. Indeed, in recent years some members of established churches have been more outspoken than most free church members in challenging prevailing attitudes, values and practices.
3. Comfortable wealth
According to some estimates, the Anglican Church in England is the second largest landowner in the country, next to the monarch. Its economic interests thus are aligned with the preservation of the capital value of land and the maximisation of rents from property. At least in rural areas, church buildings dominate the horizon, symbolizing power, stability and social position – as well as the importance of worship to our ancestors. The maintenance and restoration of church buildings by appeal to public support can imply that these buildings essentially belong to the national heritage rather than to the people of God.
4. The parish system
A parish system allocates every person in a given area to a particular denomination, taking little account of other churches functioning in the same territory. At one level such a system is a sensible geographical arrangement. Yet it reinforces the notion of the church, not as a pilgrim people, but as a settled structure responsible for every member of society.
5. Infant baptism theology
Widespread infant baptism makes church and society practically coterminous. Theology associated with baptism of infants sometimes has sought involuntary incorporation of all members of society into the church. Indeed, a service of baptism for those no longer infants was only added to the Anglican Prayer Book in 1662. The preface to that edition states:
. . . it was thought convenient, that [there] should be added … an Office for the Baptism of such as are of Riper Years: which, although not so necessary when the former Book was compiled, yet by the growth of Anabaptism, through the licentiousness of the late times crept in amongst us, is now become necessary, and may be always useful for the baptizing of Natives in our Plantations, and others converted to the Faith.
Theology underlying this text is an ideal in which society and church are coterminous. Are “our Plantations” those of the church or of the nation? Theological arguments for infant baptism may be different in today’s debate, but earlier ideals have been allowed to stand in the background and may continue to infuse assumptions and preferences.
6. Lack of church discipline
Few churches today understand or practice church discipline. This failure in the face of New Testament teaching to the contrary is, in part, the fruit of a Constantinian mindset. As the 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer (in “A Commination”) said, “in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline … [but] until the said discipline may be restored again (which is much to be wished,) …” Few contemporary church publications include material for use in relation to church discipline. The wishes of the 1662 authors remain, it would seem, largely unfulfilled.
Persecution of dissenters, either by the church or by the state, is a feature of Constantinianism. There is a long history of established churches persecuting those outside them. Only rarely has a former persecuting church publicly disassociated itself from this part of its history and from the theology that allowed persecution.
In the present more liberal climate most established churches quietly lay aside the theology of persecution. It is striking how some of the newer churches have slipped into a triumphalist mentality. Reconstructionism is a recent example of a theory of the role of the church which has a discernable persecuting mentality. Use and abuse of the Old Testament by proponents of such theories is all too familiar to those who know the history of established churches.
8. “Moral majority” thinking
It is encouraging to see many churches in the UK discovering or recovering interest in social affairs. But it is a mark of Constantinianism to seek special treatment for the church or for Christianity. People making such an appeal may point to the “Christian heritage” of the nation, or to the universal applicability of God’s norms for humanity, or to polls which ascribe belief in “God” to over seventy percent of the population. Seeking privilege or patronage for Christians and their faith does not accord with the role of the church envisaged by Jesus.
9. Limits on evangelism
Some people today regard evangelism amongst adherents of other faiths as racism or imperialism. Others, notably certain evangelicals, support disadvantaging religious traditions other than Christianity. They may do this, for example, by objecting to non-Christian religions such as Islam being taught in state schools. This tendency to identify race or nationality with religious affiliation is infected with Constantinianism. Being a Christian need have nothing to do with racial or national identity.
10. A skewed church history
Already in 1956 Gunter Jacob, a Lutheran church leader in Germany, said, “Aware spirits characterize the situation of Christianity in contemporary Europe by the fact that the end of the Constantinian epoch has arrived.”1 Yet in much popular and even scholarly material, Constantinianism is accepted as normal, and those who through the ages objected to it still receive pejorative treatment from historians. What does church history look like from the underside, from the viewpoint of those who took no patronage or privilege from the state?
11. Church appointments by the state
At least officially, the state often appoints leaders of established churches. This contrasts sharply with the injunction in 1 Corinthians 6 not to involve state authorities in church affairs. Of course if the state too is “Christian”, and in some sense within the church, the problem seems not to arise – but that only illustrates the Constantinian reality that remains. For example, in England the Prime Minister has a critical role in appointing the the most senior bishop, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
12. Lack of alternative models for church and state
If churches today truly are moving away from Constantinianism, rather than merely going along with its decline, they should develop new teaching on the relationship between church and state. Lack of coherent alternative models indicates we are not yet in a fully post-Constantinian epoch.
Difficulties confront us as we reflect on these vestiges of Constantinianism in the life of church and society. Alternative models for the church-state relationship, such as those developed by Anabaptists, often emerged from a very different and non-democratic context. To what extent are these relevant to our society? One modern Mennonite declares
It is at best questionable whether a definition of the separation of church and state worked out under an autocratic system of government can be made normative for a democratic system in which, theoretically at least, the government is the people and thus inevitably includes every Christian citizen.2
Many free churches are, in a sense, accidentally non-established. They did not become free by choice, and lack a coherent and radical critique of church-state relationships.
This article focused on vestiges of Constantinianism within the church. Part two of the series, Vestiges in Society examines vestiges left in the thinking and practices of larger society, and will make some modest proposals for a way forward.
1. Cited by Franklin Hamlin Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church: A Study in the Origins of Sectarian Protestantism, second edition (Boston: Starr King Press, 1958), 56.
2. Erland Waltner, “The Anabaptist Concept of the Church”, Mennonite Quarterly Review 25 (1951: 5-16), 15