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For Christians to ever hope for the establishment of Christianity as the official state religion is a very serious mistake. Men like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison understood this point well, which is why they worked so hard for the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia. Christians should not look back with nostalgia on the age of Christendom, when church and state were a unified whole. I would strongly disagree with the thesis of George Will; statecraft is not "soulcraft." The role of the state, in essence, is to curb violent behavior, not pry into people's hearts. In one's zeal to convert, one is sometimes tempted to use the coercive arm of government to compel the unconvinced. This is easier than painstakingly taking a skeptic through the Scriptures and arguments. But Jesus and the Apostles sought converts through persuasion, not force. Indeed, history has demonstrated repeatedly that whenever the state involves itself in church business and, conversely, whenever the church has behaved as an arm of government, Christianity- or "soulcraft" - has suffered grievously.
To correctly put in perspective the contribution of Christianity to the emergence of free and democratic institutions in America, we must look briefly at the classical world. In important respects, America's federalist political order was patterned after the loose confederation of self-governing local churches of the first century. Indeed, apostolic Christianity planted the seeds of separation of church and state, so essential to a free society. But the conversion of the emperor Constantine, with his marriage of church and state, began very early the corruption of the original Christian spirit. When the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620, the primary mission was to escape Constantine's legacy (as it played itself out through the Middle Ages and Renaissance) and return to the pristine Christianity of the Book of Acts, free of the concerns of power politics and other worldly mixtures. In fact, this was a major aim of the great majority of early American colonists, especially the New England settlers, who saw the New World as an opportunity to fulfill the aspirations of the Protestant Reformation.
Christianity spread most rapidly not when it was allied with the state, but when it was pitted against the state, indeed when society was officially pagan. Christ and the Apostles did not rely on human institutions to spread their message, but put their trust in the message itself. At its beginning, Christianity was pure gospel; voluntary, informal congregations of believers provided its only institutional support. Affection, commonality of purpose, and above all, the power of Christ's message of salvation-not coercion-were the forces that drew them together.
The churches of the first two centuries were distinct communities of their own that existed either within or apart from Roman society, depending on political conditions. Early Christi-anity was federalist in structure and was therefore flexible. It could survive brutal persecution and it could penetrate, almost unnoticed, every segment of society, and won converts from the ranks of slaves on up through the ruling class and intellectual community. During the first and second centuries we read about "the rage of the heathen," the severed heads of Christians displayed on the road sides, and the famous scenes in the Colosseum where Christians were torn apart by wild beasts. Historian Paul Johnson recounts an incident in which one Christian lady, Blandina, was "tortured from dawn till evening, till her torturers were exhausted and... marvelled that the breath was still in her body." She was whipped, roasted in a frying pan, and then thrown in with wild bulls which tore her to pieces. But Christianity was incredibly resilient, and converted the empire, in part by displaying courage rarely seen.
Jesus told his disciples that the meek shall inherit the earth, and Christianity continued to spread. While it seemed to be losing politically, it was winning hearts and minds. Indeed, the fact that it was so institutionally loose made it impossible for the pagan state to control. The society of believers in Christ was a little republic within an empire - similar in many respects to the Sons of Liberty, an underground organization that was thriving apart from official control on the eve of the American Revolution. The Christian influence seemed to be everywhere, but could not be confronted by the Roman army at any particular location.
The Christianity of Scripture is decidedly anti-institutional. We read in the Book of Acts, for example, that the society of believers continued "breaking bread from house to house" and "taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart," and that "the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved" (Acts 2:46-47). Nowhere in the New Testament were the Apostles called to establish the institution of the papacy - or any central church authority whatsoever. "Pope," which means father, was used as a term of affection in the third century in reference to bishops of the various cities, but was not applied exclusively to the Bishop of Rome until the fifth century. While Jesus clearly accords Peter special significance, and his name is at the top of lists of the Apostles throughout the Gospels, there is no Scriptural evidence that he was to be the sole head of the church, no indication that he was to have papal successors, and it is certainly never suggested that such successors were to have specially ordained spiritual powers. After Jesus, Paul was actually the dominant figure in the New Testament. Peter's name fades from Luke's Acts of the Apostles halfway through. In his two letters, addressed "to those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia," Peter calls himself merely "an Apostle of Jesus Christ" and "bond-servant." In the New Testament we read about the saints of Philippi, the "seven churches of Asia," the Thessalonian churches, the churches of Galatia, and what appear to be an unorganized brotherhood of believers in Rome. The Colossians seem to have the seeds of a church structure, but it is not connected to any other overarching institutional authority.
We are told throughout the New Testament that Christians are to evangelize and bring the message of eternal life to the world. The church is a place for fellowship, refuge, and communion. Nowhere is it suggested that we are to organize churches under episcopates and dioceses, and nowhere is it indicated that a bishop is to preside over the affairs of all the churches, or even a number of them. The New Testament gives us some guidelines, but no formula for organizing houses of religious worship. The term "Church Militant," seen in much medieval literature portraying the Christian role of punishing non-believers and compelling religious conformity, is clearly counter to the Christian spirit seen in Scripture. That Christ intended to establish a formal universal church structure seems at best doubtful; that He intended it to be a militant organization is most definitely not the case. Obviously, Christ, as God, had the power to compel belief if He had so desired. The fact that He chose preaching as the means of spreading faith, and implored His followers to do the same, suggests the nature of the church He had in mind.
Throughout the Old Testament, God often treats the Israelites, those within the covenant, with severity; the same holds true in the New Testament, with Jesus and Paul directing some of their most virulent language toward Christians. But we are constantly exhorted to treat non-believers with kindness: "The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition" (2 Tim. 2:24-25); "Endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Tim. 4:5). And throughout the Old Testament, the Israelites are commanded to take special care to recognize the freedom of those outside God's covenant, the unchosen. In Exodus, for ex-ample, we are told that "the same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you" (v.12:49). In Numbers, the Jews are warned: "You shall have one statute, both for the alien and for the native of the land" (v.9:14). And Christ is even more emphatic on this point: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy" (Matt. 5:7).
There are many passages in the New Testament which tell us how God wants us to treat our neighbors. The following is a partial list of such passages which contain the phrase "one another":
Romans 12:10-Be devoted to one another.
Romans 13:8-Be devoted to one another.
Romans 14:13-Let us not judge one another
Romans 15:7-Accept one another.
Ephesians 4:2-Show forbearance to one another.
Colossians 8:12-Bear with one another.
Hebrews 8:13-Encourage one another.
James 4:11-Do not speak against one another.
1 Peter 4:9-Be hospitable to one another.
1 John 3:11-Love one another.
1 John 3:23-Love one another.
1 John 4:7-Love one another.
1 John 4:11-Love one another.
1 John 4:12-Love one another.
2 John 5-Love one another.
Christianity has been the most successful creed in human history at fostering a sense of civility, without which a free society cannot stand. The community suggested here is not geographical, but is held together by a sense of Christian love and respect for "one another," whether or not they are part of the faithful. Nowhere in the New Testament is it remotely suggested that Christians employ the resources of the state to compel belief or force religious conformity. To do so, in fact, makes no sense, since the New Testament aims not at changing behavior, but at changing hearts. Jesus promises that "whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst" (John 4:14). But it is up to the individual person to drink. Jesus compels no one to do so.
The Roman empire in many ways was the archetype of the pluralistic society. It tolerated, and indeed sanctioned, hundreds of religious cults. There were sun worshippers, and the cult of Attis and Cybele with their eunuch priests and ritual fasting and bloodletting. The Hilaria resurrection feast on March 25 of every year was very popular. All faiths were tolerated, including those that involved idol worship and orgies. Religion, no matter how peculiar, was considered good for society in that it provided cohesion and purpose in the lives of the people. At first, the Romans considered Christianity just another cult. The at-tacks on Christians were usually confined to local regions during the first century and a half. But at the end of the second century the persecution of Christians achieved imperial proportions. In the year 200 A.D. the great Christian apologist Tertullian described their cruel deaths in the circus, the beheading of the Bishop Cyprian, and the drenching of the soil with Christian blood. Tertullian wrote with stunned amazement that Christians-who were among the most law-abiding citizens, who paid their taxes, and who made the best soldiers - were suddenly being treated as dangerous criminals:
We respect in the emperors the ordinance of God, who has set them over the nations. We know that there is that in them which God has willed; and to what God has willed we desire all safety, and we count an oath by it a great oath . . . On valid grounds, I might say Caesar is more ours than yours, for our God has appointed him.
Thus, not only was Tertullian willing to live under pagan government, he acknowledged Caesar as a legitimate ruler, even over Christians: "We are forever making intercession for the emperors. We pray for them a long life, a secure rule, a safe home, brave armies, a faithful senate, an honest people, a quiet world, and everything for which man and Caesar might pray," wrote Tertullian. "We know that the great force which threatens the whole world, the end of the age itself with its menace of hideous sufferings is delayed by the respite which the Roman empire means for us." What more could Caesar ask for?
A clue can be found by examining the coins during the time of Caesar Augustus which proclaim him divine savior and king, and Rome as eternal. Augustus often made the assertion that the foundations "I have laid will be permanent." The Roman college of priests, as part of a purification ritual, distributed incense to the people, and citizens ceremoniously made offerings to the emperor-god. But to Tertullian, Caesar was just a man whom Christians chose to obey. Moreover, Tertullian wrote, "If he is but a man, it is in his interest as man to give God His higher place. Let him think it enough to bear the name of emperor. That, too, is a great name of God's giving. To call him god is to rob him of his title. If he is not a man, emperor he could not be."
With these kinds of statements, Christianity declared war on the pagan idea of the state, not a war over territory but for the soul of the empire. And by the turn of the second century it had become clear that paganism was losing. Tertullian points out how quickly an unarmed Christian faith was able to overwhelm Caesar: "We are but of yesterday, and we fill everything you have - cities, tenements, forts, towns, exchanges, yes! and camps, tribes, palace, senate, forum. All we leave you with are the temples!" Tertullian was saying, in effect, that we will give Caesar his due, but not divine status.
In an environment of religious toleration, paganism was doomed - which is why in the end it could not afford to be truly pluralistic. Some parallels can be drawn here with modern secular education's hostile attitude toward Christians, who tend to be the best students, the most orderly and well-behaved. Disrespectful and anti-social behavior is tolerated on school grounds, but not prayers or religious expression, especially if the content is Christian. The state education establishment knows very well that to acknowledge that the Ten Commandments have validity-that they are in fact commandments and not suggestions - is to annihilate the ever-shifting foundations upon which civil humanist society stands. Similarly, paganism saw quite clearly that its only hope for survival was brutal repression. Under the doctrine of religious toleration, all religions were to be absorbed into the Roman state; instead, the Roman state was being absorbed into Christianity. It did not matter that Christians were law-abiding and peaceful, because they were destroying a weak civil religion intellectually, spiritually, and culturally with a living faith that defied human institutional constraints. The influence of Christianity appealed first to the poor and uneducated, but then moved up through the social classes. Often slaves converted their masters; a stream of apologetics by the Christian theologian Origen, who wrote some 6,000 tracts, won over large segments of the intellectual community.
By the beginning of the fourth century, the last obstacle to total Christian victory was Caesar himself. Galerius was crowned emperor in 305. He was motivated by a straightforward hatred of Christianity. As Paul Johnson recounts in his History of Christianity, edicts came forward requiring the burning of all churches and the arresting of all church leaders: priests and deacons, along with their dependents, were condemned to prison or death without any proof or confession. Certificates were required of all citizens proving they had paid homage to the pagan gods, and those who refused were tortured until they did so. Christianity, however, seemed to spread more rapidly as the persecution intensified. Suddenly Galerius had a change of heart. Perhaps he had made a shrewd calculation that imperial Rome, even with all its armies, had little hope of success against this unarmed faith. According to the pagan convert Lactanius, in his book On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Galerius greatly admired the fortitude of the martyrs, many of whom went to their deaths singing praises to God. There is evidence that suggests he may have converted. But whatever the precise reason, Galerius decided to call off the persecution, and permitted the Christians to restore their churches and to worship their own God. He asked only that they also pray for the safety and well-being of the empire. Christianity could not be eradicated; so it was accepted - and in fact became the new civil religion.
Constantine was crowned emperor on October 28, 312 A.D., and that event would change dramatically the character of Christianity. His Edict of Milan, in 313, granted "both to Christians and to all men freedom to follow whatever religion each one wishes, in order that whatever divinity there is in the seat of heaven may be appeased and made propitious towards us and towards all who have been set under our power." In some ways, this was landmark for the cause of religious liberty. But the per-vasive nature of the Roman state made true religious liberty impossible. The old civil religion, paganism, had proved inadequate as a means of social control, and so the state gradually tilted in the direction of Christianity.
Constantine made very public his conversion to Christianity, though it is unclear whether his conversion was genuine or just pragmatic. There is little evidence, for example, that his faith changed his behavior in any way. After his conversion he committed several murders, including the killing of his wife and son. He also had his sister's son flogged to death and his sister's husband strangled. It seems that Constantine merely saw the value of Christianity in achieving his chief political aim, which was imperial unity.
Christianity, to Constantine, was a more effective social glue than paganism. Moreover, bishops proved exceedingly valuable as political aides; and many bishops, enticed by the splendor of the court, returned Constantine's favors by lauding him as an angel of God and a sacred being. This theme was reinforced by embellishments, on the part of both the emperor and the church, of Constantine's vision of the Cross prior to his victory at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, when, according to legend, he was commanded by God, "In this sigu conquer." That the God of the New Testament would issue such a command seems remote. The Catholic Church of today admits that the episode is probably fiction. What is clear is that the story served the purposes of both the state and the institutional church; it helped to re-divinize the Roman emperor along Christian lines, thus enhancing the grandeur of Constantine as well as elevating the status of the Catholic Church. Constantine began subsidizing the Christian churches lavishly out of the treasury and became involved in the appointment of bishops. He was never much interested in theology. But he presided over Church councils anyway, and agreed to suppress any opinions the majority thought divisive. Constantine is the first person on record to speak of the clergy as a distinct class of people with special spiritual powers. Bishops and priests also acquired secular duties, and anticlericalism soon became a major movement within Christianity. The historian Arminius in 366 wrote that the bishops of Rome had become "enriched by offerings from married women, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly, feasting luxuriantly - their banquets are better than imperial ones." And a council, held at Sardica in the Balkans, expressed alarm at how the Church, now favored by the state, was attracting the politically ambitious rather than men of God: "All are aflame with the fires of greed, and are slaves of ambition," the council lamented.
Most alarming was Constantine's tendency to try and mix what he thought was the best of paganism with the best of Christianity. In the dedication of Constantinople, for example, a ceremony that was part pagan and part Christian was used. Coins minted by Constantine featured the Cross, but also the pagan gods, Mars and Apollo. He continued to cali on the pagan gods to cure disease and ensure a good crop. Doctrinal purity was less important to the emperor than having a religion that was inclusive, accepting the widest range of religious practice possible. The result was a perversion of the Christian teachings of the Bible.
Many Christians saw a grave danger in Christianity achieving official status and becoming the legally favored creed. The Church was unrecognizable from the days prior to Constantine's edict, when it was impoverished-as Christians were not protected by the law, or permitted to own property. But at least the faith was pure. Seeing the new Church as nothing more than a corrupt human institution of ambitious men, Christians by the thousands followed the example of Anthony and went into the Egyptian desert to live lives of radical poverty and chastity. A number of Christian writers denounced the new splendor of their religious establishments: "Our walls glitter with gold," wrote Jerome, "and the gold gleams upon our ceilings and the capitals of our pillars; yet Christ is dying at our doors in the person of His poor, naked and hungry." Jerome recognized that as the Church had become increasingly enmeshed in the affairs of state and high society, it had lost its moral authority. Christianity under Constantine had become hierarchical, full of pomp, pageantry, and ritual. No longer was the priesthood made up of "all believers"; instead the clergy had become an elite corps, distinct from the laity, with special spiritual powers of its own. In 380, the emperor Theodosius repealed Constantine's statement of religious freedom, and established Christianity as the official church of the empire. All who dissented, Theodosius announced, would be punished "in accordance with the celestial will." The martyrs had become the Inquisitors, a development that was clearly anti-Scriptural and which turned out to be a catastrophe for both Christianity and progress toward civil liberty.
The church-state marriage necessarily perverted both church and state. Man on his own is both corrupt and violent by nature, which is why the centralization of power also compounds the human tendency toward brutality and perversion. Lord Acton's dictum, "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely," applies equally to church and state. Whether one talks about a priest or a king makes little difference, since both are equally human and subject to original sin. The corruption inherent in man's nature is magnified when it is transferred to human institutions. A man with a gang is far more dangerous than a man without a gang. With this view of man in mind, America's founders sought to decentralize political authority, through the separation of powers, states' rights, executive veto, judicial review of legislation, specifically enumerated governmental responsibilities, and all the various checks and balances that were instituted to prevent government from dominating all of human life.
Another problem with centralization is that it creates rigidity and institutionalizes its mistakes. For this reason, a society administered by a central government is a weak society. The tendency of those in authority is always to unify, simplify, and universalize. This is what happened to Rome and, as a result, Rome disappeared. The Roman empire was at its healthiest when - mostly because it did not have the resources to manage all its territories - it permitted a certain amount of autonomy, and ideas were able to flow relatively freely. Tribal customs and barriers of speech were overcome, not chiefly by force, but because Roman civilization had something attractive to offer people; most importantly the protection of Roman laws.
Rome grew weak, however, not by allowing freedom and local autonomy, but when it tightened administrative controls, imposed uniform standards, and became rigid in structure. Rome was never a representative government; it was always administered by prefects and generals from Rome, figures such as Pontius Pilate. But there was still a healthy local political life. As community decisions were increasingly made from Rome, the internal strength of the empire evaporated. Despots increased their personal authority at the expense of local leaders. The empire became a hollow shell eventually falling to pieces, collapsing under its own weight. As Rome grew more tyrannical, it became more fragile. Freedom, self-government, and local rule is the lifeblood of civilization, as James Madison pointed out repeatedly in The Federalist. Federalism - meaning a loose confederation of many small governments and communities-permits civilization to extend indefinitely over territory, which is exactly the principle behind the establishment of America's federalist republic.
Central authority, by contrast, can work only over a limited area, since its power becomes diluted the farther one travels from its source. Indeed, Mao Tse-Tung once remarked that he had little control over events more than about 20 miles outside Peking. Although Mao was able to kill 60 million of his own people, his influence on China's destiny will be less than was George Washington's on the future of America. The same idea holds true for the influence of Christianity. The Church, after Constantine, adopted Roman methods of rule, and began to see the state as an ally. Instead of proselytizing to make converts, it began an attempt to force belief.
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Published by the Christian Defense Fund.
© Copyright 1997 by the Christian Defense Fund. All rights reserved.
© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart