Saturday, September 26, 2015
Christian American Patriotism and The Constantinian Shift
American Evangelicalism has been for a long time now conflated with patriotism. In fact, if you listen carefully to many American evangelicals you would think that to be a Christian is to be a patriot and to reject being a patriot is to reject Christianity. I know this all too well for I have come out of that mold myself. Christians that find themselves in American culture have to begin grappling with their loyalties sooner than later. No, you cannot be loyal to a God-hating government and to God at the same time and in the same sense. Before you sound the alarms, this is not a call to rebel against the government. Instead, it is precisely the opposite. This is merely a call to Christians in America to stop conflating their Christianity with being an American or a patriotic American. The delusion that many Christians suffer is finally beginning to fade. This is not your country! What I mean by that is that the Christian that thinks we have to take America back or that we are losing America is suffering from the “Christian nation” delusion and the time for Christians to stop believing that nonsense is long past. Why are we calling for a “return” to Christian values? Why do some pray for a revival? A revival of and to what exactly? I am afraid that we have all been duped by the fallacious Constantinian doctrine that has infected the church to one degree or another from the fourth century right up to the present moment. It is time we put a stop to it. And we can only begin to put a stop to it by exposing the doctrine for its unbiblical nature. That will be the goal of my next few posts.
If Christians in America are serious about their Christianity, their relationship with Christ, then it behooves them to go back in time and study the historical events around the Edict of Milan. Serious Christians are interested in ensuring that their communities, their attitude, and their ethic mirror those found in the NT record. If that does not describe you, then I would describe you as one who is not serious about his or her Christianity. I am convinced that unless you get in back of Constantine, whatever model of the church you come up with will be unavoidably tainted to one degree or another, with an idolatrous Roman influence that will continually impede the Christian's desire to adopt the mind of Christ on all matters ethical, doctrinal, and yes, political.
The Constantinian shift occurred when the Roman Emperor Constantine not only became a Christian but later declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire. This meant that the empire became involved in the church, appointing leaders to positions of authority within the church. Everyone born into the empire was regarded as Christian (sound familiar?). Christianity saw this as the great victory of subduing the world for Christ. She even began to persecute competing religions. Indeed, it did not take long for the church to begin to disgrace herself. No longer was the church the object of brutal persecution. No longer was the Christian movement a minority movement of outcasts, the down-trodden, and the unimpressive. Christians began to occupy offices of authority, positions of influence, and gain significant credibility.
The consequences of the Constantinian shift are felt to this day, and they are especially felt in American Evangelicalism. Because everyone born into the empire was regarded as Christian, the church disappeared in terms of being able to distinguish it from the present world order. The same has happened in American culture. Because the church has promulgated the delusion that America was founded as, and has been for most of her history, a Christian nation, the distinction between the church and the country is murky at best and impossible to discern in most cases.
Eventually, there was a shift away from the authority of Scripture to the authority of the church, mirroring as it were, the Roman system. Eventually, this shift took place once more at the enlightenment where reason replaced revelation as the final authority. Scripture became subject to the interpretation of the Church which is guided primarily by the new doctrines emerging in human reason and in science. We see this in American Christianity, a version of Christianity that is mostly built upon an empiricist and/or rationalist theology as opposed to the supernatural revelation of an authoritative text. This explains why the “born-again” experience is no longer supernatural in most Christians minds but more like a decision to join the country club. It is a weak, flimsy, unrecognizable version of the ancient movement that Paul was so instrumental in building.
The merger of the church and the state gives the church a vested interest in the affairs, laws, civil codes, and ethics of the state. And the church feels that she is responsible for guiding the civil magistrates to oversee the affairs of the state only as the church sees fit. Hence, laws that are contrary to the church’s beliefs cannot be tolerated under any circumstances. This is not hard to miss in the thinking of most Christians residing in America. Additionally, the church is convinced that a state that comes under her instructions is also a state that comes under God’s blessing. I cannot help but think of the song, “God bless America.” What is amazing is how these facts are clear for us to see but somehow, most of us, myself included for so long, fail to see them. Christians have even bought into the view that America is the greatest country on earth, bar none. Really? What exactly is the criteria used to measure "country greatness?" They certainly are not biblical criteria.
The consequences (not inevitable I should say) of the reformation are that the church was broken up into numerous segments. These segments of the church increasingly have identified with the culture in which they exist. This has led the church to become more and more pagan in its thinking. As a consequence, each area of these church segments have tended to see God as favoring their nation over others. This is something all too common in American culture. It is so common that it is rises to the level of nauseating at times. America is not God’s country, not God’s favorite, and is not “special” to God over and above any other nation on this earth. To think so is the product of a blind nationalism. Such an attitude is simply ridiculous. And yes, I owned that attitude myself for most of my life.
For many American Christians, our present state of affairs looks like defeat. The outlook for Christianity looks bleak. The influence the Church has seemingly enjoyed is evaporating at an alarming pace. Many Christians are upset, anxious, and fear even the loss of their religious freedom. They are not used to the first century model of Christianity, where Christians were marginalized, scandalized, brutally persecuted and certain not entirely free to worship as they please without occasional interference from the state. But the church has not benefited from the affairs of the last 1700 years or so as many of these people think. Instead, the church has lost her identity, failed to distinguish herself with any degree of meaningful distinction, and she has very little credibility now in terms of the sort of credibility she ought to have. But things are changing for the better. It will become obvious who among us truly holds to the gospel and who does not. The church will soon be able to look starkly different from American culture. The community of Christ will be evident for the world to see.
The next question we must ask is how has this history infected our thinking? Have we built theological grids in defense of the constantinian model? Have we invented things like theonomy, hyper-preterism, dominionism, two-kindgom theology, etc. in a effort to protect our dearly held theological beliefs within our respective culture? How does the constantinian shift impact our personal approach to Scripture? What impact does it have on our hermeneutic? I think the answers are easy to see.