The Constantinian Turn
An article written by an Italian Representative of the Meeting House:
THE CONSTANTINIAN TURN
For the first three centuries the First Church had understood everything; they were a minority, they were persecuted, they had to be willing to die. They were just trying to live the call to evangelize and the truth was spreading with oil stains thanks to the beauty of their countercultural lifestyle.
Since the birth of the First Church Christianity has been characterized by being a faith of a peaceful nature. This historical period (the Pre-Constantine Era) lasted for three centuries, in fact there is no single historical document of the First Church where voices are recorded against a pacifist approach by Christian leadership. This is noteworthy given that the leadership of the First Church had opposing views on many topics of faith starting from the Trinity, the use of the Scriptures and so on.
On the other hand, on the subject of peace there was unanimity of opinion, no one had ever questioned Christ's teachings regarding that theme.
In the early part of the fourth century Emperor Constantine said he had a vision that he thought came from God. In the vision he was asked to precede his troops from the imperial labaro with the Christian symbol of the chi-rho, also known as the monogram of Christ, formed by the letters XP, which are the first two Greek letters of the word parola that is “Christòs” overlapping. The letters also painted on the shields of soldiers. If he listened to that message he was told, he would win because “in this sign you will win.”
This was the first episode in history where Christ and violence were associated. The pagans thought that way, they wanted the most powerful god to be on their side. Constantine took that vision to heart and won the battle. The following year he legalized Christianity. Christian leaders took power position and invested large amounts of economic resources in the church. Seventy years later Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Not being a Christian became illegal except for Jews who were allowed to continue following their religion as always. The year after this event we find for the first time the execution of a non-believer person.
In that instant we moved on to the other side and Christians began to behave worse than pagans. Christians should have never taken up arms. He took his sword and let go of the cross. What happened was something unusual. Let us remember that Satan had offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and all power (Luke 4) and Jesus had rejected him by choosing the difficult and slow path of Calvary. So Jesus and the authors of the Gospel understood that the temptation to seize power was not from God.
After Constantine, great men of faith like Saint Augustine, Eusebius and several church fathers claimed that God gave them the power to rule the world. Saint Augustine encouraged the church to use the sword, claiming that if God had given it to him then it was obvious that they had to use it for His glory. Christians in that moment decided to conquer the world leaving aside the way of their crucified Messiah. They became soldiers like all the others but declared they were fighting in the name of Christ.
I don't think that those who think that way try to consciously ignore the part of the Scriptures where Jesus encourages us to love our enemies. I believe there is a very ancient tradition of indoctrination that prevents them from seeing the truth.
From the Constantinian Era onwards the history of the First Church changed and a new view was introduced. Pacifism was seen from that moment as demonic as demonstrated by the quote: “When people mistakenly claim that it is not possible to take the physical sword or go into battle to fight the enemies of the church this is nothing but the devil. He seeks to attack the heart of your Order.” (James de Vitry, Bishop). “Never be ashamed to take the sword or heavenly bride against heretics because the God who sanctified the actions carried out by the arms of King David still lives”: (John of Mantua).
What we find in most of the writings of that epoch is that focus shifted from the teachings of Christ and from His example to the example of other Old Testament figures where violence was used to establish the kingdom of Israel and defend it. Therefore characters of the caliber of King David, Joshua and other biblical characters became the heroes of faith, and Jesus was left aside.
Without Jesus, his message and his example the Bible can become a dangerous book.
It seems to me, that throughout history, whether it was the Jews of the Old Testament or Christian churches and organizations, once they became powerful, influential and wealthy, they needed armies to protect their wealth and people.
It’s always been complicated, the issue of “separation of church and state”. The Doukhobors, the Christian “sect” that my wife’s family was part of, was anti-war and burned their weapons in Russia and were sent to concentration camps in Siberia. Tolstoy, literal wrote a book to raise money to help the Doukhobors to leave Russia and seek asylum to Canada.
In Canada, because of their, commitment, dedication and work ethic, the prospered and refused to send their kids to system school and fight in wars. They were then persecuted, their kids taken away from them and eventually “re-educated” and assimilated back into main stream society.
Here is a present day article about them, if you are interested: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/british-columbia/article-are-doukhobors-dying-out-in-rural-bc-a-sect-tries-to-stop-their/
As far as wealth, success and power, this is probably why, “it’s better to be small and persecuted then big and accepted”.
War was not my concern when I embarked on my DIY Christian doctrine research program about ten years ago. I did consider it a given that pacifism was synonymous with Christianity until I came across CS Lewis’ position on the matter (you can find any number of articles on Google and YouTube on CS Lewis/pacifism). That sent me back to the drawing board as Lewis is not dismissed lightly. My conclusion then and now is that instead of being something simple and black and white, it’s complicated, and just as it’s impossible to sum up more than a thousand years of history of the Russian Orthodox Church in less than a thousand words without resorting to blanket statements and uninformed assumptions, it’s better to be a pacifist, as in: hold your peace and don’t shoot your mouth off.
As for the separation of church and state, I think that’s another area where it’s easier to criticize and find fault at a comfortable distance than to actually wade into the waters of real life in society and put Christianity into practice. The article (THE CONSTANTINIAN TURN) seems to imply that prior to Constantine no Christian bore arms, but there are numerous accounts of saints and martyrs of the church in the first three centuries before the edict of Milan who were soldiers, fought in the army, and even there bore witness to their faith and were martyred.
John the Baptist didn’t seem to have a problem with people being soldiers, neither did our Lord. Actually He marveled at the faith of the centurion in Luke 7 and praised his faith rather than upbraid him for serving in the army.
After reading the article one is led to believe that up until Constantine Christians were peaceful and afterwards they all became warmongers, but it’s simply not that simple. Christ did say His Kingdom is not of this world, true. Isaiah 2:4 is also as true as ever (And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.) But you also have to remember Matthew 24:6. And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. 7. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. 8. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Current world conditions are more like Matthew than Isaiah these days.
I do not deny that many unjust wars were fought in the name of Christ, but you can’t jump from that fact to the popular Protestant assumption that the Church vanished from the map for hundreds of years and then came back into being with the advent of the pacifists Anabaptists.
I hope Bruxey Cavey is not as simplistic as that, and I don’t think he is, but I don’t know. What I do know is that some who are rather ardent followers of his do espouse something that can almost be boiled down to that, as if the bearing of arms is the ultimate litmus test of true Christianity.
It’s just not that simple, and that was not my concern anyway during most of my quest for a place of “rest for the sole of [my] foot.” (I felt like that dove in Genesis 8 but unlike that dove, I had no ark to go back to.) I was simply trying to put some meat on the bare bones of my faith and get my bearings after realizing I “wasn’t in Kansas anymore,” the comfortable corporate belief structure had disappeared, and that I had to work out my own salvation.
The reason I became Orthodox was the theology. It had nothing whatsoever to do with the issue being discussed here in this thread. That’s not to say I have been uninterested in the history of the Church and considered it something I didn’t need to know about. The best thing I came across in remedying my lack of knowledge was a series of talks here: https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/paradiseutopia.
I’m sorry, it’s not an article you can read in 15 minutes, but it’s quite informative and helps give you an idea of the depth and scope of the matter.
We moderns seem to think that the separation of church and state is a given like gravity or something, when the reality is that it’s quite a new concept, relatively speaking. It’s unrealistic and unsophisticated to apply our modern worldview to other ages and get upset when people from those ages don’t think or act like we do.
There’s more that could be said but I’ll leave it at that for now. I would love to discuss it more, actually, and read more about it, but I just don’t have the time right now.
I personally have had a lot of in depth conversations with non-believers, just because of the nature of our business. We sit around and talk for hours everyday. Although we try to stay away from religion and politics, our conversations often lend itself to those subjects. I also have an "ulterior motive" in that I want my residents to receive the free gift of salvation before they pass from this life.
But many of them argue against Jesus and Christianity because of historical events like the Inquisition, Salem witch trials, forced conversions of indigenous people, The Crusades, and the list goes on. That has put me in a position to either defend those events, change the subject or explain that those events don't represent my personal belief system.
I thought Wikipedia gave a pretty good summary of Christianity and violence. Here are some quotes, if you are interested.
"Christians have held diverse views towards violence and non-violence through time. Currently and historically there have been four views and practices within Christianity toward violence and war: non-resistance, Christian pacifism, just war, and preventive war (Holy war, e.g., the Crusades). The early church in the Roman empire adopted a nonviolent stance when it came to war since imitating Jesus's sacrificial life was preferable. The concept of "Just war", whereby limited uses of war were considered acceptable originated with earlier non-Christian Roman and Greek thinkers such as Cicero and Plato. This theory was adapted later by Christian thinkers such as St Augustine, who like other Christians, borrowed much of the justification from Roman writers like Cicero and Roman Law. Even though "Just War" concept was widely accepted early on, warfare was not regarded as a virtuous activity and expressing concern for the salvation of those who killed enemies in battle, regardless of the cause for which they fought, was common. Concepts such as "Holy war", whereby fighting itself might be considered a penitential and spiritually meritorious act, did not emerge before the 11th century.
"The study of Christian participation in military service in the pre-Constantinian era has been highly contested and has generated a great deal of literature.
"Through most of the twentieth century, a consensus formed around Adolf von Harnack's view that the early church was pacifist, that over the second and third centuries a growing accommodation with military service occurred, and by the time of Constantine a just war ethic had arisen."
Although I don't think Wikipedia is generally a good source of information when it comes to religion in politics, I do think they try hard to present the facts.
"The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., a prominent advocate of Christian nonviolence. Historian Roland Bainton described the early church as pacifist – a period that ended with the accession of Constantine.
"In the first few centuries of Christianity, many Christians refused to engage in military service. In fact, there were a number of famous examples of soldiers who became Christians and refused to engage in combat afterwards. They were subsequently executed for their refusal to fight. The commitment to pacifism and the rejection of military service are attributed by Mark J. Allman, professor in the Department of Religious and Theological Studies at Merrimack College, to two principles: (1) the use of force (violence) was seen as antithetical to Jesus' teachings and service in the Roman military required worship of the emperor as a god which was a form of idolatry.
"In the 3rd century, Origen wrote: "Christians could not slay their enemies." Clement of Alexandria wrote: "Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence the delinquencies of sins." Tertullian argued forcefully against all forms of violence, considering abortion, warfare and even judicial death penalties to be forms of murder.
"Several present-day Christian churches and communities were established specifically with nonviolence, including conscientious objection to military service, as foundations of their beliefs. Members of the Historic Peace Churches such as Quakers, Mennonites, Amish or Church of the Brethren object to war from the conviction that Christian life is incompatible with military action, because Jesus enjoins his followers to love their enemies and to refuse violence.
"In the 20th century, Martin Luther King, Jr. adapted the nonviolent ideas of Gandhi to a Baptist theology and politics."
The crusaders committed horrific acts in ancient Asia Minor and Syria. Several outstanding Christians from the Middle ages remarked that the Turks behaved more like Christians than the Christians of Europe. I read this in western history books when I used to teach, years ago. I will relate one incident here, when the Seljuk Turks first entered Anatolia and defeated the Byzantine army, capturing the Emperor Romanus IV when he overconfidently travelled with his troops to witness what he thought would be the destruction of the Turkish army.
When the Emperor Romanus IV was conducted into the presence of Alp Arslan (the leader of the Selcuk forces), he was treated by him with considerable kindness, and offered him the terms of peace which he had offered previous to the battle. He was also loaded with presents and Alp Arslan had him respectfully escorted by a military guard to his own forces. But prior to that, when he first was brought to the Sultan, this famous conversation is recorded to have taken place:
Alp Arslan: “What would you do if I was brought before you as a prisoner?”
Romanus: “Perhaps I’d kill you, or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople.”
Alp Arslan: “My punishment is far heavier. I forgive you, and set you free.”
Alas for Romanus, his own subjects were far less kind than his enemy, making the mercy of Alp Arlsan a curse: Shortly after his return, Romanus was deposed, humiliated, cruelly blinded and finally died in exile after great torment.
This occurred at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, a somewhat unknown battle that changed the course of world history. Within several centuries of this battle, the Turks would rule good parts of the Middle East for the next six hundred years until the end of WWI.
There are countless horror stories of what Christian armies did in this region, so I wonder if this whole "just war" theory is a theory sinful man cannot handle. In other words, when we pick up the sword, we somehow end up becoming like the enemy we wanted to destroy. And these stories continue until today.
I just reread Frank's masterpiece on the horrors of the Iraq war, which, sad to say, had the blessings of the Evangelicals. I am convinced that the way believers changed the world was by the same radical love that He showed. When they first tried to arrest Jesus in John 18, all the soldiers fell backwards to the ground. Jesus had the power, but He surrendered it, and it was from that love, that the course of history changed forever.
I guess I am a die hard pacifist here, but seeing the amount of orphans from the Syrian civil war, the endless number of widows, the 90,000 amputees on the border, I just don't want anything to do with war. American soldiers and vets still commit suicide at the rate of 20 per day ... you just can't live with yourself after you kill and maim in war!
Very hard to square that with any kind of imperialism. I do think there might be a place for armed self defense against a threat, but I agree it’s very hard for fallen humans to just limit it to that.
Thank you for your very charitable responses to what I fear may have come across as a bit of a rant from me. I sincerely appreciate your not taking offense at my tone. I ask your forgiveness in advance if I lapse back into rant mode, as is my tendency.
I can’t tell you exactly what page it’s on in Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, but somewhere in there he made the point that the idea of the concept, mere Christianity was not to describe it in such a way as to obviate membership in a particular iteration of it. He made it clear that to be a real Christian you need to leave the foyer and enter into one of the rooms and make your abode there, so to speak. Sort of like that verse about how the body without the spirit is dead, another conclusion can be a spirit without a body is likewise a non-starter.
There is no such thing as disembodied Christianity. The apostle said that the pillar and ground of the Truth, which is Jesus, is the Church (1Tim 3:15). The Nicene Creed, upon which all “small-o” orthodox Christians base their various interpretations, states belief in four things: God the Father, Jesus Christ the only begotten Son, The Holy Spirit, and the Church. And both the apostle Paul and the men who wrote the Creed were not referring to an abstract concept when they said “Church” but rather the collective of flesh and blood believers who at that time were organized around basically the hierarchy described in the NT (priests, deacons, laity, etc.)
Like I’ve said before, I felt I needed to find somewhere to roost, so to speak, going back to that dove from the ark metaphor, and that what had been my roosting place was no longer. That’s not to say the brethren I had met and lived and worked with were no longer my brethren, nor that my time in TFI was a waste and that I was a victim (what to me is a lamentable and cop out conclusion I’ve sadly seen some come to). I am profoundly thankful for my time in the Family and regard it as an invaluable stage of growth.
At the same time, I have to admit that, as we’ve also noted previously, nearly all the family members I know—both current and former—very definitely do not want to be told what to do, what to believe, etc.—not even “nudged” in that direction, giving the impression that perhaps the Family may have gone a bit overboard in that area, leaving an unpleasant taste in people’s mouths.
All that to say, whereas the Family was a real roost for me, where I has as happy as I figured I could be, it ceased to be that, and I felt the need to be part of a body of believers and not just a disembodied spirit. I honestly didn’t have much hope, after several years of hovering over a lot of teachers and preachers and writers, that I’d ever find a place where the soles of my feet could rest, but my very sincere and downright desperate search for meaning—more along the lines of looking for theological soundness than a body of believers to join—eventually led me to the Easter Orthodox Church, to my immense relief and also surprise, as that was about as counter-intuitive a conclusion as I could imagine.
But having said that, please don’t think that now I blindly believe and accept whatever “the orthodox church” tells me. It didn’t take me long to realize that the Orthodox are every bit as full of and plagued with fallible human beings as any other collective. But within that I found what I truly believe is a real mother lode of truth. I had come across nuggets here and there before, scattered throughout all the different teachers, preachers and writers I consulted, both in the Family and beyond, but nowhere else have I found such a consistently reliable and abundant flow of sound doctrine, in spite of the baggage (a lot of it admittedly excess) of history it carries.
Whereas the Doukhobors, the Family, the Cathars, etc. are/were indisputably probably very good people, sincere believers, they could be compared to cut flowers that did great for a time and were truly beautiful, but lacking root, they didn’t last more than a generation or so. Whereas the Orthodox, in spite of contamination by their immersion in the world, managed to keep rooted in the Lord (here I’m talking about the core theology and doctrine and the carriers and preservers of that, who were often times in a very small minority) and have survived to this present day.
Maybe that doesn’t hold water with you all. As for me personally, after much prayer and skepticism and reflection, I am convinced that this is where the Holy Spirit has led me and where I want to be, in spirit and truth, even if I will probably never be able to “come up to the average” of the exponents of orthodoxy I have come to value and admire.
More on the separation of church and state, I was thinking last night, after sending off my little bit, that in reality there is no such thing, essentially. As long as the established churches affirmed the American Dream, they were embraced as socially acceptable, and it was desirable to be considered a person of faith, whether you actually were or not—that was the politically correct thing to be in the 20th century for success in the marketplace.
Now, the politically correct thing to be is this bizarre religion of "wokeness", which has been embraced by practically all of society, with a fanaticism just as zealous as any religion, to the point where CRT (Critical Race Theory) is being mandated by the state, or where that is challenged, by the prevailing winds of peer pressure everywhere. For all practical purposes, wokeness, CRT, etc. is the state religion now.
I do believe that in general the Orthodox, while not squeaky clean, did IN GENERAL maintain a less aggressive form of evangelism than the West did. Check out the evangelization of Alaska, for example, and contrast that with the way Catholics and Protestants did it.
As much as I would like to be able to speak authoritatively, I simply do not have sufficient grasp of history to be able to. That is my general impression: that the church took on the burden of working with the state, did what it could to take advantage of its patronage when possible, and also speak truth to power on many occasions, at great risk and cost. While there were inevitable distortions, those were never the doctrine.
It’s like what we did in the Family about things that we’d hear about something they did at the folks’ house and take that and run it into the ground. Tolstoy was supposed to have said that he didn’t think he could have been a good Tolstoyan, for example. That’s just what we humans do. If you’re not truly connected to the true source, you WILL go astray.
That is something you have to be vigilant about on a daily, even hourly basis. You can’t just think that because you’ve “found the true faith” (here I’m preaching at myself) that you can just relax and stop seeking the Lord just as desperately as you were before you found it. That’s the very tempting tendency, but it’s like falling asleep in the poppy field, to harken back to Dorothy and her adventure. Definitely not desirable.
Especially after reading your comment, Jon, about your work first hand with the results of man's wars and injustice. The subject of why God allows suffering and war is a topic in itself.
Along with Zeus and Venus, Mars, the god of war, had a day of the week named after him; in other words, war was such a constant that it was considered a deity. Christian soldiers were killed for not taking part in worship of idols.