For the first 275 years of its existence the church endured persecution, spontaneous at the local level, official at the imperial level. Its offense? Non-conformity “to the pattern of this world” (Rom 12:2). Christians would not participate in the pagan ceremonies and sacrifices that accompanied almost every aspect of social life in the Roman Empire. Nor would they pledge loyalty to Rome by offering sacrifices to the “divine” Caesar. Many Christian writers in the Second and Third Centuries wrote works addressed to the emperor arguing that Christianity is neither politically subversive nor morally corrupting.
Only with the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious freedom within the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, did official persecutions end. The emperor Constantine I (d. 337) favored Christianity and even participated in the Council of Nicaea (325). Theodosius I (d. 395) took the final step toward establishing Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire by outlawing many heresies and ending pagan sacrifices. The tables had turned. Christian emperors supported the church and persecuted pagans with equal or even greater energy than the pagan ones had persecuted Christians.
Not surprisingly, Christians rejoiced and thanked God for their new freedom and privileges, and Constantine was hailed as a saint and a thirteenth apostle. Can we blame them? Who wants to live as a social outcast, have your property confiscated, be thrown in jail, or suffer torture and death for being a Christian? What was the persecuted church to do when offered freedom to worship as it pleases and organize its internal affairs as it thinks best? When given official status, financial support, and social visibility, should the church have turned them down? Seeing crowds of people enter the churches for worship and instruction, should the church have turned them away? Most of us would have done the same had we been in their shoes.
But privilege always comes with a price. For when the empire becomes Christian, the church becomes imperial. And an imperial church must support the empire. Perhaps most of my readers are clear that this exchange turned out to be a Faustian bargain. I agree. But I want to argue that getting out of that deal with the devil is not as easy as renouncing established churches and ratifying the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As I pointed out in the previous essay, every state reserves to itself the power of life and death over all individuals and associations within its jurisdiction. If it leaves the church alone, if it recognizes its freedom to worship as it pleases, to organize as it sees fit, to choose its own leaders; and if it grants such privileges as tax exempt status, it does so only because—and only as long as—it judges that the church does not work against the interests of the state and in fact contributes to the common good as the state understands it.
It may happen that a state views its interests in ways that largely harmonize with the church’s mission of witness. It may be that this state sees the work of the church as advantageous to the common good. If so, it is not always wrong for the church to use these freedoms and privileges to advance its mission. However in every society, no matter how friendly to the church, there will always be areas where the state’s aims cut across the church’s mission. There are no exceptions to this rule, for “no one can serve two masters” (Matt 6:24). And in some cases, formerly “friendly” states’ views of their interests—of what is good and evil and of what serves the common good—can change so dramatically as to come into fundamental conflict with the church. Hence the church always faces—no exceptions—the temptation to seek or hold on to freedoms and privileges granted by the state by subordinating, compromising, or giving up its mission to witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
At every point in its relationship to the world—from bare toleration, to approval, to establishment—the church should ask what price it has to pay for these freedoms and privileges. How deeply in debt we have already become may not come clear until the mortgage comes due. And come due it will. Perhaps it already has.