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Constantinianism and Ecumenism

One of the key points of contention between Free Churches and all other Christian communions lies in their posture towards what is commonly (and crudely) called “Constantinianism”.  While figuring out the precise definition of what constitutes Constantinianism has filled entire books, at the simplest level we can say that Constantinianism constituted at least a certain sensibility about the logic of Christian participation and investment in political affairs of the Roman Empire (or the Byzantine Empire, or the Holy Roman empire, or the Frankish princedoms, or whatever).  After Constantine it was more or less assumed that the church was part of (perhaps the definitive part of) the social structure of the world and had certain responsibilities and privileges that derived from that status.  The overarching point is that churches which accept the basic structure of Constantinianism assume that the church is in some sense the “spiritual” and “religious” chaplain of the social order.  It is the religious part of the social and political fabric of the nation in question which supports the powers that be through attending the spiritual needs of the people and providing a conscience to the wider society.

Now, to be sure I don’t want to paint too monolithic a picture of the post-Constantinian church.  There were a great many Christians, both within monastic and lay movements, and within the church hierarchy throughout the centuries which stood against the idolatrous use of power and violence.  However, there were also a great many forms of complicity with such forms of power.  While Jesus insisted that his followers are to be servants to one another in contrast to the Gentiles who lord it over one another, the post-Constantinian church was often unable to embody the kind of kenotic, self-dispossessing leadership that Christ mandated.  Political power in the world just doesn’t lend itself to one who would empty himself and the church, willy-nilly ended up often transposing the cruciform power of Christ with the triumphalist power of the crusader’s sword or the inquisitor’s rack.

Of course, in many respects Constantinianism is a thing of the past.  Churches no longer have the same level or sort of power to shape political affairs in the world as they once did.  However, the basic structure of Constantinianism does remain in most churches.  Not simply through a sort of folk relgion that conflates Christianity and patriotism (as annoying as that is), but through a basic assumption that the church is to serve as a sort of “leaven” in society, stabilizing it, making it more moral, more just, more generally habitable.  Although much of the church’s immediate power is gone, there is a general social conservatism that remains among most churches today.  They, more or less, view their duty to the world (at least in the West), as one of helping to preserve and transform social life in the wider society.

The Free Churches, by contrast have stressed that the church is itself a society that is, in a very real sense incommunicable to the unbelieving world.  The kind of transformed social relations that are inherent to the gospel message cannot be “communicated” to those who reject the gospel message in anything other than an invitational sense.  The church has, according the Free Church vision, no mode of social transformation to offer the world than conversion, baptism, and repentance.  As such the church cannot become the chaplain of the social order (even the occasionally-dissenting chaplain).  The church, on the Free Church self-understanding has a supra-national unity which qualifies and controls all other allegiances and loyalties.  As such, the Free Churches have rejected the use of violence in defense of justice.  Since the unity of the church supersedes all other loyalties, Christians cannot allow foreign political powers to order them to kill one another without making a mockery of the Eucharist and the call to discipleship.  Likewise, since the church’s missional mandate involves all creation, Christians cannot make war on unbelievers as their mission in the world is to bring the gospel to everyone.

The point of all of this is that the ecumenical vision of the Free Churches is profoundly shaped by the rejection of the Constantinian synthesis.  If Christians are not free to wield any power other than the power of the cross, and if there is no worldly political formation which can truly claim the allegiance of Christians, then what would “full, visible Christian communion” look like?  The Free Churches are not interested in a merely structural union or federation of churches which does not repudiate the Constantinian settlement.  “The nature of the unity we seek” is a supra-national political unity which stands against all other loyalties, directly in competition with the claims of our contemporary Empires and Caesars.  Within the “Free Church ecumenical style” (Yoder), there is no room for movements towards reunion that do not take the radically particular character of Christian ethics with the utmost seriousness.  Whatever unity we seek, it will come at the cost of death and resurrection for all if it is the unity of the gospel.  And that unity cannot be based on a common denominator or a structural integration.  It must be based on the all-embracing call of Christ to a life of non-coercive, kenotic, cruciform discipleship into which all are welcomed as brother and sisters.


  1. Aric Clark wrote:

    Excellent Stuff. I feel schizophrenic when it comes to the Free Churches. On the one hand I completely agree with this stuff about Constantinianism and the idolatrous use of power. On the other I think they represent an unacceptable break with the history and liturgy of the apostolic Churches… I can’t decide which is the stronger opinion…

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 12:58 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Neither can I. For the time being I’m trying to bring the Great Tradition and its liturgy into the very committed, non-Constantinian congregation of which I am a part. So far that seems to be a good path to take.

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  3. Andy wrote:


    This is a good examination from the Free Church position, but it is vulnerable to the same caricatures that characterize the Free Church tradition.

    My criticism is a historical point. The “Constantinian settlement” did not happen all of a sudden in the fourth century. Even Paul appealed to the empire. The Pauline passages of Romans 13.1ff and 1 Tim 2.2 are well known. The Pauline school here emphasizes obedience to the authorities. The early shape of the church authorities and structures(presbyters, episkopoi, ekklesia) are likewise derivative of Hellenistic Roman civic societies (as well as Jewish synagogal structures). Paul says all have different gifts, and the apostles and prophets are clearly the authorities. “The Twelve” are in charge throughout Acts. And if we are to base the Church on the activity of Christ, we must reckon with Christ’s violent epiphany to Paul as well as his meek kenosis. That is, the Constantinian settlement is already current in the Biblical/apostolic period.

    The collusion between church and empire heightened during and after the reign of Constantine, certainly. But I would suggest this is because Christians were really quite disposed to being good citizens of an empire that did not call them outlaws. That they should have remembered their life was in Christ and not in Caeser is beyond dispute. That the Church must repent over these affairs is certain. That the abuse of the situation indicates the evil inherent in situation cannot be maintained.

    There is something of a realist temper in the Catholic (Constantinian) Church. The negative position of the Free Churches is illuminating in its critical function. Unfortunately, its positive contribution to living the kingdom now is less certain. The world, it seems, keeps on turning in the same direction, regardless of all the Free Church Christians who refuse to vote in this country. Not to perform our civic duty can be just as bad as performing wrongly. Hence Luther’s “sin boldly” is to be commended. Pannenberg put it well: “In fact, the Constantinian settlement was one way in which the Church sought to exercise political responsibility, and to do so in a way that would not subordinate the Church to worldly purposes.”

    At any rate, I’m interested in these thoughts of yours, but I worry that the Free Church tradition simply ignores the complexity of the relationship of the Church to secular power. I would like to see you or others on this thread address this complexity a bit more.


    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    “The world, it seems, keeps on turning in the same direction, regardless of all the Free Church Christians who refuse to vote in this country.”

    And likewise it keeps turing in the same direction regardless of the all the Christians who do vote, or participate, or what have you.

    Actually your comment makes the point perfectly. The Free Church Christians do not believe it is their job to change the way the earth rotates. That’s, well, God’s job. Our “postitive contribution” is to be the church, the community of reconciliation and witness to God’s act of redemption in Christ. I don’t really know what else we have to offer. Surely this doesn’t mean we don’t serve those in need, in fact it requires that we do so. But what does that have to do with how we understand our “political responsiblities”?

    I think the way you try to read “Constantinianism” back into the NT is quite forced and wouldn’t really hold up to any scrutiny. N.T. Wright (no Free Church pacifist) and Yoder and many other NT scholars place the passages you mention, as well as Paul in their proper context. I really don’t feel they pose any sort of problem to the Free Church vision of church and world.

    What “complexities” do you feel are being ignored? I’d love to comment, but I don’t know if I can intelligently without knowing what you really mean. I guess I don’t see how the Free Churches ignore the complextity of political relations any more than and of the more “realistic” churches.

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 1:59 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    “Constantinianism” comes across as something of a bogeyman to me. I would unequivocally assent to your condemnation of Constantianism as you’ve described it (I can’t make any claims as to the accuracy of the description) as well as unequivocally assent to the vision of the Church you’ve ascribed to the Free Church movement, yet I feel it is the proper tradition of the Church generally speaking and hence the patrimony of Roman Catholicism (from my vantage). To that vision of the Church I say “Amen,” and I if anything it was that vision that ultimately drew me to Roman Catholicism. I can’t claim to be able to fully flesh that out right now, but take it as a personal testimony knowing what you know about me that some synthesis is possible.

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 2:04 pm | Permalink
  6. freder1ck wrote:

    The recognition of Jesus is Lord is something that has no limits; this catholic, or if you will, ecumenical dimension necessarily radiates until it confronts man’s desire for universal power which finds expression in Empire (or maybe the UN or international corporations). Man’s dreams of dominion over all flesh runs into Christ’s lordship over all things. St. Paul expresses this universal dimension well in 1 Cor 3:23

    “all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.”

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
  7. Andy wrote:

    Well, the complexities are exactly the exegetical things I have brought up. They’re not forced; they’re pretty standard, actually, for students of the NT. I don’t think NT Wright is going to disagree with much of what I’ve said in that respect. That Hellenistic imperial motifs find their way into the structure of the early church is no secret. In fact, that’s what led to the Hellinization thesis of Harnack. It was his one-sided evaluation that was faulty, not the historical evidence. I’m not saying the bishops had the same power in the empire before Constantine; I’m saying the structures of empire were used in the Church nearly from the beginning. That is indisputable from a basic historical reading. For background, I would suggest reviewing Helmut Koester’s Intro. to the NT or Ferguson’s Backgrounds of Early Christianity if you still feel my reading is forced. And that is a complexity you do not seem disposed to address, as your comment indicates.

    As for your first comment. Touche. Indeed the world seems to keep on its axis in the same ways regardless of the political involvement of Christians.

    But then, this world was shaped by Christendom. The entire Western World is indebted to Christendom for its philosophical and scientific heritage. That anyone even knows the name of Christ any more is probably due to the Constantinian settlement. There is no way to prove or disprove this point, but if we ask ourselves the very practical questions of political realities, then can we really disavow involvement in the secular? I think the assumption that no other nation can claim our allegiance is false. That is only the case when the allegiance to the nation conflicts with the allegiance to the kingdom. We cannot be afraid of power, but we must be wise with it.

    It is this line that is a little disturbing: I don’t really know what else we have to offer. What does it mean to serve those in need, if those in need need the system to be changed? What does it mean to serve the needy if the needy need a critical mass of politically engaged subjects to make things better for them? Moreover, how can we ever ignore the benefits of government (at least in America) for the people of the Church? We are given rights and comforts by decree of the government. It is a common criticism, but how does that not make us complicit in the same government? If we must be citizens, perhaps we should be citizens marked by our first citizenship, not by the marred citizenship of this world.

    I hope this offers a bit more thickness to my original post for you. Still wanting to hear more.


    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Hill, what sythesis do you mean? Do you mean between the Free Church and Roman Catholic ecclesial vision or something else?

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    That was a bit vague, I apologize. I mean that the following excerpt can be read with Catholic eyes and harmonized with a Catholic vision of history:

    “that the church is itself a society that is, in a very real sense incommunicable to the unbelieving world. The kind of transformed social relations that are inherent to the gospel message cannot be “communicated” to those who reject the gospel message in anything other than an invitational sense. The church has, according the Free Church vision, no mode of social transformation to offer the world than conversion, baptism, and repentance. As such the church cannot become the chaplain of the social order (even the occasionally-dissenting chaplain). The church, on the Free Church self-understanding has a supra-national unity which qualifies and controls all other allegiances and loyalties.”

    My general sentiment is that one ought to affirm the Church as a society to which in a sense the principalities and powers have been made subject, at least eschatologically. I feel like the various tensions that underly the Free Church concerns over “Constatinianism” have actually been addressed in compelling ways throughout the history of the Church while at the same time acknowledging that we live in the saeculum, “the interval between fall and eschaton where coercive justice, private property and impaired natural reason must make shift to cope with the unredeemed effects of sinful humanity.” I utterly reject the idea that the Church ought to be a chaplain of civilized society with a “place at the table” in some otherwise secular space. I also think that the witness of the Church, while being one of repentance and reconciliation, must have some substantive content beyond a purely nominal understanding of those activities, and that often results in difficult intersections with fallen political order which must be handled provisionally and in the light of the direction of the Spirit. I found Theology and Social Theory indispensable for clarifying this vision for me. I guess my point is that I have no exposure whatsoever to the Free Church movement beyond my encounter with this blog, and yet I have found the resources in “orthodoxy proper” to address many of the same tensions that I think you perceive as motivating the Free Church position.

    Monday, November 19, 2007 at 3:09 pm | Permalink
  10. Jonathan wrote:


    I have enjoyed this series of posts. I must confess that I am a bit out of my depths, but I just wanted to throw something out there to get your thoughts on the matter. You have spent not a little time working within the category of “tradition”. I thought there was some interesting issues raised with your Yoder quotes on something like an Anabaptist historiography:

    “Thus…the doctrine of restitution does not deny but rather enables real historical progress under God. It does so by identifying in each age the criterion of progress, namely the capacity to identify the new forms of apostasy, so as to restore accordingly a redefined faithfulness.”


    “Radical reformation is not history-oriented only in the sense of needing to study how things went wrong. It is also historicist in that it affirms the character of man as a being who is within the temporal order makes decisions which themselves determine history. To speak of the present or the immediate future as an age of restitution by the Spirit is to take the uniqueness of every moment, and the importance of every decision, more seriously than when one sees the career of the church as an unbroken gradual climb and one’s present institutional and doctrinal stance as obviously the best possibility for the present.”

    My question for you is what (if any) implications do the rejection of Constantinianism have for how you understand tradition and unity. You have repeatedly positioned yourself, or have thought through issues with regard to Christian traditions. I was hoping to better understand what implications your appropriation of Yoder’s comments has for your talk about traditions and unity. I do not mean to suggest a gung ho hermeneutics of suspicion, but it does seem reasonable to assume that Constantine, and Constantinianism, have played a role in shaping notions of church unity and tradition . So if we reject Constantinianism does that free us up to rethink these notions, if so how?

    To get the ball rolling (if there is a ball to roll at all), let us remember that the empire was a mess prior to Nicaea (it was a mess after Nicaea also). One could say, with a bit of hyperbole, that it was Christian’s doing theology and trying answer theological questions that brought such tumultuousness to the empire. Hans Küng describes the event of this council of the “great tradition” in the following way:

    “Not only theologians and bishops passionately took part in this controversy, but also every level of the population; Christian Jews and gentiles; the educated and the uneducated. The Emperor Constantine himself found the church dispute which had seized the whole of the East highly inopportune; indeed in the last resort it threatened to split spiritually the empire which he had again united politically. After vain attempts at mediation in Alexandria, having experienced a synod of bishops of the empire – who, having been persecuted not long before, could now use the imperial post! – to an imperial synod: an ‘ecumenical council’ for which he put his splendid palace hall in Nicaea near the imperial residence of Nicomedia at their disposal. In addition to the bishop of Rome’s adviser bishop Ossius of Cordoba, only two Roman presbyters were present for the west as his representatives….
    “So right from the beginning it was clear who had the say at the ecumenical council – at this one and then at the nest. It was not, say, the bishop of Rome, as later ideologues of the absolutist papacy might like to have it, but simply and solely the emperor: he not only convened the ecumenical council but directed it through a bishop whom he had commissioned, with the assistance of imperial commissioners; he adjourned it and concluded it; by his direction the resolutions of the council became imperial laws. Constantine used this first council not least to adapt the church organization to the state organization.” (Christianity, p. 180)

    Let us also recall here that it was at this council that exile (a very important image for this series of posts) was introduced into Christian practice by Constantine. The act of the council declared anathema (at least) Arius and his two faithful Libyan friends, but as Robert Calhoun notes, “Then Constantine takes a hand again. By way of sustaining and extending the action taken by the ecclesiastical council he adds the political penalty of banishment, which is something completely new. Hitherto the Christians had been at odds with the empire, and now suddenly the power of the empire is declared to be ready to add its own sanctions to the spiritual sanctions of the Christian community.” (Lectures on the History of Christian Doctrine vol. 1 p.149-150)

    Tuesday, November 20, 2007 at 4:50 am | Permalink
  11. Sam wrote:

    ‘scuse my ignorace, but I’ve searched and can’t quite figure it out: who are the ‘Free Churches’ today? Is it a descriptive label of any Church which is seperate from the state?

    Saturday, November 24, 2007 at 3:05 am | Permalink

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