Allan R. Bevere in his book, The Politics of Witness: The Character of the Church in the World, is calling for the end of Constantinianism and the Christendom that came from it. Allan defines Constantinianism as “the belief that Christians should forge a close alliance with the state in order to influence and, if possible, enact Christian policies.” And he defines Christendom as “the product of Constantinianism where the culture of a nation reflects Christianity and vestiges of Christian values.” He believes, “…Christians must reject both if they are to be faithful witnesses to the gospel in the world” (all quotes, p 1).
The church before Constantine was naturally at odds with an idolatrous state, the Roman emperor cult religion. Jesus was Lord, and therefore Caesar was not, though they were to submit to Caesar, but under Jesus’ lordship. The church did not serve the interest of the state, in fact the state at best looked at the church with suspicion. No Christians served in the military.
In the fourth century “the Constantinian shift” was set in place. The emperor Constantine was the main player of this change. Christianity was legalized, after Constantine becoming the state religion, other religions later banned. Constantine had converted to Christianity, and saw Christianity as a means to the end of uniting the Roman Empire. In time only those baptized as Christians could be Roman citizens, and only Christians could serve in the military. The church was joined to the state, more or less swallowed up into the state, and thus lost its distinct identity. Christendom emerged from this union, and continues in one form or another to this day.
From Christians knowing that God was working in and through the church, with faith that somehow he was working in the world of nations, believers after this change now knew that God was working through the Roman state, with faith that he somehow was working in the church. This church became the invisible body of Christ, since only God knew who was truly regenerate. The infidels were no longer nonbelievers, but those who were not of the empire, the unbaptized, especially those outside the empire’s borders.
The Constantinian shift outlived the Roman empire itself, Christendom still entrenched as the ethos/way nations conducted their affairs and people lived. Each nation state would have its church, the state church, into which all were baptized as infants. Everyone was Christian in name, with no allowance for Christian dissent. There was plenty of Christian nominalism and all that comes with that, but all citizens continued to be identified with the sign of the cross, joined to the sword of each state. So that it was not uncommon for “Christians” to be fighting other “Christians.”
The (Age of the) Enlightenment was a direct and forceful challenge to this state-church arrangement. Humanity was thought to be coming of age, or realizing its potential through reason. It was time to leave the superstitions of the past behind. And something new was on the horizon, namely the United States of America, a determined effort in significant measure to live out these ideals, in a new way. Tomorrow we will consider this American revolution, and how it was able to retain the heart of Constantinianism for the benefit of this new nation-state. So Constantinianism continued, though in a new form, important in helping us understand where we are today.
This review is an attempt to give something of the gist of Allan’s argument in the book. Some of the thoughts come from others Allan quotes, such as John Howard Yoder.