The above image is an example of early Christian graffiti. The letters IC represents the first and last letters of Jesus (Iησοῦς), and the letters XC represent the first and last letters of Christ (Xριστός). Νίκα is the Greek word for “conquer.” These letters are situated within a cross showing how Jesus Christ has won his victory. By his death, Jesus has brought forgiveness to the people of God through offering his life as a sacrifice for their sin (1 John 2:2). Through the resurrection, Jesus has overthrown the powers by defeating death, the weapon of their rule (Heb. 2:15; 2 Cor. 4:4). And by raising Jesus from the dead through the power of the Spirit, the Father has shown that Jesus is the Christ who reigns on the throne of David over the kingdom of God (Rom 1:3). The church bears witness to the victory of God throughout the kingdoms of the world through the gospel testimony just as Paul bore witness before King Agrippa that all should “turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are separate by faith in [Jesus]” (Acts 26:18).
My argument for this post can be put concisely as follows:
1) When men and women confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and take the name Christian on themselves they are to be discipled by and held accountable to the polity of the church.
2) God does not show partiality to anyone.
3) Therefore when the kings of the nations present themselves as Christians, they are to be discipled by and held accountable to the polity of the church.
Approximately three hundred years after the resurrection of Jesus, Constantine, the Roman Emperor, converted to Christianity. While marching into battle, he saw a vision of a cross in the sky with the Greek phrase Ɛν Tούτῳ Νίκα -“In this sign, conquer!” Shortly after returning victorious from battle, Constantine issues the Edict of Milan which permanently established religious tolerance for Christianity within the Roman Empire. One year later he declared himself to be a Christian.
The church had suffered immensely under the rule of the previous Caesars but had continued to spread throughout the world as Justin Martyr writes, “Having learned the true worship of God from the law, and the word which went forth from Jerusalem by means of the apostles of Jesus, have fled for safety to the God of Jacob and God of Israel; and we who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons, — our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage, — and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified…for it is plain that, though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but, the more such things happen, the more do others in larger numbers become faithful.” (p. 254)
Over the course of his lifetime, Constantine established fair laws about bequeathal of inheritance to infertile couples, he ended the gladiatorial games, and gave generously from his own wealth to the poor. But Constantine also used the cross as a “charm” in battle (Eusebius, p. 62). He did not seek baptism until shortly before his death. He considered himself a bishop of the church once telling a group of visiting bishops, “You are bishops whose jurisdiction is within the Church: I also am a bishop, ordained by God to overlook whatever is external to the Church” (p. 118). And he also ordered the torture and murder of his wife and son.
WHEN KINGS BOW TO CHRIST
Often the question about Constantine and his effect on Christianity is framed as whether or not Constantine was a “real” Christian. Did he ascertain that Christianity was an advantageous political power to manipulate for the empire? Or was he a genuinely godly man who ended persecution against the church and brought about reforms to Rome based on Christian values? While these are important questions, and good arguments can and have been made for both sides (Leithart; Yoder), I am not concerned about whether or not Constantine was a “real” Christian. I care very much with how the kingdom of God responds to any and every socio-political ruler who present themselves to the church as a Christian.
When a ruler comes to the church and proclaims, “I’m a Christian” we welcome them. We also begin to disciple them (Matt. 28:19). We correct the errors in their understanding of the gospel, and we explain to them the gospel of the conquering Christ: Jesus offered his life as a sacrifice for the sins of his people, rose victorious over every power that weaponizes death, and cut a new covenant creating a new kingdom.
We explain why that the sacraments matter for the life of every Christian. Through baptism, we identify with the cleansing sacrifice of Christ and Jesus as the firstborn of the new creation. Through Eucharist, we internalize the sacrifice of Christ and look with anticipation for the feast when Christ comes again to bring the new creation to completion.
We explain that it is incorrect to divide between the sacred and secular, material and immaterial, this life and afterlife. These are all held together and ruled by the Lord Jesus Christ. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “There are not two competing realms standing side by side and battling over the borderline, as if this question of boundaries was always the decisive one. Rather, the whole reality of the world has already been drawn into and is held together in Christ.” (p. 58).
The church is the polity to which every Christian is held accountable. As Paul tells the Corinthian church “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?…How much more matters of this life?” (1 Cor. 6:2-3). To belong to the church is to live within the new covenant which is summed up in one law: Love the Lord your God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and Love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus has given interpretation and meaning to this law in the Sermon on the Mount, through the example of his life, and in the teaching of the apostles. When we break this command, we confess our sin to one another and seek reconciliation with those we have sinned against. Since God does not show favoritism to anyone, the church holds Christian rulers accountable to the new covenant just as they hold every Christian regardless of their vocation. And because there is not one right form of government or legislation, the church allows the rulers to make decisions within the broad command to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Mic 6:8).
If and when the ruler sins against doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with his God, as every Christian does (1 Jn. 1:8-9), the church will call him to repentance and pronounce the forgiveness for his sins. But if after that ruler refuses to repent after repeated calls to repentance, the church will proclaim to the assembly of believers and the watching world that the ruler went out from us because they were never one of us (1 Jn 2:9). The ruler is barred from partaking in the Eucharist, and the church has handed them over to Satan for the destruction of their flesh (1 Cor. 11:27; 5:5) that they may learn not to blaspheme (1 Tim. 1:20).
From every historical account I have read, Constantine was not held accountable to and discipled by the church, though I find it doubtful that there was complete silence from the church. However, the point of this post is not to bemoan a particular era of the church, rather it is to provoke the question of what we can learn from both victories and failures of the historical church so that we faithfully disciple the rulers of the nations when they bow the knee to Christ.
I will finish by answering a typical question on the matter of kings and the church and then ask a question to the readers.
When under the rule of a wicked leader, like Hitler, should the church respond, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer did, in assassinating that evil leader?
No. We pray for those in authority whoever they may be, care for the oppressed in society whoever they may be, bear witness to the gospel of Christ to all, and hold onto the promise of Jesus, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have Νίκα the world” (Jn. 16:33)
Often the response to my view is to say that there are times when in order to love our neighbors, Christians can and should kill someone like Hitler. But when Jesus was asked to clarify what “love your neighbor as yourself” means, he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, Jesus illustrates that to love one’s neighbor is to love them in such a way that economic, religious, and racial allegiances are transcended. So to use “love of neighbor” abstracted from how it is defined by and functions in Scripture effectively removes the concept from the bounds of systematic and canonical theology and places it, free floating, in the space of speculative theology.
My question for the reader is this:
What are the effects on the church when she becomes subsumed within and beholden to a political party?
I will seek to answer this question in my next post.