When Church and State Came Together

Posted on March 13, 2012


These days we have a lot of experts on the First Amendment to the Constitution and the separation of church and state.

Just read this newspaper.

Or, even better, google it and stand by for a blast from cyberspace.

But how many know how the church and state first came together in a symbiotic relationship that lasted—or continues to last in some parts of the world—for centuries?

This year we commemorate the 1700th anniversary of the Battle of Milvian Bridge.

That battle was fought in the era of the Roman Empire.

For most of us, that was a classroom assignment or reading sometime way back in our own history, perhaps from high school or college, probably long forgotten except for the fact that we remember vaguely that the Roman Empire rose and fell.

But, as is so often the case, what happened a long time ago sometimes sheds light on our lives today.

In October, A.D. 312, a brilliant political and military strategist, the Emperor Constantine, defeated a rival and, in doing so, set the stage for the end of the persecution of the Christian church.

If the story were invented, it would probably be dismissed as the creation of an overheated imagination, for it includes omens, maybe comets, superstition, soothsayers, and, if we were inventive, we should probably throw in a dragon or two for the video game.

Constantine’s rise to power was marked also by a gradual acceptance of Christianity as a faith worth embracing.

His mother, Helena, an early and deeply pious convert to Christianity, hectored him most of his life to follow suit.

And mothers, even seventeen hundred years ago, can have a profound influence on sons.

Eusebius of Caesarea, a contemporary of Constantine was one of the first great historians of the Christian church, and he recorded the scene, recounted to him years later by the emperor himself that set the stage for the battle.

Constantine had arrived from his homeland of Briton before Rome in command of his smaller, but battle-hardened, legions. His opponent for control of the empire, Maxentius, held the city with a much larger army.

What to do?

“He [Constantine] said that about noon, when the day was already beginning to decline, he saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and bearing the inscription, CONQUER BY THIS. At this sight he himself was struck with amazement, and his whole army also, which followed him on this expedition, and witnessed the miracle.”

“…And while he continued to ponder and reason on its meaning, night suddenly came on; then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the same sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in all engagements with his enemies.”

Constantine had the sign representing Christ placed on the shields and breastplates of his soldiers as a “sign of salvation as a safeguard against every adverse and hostile power, and commanded that others similar to it should be carried at the head of all his armies.”

Maxentius drowned in the Tiber in the following battle.

Constantine’s triumph, secured by his faith in the God of his mother, persuaded him to end the persecution of Christians and allow for toleration.

Less than ten years later he made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

And so the Church and the State came together.

Constantine allowed the continuation of pagan religions, but his conversion to Christianity was probably authentic. He grew in the faith over the years, and as Emperor took a very direct interest in Christian affairs.

The intersection of Christianity and the state have never been the same since.

As emperor of the Romans, pontifex maximus (greatest pontiff, or high priest), Constantine also assumed the role of head of religion in the empire. That was one of the traditional roles of the Emperor.

He fit it well, and he soon got involved in the details of running the Church.

He made Sunday the official day of worship for Christians, exempted the clergy from taxes (popular move), selected a festive pagan holiday in December and had it designated the day to celebrate the Savior’s birth (Christmas), and started to build larger more elegant houses of worship, the origins of the great Christian cathedrals of the Middle Ages.

His mother Helena traveled to Jerusalem in the late 320s to find where Jesus had lived and died. She returned to Rome with pieces of the true Cross and other relics, thereby popularizing pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and the association of mystical and divine powers with relics.

Frustrated by several heresies still dividing Christendom, the Emperor called a council of the Church’s bishops to convene in the city of Nicaea in Asia Minor in 324. He wined and dined them and told them to get over their doctrinal differences and hammer out a statement or creed to which they all could agree.

The result was the Nicene Creed, still recited and/or recalled, in virtually all Christian denominations today. It affirmed the centrality of the Holy Spirit, and the equality of all three elements of the Christian godhead–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Many of these arguments and heresies seem today to be over obscure and insignificant points of theology.

But divisions to Constantine and the makers of the Roman Empire were signs of weakness.

So he turned his considerable powers to forcing Christians to agree on answers to basic issues such as how sin got started by a perfect God who presumably created a perfect world, or were the father (God) and the son (Christ) co-equal? And, if so, how could that be explained?

Constantine only accepted baptism on his death bed, considering it until then a serious commitment to Christian love, pacifism, and other virtues a bit too confining for such a warrior emperor.

He forged an almost iron link between the Church and the State, so formidable and powerful that it lasted in Christian kingdoms over a thousand years, not broken until the late eighteenth century when some upstart descendants of English colonies on the Atlantic coast of North America declared their independence.

Also published in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, March 11, 2012

Posted in: History