How Are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 2

1024px-Raphael_Baptism_ConstantineIn the first article in this series, dealing with the question of how Christians have historically viewed government, we looked at St. Augustine of Hippo, the most important theologian of the Western (Latin) Christian tradition. Augustine argued that in a fallen world, governments are necessary to restrain evil, but since they are themselves part of that fallen world, they are inevitably corrupt and cannot be trusted with unrestricted power. As a result, the Western political tradition has historically limited the power of government and developed systems of checks and balances to try to keep it from turning tyrannical.

This raises the question of how the church fits into Augustine’s schema, and how it is to relate to the state. We turn to that question in this article.

The First 300 Years

First, an observation: Christianity is the only major world religion that arose without the support of a government. Indeed, for the first 300 years of its history, it was persecuted in both the Roman and Persian Empires, as well as in the areas beyond them.

The immediate objection to this statement is, “What about Constantine? He made Christianity the official religion of the Empire and fused church and state.” This is wrong on several counts. First, Constantine legalized Christianity, ending the persecutions, and probably converted; he did not make Christianity Rome’s state religion. Second, Constantine didn’t do this until about 300 years after Jesus. The church grew and expanded without government recognition for nearly one and a half times as long as the United States has been in existence. Constantine’s actions, even if the stereotype of them were accurate, would not change the precedent that had been set that church and government are separate institutions, and that the church can exist and function even in the face of government opposition.

That does not mean Christianity was popular. Christians were held in contempt by most people; they were slandered; their beliefs were caricatured; their property was confiscated; they watched as their friends, spouses, and children were tortured to death for the amusement of cheering crowds before they were martyred themselves. But because of their faithfulness, the church ended up spreading and outlasting the mighty Roman Empire.

If asked how the Christian should relate to the government, early believers would tell you that they unquestioningly serve their true king, Jesus. They obey the laws of the state insofar as they do not conflict with the laws of their king, but they would rather die than be disloyal to their true sovereign and lord even by attending quasi-religious events and festivities that contradicted their faith. The state has legitimate, God-given authority, but not ahead of Christ or over their consciences.

This was a groundbreaking idea. Up to this point, governments were essentially totalitarian: They claimed authority over every area of life, even supervising religious belief and practice and determining which religions would be accepted and which not. The decriminalization of Christianity meant that there was at least one public institution—the church—that was not directly under the authority of the state. That would have important implications later on, allowing for the development of other institutions that could mediate between the state and the individual, including the family, schools, guilds, and charitable agencies. In other words, the distinction between church and state set the precedent for the development of civil society.

The Church in the Christian Roman Empire

In Rome, emperors were responsible for mediating conflicts within the different religions; when Constantine legalized Christianity, he followed precedent by calling a church council at Nicaea to deal with Arianism (A.D. 325). Although he attended the council, the decision was made by the bishops. In other words, he provided a forum for the solution of the problem without dictating that solution to them.

He had a very different response to the Donatists. These were Christians who believed that priests who had knuckled under to persecution were never legitimate priests to begin with and that all of the sacraments that they had ever performed were invalid. A church council decided against the Donatist position, with the result that the Donatists rioted. Constantine cracked down on them violently—no ruler can tolerate rioting, because it leads quickly to sedition.

Augustine himself would later support Constantine’s reaction and the suppression of Donatism by state power, using Jesus’ words compelle intrare (“compel them to enter,” Luke 14:23) to argue that the state had the right and responsibility to coerce heretics to rejoin the church. While this followed the ancient pattern of the state overseeing the church, it was inconsistent with the broader perspective that the church exists independently of the state, and it would help set up the long centuries of cooperation in coercion of religious dissenters between churches and the state.

On the other hand, early church leaders did call out even emperors when they acted immorally. The classic example is St. Ambrose of Milan, Augustine’s mentor, who forced the emperor Theodosius to perform public penance for ordering the massacre of people in Thessalonica after the murder of one of his officials there. In other words, the relationship between church and state flowed in both directions: The state was involved with the church, and the church with the state.

The Tug-of-War between Church and State

Unfortunately, while the distinction between religion and government was an important and positive development for political theory, these events in the late Roman Empire confused the issue. They also illustrate a problem that has dogged Western politics to today: What is the proper balance of power between church and state?

In the eastern half of the Empire and in Italy, church and state generally cooperated with each other, with the state protecting the church and performing the usual run of government responsibilities, and the church handling the sacraments and promoting morality. There were conflicts between the two, but generally the relationship was cordial.

The first serious problem between church and state in the East was the Iconoclastic Controversy: The Emperor in Constantinople tried to ban the use of icons in worship as idolatrous. Whatever the merits of the argument theologically, this was the first time the government tried to dictate how worship was to be conducted in the churches. Ultimately, the imperial side would lose, with the effect that church and state cooperation was restored.

The situation in the Latin-speaking West was far more complicated. Roman authority collapsed in Western Europe, with the bishops in the churches being the only ones left capable of handling administrative roles in the cities. As a result, the bishops became part of the government as new states developed in the former Roman Empire.

As western Europe moved into the Central Middle Ages (c. 1000-c. 1300), a tug-of-war developed between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor over who was the real leader of the Christian world—an argument that conveniently ignored the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople. This dispute pitted the bishops’ loyalty to the church against their loyalty to the state. The conflict was long and difficult, though eventually an accommodation was reached that recognized both the claims of both sides, with precedence determined more by proximity to the papal or imperial court than by any political or theological considerations.

Despite the conflict, both sides recognized that both church and state were institutions ordained by God and given specific responsibilities. The real question was what responsibilities each side had over the other: Could the emperor depose immoral Popes? Could the Pope depose emperors who did not stand for righteousness in the Pope’s eyes? Both sides mustered biblical and historical arguments, and both had important theologians who supported them. While the conflict was not constant, it did re-emerge regularly throughout the period and continued on into the 16th century.

Apart from these large-scale issues, the Catholic Church claimed legal rights and responsibilities that did not always sit well with civil governments. Members of the clergy (which in the Middle Ages included university students) could not be tried in secular courts. Further, issues related to sacraments and other religious actions could only be adjudicated by church courts. This included anything related to marriage (as a sacrament), but also probate and contract law, since these were tantamount to vows and thus an activity regulated by canon (i.e., church) law. These claims increasingly came under attack in the 15th and 16th centuries as “illicit usurpations” of the God-given rights and responsibilities of civil government.

With the rise of Protestantism in the sixteenth century, the relationship of church and state underwent a massive shift. The next article in this series will examine this.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.



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