The Battle for Religious and Political Liberty
Christianity and the Roman Empire
Jesus said that ‘new wine’ had to be put into ‘new bottles’ (see Matt. 9:16, 17). The ‘new wine’ of Christianity was too ‘new’ for the Roman ‘bottle.’ The ‘new wine’ of Christianity could not fit into the Roman ‘bottle’ – it could not fit, because Rome was a sacral society. Christianity was not only considered a religious threat to Rome, it was even more so, considered a political and social threat. For the Roman sacral mindset, Christianity was revolutionary. Christianity and sacral Rome could not peacefully co-exist. One would have to conquer the other.
Christianity was originally established on earth within the confines of the Roman Empire. And typically for the age, the Roman Empire was a sacral society. Turning to scholars who have studied Roman society, we read:
Roman society was sacral and non-composite. And its sacralism came to expression everywhere. In the institution known as the idolothyta (Def: 1. the worship of a physical object as a god, 2. immoderate attachment or devotion to something), for instance, the placing of the meat supply before the Object (pagan god). This ancient custom had grown to such dimensions that virtually all meat available at the butchers was placed meat, and bore the stamp of the Object which Romans worshipped. Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, chapter 1, paragraph 25.
The writings of Paul confirm, that meat sacrificed to idols was a big issue for the Early Church (see 1 Cor. 8:1-13). Christians all over the Empire, were confused about whether they could eat food, purchased in the market place, because it was more often than not, dedicated to pagan gods. Many Christians at that time, concluded that they could not eat it. And this refusal, along with other infractions of the sacralist code, immediately put them offside with their pagan sacralist neighbours. Therefore, whenever things went wrong, the Christians became convenient scapegoats. Oppression and persecution were the inevitable consequences, because in sacral societies non-conformity was considered treasonous:
The Roman society, prompted by its sacralist view of things, oppressed the Christians, especially when Rome was beset with political worries. They ascribed their political troubles to the fact that the religious pattern of uniformity was being shaken and every adversity was interpreted to be a frown of the Object (idol) for his loss of patronage, caused by the Christians. If the Tiber went out of its banks or the Nile failed to do so, the Christians were blamed for this manifest gesture of divine displease. And then the cry rang out, “To the lions with them!” So also, if the earth moved or the sky stood still. Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and their Stepchildren, chapter 1, paragraph 26.
The Decian Loyalty Oath
Because the early Christians refused to conform to sacralist customs, the authorities resorted to compulsory public displays of allegiance. They forced all the citizens to swear an oath, that they were upright, sacral citizens, in good and right and regular standing. In the year 250AD, the Roman Emperor Trajan Decius, passed a decree requiring all inhabitants of the Empire to swear a loyalty oath, which required all to engage in pagan forms of worship. In part the decree, required all to state the following oath, in the presence of the officiating magistrate, upon which they would receive their loyalty certificate:
I have always sacrificed to the gods and now in your presence I have, in keeping with the directive, sacrificed and have caused a libation to be poured out, have tasted of the sacrificial victim; and request that that you, a public notary, certify the same. Leo Pheffer, Church, State, and Freedom, Boston, p.11. (The University of Michigan has among its papyri holdings an executed exemplar of this formulary).
Christians of course, could not make such a vow without violating their commitment to Christ. Therefore, they were persecuted not so much for their religious views, but because of their refusal to take part in the sacral political system. To the sacral mindset this was unacceptable, and was considered akin to treason against the state:
It was for their political ideas that the Christians were most often denounced and persecuted. The Roman Empire was a world state; there was no state but it; no living human except the Emperor was sovereign; no one anywhere on earth was his equal. Between gods and men, in the pagan view, there was moreover no clear distinction. Some gods behaved much like men, and some men were more like gods than others. The Emperor was held to be veritably a god, divus cease, semper Augustus. A cult of the Caesar was established, regarded as necessary to maintain the state, which was the world itself. All this the Christians firmly refused to accept. It was because they would not worship Caesar that the Roman officials regarded them as monstrous social incendiaries who must be persecuted and stamped out. R.R. Palmer, A History of the Modern World, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1960) p. 12.
In the pagan/sacral mindset, the relationship between gods and mankind was mingled. Therefore, if a Roman Emperor exhibited godlike characteristics then he was a god. It was inevitable, that this sacral attitude, would clash with Christianity.
The Constantinian Change
A momentous change took place, when Constantine the Great, fought his way to the throne and became emperor in the year 312. After defeating all his rivals, what would be his chief concern for the welfare of his empire? When the empire had just experienced protracted civil war, what was it, that needed to be done? Answer: the wounds inflicted by the conflict had to be healed. The unity of the empire was Constantine’s chief concern. If we put ourselves in Constantine’s shoes and survey the religious and political landscape of the time, we will be better placed to understand why he did the things that he did. And what Constantine did, changed the course of world history forever. One could say that history came to a fork in the road, and it was Constantine who determined which fork history would take.
Prior to Constantine, the Roman custom, was to incorporate all conquered nations into the Roman Empire – including their religions and their gods. These gods and religions became part of the ‘approved’ pantheon of gods and goddesses. People were free to worship whoever they chose, as long as it was ‘approved’ and as long as they would worship the emperor. Christianity was not an ‘approved’ religion.
However, when Constantine became emperor, he was on a mission. His goal was to establish unity and uniformity, throughout his empire. To that end, he needed a religion that would apply to a diverse people. He could not choose one of the pagan religions because they were mostly regional. If he chose one of the pagan religions, it would be the opposite of what he wanted – it would be divisive. It would elevate one region of his empire above the others. Christianity was the obvious choice, for Constantine, for several reasons:
- Christianity already claimed to be universal, and applicable to all people. This is what Constantine wanted.
- In spite of all the persecution, Christianity was flourishing and becoming more and more influential throughout the Empire. By Constantine’s time it was obvious it could not be defeated. Some sort of reconciliation between the Empire and Christianity would have to be made.
- As Christianity was waxing, paganism was waning. Paganism was losing its appeal. Constantine needed a strong robust religion.
- Constantine was already inclined to choose Christianity, because he supposedly had a vision of the cross before one of his battles and he supposedly heard a voice saying “in this sign conquer.” So, he ordered all his soldiers to paint a cross on their shields, and he won the battle.
Therefore, Constantine chose Christianity and made it the official religion of the Empire. This is how the Catholic Church came into existence. It is no accident that the full title of the Catholic Church is the ‘Roman Catholic Church.’ It is because it came into existence under the auspices and patronage of the Roman Emperor and his successors. And this Roman Church was also named Catholic, because the word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal’ – and universal was just what Constantine wanted. Thus, the Roman Catholic Church became the state church of the Roman Empire. Whenever the Church had a major council, to decide church policy and to settle Church affairs, the Emperor was there representing the state, making sure all decisions made, were in the interests of the state.
The reality, with Constantine, is that he was a politician. After he took power his actions proved that his highest priority was unity and uniformity. He chose Christianity for political reasons:
What he (Constantine) saw in Christianity was simply a talisman by virtue of which Rominatas [the Roman political system] would be assured of material prosperity such as official paganism had failed to give it… Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture, p. 215.
Constantine was a sacralist. For a sacralist unity and uniformity are the only criteria for a successful society. To a sacralist unity can only be achieved if everyone thinks the same – and if everyone thinks the same – everyone will act the same – and if everyone acts the same – unity is then achieved.
Today, because multiculturalism is lauded as the best model for society, we find it very difficult to understand such a society, and we would not like to live in such a society, where individual rights and freedom of conscience were denied and punished. But multiculturism is a very recent concept and the social fabric that Constantine wove together prevailed for hundreds of years, up until recent times.
The problems that Constantine faced, derived from the fact that the Roman Empire had been too successful. The Empire had swallowed whole nations, peoples, cultures and religions. Up until now the empire had accepted most of the diversity as long as all swore allegiance to the emperor and took the relevant civic oaths. There were many different versions of paganism, and most of these were tolerated, as long as they did not challenge the existing social and political order.
Revolutionary Christianity becomes Sacral Christianity
Christianity was different. By its very nature it challenged the existing order. Christianity is a disturber of the peace wherever it goes, because it is a religion, “that ignores all existing boundaries as it draws its own” Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid: A Study in Church State Relations. p. 105. In other words, Christianity, in the fulfilment of its mission, is a religion that will break all rules and regulations that get in its way. A modern example of this would be the smuggling of Bibles into countries that forbid its citizens to read the Bible, such as during the cold war, when many Christians broke the laws of those countries and risked their own lives. And they did this because Christians have been commanded to spread the Gospel to the whole world, so therefore when barriers are erected to prevent the spread of the Gospel, Christians will disobey, and go to jail and lose their lives for it.
At the same time Christianity while ignoring all boundaries erected against it, has its own restrictive boundaries. There are conditions to becoming a Christian. One of the most enigmatic conditions being ‘you must be born again.’ Another condition related to the first is ‘by their fruits you will know them.’ These are spiritual conditions which prevail just as much as the physical conditions, such as baptism. It is for this reason that Christianity is inclusive, which means all can join, but at the same time it is exclusive, which means not all qualify to join. And this is why Christianity can never be a part of a sacral society. But Christianity can be altered, changed and corrupted to fit into a sacral society. And this is exactly what Constantine set out to do.
From Sabbath to Sunday
The first thing Constantine did, was issue the Edict of Milan in 313, which ended the persecution of the Christians. The second thing he did, was to pass a new law, about which day would be the approved day of worship, for the whole Empire. Up until Constantine’s time, Christians worshipped on the seventh day of the week according to the 10 commandments – which is Saturday. However, some Christians wanted to honor the resurrection day – Sunday – so they held church services on both days. Eventually, the keeping of Sunday overshadowed the Saturday Sabbath. This change was facilitated by Christians wanting to distinguish themselves from the Jews. However, by the time of Constantine, Sunday keeping Christians were only prominent in two places, Alexandria in Egypt, and the city of Rome itself. But these two cities were also the most influential in the Empire. So, Constantine was not alone in his endeavors to create an Empire Church, he found support from within the Christian Church itself:
In the early part of the fourth century, the emperor Constantine issued a decree making Sunday a public festival throughout the Roman Empire. The day of the sun was reverenced by his pagan subjects, and was honoured by Christians; it was the emperor’s policy to unite the conflicting interests of heathenism and Christianity. He was urged to do this by the bishops of the church, who, inspired by ambition, and thirst for power, perceived that if the same day was observed by both Christians and the heathen, it would promote the nominal acceptance of Christianity by pagans, and thus advance the power and glory of the church. E. G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 53.
Christianity becomes Roman
Most pagan religions had some form of sun worship. Therefore, by choosing the pagan’s sacred day, as the day of worship for the Empire, the Constantine change facilitated the entry of pagan worshippers into his new empire church. However, Sunday sacredness was just the beginning. The successors of Constantine’s efforts, his spiritual descendants, freely admit that over time a flood of paganism entered the church. In the 19th century, Cardinal Newman wrote:
Confiding then in the power of Christianity to resist the infection of evil, and to transmute the very instruments and appendages of demon-worship to an evangelical use… the rulers of the Church from early times were prepared, should the occasion arise, to adopt, or imitate, or sanction the existing rites and customs of the populace, as well as the philosophy of the educated class. We are told in various ways by Eusebius, that Constantine, in order to recommend the new religion to the heathen, transferred into it the outward ornaments to which they had been accustomed in their own. It is not necessary to go into a subject which the diligence of Protestant writers has made familiar to most of us. The use of temples, and these dedicated to particular saints, and ornamented on occasions with branches of trees; incense, lamps, and candles; votive offerings on recovery from illness; holy water; asylums; holydays and seasons, use of calendars, processions, blessings on the fields; sacerdotal vestments, the tonsure, the ring in marriage, turning to the East… are all of pagan origin, and sanctified by their adoption into the Church. Cardinal John Henry Newman, Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1878, p. 372-374.
Thus, Constantine achieved his political aim. He created a church that suited the needs of an empire. The new religion was a blend of Christianity and paganism. It brought all the diverse elements of a diverse empire under one roof. It was the perfect solution for those seeking unity and uniformity. Christianity had become Roman:
It appears that the numbers of Christians had by this time [3rd century] grown sufficiently to alarm the government… [the emperors] seemed to recognize that Christianity would destroy the Roman Empire if it destroyed paganism. They did not foresee that Christianity would reach a compromise with the empire, that it would become Roman. Encyclopedia Britannica, art. Roman Catholic Church, vol.15, p. 987.
The notion that Romanism and Christianity were incompatible and irreconcilable turned out to be wrong. Political expediency dictated that the two should merge and create a new entity, expressed by the name Roman Catholic Church. But this incompatibility was only overcome because Christianity at best was seduced by the state – at worst was conquered by the state. One thing is certain, Christianity did not convert Rome to Jesus Christ – it was the state that converted Christianity to Romanism. Under the name Roman Catholic Church, Christianity became sacral.
However, not all were seduced by Constantine’s changes. The Bible was still in the hands of the people and many of them noticed, that the Bible spoke about a great apostasy to come, and the details about that apostasy, began to look remarkably like the monolithic edifice that Constantine and his successors built.