At the centre of my life as a Christian, its very foundation and cause, is my relationship with God. As I tried to explain last week, that involves being part of a Christian community, as we are offered no examples in Scripture, of the individualist Christian doing it all by himself. This is the school in which one grows in the faith, and in which one works with fellow ‘saints’ to work out our salvation in fear and trembling. Until the fourth century this was how it worked for all, and a perilous existence it was. The Roman Empire distrusted this religion, which refused to play the game of the State religion; it owed allegiance to King Jesus, not Emperor Caligula. Then, in the fourth century, Emperor Constantine seems to have decided that if you could not beat them, you could co-opt them. After his victory at Milvian Bridge, he allowed Christianity to flourish unchallenged. This did more damage than any amount of persecution.
When a faith is persecuted, no one joins it for any reason other than the obvious one – like Paul on the Damascus Road, they can do no other. They are called out, together, to give witness to Christ. It is a hard road, made all the more so by the distrust of the State. Once a faith is approved of, and even more, once it becomes the State faith, then every grovelling little lick spittle who wants preferment will join it. In the case of Constantine, it was clear that a symbiotic relationship with the Church developed. He wanted a faith which would provide some glue to hold together his sprawling empire, and the bishops wanted a way of putting an end to the Arian heresy. It was a marriage made on the banks of the Bosphorus. As it happened, although the Council of 325 thought it had solved the problem, it took another century for the Orthodox position to win out. After that there was no looking back. Did Nestorius say things which seemed suspect? Set the Emperor on him. Did Disocorus of Alexandria reject Leo’s Tome, set the Emperor on him. Did the Patriarch at Constantinople reject Rome’s claims, excommunicate him and rely on the power of the Holy Roman Emperor to protect you. Did Luther’s calls for reform get your goat, excommunicate him and use the power of the Emperor to try to put an end to him. Did Elizabeth I not come back as you wanted, bless Phillip’s II’s Armada. It was so easy to resort to force, so much easier than having arguments.
Its effect was to create every schism there has ever been. Not once has the use of force actually done anything but split the Christian community. A man will not cease to believe what he has been taught because some fool with a sword tells him to: sincere men will die; insincere ones will pretend they believe. In the end you end up with more of the latter because the former have gone. That’s how you end up with a Laodicean church community.
What happens when being a Christian is no longer the route to a privileged position in society? The time servers go elsewhere, although, as long as there is preferment to be had, some of them will stay where they are; but it will get hard to recruit talented people. What happens when you can no longer use force, or when the idea of excommunicating someone ceases to frighten them? You don’t know what to do. You have lost the art of apologetics and of discussion, and you have to relearn it.
I take, entirely, the point made here by Jess and others that the example of the Church of the East suggests that not having a State to protect you can be damaging, but having one can be so in another sense. My own tradition goes back to those who have always rejected State patronage. We’ve been persecuted by Catholics and Anglicans, and I daresay had there been Orthodox control, they’d have done the same. But we hold to the spirit of the original. We are a called out people owning allegiance to King Jesus and no other. My ancestors suffered persecution, imprisonment and even death for this, and not one of them benefitted materially from their stubborn persistence in this narrow way.
It’s no accident, I suspect, that the faith remains strongest in the West in America, and there are welcome signs that the Catholic Church is gaining the courage to reject the patronage of princes. In the end we stand together. The State has used the faith as best it could and wants to discard it. Good, I say, no one will come to it now because it offers power and a career and wealth. They come, as they should, as we all come, because we are unworthy sinners throwing ourselves on the mercy of Christ. Where that comes to you, into which gathered community it leads you, I no longer much care, for in the face of the hostility of the princes of this world, the Christian identifies him or herself as such because of their belief; that’s enough for me.