My church history professor Henry Zwaanstra died recently, giving me opportunity to remember the classes I took with him and the lessons we learned from history along the way. I came into seminary in 1986 with fairly limited knowledge of church history and so for me, most of Zwaanstra’s classes were a journey of discovery and insight. We were not too far into the first course on church history when we got to the landmark conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D. and how his coming to embrace the Christian faith turned everything around for the early church. After centuries of persecution and living underground, suddenly the Christian church was the religious coin of the realm. It all sounded great but I will never forget Zwaanstra’s summary comment one morning to the effect that it’s an open question which was actually better for the witness of the church: persecution or legalization. Could it be that Constantine’s legitimizing (and politicizing) of the church did more damage than persecution ever could?
True, history and the lessons to be gleaned from it are seldom straightforward, black or white, plus or minus. More events and historical turns than not are a mixed bag. For the church, being able to climb out of the catacombs into the light of day gave the church a chance to shore up its theology, establish creeds and canon, figure out knotty biblical puzzles like the Trinity, the incarnation, the natures of Christ, etc. The cause of orthodoxy and biblical theology stand on the pillars of councils like Nicea, Constantinople, Chalcedon–major gatherings of theologians and biblical scholars that would have been unthinkable in the persecution era. It’s possible that major figures like Augustine might not have been able to preach and write and teach the way they did were it not for the church’s having been able to operate in greater freedom.
Still, eventually it would become clear that the mix of political power and the church is seldom, if ever, a good concoction. In the centuries that followed the church would gain ever greater power and this would lead to a few other terms I learned about from Professor Zwaanstra: Caesaropapism in which political leaders would try to run the church; Ecclesiastical Imperialism in which popes and bishops tried to force their will on the empire like kings. Popes would excommunicate kings, kings would imprison or banish popes. A series of fatal Crusades would be launched to kill infidel Muslims (and a third of Europe’s Jews along the way) all in the name of the Prince of Peace. Theology and politics just don’t mix well and, historically speaking, it is the pure witness of the church to the Gospel that has lost out on the bargain the most consistently.
None of this is to say Christians cannot operate in the political sphere (and bring their Christian convictions with them in properly nuanced and intelligent ways). None of this is to say the church should not plead for justice from governments to protect the vulnerable, the marginalized, the threatened, to stand up for life and condemn all that diminishes or flat out ruins human lives. But when the church takes political power into its own hands–or makes itself beholden to those who wield that power–then inevitably people who are supposed to glory in the weakness and apparent folly of the cross (see 1 Corinthians 1) are suddenly talking instead about power and militancy and being strong and being tough and getting things done by worldly standards of influence through people with sharp elbows and balled-up fists.
All of which brings us to a couple recent developments under our new President. A ban is issued against seven primarily Muslim nations but Christians are singled out to receive deferential treatment. A National Prayer Breakfast is held where–when the President was not saying “The hell with it” in front of many’a adoring pastor–the President promises to reverse decades of preventing political endorsements from tax-protected churches in order to let Christians be partisan without consequences. Meanwhile prominent Christian leaders from the evangelical world are given choice assignments in the administration where the temptation to wield political power for alleged Christian ends will almost certainly prove to be too alluring for at least some.
Of course, someone will point out that a pastor like myself working at a little seminary in the Midwest can find it easy to talk since I am exceedingly unlikely ever to have to negotiate all this the way other pastors and Christian leaders will have to do. And maybe I should not sell any of those people short in that they may well achieve a balance that will keep our Gospel witness intact and still do some larger good for society. Perhaps. Again, history on such matters has at times been a mixed bag of bad but also some good.
Professor Zwaanstra isn’t here now to make his own observations on all this but the lessons I learned in his classroom reverberate with me still and particularly in these last few weeks. When the church achieves some kind of privileged, special status with access to the levers of power and influence, it just has never gone well historically. Our witness to Christ and his cross, our ability to maintain a focus on the last, least, lost, and lonely of the earth, our credibility in trying to say with the Apostle Paul “when I am weak, I am strong”–all of this atrophies, fades, becomes a mockery. As we can see in the Book of Daniel when Daniel refuses to dine on the rich fatness of the king’s dinner table, we need to be children of a different bread. To eat the king’s food, Walter Brueggemann has pointed out, is to think the king’s thoughts after him. This Daniel and his friends refused to do.
These are days to be extra thoughtful, careful, nuanced, cautious. Rushing headlong to embrace certain policies because, hey, it’s good for our side as Christians may well prove in the near future to be the same thing it has been again and again in the past: disastrous.