Seventeen hundred years ago, Christianity became a religion that conquered opponents by use of a literal sword rather than the sword of the Spirit. The night of October 27, 312 AD, Constantine saw a cross of light in the sky, accompanied by the words, “by this sign, you shall conquer.” Constantine immediately had the shields of his soldiers emblazoned with the Chi-Rho symbol, the first two letters of Christ in Greek. The next day his troops won a great victory in the Battle of Milvian Bridge and Christianity became the state religion of his empire.
From this point on, most historians only treat of the imperial form of Christianity born at Milvian Bridge and consider all other forms of Christianity as heresy. Yet this Imperial Christianity represents a radical departure from the teachings of Jesus, and the apostles and faith and life of the primitive church.
Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, wrote: “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” But now the state church became the persecutor.
The primitive church believed that Jesus Christ was the only head of the church. Jesus told his disciples: “Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.” (Matthew 20:25-27). This ideal of servant leadership was abandoned by the state churches, in favour of heaping honour, riches and power upon church leaders.
The state churches, Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican and Orthodox, all adopted the dogma held by pagan empires that allowing a diversity of religious faith in the realm would be subversive of social order. All did their utmost to stamp out any remnants of the original, humble Christian faith. What did they gain? Wealth, pomp and power, and a church membership that was Christian in name only.
The Net of Faith, by Czech theologian Petr Chelčický, appeared about 570 years ago. He wrote that the net of faith was cast into the sea of the world to gather in those who were truly Christians. He wrote that the Pope and the Emperor were two great whales who had swum through the net, tearing great holes in it, so that now there was no difference between those inside the net and those outside.
A hundred or so years later, Menno Simons wrote: “O my faithful reader, ponder this. As long as the world distributes splendid houses and such large incomes to their preachers, the false prophets and deceivers will be there by droves.”
Menno believed that there were many true believers in the state churches, but accused the churches themselves of being worldly organizations whose nature and actions were contrary to true faith. “Reader, understand what I mean. We do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen ones of God, in the before-mentioned churches; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the just and gracious judgment of God, hoping there may be many thousands who are unknown to us, as they were to holy Elias; but our dispute is in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life, Christ has commanded us to gather unto him an abiding church, and how we should maintain it in his ways.”
I prefer to identify with this form of Christianity, which at first was taught by the apostles and believed and lived by the first Christians, rather than with the corrupted form introduced by Constantine.