Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Constantine

A church of nobodies

Historians appear to believe that wherever there was something important going on there must have been some big shots behind it. When they look at the history of Christianity, the Catholics and Protestants had all the big shots. Since they find no big shots on the side of those we call Anabaptists, they assume that nothing was happening.

But the very essence of Christianity is that there can be only one big shot, and that is God Himself. Even Jesus did not conduct Himself as a big shot. That was the problem the Scribes and Pharisees had with Him; they wanted a Messiah who would sweep away the Roman oppressors and rule the world from Jerusalem. Dispensationalists are in full agreement with that, and say that since His plan was foiled the first time the earthly kingdom will be established at His Second Coming. The problem with that line of thought is that it would make Jesus a fomenter of sedition and provide just cause for the Romans to execute Him. But Jesus said plainly “My kingdom is not of this world”, and the Roman governor found no fault in Him, going so far as to wash his hands of the whole affair.

So Jesus is not our big shot. He is the most important man in the history of the world, but a nobody in the eyes of the world. His followers, from the apostles to the present day, have also been nobodies.

We should not, however, read too much into the opinion of the Sanhedrin that the apostles were unlearned and ignorant men. The apostles were fluent in Aramaic and Greek, knew the Scriptures better than most of us do today, and were well acquainted with the Greek culture around them. But they were not learned in all the petty intricacies of rabbinic interpretations and regulations.

Once we stop looking for the big shots in the movement variously known as Donatist, Cathar, Anabaptist, Waldensian, etc, it becomes obvious that there was a whole lot going on. Thieleman van Braght scoured the ancient records and published his findings in the Martyrs Mirror.

A more recent book is The Anatomy of a Hybrid by Leonard Verduin. The hybrid in the title of the book refers to state churches which united secular authority with spiritual authority, beginning when the Roman Emperor Constantine professed Christianity and then assumed authority over the Roman Catholic Church. Verduin is a thorough scholar who shows clearly the evidences of a continuing alternate church movement from the time the hybrid first departed from the faith once delivered to the saints. He points out that the Mennonite movement began in locations where the Waldensians had recently flourished.

Another facet of looking for the big shots is evident in the attention church historians pay to councils of Roman Catholic bishops, called by a Roman Emperor, to decide matters of essential Christian doctrines. I believe those matters were decided long before the councils by the Holy Spirit working through a bunch of nobodies.

Let the world have its dynamic and charismatic preachers. We pray that they will do some good in making known the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. But we fear, as Menno Simons once wrote: “so long as the world donates such splendid houses and large incomes to their preachers, the false prophets and deceivers will be numerous.”

Christianity betrayed

In his book, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren*, Leonard Verduin points out that the New Testament church was a complete break with all of preceding human history: “the world was being treated to a new and very revolutionary concept of society, namely, that men can get along peacefully in the market place even though they do not worship at the same shrine.”

“It must not escape the reader that this was a novel insight, so novel as to be revolutionary. The world had never seen the like of it before. For all pre-Christian society is sacral. By the word ‘sacral,’ which we shall be using frequently and which we request the reader to impress on his mind, we mean ‘bound together by a common religious loyalty.’ By sacral society we mean society held together by a religion to which all the members of society are committed.”

The New Testament depicts the Christian church as being a voluntary assembly of believers who worshipped God and stood completely apart from the ceremonies consecrated to the deities of the cities and nations in which they lived. Nevertheless, they acknowledged the authority of the rulers of those lands as being authorized by God to rule in all areas of civil society.

The Constantinian change swept aside the worship of the old pagan deities and made the Roman Catholic church the only permitted form of worship in the whole empire. The Roman Empire once again became a sacral state and any deviation from the state religion was regarded as subversive of civil order.

It took Augustine to formulate a doctrine for such a return to pre-Christian customs. He introduced the concept of the invisible church – true believers are known only to God. Grace was not a matter of a personal relationship with God, but was transmitted through the sacraments of the church. Therefore it was best if all people in the empire were forced to be members of the state church, through infant baptism, and to attend the worship of this church. The faith, or lack thereof, of the priests had no bearing on the validity of the sacraments. Neither did their moral, or immoral, conduct.

Some Christians may have been relieved at the end of persecution. However, there were many who clearly saw that the Constantinian transformation of the church was a betrayal of all that was taught in the New Testament. And for them the persecution never ended.

*The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin. © 1964 by Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company

Seventeen hundred years ago

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.

%d bloggers like this: