This is the 200th Wesley Bros Comic! Thanks everyone for your support these few years!
What happens to the Way of Christ when Christianity is given power, wealth and favor from the world? Should Christians celebrate their rise to power as a victory validating their faith? A recent article by Dr. Andrew Thompson notes of the church: “Things began to change in the 4th century A.D., when the Emperor Constantine came to believe not only that the power of Christ had given him victory in war, but also that the Christian Church could serve as a vehicle for cultural and political unification throughout the Roman Empire. So Constantine began to favor the Church politically with patronage. With the endorsement of the Empire’s ruler, the Empire’s citizens began to convert to Christianity en masse,” (Read the full article here at GoodNewsMag.org).
There has been a historical divide in Christianity regarding the marriage of Church & State. Many herald the conversion of Constantine the Great, and since then, of political candidates who use Christianity as a platform for votes. The freedoms ascribed to Christians in a so-called “Christian” government have been celebrated by these as “the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven!” (here, John Wesley quotes Dr. Newton, Bishop of Bristol, Sermon 102, section 15).
But John Wesley represents the other side of Christianity. Many Christians are uneasy, if not opposed, to government leaders co-opting Christianity for political gain. Perhaps my favorite quote on the matter is this:
“I cannot, in anywise subscribe to the Bishop’s opinion in this matter. So far from it, that I have been long convinced, from the whole tenor of ancient history, that this very event, Constantine’s calling himself a Christian, and pouring in that flood of wealth and power on the Christian Church, the Clergy in particular, was productive of more evil to the Church than all the ten persecutions put together. From the time that power, riches, and honor of all kinds were heaped upon the Christians, vice of all kinds came in like a flood, both on the Clergy and laity. From the time that the Church and State, the kingdoms of Christ and of the world, were so strangely and unnaturally blended together, Christianity and Heathenism were so thoroughly incorporated with each other, that they will hardly ever be divided till Christ comes to reign upon earth. So that, instead of fancying that the glory of the new Jerusalem covered the earth at that period, we have terrible proof that it was then, and has ever since been, covered with the smoke of the bottomless pit.” –John Wesley, “Of Former Times,” Sermon 102, section 16
Dr. Andrew Thompson puts it this way: “Wesley cared about Constantine because he knew he had to struggle against what Constantine represented in the Church’s life. The Church was not meant to adhere to the values of the world. The Church was not meant to be the handmaiden of the culture.” Christianity goes through movements of being countercultural, then becoming a subculture, until it is accepted and looks much like the wider culture (again, Thompson’s article). With wider cultural acceptance always comes a significant drop in expectations of discipleship and usually some compromise of belief.
Christian liberals and conservatives alike strive to see their values represented by their government. When is this appropriate and when is it prone to compromise the Gospel? Has Christ called us to culture wars that are won by elected officials? Can the church ever be divorced from this cycle as long as politicians see us as a tool to their own rise to power?