Still Spooked by Constantine (or Why I Am A Disestablishmentarian)

Why do Christians believe society should be Christian? Did Christ and the apostles entertain such a belief? Keeping Israel Mosaic certainly made sense for about 1500 years of redemptive history but that did not exactly go well. Think exile. And when Christ came, did he try to put Moses back in the Mosaic Covenant? Paul would have us believe otherwise.

But Christendom continues to haunt residents of the West who pine for the days of Christian influence. Oliver O’Donovan defines Christendom this way:

. . . the idea of a professedly Christian secular political order, and the history of that idea in practice. Christendom is an era in which the truth of Christianity was taken to be a truth of secular politics. . . . . Let us say that the era lies between AD 313, the date of the Edict of Milan, and 1791, the date of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. . . . it is the idea of a confessionally Christian government, at once ‘secular’ (in the proper sense of that word, confined to the present age) and obedient to Christ, a promise of the age of his unhindered rule.

When O’Donovan looks for biblical support he has to go more to Israel’s legacy and Christ’s claims about the kingdom of God than he does to anything that Peter and Paul wrote about what Christian rulers should do (as if they ever entertained the idea of a Christian emperor):

The core idea of Christendom is therefore intimately bound up with the church’s mission. But the relationship between mission and Christian political order should not be misconstrued. . . . The church’s one project is to witness to the Kingdom of God. Christendom is the response to mission, and as such a sign that God has blessed it. (The Desire of the Nations, 195)

Not to be a literalist or anything, but the trusty search engine at ESV indicates that Matthew used “kingdom” 53 times in his gospel, Luke 44. Paul in his entire corpus uses the word 14 times (17 if you throw in Hebrews as any Three Forms person should). If declaring the Kingdom of God was a big deal to the apostles, they lost Jesus’ memo.

For that reason, the support for Christian norms in social life are more likely to depend on nostalgia for Christendom (or the theory of it) than on exegesis. Consider the following response to the Marriage Pledge and why Roman Catholics shouldn’t support it:

It is part of the Church’s mission to seek out the State and be united with it; it is the duty of the State to be subject to the Church in matters religious, including those pertaining to the eternal law and the natural law. When the State attempts to create positive law that is contrary to the natural or eternal law, the law itself is invalid. But the Church betrays herself if in confronting evil laws she abandons the State to its own devices. The Church has a positive mission to create concord between the Church and State, not to sow dissension between them. . . .

Thus all marriage (not just Christian marriage!) rightly falls under the authority of the Church. So if, in our times, the State attempts to usurp the rightful authority of the Church by either depriving her ministers of their liberty or by attempting to create laws which are injurious to the natural and eternal law, the role of the Church is to teach, admonish, and ultimately dissolve the temporal authorities. That is what the Magisterium indicates.

If you want evidence of why some Roman Catholics think the magisterium should still be running things, that piece is one where to find a paleo-Roman Catholic construction of Vatican II. But are Presbyterians any less enamored of Christendom or the national (civic) church that gave them legitimacy? Here‘s a defense of the establishment principle from the recent debates among Free Church Scotlanders over Scottish independence (if only the South had used the i-word instead of secession):

Lord Mackay of Clashfearn defines the current status of Church/state relations: “the relationship of the State to the Church of Scotland is one of recognition with a degree of support. As Professor Frank Lyall has said, ‘All that establishment means is that the civil authority has recognised the Church’s self-imposed task to bring the ordi-nances of religion to all Scotland, and looks to the Church on suitable ceremonial oc-casions.’”

What are the duties of the Established Church? In 1877 these were described as: “the protection of the Sabbath, the promotion of scriptural education in the public schools, the conservation of the purity of the Scriptures, and the sacredness of the law of mar-riage.” Today, this scope is greatly diminished: legislation has broken the back of a national recognition of the Sabbath; the state has monopolised education; the free market has removed ecclesiastical oversight from Bible production; and the institution of marriage has succumbed to demands from the gay rights lobby.

And here’s one more for the Lord-of-the-Rings enthusiasts out there. In response, again to the Marriage Pledge, Jake Meador pulls out a quotation from J. R. R. Tolkien:

The last Christian marriage I attended was held under your system: the bridal pair were “married” twice. They married one another before the Church’s witness (a priest), using one set of formulas, and making a vow of lifelong fidelity (and the woman of obedience); they then married again before the State’s witness… using another set of formulas and making no vow of fidelity or obedience. I felt it was an abominable proceeding – and also ridiculous, since the first set of formulas and vows included the latter as the lesser. In fact it was only not ridiculous on the assumption that the State was in fact saying by implication: I do not recognize the existence of your church; you may have taken certain vows in your meeting place but they are just foolishness, private taboos, a burden you take on yourself: a limited and impermanent contract is all that is really necessary for citizens. In other words this “sharp division” is a piece of propaganda, a counter-homily delivered to young Christians fresh from the solemn words of the Christian minister.

Has Meador or Tolkien considered what it’s like to be a Muslim or Jew in a Christian society (think Christendom)? And if we don’t like idea of Sharia law determining civil codes, why should Roman Catholic or Protestant teaching on marriage determine U.S. law? Because more Christians live in the U.S. than non-Christians?

But more to the point, have these folks contemplated whether Jesus and the apostles favored an establishment principle or where the early Christians went to be married? I don’t know the answer to the latter. But I do sense that Christendom is alive and well and that lots of Christians still pine for it. If the church as a pilgrim people not responsible for public affairs was a good thing for the early church, why not for Christians today? I mean, could anyone possibly imagine the OPC as the established church of the United States being responsible for religious life across the nation? (Imagine how long General Assembly would be!) That thought experiment might well put any number of Christian warriors off the Christendom project.

12 thoughts on “Still Spooked by Constantine (or Why I Am A Disestablishmentarian)

  1. The critics would say that those born dispensationalist never escape the distinction between kingdom and gospel, even though everybody else knows now that the law is a gift and that grace is God giving us the faith which causes us to work so that the kingdom will come. DGH seems to think there is a different gospel in Paul than in Matthew.

    But why insist on antithesis and discontinuity when there is no difference between creation and redemption because the “common grace” of creation is not so very different from the universal hypothetical grace “offered” to all sinners? Why do we have to decide between “penal atonement” and “Christus victor” when “penal atonement” does not mean that any actual sins were imputed yet to Christ because election has nothing to do with the atonement because election is only about who will accept the offer to join the kingdom?

    Yes, I started with sarcasm about the residual dispensationalism of dgh and I continued with that “bitterness” in my remarks about those who think that election has nothing to do with the atonement.

    Whose sins were imputed to Christ? When?

    Hebrews 9: 28 Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, NOT TO DEAL WITH SIN but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.


  2. To get to a Christian universe, first you need one imperial church

    Even many “reformed baptists” teach that the sacrament assures you of salvation—-the Bible can’t, believing the gospel can’t but remembering the water can. They say that it’s not humans but God who is “doing the sacrament”. I mean, after all, it can kill you, so therefore it must not be human obedience or disobedience, but God directly giving you assurance—- no salvation normally outside “the church” (but they are pretty generous in allowing that maybe your defective church is still church enough). Many many reformed baptists confuse the law with the gospel


  3. O Donovan—–But if one says we are called to a CITY, I think it’s important to see that some of the full, concretely structured political, public character that we associate with civil societies is also clinging to the church in the end, that this is the fulfillment not only of the prayer meeting and the quiet little gathering, it’s the fulfillment of the PUBLIC LIFE that we know here on earth.

    . What do you make of his argument that Constantinian assumptions are wrong, first because if the church is truly the church it will always be a minority, and second because in turning Christianity into a philosophy suitable to maintain the society, Christians undercut the ability of the church to take a critical stance toward that society. …

    he dismisses the church as always being a minority. I don’t know on what theological authority one could make that assertion. The church has very often been a minority. But whether the church is a majority or a minority at any time or place, the church is not given yet to be wholly visible to itself. There is a real temptation in wanting to be a visible minority, a gathered church in which you can say, “We are few, but we know exactly who we are, and we know who is on our side. The line is drawn clearly and unambiguously between us and the world.” That kind of visibility and definition is not granted to the church in our age. WE KNOW WHERE THE CHURCH IS BECAUSE WE KNOW WHERE THE SACRAMENTS ARE and where the word is preached. We see people gathering to the sacraments, we see the church taking form. I’m with Augustine and again a gathered church Protestantism. The edges are always indistinct. Is this person moving into the church, giving light to those who dwell within the house, or is he just standing on the edge and about to turn his back? We don’t know. … Even if it’s true that the church is going to be a minority, the church is going to be embattled and contested to a certain extent, but it can be so as a majority sometimes. Evil has its ways of challenging the church when it’s in an apparently confident position just as much. Even if the church is a minority, it can’t be a self-conscious minority which says to itself, “We’re perfectly safe because we’re a minority.” That I have to say I find troubling in the kind of catacomb consciousness I find in Stan Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. I don’t think it was at all typical of the Christians that actually inhabited the catacombs. They didn’t huddle down there and say, “How nice. We at least know who we are while we’re down here.”

    … It seems to me extremely clear that the question of the church’s assimilation to the ethos of the society in which it lives….is raised quite irrespective of the church’s relation to government. No doctrines of Christendom or against Christendom are going to change the fact that the church in a loud, confident and boisterous society – confident of its position, confident of its own right – is going to have to struggle to keep the authenticity of its gospel. It’s going to happen anyway, and relation to government doesn’t necessarily make it easier or harder, though in any given situation it might, depending on the government


  4. But you do gotta “live the life”

    Leithart: The big difference between the word and baptism is that the word offers God’s grace to everyone-in-general while baptism declares God’s favor TO ME . Baptism wraps the gift of forgiveness and justification and puts MY NAME on the package. Like the gospel, BAPTISM REQUIRES requires a response of ENDURING faith. Faith involves believing what baptism says ABOUT YOU .

    Leithart–The self-imputation of “righteous” is based on the baptismal declaration that we are “justified from sin” by union with the death and resurrection of Jesus. And I can’t, of course, live a life of unbelief and disobedience, and expect baptism to rescue me at the end. Such a life would betray my baptism…..

    Read more:


  5. mcmark, whether or not a minority, the church will not encompass the whole of society, as in all citizens are Christians (which is close to the Christendom model). And if that is so, Christianity cannot be the norm for a society that includes Christians and non-Christians, unless Christians want to rule non-Christians (think Jews in Europe).


  6. if you define Christian in moralist terms, as the obedience boys do, then of course it is to be expected that the better people should tell the sinners what to do, for their own good and the common good. This telling others what to do is indeed “grace” for the others.

    And that those with “the” Christian worldview should be our elite new philosopher kings

    Mark 10: 42 And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all

    Revelation 3: 21 To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne

    II Timothy 2: 12 If we endure, we shall also reign with Him.

    I Corinthians 15: 24 Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power


  7. D.G. – If declaring the Kingdom of God was a big deal to the apostles, they lost Jesus’ memo.

    Erik – He should have sent more of these alleged memos Fed-Ex with signature confirmation. He must have used the Israeli Postal Service. Maybe the one about the Pope in Rome would have also survived.


  8. dgh— Paul in his entire corpus uses the word 14 times…. If declaring the Kingdom of God was a big deal to the apostles, they lost Jesus’ memo.

    Mark: Yes Jesus now already reigns until the defeat of His last enemy (death) And until then which is worse? Every sinner doing what is right in his own eyes, or sinners who are standing (permanent for now) magistrate?
    I Samuel 12: 12 And when you saw the king of the Ammonites came against you, you said to me, ‘No, but a king shall reign over us,’ when the Lord your God was your king. 13 And now behold the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked; behold, the Lord has set a king over you. 14 If you will fear the Lord and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, it will be well. 15 Bu if you will not obey the voice of the Lord, but rebel against the commandment of the Lord, then the hand of the Lord will be against you and your king.16 Now therefore stand still and see this great thing that the Lord will do before your eyes. 17 Is it not wheat harvest today? I will call upon the Lord, that he may send thunder and rain. And you shall know and see that your wickedness is great, which you have done in the sight of the Lord, IN ASKING FOR YOURSELVES A KING.” 18 So Samuel called upon the Lord, and the Lord sent thunder and rain that day, and all the people greatly feared the Lord and Samuel. 19 And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the Lord your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” 20 And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. 21 And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty….


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