The Curse of Constantine and the Lie of the Lesser of Two Evils

Whenever we compromise basic principles of morality in order to support the lesser of two evils, we pay for it later.

As the church has sought to gain and keep political power, it has often compromised by giving into the lie that we must always choose the lesser of two evils. The church has been forced into situations of moral compromise by a worldly political power Jesus never called it to have. From the very beginning, the church had to decide how much it would compromise in order to gain and keep the favor of the emperor. They had to decide how far they would bend God’s word to win political favor.

 

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” Winston Churchill 

As we head closer to the presidential election in November, I have become increasingly concerned about what this election cycle is revealing about the state of the church. I’d like to share some insights from church history that could be very helpful for us as we prayerfully consider our calling in this time and place. Specifically, I think we all need to think more carefully about how the nature of political power is corrosive to the mission and witness of the church and how worldly moral compromise leads to regret and a loss of our prophetic voice in the world.

The Curse of Constantine

In 312 A.D. at the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Emperor Constantine claimed he had a vision. In response to the vision, he did something that has had profound and lasting consequences for the church and the world, which echo down to this day and to our current presidential election. According to Eusebius and others, Constantine looked up to the sun before the battle and saw a cross of light above it, and with it the Greek words “Ἐν Τούτῳ Νίκα” (~in this sign, conquer!). Apparently, God was telling Constantine to conquer his earthly enemies and strengthen his empire in the sign of the cross.

This vision ran contrary to all that God had said in His word and all that Jesus had taught about the nature of His kingdom. The cross is not a symbol to prop up earthly powers and worldly kingdoms. Nevertheless, Constantine obeyed this vision and painted the Christian “chi-ro” symbol on his soldiers’ shields before the battle. They won. The following year, Constantine declared, “that it was proper that the Christians and all others should have liberty to follow that mode of religion which to each of them appeared best.” Religious liberty for Christianity was enacted for the first time.

So, Constantine’s vision and his obedience to it seemed to have very good results: Victory in battle and religious liberty for Christians. As the years progressed, Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and funded major church councils, including the Council of Nicaea. These early church councils established the orthodoxy of Christian faith, solidifying what the church had already believed and taught, while weeding out false teachers and strengthening our understanding of the faith.

So far, so good, right? Well, not so fast . . .

The decision of Constantine to embrace Christianity as a support for his empire has had severe negative consequences, too. The pastors and bishops who came out of the councils on the losing sides now faced persecution for their beliefs, sometimes even imprisonment and death. The church embraced worldly political power as the means to advance its cause in the world, just as Constantine embraced the church as the way for him to advance his cause in the world.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said in John 18:36. “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting.” Well, with Constantine’s decisions in 312-313, the church forgot these words of Jesus and tried to make His kingdom of this world. The result? His followers began fighting to establish, defend and advance Christ’s kingdom, something Jesus never told them to do.

What follows Constantine’s “conversion” is the history of a church full of ugliness: Christians attacking each other, fighting religious wars, burning each other at the stake, mistaking their earthly political kingdoms with the kingdom of God, compromising the Gospel and their prophetic voice to gain political power. As things degraded further throughout the Middle Ages, the positions of bishop became landed gentry offices for sale to the highest bidders, popes became political manipulators who were often notoriously immoral, dissent was met with brutal force, the poor were oppressed and exploited, people were killed for translating the Bible into the language of the people and more.

In fact, the pursuit of political power brought the church back to the spiritual state of the leaders of Israel in Jesus’ day. These men – Pharisees, Sadducees, Scribes – were protecting the political power Rome had given them. They would do anything to keep power, even if it meant killing the Man who had clearly proven Himself to be the Messiah.

Here’s the bottom-line lesson of the curse of Constantine: When the church focuses on earthly political power, both the church and the world lose. Instead of on preaching the Gospel, showing the love of Jesus and speaking as a prophetic voice of truth to the culture, the church fights among itself, jockeys for political power, compromises, manipulates, back-stabs and presents an ugly, awful witness to the world.  The church loses her spiritual power, and the world loses a vital Gospel witness it so desperately needs.

I remember sharing the story of Chuck Colson’s conversion with a non-Christian friend in college. He listened politely and said, “So, he went from being a Republican political operative to being a Christian? Not much of a change, huh?” That’s the opinion of much of the world when it comes to Christianity. Sadly, we have too much in the media and on social media to reinforce that stereotype.

The Lie of the Lesser of Two Evils

As the church has sought to gain and keep political power, it has often compromised by giving into the lie that we must always choose the lesser of two evils. The church has been forced into situations of moral compromise by a worldly political power Jesus never called it to have. From the very beginning, the church had to decide how much it would compromise in order to gain and keep the favor of the emperor. They had to decide how far they would bend God’s word to win political favor.

Some refused to compromise, preferring to preach and teach the word of God without compromise. Sadly, they often paid with their lives, since the church powers now had the power of the sword. John Chrysostom was walked to death in the year 407 at the age of 58 because he refused to compromise. Jan Hus was burned at the stake.  John Knox was driven from Scotland and lives years in exile.

But those who did compromise, who chose to go along with the political realities of their day often suffered worse fates. Wolf Hall is a brilliant mini-series from the BBC which aired on PBS. It tells the sad story of Thomas Cromwell, who compromised repeatedly in order to remain in Henry VIII’s good graces. He compromised his soul before losing his life in 1540.  Likewise Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. He also compromised his values to support Henry VIII. Later, he compromised the Gospel itself in denouncing his faith in order to try to save his life under Queen Mary.

Henry VIII was a powerful egomaniac, a serial adulterer and womanizer who divorced several wives who failed to please him. He was perhaps the most tyrannical king in the history of England, and yet he was surrounded by brilliant Christian leaders who willingly compromised their values, looked the other way, made excuses, corrupted their souls and marred their witness – all for the sake of political power. In the minds of the Reformers who supported Henry, he was clearly the lesser of two evils, the greater being the Catholic Church. Ironically, their compromises helped to set up a culture of religious persecution in England that later led to Queen Mary executing hundreds of godly Reformed pastors.

You don’t need to be a student of church history in order to see the lie of the lesser of two evils In the recent history of the United States, we have also seen the folly of compromise in support of this mis-guided idea:

1. In World War 2, the US and Great Britain made an alliance with the Soviet Union, the lesser of two evils, in their fight against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers. Joseph Stalin ended up killing more of his own people than Hitler, the Soviets took over Eastern Europe, and we were dragged into a Cold War that lasted over 40 years.

2. In the Iran-Iraq War, we made an alliance with Iraq and supported Saddam Hussein. He was the secular leader fighting against Islamic extremism in Iran. We knew he was an egomaniac, but we still armed him with weapons and money, some of which he used against his own people and some of which he used against us in 1991 and again in 2003.

3. In Afghanistan in the 1980’s we supported the rebels against the Soviet Union. We armed and funded Osama bin Laden.

4. In the Arab Spring of 2011, we supported local uprisings against their brutal dictators in Egypt, Libya and Syria. One of the Syrian rebel groups extended into Iraq and became ISIS. The Libyan we supported later attacked our embassy in Benghazi and killed four Americans. The Muslim Brotherhood we supported in Egypt because brutal persecutors who were later removed by their own people.

Whenever we compromise basic principles of morality in order to support the lesser of two evils, we pay for it later.

Lessons for Today

As Christians living in America, we face a presidential election unlike any other we have ever seen. On both sides, professing Christians are supporting seriously flawed candidates because they despise the other candidate so much and feel they must choose “the lesser of two evils.” It’s hard to deny the reality that either Donald J. Trump or Hillary R. Clinton will most likely be the next President of the United States. Very few clear-thinking people enthusiastically support either candidate, as they are among the most compromised and immoral candidates we have ever seen. Yet many people are so driven by fear that they will publicly support a deeply flawed candidate in order to prevent the other from gaining office.

I think history can teach us several things:

1. The church cannot compromise its witness in pursuit of political power.

2. The church cannot find its Savior, its hope or its security in politics.

3. The pursuit of political power or salvation through political means has repeatedly caused Christians to brutally attack in each other in many different ways.

4. We must not believe the lie that we must choose between the lesser of two evils.

5. Supporting evil publicly for political purposes undermines the witness and spiritual power of the church.

I will not presume to tell you how to vote. What concerns me much more is seeing Christian leaders publicly supporting either candidate, given how deeply compromised they both are. Neither of them should be trusted with the power of the presidency. Neither of them seems to have any moral compass other than self-interest. Both of them have a long history of lies, fraud and corruption.

The church has a clear calling. It is not to form political alliances. It is to preach the Gospel, love our neighbors and stand for Jesus Christ our King, come what may. May the Lord give us the grace to stand and keep us from compromise, in-fighting, an ugly witness to the world and instead allow us to shine with His light.

Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.