Constantine or Nero?

Contributed by Ryan Salyards.

The first half of the last millennium found the early church faced with the challenges of growth in the midst of broader cultural upheaval. From the persecution perpetrated by Emperor Nero to the apparent triumph of Constantinian Christendom, there is one question that has warranted constant re-evaluation: What is the role and mission of the church in relation to the surrounding culture?

Centuries later in a seemingly different world, this same question needs to be asked. Specifically in the west, where cultural upheaval has provided explicit reason to re-evaluate it, Christians would be remiss not to reconsider our long held assumptions regarding the relationship between the church and the surrounding culture.

We can no longer confidently or consistently assume that political prominence and cultural influence we have historically enjoyed are beneficial to the witness of the church. This assertion may seem counter-intuitive to many.

From the perspective of the humanistic, pragmatic nationalism that serves as the basis of much American theology, it is undoubtedly so. However, scripture proposes an entirely different standpoint from which to proceed.

In Psalm 146, we are reminded not only to withhold confidence from institutions of political power but to hope in the Lord who sets prisoners free and lifts up the oppressed. Similarly, in Hebrews 11 it is made clear that the life of faith in Christ is one of pilgrimage, rather than politicization. We are reminded to live as the faithful lived, as “strangers and exiles on the earth”, desiring “a better country, a heavenly one, city prepared for them.” The Christian is first a “citizen of heaven”, awaiting the full foundation of Christ’s kingdom, confident in his provision and protection until he comes.

While political power, moral legislation and cultural influence appear to be the sure path to protect and preserve Christian values, it is not the method prescribed by scripture. In fact, by adopting this humanistic approach to cultural transformation and placing our hope in the political schemes of the state and self-serving lobbyists, we neglect Christ’s own plan for his kingdom; we misrepresent the gospel; and we denigrate the peculiarity upon which we found our identity as the Church.

Christ’s kingdom, in his own words, is not of this world, and will come to full fruition as a result of His work, not ours. By seeking political power and cultural influence as a means of achieving what only He can, we trade the redemptive and restorative plan of God for short lived legislative morality. Similarly, the inordinate focus with which the American church seeks cultural prominence results in an unfortunate misrepresentation of the gospel.

In the words of Saint Paul in 1 Timothy, “Jesus Christ came to save sinners”, not the Supreme Court. It is “the word of the Lord” that stands forever, not constitutional law. Christ came to save his people not the governments and cultures of this world. It is, however, made clear in scripture that nations will be judged and I suspect our own will not escape this fate. A Christian would do well to examine the depth of his allegiance to these United States in comparison to his allegiance to Christ.

Lastly, since the days in which the people of God wandered the desert or lived in exile under the rule of pagan tyrants, we have been provided both clarity and comfort by scriptural reminders of our status as pilgrims or sojourners in this life. God’s promise is not one of cultural influence, however, it is something greater. In order to enjoy the comfort of living with a hope greater than that which the world can provide it is necessary to remain distinct in allegiance and culture.

To assimilate in a manner that softens the peculiarity and sometimes offensively alternative nature of Christianity is to sacrifice the foundation of the church’s identity. If we are not peculiar, if we are not set apart by the love of God in our manner of life and thought, if our lives are not built upon the gospel rather than the assertions of American Culture, than we are not the Church.

As many professing believers celebrate the election of Donald Trump and look with misplaced hope to the upcoming years in American politics, I’m left to wonder if things weren’t better under Nero. Granted, we are not thrown to lions, but we also don’t place our hope in Christ in any real and concrete manner. It is relegated to the realm of the afterlife. Furthermore, the self-satisfaction and humanistic arrogance that often stem from political power tend to extrapolate the ill effects of misplaced hope. Hope in the pseudo-Christian character of our sinful nation is such misplaced hope and it is founded upon such hubris. It will lead to fear and despair. Hope in Christ, however, will not fail, despite the trials of persecution and life in exile.

Perhaps, for a time, some of us will revel in apparent triumph as we once did under Constantine. But perhaps others might remember, that as Nero played and Rome burned, as we met among the graves of our fathers and were torn to pieces in the arena, Christ was seated firmly on his throne and we placed our hope in him.

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