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What If The Early Christians Had Been #NeverConstantine?

Many cultural conservatives have been struggling with the idea of voting for Donald Trump because, as CHQ Chairman Richard Viguerie observed early in the campaign, Trump would be the “most secular” Republican candidate for president ever. 

For many culturally conservative Christians, Trump’s flouting of Biblical principles in his married life, his crude Constantineand occasionally profane way of expressing himself and his business association with casinos, bars and strip clubs all bring to mind Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 5:11:

"But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one." 

In the book Mr. Trump might refer to as “One Corinthians” Paul clearly admonishes his fellow believers against associating with sinners, “Do not even eat with such a one” as the New Revised Standard Version translates Paul’s words into English. 

The easy thing for culturally conservative Christians to do would be to stop right there and to justify withdrawing from this year’s political contest entirely, because, among the major candidates for President, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, neither of the them meet the strict test Paul set in 1 Corinthians 5:11, and Libertarian Gary Johnson in his support for abortion on demand certainly fails as well. 

So how does one convert sinners and bring non-believers into the Church if one is not allowed to “even eat with such a one?” 

The Bible and Paul’s letters to the early Church are often filled with seeming contradictions and this is certainly one seeming contradiction, because we know that Paul and the Apostles spent much of their time sharing the good news of the Gospel, preaching and disputing with sinners and non-believers and attempting to bring them into the Church – and they encouraged their fellow Christians to do likewise. 

In Acts 26:26-29 we are told about Paul’s conversations with King Agrippa:

"For the king knows about these matters, and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner. "King Agrippa, do you believe the Prophets? I know that you do." Agrippa replied to Paul, "In a short time you will persuade me to become a Christian." 

Flavius Josephus, the Roman-Jewish historian, tells us that King Agrippa lived in an incestuous relationship with his sister, Berenice. The arbitrary and capricious manner in which he appointed and deposed the high priests of the Temple in Jerusalem is thought to have contributed to start of the First Jewish-Roman War of 66–73, during which Agrippa sided with the Romans against his own people – if anyone fit Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 5:11 of a person to be avoided surely it was King Agrippa. 

But Paul was not just the carrier of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as an educated Jew he was also steeped in the wisdom of the Old Testament, and in Proverbs 25:15 the Old Testament tells us, “By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, And a soft tongue breaks the bone.” 

After much prayer and deliberation, I am convinced that there isn’t any contradiction between what Paul told us in 1 Corinthians about associating with the ungodly and Paul’s disputing and preaching to King Agrippa – and that it offers Christians guidance for how to conduct themselves during this election. 

There’s a big difference between “associating” with sinners and non-believers, which implies adopting their ways, especially in the historical context of Roman and Greek life, and engaging with them to bring them to the Church or back to the correct path. 

Preaching to and conversing with leaders who deviate from the Gospel is not error, rather working to bring into the light those who do not follow in Christ’s footsteps is one of the most important obligations of a Christian – we can’t do that if we don’t engage. 

Secondly, the history of the early church is filled with instances in which non-Christian secular leaders were converted by missionaries or chose the Church spontaneously – perhaps the best and most famous example being the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Emperor. 

Before the Battle of Milvian Bridge Constantine saw a vision instructing him to put the Chi-Rho symbol upon the shields of his soldiers. To those of us instructed in the peace of Jesus Christ it seems almost blasphemous that a pagan general should use the sign of the Prince of Peace to conquer another pagan, but Constantine followed his vision, won the battle and in return eventually proclaimed tolerance for the Christian Church, which soon became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. 

While many think of Constantine as the “first Christian Emperor” he wasn’t actually baptized until he was on his deathbed and, according to many historians, was often torn between the views of various heretical sects and what we would now consider to be the “correct” or Trinitarian version of Christ’s life on earth and teachings. 

And the Edict of Milan issued by Constantine and his then-co-Emperor Licinius in 313 did not “establish” Christianity as the official Roman religion. It made the empire officially neutral with regard to religious worship; it neither made the traditional religions illegal nor made Christianity the state religion, as occurred later with the Edict of Thessalonica of 380, more than forty years after Constantine’s death. 

Is Donald Trump a modern Constantine?  

Unlikely, to say the least, but we can learn from the historical example. 

Constantine was by no means a confirmed Christian when he used the symbols and power of the Church for his secular purposes. Constantine was likewise not a confirmed Christian when he used the power he acquired to end the persecution of Christians. Constantine was subject to many of the human frailties and errors to which all men, and especially secular leaders, are subject, but he made Christianity and Christians essential to the success of his new empire. 

None of that would have happened if Christians had not chosen engagement with the non-Christian Constantine instead of strictly following the separation and non-association urged by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:11. 

We know Hillary Clinton is committed to the suppression of First Amendment religious liberty and we know she is the implacable enemy of government respect for traditional Judeo-Christian values. We also know that Donald Trump is a flawed man, but a leader who is at least open to our influence and ideas. 

If there had been a #NeverConstantine movement in 312, because Constantine was not a perfect embodiment of a Christian leader* the growth of Christianity would have been set back generations, if not centuries.  

Instead God, and wise Church leaders, chose to work through a flawed man, Constantine, and the essential core of Western Judeo-Christian civilization was established and flourished. 

Today, wise and Godly men might find utility in that example and turn their efforts toward engaging with Donald Trump and his supporters to encourage them to adopt our views on religious liberty, freedom of speech, abortion and protecting the family, rather than separating ourselves from them and losing any opportunity to influence them in our direction.  

It worked in 312, why not today? 

*Actually, there was sort of a #NeverConstatine movement; the Donatists.  

In 303, while Constantine was serving in the Emperor Diocletian's court and army, Diocletian launched the Roman Empire's most devastating persecution of Christians. Nothing indicates that Constantine supported it – or opposed it – and Constantine’s inaction remained a political liability throughout his life. After Constantine ended the persecution of Christians the Donatists refused obedience to any bishops who had yielded in any way to Diocletian’s persecution, later regarding all bishops but their own sect as utterly contaminated. They made enough trouble to cause Constantine to convene a council that held against them, but they hung on anyway. Eventually their influence waned and they disappeared to be seen today as negative examples of purists or rigorists.

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