During the “Constantine, Christendom and Cultural Renewal” symposium Jan. 16-18 in Wichita, Kan., a presenter stated, “We shouldn’t romanticize the situation of the pre-Constantinian church.”
Spoken within a litany of brutal methods by which Romans persecuted early Christians, it was leveled as a critique in the direction of peace churches that were founded on the principle of separating church and state.
Yes, tolerance of religions is good. Fourth-century Christians surely were pleased to practice their faith without fear of painful death. Had Constantine stopped with religious freedom and the return of confiscated church property, there might be more widespread agreement that the man was a saint. But he went from tolerance to compromise, establishing unprecedented exceptions to Christ’s commands about how to live faithfully.
But shaming romantics is dangerous. The centurion’s sword cuts both ways. Every Christian tradition romanticizes the church’s roots, exalting some actions and overlooking others.
Catholics revere a direct papal line reaching across millennia to Peter, though several indulgent and murderous popes in the Middle Ages merit no reverence. Orthodox adherents honor Constantine as a saint and herald his role in formalizing the Nicene Creed, though he had his oldest son and wife put to death the following year. Mennonites laud our Anabaptist founding heroes but also have faults, historical and otherwise, that we’d rather not discuss.
It would have been easiest not to invite the Mennonites and simply to praise Constantine for converting to Christianity and facilitating the prophecy of Isaiah 60:3 that “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.”
But symposium organizers did more than that. By inviting Mennonite historian Alan Kreider, they pursued a Christian value that Anabaptists espouse — seeking to learn through conversation and dialogue. As Kreider wrote in Constantine Revisited, “All sides of a debate often bear elements of the truth that, if not equal in validity, are nevertheless necessary. To give voice to all sharpens our understanding and points to wisdom that any one person in isolation may ignore.” It is a noble suggestion, both for ecumenical and internal denominational conversations.
Post-Christendom gives all Christians an opportunity to come together — to join in a place where Anabaptists exiled themselves during the Reformation. We should accept and extend invitations for the church to be true to Christ’s romantic vision of living a visible example of patient love, unencumbered by compromises that come with political power.