The Empire converts: The making of Christendom
This segment comes from Episode 4: Power + Humility.
The church’s record of holding power – from Emperor Constantine in the 4th century onwards – has involved some terrible acts of coercion, exploitation, and abuse. Yet Jesus set an example of selfless service, and started a “humility revolution” that fundamentally transformed the West and the way we think about leadership and power. For groups like women and indigenous peoples, what has it looked like when Christians have exercised power for their own benefit? What has it looked like when they’ve exercised it for the good of others? This segment looks at how the church’s fraught relationship with power began: with the conversion of Emperor Constantine.
The Empire converts
From Emperor Constantine onwards, the church has had a fraught relationship to power.
JOHN DICKSON: Some would say this is where the church’s fixation with power began.
Here at the Milvian Bridge in the year 312, the emerging emperor Constantine won a stunning victory against his rival Maxentius. And he gave the credit to Jesus Christ.
The sources offer different accounts. Some say Constantine simply had a dream ordering him to fight under the banner of a Christian cross. Others say he saw a vision of the cross in the sky complete with the words “in hoc signo vinces” – “in this sign, conquer”.
It is a bizarre turning point. The Christian symbol of humble self-sacrifice was now part of the Roman war machine.
Within a few years, churches were not just freed from persecution, they were granted the personal patronage of the unchallenged ruler of the world. The churches gained land and money, they enjoyed direct access to the halls of power, and for a brief period, bishops even became magistrates. They had resources, power, and the law – it’s quite a mix.
DAVID BENTLEY HART: I think it’s fair to say that the greatest historical triumph of Christianity as a cultural force – its conversion of the empire – was in many ways also its greatest defeat. Its deepest moral teachings were corrupted at a fairly early period in the long view.
TERESA MORGAN: Undoubtedly Christianity changed. It became more Establishment. It became more interested in money. It became more interested in protecting itself and its own prestige because of being allied with imperial power. On the other hand, it acquired opportunities to do what it saw as good. So I think it’s always a very two-edged thing, acquiring power, for any religious tradition probably, including early Christianity.
JUSTINE TOH: Fast-forward a thousand years, and you see what a church that’s become obsessed with power can look like.
The popes of medieval Europe claimed their descent from the apostle Peter, a humble fisherman, but frequently acted more like princes and politicians.
They took vows of celibacy, but openly fathered children. They peddled positions to those who could pay for them, rather than those who’d be good at them. They sold forgiveness of sins to fund their building projects and keep their courts. They commanded armies; manipulated kings. Some are even rumoured to have poisoned people who stood in their way.
The so-called “Renaissance popes” are the most notorious, and possibly the most hated of the bunch was Julius II, who began his ten-year reign at the start of the 1500s. Julius was an able administrator, and a master politician. But he lacked certain qualities you might expect from a leader of Jesus’ church. He prided himself on being a warrior-pope. And if a town resisted his authority, he loved to dress up in silver armour and lead his troops through its broken-down walls.
There were many Christians who wanted something better from their church and their pope – a return to the way of Jesus.
And even amidst all the warlords and profiteers, there were reforming popes, humanist popes, even monk popes. But Julius gives you a taste of just how bad things got – how far the popes of the time had strayed from the one they claimed to follow.
JOHN G. STACKHOUSE JR: The Renaissance popes are only the most obvious example of a kind of complete collusion with power and wealth in the later Middle Ages. And yet we see it lots of other places too, where Christian clergy are very happy to use the power of the state to stamp out their religious enemies, as well as their political enemies; to seize lands, and houses, and people from their enemies and appropriate them for themselves. So, Christian history is littered with instances of Christians behaving badly when they have a chance to pull the levers of power.close
Do you see the church as an organisation that has a “fixation with power”?
- If you had unlimited power for a day, what would you do?
- Brainstorm some of the ways in which having power can have both positive and negative effects.
- Read the following quotes about power. Which of these quotes do you most agree with? Explain your answer.
- Find a recent news article or video about a leader misusing power for their own gain. Compare your article/video with another student. What similarities and differences are there between your examples?
Understand & Evaluate
Watch the segment: The empire converts: The making of Christendom
- When Constantine won against Maxentius in 312 AD and gave the credit to Jesus Christ, what were some of the short-term changes the Christian community experienced?
- In the video, David Bentley Hart says: “I think it’s fair to say that the greatest historical triumph of Christianity as a cultural force, its conversion to the empire, was in many ways also its greatest defeat.” What does he mean by this?
- Create a diagram to describe the contrast between the Renaissance Popes and Jesus.
- What is ironic about the idea of a “warrior-pope”? (See Titus 1:7.) Create a meme to show this irony.
- John G. Stackhouse Jr says: “Christian history is littered with instances of Christians behaving badly when they have a chance to pull the levers of power.” Why do you think this is?
- Teresa Morgan says that while gaining power during the reign of Emperor Constantine did to some extent corrupt the Christian church, it also had some positive effects as it gave the church opportunities to do what it saw as good. Can you think of any examples where the church has used its power and influence in society for good?
Read Proverbs 3:33-34 and Proverbs 11:2.
- What do these proverbs show us about God’s attitude towards those who are proud?
- Is all pride bad? What kind of pride do you think these verses are talking about?
- What is the ultimate result of this kind of pride?
Read 1 Peter 5:1-6.
- Create a mind-map of characteristics that this passage says an elder in the church should have.
- What motivations does the passage give for living this way?
- What differences do you notice between the instructions in this passage and the way Renaissance popes such as Julius II lived?
- Read the following extract from “Julius Excluded from Heaven”, a satire that was written shortly after the death of Julius II, most likely by Erasmus, the leading Christian thinker at the time. The satire is set at the gates of heaven, and contains a dialogue between Julius and the apostle Peter, who is traditionally imagined as the gatekeeper of heaven.
- What picture do we get of Julius from this dialogue?
- If you could ask five more questions to Julius, what questions would you ask? Write down your questions and Julius’ possible answers. Then, role-play your dialogue with another student.
- Do you think the church still has power and influence in Australian society today? If so, do you think its influence is mostly positive, negative, or neutral? Offer evidence to back up your response.
- Think of someone you know who displays most of the characteristics listed in the 1 Peter passage.
- What effect does this person have on the people around them?
- How close are you to following their example?
Read this article, “Francis is about authentic Christianity, not PR stunts” by CPX’s Simon Smart. Write a summary of some differences between the life of Pope Francis and the lives of the Renaissance Popes.