Monday, October 27, 2014

Picking and Choosing, Binding and Loosing

Had blogs existed in Dante’s time, there is no doubt he would have added a tenth circle of hell to describe what goes on in the comments section. A while back, I wrote a piece that gained a little traction and attracted several comments, one of which was this little gem:
“As a member of the UMC I am ashamed of what you just wrote, how can you pick and choose the parts of God’s word to obey, that is legalism and that is what you are doing… I guess you are a pastor but I would not be a member of your particular Methodist Church… We all must obey God’s Law and his word, no cherry picking, just be obedient…”
“Picking and choosing” or “cherry picking” is a frequent charge you hear Christians making against one another. The assumption behind it is that we are to obey the “whole Bible” and not just pick certain parts. Yet, the Bible is not really the kind of book that functions like a timeless law code. Everybody has to make decisions, sometimes very tough and unclear decisions, about how to interpret and apply certain biblical texts to our lives today. The problem is that when other people’s process of interpretation and application leads them to different conclusions than our own, we derisively call it “picking and choosing,” masking the fact that we ourselves are not simply taking the whole Bible “as it is,” but are also necessarily engaged in the work of interpretation.
Interpretation is inevitable and unavoidable. It’s simply what happens when we read. The Bible doesn’t come with footnotes saying “read this metaphorically” or “this was just meant for the original audience” or “this is actual history.” We have to make decisions about all these matters and more. Some hard-core literalists think, for example, that they are just reading Genesis plain and simple “as it is” when they assert that it is a historically accurate account of exactly how the world came to exist. They miss the fact that they have made a decision (or, more likely, the decision was made for them by the guardians of their brand of faith) to understand the genre of these texts as history and not, say, poetry or saga. But Genesis doesn’t come with notes telling us what literary genre it is. We have to do our best to figure that out by reading it in its historical context. (And when you do that, you see that expecting the kind of information from it that you get from modern history is out of place.)
Picking and choosing, then, is not just something that other Christians we disagree with do. We all do it. We all need to do it. It is simply the process of trying to understand, interpret, and apply Scripture to our lives. Jesus told his followers that they would have to pick and choose. Well, he didn’t use that exact language. He said we would have to “bind and loose.”
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Jesus speaking to Peter in Matthew 16:19)
The language of “binding” and “loosing” came from rabbinic terminology, and referred to the interpretive process whereby some Scriptures were “bound,” that is, declared as still in full effect in a given situation, and some were “loosed,” that is, declared to not be in effect for a given situation. This process has always been and will always be messy. In Acts 15, for example, we see the early Christians debating what to do with the scriptural requirements for Gentiles becoming part of the people of God. What about the Scriptures that stated clearly that circumcision was required (Genesis 17:9-14)? Some Christians wanted to bind this Scripture, and some, because of their experience of the Holy Spirit at work among Gentiles, wanted to loose it. The latter eventually won out, and now we yawn over what seems like the obviously right choice, but at the time it was far from obvious.
This would be the first of many debates over binding and loosing, over picking and choosing.
The defining moral debates in the church today are not over who really respects the Bible or who has a “higher” view of the authority of Scripture. For the most part, they are about the messy details of how you go about faithfully picking and choosing, binding and loosing.
The fact that we are having serious debates over huge issues is not a sign that the church is in trouble, that we have turned away from the Bible’s authority, or that we are in a unique period of history. We’re just doing what we have always done and what we will always do.
The “infallibility” or “inerrancy” of the Bible is hardly ever the real issue. Believe what you want about that, the fact remains that the Bible will always be read by fallible and errant human beings like you and me.
One of the interesting things about the advent of high definition, slow motion replay in sports is that, far from removing the subjective human element from the game, it has actually highlighted it all the more. With some plays you can slow it down, blow it up, and zoom in and there is still going to be different ways of seeing it.
Maybe this is why God didn’t bother with giving us the One-Timeless-Creed-of-Everything-to-Believe-and-Do-Forever-in-All-Times-and-in-All-Places, and instead gave us a diverse collection of histories, poems, prophecies, biographies, parables, letters, and prayers we call the Bible. We would never agree on what the former means anyways, and the latter is much more interesting and energizing to discuss and live with.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Wesley and Slavery: A Model for Methodists and Same-Sex Marriage?

The slavery analogy is the most prevalent argument in the current debate on same-sex marriage in the church. While the analogy can be illuminating in some ways, those on the liberal and conservative sides of this debate often mishandle this analogy in some very unhelpful ways. 

Liberals sometimes think they can just utter the word "slavery" and they assume that is a trump card in this debate. Conservatives, on the other hand, often go to great lengths to try to show (unsuccessfully) that the analogy doesn't work because he Bible really never "endorsed" slavery after all, it merely "tolerated" or "regulated" it. 

Dr. Bill Bouknight, an Associate Director with the Confessing Movement, makes this argument in a very surprising way, arguing that "the Year of Jubilee in the Old Testament was the most radical slave-freeing piece of legislation ever devised." Which is a pretty odd claim to make, considering that the most often cited pro-slavery passage in the Bible is to be found in the Jubilee passage in Leviticus 25:

44 As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. 45 You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. 46 You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness.

This legislation fully endorses enslaving and owning people outside of their ethnic group, treating them as property to pass on to the next generation. I am not sure what Dr. Bouknight finds so "radical" in this passage, which gives divine legitimation to a deeply ethnocentric ethic.

The fact is that even though one can find laws or narratives in the Bible that soften or humanize the institution of slavery, there is no direct opposition to the institution of slavery as such. This is why the Christian abolitionists had to adopt the methods of trying to contexualize the specific passages concerning slavery (trying to point out differences between ancient and modern slavery), and to emphasize the general passages about justice and love. These are the same interpretive strategies, of course, employed by those who now argue for gender equality (and it still needs to be argued for in most churches) and who support the consecration of same-sex marriages. 

John Wesley, however, while being a staunch opponent of slavery, did not make the Bible the center of his argument against it. In fact, as best I can tell, he never really discussed the biblical passages often quoted for or against slavery. In his Notes, he either completely skips over passages pertaining to slavery, or, if he does comment on the passages at all, he focuses on something other than slavery in his commentary. (After searching through the main pro- and anti-slavery passages, the only one I could find where he does comment on slavery in the Bible is in 1 Timothy 1:10. ) In his major work on the subject, Thoughts Upon Slavery, he deliberately sets aside the Bible and chooses to argue simply on the grounds of "natural justice" and appeals to basic human empathy. He writes:

Are you a man? Then you should have an human heart. But have you indeed? What is your heart made of? Is there no such principle as compassion there? Do you never feel another's pain? Have you no sympathy, no sense of human woe, no pity for the miserable? 
I think it is fair to say that for most who are conservative on this issue, there is a concern that they not let emotions overrule what they see as reasoned arguments from Scripture. I know several folks who say that although they feel like people should be able to marry people of the same sex, they do not think it can be right from a Christian perspective. 

I think that kind of attitude should be handled with nuance. On the one hand, I have some respect for it because I am a contrarian at heart, and so I have some admiration for people who are willing to hold and defend unpopular opinions, no matter how much I might disagree with them. I also understand that emotions are not always the best guide to accurate knowledge.

On the other hand, the emotions, while not infallible, can in fact be very powerful guides to truth. This truth has been long neglected in large part because disciplines like theology have been historically dominated by male figures who have operated on the assumption that male=rational=good and female=emotional=bad. The emotions, though, are a central part of who we are (male or female) and God can use our emotions just as much as God can use our cognitions to teach us truth. 

I think, for example, about my own changing understanding of the Bible and women in leadership. In my early 20s, I was convinced that women shouldn't be pastors (among other things) because the Bible clearly prohibited it and I wanted to be faithful to the Bible. Over time, however, I got to know some women who are pastors and found myself being blessed by their ministry. At first, I tried to rationalize my experience by saying, "Well, just because their ministry is effective doesn't mean God approves of it. I mean, God can use all sorts of imperfect things to bless people, so even though God might speak to me through them, God still would prefer it to be men in those roles." 

After a few years, though, that became harder and harder to hold on to. It just started to seem silly. So, I eventually read lots of scholarship on the key passages, and decided that there were good reasons not to treat the "women be silent" passages as universally binding. 

My point, though, is that my change of mind was grounded in a change of heart.

I paid attention to what I was feeling and I let that unsettle, and eventually change, what I was thinking. This is what happens for many people regarding the same-sex marriage issue.  I think Wesley would approve of that approach. 

I am not saying, of course, that Wesley would have approved of same-sex marriage. I am simply pointing out that an approach to morality that doesn't minimize the deep human feelings of justice and fairness is one that is authentically Wesleyan. So when liberals on this issue point out the damage and destruction that comes from the traditional Christian view, when they ask us to imagine what it would be like to be told we can never enjoy sexual intimacy with someone we are genuinely attracted to, when they highlight the happiness and fruitfulness that can come from same-sex couples, they are doing for gay people what Wesley did for slaves. They are asking us to put ourselves in their position. They are asking us to make empathy be the central interpretive key for Scripture.

They are not the first to ask that of us. It is often overlooked (because the verse is often cut off when quoted) that the so-called Golden Rule was not given by Jesus just as a basic moral principle, but also as a basic interpretive principle for reading Scripture:

"In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the law and the prophets." (Matthew 7:12)

The "law and the prophets" was the Bible in Jesus's day, and Jesus is saying that empathic action towards others is the filter through which we are to read Scripture and apply it in our lives. Whether that sounds too liberal or not is irrelevant. It's how Jesus told us to read Scripture.

I should be clear that I do not think that if you hold a conservative view on this issue, that you are therefore necessarily a hard-hearted person. My intent with this little article is more defensive than offensive. 

Liberals on this issue often get accused of denying the authority of Scripture (when what we really deny is the authority of the traditional interpretations of certain Scriptures) and of listening too much to emotions and the culture around us. While the liberal conclusions may be wrong (I think a healthy dose of agnosticism is appropriate for many moral positions), the method by which many of us come to those conclusions is deeply Wesleyan in spirit, and resonates with the same method by which many in our church changed their minds about slavery and, more recently, the status of women. 

Being open to letting experience change you (liberality) is not always good and it is not always bad.

Holding on to your current understandings and convictions (conservativism) is not always good and it is not always bad.

Life is just not that neatly divided up. But the genuine desire to please God is always good, and, as Thomas Merton put it, "the desire to please God is what pleases God." Instead of assuming the other side is either a bigot or a rebel, let's assume of them what we would want them to assume of us: that in our approach to this issue and in the conclusions we hold regarding it, we are trying our best to please God as best as we can understand in the present moment. Which is the most that can be asked of a person.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Has Inclusivity Made Churches Irrelevant?

I recently read a fascinating scholarly article by sociologist N.J. Demerath titled (get ready), "Cultural Victory and Organizational Defeat in the Paradoxical Decline of Liberal Protestantism." His thesis is quite intriguing, and I think has a lot of traction. He proposes that the broad organizational decline of mainstream or liberal churches over the past 50 years is actually the result of the success of the message being preached by such churches. 

These churches, he argues, tend to preach a message that emphasizes pluralism (many different viewpoints out there), individualism (it's up to you to decide what to believe), and free and open intellectual inquiry (don't let creeds hold you back). These values, however, as good as they may be to certain degrees, tend to erode institutional loyalty and organizational solidarity. 

So, somewhat paradoxically, the organizational decline in the church is the result of the message being received, not ignored. To put it simply, the culture at large has embraced these values that have been promoted by liberal Protestants, and this has now made the continued existence of liberal Protestant churches irrelevant. People don't need to come to church to learn that they need to be open-minded and tolerant, since these values are now largely embraced by the culture as a whole. 

While I am sure that the decline of mainstream churches is due to more than simply this, I don't think this can be discounted as an important contributing factor. 

I am all for churches being places of critical thinking and intellectual exploration. I have even tried to instigate a bit of this myself. I am also all for cultivating a church community that doesn't try to dictate the correct answer for every ethical and theological question that we have. We see through a glass dimly, and like it or not, we have to live with a good deal of ambiguity and uncertainty. 

One of my favorite quotes from John Wesley is in his explanation of Methodism, where he is listing things that do not define a Methodist Christian. He says,
 "But as to the opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think." 
While Wesley endorses a wide and generous understanding of Christian faith, it is not an understanding without any boundaries. There is a "root" to Christianity that cannot be pulled up and it still be Christianity. For Wesley, the root of Christianity would no doubt include the uniqueness and supremacy of Christ as God's ultimate revelation of reconciling love. 

Jesus is Lord.

Jesus is central to God's purposes.

Jesus is what God looks like in human form.

Jesus is the Savior of all humankind. 

While we are certainly free to disagree with those statements, we are not free to disagree with them and still operate under the banner of "Christian." (We may have some doubts about them or be confused about what exactly they mean and still, of course, be a Christian, but we cannot positively deny them and still coherently and meaningfully claim Christian identity.) 

Any religious identity must have borders or there is no ground for the identity in the first place. As Andrew Walker and Robin Parry put it in their new book Deep Church Rising: The Third Schism and the Recovery of Christian Orthodoxy,

"Orthodoxy may be a large tent but it is not infinitely large. Boundaries do need to be drawn and this, we maintain, is a good thing. If Christianity can be anything at all then it is nothing at all."

I'm afraid "inclusivity" has often meant watering down the gospel message so much that people can't find anything to disagree with. The problem with that approach is that you also then take away anything of substance for people to agree with and therefore, live for. 

It's a shame that what we often get in churches is either a liberal church with no solid theological center, or a conservative church with way too many fixed theological boundaries. Wesley advocated a third way for his people: proclaim unity in Christ and in God's reconciling work through him, but don't expect uniformity. Wesley was all for inclusivity, but it was definitely a Christ-centered inclusivity. 

Perhaps the way to sum up what I am driving at is this: our mainstream church emphasis needs to switch from Christ welcomes all, to Christ welcomes all. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Christ is Not With Us

Is Christ with us?
A. Yes
B. No
C. All of the above.
My first inclination would be to answer “A,” of course Christ is with us. Did he not promise to always be with us (Matt. 28:20)? The New Testament, however, taken as a whole, would answer “C,” Christ is with us, in one sense, but in another sense Christ is absent from us. Perhaps the starkest contrast can be found in Matthew’s gospel where just a couple chapters before this cherished promise of ongoing presence, we find Jesus acknowledging his upcoming absence when he tells his followers that he will not always be with them (Matt. 26:11).
So, while it is one-sided to merely say that Christ is absent from us, it is just as one-sided to merely say that Christ is present with us. It seems to me that we often make the mistake of focusing on just the promises of presence and not the acknowledgements of absence in the New Testament. This is especially prevalent in the way we talk about the meaning of communion. We talk about it as a way, indeed a central way, of experiencing Christ’s ongoing presence in the world and among us. Often the phrase “real presence” is used to describe this belief that Christ isn’t just present in our imaginations or minds, but is actually objectively present in a mysterious way in the sacramental meal.
I believe all this to be true, and it is certainly taught in the New Testament. But this is not all that is taught about the meaning of communion. Yes, Christ promises in one sense to be with us (“This is my body… This is my blood”), but at the same time acknowledges that this ritual meal will be carried out in his absence when he says that he will not participate in this meal again until the kingdom of God comes in all its fullness (Luke 22:15-16; Mark 14:25). In a similar vein, the apostle Paul refers to communion as a way of “proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor.11:26). So, there is a sense in which in communion we experience Christ in the present, but another sense in which in communion we acknowledge that Christ was once with us in a way that he currently isn’t, and will one day be with us in a way that he currently isn’t.
Talking about the “real presence” of Christ is only part of the truth. There is also a “real absence.”
This scriptural balance is important to maintain for our spiritual health. If we just focus on the promises of presence, we can get the mistaken impression that Christians are to always be compulsively happy and immune from life’s pains because Christ is with us and therefore nothing can hurt us. The problem is that this isn’t true, and if you always try to sustain a walking-on-sunshine attitude, you will wear yourself out and become alienated from reality.
The New Testament is much more realistic than that. Because we are in an important sense away from Christ, our hearts will ache, our bodies will suffer, our deepest longings will go unfulfilled, and our relationships with be difficult.New Testament scholar Mark Powell, in his book Loving Jesus, says that as we grow up and mature in the faith our compulsive happiness should turn into a confident sadness. We are without the fullness of Christ’s presence, and that is reason for us to mourn. Ironically, the deepest kind of joy or well-being (“blessedness”) comes from being willing to enter into this kind of sadness (Matt. 5:4).
Now when I celebrate holy communion, I don’t just see it as a way of experiencing Christ’s presence. I see it as a way of coping with Christ’s absence. Feeling like Christ is absent, feeling sad at times because of the sense of divine absence in your life, is not a sign of spiritual weakness or failure. We need to reclaim the fullness of the paradoxical biblical truth that Christ both is and is not with us.
The Bible uses a number of images to try to capture this dynamic tension, perhaps the most prominent being that of a bride and her groom. The groom has been taken away, and we look forward in hopeful anticipation of the wedding feast and the intimate union in all its fullness. It is a reality we long for and anticipate, not one we currently enjoy. Contemporary theology and preaching seems to have taken a sharp turn towards emphasizing exclusively the present dimension of the gospel message as a way of correcting an older mistakenly one-sided emphasis on the future dimension of the gospel. Both are distortions.
Christ is not with you.
Christ will be with you always.
They’re both true. Accept the first and deny the second, and you get an unbearable despair. Accept the second and deny the first, and you get an unsustainable “happiness.” Accept both and you get biblical faith.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Why I Am Hiding My Daughter's Bible

Many churches have a custom of giving out "3rd Grade Bibles." At my previous church job, I had the privilege of giving one of my daughters her Bible in worship. Now, two years later, I have taken it away and hid it. 

I have not done this because I don't want her influenced and shaped by biblical stories. I've done it because I don't want her to read the Bible on her own at this stage in her life. As I have reflected on it, and with all due respect to those who would disagree with this (which would be many people based on the prevalence of this practice), I've come to the conclusion that giving the "real" Bible to young children is a horrible mistake. Here's why.

Our fifth-grader is a voracious reader. She reads way above her level and has been known to put down a Harry Potter volume in one day. We're pretty proud of that. As she is getting older we want her to be challenged by books with greater depth and complexity, but we still have a very active role in what she reads. There are just some themes and narrative styles that an eleven year old should not be exposed to. It's tough as a parent to try to balance censoring and challenging, but that's the job we all have as parents (nearly every tough part of parenting is some kind of balancing act, isn't it?). 

So back to the Bible. I believe the Bible is inspired by God to lead us to faith in Christ and train us in righteousness and all that. Let's just get that out there. My life was changed dramatically by reading the New Testament in one week when I was eighteen. I get the spiritual power of the Bible. 

But whatever we want to say about the Bible in terms of being "inspired" or "authoritative" or whatever, it is also undeniably true that the Bible is an ancient library filled with all kinds of difficult and scary stuff. When we go to the public library, we don't just drop off our daughter and let her explore anything in the library. So why should we do that when it comes to the ancient library we call the Bible? 

Let's say she were to bring home a book from school that contained stories about:
brothers murdering brothers
a god who kills nearly all of humanity
men letting other men sleep with their wives to save themselves
men having sex with their slaves
daughters getting their dad drunk so they can sleep with him
and men who try to rape other men...

We would probably not approve of such a book. Which is an understatement. I don't want my eleven year old daughter reading stories about incest, murder, and rape. None of this changes just because the cover of the book is a fake black shiny leather with gold printing on it. By the way, this list of themes doesn't even get us past the first half of the first book of the Bible. What if your child were to keep reading and, God forbid, made it all the way to Ezekiel. You might have to answer some awkward questions about donkey penises and stallion ejaculations. (Don't google this. Just turn to Ezekiel 23. Seriously, don't google it.)

So, I think we've made a big mistake in giving Bibles to children. I don't have a perfect solution all worked out. I admire children's pastors a ton for the tough work they have, and I admire any parent who takes an active role in wanting to spiritually shape their kids in the way of Christ. Like I said, I really don't have the solution, I am just naming what I see as a problem. 

Because the Bible is an account of divinity getting all wrapped up in humanity, we should expect it to be messy and rough around the edges. We should expect stories of failure and perversion, raw and gut-wrenching narratives of loss and pain, and so on, along with all the beautiful stories of hope and perseverance and faith. That's life, and because the Bible faithfully narrates life with God, all that is to be expected. None of this is a problem for the Bible as such. But as the author of one biblical book put it, there is a time for everything. Maybe third-grade isn't the time to drop our kids off in the biblical library. 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Letting Go of God

Early in his career, C.S. Lewis wrote a short poem, eventually published as part of The Pilgrim's Regress and later given the title "A Footnote to All Prayers" by his literary trustee Walter Hooper, which points to a spiritual dynamic in the life of faith that is too easily ignored or forgotten: the necessity of doubt, confusion, and uncertainty. 
He whom I bow to only knows to whom I bow
When I attempt the ineffable Name, muttering Thou,
And dream of Pheidian fancies and embrace in heart
Symbols (I know) which cannot be the thing Thou art.
Thus always, taken at their word, all prayers blaspheme
Worshipping with frail images a folk-lore dream,
And all men in their praying, self-deceived, address
The coinage of their own unquiet thoughts, unless
Thou in magnetic mercy to Thyself divert
Our arrows, aimed unskillfully, beyond desert;
And all men are idolators, crying unheard
To a deaf idol, if Thou take them at their word.
Take not, oh Lord, our literal sense. Lord, in Thy great,
Unbroken speech our limping metaphor translate.
Like Pheidias, the ancient Greek sculptor, we carve out images of God in our minds and then trick ourselves into thinking that the God "out there" is identical to the God "in here." Our words and concepts, though, can never serve as containers for God, for, as Lewis reminds us, they are merely "arrows, aimed unskillfully" at God. 
Throughout the Christian tradition there has always been a constructive tension between saying things about God, and at the same time acknowledging that all our words fall short of the divine reality. It is to our detriment when this paradoxical polarity gets out of balance. We can speak truthfully about God, but we do not speak with "the whole truth and nothing but the truth." We become idolaters, Lewis says, when we forget that our religious language provides us with a very human and very limited representation of God, not the reality of God. To worship God in spirit and truth requires that we be willing to let go of "God," to acknowledge that the God who fills the universe cannot be trapped in the confines of our minds. 
I think it is unfortunate that people sometimes feel like they have to become atheists and leave Christianity behind to doubt God. Atheism has (in a certain way) always been an important part of faith. When people start doubting the existence of God, they are, of course, really doubting "God," not God. Sure, some people may go on to deny the possibility of any kind of divine presence or sacred mystery, but that should not be the quick and short-circuited conclusion one draws from beginning to doubt their current understanding of God. 
Your "God" is not God.  The failure or refusal to recognize this difference breeds both the worst kind of religion and the most superficial kind of atheism. 
In order to hold on to faith in God, sometimes we need to let go of "God." The medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said that he once prayed for "God to rid me of God." He was affirming the need for a sort of spiritual iconoclasm, a purging of images from the mind so that the depth and breadth of God could be more fully known. 
In virtually every area of life, as we grow up we let go of previous understandings in order to deepen and expand our knowledge and to better connect with reality. This is true of our understanding of the cosmos, of science, of relationships, of history, and so on. Why shouldn't it be the same with our understanding of, and relationship to, God? If growth and change must happen with earthly matters, how much more with heavenly matters? 
When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Myth of a Constantinian Fall

This post is the fourth in a series on Christian ethics and the use of force.

One of the most frequently made assertions in defense of the pacifist viewpoint (which, broadly construed, is the idea that at least lethal force and perhaps even all force is immoral for Christians) is that the early church was uniformly pacifist, and that it wasn't until emperor Constantine in the fourth century gave a higher legal status to Christianity that you see Christians engaging in and defending warfare. On this view of history, up until the fourth century you have a pacifist church following Jesus, and then you get a militant church following Constantine. But there are good reasons for questioning such an account.

Pacifists, then, would interpret the legalization and promotion of Christianity by Constantine as a sort of "fall" from a more pristine moral condition. Constantine, it is argued, was never a genuine Christian, but just used the church to unify his empire and in doing so the church imbibed an imperial ethos and became much more comfortable using force.

I must say that this line of thinking is one I am drawn to. I am skeptical, even cynical most of the time, about people with power, and especially when people in power make religious claims. As an ancient Greek philosopher once said, "To the masses, all religions are equally true; to the philosophers, they are all equally false; to politicians, they are all equally useful." So, as a general rule, I would be inclined to accept an account like this, or, at least, would be inclined to think it is probably true. The idea of a power-hungry ruler using and distorting the Christian faith for his own purposes is not at all implausible.

However, I think there are significant problems with the idea that pre-Constantinian church was virtually all pacifist, and then with Constantine we see a sudden and unprecedented shift in accepting the moral legitimacy and necessity of force. It is true that in the early church we find most of the major theologians speaking against Christian participation in the Roman army, but from this it is problematic to then assert, first, that the whole church was pacifist, and, second, that therefore this is probably the right position for all Christians to take.

This is really much too big of an issue to try to say something helpful in a short post, but I am just going to make a few critical observations. For those interested, two of the books that have been the most helpful to me are Peter Leithart's Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom and John Helgeland's Christians and the Military: The Early Experience.

1) Even if for the sake of the argument we assume that the whole early church was pacifist, it is possible they were all wrong in taking this stance. One can't argue Christian ethics based simply on early church practice. The early church was unanimous, for example, that virginity was to be prized over marriage, but many Christians now regard that anti-sexual stance as unfounded. While early church tradition has always had a fairly high level of authority attached to it (and rightly so, to my mind), that doesn't mean it was a golden age where Christians agreed on everything and got it all right.

2) In point of fact, though, one can't conclude what most Christians thought based on the writings of some of the early thinkers whose writings have come down to us. If Christians were anything then like we are now, then most people have no problem disagreeing with what there leaders think! We should also keep in mind that we have virtually no knowledge of what most pastors and church leaders were teaching in this era. We have the writings of some of the major voices, but we can't assume that most people agreed with these thinkers.

3) The idea that Constantine took a totally pacifist church and twisted it to suit his political agenda of imperial domination is, even before looking at any of the historical evidence, implausible and suspicious. If Constantine just wanted a religion to advance his political goals, and if Christianity was known for being uniformly opposed to force, then why would he pick that religion? (Which was still a minority religion at that point in the empire.) It just doesn't compute. If your main goal is imperial domination, why try to make a religion that has absolute-nonviolence at its center your means of achieving that goal?

4) The motivations for opposing Christian participation in the army by most of the early church theologians were complex. It wasn't just that they opposed all killing (although some did). They opposed Christians being in the army, in large part, because that involved participating in the emperor cult and other pagan religions and sacrifices. Origen, for example, is often cited as the strongest pacifist in the early church. Yet, Origen supported the state and even prayed for "brave armies." He thought that people should fight for the state, just not Christians because Christians were a priesthood and priests should always be exempt from fighting. Instead of fighting, Christians should pray for those doing the fighting for a righteous cause. His moral logic, then, was much different from that of many contemporary pacifists, and is certainly questionable.

So, for these reasons, I don't think that Constantine caused the church to "fall" from its previous moral purity. Instead of thinking of it as a fall, it seems more likely to me that the legalization and subsequent imperial sponsorship of Christianity intensified and strengthened the strand of Christian thinking going back to the New Testament (and in the Jewish faith before it) that affirmed that governmental structures (and the force needed to sustain them at times) are from God (Romans 13:1-7, for example). While Christianity was a persecuted and suspicious minority in the empire for its first few centuries of existence, it had little reason to develop and expand this strand of thought. After gaining power with the rise of Constantine, this line of thinking took center stage and certainly had reason to grow and develop.

None of this is to deny that the Christian faith has often been, and still is, hijacked by powerful people to advance their kingdoms. I also do not think that the Constantinian shift was a total blessing to the church, as it is not hard to point to ways in which the church began to abuse power, especially in the persecution of "heretics" and the unquestioned identification of divine blessing and imperial expansion. However, I also do not think it is fair to think of this shift as the absolute curse it is often painted out to be by some on the pacifist side. Like most things, it was a mix of the two, sometimes being more of a blessing, and sometimes being more of a curse.