From the editor: January 31, 2014
Paul, Jesus & Kings
What Would Paul Have Said About Constantine?
Following up on last week's comments about Constantine, at the risk of seeming overly preoccupied with this controversial figure, I offer some comments (with questions) on Holy Scripture as it pertains to the matter of a "Christian king." I begin with a few references to kings in the New Testament:
1. "You will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake. This will be a time for you to bear testimony." (Jesus to his disciples, Luke 21:12b-13) The witnesses of the gospel will go all the way to the top, so to speak.
2. "Go, for [Saul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel." (Jesus to Ananias, Acts 9:15) Jesus explicitly says Saul will be witnessing to kings as "a chosen instrument of mine."
3. "At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun shining round me... And the Lord said, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting." (Saul, now Paul, in his defense before King Agrippa, Acts 26:13,15) Here, Paul is, in fact, witnessing before a king, as Jesus said he would.
4. "King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe." And Agrippa said to Paul, "In a short time you think to make me a Christian!" And Paul said, "Whether short or long, I would to God that ... you ... might become such as I am-except for these chains." (Acts 26:27-29) Paul witnesses to Agrippa with the intent of converting him to Jesus Christ. (What would have happened had Agrippa converted?)
5. And Agrippa said to Festus, "This man [Paul] could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar." (Acts 26:32) Was Paul's earlier appeal, then, rash and ill-advised? Did he see the opportunity to bring his case before the Emperor and jump at it? Did Paul hope to convert Caesar himself?
6. "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life....." (1 Timothy 2:1-2) Paul urges Timothy about intentional prayer for kings (why does he use four words to describe our efforts?).
It is no stretch to say that Paul would have rejoiced at the conversion of the Emperor. So why not Constantine? My point is that Christians, following the New Testament teachings, would have welcomed royal sympathy and certainly even conversion to Christianity. ("Trust, but verify"?) They were taught to pray for a "peaceable life," which I assume would entail the end of state persecution. Constantine ended it.
But the temptation to either blame Constantine for a supposed "demise" of Christianity or to over-exalt him for what others regard as successes may be rooted in a false notion. That is, placing all our hope or blame on one person. That goes for modern as well as ancient times. While we would be foolish not realize the harm that one man can do to the church or to a nation (Stalin? Hitler?), the bedrock upon which Christians must stand is the confession that Jesus is Lord no matter what, and to accept whatever consequences attend to that witness according to the times in which we live, even persecution.
Further, bearing witness before kings requires being willing to speak to all kings, pagan and Christian alike, as Ambrose rebuked the Emperor Theodosius for the massacre at Thessalonica and as Patrick rebuked Coroticus for his crime. The strength of the church always depends on the strength of its members (see the Letters to the Seven Churches in Revelation), and its strength is not in worldly measures of "success" or even societal "influence," but in the power of holiness and faithful endurance. So we pray for our rulers, in season and out of season. The Lord will separate the Wheat and the Tares in the end.
—James M. Kushiner