Constantine, the first Christian Emperor

History has a way of turning our expectations on their heads. Sometimes history plays out as the exact opposite of what historical figures intend. This, in turn, causes us to find our heroes and villains in the most unlikely places. I’d like to contrast two historical figures in the history of Christianity. One intended to be a hero, trying to favor Christianity anyway he could. The other did his best to murder, torture, persecute and repress Christians any way he could. The first did irreparable damage to the Church; the second showed us the way forward.

In the year 313 A.D. the Emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Milan. This is the most famous historical document in Christianity outside of the Bible. The Edict of Milan gave the Roman Empire freedom of religion. But it did it in the most curious way. It allowed religious freedom because Christianity was to be free. So other religions gained their freedom of worship because of Christianity and so that Christianity could be favored. This edict was the idea of Emperor Constantine.  

It wasn’t long before it was having significant historical and social consequences. Before long Romans were seeking out these Christians who the Emperor was favoring. It didn’t take long before Christianity was the premier religion of the Roman Empire. Soon there were so many converts that the Christians needed to solicit permission to use large Imperial buildings called basilicas to hold their meetings. Basilicas were a combination between a courthouse and public convention center. Christian gatherings went from small meetings held in homes, to large gatherings held in public. Christianity went from being a despised and persecuted sect, to Imperial favor almost overnight.

However, there was a problem. Jesus told us to make disciples. Constantine, and the Church that arose from his reforms, made converts. These converts looked to the State and human clergy for help, not Jesus. Many of the difficulties we have in Western Christianity can be traced back to Constantine’s good intentions.

Chairman Mao Zedong

The story of Mao Zedong’s relationship with Christianity is just about the exact opposite. When Mao came to complete power in China in 1949 Christianity was by no means a favored religion either. However, it wasn’t the Christianity that Constantine was encountering. It was institutionalized, controlled by Western missionaries and had little spiritual power. Mao set out to destroy this opiate of the people. He did this in two ways. If Christians would submit to state control, they were allowed to meet and worship. However, the state slowly began to strangle the State church’s resources, closing their seminaries, controlling and firing their clergy and destroying their buildings. By the time of the Cultural Revolution, there was only one official Catholic Church and one official Protestant church in the entire country. Only non-Chinese could attend either one. In doing this, Mao undid what Constantine put in place.

Some Chinese Christians just wouldn’t submit to State control. They began to meet in secret. They began to meet once again as loving families, with no official clergy or buildings. These Mao persecuted to the most extreme degree. The end result was not what he was expecting. These persecuted believers went from a few hundred thousand in 1949 to about 100-150 million people in sixty years. Tertullian’s famous quote was correct, “The blood of the martyrs is seed.”

Mao on the wall, Jesus in their hearts

Why did the intentions of both Constantine and Mao end up the exact opposite of what they both expected? Because neither of them understood how Christianity really works. Both viewed Christianity as a human institution. Constantine’s good intentions pushed Jesus out of control of the Church. It was replaced by human clergy, State sponsorship and human power. Mao’s less than noble intentions put Jesus right back in control. Christianity stopped being a human controlled institution and became, once again what it was intended to be all along. It became an organically structured network of people under Christ and led by Christ, with Christ’s power. Both Constantine’s story and the story of the Chinese Christians will be more fully covered in my upcoming book The Jesus Virus.

When Christianity becomes what it was intended to be, it grows like leaven in a lump of dough. But to do so we humans have to relinquish control and learn to follow Jesus, the Lord of the Harvest. So, thank you Chairman Mao. While you intended to harm my brothers, and did so, you have shown us anemic Western Christians the way forward. And you have given control of at least the Chinese Church back to Jesus. Hopefully we Westerners can learn from our brothers in China.

  • Christianity in China, in the last 60+ years has grown faster than in any other place or time, including the early Church in the Roman Empire. Can you see other reasons for its growth other than relinquishing the control of humans?
  • What other good intentions can end up having negative consequences? Can you think of other sorts of evil intentions that can end up to our advantage? Why?
  • The Church in China is noted for its supernatural power, much more than is normal in the West. Why do you think this is?
  • What do you think the Western Church would look like if we learned as many lessons from our Chinese brothers as possible? How would that impact you?
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