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Modern Day Constantines

Don’t you just love to hate the bad guy in a movie, especially when he has absolute imperial power, like President Snow in the Hunger Games? If you’ve seen the movies, or read the books, you know he is the tyrannical dictator of Panem. He rules over and oppresses the Capitol and all the districts with absolute power, using military might to achieve his agenda. It’s hard to watch. Throughout the series you hope this evil ruler gets his and the good guys win. But what about when the good guys have absolute power? What if the good guys are Christians, but their power yields negative long-term results for the church? Almost like the church finally gets its hands on that big, powerful gun, and then shoots itself in the foot with it. Those aren’t what-ifs; it actually happened.

We’ve Got the Power

After nearly 300 years of Christian persecution, often at the hands of the Roman Emperors, in 312 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine supposedly converted to Christianity and openly favored it. No longer did Christians need to fear persecution and death at the hands of imperial power. They were the imperial power. Seemingly instantaneously the power of the church increased politically, socially, and even militarily, as Constantine claimed military victory in the name of Christ.

“The problem is many Christians today still think like little Constantines.”

But whatever political, social, or military gains made, there were lasting negative effects on the church from this power infusion. One still felt today is the blurring of the kingdom of God and the church into one. In other words, the expansion of the church’s political, social, and military power was equated with the expansion of the kingdom of God. The problem is many Christians today still think like little Constantines.

What Is the Kingdom of God?

“What,” you say. “Are you kidding? Evangelicals universally reject the idea of military power in the name of Christ. We would never do that.” Amen. I hope we never would. But some of those same people are blurring the kingdom and church into one through social endeavors. What does that mean and why is that wrong? Answering that requires understanding how Scripture refers to the kingdom of God, which is threefold—universal, Messianic, and spiritual.

The universal kingdom of God is God’s sovereign, eternal reign over the entire universe. This is what David referred to when he said, “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations” (Psalm 145:13). I assume Bible-believing Christians get that.

The second aspect of the kingdom, the Messianic kingdom, finds disagreement regarding its nature. But some would find in Revelation 20 a literal, bodily reign of Christ and His reigning over the earth for 1,000 years before the new heaven and new earth.

There are some interpretative disagreements there, but that’s for another day because it’s the third aspect of the kingdom of God, the spiritual kingdom, that directly refers to the error of combining church and kingdom. Often the error is a result of how we think about kingdom.

What do you think when you hear the word kingdom? Probably something like kings and knights defending and expanding their land. It’s geographical territory. But the spiritual aspect of the kingdom doesn’t refer to rule over a piece of land, but the rule and reign of God in the hearts and lives of those He’s redeemed. For example, Christ saying to Nicodemus “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). Or Paul saying, “For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). That has nothing to do with geographical territory or political or social change, and everything to do with hearts surrendering to the King. But some in the church today reflect more of a Constantinian view of kingdom as opposed to a biblical view.

Does the Church Expand the Kingdom?

This is seen in churches expressing their mission as community development or city transformation, resulting in numerous ministries geared toward social and cultural change. Is that bad? Of course not. I love that the church is involved in that. The question isn’t if it’s good or bad, but if it’s an accurate understanding of our mission in relation to the kingdom of God. When the church refers to social change as “kingdom work” or “expanding the kingdom” it misunderstands our mission by falling prey to a Constantinian view equating the church’s social influence with kingdom growth as we take over cities for Jesus.

“The only way the kingdom of God is expanded is when one more person turns from sin and self and bows their knee to the King by repenting and believing in the gospel.”

I would love to see cities taken over for Jesus. Although that likely will include social change, the way the kingdom of God is expanded, the way a city is truly taken over for Jesus is not by helping the homeless, bringing justice to our city, or affecting moral change through political power. The only way the kingdom of God is expanded is when one more person turns from sin and self and bows their knee to the King by repenting and believing in the gospel. The focus is not to be so much on the kingdom, but on the King, and His saving unworthy sinners by grace through faith as we enter into the joy of fellowship in Him.

The True Work of the Kingdom

As Christ commissioning His followers in Matthew 28:18-20 makes clear, He has been given all authority. He is the King with ultimate authority to judge, forgive, bring into, and exclude from the kingdom, His kingdom. But entrance into His kingdom is accomplished by His redeemed going to all the world proclaiming His gospel and making disciples. This is the mission of the church. This is how the church conquers the kingdom of darkness.

Make no mistake, the church living out this mission has contributed to social transformation. But the world’s greatest need is not renewing the social edifices of this world. It is hearing the gospel proclaimed so people from every tribe, tongue, and nation can escape eternal suffering and receive life and fellowship in the King. That leads not only to true social change, but eternal change as Christ purchases a people who now live completely and totally for Him and His glory.

Those who subscribe, whether they know it or not, to a Constantinian view of the kingdom have the right motivation. They just need to have their view of the kingdom and the church’s role in it reflect biblical truth, and not repeat past mistakes.

The true work of the kingdom of God is the most important, joy-filled work the church could ever be a part of. We actually get to take part in Christ raising dead sinners to life in Him and living for His glory by proclaiming His life-giving gospel. And through that the kingdom of God is extended in the here and now and for eternity as one by one people bow their knees in loving submission to the King of kings who bought them.

Scott Wilson

Scott Wilson is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Veritas International University and a pastor in Orange County, California. He earned his B.A. from Vanguard University and his M.Div. from Veritas Evangelical Seminary. He lives in Orange County with his wife and two children.

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