by Bill Hull
In order for any revolution to succeed, it needs to be perpetually reproducing. It should penetrate all domains of society: entertainment, government, sports, the arts, media, education, the home, the church, and volunteer community groups organizations. Some revolutionaries artificially attempt to do this, but successful revolutions occur naturally, penetrating all domains by the power of their message.
This is why a revolution is more than just picketing outside a corporation or on the steps of Congress. You can make a statement this way, but it cannot be said that you have penetrated or transformed anything. Or consider doing street evangelism in front of a civic center during a convention. This activity is less effective than having advocates inside the organization actively promoting the cause.
Often our churches have attempted to bring change from the outside without penetrating the domains of society. We feel good about ourselves because we have done something, but what have we really accomplished? Most people ignore what we say. They only remember that we bothered them and may be thankful they are not like us.
Throughout church history...
Very capable Christians have made a variety of attempts to significantly impact the world. One such attempt was by the Roman Emperor Constantine. I believe we can learn from his mistakes and by dong so can avoid what some have called the Constantinian temptation. Scot McKnight defines this as “the temptation to get the state to combine its powers with the church’s powers to accomplish, institutionalize, and legalize what is perceived to be divine purposes.” This temptation is still very much alive. Whenever church leaders abandon the ways of Jesus and rely upon the power of the state to accomplish their work, we are all in danger of succumbing to this temptation.
Through the edict of Milan in 311, Constantine declared Christianity to be legal in the Roman Empire. Several years later, he made it the official state religion and joined the church with the state. Though his intentions were good, the result was compromise in the church and centuries of decline in Christian spiritual vitality. Over the centuries that followed, the European church became more oppressive as it compromised the gospel with the secular power, leading to the revolution called the Protestant Reformation.
In the United States, we no longer have the marriage of church and state that was the norm in Europe. But we have the gospels of the left and the right. Both versions fall victim to a variation of the Constantinian temptation. As McKnight says, “Leftists today worry about the Religious Right’s blending of church and state, and not without reason, the Right worries that the Religious Left does the very same thing with its version of a naked public square. Any every attempt to get the government or state to legislate what Christians believe and therefore to enforce Christian beliefs through the law is to one degree or another Constantinian.”
Both the Christian right and left attempt to get the government to promote certain behaviors and to prohibit others. Virtually everyone agrees that all law is based upon some type of moral norm. The question is which moral norms should be enforced through the authority of civil law, and which should be punished by the state. The Right wants laws prohibiting gay marriage and abortion, while the left wants law that promote social justice and punish hate speech. But both sides err when they make civil law and governmental enforcement the end game. True change does not come through external laws but by transforming human character. We will not see lasting revolution when we pursue change by law because Jesus is not working to make us into moral and religious people. He is working to make us into people who do not hate or murder because we are not angry and who do not steal because we respect other people’s property.
Good Laws and Good People
Again to be clear, I believe a good argument can be made for promoting morality through governmental action. And good people should promote goodness in and through the government. But we must not confuse having good laws with making good people. The goodness that makes our laws good is God, for God is the source of good. A remnant of his goodness still resides in every human being because we have been made in God’s image. But this goodness can be suppressed, which results in searing the conscience. Because of fallen human nature, we must not hope to change the world through the legal system and power of the government. The world can only be changed by the power of the gospel. McKnight quotes Carl Henry to support this point. “Christians have a biblical reason for seeking a predominantly regenerate society. But do they . . . have reason also to legislate all scriptural principles upon public institutions including government and schools? Will not Christians be disillusioned and in fact discredited if by political means they seek to achieve goals that the Church should ideally advance by preaching and evangelism?”
History has shown that gains won by the religious right have been short-lived. For example while some laws have passed at the state level defining of marriage as between a man and a woman and restricting abortion, for the most part laws have shifted to the left. And even when states have made laws that support conservative morality, the courts have struck them down. While necessary work must be done in the political and legal spheres, our churches must not be confused about their calling and mission. We fight a spiritual battle, a war for people’s character, and we rely primarily upon the influence that Jesus and the testimony of his disciples have—not external laws or political movements.
Have you fallen prey to the Constantinian temptation? Ask yourself, would things be better if our churches could take over our government? What if the international church ruled the world? Would things improve? My answer is a resounding No. I believe that before the church can take over the world, Christ must take over the church.
 Scot McKnight, The Kingdom Conspiracy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 260.
 Many good histories have been written on this subject. McKnight, Conspiracy, 260, is a good place to start.
 Both are described in chapter 1 of this work.
 McKnight, Conspiracy, 262.
 See Mark 10:18, where Jesus says that God alone is good.
 McKnight, Conspiracy, 266.
Follow Bill Hull on Twitter here and Facebook here.
This excerpt has been adapted from Conversion and Discipleship.
Image credit: Unsplash.
Posted on Wed, October 18, 2017
by kris hull filed under