LGBT, Constantine, Theodosius, USA

Several recent political victories by the LGBT community and their legal representatives have disturbed various traditional Christian communities.  Adding to the understandable angst of these communities and organizations are the defections to the LGBT agenda by venerable quasi-religious organizations such the Boy Scouts of America.  The number of Christian denominations reflecting what is called Mainline Protestants [=liberal Protestants] that embrace LGBT paradigms has also increased.  For those who know me and/or the seminary for which I teach (Harding School of Theology) it will come as no shock to learn that I side with the traditional interpretation of Scripture that regards gay and lesbian lifestyles as outside God’s will for men and women.

Having granted that there is no new news in that, I do want to share some thoughts about an ancient time when similar upheaval was occurring in Europe, the middle east and north Africa.  The time was the 4th century AD, when Classical Civilization, preserved through the Roman Empire, was experiencing an unparalleled metamorphosis.  I am not referring to the unparalleled metamorphosis that took place a few centuries earlier with the advent of the good news of God revealed through the message about Jesus Christ, and its rapid movement, like a spreading flame, through that same part of the world.  This 4th century AD metamorphosis was the forceful overthrow of religious tradition, beliefs, and institutions that had been cherished by pious believers for millennia, through legal maneuvers and political and ecclesiastical machinations.

The change of the moral and religious landscape in America may seem staggeringly rapid, but it is slow in comparison to the magnitude of the sea change that occurred in the 4th century AD and has been subsequently applauded by many Christians in the ensuing centuries.  In the mid-3rd century AD followers of Christ suffered systematic persecution under Trajan Decius and in the first years of the 4th century Christians experienced systematic persecution under the Diocletianic Persecution.  Then in the early decades of the 4th century hostilities against Christianity ended under the Roman Emperors Galerius and Constantine the Great.  With the passing of the years Christianity rapidly moved from persecuted religion of the Roman Empire, to tolerated religion of the Roman Empire, to the official religion of the Roman Empire, to the “only legal religion” of the Roman Empire.  By AD 380 the Emperor Theodosius the Great ordered that all Christians must be “Catholic Christians” who conformed to the Council of Nicea.  This particular Edict of Theodosius ends with these words (AD 380),

We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict. 

Thus, within approximately 70 years leaders of Christianity had transmuted from persecuted to persecuting, from being persecuted by paganism to persecuting other followers of Christ who would not bow the knee to their interpretation of Christianity, on fear of persecution and possible death.

After shutting down opposing Christian views by force rather than non-violent persuasion Theodosius turned his sanctimonious ire to those who had not yet left paganism and idolatry.  Older readers may remember the unconscionable behavior of the Taliban when they controlled Afghanistan in the early 21st century and used dynamite to destroy large Buddhist statues that had been in the Banyam Valley since the 6th century AD.   Taliban jihadists used this violence against monuments in the name of religious purity, much like the current Egyptian Taliban jihadists who promise to destroy, if given the opportunity, the pyramids and Sphinx of Egypt.  A similar outlook was part of the “jihadist” perspectives of Theodosius.  This emperor criminalized all pagan religious practices, both public and domestic, both official and private.  Certainly Theodosius was not the first Christian who thought in these terms.  Julius Firmicus Maternus, a mid-4th century Christian author of the Senatorial class, penned a hostile essay to the Emperors Constantius II and Constans entitled “Concerning the Errors of Profane Religion.”  In addition to berating paganism, the author argues that all pagans should be forcibly converted to Christianity; if they resist, Firmicus Maternus argues from the Bible, they should be killed.  Theodosius, unlike Firmicus Maternus, had both a disposition and the means to eradicate paganism.  Architecture, activities, temples, and sacred monuments: all removed by force of legal maneuvers and political and ecclesiastical machinations.

Well, enough of the 4th century, especially from someone not trained in Patristics.  It seems, however, that it may just be that the legal advantage given to Christendom by Constantine the Great and Theodosius the Great (cf. Mark 9:34-37 on Jesus’ view about who gets to wear the epithet “great”) and perpetuated by most of the European Reformers has past its prime.  This longstanding position, engendered by an unsupportable theology and upheld by legal maneuvers, has perhaps run its long course.  Its death will probably not be as quick as paganism’s, but it is time for those whose faith and practice rest on Scripture to get on with Kingdom business with or without the help of legal maneuvers and political and ecclesiastical machinations.

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20 thoughts on “LGBT, Constantine, Theodosius, USA

  1. Strong and good finish in last paragraph. Please note there, the end of second sentence should be: “passed its prime.” Indeed, let us get on with Kingdom business.

    J. Randal Matheny • [1]http://randal.us/bio

    1. Thanks for the visit and comments. My wife and I “debated” whether it should be passed or past. I check an online source on idioms, etc and it allowed it either way. I guess I will need to check the unabridged dictionary so I can be sure.

  2. I am a first generation Christian, 40 years now. I was raised in an evil home, where several ungodly things were encouraged. Now that I am a grandfather I still hunger and thirst for deeper things, and even hunger more than at first. Constantly changing history and the ever stable reality of Christ (God) has caused me to think, though I may be wrong, that God is preparing Christians today for the perpetuation of Kingdom business… as God always has done.

    1. Thank you for visiting the blog and especially for sharing from your life and its history. I agree that God is certainly preparing us for the perpetuation of Kingdom business.

  3. Dr. Oster,

    This is outstanding, and provides an excellent historical lens for a perspective I have been trying to articulate for some time.

    I am sharing this post all over the place; thanks for writing it!

  4. Dr. Oster,

    Thank you for you blog. Thank you for continuing to challenge to my thinking.

    While I agree that the changes of the 4th century bore terrible consequences, I still wrestle with how Christian faith challenges culture. Is a nation wrong to enact laws against pornography, drugs, and prostitution, not just for pragmatic reasons, but because they may share a moral base founded on Judeo-Christian perspectives?

    D. A.. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited points to the tension involved with Christians living in a liberal democratic society. Freedom from and freedom for are two different things. And what the LGBT community views as freedom I view as enslavement to sin, and what I view as the greatest freedom – being a doulos to Christ – the LGBT community would view as bondage.

    May our allegiance ever be to our heavenly citizenship, but i still wrestle with how this impacts my earthly sojourn.

    Bruce Daugherty

    1. Bruce,

      When I look at the changes of law in our society, the only thing I can think is, “You can’t legislate morality.” I don’t know the source of this quote, but I believe it applies.

      This does not mean that I favor the changes that are being made, it’s just that I view them as inevitable as the decline of man apart from God, as described in Romans 1:18-32.

      1. Alan,
        I have heard that quote so many times in my life and I don’t know the source either. In reality, however, morality is legislated, murder, stealing, purjury, and many many more things. What can’t be legislated is the way people think and the decisions they make, God created us to make the right decisions based on the information we process, sadly, we don’t always make the right decisions. This comes from pride and a lack of faith in God.

  5. Dr. Oster,
    If you haven’t read David Bentley Hart’s short story “The House of Apollo” you should pick it up. It’s in the collection titled The Devil and Pierre Gernet. This piece reminded me of that story.

  6. Why gloss over the work of Athanasius, led by the Holy Spirit defending Orthodox Doctrine of The Holy Trinity before-during-after Nicea? Too Catholic? Too Universal? Too Creedal?

    1. Edwin,
      Thank you for your visit to my blog.

      Most of my posts are brief, and as I mentioned in the post, I am not a scholar trained in the study of the church fathers. I know there were others besides Athanasius I also failed to mention. I am not sure how you want me to take your concluding rhetorical questions. Since my focus was to comment upon political leaders like Constantine and Theodosius, I was not planning on commenting upon church leaders, irrespective of whether they were “too Catholic,” etc.
      What did you have in mind specifically?

  7. Rick,

    It seems we have experienced a paradigm shift in our culture. Within a few years LGBT has moved from morally out of bounds to socially acceptable to sanctimoniously defended as “holier than thou” in the name of fighting discrimination.

    One parallel I see in the first and second centuries CE is the attitude the Roman government had toward paganism as compared with Christianity. The Romans viewed the exclusivism of the Way as atheistic and narrow-minded. They were perfectly willing to add another god or demigod to the pantheon, but unwilling to toss them all for this One.

    We followers of Jesus must submit to Him who confessed, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father but by Me.” We must resist our culture’s pressure to choose either assimilation–going along with every legitimation of immorality as soon as it arrives–or self-imposed isolation–clamping our mouths shut and avoiding contact with unbelievers.

    Christ points us to the third path: becoming salt in a festering world and light in a darkening one. It is not an easy path, but one that has transformative power, both for us and potentially for those we encounter. This is because walking this third path can turn us into the means by which God’s Holy Spirit once again enters human clay and makes alive what was dead.

    Being salt and light, however, does not mean becoming more sanctimonious than today’s LGBT crowd, or trying to exceed their bluster. It means being prepared to give a reason for the hope that we have, yet with gentleness and respect. It also requires maintaining a reasonable consistency between what we say and how we live and a balance between what we give and what we keep.

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