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.