In the year 313 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, making it legal to be a Christian for the first time in the ancient world. It signalled the end of nearly three centuries of intermittent persecution of the church by the state, and it didn’t stop there. Less than 70 years later, in 380 AD, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire thanks to the Edict of Thessalonica, courtesy of the emperor Theodosius I.

Over the centuries that followed, this development came to be seen as the triumph of the church over the world. But not everyone agreed. More recent assessments, in particular, have tended to view it rather in reverse, as the triumph of the world over the church. And while both are extreme statements, they each contain an element of truth.

To begin with, it’s important to recognize that these imperial edicts didn’t occur in a vacuum. They weren’t the arbitrary whims of a few powerful men. Quite the contrary, they were a considered response to the prevailing social trends of their time.

From counterculture to mainstream culture: perks and pitfalls

The church had come a long way from a handful of disciples huddled in an upper room in Jerusalem. Powered by the Holy Spirit, the Gospel had spread to all corners of the Empire and to every level of Roman society. Christianity was no longer a fringe sect without a political voice, whose members could be rounded up and tossed to the lions for the entertainment of the pagan masses. Over 300 years, the church had grown from counterculture to mainstream culture, a reality that was reflected in the Edicts of Milan and Thessalonica.

Becoming the dominant cultural group within a society has its undeniable perks. But it also comes with its proverbial lion’s share of pitfalls.

On the plus side for the early church, it was now free to worship for the first time without the spectre of persecution hanging over it. Christians could preach the Gospel and publish the Scriptures with no fear of government crackdown, but rather with government approval. The church was able to influence society more openly; it could promote justice and public morality, and care for the poor and disenfranchised.

But just as the church’s impact on the culture grew, so too did the culture’s impact on the church. With their newfound privileged status, Christians began to shift their focus from service and sacrifice to politics and power. The affluent materialism of the pagan Roman world started to seep in among the body of believers. The necessity of new life in Christ marked by holy living faded from view. Instead, as members of the dominant cultural group, people simply assumed they were Christians by default.

These tendencies, both good and bad, have followed the church right up to the present. In our own Western civilization, the church was the dominant cultural force for centuries. As such, it was directly involved in the creation of hospitals, orphanages and universities. Christians were instrumental in the development of modern science, as well as in the flourishing of the arts at unprecedented levels. The Christian view of humanity as created in God’s image led to social reforms, the abolition of slavery, modern democracies and the recognition of universal human rights.

However, cultural Christianity has always had one fatal downside: it produces cultural Christians. This too has been borne out in our Western societies. Whenever the church has been in a privileged position, it has produced people who consider themselves Christians simply by virtue of birth or heritage. In place of a vital union with Christ, such individuals view the faith as merely a system of morals within socially acceptable parameters.

Consequently, whenever the church has attained political influence, it has invariably tried to enforce public morality and religious observance, rather than fulfilling its mandate to change lives via the power of the Gospel. Such efforts have never ended well, either for the church or for the culture.

The loss of cultural dominance: challenges and opportunities

In the case of our present culture, Christianity has largely been displaced from its favoured status by a secular worldview born of the Enlightenment. This has been the cause of lament for some and rejoicing for others. In truth, both responses are warranted to a degree.

We rightly mourn the loss of Christian cultural excellence, of a just and civil society rooted in a Judeo-Christian ethic. At the same time, the distinction between the church and the world, between genuine and nominal Christianity, has become clearer than ever before. And this is surely a reason for gratitude.

In the late stages of the Roman Empire, Christians had begun to view their society as an extension of the Kingdom of God, its future secure and glorious. Then the barbarians came, threatening to overthrow Roman civilization, as they eventually did. It prompted Saint Augustine to write The City of God, an extended reminder that Rome was in fact not the New Jerusalem, and that no earthly state should be mistaken for the Kingdom of Heaven.

It’s a healthy corrective for any society, including our own. Should history continue, it’s entirely possible that our civilization will one day be swept away, and that the church’s centre of gravity will shift to a culture much different than ours. Indeed, such a shift has already begun, with the church growing far faster in the developing world than in the West.

God is the Lord of history as He is of the church. At times, He grants His people favour in the eyes of the surrounding culture. More often, however, He calls them to endure and thrive in the midst of persecution. And just as persecution can be a means of blessing for the church, so cultural favour can be a snare.

Whichever situation prevails, one thing will remain the same. Christians will always need God’s wisdom and empowering grace as they strive to promote His Kingdom here on earth.

Sources and further reading

Russell D. Moore, “Farewell, cultural Christianity: How a changing landscape can strengthen our witness,” Christianity Today, July 1, 2015.

© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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