The sound of wedding bells echoed through the air in the city of seven hills, proclaiming to all the union of a seemingly idyllic couple. The groom was a man of stature, risen to the rank of general, fresh from the battlefield in triumph. The bride was a lovely lady, her upbringing having been handled with the finest of care from a tender age. She had been chosen for a special purpose and even betrothed, yet not to this man. She had been betrothed to another husband.
The groom's name: Constantine.
The bride's name: the Church.
This monumental event took place in the year 312 AD. It was the marriage of church and state. At their embrace, both parties were changed forever. The mighty civil government of the Roman world became a religious empire, with Christianity at its side as the state religion. It was an eerie fulfillment of the words spoken by the prophet Daniel almost 1000 years before:
As you saw the iron mixed with miry clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage, but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay. (Daniel 2:43, RSV)
The iron of Rome was married to the clay of religion, but it was a marriage of convenience, and such marriages are by nature unstable. Yet Constantine's marriage vows were promising, as recorded in the famous Edict of Milan:
...no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion... any one of these who wishes to observe Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation... we have given to those Christians free and unrestricted opportunity of religious worship.
The groom's benevolence on his wedding day even extended beyond his blushing bride to all of his subjects, that there would be liberty in all his domains:
Let the followers of error enjoy the same peace and security with those who believe ... Whatever truth a man has received and been persuaded of, let him not smite his neighbor with it ... For it is one thing to voluntarily undertake to wrestle for immortality; it is another to constrain others to it by fear. 1
This liberty, however, was short-lived. After Constantine's death, his sons used against all who would not embrace the Christian religion the same instruments of oppression that Nero had employed against Christianity. Their reaction against other religions elevated and established Christianity as the state religion of the empire, and set in motion an unholy alliance between the church and the state. The adulterous relationship begun at this point has continued on down through history and marches prophetically toward the consummation of the age. 2 Once Rome declared Christianity to be its state religion, the Roman church was instantly clothed with civil power and began to persecute all those who disagreed in matters of conscience and belief.
In doing so she shamelessly fulfilled the fears Paul the apostle had expressed about her when her waywardness had first begun to show:
I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ. (2 Corinthians 11:2-3)
She was indeed led astray in many ways, not the least of which was her departure from the way Yahshua had taught His disciples to treat those who did not receive Him (or them). Once when some Samaritans didn't receive Him on His way to Jerusalem, His disciples James and John said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" But He rebuked them, saying, "You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives but to save them."
It was not that people who rejected Him or His teachings didn't deserve judgment, but He knew that the day for judgment had not yet come:
If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. (John 12:47-48)
Until then, the responsibility of the Church was to be the light of the world, showing by her purity and devotion to Him, expressed in self-sacrificing love and kindness, that she was worthy to be His bride. That light of love would draw the sincere to be saved, and repel the wicked, sealing them for their eventual judgment.
But now more than 200 years had passed since the days of her pure and simple devotion, the common life of love and unity described in the book of Acts in which all were full participants in service and worship. Now rich Christians oppressed their poor brothers, and a professional clergy in fancy robes lorded it over the common people. As one historian put it, "Between the years AD 100 and AD 500, the Christian Church changed almost beyond recognition." 3
So it was little surprise that she committed adultery with this king of the earth. She had forgotten the companion of her youth and the covenant of her God. 4 By uniting herself with the state she showed herself to be "of the world" and immersed in world affairs, 5 contrary to the words of her now-forsaken Master as He faced the cross:
My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight... But my kingdom is not of this world. (John 18:36)
In the most tragic of ironies, soon those who called themselves His servants, in contempt of His words, would take up worldly weapons and wage war under the banner of the cross, shouting the battle cry, "God wills it!"