The Union of Church and State

By Andy Sochor

In our previous article, we discussed the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. This was a gathering of church leaders from across the Roman Empire who came together to discuss various issues that were affecting the church at that time. This first ecumenical council was called by Constantine, who ruled as emperor of Rome from 306-337 AD.

The involvement of the Roman emperor in organizing this gathering of church leaders to form a consensus on the church’s “official” position on certain matters brings up an important question: What is the proper relationship between the church and the state? Though the circumstances were different, Jesus did address this concept during His earthly ministry:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said. And they sent their disciples to Him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that You are truthful and teach the way of God in truth, and defer to no one; for You are not partial to any. Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?’

But Jesus perceived their malice, and said, ‘Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.’ And they brought to Him a denarius. And He said to them, ‘Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said to Him, ‘Caesar’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.’ And hearing this, they were amazed, and leaving Him, they went away” (Matthew 22:15-22).

There are two points that can be made from this passage. The first is that God’s people are to submit to those who are in positions of civil authority, which includes paying taxes. Paul also gave this instruction in his letter to the saints in Rome (Romans 13:1, 6-7).

However, a second point – and one that is often overlooked – is that the church and the state are to be separate entities. We have obligations to rulers and to God, but they are not the same. What we “render to Caesar” is not the same thing that we render “to God.”

The Lord promised to build His church (Matthew 16:18), purchased it with His blood on the cross (Acts 20:28), and established it on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41, 47). God also ordained civil authorities to fulfill a particular role in punishing evildoers and protecting the innocent (Romans 13:1-4). Yet He intended them to remain separate entities. However, the effort to bring them together would have a terrible impact on the church.

The First “Christian” Emperor

Constantine is known as the first “Christian” emperor on account of his conversion. As he fought for control of Rome in 312 AD, he claimed that he saw a vision of a cross in the sky with the words, “By this conquer.” When he was victorious, he attributed his success to God. He then adopted the symbol of the cross as a standard for his armies. From this point, Constantine considered himself – and was considered by many – a convert to Christianity. However, he put off baptism until he was on his deathbed.

[Note: Because of his delay in baptism, Constantine’s “conversion” would have been a change of heart, not a change of state. In other words, without being baptized into Christ to have his sins washed away (cf. Romans 6:3-4; Acts 22:16), he would not have been added by God to the Lord’s church (cf. Acts 2:41, 47). So when we talk about his conversion in this article, we are referring to the change of heart he had, not a time when he put on Christ in baptism.]

Regardless of whether Constantine’s conversion was genuine or not, it would result in a significant change in the relationship between the church and the Roman Empire. Some of these changes were positive – both for the church and the empire – yet there were negative effects from this as well.

Positive Effects on the Church

Throughout much of the history of the early church, Christians were persecuted by the Roman Empire. However, with Constantine’s supposed conversion, imperial persecution ceased. In 313 AD, the Edict of Milan was issued. This granted Christians the legal right to worship God and organize churches. It even returned property that had been taken from them.

With the end of persecution, Christians no longer had to meet in hiding. They now had the freedom to worship God without hindrance – part of the “tranquil and quiet life” for which Paul said we should pray (1 Timothy 2:1-2). This allowed church buildings to be restored and reopened.

Because Christianity was now openly practiced and even accepted by the emperor, heathenism was discouraged. However, this would lead to a different problem which we will notice in a moment.

Positive Effects on the State

In addition to having a positive effect on the church, there was a benefit to the Roman Empire as well. In his book, Church History, John D. Cox summarized was he called “the good results to the state which came as a consequence of Constantine’s conversion” (p. 37). These were:

  1. Crucifixion was abolished as a method for executing criminals.
  2. Infanticide was repressed.
  3. The practice of slavery may not have been eliminated, but it was modified. Slaves received more humane treatment and were given legal rights which they never had before.
  4. Gladiator contests were suppressed.

What do all of these have in common? They all represent a greater value being placed on the sanctity of human life. This should be expected as the influence of Christianity spread. The Scriptures teach that all men are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), and that God is willing to welcome each person to Him (Acts 10:34-35). Paul told the Colossians that in Christ “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11). As the message of the gospel was able to be taught more openly, the result was a more civilized society as more people embraced the teachings of Christ.

Negative Effects on the Church

Even though heathenism may have been discouraged (as we mentioned earlier), it did not go away. Instead, as Cox noted, “Many passed from heathenism to Christianity by no other conversion than a mere change of name” (Church History, p. 37). Since Christianity had become the official State religion, many were seeking membership without being truly converted to Christ. In describing the impact this had on the church, Dr. Jesse Lyman Hurlbut said this:

“The ceasing of persecution was a blessing, but the establishment of Christianity as the State religion became a curse. Everybody sought membership in the church, and nearly everybody was received. Both good and bad, sincere seekers after God and hypocritical seekers after gain, rushed into communion. Ambitious, worldly, unscrupulous men sought office in the church for social and political influence.” (The Story of the Christian Church)

This also lead to various pagan practices creeping into the worship of the church, including images of saints and martyrs being displayed and eventually worshiped, turning the Lord’s Supper from a memorial into a “Eucharistic” sacrifice, the veneration of the Virgin Mary, and more.


While the peace enjoyed by Christians in the fourth century was certainly a blessing, there was also trouble that came with it. As Christianity became the official religion, there were many worldly people who wanted to join the church without ever converting to Christ. This resulted in worldly and pagan influences within the church.

Besides this, what Constantine did as emperor in uniting the church and the state would have terrible consequences in the future. Even though both institutions were established or ordained by God and had their own role to play in His plan, the Lord intended them to be two separate entities. By merging them, Constantine put the church on the path which would eventually see it develop into the Roman Catholic Church. We will discuss this further in the next article.

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