Not all followers of Jesus in the first couple of centuries after his death agreed about who he was, what he did, and how people should live who followed him. They had varying views about whether Jesus was human or divine or a combination or the two. They had disagreements about whether the Jesus movement was primarily a Jewish movement or a gentile movement or some combination of the two. They had different views about the nature of good and evil and what exactly happens after we die. They had different views about how they should relate to governing authorities and whether followers of Jesus could be soldiers or use violence in any form.
Not only did early followers of Jesus have a variety of different views; they also fought with each other about who was right, they called each other names, they had heated theological debates, they argued over what they believed to be correct interpretations and understandings of who Jesus was and what the Church ought to be in the world. Early Christianity was not monolithic. It was a diverse movement, although all of its adherents understood themselves to be following the way of Jesus in the world.
Prior to Christianity becoming an accepted and legal religious practice in the Roman Empire, there was not an entity with the authority and power that could force the various forms of the Jesus movement to adhere to one set of doctrines over another. That changed when the Emperor Constantine who legalized Christianity saw the pragmatic importance for order and peace in the empire of having the Church be of one mind.
There are many ways to understand who Jesus was and what he did. Just because the Roman Empire under Constantine and subsequent emperors promoted one of those ways for its own benefit, doesn’t make that the correct understanding. It is important to understand that the version of Christianity codified by the Council of Nicaea in 325 was influenced deeply by Emperor Constantine’s desire to maintain and expand his own power and to make the Roman Empire, which was waning in its power, Great Again. Followers of Jesus today must wrestle with the reality that the Council of Nicaea of 325 was more about making the Roman Empire Great Again than it was about following Jesus.
It was in the interests of Constantine and subsequent emperors to create consensus around the least liberative understanding of Jesus. The focus of Imperial Christianity was more on right belief than on just action for the poor and oppressed and the most vulnerable in society. By emphasizing a Jesus primarily to be worshipped rather than followed and by controlling access to divine favor through an imperially approved church and its sacraments, the emperors created the political functional equivalent of the divinity of Caesar – a divinity used to control the behavior of citizens of the empire through the threat of the eternal loss of one’s soul.
Followers of Jesus today have to ask ourselves, “Why did a power hungry and murderous Emperor Constantine want the official imperial approved version of Christianity that resulted from the Council of Nicaea?” We should have our eyes wide open to the fact that it likely had very little to do with what Jesus actually did and who Jesus actually was.
We should refuse to let Constantine, a man who executed his own son without a trial and boiled his wife alive, to tell us what we should believe about Jesus so that the church could be of one mind for the maintenance and expansion of Constantine’s power and for the sake of imperial order.
For those of us who are Protestants and who think that the problem of imperial influence on Christianity does not apply to us, we would do well to remember that the forms of Protestantism that found widespread acceptance were those that were supportive of political leaders who were seeking political and economic independence from the Roman Catholic Church. The forms of Protestantism that were not conducive to their maintenance of power, such as those that embraced pacifism and resistance to previously accepted views about the power of the state, were quickly and often brutally suppressed. Protestant empires have used Christianity for their maintenance and expansion of power as well.
We see such a primarily evangelical Protestant phenomenon occurring in the United States today, though it has allies among some other autocratic movements within Christianity. Similar to the Constantinian appropriation of the Jesus movement for imperial purposes, the current push for theocratic authoritarianism that we are experiencing in the United States has almost nothing to do with God or Jesus and almost everything to do with an unholy alliance to maintain and expand a certain form of political, economic, and cultural hegemony.
Followers of Jesus must wrestle with the fact that the coopting of Christianity for the purpose of making America great again is not a new phenomenon. Empires have been coopting Christianity for the purpose of making them “great” since the Edict of Milan in 313, and it has very little to do with who Jesus was, what he did, or what followers of Jesus ought to be doing in the world today.