Before 313 CE followers of Jesus occupied the bottom of society. Some spiritual writers like to point out that this was actually the place of spiritual privilege as depicted in the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-11). But in 313 CE it all changed. That was the year the Roman emperor Constantine, in an attempt to unify the empire, made Christianity the official religion of Rome. This marked the birth of Christendom. Christians moved their worship from the catacombs to the basilicas (palaces of royalty and other elaborately ornamented buildings used for court and public assemblies). Christians came out of hiding and suddenly found themselves moving about in the halls of power.
Don’t think for a minute that Constantine or any of the Roman hierarchy actually trusted in the life and way of Jesus. Originally, the titles attributed to the Roman emperor such as “Son of God,” “God manifest,” and “Lord” were utilized by early disciples to express their loyalty to Christ in defiance of the empire. Ironically, when Constantine transferred these titles to the Christians’ Lord, they lost their real meaning and became formal titles invested with doctrinal content.
The entire emphasis of Christianity shifted from obedience to the life and teachings of Jesus to belief in propositional and doctrinal statements about Jesus. The man, Jesus of Nazareth, whom the powers rejected and crucified was now officially venerated by the Roman state as God in the flesh, while his actual life and teachings were conveniently ignored. In a real twist of irony Jesus’ cross, which to the early followers was a symbol of Jesus’ humble, selfless, nonviolent and sacrificial commitment to the cause of God in the world, which included loving the enemy (Matt. 5:43-48), now became plastered on the shields and spears of the Roman troops going off to war. In gaining worldly power Christianity lost its spiritual power and became an instrument for control in the hands of those in power. Heresy trials where defectors were put to death became the means of ensuring uniformity of belief that would help solidify the empire.
Jesus of Nazareth, before he was worshiped as God, was a teacher, prophet and reformer of Judaism who spoke truth to power. He was a marginal Jew, not by his own will, but rather by the will of the religious establishment who pushed him out to the margins of their society. They didn’t like what he was doing (welcoming all “sinners” to table fellowship, healing on the Sabbath, violating the holiness code of the scribes and Pharisees, etc.) or teaching (such as treat others the way you want to be treated, do not judge lest you be judged by your own judgment, pray for and do good to your enemies, etc.). What Jesus taught about the kingdom of God (nonviolence, acceptance of all, the preeminence of compassion and mercy, etc.) the religious and political leaders found to be radical and subversive. And when the opportunity presented itself they orchestrated his execution.
The early disciples of Jesus were known as people who belonged to the way and as followers of the way, because faith was a matter of trusting in and being faithful to the values Jesus embodied and the life he actually lived. In post-Constantinian Christianity emphasis on living out the values of Jesus and walking in the way of Jesus were replaced with an emphasis on holding to right beliefs about Jesus. The contrasting emphasis was so stark it was like two different religions.
Unfortunately, most expressions of American Christianity reflect the emphasis of post-Constantinian Christianity. How many Christians do you know who put almost all the emphasis on what one believes, rather than what one does or how one lives?
Clearly throughout scripture, especially the New Testament, how we live is more important than what we believe. Disciples are known by their love, not their beliefs (John 13:35). Faith without works is dead (James 2:17). The main thing that matters about faith is how it is expressed through love (Gal. 5:6). True Christian freedom is the freedom to serve others in love (Gal. 5:13).
Does that mean what we believe is not important? No. Because we tend to live up or down to what we actually believe. If one believes God is a vengeful God, then one will feel justified in expressing that same vengeance toward one’s enemies. But if one believes God really does love all people unconditionally, then one who is serious in his/her relationship with God will strive to do the same.
The old-time religion that the world so desperately needs is not what most Christians think it is. It’s a religion based on love of neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40; Rom. 13:8-10), not doctrinal beliefs.