Things I want to think about: When the Emperor becomes a Christian

Coin of Roman Emperor Constantine II probably don’t have the time or place in my course to investigate this question properly, but it’s a really interesting one. What happens when the Emperor becomes a Christian?

First of all, some of the assumptions that I’m making.

  1. Jesus primarily teaches groups, not individuals (the exception that proves the rule – John 3)
  2. These groups are mainly made up of the lower socio-economic groups – labourers, peasants etc. The ‘super rich’ (e.g. the Saducees) are rarely spoken to directly but sometimes taught about
  3. Jesus’ message was not simply about how to get to a remote heaven after death, but establishing the Kingdom of God from that moment onwards
  4. Jesus was not trying to set up a competing Empire
  5. Jesus was not teaching the lowest classes of Galillee and Judea how to run the world or the/an empire – and nor was Paul
  6. A mature approach to the question will not blindly apply the sayings of Jesus literally in a totally different context.

My thinking at the moment is that Jesus teaches the poor and oppressed how to seek justice in the context they find themselves in, and when we seek to translate into a different context we must try to understand the kind of justice that Jesus wants to see rather than blindly take (for example) the Sermon on the Mount as a legal pronouncement for all people of all times to obey. It is that process of translating that will be contentious and difficult, but this is the job of all theologians of every era.

Being a Christian Emperor will be different to being a Christian farmer in rural Palestine. Many have criticised Constantine as a pivotal point that Christianity ‘lost it’s way’, but I haven’t yet read those same people articulating how an ‘Emperor’ should be a Christian. We may live in a ‘Western Empire’ that has no real Emperor, but many of those who have leading positions in politics and business (claim to) have a Christian faith. What it means for a world leader or a CEO of a multinational to follow Jesus will necessarily be different to what it means for a single mum on a council estate.

To read: Leithart, Defending Constantine, reviewed at, the blog post that got me thinking.