On Persecution & Church Leadership

Diversions, diversions, diversions! So many interesting, fascinating books to read and so little time!

This week, it is Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter J. Leithart, and it looks set to shatter some preconceptions of mine in regards the church’s relationship to the state in the “Constantinian deal.” But that is always good, always valuable and always enlightening! He writes this about the persecutions of the Christian church in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries Roman Empire:

Persecution also had the unfortunate but obvious consequences of weeding out some of the most determined leaders from the church. Persecutors targeted bishops and priests, and bishops who capitulated survived to rule the church once persecution had ended. Those who did not cooperate often died. It is hardly surprising that, with a few exceptions like Athanasius, the church leaders of the fourth century were not men of the strongest character.

Actually, not obvious to me until Leithart pointed it out. By emphasizing just how horrific the persecution of the church was under Galerius, he also has much to say about why Christians were so willing to welcome Constantine’s embrace:

Eusebius exaggerated Constantine’s virtues and ignored his vices, but his attitude toward a Christian empire makes more sense once we realize that he had personally witnessed some of the horrors of persecution in Palestine. Christians delivered from persecution would regard Constantine the way Poles or Czechs regard Ronald Reagan or John Paul II. These early Christians had survived through the gulag, and they were profoundly grateful to the skilled ruler who led them out.

As I said, interesting.