Constantinian Shift: The Fall of the Church

"Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?"
Luke 6:46


Having delineated the politics of Jesus through a detailed analysis of the New Testament texts, Yoder then asks why Jesus’ life and teachings have been regarded as irrelevant for Christian social ethics throughout most of the history of the church. He finds his answer in the ‘Constantine shift’.

The ‘Constantinian shift’ occurred when the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Through this process the church was transformed from a persecuted and socially disadvantaged minority community into a privileged organ of the state. Following the ‘Constantinian shift’:

• The emperor or the state became involved in the appointment of people to positions of authority within the church.

• Everyone born into the empire or the state territory was regarded as Christian (apart from the Jews). This led to the practice of infant baptism.

• The church saw this as evidence that the end had come in so far as it had succeeded in conquering the world.

• The Christian religion became compulsory and those following other faiths faced persecution.

For Yoder, far from being a victory the Constantinian shift represented the fall of the church by its incorporation into the fallen world and the neutralisation of its distinctiveness.


The early church was committed to living the politics of Jesus. It rejected the ways of the Roman Empire which it regarded as idolatrous and demonic for two principle reasons:

• The paganism of an Empire that required people to worship the emperor or other gods.

• The sporadic and sometimes brutal persecution of Christians.

Over time this began to change as Christians:

• Suffer less persecution and began to enjoy the social stability associated with Pax Romana’.

• Were regarded as honest and reliable and became disproportionately represented in occupations in the state bureaucracy and within powerful Roman households.

These circumstances led Christians to soften the distinction they had previously made between the church and the world and to relax ethical standards. Efforts were made to make it easier for people to become Christians.

The Romans recognised the influential position Christians occupied at strategic points of the Empire. Since persecution failed to destroy the movement, the strategy turned to cooption. Constantine shifted his allegiance to Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and in 325 convened the Council of Nicea in order to unify Christians so that Christianity could act as a unifying force within the Roman Empire.
What really changed for the church between the third and the fourth centuries was that the awareness of minority status was lost, becoming transformed into an attitude of ‘establishment’.


Yoder argued that the Constantinian shift had two critical implications for Christianity; a radical reorientation of the relationship between the church and the world and the development of a new approach ethics that side-lined the teachings of Jesus.

A. The Relationship between the Church and the World

The Constantinian shift involved the fusing of the church and the world through the alliance of the church with the state. This had a number of implications:

The Whole World becomes Christian – Christianity has conquered the world (victory without eschatology). The church becomes invisible because everyone born into a given empire/territory is regarded as Christian. Those outside are regarded as God’s enemies.

The Paganisation of the Church - Christianity becomes Hellenized, rejecting its Jewish roots. There is a shift away from scriptural and pneumatic authority in favour of the authority of the church as an institution and religious control is reasserted though the priestly role (and divinely mandated kingship). The church needs to make it easier for the mass of people to become Christian so it adopts existing pagan festivals (e.g. Christmas) and introduces pagan ritualism and supernaturalism (e.g. the economic meaning of breaking bread together was replaced by a supernatural and ritualistic Eucharist)

Baptism of the Existing Order – The merger of church and state gives the church a vested interest in the present order of things and Christianity becomes a ‘religion’ that hold society together. This leads to the development of the ‘doctrine of creation’ in which the shape of the world as it is reveals the will of God. Hence current structures (e.g. government, economy, war) and existing social divisions/inequalities are seen to be ordained by God (the way God wants them to be)

God Becomes a Tribal Deity - The cause of God becomes associated with one particular power structure or state and this entity replaces the church as God’s vehicle for salvation in history. As a result, military success and empire-building become indicators of God’s favour and the nation or empire is worshipped rather than God (idolatry).

Power and Control over History - When the church sides with power and the use of force it becomes the duty of Christians to act for God in moving history in the right direction. It is assumed that humans are in control of history and can decide on the best way to exercise that control. The Christian emperor or king rules on God’s behalf and the state becomes the agent of God’s defeat of evil.

Two Very Different World Views

Before Constantine – the true church is visible (as a non-conforming fellowship) but Christians need to have faith that God is actually in control of history (which is not immediately obvious when observing the way things are).

After Constantine – God’s control of history is clearly visible (in the activities of the emperor/ruler) but Christians need to have faith that the true church really exists (because it has become invisible).

B. A New Basis for Social Ethics

The Constantinian shift and the new relationship it brought between the church and the world was also associated with a fundamental reorientation of Christian ethics. Most importantly, this involved replacing the teachings of Jesus with other standards and guiding principles (e.g. power, mammon, common sense, natural law).

Ethics based on a duality – the dualism of neo-Platonism is used to separate outer reality and inner attitude. Ethics are then divided into those appropriate to the inner spiritual reality (Jesus’ ethics of love) and those appropriate to the outer political reality (the ethics of power).

Ethics based on natural law – a shift towards basing ethics on ‘common sense’ or ‘the nature of things’ and what is ‘realistic’ rather than on the revelation of God in Jesus. This assumes that the way things are is divinely fixed and ignores the fact that creation may be fallen (i.e. in rebellion and in a mess).

Ethics based on effectiveness – Since Christians are in control of history (through the Christian ruler) ethics come to be measured by what is ‘effective’. There is a focus on how events and outcomes can be controlled to ensure that history comes out right.

Ethics suitable for everyone – If the whole of society is now Christian then Christian ethics must be workable for all. This leads to the development of dual ethical standards; a minimal ‘realistic’ standard for the mass of ‘believers’ and a higher ‘heroic’ standard for those with a special vocation (increasingly associated with monasticism and withdrawal from ordinary life). When testing an ethical position one asks “can you expect such behaviour of everyone?” and “what would happen if everyone did this?”

Ethics suitable for the ruler – If Christians rule the world then Christian ethics must be appropriate for those in positions of power. In the absence of Christian guidelines for those running the empire the Constantinian church-state alliance adopted the norms and standards of the pagan world instead. In particular, the ideas of the Roman lawyer and political theorist Cicero were used in this way. This becomes part of an ‘ethics of vocation’ in which a person is expected to do the ‘proper thing’ given their role and social situation. Christian ethics begin to assume that it is simply unrealistic to ask the ruler to live by the teachings of Jesus.


One Empire, One Church
Following the Constantinian shift, the church-state alliance was able to claim dominion over a single united global Christian world known as Christendom. Although, the church had largely sacrificed the ethics of Jesus for the pagan ethics of power, Yoder recognised that it still had sufficient power and influence to exert a genuinely constraining or moderating influence over the excesses and brutality of those in control. However, Yoder points out that this capacity was significantly reduced by the circumstances that developed following the Reformation.

The Reformation and Fragmentation
Yoder noted that throughout history Churches have increasingly identified with progressively more fragmented regional or national political entities. The Reformation served to break-up Christendom into smaller and smaller national units and in order to protect their status, the churches chose to identify themselves locally with those in power. In such circumstances the degree of influence the churches could exert over the nation state was correspondingly reduced.

Yoder sees this as the paganisation of the church taken to its logical conclusions, each church claiming that God is especially interested in its particular nation over and above all others.

Varieties of Constantinianism

The progressive fragmentation of Christendom can be seen reflected in the following four variants of Constantinianism:

Neo-Constantinianism – the Constantinian vision becomes smaller and more provincial. The church is still linked to power but now at the level of individual nation-states rather than global empire.

Neo-Neo-Constantinianism – the traditional church-state alliance is broken through disestablishment but the church maintains its unquestioned loyalty to a particular nation-state.

Neo-Neo-Neo-Constantinianism – the church remains loyal and patriotic even though it finds itself within a nation-state that is explicitly secular or even anti-Christian.

Neo-Neo-Neo-Neo-Constantinianism – the church identifies itself with a future regime that it regards as a ‘better system to come’ (e.g. by supporting revolutionary liberation movements).


This process of fragmentation and growing secularisation continually reduces the influence of the church and marks the end of Christendom. The church is pushed from the centres of power to the margins.

For many Christians post-Christendom seems threatening, it looks like a defeat. However, for Radical Reformation Christians like Yoder, these circumstances present a genuine opportunity to re-establish what they regard as God’s intention for the church to be a voluntary, powerless and non-conforming community living in faithfulness to the way of the kingdom of heaven within a hostile world (loving enemies, serving rather than lording, identifying with the poor and the outcast and living the liberation of sabbath and jubilee).

We can now consider in detail what Yoder thought the church was called to be.


  1. I appreciate your blog on this as there are not a lot of writings on the Constantinian Shift that I'm finding. Wondering if you have some good sources (I have found Yoder, but would love to know the specific texts of his you have found beneficial). Anything would be of great help!

  2. Dear Nathan, Thank you for your comment. In terms of Yoder I would recommend the following:

    1971 - The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Herald Press)
    1972 - The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans)
    2009 - Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution (Brazos Press)

    A few other sources worth looking at are:

    Stuart Murray (2005) The Church After Christendom
    Stuart Murray (2011) Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World
    Stuart Murray (2011) The Naked Anabaptist:The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith
    Nigel Wright (2000) Disavowing Constantine: Mission, Church and the Social Order in the Theologies of John Howard Yoder and Jurgen Moltmann (Paternoster Press)

    I hope that helps. Stuart.

  3. Dear Nathan, I will also contact Stuart Murray and see if he can suggest anything else. Stuart.


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