Jesus warned his disciples that they would face persecution for their faith in him:
“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” (John 15:18-20)
After his death and resurrection, they began to tell others about him, and soon they were facing active opposition, social isolation and even physical assaults. The Book of Acts tells the story of the Church’s early growth and expansion, and at every step, these spiritually energized believers met with the kind of rejection Jesus had promised them. The persecution of the church crystallized and intensified when crazy Emperor Nero publicly blamed them for the Great Fire that burned two-thirds of Rome in the year AD 64. It was probably during this outbreak of angry violence against Christians that both apostles Paul and Peter died as martyrs. Over the next 250 years, the church grew in the face of repeated repression and violent outbreaks, culminating in what’s known as the Great Persecution under the Emperor Diocletian, between AD 303 and AD 311, during which more than 3,000 believers were killed and many more imprisoned and tortured.
Then, in AD 312 the Emperor Constantine publicly converted to Christianity. It was probably more of a political act than a true spiritual renewal, but it changed everything for the Christian community. They came out from the shadows into public acceptance. They even had some preferential status now that the Emperor and his family were seen as “Christian.” Finally, in AD 380 Christianity was officially recognized as the State Religion of Rome.
Now that they were allied with the ruling government, the Church began to flex its muscle, sometimes getting its way through force. In some cases, the once-persecuted faith even became the persecutor of other religions. The Dark Ages are dark partly because of this unholy alliance between the State and the Church. The central region of Italy, around Rome, became identified as The Papal States, and the Pope had his own professional army. The Protestant Reformation was mainly about religious beliefs and practices, but it was also about land boundaries and military and commercial control. As modern European countries emerged, each became identified with a State Church bound with the government in mutual support.
When some of these Europeans colonized America, they brought this tradition with them. As the colonists shaped a government after the Revolutionary War, they probably would have named a State Church, but they couldn’t decide which one. Some colonies were Dutch Reformed, some Roman Catholic, some Presbyterian and some Congregational. Which one would they “establish” as the official Church? The compromise decision was to choose none-of-the-above, but to guarantee the free expression of all religions, or even of atheism. This is how the USA developed its unique model of the separation of Church and State, and it has served us well for over two centuries.
The Evangelical tradition is a major force in our society today, and some of its leaders seem to have the attitude that they are the State Church. They believe the government should support their causes, and they have developed a tight partnership with those politicians who do. They should remind themselves, from the Bible, what it’s like to be a persecuted minority, and they should beware of the danger, seen throughout Church history, of how easily the persecuted can become persecutors, when they receive some power.
Roger Williams (1603-1683) was the founder of the first Baptist church in America. He set up a new colony, Rhode Island, just to get from under the repression of the Puritans in Massachusetts, who were trying to make him and his church conform. He realized that he had to grant to others the same freedom he had claimed for himself. Even though he had a passion to share the gospel with those he saw as unsaved, he would not allow himself or his people to force conversion on anyone:
“It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son, the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish,* Jewish, Turkish or Antichristian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all Nations and Countries; and they are only to be fought against with that Sword of God’s Spirit, the Word of God.” (From “The Bloody Tenet”)
Williams seems to be saying that, while sending his Son to free people from their sin, God also granted them the freedom (“permission”) not to believe. The only “sword” we should use to persuade them to submit is his Spirit speaking through his Word.
— Pastor George Van Alstine
* Paganish – Probably a reference to Native Americans, whom Williams saw as equally valuable human beings.