KILL THE HERETICS!
For what is there more unfair than to hate a thing of which you know nothing, even though it deserve to be hated? When men, then, give way to a dislike simply because they are entirely ignorant of the nature of the thing disliked, why may it not be precisely the very sort of thing they should not dislike? So we maintain that they are both ignorant while they hate us, and hate us unrighteously while they continue in ignorance, the one thing being the result of the other either way of it. The proof of their ignorance, at once condemning and excusing their injustice, is this, that those who once hated Christianity because they knew nothing about it, no sooner come to know it than they all lay down at once their enmity. From being its haters they become its disciples. (The Apology, Tertullion)
To those of us who grew up in America it seems almost impossible to believe that there is any valid political system other than one that promotes religious freedom and "separation of Church and State." What we tend to forget is that this is a relatively recent idea. For most of human history, and for many places in the world even today, the idea that you should or can remove religion from civil government would be considered absurd. It has long been maintained that no society can remain stable without some moral or ethical system embodied in a set of laws. Vattel, in "The Law of Nations" even goes so far as to declare that preservation of the society's religion is the second most important duty of a government. If you accept the premise that the gods must be satisfied in order to bless a society with wellbeing, then it naturally follows that those who do not promote the society's religion are ipso facto a threat to the society. This statement is true even of atheistic-humanism underlying communism. Of course, under that system, you have a total merger of "church and state" since the only approved belief system is that of communism. Any religion at all is a threat to the communist state. Seeing as how the unrepentant are a perceived threat to the stability of the social structure, what then is a society to do with those who hold to a different religion? The general answer throughout human history has been "KILL THE HERETICS!"
The earliest followers of Jesus certainly understood persecution. From the moment the Apostles preached the first message of the resurrection of Jesus, they were perceived of as a threat. Persecution from the Jewish leaders was continuous, despite the very rational arguments of Gamaliel. Eventually, that persecution stopped when Jerusalem was trashed by the Romans in 70 A.D. There simply was no civil/religious authority around to do the persecution. Unfortunately for the Christians, the Romans had caught on by then to the growing numbers of this new sect and the Christians quickly became the favorite target of persecution for the Roman government. It's always handy, whether you are an Emperor, King or President, to have some small, powerless group of people to point the finger at and blame for the decay in the society. And thus, persecution of the Christians continued on and off for the next three centuries.
It may seem strange to us today, but the earliest Christians were considered atheist. They did not acknowledge the gods of that day, considering those gods to be nothing but fiction and unreal. Thus they did not pay homage to the gods. How are the gods going to show favor to the society if a bunch of people are running around claiming the gods don't even exist? To top it all off, the Christians were claiming that a man could raise from the dead. So they were obvious nut-cases who could be blamed for the decay in the Roman empire. But things change, and sometimes very quickly.
When Constantine took control of the Roman empire, he soon declared Christianity the state religion of Rome. I'm sure there are a variety of arguments as to whether or not Constantine truly converted to belief in Jesus or merely saw a good political move. In either case, the end result was that Christians almost overnight go from being considered lawless to being preferred in public matters. The persecution by the government stopped -- mostly anyway.
We tend to think that the earliest Christians all thought the same and all held the same doctrines. That was never the case. From the very beginning there were differences, especially between the gentile converts to Christianity and the Jewish followers of the Messiah. One side argued that, effectively, you must be converted to Judaism and be circumcised before being a follower of Jesus. This did not sit well with the non-Jewish believers. The first big battle and first Church council (recorded in Acts) were on this very issue. Although the consensus was that gentiles did not need to convert to Judaism, the issue was ultimately settled by the combined facts of the growing number of non-Jewish Christians and the destruction of Jerusalem. After that, Christianity was effectively "Gentile Chrisitanity." But that wasn't the only argument and thus over the ensuing years there were Gnostics and other heretics to deal with and so over and over the bishops of the various Churches would issue their documents against the heretics. A heretic, of course, was anyone who didn't agree with them.
It was into this situation that Constantine intervened. If Christianity was to be the state religion of Rome it just wouldn't do to have all this confusion about what Christianity was. Thus, he called the bishops together at Nicea and basically said, "Get your act together." From this came the canons, or rules for the Church, including the determination as to what writings would be considered authentic and acceptable for teaching doctrine. One key doctrine, the thing that was most troubling at the time, was the nature of the person of Jesus Christ. Some said he was "very God of very God" while others said Jesus was some type of Angel at a level below God, and still others said Jesus was not flesh-and-blood at all. So a vote was taken and the official position of the Church was determined. We know it today as the Nicene Creed. Once that was settled then they could proceed to KILL THE HERETICS!
Thus the once persecuted became the persecutors. At times it even became violent. If you read the writings of Augustine, you will find some of the things that were going on. Back-stabbing, name calling, riots, and so on, all over what we today would consider strange doctrines. Eventually the Church in Rome got very good at KILL THE HERETICS. The Bogomils, the Albiginsians, the Jews, the Crusades were all just practice for the ultimate version - the Spanish Inquisition. With the Protestant reformation and the resulting splitting of Christianity into numerous factions, KILL THE HERETICS soon became all the rage in Europe. Catholics tortured and killed Protestants and Protestants gladly returned the favor. It's hard to remember now what all the fuss was about, but there is still a lot of bitterness between the "papists" and the "protestant heretics" to this day. Then, as the Europeans began to spread into the new world of the Americas, they took their KILL THE HERETICS attitude right along with them. Conversion by the sword was the norm and has left some bad blood between European descendents and natives of this continent.
But all of that was in the future and at the time of Constantine, there were some other things to deal with. What were they to do about the pagans? There were many people in the Roman empire practicing various mystery religions, Mithraism, cult of Sol Invictus, and so on. The obvious answer to most of us today would be to simply leave them alone. But remember that the idea of tolerance was several centuries in the future. They could have attempted to suppress the pagans, but that would mean destroying the temples, burning the writings and, of course, KILL THE HERETICS. It's unlikely Constantine would have allowed that, but it wasn't necessary to find out. The bishops came up with a better idea: co-opt them.
Many people today like to claim that paganism moved in and took over Christianity at the time. Maybe, but it was more like Christianity took over paganism. The Church could look at the symbolism of the pagan festivals and see just enough similarities with the Bible that it was possible to reinterpret everything to make it "Christian." Thus, Isis and Horus become Mary and Jesus. The mid-winter festival becomes the birthday of Jesus. The spring fertility festivals get mixed together with the Jewish Passover to become Easter. And so it went. Who took over whom? Difficult to say, if you ask me.
It is easy with seventeen centuries of hind-sight to wag our finger at them and say they ought not to have done that. But what would you have done? KILL THE HERETICS? The answer isn't so easy when you are in the middle of it. A lot of the Christians were, after all, converted heathens. No doubt they didn't just change everything in their lives all at once, but slowly changed over time. After three centuries of persecution, they probably figured it was better to turn all the pagans into Christians than to kill them. And what better way to do that then tell them that the same symbolism and festivals they knew were really symbols of Christianity all along. Whatever reasoning they used, we are stuck with it and have to deal with it head-on.
So what do we do with the knowledge of this now? Do we ignore it, excuse it, suppress it, or do we rant and rave against it? Shall we KILL THE HERETICS? We would never do that! No, we are much too sophisticated today to do that. We are tolerant, not violent. Well, unless you happen to be a member of some strange "cult" like the Branch Davidians. Then, it's OK to KILL THE HERETICS. But for the most part, we don't kill them anymore; we just hate them instead. They are "false teachers" and "false prophets" and "ignorant" and "emotionally attached to traditions of men" and ... well you fill in the rest, I'm sure you've heard it all too.
One thing about fanatical dogmatic thinking is that it never gets anywhere. It just goes 'round and 'round over the same ground of anger and frustration. "WHY CAN'T YOU PEOPLE SEE THAT I'M TELLING YOU THE TRUTH" is what I hear all the time. And when "those people" just don't get it, well, soon the name calling starts and the cycle of accusations and cross-accusations goes on and on and on and on. Pretty soon it's not longer a difference of opinion; it becomes outright self-righteous hatred instead. I'm tired of it. Very tired.
I've already been down that road years ago and I know where it leads. There was a time in my own life where I just couldn't believe that people wouldn't listen. So I decided to just stop talking to them. That doesn't work, but it is the normal end result of this type of doctrinal dispute. The need to be absolutely right and convince everyone else of it, will eventually cut off all rational discussion. So, I gave that up, too, and decided the best thing would be to give people information they didn't have and suggest possibilities they hadn't thought about. It seems, that doesn't work either. So, I'm all out of answers on this one.
This much I know: God looks on the heart. He is after a change of heart in us and will lead us where we need to be to get that new heart in us. So, maybe, just maybe, we should look at our heart instead of worrying about what everyone else is doing. Is the need to be dogmatic and demand everyone else agree coming from some old wound of being lied to? Well, then just let it go and let God heal it. We are all on a journey here and what seems like an outrage today may eventually come to be seen as just a passing thing along the way. I know it has for me. Everyone else can go KILL THE HERETICS if you want. I found out it's difficult to hold His hand when your hands are full of all the old "stuff" you picked up along the way. That includes the anger and bitterness of having been lied to. It includes the need to condemn everyone that hasn't yet figured that out. So, I dropped all of it to just walk with Jesus. I like it much better this way.
NOTE: At the time I wrote this I believed that it was Constantine that declared Christianity the official religion of Rome. I have since learned that the Edict of Milan only stopped the persecution of Christians and restored them to citizenship. Christianity became the state religion of Rome under Theodosius I in 391 A.D. Constantine was definitely the turning point, however.