My friend Sean recently wrote a piece called Heartbreak Empire in which he discusses the biblical narrative as a critique of Empire Building. My comment on his post was getting a little lengthy and so I decided to post it on my own blog instead.
Thanks once again for a thought provoking and well written post Sean.
You reveal a critical aspect of the biblical story – God’s disapproval of Empire – and I fully agree!
In all its’ horrid manifestations Empire is always opposed to the Kingdom of God. I do find myself wondering though whether we at times conflate Empire and Institution when we speak about the church. I think we all know what we mean when we criticize the institutional church. But I also think that sometimes our meaning is lost on those who operate in and minster out of healthy institution. I’ve been feeling led recently to write something of a flipside view of church as institution.
I say this because in a sense institution is simply another word for organization, association, society and the like. In this sense it is nothing but the visible manifestation of people organized around a common goal or mission. Therefore the church is naturally institutional. In fact human beings are naturally institutional since the opposite of institution is generally anarchy or at the very least disorganization.
Institution can be many things, amongst others it can be organic, healthy, holistic, love-centered, people-centered, edifying, self-sacrificing. But it can also be oppressive, power-hungry, corrupt, selfish, profit-centered, static or life-less.
While I also agree that the adoption of Christianity as state religion under Constantine had major implications for the direction the church took in subsequent generation. I also see a bit of a danger in overstating a romanticized version of the Church before Constantine and demonizing most of what followed as though there is no continuity between the church pre-Constantine and the church post-Constantine (Which I don’t think you necessarily do – but I think there is a danger there).
As you know, I’ve often been drawn to these kinds of black and white scenarios. But recently (in part through you and Chris) I’ve been trying to see things a little differently. When I was studying the Eastern Orthodox Church I was surprised to see how much continuity actually exists in the church when viewed through the writings of the Apostolic Church Fathers both before and after Constantine.
Many of the things we think occurred through Constantine were already established in the 1st and 2nd centuries. As you note in your post this is well within the “persecuted church” stage of history. I’m talking about things like, church governance with bishops, priests and deacons serving a special and unique role in the church, the setting out of clear theological boundaries against Gnosticism, Judaism, Ebionism and other heresies (and thereby the justification for continued boundary setting in subsequent centuries), the discussion of the new ‘apostolic writings’ and the stages leading to their acceptance as Holy Scripture at Nicea (the Canon was not officially closed until the Protestant Reformation).
Of course I also agree with you that in the writings I’m referring to these realities are in their infancy (though still clearly accepted by the church) and under Constantine and Rome they gradually became more and more solidified as the Church grew in size (and power) – which led to both good and bad consequences. Many of these growths however were the natural consequence of a growing institution. When things are small they are easier to manage and require less formal structure, but once Christianity had become as big as it did it required greater institutional management – which was neither all good, nor all bad.
I think the ‘Parable of the Wheat and Tares’ speaks powerfully to this reality. We should always remember that under Constantine, under the Roman Popes (even during the Middle Ages) and even in the Western Institutional Church today we have a mixing of Good and Bad that Jesus warns us we are incapable of uprooting. Not that we should say nothing when we see evil (or even just unhelpful) realities in the church, but that we should remember that our vision is limited and sometimes we may think we are seeing Tare when in reality it is Wheat (and vice versa).
I’ve written before on some of my concerns regarding the nature and consequences of the protest that happened during the Reformation. While others had “protested” corruption in the church before they had also remained a part of it and sought to change it from the inside. Jesus taught in the temple and synagogues and lived as a Jew under Judaism – even while criticizing many of the failings that had befallen the nation. Similarly Francis of Assisi, who I know you are quite familiar with, remained within the church and brought about positive changes without creating the schisms of the Protestant reformation. Often schism, even for good reason is due to a power-play on both sides of the split – just look at the East West Schism.
That said, it seems true that the realities of the reformation protest did not allow for change from within and simply could not be contained within the Catholic Church. But it also just goes to show that even within an institution as hierarchical and structured as the Roman Catholic one a Saint like Francis can exist and do mighty things for the Kingdom of God.
I may take up this theme in a future post, an examination of the good that has been done in and through the institutional church. Not as a defense of the institution over against the voices of criticism, but just a reminder to myself and others that the Church as an institution is unavoidable. What we want to avoid is bad institution, corrupt institution and this is what we usually mean when we speak of institutional church. But any time human beings act in an organized manner institution is created in the sense that is forms the skeleton around which we, as the muscles, blood, nerves, and skin, may operate. What we want to aim for is healthy and Spirit-led institution. Institution that is organic and life-giving.
I think we would all agree that the church as institution, both before Constantine and since, has never failed to have positive aspects – even if at times the negatives almost seem to outweigh the positives. It is easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of what the church has done and is doing – and at times this is needed – but in the long run I think we also need to remind ourselves of the good things the church has done and is doing as it shares the Light of Jesus with a world caught in darkness.
But just to reiterate, where I fully agree with you and the main point of your post is that God opposes empire, Jesus opposed empire and ultimately it seems that the meta-narrative of the bible really is a critique of human institution as Empire Building and the incompatibility of Empire with the Kingdom of God.
During my college days I wrote a research paper on the ecumenical movement. I’ve always been interested in the interface of different beliefs and practices. Before coming to Christ as a young adult, this interest led me to explore Hinduism, Buddhism, New Age Magic and Rastafarianism. During my time at Theological college this interest was channeled into the interface of different Christian bodies – How they understand themselves and each other – How willing they are to openly discuss their past and present understandings about God, the Christian Faith and Spiritual Practice – What their Main Differences are, but also what makes them All Christian.
My interest in Catholicism was sparked a few years before writing the paper on ecumenism by my introduction into Christian mysticism. At the time this led me to explore both Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) expressions. I remember always feeling a little worried that I was diving into the life-blood of a people most evangelicals considered un-saved and in need of the True Gospel. Why was my soul being nourished and my spirit being lifted to unbelievable heights by something unheard of and unpracticed in the majority of Protestant churches?
I finished that assignment on Christian ecumenism with one nagging question that I didn’t know the answer too. Or perhaps I should say I sensed the answer but didn’t know whether I should trust what I felt. The question is a simple one – “Do I believe that what Martin Luther started was a good thing?” If yes, no problem! But I was leaning towards the negative! It’s not that I didn’t think he had some valid objections, but his actions led to the splintering of Christianity in a far more destructive way than any split before him. As I’ve wrestled with this over the years I keep coming back to the fact that Protestant Christianity, while often talking about modeling the early church, departs from the history of Christianity in an unprecedented way.
Another question I’m asking these days that relates directly to the previous one is, “Would Martin Luther have Protested against Orthodoxy in the same way he Protested against Roman Catholicism?” While the two churches are similar there are important differences and while it is impossible to answer I do think it is a valid question. The history of Catholicism and Orthodoxy is very different and the churches emphasise different things, perhaps, had Luther been Orthodox rather than Catholic he may have had less to Protest about…but this is only speculation and serves more as an indication of my own preference at this time for Orthodoxy over Catholicism than anything else.
In my next post I’m going to be looking at the 5 Solas of the Reformation and reflecting on my current understanding in relation to each of them.
The strongest principle of growth lies in human choice – George Eliot.
If that is true then my sense of lack regarding my spiritual growth is a direct consequence of my inability to decide.
The world is a shopping mall. A buffet of options to satisfy every taste. Religion as a man-made reality is no different. Whatever your particular take on God there’s a religion, or a church, or a gathering of people to match your outlook. Not only that, but you can tweak that outlook any way you like and still find at least one group of people who agree with you.
Draw up any list about the nature of church, spirituality and God and I’m pretty sure you can find a circle of friends who feel the same way and would love to include you in their fellowship. And yet, with all the options and opportunities out there I find myself standing and staring out at the religious landscape unable to commit to anything more than the Lordship and Saving Grace of Jesus Christ.
Now this may seem like enough to some of you – and in some ways it really and truly is. But in another sense it leaves me depressingly incomplete. The ministry of Jesus was the redemption of the world; He accomplished the task God set for Him and that is why I call Him Lord and Saviour. The dual task He then set for His followers is to Love God and Love others. The vehicle through which this should be done is the fellowship of other followers who corporately manifest His body i.e. The Church. The Church is supposed to play a vital role in the Kingdom agenda of Jesus’ disciples. Therefore, without a church I am like a dismembered hand dragging myself along the road unable to carry out very much of anything.
The problem for me is not that I don’t believe anything regarding the church, in fact it is just the opposite. I’ve explored and investigated so many facets of the church that I have become disillusioned by the exclusive claims of all of them. At this stage I cannot commit to being ONLY Baptist, or Evangelical, or Anglican, or Protestant, or Catholic, or Orthodox, or Emergent…
And so we come to this blog. I’m tired of driving myself and my wife crazy with revolving arguments and endless commentary. I’m hoping that by writing down some of my wrestling I will start sensing some movement in this endless struggle with God and His Church. My prayer is that when the morning breaks God will bless me with a new perspective on His Beautiful Bride and my heart can finally find some peace in a Christian Body.