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.