Have you ever been challenged in understanding how people use the Bible or religion to justify violence and war?
As our country's economic and political policies seek to place ever more power and wealth in the hands of the privileged minority, how do we justify calling ourselves a Christian nation? The Old and New Testaments are equally adamant about justice for the poor and powerless.
A pastor friend posted an interesting article the other week about why Christians are leaving the church. Reasons given include: churches ignore problems of the real world, Christianity is antagonistic to science, churches are unfriendly to people with doubts, Christianity seems shallow.
What I'm describing are some pieces from one of my personal puzzles. Recently I've been able to seize hold of the box lid and see the picture emerge. Interestingly however, the puzzle picture takes us back in time to the church's beginnings.
The infant Christian church in its first three centuries (33 A.D. - 303 A.D.) was a small fringe movement. It was sometimes persecuted, but also enjoyed times of religious freedom in which the movement grew and even thrived. Christianity was exclusively nonviolent for the first 150 years or so and remained a predominantly peaceful movement, especially in its teaching. Many pagans were attracted to Christianity because of its high moral standards. Christians were known for their good works, particularly their care for widows and orphans. By 300, Christians accounted for around 10% of the Roman Empire's population. Then in 303, the Roman emperor, Diocletian, instituted one of the most brutal periods of persecution for Christians. In 306, Constantine became the Roman emperor and he allowed the persecution of Christians to continue for another 5 years. Then, in an abrupt change of course, Constantine, co-signed the Edict of Milan in 313, proclaiming religious tolerance for all religions of the Empire. And with this everything began to change.
Constantine was a smart guy or at least smart enough to learn from his mistakes. The Diocletian persecution was a failure. As history has shown, religious movements often multiply during times of persecution. Aware of threats to the Empire, Constantine needed to take drastic measures to unify his subjects. So he worked to bring together very different religious beliefs under the umbrella of monotheism, though how each group defined their God was up to them, so long as the religious factions could be united in their peaceful support of the empire. Then Constantine took things still further and decided to pick Christianity as his favorite religion. His behavior didn't change. He still waged war. He still murdered people - political rivals, friends, members of his own family. He still viewed himself as just one step removed from God. But at the same time, he began to insert himself into Christian affairs.
His Senate, the coalition of politicians charged with helping him run the Empire, was quite corrupt and even worse, inefficient. Constantine began to make use of Christian bishops to help with the work of the Empire. They distributed food to the needy. They became legal arbitrators. Soon, they acted in an advisory capacity to Constantine himself.
After years of persecution, the Christian Church felt as if the increasingly benevolent reign of Constantine was better than a dream come true, it was a fulfillment of God's promise to his people. But as the church, at first slowly and then at an ever quickening pace, worked to accomodate empire, the religion began to shift in pronounced ways.
I owe much to author Craig Carter and his book, "Rethinking Christ and Culture" for this brief history lesson. Now I turn to Stuart Murray and an excerpt from his book, "The Naked Anabaptist".
"By the end of the fourth century, the catechesis system was being overwhelmed by the numbers flooding into the churches now that Christianity enjoyed imperial favor. Much less time was now devoted to the teaching of Jesus. The emphasis was on uniformity of belief and avoiding heresy, rather than counter-cultural discipleship. The creeds were crucially important to this process, but it seems the life and teachings of Jesus were not.
"There were understandable reasons why the imperial church marginalized Jesus as fourth-century Christians struggled to adapt to a new social and political context. His teachings, which had been challenging enough for a powerless, marginal community, seemed utterly unrealistic and inapplicable for Christians assuming responsibility for an empire. What now did it mean to 'love your enemies' (Matt. 5:44) or 'do not worry about tomorrow' (6:34)? How could such instructions be translated into foreign or economic policies? Jesus seemed not to have anticipated this development or to have given any counsel to those with an imperial administration to run. Gratefully, church leaders turned instead to the Old Testament for guidance: after all, ancient Israel had an economy to run, borders to defend, and a social system to organize.
"Nor were the teachings of Jesus the only problem. More awkward still was his lifestyle, his passion for justice, his confrontations with the wealthy and powerful (the very people whom the churches were now wooing), his care for the outcasts and the downtrodden, his refusal to endorse social norms and traditional gender roles. As the church mixed ever more with the 'movers and shakers,' it was difficult to know what it meant to follow and imitate the 'friend of sinners' who prioritized the 'moved and shaken.' As the churches accepted and relished an honored place in a hierarchical society, the upside-down, last-will-be-first values Jesus taught and practiced were disturbing and distasteful....
"What could the imperial church do? Obviously, their founder could not be airbrushed out of the story altogether. But the life and teaching of Jesus could be reappraised, neutered, and domesticated. The way in which the Sermon on the Mount was handled during the Christendom era is a classis example of this process. Theologians and preachers found several ingenious ways of evading its challenge. Some insisted it was mandatory for the clergy and the monks, but beyond the reach of most Christians. Others said it did not refer to the present age but described life in the coming kingdom of God. Many suggested it applied only to the private sphere, not to public life in the empire. Another interpretation offered reassurance that it was not meant to be obeyed but to show the impossibility of obedience and so throw you back on the grace of God. Or perhaps it applied only to interior attitudes, not to outward behavior, so that it was possible to love the enemies into whom you were thrusting your sword (53-54)."
It is during the fourth century that the traditional theories of atonement emerged, flawed theories still unquestioningly accepted as truth by the great majority of Christians today (see The Nonviolent Atonement by J. Denny Weaver).
Skip ahead to the fifth century and in 420, for the first time, a Christian bishop (Augustine) calls for the violent suppression of the "heretical" Donatist movement. In 436, non-Christians are excluded from the army. And in 528 it becomes illegal to not be Christian. Pagans have three months to convert....or face the consequences. This period from 313 to 528 marks the beginning of Christendom as well as that point in time when the church went off the rails.
Fast forward 1,000 years and we bump up against the Reformation. Carter writes, "Between the fall of Rome in 410 and the sixteenth-century Reformation, Christendom became 'oppressive, a totalitarian religious system, in which the church became phenomenally wealthy and seriously corrupt.' We might tend to be more charitable today, but one would be hard pressed to find a reformer of any stripe in the sixteenth century who would disagree with that assessment."
The Reformation works to correct some of the rampant abuse of power in the church, but doesn't really challenge the structure of Christendom in any significant way. Up next come the Radical Reformers, who in time we come to know as "the Anabaptists". The Anabaptists come from a variety of different streams across Europe, but all of them are busy uncovering the long buried life and teachings of Jesus and paying with their lives as they bravely expose and hold their Biblical discoveries up to society's public light.
It is not an understatement to say that today a new Radical Reformation is well underway in the church. When I hear that mainline denominations are losing members, I don't know if that's all bad. I do think we need to do some starting over with church. And this is exciting. There are people the world over who are working to recover the New Testament vision for church, the pre-Christendom model, and herein lies the potential for so much good. The Christendom Church, while it accomplished some good, also leaves behind a tragic legacy in its wake. But Jesus didn't institute the Christendom Church. If we can go back and recover God's intention for church, then our imaginations cannot contain the amzing trasformations this world could know. That's worth getting excited about!