Gettin’ Hitched

bible-american-flagAs part of my progression through church history, I read through the Crusades of the Medieval era tonight, and I couldn’t help but see the connections between that mistake of the Church and the earlier and (perhaps bigger) mistake of aligning itself with Constantine in the 300s. I’ve been reading through history and analysis of the Constantinian era and its implications for the Church, and my conclusions are somewhat contained within a paper I submitted for a class and which I hope to post here in a few days. But it is hard to not read through the Constantinian era of the Church and not see how so much of what has been seen as wrong or misguided with the Church stems from that period of the Church, and how, as some (for example an author I’ve been reading, Bryan Stone) would assert, the Church has been living within a Constantinian paradigm ever since.

In reading through the narrative of the Crusades, its easy to draw the line of thought stemming from Constantine into the thinking that motivated the Crusades. Prior to Constantine, the Church saw itself as separated from the world, at odds with the Empire, and living a radically different life than the average Roman citizen. Constantine rose to power through violence, claiming the Christian banner in battle and eventually taking the throne of the Roman Empire in 306. He courted the Church’s favor, supporting their cause, ending persecution, providing funds for building grand basilicas as houses of worship, and calling together councils to resolve issues within the Church. In response, Christians saw Constantine as chosen of God, the kingdom of God finally come to earth. The Church married itself to the Empire’s cause, and Constantine became, as one church historian put it, the “bishop of bishops.”

The Church never lost its ties with the imperial power from that point on and even (I would contend) still clings to that conception of Christian Empire. The Crusades were the natural result of such a marriage of the Church with the whims of the state. When the Moors threatened the Holy Land, the Church responded militantly and nationally, acting as an Empire rather than the Church. In this perspective, the humanity of the Moors and those who stood in their way was null, for the fight was not amongst people but amongst nations in the name of God. Rather than taking an individual life, you were taking the enemy, defeating the “infidel.” I find it ironic that during the Crusades “infidel” became the way the Church addressed the Moors. In today’s context we hear “infidel” and picture radical Muslim extremists, when a thousand years ago it was the Church crying “infidel” as we stormed into battle “in the name of Christ and His Church”.

Any uniting of the Church with national, socio-economic, racial, or political causes will inevitably lead to a distortion of the message of the Gospel and idolatry among those united in such a cause. In the Middle Ages, this idolatry took the form of land and power. In the 19th and 20th century this took the form of “manifest destiny” and “the white man’s burden.” Today, this idolatry occurs whenever we as the Church divide because of race or who we voted for in an election; it happens whenever we refuse to associate with the poor or when we see the Western Church as holding a majority-share of God’s kingdom. It happens when we marry the Church with the pro-life movement, and when we marry the Church with social gospel. Whenever such a marriage and such an idolatry occurs, it can only lead to an objectification of those on the other side as the enemy, as the “infidel.”

Something I am coming to learn through reading and reflection is that Christ came to earth to usher in God’s kingdom upon earth. The whole Judaic narrative speaks to the coming of God’s kingdom, when shalom would be the rule of law and man would be united in peace with his maker, the Jewish community united with YHWH in perfection. Christ coming was the ushering in of that time, of that kingdom for the Jewish people. Not only that, but Christ opened wide the kingdom, welcoming all who would enter, breaking with the lines that we so often draw between each other to categorize each other and label each other and judge each other. Christ turned that all on its head.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.         [Galatians 3:28]

In Christ we are heirs to Abraham’s promise, that promise of a nation blessed by God, welcomed in and living within shalom, that completeness and holistic living within the kingdom of God upon earth. The problem with Constantinianism, or any marriage of the Church with the powers that be, is that we mistake the kingdom of man for the kingdom of God, and fight for that kingdom through words, political maneuvering, or sword, when the kingdom of God is already present and already declared victorious. We are in trouble as a Church when we seek earthly ends, as the Medieval church did in seeking land, however holy it may be, and as the American church does today in seeking political and cultural influence, for we are called not to bring political or cultural powers into submission to Christ’s authority, but rather to bring individuals into the story and the ushering in of God’s kingdom into the lives and stories of people coming together as God’s chosen, the Church. Only when we approach Gospel and kingdom-living in light of this will we be able to break from our culture wars, our political maneuvering within and without the Church, and to reclaim the original narrative we have been called to live in: one of a community of ragamuffins (to use Manning’s word) being brought into a story of God’s working of shalom into the world through Gospel and kingdom living.

May the God of peace be with you all   [Romans 15:33]

My first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man
My first allegiance is not to democracy or blood
It’s to a King and a Kingdom    [Derek Webb]

One thought on “Gettin’ Hitched”

  1. Good thoughts, Jonathan. So much of Christianity has been sidetracked and distracted by clutter. That’s why in spite of the enormous size of “Christianity” (in its broadest definition) this world is as bad, if not worse than ever. It’s not because the Gospel doesn’t work, but because the Church has lost sight of its true identity and mission.

    I wouldn’t agree with a perspective that asserts no one has gotten “church” right since Constantine until now; that somehow it is today’s thinkers who have finally risen to free us from our ignorance by which we’ve been held captive for more than a millennium. There were true believers outside of the Church (with a capital C during that era) who never subscribed to the union of “church and state.” Not every assembly of believers traces the origins of their beliefs and practices through Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, or the Orthodox.

    Major segments of Christianity have not differentiated between God’s dealings with and through national Israel and God’s dealings with and through His Church. Consequently, many understand the Church as the New Israel and thus, in my opinion, confuse the Church’s mission. If we’re are on in the same, then why shouldn’t the Church take up the sword against infidels the way Israel did against the heathen? If we’re the same then why wouldn’t the Church try to exercise control over the governance of all society, like Israel did within its kingdom?

    The fact is, national Israel and the Church are distinctive entities in the plan and program of God. We’re not here to bring in the kingdom. We’re here to make disciples through which Christ is building His Church. Christ will bring in His kingdom. We are a manifestation of it right now. We’re here to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and boast in nothing but His cross. God will bring His kingdom to earth. The only way to prepare is to repent and believe the gospel.

    That has radical life implications. Christians and churches are to live out kingdom values right now (Sermon on the Mount). It’s not just about doctrinal creeds, and preaching for right beliefs, though doctrine or is foundational because it is what we believe revealed through God’s Word. “The Faith” has been entrusted to us and it is to be guarded. We are called to a life generated by the Holy Spirit, united in Christ, lived to reveal the glory of the Gospel. Anything that clouds that or overshadows it does a disservice to what we are as the church.

    We will meet resistance. Jesus said we would. The apostles said we would. We meet the resistance with grace and truth and a willingness to suffer, not with sword and angry threats.

    Just a few rambling thoughts…

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