In his book, An Historian’s Approach to Religion (1956), English historian Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) applies this parable to the Church. He notes that, in Roman times, the Church stood up well when the Roman State bullied it with persecution. He regrets that the Church lost its integrity when the Roman State next challenged it with bribes.
So long as the Church is proscribed and is exposed to the peril of being persecuted at any moment, its membership is likely to be limited to a spiritual elite who are both disinterested and courageous. As soon as it is taken into partnership by the powers that be, its moral quality is likely to be diluted through mass-conversions of time-servers eager to jump on to the victor’s band-waggon (109).
When the threat of persecution hangs over the Church, people don’t join it because it’s useful. They join it because it’s meaningful though challenging if not dangerous. As members, they wholly commit themselves to following Jesus on the path of freedom, to participating in his truth, love, and vitality, and to sharing these with other members first.
To recover this lost sense of purpose, we need to hold ourselves to a much higher standard of discipleship. We also need to test the call of those who would like to join us by requiring them to embrace the challenging training needed to do so.
So long as the Church is proscribed, it can build up a new society at its own peril without being implicated in the old society’s weaknesses and sins. When it has been taken into partnership with the old society, it will be involved in its failures and be led astray into serving its purposes instead of continuing to serve its own incompatible purpose single-mindedly (109).
Jesus revealed to us, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). To Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), purity of heart meant to will one thing. For us as churches, our single-minded purpose is to represent, as best we can, the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth. To do this well, we need to shun the world’s path of power, stick with Jesus on the path of freedom, and develop the voluntary social groups, such as families, schools, and workplaces, needed to get this done.
Jesus Christ first established his Church in Jerusalem through an outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost Sunday in AD 33. For the next 280 years, his Church resisted all attempts by the Roman State to subordinate it through persecution.
The Roman State granted tolerance to the Church in 313. In 380, it made Nicene Christianity the only legitimate religion in the empire. In less than 70 years, the Church went from severe persecution, through toleration and favor, to establishment. On one hand, the Church experienced a fantastic increase in prestige and wealth. On the other hand, it lost its freedom in subordination to the Roman State. What the Roman State had failed to do through long centuries of bullying it managed to do by short decades of bribing. The Church, now wealthy and increasingly powerful, went from membership limited to a few tough members to membership including everyone no matter what. It also went from single-minded pursuit of the path of freedom to a justification of the State pursuing, as all states do, the destructive Olympian path of power.
Once the Roman State subordinated the Christian Church to itself, this policy and practice of Church subordination remained in force, with greater or lesser intensity, well into the Age of Exuberant Olympianity (1648-2008).
When John Chrysostom was appointed Archbishop of Constantinople in 398, he attempted to reestablish the Church’s freedom from the Roman State. By 404, Empress Eudoxia had managed to persuade other, still subordinate, church leaders to send John into exile.
When the Roman State lost control of its western provinces in the 400s, the Germanic states which supplanted it continued to subordinate the Church to their own political ends.
The Orthodox Christian Church found itself subordinated to imperial ends successively by the (Eastern) Roman, Ottoman, and Russian empires.
With the 16th-century Reformation and outbreak of civil war in Latin Christendom, emerging modern states continued practicing this subordination of the Church and Church leaders continued to embrace it. Toynbee asserts, “Protestantism was exploited politically in Luther’s lifetime and with his collusion” (114). At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church, which had been international and independent of the smaller states of the Middle Ages, likewise succumbed to subordination. It “was captured, de facto, by the Spanish, Danubian Hapsburg, and French monarchies, no less effectively than the Protestant fragments were captured by parochial principalities in Germany, Scandinavia, and Britain” (114).
The effect of this capture of higher religions for alien mundane purposes has been doubly disastrous. On the one hand the captured higher religions have been diverted from their true mission of preaching to all men a new gospel in which God is revealed as being Love, and Suffering as being the price and opportunity for following Love’s lead (116).
As Jesus said, no one can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24). In accepting, even seeking, subordination to the State, the Church chooses, knowingly or not, to serve the master of all States: the Devil (Matthew 4:8-10). His is the path of power. The path of freedom belongs to Jesus. They move in opposite directions and one can’t pursue both at the same time. It’s either one lord or the other.
On the other hand the effect on the mundane movements in whose service the higher religions have been enlisted has been to import into them a whole-heartedness which the new gospel alone can inspire; and this effect has been untoward. Whole-heartedness can rise to sainthood when it is directed to the religious purpose that is its true end, but it is apt to descend to a demonic savagery when it is prostituted to the service of mundane causes (116).
We may agree with Toynbee that Jesus may inspire whole-heartedness in us through his Holy Spirit who burns brightly in our Christian hearts. We must disagree with him, however, in thinking that Jesus alone may do this. Satan too may instill whole-heartedness through his Unholy Spirit which smolders darkly in our Olympian hearts. A Church subordinate to the State subordinates its members to Satan and his goals. It worsens this sin by committing it in the name of Jesus.
While almost all of our churches these last 1,700 years have committed this sin, not all have. One exception: during the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church was international, educated, and independent enough of the small states then in existence to rise above and include them all in a Latin Christendom understood and practiced as a broad commonwealth of self-governing states. The best years of this alternative to Church subordination were between 1073, when Gregory 7th started his rule as pope, and 1216, when Innocent 3rd ended his.
Alternatives to Church subordination also appeared, oddly enough, in Protestant countries with an established Church. This alternative took the form of Dissenting or Nonconformist Churches. In England, these included Presbyterian, Methodist, Congregational, Baptist, and Quaker churches.
Copyright © 2018 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.