A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Church's Central and All-Encompassing Dilemma

The church's most significant dilemma that it faces at the dawn of the twenty-first century is the same dilemma it has faced since the fourth century: What to do with Constantinianism and what to do with Christendom? In facing this most difficult challenge the very character of the church is at stake, the very character of its mission is in jeopardy. While the vast majority of believers have embraced Constantinianism (the belief that Christians should forge a close alliance with the state in order to influence and, if possible, enact Christian policies) and Christendom (the product of Constantinianism where the culture of a nation reflects Christianity and vestiges of Christian values), I believe that Christians must reject both if they are to be faithful witnesses to the gospel in the world.

It is from the ministry of Jesus that we understand Jesus intended to reconstitute the nation of Israel in his ministry. In gathering twelve disciples around him, Jesus was founding a nation (that would become known as "Church") that would uniquely bear witness to the nations of the ways of the Lord; and the ways of this holy nation would not be the ways of the nations of the world.

But some two hundred and fifty years after Jesus, the church would be confronted with its greatest temptation-- the temptation to wield power, to reject Jesus' upside down kingdom and replace it with the typical status quo model of the pagans. The Emperor Constantine would offer the church such a temptation, and it would find itself unable to resist.

Many centuries later, Enlightenment thinkers such a Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin wanted to get the church out of the political power brokering business. They did this by positing faith and doctrine as nothing more than a matter of personal preference-- irrelevant for the hard and difficult questions of politics and statecraft. For these men the public value of religion was to be found only in its morals, the status quo morals of good citizenship. In attempting to rid the modern world of the Constantinian practice of church and nation ruling in an alliance side by side, they ironically reinforced the church as nothing more than an institution to be used to further the state's agenda. Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin thus become Constantine's unwitting lieutenants.

Of course none of this would be possible without reference to Scripture. Both the religious right and the religious left in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have resorted to a faulty hermeneutic in order to further their agendas that place the nation state at the center of politics instead of the church. They do this quite freely and without reflecting deeply upon how they are misusing Scripture. Both sides take passages of Scripture that clearly refer either to Israel or the church and apply them directly to the nation state. It is this flawed method of biblical interpretation that marginalizes the church, thus replacing it with the nation state, which is now elevated to divinely approved status.

All of this means that the church in the modern West is unable to effectively speak truth to power (to turn a phrase popular with some today). The reason is that since Christians have embraced the power politics of the nation state and have chosen up sides as Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, the church cannot be a prophetic witness because it has been compromised and has a stake in the very power it is supposed to challenge.

What this means, finally, is that the church must exorcise the ghost of Constantine from its midst and bury Christendom with the relics of a long and unfortunate past. The church must recover its unique character as an alternative to the world by bearing witness in its collective life to the ways of God. The church must embrace the politics of the kingdom by being itself. Only then can the nations come to understand that it is God and not the nations who rules the world.

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