Christ Over Politicization

“To think of everything as political..to place everything in the hands of the state…to subordinate problems of the individual to problems of the group….these factors characterize the politicization of modern man and, as such, comprise a myth” -Ellul, The Political Illusion

What Ellul is getting at in this work is that everything in our society (and by “our” I mean all first-world modern nation-states, “technocratic” states as he would argue) has become a part of “politics”, and I say that the Church in many places is taking the bait on this. I want to quote Ellul on how these ideas have been stolen by “politicization” and how much they oppose what Jesus Christ has revealed to us about human life. Listen to how “politicization” forms our ideas of “justice”, “community”, “freedom”, and “progress”:

Justice: “justice no longer exists as a personal virtue…must be endowed with some adjective, particularly “social”, i.e., it is ultimately regarded as political. It is up to the State to make justice prevail..the Christian affirmation that justice is the individual’s miraculous transformation by the grace of god [no longer makes sense]

Community: “We cannot conceive of society except as directed by a central omnipresent and omnipotent state…we can no longer conceive of a society with autonomous “in between” groups or diverging activities…Any attempt on the part of any enterprise, university, or charitable enterprise to remain independent of the state seems anachronistic to us. The state directly incarnates the public good” (is this not our hope in elections!)

Freedom: “[Freedom] in our eyes is negligible unless..incorporated in a regime, or the fruit of a constitution, or represented  by the participation of a citizen in state power…

Progress: “Man’s progress in today’s society consists in his participation in political affairs…women finally become human being because they receive ‘political rights’..A person without the right (in reality magical) to place a paper ballot in a box is nothing, not even a person. To progress is to receive this power, this mythical share in a theoretical sovereignty that consists in surrendering one’s decisions for the benefit of someone else who will make them in one’s place. Progress is to read newspapers.”

Think about these ideas now from the perspective of scripture. Justice, according to Scripture, is ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ. There, we see an innocent man being crucified for others’ transgression! This point is buried in current discussions of justice. Let’s advocate for justice: Who will be the first to take-on the execution of another? Or, is it not obvious that the state cannot execute “justice”, but only “law”, retribution, punishment, coercion, when we are told to leave these things to God? (Rom. 12:19, Deut. 32:35). Justice in God’s kingdom is infuriating until one follows Jesus, and accepts the truths at the heart of Christianity: that God has chosen to love the world through Christ, and love never fails (1 Corinthians 13).

Similarly, the vehicle for true community, a community that embraces all humanity, is no constitutional republic, no matter how much it borrows “Judaeo-Christian” values. The vehicle is the body of Christ, the “holy nation”. The “nation” that rejects the boundaries set-up by the nations of the world (1 Peter 2:9). Despite any appearance to the contrary, this nation will prevail, not by any sword, but by the “blood of the lamb” and the  “word of its’ testimony” (Rev. 7).

What of freedom? What do we say about the freedom that Christ gives us? “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (Jn. 8:36). “Free indeed”, Jesus says. He does not say “free in spirit”, or, what’s worse and often implied, “free eventually.” No. We are truly free, now. Here were see some practical, real-life, ramifications that these teachings had on the early disciples, as they had no stake in the “political illusion” of freedom.

The illusion of the particular worldly kingdoms set-up as “democracies” is that if we do not participate in the positive decisions (as opposed to work that is done to undo oppresive systems or laws, as I argued in favor of here) made about who will “represent” us, we are not really exercising our freedom. Christ and the disciples lived under the Roman empire: they had no political say in who their rulers were. I will say without any hesitation they were more free than most Christians in democratic nation-states. Why? Because as we see in Acts, they were “autonomous in-between groups” conducting “diverging activities”, such as sharing their possessions, sacrificially serving the poor and foreigners, and causing fairly serious chaos in cities because of how their faith led to the undoing of lucrative, idolatrous commerce (Acts 16:16-24). They did this without approval, representation, or advocates in the empire, and at the service of their king. They were free. Their freedom was not ‘aloof’ but tangible, with real consequences, and ultimately fatal to the state’s attempt to craft its’ own vision.

Finally, what progress is it that the world seeks? Is it the end seen in Isaiah 2:4?

He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

Or is it really to consolidate those swords into the hands of those who are “just”and “good”? Can any worldly nation even theoretically say that Isaiah 4 is their vision for humanity’s future without self-imploding?

These criticisms are all well-and-good, but what do we say “yes” to if we’re giving a firm “no” to politicization? First, as Ellul so forcefully emphasizes, we look to the people who we actually know, actually can love, and the family that God has adopted us into: the Church of Christ! We have a call to “hasten the day” together, as Peter says,that day prophesied in Isaiah 4, and frankly the nations of the world (as political structures, not as ethnicities, peoples, and communities of creativity) play no part in this progress. In fact, they are part and parcel of the problem.

The simplicity of this alternative is deceptive. It took over 40 days of prayer and instruction for the disciples (who had already spent three years with Christ) to even begin their ministry in earnest (Acts 1-2). Yet when they did, their ministry had more “social” impact than any political movement before or after in history. When we look back at the witness in scripture, we do not see a replicable formula in their story, but the spirit of God guiding real decisions in concrete situations, and expanding his kingdom through concrete transformations of everyday life in the culture of that day (as in Acts 16:16-24). When we turn our efforts to the kingdom of God, allow the Holy Spirit to lead our decisions, and refuse to allow the world to limit the scope of Christ’s redeeming work, we are free.

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” “These things” include how the economy will affect the work we are able to find, how we will produce food, be clothed, and live our lives (realizing that life is “more than” this). These very things will be found in the pursuit of this kingdom, not in any amount of politicized notions of justice, freedom, community, or progress . Leave the illusions aside, and take this freedom offered!

The Need for an Anabaptist Political Theology

After reading this piece in Christianity today, a few things stuck out to me.

One is that I have a serious and deep suspicion that many fellow disciples are lacking a coherent set of principles guiding their decisions about how to engage with society. That is, if I were a betting man, I would place an inordinate sum of money on the wager that I could predict a Christian’s political views without knowing anything about their particular beliefs about Scripture. Why? Because we do a sloppy job of thinking through this issue in general, and because, as the article above shows, only 1% of theologically conservative Protestant Pastors have preached at least one sermon on a public policy issue in 2016. I don’t know if I would fall into that class if I were a pastor, but I certainly know plenty of pastors who would. How is that statistic possible when, at this particular juncture, almost all American Christians are going to be getting hammered with political opinion on issues that are not simply about “elections”, but about the intimate details of their daily lives from their workplace, schools, family, and culture at large? The answer, I think, is the lack of a political theology.

Kenneth Collins in his book “Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism” expresses this lack of a deeply integrated worldview for Christians in the present when compared with Christians in prior eras:

…traditional societies, medieval Christendom in Europe for example, were held together by the common ties of a carefully articulated political theology, with its robust belief in God, as well as by a philosophy of history that went back at least to the time of Augustine in his City of God….

Now, I strongly side with the Anabaptists of the 16th century, so I would unquestionably reject the medieval synthesis (as well as Collins’ own positions on this matter, though his book and analysis are excellent in many respects!), but what is to replace this? Catholicism has maintained its’ theological heritage on a synthesis of church, sword, and state (and has, to my knowledge, never taken an outrightly pacifist ethic) that, in my opinion, makes it untenable for the needs of the 21st century. Its’ ecclesiology is also still a far cry from the reforms called for from the dawn of Protestantism. Still, at least they have an idea of what they’re going for! What options do Protestant Christians, let’s say particularly in America today, have before them?

One option I see frequently expressed and say strongly “Not enough!”, is that Christians in a democratic state are free to engage with the political process, but they should not think that any particular way of ordering the society is better than any other. I might think we should help the poor by a just redistribution of taxes and government programs to alleviate fallen conditions of our society, and you think that our current structures of governance make it impossible to address the root causes of poverty and think that a laissez-faire market (one that is truly free, not the modern capitalist accommodation) would more quickly alleviate such issues. But, neither option is more “Christian”, because Christ never gave us a way of making these decisions. Yet, are we really supposed to think that Scripture-at-large has nothing to say about this question?

If there is no answer to this question, what makes it “unanswerable”? Take for example the more general question: “How can we best serve the poor?” Does scripture give us no ability to answer that? The two opinions I expressed above are possible answers to that question for any Christian. So, if scripture gives us any light on this, then it offers answers to questions which all the world would give”political” answers to, and so it is that scripture inevitably inserts itself into the social dimensions of earthly life, the “political” dimensions.

All of this is to say that the glib pronouncement of an “agreement to disagree” between Christians of all political persuasions will not move the Church further into its’ God-given kingdom mission. It will not stop laymen and laywomen from engaging, or not engaging, and it will not help them live more faithfully. What is needed is a deeper, consistent, radical call to a political theology informed by the New Testament. I have found this nowhere better expressed than by the Radical Reformers, and it is why I consider the writings of many 16th century Anabaptists to be a treasure trove for our modern predicament. In the next few months I hope to write more specifically on issues that are pressing in my particular, American, context, but thought that this general beginning is necessary to understand what kind of questions I’m thinking about.

…as Christ our Head is minded, so also must be minded the members of the body of Christ through Him, so that there be no division in the body, through which it would be destroyed. Since then Christ is as is written of Him, so must His members also be the same, so that His body may remain whole and unified for its own advancement and upbuilding. For any kingdom which is divided within itself will be destroyed.
Schleitheim Confession, 1527

Palm Sunday Reflection: True Kingdom, True King

Jesus enters Jerusalem, by Giotto (click for source)
Jesus enters Jerusalem, by Giotto (click for source)

This past Sunday my church community had a service centered around the Triumphal Entry and Mark’s account in Mark 11. I was really blessed by the sermon and the worship centered around Jesus as our King, the Messiah delivering all humanity from its’ own rebellion, from death itself and the devil. A question which I think we should think deeply about is “How were the Jewish expectations of the Messiah wrong, and how were they right?” Of course, different sects of Judaism would have different expectations: Zealots would be expecting an outright revolt, and with some speed! Perhaps others expected an organized, but slow movement towards full-scale war against Rome. I’m no Jewish scholar, just extrapolating. I want to offer one specific way that I think Jewish expectations were right, and another specific way (connected to it) that was wrong. Both of these have deep implications for followers of Jesus today, and we might be ignoring their logical conclusions.

One way in which I think their expectations were right, is that the Messiah would be political. What I mean is that prophecies about the Messiah were intimately connected to the throne of David, and the Messiah would change the power structures of the world in drastic ways. More specifically, the Messiah was to do something that would permanently establish freedom for Israel. As seen in Mark 11:10, the crowds were calling out about Jesus:

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David

In connection to this, Christians rightly point out that Jesus’ kingdom was “not of this world”, as he would say to Pilate several days later. But, we shouldn’t leverage this statement beyond its’ intention. It does not imply that Jesus’ kingdom is not supposed to have political ramifications! Jesus himself would quote deeply political prophecies, and one story in particular connects to the way in which I think Jewish expectations were wrong. In Luke 4:18-30, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth and reads a prophecy from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon mebecause he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poorHe has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blindto set free those who are oppressed,to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This is all that Jesus quotes, but look at the rest of the passage! I highlighted the words which are tangible and almost impossible to simply interpret as “spiritual”.

They will rebuild the perpetual ruins and restore the places that were desolatethey will reestablish the ruined citiesthe places that have been desolate since ancient times. “Foreigners will take care of your sheepforeigners will work in your fields and vineyardsYou will be called‘the Lord’s priests, servants of our God.’ You will enjoy the wealth of nations and boast about the riches you receive from themInstead of shameyou will get a double portion; instead of humiliationthey will rejoice over the land they receive. Yes, they will possess a double portion in their land and experience lasting joyFor Ithe Lord, love justice and hate robbery and sin. I will repay them because of my faithfulnessI will make a permanent covenant with themTheir descendants will be known among the nations, their offspring among the peoplesAll who see them will recognize that the Lord has blessed them.”

Jesus goes on to say that this prophecy is about Him, and everyone there is shocked, because he’s a hometown boy! It’s Jesus’ response to their unbelief that he is the Messiah, and their response to him, that really enlightens the Jewish attitudes about this “Son of David”:

“There were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elishayet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard thisall the people in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got upforced him out of the townand brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was builtso that they could throw him down the cliff.

Woah there, maybe an over-reaction no? The Jews were rightfully expecting a political Messiah, but they were wrongfully expecting a political Messiah only for the Jews. Because Jesus was here explicitly approving the behavior of Gentiles, and judging the behavior of Jews, he caused a riot and was almost killed! It is unlike other kingdoms in that it is transnational. 

Lastly, I mentioned how Jesus’ statement “My kingdom is not of this world” can be stretched to imply that his kingdom is not relevant for politics, for how human societies organize themselves. Another mistake is to forget about the second-half of that statement

If my kingdom were from this worldmy servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is,my kingdom is not from here.

So, it seems to me that Jesus’ kingdom is deeply political, but not of this world. It’s political in the sense that it is the formation of a new community of people, a new “nation”, unrestricted by national borders and operating together in every sense that all other “nations” operate. The kingdom of God is in the world, but, it is not of the world, because the way it operates does not look anything like how “normal” governments operate, specifically by the fact that we do not use violence. The Kingdom of God should be a catalyst for forming peaceful, alternative, transnational political systems. It involves land, justice, forgiveness, peace, and good news for the poor.

The Church, Pt. 3: Lessons & Hopes

After the Diocletian persecutions, the prominent North African bishop Felix consecrated a man named Caecilian to be bishop of Carthage in the year A.D. 313; however, both Felix and Caecilian were suspected of lapsing during the persecution, and this move set off another schism in the church. (31) Most of the North African bishops rejected Caecilian, and chose their own bishop from amongst themselves: first Majorinus, who died shortly after, and then Donatus. Sure that the Bishop of Rome and Emperor Constantine would side with them, they appealed to have Donatus recognized as the rightful bishop. Instead, both ruled against the “Donatists”, as they came to be called, and in the following year, at the Synod of Arles, they also condemned Cyprian’s use of re-baptism, a practice that the Donatists followed. Still, the Donatist church thrived on account of its’ ties to Cyprian’s teachings and populist sentiments against the increasing state-church alliances in Rome. By the end of the 4th century they outnumbered members of the Latin church in North Africa. (32) It was in the subsequent moves of the Latin church that we see the saddest results of these divisions.

In 411, after a decade of division, an arbitration in Carthage between the Latin church and the Donatists was called for by Roman Emperor Honorius, with his secretary of state Marcellinus rendering the judgment (33). Bishop Augustine of Hippo had already written persuasively against the Donatists, with a three-pronged argument. Augustine argued that the hierarchy of authority for a Christian is first the Bible, then church councils, then individual church fathers; thus the Donatists should submit to the ruling of the Synod of Arles against Cyprian’s belief in re-baptistm. Secondly, schism is a worst mistake than one of re-baptism or other questions of purity, even according to Cyprian, whose teaching the Donatists claimed to follow. Thirdly, baptism is only profitable for salvation if one is in communion with the church, and since there is only “one true episcopate”, no one baptized outside of the Latin church is truly saved (34). Marcellinus judged against the Donatists and, unlike the aftermath of the Synod of Arles, severe punishments were carried out by the now-“Christian” Roman government in an effort to end the schism.

A  3rd century mosaic depicting a donatist punishment (click image for source)
A 3rd century mosaic depicting a donatist punishment (click image for source)

In an extraordinarily twisted move of exegesis, Augustine cited Luke 14:23 as justification in using force to “compel” the Donatists to rejoin the Latin church (35).  Not so coincidently, Aquinas would cite this very same scripture in a later century to justify the Inquisition (36). Donatist clergy were banished, a punishment which in the ancient world served as an alternative to the death penalty (37). Laypeople were fined, church buildings were forcibly confiscated, and in A.D. 415 services were forbidden. None of the persecutions of the Donatists ultimately succeeded, and Donatist communities continued until the Arab invasion of the 7th century virtually wiped out Christianity in all of North Africa (38).  In my assessment, there are three lessons which we can take from this controversy, applicable in varying degrees to the debates in the Mennonite Church, as well as in the broader evangelical church.

Bishop Augustine was a brilliant thinker, but endorsed the use of violence to bring people into the "one true church" (click image for source)
Bishop Augustine was a brilliant thinker, but endorsed the use of violence to bring people into the “one true church”
(click image for source)

First, the use of force as a systematic-method of Church governance is fundamentally opposed to the Kingdom of God. There had been sporadic violence inspired by the Donatists against the Latin church in North Africa, and this is often cited as part of Augustine’s rationale for endorsing the use of force against them, but it is an entirely different thing for the Church to give theological justification for using worldly power (39). This very rationale gives us a glimpse at the cyclical nature of violence. The downward spiral should serve as a warning to the Church’s relations-to and use-of secular governance, in practice or in theory. In the United States, there is open hostility and often vindictive language judging the conscience and motives of people who disagree on the morality of same-sex relationships. The “debate” is seldom one of actual engagement with different perspectives, but rather one of suspicion and fear that the other is going to impose their will by force. This fear is well-justified because it actually is the aim of both groups to have the sword of this country enforce, or defend, their practice. In the Church however, both sides of this issue must, for the sake of Christ, reject any use of government coercion. The distinctive witness of the Mennonite church as a community of peace is at stake with this boundary, and it must not give in to these temptations.

Second, while the church is a singular reality, its’ unity is not a corollary of how centralized and uniform its’ governance appears. This reality should calm us. Menno Simons walked away from the largest body of Christianity in the world. To him, Augustine and Cyprian would have both unrestrainedly said “You are not part of the body of Christ”. But Christ is our head, and He should be directing our movements. In a body, the nervous system is connected intricately with each part, and, while they are interdependent, the head does not need the hand to move the foot. The head can do that well enough on its’ own. While the temptation to use government coercion is far from the historic practices of the Mennonite church, the temptation to use institutional coercion is more easily succumbed to. The Mennonite church’s historically “congregational form of church governance” is an act of trusting the Holy Spirit and renouncing the world’s temptations to “rule it over” each-other (40). We must remember that, historically, those most loudly concerned with preserving a unity of governance in the church, like Augustine and the Roman Catholic church, have been most susceptible to using force in achieving it. It is integrally important for the Mennonite church to continue the conversation over what level of inclusion, or exclusion, the Church should practice with regards to homosexual individuals and couples; embodying the redemption of our sexuality is part of our mission in the Kingdom of God. But, neither those who separate-from, or those who remain in communion-with, a long standing ecclesial structure are suddenly exempt from the law of love. It was by our love for each other that Christ said the world would know we are his disciples, not by our centralized form of governance. May we not be like our ancestors, spitting judgments against each other!

To end this discussion, I would like to quote some words of Cyprian. Cyprian was a pre-Constantinian bishop, and thus, whatever his flaws, the use of the sword was never an option for his efforts to maintain unity. He also lived before the Latin church’s governance moved towards a centralization in Rome, and was not granted an “authoritative” council to govern the unity of his fellow North African bishops. At the Seventh Council of 
Carthage in A.D. 256, when all the Bishops of North Africa lent him their support in the practice of re-baptism, Cyprian wrote:

It remains, that upon this same matter each of us should bring forward what we think, judging no man, nor rejecting any one from the right of communion, if he should think differently from us. For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience…But let us all wait for the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one that has the power both of preferring us in the government of His Church, and of judging us in our conduct there (41).

Paul stated that the unity of the Church in Christ was a great mystery, and it remains so to me. There is a tension running in current ecumenical dialogues, especially for Mennonites, one between displaying a more unified Kingdom to the world, and discerning what demands the King has made on us, demands required of us as His ambassadors. This is not a new tension; Cyprian, Novation, Donatus, Augustine, Menno Simmons, was there any unity behind their conflicting ideas of how this Kingdom was to be ruled? Or, were some of them correct in condemning each other as not being united to Christ? As I stated earlier, I start with the belief that we have one Lord, and that there truly is only one body. After recounting some troubling events of our past, re-affirming that statement brings me close to tears when I think of the immense love of God, “since he wants all people to be saved” (42). If this is true, then I am hopeful, and can rest despite the unknown. Christ will bring what He has started in us to its’ completion, His Kingdom will fill the whole earth. My prayer is that this part of the body, and myself within it, would be a faithful representatives of this Kingdom, working with our King to bring peace on earth.
Footnotes
31 Fairbairn, The Donatist Schism. Felix allegedly cooperated with the actual confiscation of the scriptures to save himself. Caecilian allegedly prevented Christians from visiting their relatives who were in jail for refusing to hand over, or reveal the location of, the scriptures. 

32 ibid.
33 ibid.
34 ibid.
35 Wilken, 189

36 Fairbairn, The Donatist Schism
37 Abbott, Geoffrey. Exile and Banishment. Encyclopedia Brittanica Online. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/198072/exile-and- banishment. Last updated Aug 08, 2007. Accessed January 26, 2015
38 ibid.
39 Wilken, 188
40 Roth, John D. Beliefs, pg. 152. Harrisonburg: Herald Press. 2005.
41 Interestingly, this text shows that at the time, Cyril did not consider there to be a “bishop of bishops”, refuting the Roman Catholic claim that there had always been a supremacy in authority with the Roman Bishop. Cyril of Carthage, The Seventh Council of Carthage under Cyprian, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, pp. 565. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company. 1888. 
42 1 Ti. 2:4

The Church, Pt. 2: Early Christians, Early Controversies

This is the second portion of an essay I recently wrote on “The Church” for graduate school application. I slightly edited it but have kept the footnotes as italicized numbers. This part of the essay explores some of the earliest Church practices, as well as a major persecution that, I believe, we can learn from:

So, if the Church is this society-forming reality, and the shape of this society is given by the New Testament teachings on the Kingdom of God, then what do these teachings say? I believe that Kingdom of God must be conceived of as a political reality in the broadest sense: “relating to government” (14) While this is an increasingly emphasized truth in evangelical Christianity, particularly those concerned with “social justice”, what is not yet thoroughly discussed is that God’s government is unlike and fundamentally opposed to every worldly government today. It is unlike worldly governments in that its’ rule is exercised through service and love (15), whereas their rule is necessarily maintained through the constant threat of coercion (16). It is opposed to worldly governments both because their violent power is wielded by the enemies of God (17), and because the Kingdom of God’s culmination will be their end (18). The earliest writings of the Church demonstrate an understanding of these same principles.

In the “Apostolic Tradition” and “Didache”, two of the the earliest extant Christian writings outside of the canon, we see a new, society-forming ethic being spelled out for the nascent Church, drawing on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles (19). Christians were to cease gaining their income from immoral entertainments like gladiator fights, converted soldiers were not to kill or swear public oaths, military commanders and civic magistrates in the Roman empire were to give up their vocation, and burial for the poor was to be provided by the bishop (20). Rhythms of regularly shared meals were outlined, and economic inter-dependence is assumed by the guidelines which prevented outside guests from taking advantage of the community (21). With regards to being a “visible church”, the earliest Christian communities are exemplary. At the same time, we see in the earliest controversies of the Church, and ensuing history, how challenging it is to visibly reflect our identity as the singular body of Christ. I would like describe two interrelated controversies in depth, but not as a rote exercise! After evaluating them, there will be lessons applicable to the contemporary Church’s pressing challenges of maintaining unity in the face of political, theological, and moral disagreements.

Emperor Decius on a Roman Silver Coin. Click image for source

From the years A.D. 249 until 313 the church under the Roman Empire was torn apart as a result of two sets of intense persecutions, particularly under emperor Decius from 249-25122 and under Diocletian from 303-313 (until 324 in the east) (23). Decius required all citizens to offer a sacrifice to the gods of Rome and partake of the sacrifice. At the threat of an exceedingly cruel death, most Christians complied (24). According to historian Robert Wilken:

Some even brought their own wine or other offerings. In one city a bishop showed up with a lamb under his arms for sacrifice! …This is not surprising. As the number of Christians increased, the boundaries between the Christian community and the larger society were becoming porous (25).

After the Decian persecutions ended, the church was faced with the question of how, or even if, to re-admit people who wanted to return to the Church though they had denied their faith. The Church’s differing responses to this crisis is extremely relevant, especially because these responses set a trajectory leading to the ugliest features of both Roman Catholicism and the Magisterial Reformation; features which the Mennonite tradition has historically stood in prophetic witness against.

There were three sets of responses to Christians who had lapsed during the Decian persecutions. The Bishops of Rome advocated re-admission to the Church simply if someone expressed the desire to do so. Novation, a Christian leader in Rome, and his followers believed that there should be no re-admission whatsoever, eventually breaking off from the majority church and setting up Novation as an alternate bishop in Rome. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, arbitrated a mediating position in which significant penance, overseen by a bishop in communion with the majority church, was required to be re-admitted. For some, this penance was severe and would last their entire lives. Cyprian was similar to Novation in upholding “the Church’s holiness as a unique community set apart from the society at large” (27). Yet, Cyprian argued intensely against Novation’s separation from the main church, saying

he can be no Christian who is not inside the Church of Christ…there is but one Church founded by Christ…likewise, there is but one episcopate, but it is spread amongst the harmonious host of all the numerous bishops (28).

Cyprian thus denounced groups like the Novations as not truly being in the body of Christ because they were not united to the Roman church’s network of bishops. He even required re-baptism by anyone who wanted to come into the Roman church but had been baptized in an outside group (29). Of course, this was because of the authority of the “one episcopate” and not because of any Anabaptist-like considerations. While this practice drew serious ire from the Bishop of Rome, who called Cyprian a “false Christ and false apostle”, Cyprian’s position was adopted across all of North Africa and he was a revered teacher in North African Christianity long after his death (30). Cyprian’s positions were important in the aftermath of the Diocletian persecutions, seventy years later.

14 http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/political. Accessed January 17th 2014
15 Matt. 20:25-28, 1 Pet. 5:3
16 In my estimation, a result of this fact is that enforcing this rule is incompatible with faithfulness to Christ’s teachings of peace. The most difficult teachings to reconcile with the enforcement of worldly government by Christ-followers being primarily found in Matthew 5:33-48
17 Luke 4:5-7, I have never found alternative explanations of this passage to be convincing
18 1 Cor. 15:24
19I list these not as models to be replicated, but as examples, though there are certainly timeless principles being reflected here that should be embodied by the Church at all times The Apostolic Tradition was written by Hippolytus, who separated himself from the established church in Rome as it became, in his opinion, too lax towards its’ members. Thus, the practices he cites are probably closer to the earliest church’s methods; schism is a topic I will address below.
20 Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition in Readings in World Christian History, Volume I. pp. 17-20. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Orbis Books. Maryknoll, New York. 2004
21 Didache in Readings in World Christian History, Volume I. pp. 20
22 Fairbairn, Donald. (2014). The Novation Schism in Rome [flash video file]. Retrieved from personal lecture notes. https://sakai.gcts.edu/portal/
23 Fairbairn, Donald. (2014). The Donatist Schism in North Africa [flash video file]. Retrieved from personal lecture notes. https://sakai.gcts.edu/ portal/
24 Wilken, Robert Louis, The First Thousand Years: A global history of Christianity. pp 67. New Haven: Yale University Press. Early church father Origen was killed on the rack during the Decian persecutions, as well as Bishops Fabian, Alexander, and Dionysius. The persecution was short, but it was devastating.
25 ibid. 68
26 ibid. 77
27 Wilken, 71
28 Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 55, in Reading in World Christian History, Vol. I. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. 2004. New York: Orbis Books.
29 Fairbairn, The Novation Schism
30 Wilken, 74

The Church: Pt. 1

This is an essay I wrote for a scholarship application recently on the subject of “The Church”. It specifically comes at things with the Mennonite tradition in-mind, but nothing in it is something I would not say to Christians from other traditions. I explore what the Church is, what  makes “the Church” different from other social institutions; and not just “a church”, but “the Church”. I talk about how the Church should conduct itself, in the world. I also delve into a controversy in church history that we can remember and learn lessons to apply in the American church specifically. I’ll split the essay into three chunks, and this first one mainly focuses on the question “What is the Church?” and “the unity of the Church”.

This is a great mystery, but I am speaking of Christ and the Church” 

Writing about the Church simultaneously awakens a heavy heart and a burning love within me. I am, after all, writing about a whole of which I am a part. My current mission and later destiny are wrapped-up with what Ephesians says is “his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all”. This essay comes on the heels of major shifts in my understanding of the Church, shifts which are still in progress. In this essay I will not be writing about those shifts, but will use biblical exegesis, theology, and case studies in church history to sketch my current understanding of “The Church”, and apply that understanding to pressing issues for the church today, including issues unique to the Mennonite church in the present. The reason why I will start with an in-depth theological and historical discussion is that my own experience, or even the experiences of the entire modern church, are not sufficient guides. It is a frequent and serious illness amidst my generation, one which I have struggled with, to have a narrow perspective on history, never really taking a look at things that have happened with the mantra “Be Present”, yet simultaneously we have grandiose and often narcissistic aspirations of our individual impact on it. At bottom though, our ability to leave a redemptive impact on history depends on how seriously we take a man who lived over 2000 years ago.

Christ's body is carried to its tomb. Click image for source
Christ’s body is carried to its tomb. Click image for source

A timeless topic for the Church is its’ identity. By “identity” I do not mean what does the church do which sets it apart from other institutions, already assuming that the church fits into a category of social science. The New Testament term for “church” is a religious takeover of the original Greek word defined as “a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, an assembly”, but this is not what I am searching for either. By “identity” I mean the common characteristic which binds the widely varying expressions and features of what we have called “the Church” across millennia and continents. What is the church?

The aforementioned passage in Ephesians likens the church to Christ’s body, and later in the same chapter Paul uses the analogy of a building; in 1 Peter 2 the analogy of a house is also used, along with these terms: “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own”.  Within these two texts, two themes emerge: 1) the church is a singular, unified reality, and 2) the church is a society-forming reality. Behind both texts is language signifying what gives this reality its’ existence. In 1 Peter 2:4-5, we are told that it is only “as you come to him”, to Jesus, that we are made part of this new building, and it is “through him” that we carry out our function as a “spiritual house”. In Ephesians 1:1-14, the phrase “in Christ” or “in Him”, occurs 7 times to describe a location, and it is this refrain that leads to verse 23, describing the church as his body. These are only two texts, but I believe that the New Testament is consistent in stating that the Church is the human portion of God’s new creation in Christ, whose very existence depends on being in Christ; united to Him. This unity with the Godhead is maintained by the Holy Spirit, which sets apart and marks we who have accepted God’s invitation to come into His family, become freed, forgiven children, and give our lives to Jesus as Son of God, Lord, and Messiah.  This brief search for a definition will become crucial as I continue discussing the two themes I mentioned above: the church as a singular, unified reality, and the church as a society-forming reality.

The unity of the church is a corollary of the identity of the church. In the New Testament the Church is never, ever, analogized to a plurality of physical bodies, or buildings, or priesthoods. While there are a plurality of churches-qua-gatherings, the fundamental unity can be seen in Paul’s rhetorical rebuke to the church in Corinth: …end your divisions…Is Christ divided? Now, growing up in the fundamentalist Pentecostal church of my parents, where even listening to preachers outside of the denomination was spoken of as potential backsliding, I am keenly aware of the sinful desire to set ourselves up as the ultimate judges of who is a part of this body, and who is not. Over the course of my first three years as a disciple of Jesus, I successively judged non-Charismatics, then non-Calvinists, then all institutional churches in general, and then myself. It was only after a major theological shift towards positions which I had previously thought were “heretical” that I saw my pharisaical, doctrinarian attitude as the insecurity it truly was. My journey has taught me that the fundamental unity of the church in Christ does not necessitate that I have that unity in the control of my mental concepts or ecclesial structures. As Dr. Miroslav Volf recently stated with reference to his early work on “free-church ecclesiology”:

I was thinking of all these small churches [in Europe]…they have given their lives, sometimes literally, to the work of the Gospel and they somehow aren’t churches but… whatever other institution there, is a church by the sheer fact of the succession and communion with Rome; and I, for the life of me, could not see how this is the case and how this in any way would correspond to what one finds in the New Testament”. 

If we are Christ’s body through His spirit within us, and if Christ cannot be divided, then we must start with this as an axiom in ecclesiology. We must conform our theology and practice to this most obvious biblical truth, not distort this truth to our theology and practice. In addition, while this conviction does lead us to believe that the unity of the church in Christ has an unseen, spiritual dimension, this conviction does not require us to ascribe to misconstrued understandings of the church as “invisible”. This is where the church as a society-forming reality comes into view.

A society-forming reality is not the society itself, but rather the source of ruling principles which form the society’s basic structure. This is true of the Church in Ephesians 1:20-23 where spiritual and earthly powers, including those which rule and order human societies, are “under Christ’s feet”, and the Church is Christ’s body. This is also evident in 1 Peter by the emphasis on being “born anew” and growing up as “newborn infants”. We are not describing a transition from one social group to another. To over-simplify: society is the outworking of human life; the Church is a society-forming reality because it is a unity of new humans birthed by the Holy Spirit. We must re-learn how to live, guided by obedience to the truth and sincere love; ruling principles which conflict with the “empty way of life inherited from your ancestors…”. The New Testament’s use of the phrase “Kingdom of God” further illuminates what kind of society this new humanity will produce.