Christianity in the Centre of Empire

1.2 – Christianity in the Centre of Empire

The question now to consider is how this gap came about, and what can be done to recover a sense of discipleship as ‘the Way’. It has been argued that part of the problem can be traced back to the early-fourth-century. Up to this point in history, the followers of Jesus resided largely on the margins of culture and society. They dwelt in what Lee C. Camp calls “an uncertain social position”, mostly ignored but at times openly persecuted and even killed.1 However, in the year 312, the Roman emperor Constantine was inspired to place the Greek letters Chi and Rho – the first two letters in the Greek word for “Christ” – on the shields of his soldiers as they entered into battle. Victorious, a decree was sent out declaring an Empire wide acceptance of Christianity, resulting in the restoration of previously confiscated property, “a new, very visible social and political role within the empire” for the church, and even a “unity and purity of doctrine” among believers through the calling of the Council of Nicea.2

Furthermore, by the end of the fourth century, the emperor Theodosius went as far as to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Thus, Christendom – “an alliance between church and empire” – was formed.3 While it would appear as though an end to religious persecution and an enhanced status for the church would allow for more widespread recognition and perhaps even an expansion of its call and mission, there were certain ramifications that, while being careful not to oversimplify or generalize the situation, help to explain the aforementioned gap between 21st century Christianity and discipleship.

According to Camp, what is seen in Christendom are “particular ways of thinking about Jesus that obscure (if not set aside) his teaching.”4 Broadly speaking, Camp argues that within the context of Christendom, the following began to take place: Christianity lost its biblical emphasis on discipleship and began to emphasize religious ritual; the Church began to focus more on orthodoxy as opposed to living as communities of disciples; and salvation was now equated by seeing eternal life as a future reward as opposed to present reality.5 In a society wherein Christianity is moved from the margins to the center of social, cultural and political life, true discipleship is inhibited in that “the masses already to easily believe themselves to be Christian.”6

For a Christian in this society, there need not be any visible separation from or positive effect on the world around them; following Jesus is no longer seen as an organic movement that develops in the context of community, but rather becomes a state sanctioned ‘religion’ that includes all citizens, regardless of their actual commitment to Jesus. Stanley Hauerwas, picking up on earlier work by John Howard Yoder, describes the situation in this way: “the distinctive character of the Christian life is now primarily identified with inwardness since everyone by definition is already Christian.”7 In other words, “if the world is basically Christian, then one need not worry about the church. Conversion, detoxification, and transformation are not needed. All that is needed is a slight change of mind, and inner change of heart, a few new insights.”8 Visible personal and social transformation – essential characteristics of discipleship – is extracted from the equation; all that is required is a vague acceptance of certain doctrinal statements.

And so began a process whereby “the dominant cultures of society slowly penetrated the life of the Church.”9 The result of that process this is that “discipleship gets shelved as irrelevant to the real concerns of the world”10; the so-called people of God lose a sense of the very real demands placed on them by the call of Jesus, and fail to engage in the redemptive work of God in the world around them. This is a process that continues today, and Peterson poignantly translates this problem into present terms with the following statement:

Christians today are conspicuous for going along with whatever the culture decides is charismatic, successful, influential – whatever gets things done, whatever can gather a crowd of followers – hardly noticing that these ways and means are at odds with the clearly marked way that Jesus walked and called us to follow.11

When those who profess to follow Jesus become absorbed into the dominant powers of society, culture and politics, it becomes more and more difficult to tell them apart from any other citizen; they begin to mirror the world around them rather than embody the kingdom of God among them. To be absorbed in such a way and so to lose a sense of what it truly means to follow Jesus is to fall prey to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously referred to as ‘cheap grace’.

1 Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008), 25-26.

2 Ibid., 26. Camp notes that it was at the Council of Nicea that “the emperor desired that debated matters of the nature of the relation between the Father and the Son be settled, so that nothing would disrupt the unity of the church.”

3 Ibid., 26.

4 Ibid., 26.

5 Ibid., 26-27.

6 Ibid., 27.

7 Stanley Hauerwas, “A Christian Critique of Christian America,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 475. In this particular article, Hauerwas draws heavily on Yoder’s seminal work in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1984).

8 Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 29.

9 Jean Vanier, Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2004), 236. Vanier offers a haunting description of the effects of Constantinianism in this section of his commentary, highlighted by the following passage: “After the conversion of Constantine in the year 313, Church and State became intertwined. Kings and princes exerted a huge influence on the Church and church affairs. Many bishops and abbots acted like princes and lords, wielding a lot of power. Building huge palaces and beautiful buildings became more important than being attentive to the poor and seeing them at the heart of the church.”

10 Camp, Mere Discipleship, 48.

11 Peterson, The Jesus Way, 8.

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