This is the fourth post in a series I’ve been writing on Christendom. The previous ones (here, here and here) were to lay some groundwork as I move into the main idea I want to dig into: the damage done to the church by aligning with the Roman Empire and, subsequently, the nation-states of Europe.
[Note* The United States has never had an “official” church and wrote “separation of church and state” into its constitution—an idea which arose from the American and French Revolutions. While Christendom in America has therefore looked different than Christendom in Europe, the christian nationalism prevalent in the States is simply another of its consequences. However, I am not going to address that in any detail here. First, there is much written already about the current brand of christian nationalism on display in the US, and second I want to focus on three specific ways the church itself has been changed. I believe christian nationalism is about politics and nationalism and has next to nothing to do with the Church of Jesus Christ (which is also why I refuse to capitalise Christian when connected to nationalism).]
In the previous post, I listed some positive outcomes of Christendom. I could have written more. As I wrote, it is almost inconceivable to imagine what our world would be like absent this era. Likewise, volumes could be written concerning the adverse effects it has produced.
We could begin with Crusades and Inquisitions, Witch Trials, and the burning of heretics. Then move on to colonisation, greed, simony, and…well, you get the idea. When aligned with power, the church does not have a good history.
The Heart of the Matter
These items point to one of the significant problems at the core of Christendom. For the church to “fit” within the Empire, either the church or the empire needed to change. And it was not going to be the Roman Empire.
This meant that scripture, specifically Jesus’s teachings, had to be reinterpreted.
- Jesus criticised and was killed by the Roman government. Under Christendom, he was upholding and blessing the Empire.
- Jesus blessed the poor, meek, and persecuted and said things like it is hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God. In Christendom, that was turned upside down. You know you are blessed because you are receiving good things. It is the rich and powerful who are blessed.
- Much of what he taught became “spiritualised”. Only certain people could live like that. The rest of us could go about our lives.
- Jesus taught peace, turning the other cheek and laying down your life. Augustine, who was crucial to helping Christianity “fit”, developed a “Just War Theory”, which, for the first time, saw the church justify killing. (As we have seen in the current war in Ukraine, there will always be secular and church leaders willing to call any war justified.)
- This is also why you will often hear countries with a “Christian” background quoting the Hebrew Scriptures much more than the New Testament. They can justify much more by equating themselves with ancient Israel, which operated as a Theocracy. The teachings of Jesus don’t tend to align very well with how governments like to operate.
- (Have you ever wondered why governments want to post the 10 commandments everywhere but never talk about posting the Sermon on the Mount or, for brevity’s sake, the Beatitudes?)
So, all of that seems terrible. Because it is. And these are essential to consider as you consider the church and its place in the world. Or when a political candidate tries to convince you they are God’s man or woman and need to be in power so God’s will can be carried out.
My List of 3
Compared to that, perhaps my three issues don’t seem to matter all that much. But they dramatically changed the very nature of the church, and we continue to lie with the consequences. However, I feel just as passionate about them and also feel like it is here where I can implement some change. Here is my list:
- The Clergy/Laity Dichotomy.
- The Issue of Status, Privilege and Power
- The Loss of the Church as a Family/Community
In the next few posts, we’ll dig into these three issues, talk about how they came to be, how they transformed the church and some potential ways to implement change. I’ll also share some of the things we are trying in Dublin with the Table.
Photo: St Patricks in Dublin. (I should note that while I have used images of cathedrals when posting about Christendom, I love cathedrals! We can put them in the good column:)