The Militant Church
27 August 2010
This is part three of a seven-part series of articles which take an in-depth look at the book The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest For Political Power Is Destroying the Church by Gregory Boyd.
Because I can only share a small portion of this vital book, it is vital that you get yourself a copy as soon as possible, and read the entire book a number of times. Click on the book cover to go to and make your purchase.
If you have not yet read part one — The "Power Over" Kingdom — and part two — The "Power Under" Kingdom — be sure to do so now before continuing here.
Today we will take a brief look at Church history, which reveals that more often than not, the Church has been violently exercising "power over" rather than "power under":
The Devil tempted Jesus by offering Him all the kingdoms of the world without having to go to the cross (Luke 4:5-8).... The Devil's temptation would not have been a genuine temptation for Jesus unless there was a lot of "good" wrapped up in it.... As tempting as it was, Jesus was not going to allow the radical distinctness of the Kingdom of God to be co-opted by the demonically ruled kingdom of the world — however good the immediate consequences may have been. He was not going to do the practical thing and win the world by acquiring "power over" nations. He was, rather, going to win the world by exhibiting "power under" nations.
He didn't want the authority of the world's kingdoms that the Devil was offering Him; He wanted only to exercise the unique authority His Father had given Him. Hence, in obedience to the reign of His Father, Jesus took the impractical, slow, discrete, and self-crucifying road to transforming the world.... Jesus knew what we must know: Everything rests on our resisting the Devil's temptation to do what seems to be immediate good things without suffering, instead of Kingdom-of-God things that are slow, discrete, and always involve an element of sacrifice.
Tragically, the history of the church has been largely a history of believers refusing to trust the way of the crucified Nazarene and instead giving in to the very temptation He resisted.... It is a history of a people who too often identified the Kingdom of God with a "Christian" version of the kingdom of the world.
For the first three hundred years, this wasn't so.... They were a persecuted minority and as such did not dream of corporately exercising "power over" others. Indeed, the church of this time grew — and grew at a mind-boggling rate! This growth came about not by Christians fighting for their rights, as so many do today, but largely by Christians being put to death! Dying was one of the primary ways these early Christians witnessed for their faith.... To a large degree, the early church looked like a corporate version of Jesus dying on the cross for those who crucified Him.
It's difficult to overemphasize the change that occurred when, in AD 312, the emperor Constantine was converted. Just prior to an important battle, legend has it that Constantine had a vision in which he was told to paint Chi Rho (the first two letters of the Greek word for "Christ") on the shields of his soldiers. Allegedly, a voice in the vision announced, "By this sign you shall conquer." Constantine obeyed the vision and won the battle. The magic apparently worked, and so Constantine and his administration dedicated themselves to the Christians' God. This was the first time anyone ever associated the Christian faith with violence, but its success stained the church from then on.
The first recorded instance of Christians killing pagans occurred shortly after. In short order, the militant church extended its power by conquering lands and peoples throughout Europe, compelling them to become baptized Christians or die. As Charlemagne instructed his Christian troops in their conquest of the Saxons: "If there is anyone of the Saxon people lurking among them unbaptized, and if he scorns to come to baptism ... and stay a pagan, let him die."
The "power under" Kingdom centered on the cross had succeeded in becoming a massive "power over" kingdom centered on the sword. The church had become "the church militant and triumphant," and the Kingdom of God, manifested in the crucified Nazarene, had become the empire of Christendom.... Forgetting that "the god of this age" owns all the authority of the kingdom of the world and gives it to whoever he wills, church leaders of this time insisted that God had given the church the power of the sword and thus concluded the church had an obligation to use it.
What followed was a long and terrible history of people using the sword "in Jesus' name for the glory of God." Though there are, of course, many wonderful examples of Christlike people and movements throughout church history, the reigning church as a whole — "Christendom" — acted about as badly as most versions of the kingdom of the world. The Holy Roman Empire was about as violent as the Roman Empire is aspired to replace. It just carried out its typical kingdom-of-the-world barbarism under a different banner and in service to a different god.
Augustine was the first theologian to align the church in an official way with the use of the sword. He justified the use of force by arguing that inflicting temporal pain to help someone avoid eternal pain is justified. Since God had given the church the power of the sword, Augustine reasoned, it had a responsibility to use it to further God's purposes in the world just as a stern father has a responsibility to beat his child for his own good. Since God sometimes uses terror for the good of humans, we who are God's representatives on earth — the church — may use terror for the sake of the gospel. If the end justifies it, the use of violence as a means to that end is justified. This is, in essence, Augustine's "just war" policy.
Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, millions were burned at the stake, hung, beheaded, or executed in other ways for resisting some aspect of the church's teaching or for failing to operate under its authority. Thousands upon thousands were tortured in unthinkable ways in an attempt to elicit a confession of faith in the Savior and the church; some of the macabre torturing devices were even inscribed with the logo "Glory be only to God."
Christians in both the West and the East slaughtered each other in Jesus' name as ruthlessly as they slaughtered Muslims. Terrible atrocities were carried out on Jews, especially when the Crusades needed to be financed.... The militant, Constantinian mindset carried into the Protestant Reformation. Reformers generally decried the use of violence for religious purposes. But once given the power of the sword, most used it as relentlessly as it had previously been used against them. Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, and other Protestant groups fought each other, fought the Catholics, and martyred [pacifist] Anabaptists and other "heretics" by the hundreds.
Yet while the Christian use of the sword subsided in Europe, it continued in the New World. Christians coming to the long-inhabited land of America participated in the slaughter of millions of Native Americans, as well as the enslavement and murder of millions of Africans as a means of conquering and establishing this new land for Jesus. Such, it was claimed, was the "manifest destiny" of Europeans, and it wasn't simply warriors who died at the swords of Christians. As is common with kingdom-of-the-world conquests, raping, torturing for sport, pillaging, and treatise breaking were widespread.
While the violent expression of the Constantinian mindset has been largely outlawed, the mindset itself is very much alive today. Even within the borders of America, the mindset is alive and well. When Jerry Falwell, reflecting widespread sentiment among conservative Christians, says America should hunt terrorists down and "blow them all away in the name of the Lord," he is expressing the Constantinian mindset. When Pat Robertson declares that the United States should assassinate President Chavez of Venezuela, he also is expressing the Constantinian mindset. And when Christians try to enforce their holy will on select groups of sinners by power of law, they are essentially doing the same thing, even if the violent means of enforcing their will is no longer available to them.
It has been a profoundly sad and ironic history. In the interest of effectively accomplishing what it thought was an immediate and discernible good thing, the church often forsook its Kingdom-of-God call. As a result, it frequently justified doing tremendously evil things.... In doing this, the church succumbed to the very temptation Jesus resisted. It wanted to fix the world with it superior wisdom and run the world with the sword because it naively believed it could do so better than secular authorities.... Far from improving on the old version of the kingdom of the world, however, it brought about a regime that was often worse than the version it replaced.
In fact, a Kingdom-of-God citizen could (and should) argue that the Christian version of the kingdom of the world was actually the WORST version the world has ever seen. For this was the version of the kingdom of the world that did the most harm to the Kingdom of God. Not only did it torture and kill, as versions of the kingdom of the world frequently do — it did this under the banner of Christ. If violence and oppression are demonic, violence and oppression "in the name of Jesus" is far more so. The church of Christendom thereby brought disrepute to the name of Christ, associating His Kingdom with the atrocities it carried out for centuries. The resistance most Islamic countries have to Christianity today, in fact, is partly to be explained by the vicious behavior of Christians toward Muslims throughout history.
This tragic history has to be considered one of Satan's greatest victories, and the demonic ironies abound. In the name of the One who taught us not to lord over others but rather to serve them (Matthew 20:25-28), the church often lorded over others with a vengeance as ruthless as any version of the kingdom of the world ever has. In the name of the One who taught us to turn the other cheek, the church often cut off people's heads. In the name of the One who taught us to love our enemies, the church often burned its enemies alive. In the name of the One who taught us to bless those who persecute us, the church often became a ruthless persecutor. In the name of the One who taught us to take up the cross, the church often took up the sword and nailed others to the cross. Hence, in the name of winning the world for Jesus Christ, the church often became the main obstacle to believing in Jesus Christ.
If WE [as followers of Jesus] don't declare that this barbaric religious version of the kingdom of the world was not, and is not, the Kingdom of God, who will? Insofar as the church picked up the sword, it had NOTHING whatsoever to do with the Kingdom of God. When it exercised power over others in Jesus' name, not only was it not the Kingdom of God — something that is true of all versions of the kingdom of the world — it constituted a demonic distortion of the Kingdom of God.
To the extent that an individual or group looks like Jesus, dying for those who crucified Him and praying for their forgiveness in the process — to that degree they can be said to manifest the Kingdom of God. To the degree they do not look like this, they do not manifest God's Kingdom. Hence, to the extent that the church throughout history has persecuted "sinners" and "heretics" rather than embracing them, serving them, and sacrificing for them in love, it was simply one religious version of the kingdom of the world among a multitude of others — only worse, precisely because it claimed to represent the Kingdom of God.
While those who wielded the Constantinian sword throughout history undoubtedly convinced themselves they were wielding the sword in love — this is a common self-delusion among religious power brokers — lording over, torturing, and killing people does not communicate their unsurpassable worth to them; it is NOT loving.
[In reference to the description of love given to us in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7].... Love is patient and kind; enslaving and torture people is neither. Love is never rude; burning people alive is. Love does not insist on its own way and is not irritable or resentful when others disagree; compelling people to agree with you by using force is the direct antithesis. Love doesn't rejoice in wrongdoing, even if (especially if) those rejoicing credit God, who supposedly gave them the power to do it. Love bears all things while believing the best in others and hoping the best for others; imprisoning, enslaving, and killing others in the name of your religious views is not bearing their burdens, believing the best about them, or hoping the best for them. It's that simple.
Given how obvious this is, one wonders how it was so often missed and why it is yet so often missed today. One wonders why no one in church history has ever been considered a heretic for being unloving.... If love is to be placed above all other considerations (Colossians 3:14; 1 Peter 4:8), if nothing has any value apart from love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3), and if the only thing that matters is faith working in love (Galatians 5:6), how is it that possessing Christlike love has never been considered the central test of orthodoxy? How is it that those who tortured and burned heretics were not themselves considered heretics for doing so? Was this not heresy of the worst sort? How is it that those who perpetrated such things were not only not deemed heretics, but often were (and yet are) held up as "heroes of the faith"?
The sword has a demonic power to deceive us. When we pick it us, we come under its power. It convinces us that our use of violence is a justified means to a noble end. It intoxicates us with the unquenchable dream of redemptive violence and blinds us to our own iniquities, thereby making us feel righteous in overpowering the unrighteousness of others. Most of the slaughtering done throughout history has been done by people who sincerely believed they were promoting "the good." Everyone thinks their wars are just, if not holy. Marxists, Nazis, the Khmer Rouge, Islamic terrorists, and Christian crusaders have this in common.
We should have no more interest in defending a religious version of the kingdom of the world than we have in defending an Islamic or Buddhist or Marxist version of the kingdom of the world. But we should have a great investment in criticizing it, for the Christian version hinders our call to advance the Kingdom of Calvary-like love. We need to repudiate the violent "power over" side of church history not just for the sake of others, but for our own.... We need to remain aware of how easy it is for us to be seduced by the demonic gods that pollute the American air we breathe — the gods of wealth, self-centeredness, greed, racism, nationalism, and violent triumphalism. Without noticing it we can find ourselves morphing the radical gospel of Christ into a self-serving, Americanized, violent version of the kingdom of the world.
All indications are that we American Christians have, to a large degree, already succumbed to this very temptation and have been doing do throughout our nation's history. The Kingdom of God is not a Christian version of the kingdom of the world. It is, rather, a holy alternative to all versions of the kingdom of the world, and everything hangs on Kingdom people appreciating this uniqueness and preserving this holiness.... We are called, individually and corporately, to look like Jesus to a rebellious, self-centered, and violent world.
The evangelical church in America has, to a large extent, been co-opted by an American, religious power of the sword more than the power of the cross. We have become intoxicated with the Constantinian, nationalistic, violent mindset of imperialistic Christendom.
The best way to defeat the Kingdom of God is to empower the church to rule the kingdom of the world — for then it BECOMES the kingdom of the world! The best way to get people to lay down the cross is to hand them the sword!
We must never forget that the only way we individually and collectively represent the Kingdom of God is through loving, Christlike, sacrificial acts of service to others. Anything and everything else, however good and noble, lies outside the Kingdom of God.
The assumption that society's problems can be solved by empowering the right ideology, whether this be a democratic, Marxists, Islamic, or Christian ideology, constitutes a fundamental denial of the lordship of Christ. As such, it constitutes a rejection of the reality of the Kingdom of God and the distinctive call of the disciple of Christ to manifest this reality. This kingdom-of-the-world assumption — to conquer the world for the glory of God — is in essence the very thing the Devil tempted Jesus with. What makes the assumption so tempting is that it makes so much sense. How could society fail to be better off if we who know the truth are empowered to get our way in society?
To the disciple of Christ, the power of the sword must be forever viewed as a demonic temptation, not a viable, let alone Christian, solution.... If we think for a moment that we are fulfilling the commission to take the world back for God by acquiring the ability to control behavior through the power of the sword, we are deceived.
We conquer not by the power of the sword but "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of [our] testimony." We conquer by not clinging "to life even in the face of death" (Revelation 12:11); we conquer by refusing to place our trust in the violent "power over" kingdom of the world, while instead making it our sole task, moment by moment, to manifest the unique righteousness of the Kingdom of God. God in principle won the world through the Lamb's loving sacrifice, and He's in the process of manifesting this victory throughout the world through us as we replicate the Lamb's loving sacrifice in our lives. This is the Kingdom of God; this is how the Kingdom of God advances. And this is how the kingdom of the world will ultimately become the Kingdom of the Lamb.
If your response is that this "power under" approach is impractical, if not morally irresponsible, perhaps this too reveals that you have been conformed to the pattern of this world and have allowed yourself to trust "power over" rather than "power under." Perhaps it reveals that you have placed more faith in worldly "common sense" than in the resurrection. Perhaps it reveals that worldly effectiveness has replaced Kingdom faithfulness as your primary concern.
When Jesus was crucified, it LOOKED as if He were losing. More often than not, when the Kingdom of God is being authentically carried out, it looks that way, at least initially. The cross didn't look effective on Good Friday, but God raised up Jesus on the third day. And our task is to believe that, however much it looks like we may be losing, God will use our Calvary-quality acts of service to redeem the world and build His Kingdom. However much we lose — even if it's our own life — we are to believe in the resurrection. Ultimately God wins, and each one of our acts of loving self-denial will eventually be shown to have played a role in this victory. This is faith in the resurrection. This is the Kingdom of God.
We will continue in the fourth article of this series tomorrow by taking a look at the violence America commits in the name of god, which could be called American Jihad.