Editorial: A Perilous Shift

The last persecution of Christians by the Roman empire was 303 a.d.  A decade later, Christianity was the official religion of the empire.  This meteroric rise from the bottom to the top changed the way Christians thought about their faith and practiced it.

A reading of pre and post-Constantinian writings in Christianity shows a shift in theology as Jesus the Suffering Servant diminished and Jesus the Reigning King grew.  Now protected by the empire, the focus became about holding onto their newfound power. The Sovereignty of God became the starting point for theology, creating the need to codify and enforce it in some way in both the church and the state–all the while establishing an ecclesial categorization (by some means) of who is “in” and who is “out”–how “outsiders” can become “insiders” and/or how “insiders” can be deemed “outsiders.”

Becoming and remaining a Christian shifted from espousing and expressing the two great commandments to obeying a growing list of rules and regulations (made by the empowered), complete with partisanship that pitted one version of “right and wrong” against another.  Church councils tried to stem this tide by producing Creeds, but the default button back to sectarianism remained in the institutional machine.

Similarly, in John Wesley’s day, one of the things he feared most was the day when Methodists would move from being largely made up of lower classes to being made up of those from the middle and upper classes of society.  He was not hopeful that Methodists could handle power any better than their Christian predecessors had.

Wesley feared that holiness (i.e. perfection in love) would be replaced by yet another form of works’ righteousness and the accompanying judgmentalism that always attends it.  He worried that humility would be replaced by pride and the need to preserve status that it creates.  He lamented that another have/have-not dualism would replace a “we are one in Christ” mindset, causing generosity to give way to possessiveness. 

And so it continues to go when Christianity moves from being one among the religions and becomes the “official” religion, whether in fact or perception.  It is not the fault of Christianity per se, but rather the result of how we handle it, using faith language to cover up hidden agendas.  The Cross is eclipsed by the Congress–where political partisanship raises its ugly head and once again divides the nation and the churches into competitive and contentious groups trying to enthrone their view.  “Liberty and justice for all ” fades away in the smoke-filled rooms, whether by cigars or incense.

Faith becomes interpreted and legislated by those in power.  An “other” group is formed, and as long as “they” are outside the legislation (by choice or design), they can always be viewed as “less than” in some way.  From then on, it becomes a matter of the empowered maintaining their power.

History shows that something happens to faith when it becomes located in Rome, Geneva, or Washington D.C..   When our hallowed halls replace the Via Dolorosa, theology easily becomes theocracy.  And then, as always, we enter a Dark Ages that must await a reformation.

Today on the streets of Baltimore and on the floor of the Supreme Court (and God knows where else), we find the same tensions playing out.  Today is a day to pray that the Beatitudes might rise above and give sway over bullets and briefs.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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4 Responses to Editorial: A Perilous Shift

  1. Steve, I think that you have the history just about right, especially the comment of John Wesley. But as the philosopher Eric Voegelin points out, the history of Christianity is one of development of differentiated consciousness. That sounds like a mouthful, but it just means that people develop a worldview, and their worldview is attentive to what it is that makes them comfortable, but not so much when the viewpoint is unsettling. NT Wright begins his book Justification with an anecdote on worldviews that differed and kept both men (in the story) from being able to agree on the issue at hand.
    Certainty may be a comfort, but we better be sure our certainty conforms to the Real, the Good and the True.
    Blessings, Mike

  2. stevenbruns says:

    Hi Steve,

    I appreciate your thoughts here, but I think the pre-Constantinian world is a bit simplified. Ireneus dealt quite a bit with the question of who is in and who is out. This did not deal with the issue of love, but rather right belief and right interpretation of Scripture. He lived 100 years before Constantine issued the Edict of Milan.

  3. Jeff Blake says:

    Very insightful and prophetically written. Yes to the Suffering Servant who shares with us the immense human suffering and struggle in our world today.

  4. John Powers says:

    Amen! Excellent reflection on the theology of the cross vs. triumphalism, historically and currently.

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