Depoliticizing Christianity. Should Christian churches depoliticize? The modern western Christian world lives in religious and political freedom, a relatively new development in the last few centuries. We live under forms of government which have come to accept, officially and culturally, the separation of church and state as an operational principle. As culturally, religiously and politically free and independent people, we have evolved away from accepting subjugation as voluntary subjects under the politicized hierarchical authority of religious leadership in Christian churches. We no longer prostrate ourselves before either civil or religious authority. In he Western World, we no longer bow to another human being. From birth we learn freedom and independence. Yet the political model of institutional Christian churches continues based upon a bygone world order in which church and state were one, empowered to autocratically control subjects. This contributes to the trend of people walking away from Christian institutional churches today. There is more to this than mere political evolution. The politicization of first Judaism and then Christianity has always degraded and subverted the spiritual viability of peoples subjected to a political and institutional religious order. Politicized institutional religion with an authoritarian hierarchy defining and enforcing orthodoxy against their definition of heresy and blasphemy is not the pattern or method of spiritual practice most effectual in human life. It is better for people when we bear direct personal responsibility before God and our fellow man for our own spiritual deportment. To this end, depoliticizing the church in all its various denominational and sectarian forms may be desirable. Please bear with me and consider the following patterns from biblical history.
The biblical period of the Judges in the Old Testament parallels the first few hundred years of the early church in that these two eras were times when the kingdom of God on earth was not yet politicized. The period of the Judges was that period of time in the history of the Jews following their coming out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses and then crossing the Jordon into Israel and conquering most of that territory under the leadership of Joshua. The Hebrew faith had been established under Moses and the nation had its geopolitical birth under the leadership of Joshua. Following the death of Joshua was the time of the Judges. During that time the Jews had no king from roughly 1375 BC until Saul was anointed the first King of Israel by the prophet Samuel in 1050 BC. The writer of the book of Judges characterized those times as follows.
In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. Judges 17:6
A similar non-politicized period of time occurred in the early Christian church. It was that time from when the church was first established on the day of Pentecost after the ascension of Christ until the conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 311 – 313 CE. During this time before Constantine’s conversion the churches of Christ within the Roman Empire were a loose confederation of individuals, local churches, small groups of people who would meet together to engage in Christian spiritual activities. They collected and dwelled upon writings that now constitute the Old and New Testament before the Canon of scripture was formalized. They functioned as a church at large without a centralized church authority. The early Christian church of course had leading personalities and it struggled with philosophical and theological trends in thought but there was no national or international central church authority empowered to torture and kill people over opinions on orthodoxy, heresy and blasphemy. Christians were persecuted by both Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah and by Roman authorities but the Christians themselves did not have a governing political authority presiding over the administration of their faith. Elders were appointed in locally autonomous congregations and these were intended to serve as spiritual mentors rather than autocrats dominating the brethren. So the Jews from after Joshua’s death to Saul becoming the first king of Israel were not under human government and the Christian churches were not under human government in the practice of their faith until Christianity eventually became the state religion of the Roman Empire. God was the king of the Jews in Old Testament Israel until Saul was appointed the first king of Israel. Jesus under God was the earthly king of the early church until Christianity merged with the Roman state.
In the time of the prophet Samuel, 11th century BC, the Jews of Israel demanded that Samuel appoint and anoint a king for them like the other nations that surrounded them. They thought this political arrangement, modeled after the nations around them would improve their lives. Samuel, under direct inspiration of God warned the Jews against appointing a king over themselves but the people insisted. See chapter 8 and 9 of 1st Samuel for the details of this story. God told Samuel to go ahead and appoint a king for the Jews. God told Samuel the people were rejecting God, not Samuel. Samuel was both prophet and judge of Israel. In fact, he was the last judge of the era of judges. What then occurred in the history of Israel was that in the succession of kings that followed Saul’s appointment, the majority were evil men who did not develop their own personal relationship with the one true God. Rather, they went after idols, false gods of the nations around them and led Israel astray spiritually. The religious views of the king were imposed upon the people by government authority. If a king came to power who worshiped false gods, he would lead the nation away from the knowledge and worship of the one true God. The spiritual blindness of the king would spiritually corrupt and destroy the entire nation with the exception of a minority of individuals who held to God and truth. Israel rejecting God, straying from God, engaging in idol worship is the dominant theme of the Old Testament.
After Constantine converted to Christianity in the course of the 4th century CE, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire. Administration of the Christian faith merged with the civil government and it became necessary to define orthodoxy, heresy and blasphemy as matter of Roman civil law. Church intellectuals such as Augustine emerged and interpreted scripture so as to define Christian orthodoxy for the sake of the operation of Christianity as a state religion. The intellectualization of scripture by men, though almost always well intended, does not penetrate the intent and meaning of scripture and so skewed notions of the will of God emerge. Also, political corruption plays into the distortion of religious practice in any state religion. Christian faith in doctrine and practice was then inevitably compromised and distorted in Roman Catholicism. The politicization of Israel and the politicization of Christianity were not identical processes but they had identical results in the spiritual lives of people. In both cases politicization diminished, hindered and subverted true spirituality and shrouded the understanding and knowledge of God in philosophical and theological static. Thomas Jefferson summarized the result of this problem as follows. “It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”
We who live in the western world today, live in societies changed by the emergence of religious tolerance in the Christian west which has evolved out of the agony of religious wars and atrocities, primarily in Europe which raged as part of the Protestant Reformation. We live in constitutional democracies characterized by religious freedom and religious tolerance but when we walk through the doors of either Catholic or Protestant churches, we step back in time to the era of kings and autocratic forms of government. Today Christianity is practiced in both Catholic and Protestant churches with the same old politicized hierarchies presiding over worldly church kingdoms. Only today those who submit to their authority volunteer. Fewer and fewer people are willing to be subject to these politicized relics. It is not that Christianity is not valid or that God is becoming obsolete. Jesus was and is the Son of God. The Judeo Christian God does exist and is still the central reality of our being. The Spirit of God exists and moves with us and within us. However, the anachronistic form and structure of the administration of our Christian faith is being cast off as we evolve in political, cultural and religious freedom.
When Paul wrote in 1st Timothy and Titus of the qualification for elders and deacons he was not giving us the qualifications for despots, judges, CEOs, inquisitors or boards of directors. He was giving us qualifications for servants and spiritual mentors. Whatever titles or labels we may have for men and women in leadership positions in various Christian sects and denomination today, we should look to those roles for their spiritual merit and their value to others only, and dismiss or disregard those roles as being part of any sort of structure of political and or corporate power. We who participate in institutional church life need to consider how to keep that which is good in the heritage of politicized Christian religion but not be bound to an autocratic form of religion or somebody else’s set of crystallized doctrines. Look at the divided sects and denominations of Christianity. They bespeak, they cry out with the failure of sub spiritual human intellectual exertions to derive exact and uniform principles in the doctrines and practice of Christianity. This is because the kingdom of God, the nature of God, the substance of spiritual life, the critical spiritual ideas of Christianity cannot be discerned and defined intellectually and codified in human notions of orthodoxy, heresy and blasphemy. Scripture cannot be interpreted. The Spirit of God must inform the spiritual mind of the meaning of scripture. Intellectualization and methodological interpretation of scripture are approaches that must be superseded by spiritual discernment of the meaning of scripture.
I am not Anglican but at the time of this writing I have casually been attending an Anglican church in Fairfax, Virginia where the Nicene Creed is recited each Sunday. I chuckle to myself during each recitation. How absurd that people should still be quoting an intellectualized theological agreement that emerged from the Council of Nicea in 325 CE. This is among the earliest extra biblical formulations to emerge from the early Roman politicization of the Christian faith. Yet many Christian people in the early 21st century know it by heart and quote it every week. However, most do not know what it really represents, among the first manifestation of the politicization of Christianity and the need to codify theological ideas to enforce uniformity of concept in an emerging Christian state religion.
All things pertaining to spiritual life and godliness need to be called into question by each generation, by each individual who would come to God. This is our birthright and our responsibility as beings made in the image of God. To think that modern people living within the blessings of western political and religious constitutional freedom would voluntarily submit to an autocratic religious heritage and its archaic political power structure and blindly accept the authority of that structure and the doctrines of that heritage is coming to seem absurd to more and more modern Christians genuinely seeking the substance of spiritual life. The ongoing Protestant Reformation, now in the early 21st century needs to take the further step of depoliticizing the practice of Christianity while doing all that is needful to perpetuate and expand the Christian faith in this world.