Christianity and Power

reflections on Richard Fletcher’s The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity

It seems clear from what Jesus said his kingdom would/should have nothing to do with spreading the kingdom message through the normal means in which empires spread their kingdoms/cultures/empires. Jesus’ dream of kingdom building was predicated on the attractiveness of bands of his followers living in unity, loving one another and living the other one another directives found primarily in Paul. This was the “evangelistic strategy” of the early church; they lived out this dream and testified of the resurrected Lord of this kingdom. “In house” doctrinal debates were carried on vigorously but with no power to enforce majority opinion other than some form of excommunication.

From the conversion of Constantine and increasingly onward, the kingdom of God was advanced and doctrinal conformity increasingly controlled with the threat of or the reality of the sword. Accordingly from the time of Constantine and the last days of the Roman Empire and consequently the Holy Roman Empire Jesus’ kingdom was advanced hand in hand with a powerful culture. As Barbarian Europe was Christianized each tribal group, Goths, Franks, Angles, Saxons, Irish, Danes, etc. were converted primarily at the edge of the sword. Once tribal groups were conquered churches were built but their safety was provided for by political power. It is clear that the spread of the faith was in no sense a “grass roots” movement but a top down affair. Princes and tribal leaders were converted by war or by the enticement of being allied with the conquering power. In turn their “court” or underlings would have followed suit with the decision of their leader and then of course the inhabitants under their control. In that cultural milieu it would have been almost impossible for the conquered to make a distinction between their conquerors and the faith they brought with them; they were by in large one and the same.

In contrast, those who opposed initially or later on rebelled against this culture. Unfortunately, priests and others were killed in these rebellions because there were simply considered part of this culture. They were not killed for their faith per se but were collateral damage so to speak.

The enticement of being allied with power was communicated by an old version of what we call today the health and wealth gospel. Conquered tribal leaders were encouraged to convert because their God would grant them victories over their enemies and they would enjoy increased prosperity. It is impossible to see the kingdom message of Jesus in this form of “evangelism.”

This does not mean the Spirit was not at work. A biblical truth is that God’s purposes are not thwarted by human sin. Certainly there were and are horrible consequences when the “gospeling” culture is also the conquering culture but the Spirit works in spite of that not because of that (this idea needs expanding but I’ll save that for a later time).

Missionaries to Muslim countries face the hurdle of communicating the kingdom message of Jesus and not having themselves associated with Muslim dislike/hatred of the cultural hegemony of the West and more specifically America and the cultural Christianity it represents.

To say that we’ll never know if Christianity would have spread without the power of the sword and the enticement of power is in one sense true but in another it is not. Until the conversion of Constantine the kingdom dream of Jesus was spreading without being allied with political power or protection. No one would disagree that there are not benefits that come from having faith protected by political power but history has demonstrated over and over the lethal combination of faith and power.


blog intro

If you know me well you know I love to read.  Given time to myself I would rather read than do anything else.  Because I am a teacher most of what I choose to read is chosen because of its potential value to contribute something to my teaching.  It was also conversational fodder when interacting with friends.

We had attended the same church since we built our house in Woodbury in 1999 and I was able to teach there for years.  Also since we lived so long in Woodbury we had a large network of friends with whom it was natural to have meaningful discussion beyond weather and sports. Now that we have moved to Richmond VA I am primarily without those two outlets for communicating/discussing my ideas.

Writing articles is something I have wanted to do for a few years but between work, family and writing my teaching notes on the Old Testament I had not taken the time.  I’m not sure how often I’ll post something but I would love feedback/discussion.