Looking for Post-Constantinian Christianity

I’m writing this as my initial contribution to a blog collective called The Despised Ones. Why are we Despised? Because we are each in our own ways attempting to explore the Kenosis stance Christ modeled in the incarnation as expressed in Philippians 2, “who being of very nature God, emptied himself…”. The critically important stance for evangelicals, then, becomes one of voluntary powerlessness.

The evangelical church has a difficult time with power. We want it when we shouldn’t. We try to get it through political means. We lord it over others. And we argue that we’re all brothers and sisters in Christ without separation.

Rather than focusing on gaining, maintaining, and exercising power, we need to focus on powerlessness. This is difficult to maintain. It’s too easy to be tempted to claim privilege in my powerlessness. “See what a good Christian I’m being? I’m siding with those who don’t have voice. Doesn’t that make you want to imitate my approach?” Then there is the temptation to say that my personal struggles give me a unique perspective on the contemporary world. “You don’t know what it means to suffer, but I’ve had to deal with [….] which gives me a vantage point to which people should listen.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the evangelical church has been dependent upon separation from the broader world. Many of the others writing their blogs here have been raised in fundamentalist homes and schooling and find themselves pushing back against those prior images.

More than a simple critique, what is needed is a program for what a new model of engagement might look like. I’ve labeled this model post-Constantinian Christianity. Many have written on the problems created for the Christian church when the Emperor Constantine legitimated Christianity as the official belief of the realm. In that moment, being a believer became a means of social status, of privilege, of power. As tempting as it is to suggest that we need to capture the spirit of the first century Christians, the world today is much too complex and pluralistic to allow a proper appropriation of those images. We can’t go back. We must go forward.

So here is a modest proposal for how my post-Constantinian Christianity shapes up.

First, we affirm that Christians aren’t supposed to prevail. Moreover, we shouldn’t care about winning or losing. That’s not our call. In cultural dialogue on issues like same-sex marriage, we don’t simply defend our cherished positions. Rather, we are to be obedient in being Christ to those we engage.

Second, we renounce all claims to privilege. It may be a historical reality that America’s Founding Fathers were at least nominal Christians. That’s hardly surprising given the monochromatic culture of the day. But that fact doesn’t mean that a Christian has a unique place in American history or politics. I don’t care how someone addressed me at Christmas or if they celebrate Christmas at all. It’s simply not my problem. We are to be obedient to Christ to those we engage.

Third, concerns over power must be about “the least of these”. The only kenotic approach is to look for ways of dismantling the advantage that comes as a result of the ascriptive status that comes from birth. Even here, the cautions of HR Niebuhr ring clear: I must be careful not to assume I can control outcomes, even legitimate ones, or I give over to pride and arrogance. I’m not fixing the least of these. We are being obedient to Christ to those we engage.

Fourth, pluralism demands faithful engagement. Evangelical Christians are daily rubbing shoulders with neo-atheists, Buddhists,  Muslims, religious “nones”, and so on. Our role is to be present to those other voices. We must listen, find commonality, express humanity, and be willing to be empty vessels through whom God can work His will. We are being obedient to Christ to those we engage.

Finally, we must be patient. Even a Wesleyan like me affirms a sovereign God who is working his will in restoring all creation to himself. It is His timing and his means of gauging results. I’m not about obtaining outcomes. We are simply being obedient to Christ to those we engage.

I don’t know why that sovereignty led us to such a conflation of the Gospel with state power, personal acquisitiveness, and military force. But I am convinced that setting aside all of those things in the spirit of a servant and a slave provides the prophetic witness needed by both the church and the world. In that act, the church and the world will see the Christ whom we’re following.

8 thoughts on “Looking for Post-Constantinian Christianity

  1. 1. Curious: why the shift from “being Christ to those we engage” to “be obedient to Christ to those I engage.”

    2. And which image of Christ: the Gospels, or the Epistles, or the Apocalypse? Are they the same, or does the resurrected and ascended Christ direct us to use a different approach from the Ascension onward? Is the boldness of Peter, directed by the Spirit, “voluntary powerlessness”?

    I agree that a “post-Constantinian” Christianity would offer a new model of engagement. Would it look a little like the Book of Acts, a “pre-Constantinian” Christianity?

  2. Rich: Thanks for the comments. Here’s my response: 1) if I wasn’t writing late in the evening, I woud have caught the inconsistency. In some of the cases, I was building off of my own observations and trying not to generalize to others but I didn’t follow the pattern. I’ll edit for clarity.

    2) Another good question. I’ve been reading N.T. Wright’s When God Became King, so I had the Christ of the Gospels in mind (although he’d say the distinctions are a result of our misunderstandings). I do think Peter’s activities represent that change. I’ve bene using the Cornelius vision as an educational paradigm. He’s willing to risk his name as a good Jew to be obedient (which the other apostles endorse).

    I do think it would be like the openness of the Book of Acts, which would be pre-constantinian. I think that the religious diversity of the contemporary world makes it a difficult parallel. That’s why I suggested going forward instead of trying to make a restorationist move.

  3. I agree with you completely that a “restorationist” move is the wrong direction; it’s insensitive to the way the world has changed; for instance, urbanization and industrialization, capitalism, rejection of the general acceptance of slavery, or the improved status and education of women. It smacks of the Romantic Movement’s “noble savage” mythology. “If we could just get back to the Book of Acts,”….well, you’d still have Ananias and Sapphira.

    I suspect that for me the challenge comes in how “powerlessness” manifests itself. If we lay aside our cultural claims to power, that does not in itself mean we lay aside our understanding of what God has done in the Incarnation, what was accomplished in the Crucifixion, and what the Resurrection means. It must not mean that we abandon the vision of shalom that God intends for the consummation of all things. When I have seen naive calls for powerlessness, they have implicitly contained abandoning all these things for some vague moral superiority of Christianity over other faith perspectives, or some sense that “we can learn some things” from these others.

    1. Rich: I love your second paragraph. It exactly captures where my thinking is taking me and helps answer those who’ve critiqued what I put forward. When someone wrote a harsh critique on Facebook, I was tempted to engage debate so as to defend myself and hope to “win” the argument. But I realized that such a stance was in direct opposition to what I’d suggested. Here’s what I wrote instead of a defense: “The heart of my argument is theological not political. I’m supporting the work of God in building his Kingdom, I’m listening to the Spirit’s leading in my words, and I’m trying to learn to take on the mind of Christ in my interactions with others. That trinitarian position is far more “powerful” than the exercise of power in the world’s manner will ever know.”

  4. We are placing serious limits on the power and reality of God, as shown by Jesus Christ, when we talk about embracing “powerlessness.” Let us remember that Jesus exercised enormous power when he healed the sick and raised the dead. He showed massive intellectual and spiritual power through his constant and successful debates with the Pharisees. He showed the power of wisdom by refusing to call himself the Messiah or challenge Rome through military might. He showed the power of faithful determination and religions insight when he fulfilled Old Testament prophesies by walking boldly to the cross. He showed his eternal power as the Son of God when he redeemed all Creation through his resurrection from the dead and through rising up to reign with his Father in Heaven.

    Let us also remember that the early church showed great power as they received the Holy Ghost on Pentecost and went forth to convert the world.

    Let us also remember that the early church had grown large and influential long before Constantine came to the throne. The government of Rome would not have persecuted a group of believers who posed no threat to them. Constantine chose the Church because Christians were well respected and much beloved in the realm.

    Let us remember that Martin Luther King invited priests, nuns and clergy to walk with him on the front lines because the power of their presence at demonstrations would keep some violent police from attacking them.

    Powerless Christians do not found and run hospitals and schools. Powerless Christians do not influence governmental policy. Powerless Christians do not start, fund and run food programs to feed the poor. Powerless Christians do not build churches or run programs to evangelize the world Powerless Christians do not publish magazines. Powerless Christians do not build meaningful and effective relationships with interfaith leaders in their communities.

    You might read a lot about the virtues of powerless Christianity in magazines like Sojourners, but Jim Wallis, the editor certainly has great power and influence in the world and in the church.

    We might demonstrate and exemplify powerlessness, which is to say patience, kindness, gentleness, good humor, effective listening skills, courage, wisdom, good will, tolerance, in our personal, public and business relationships, but we also need to have a solid foundation of personal, moral, intellectual, spiritual, educational, physical and institutional “power” to back up our “powerlessness.”

    1. Rod: Thanks for these comments. I fear that you’re taking my point far too literally. I’d also suggest that the power Christ exhibits in your examples is innate to his character. It’s not about the gaining of intellectual, social, political, military, or medical power. It’s about allowing God’s Kingdom to come to pass in our midst. We do this more by getting out of the way than by attempting to gain power.

      While I’ve read some Wallis, that’s not the source of my thinking. It has far more to do with people like N.T. Wright, Walter Brueggemann, and Reinhold Niebuhr.

      There is a paradox. If writing this blog influences others, it’s an exercise in power. I guess I’m trying to keep the acquisition of power at arm’s length so that it’s not my work but God working in His own way.

  5. Rod, I agree with you, and I also agree with John. Jesus shows enormous restraint in the use of his power, wouldn’t you say? By addressing those He meets in such a way that they come to want what He is offering freely to them? By framing his questions to the Samaritan woman in such a way that she is won first to listen, then to inquire, then to believe, then to proclaim and perhaps to follow? Not by acting from privilege, but by way of laying aside what was due him and taking the form of a servant?

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