Church and Empire

Reflections on Faithfulness and Compromise

This is the dome and oculus of the Pantheon, in Rome, still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.  Photo credit:  Atibordee Kongprepan | CC2.0, Flickr.  The Pantheon represents the complex interactions between Church and Empire.  The Pantheon was originally constructed as a temple to the gods of ancient Rome, commissioned during the reign of Augustus Caesar, and completed by the pagan Emperor Hadrian (rebuilt after a fire) around 126 AD.  In 609 AD, the Christian Emperor Phocas in Constantinople gave the building to Pope Boniface IV, who converted it into the Church of Saint Mary and the Martyrs (it is still in use as a Catholic church).  Yet in 663 AD, Emperor Constans II stripped the roof of its bronze tiles and sent them to Constantinople as supply.  So, at times the Church seems to reverse pagan practices; at other times the Church seems to reinforce them.  At times, the Church seems to benefit from the Empire; at other times the Empire plunders the Church for building materials. 


church and empire: reflections on faithfulness and compromise

The selection of perspectives on church history in this section has been guided by three factors: (1) to demonstrate that Christianity has not been a “white man’s religion”; (2) the study of empire as a recurring motif in Scripture by recent biblical studies scholars; and (3) explorations of biblical Christian ethics on issues of power and polity, to understand how Christians were faithful to Christ or not.  Christian relational ethics continues a Christian theological anthropology that began with reflection on the human nature of Jesus, and the human experience of biblical Israel.

Helpful Resources on Empire as a Biblical Theme

Epistle to Diognetus (New Advent, 1st - 2nd century), ch.5 displays the early Christian approach to culture, language, and political identity: "For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers."

Walter Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Amazon book, Jan 5, 1984)

Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Amazon book, 1988)

Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Amazon book, Jan 5, 1988)

Walter Wink, Unmasking the Powers (Amazon book, Jan 1, 1992)

Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millennium (Amazon book, Mar 16, 1999)

Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought (Amazon book, 1999) and this bibliographic summary by Patristic Evangelism, Readings in Patristic Ethics  (Patristic Evangelism blog, date unknown)

Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life (pdf file, 2002), an Eastern Orthodox perspective, examines monasticism as a movement against the Christianization of the empire; says, "We must admit that the empire proclaimed Christian was built on the three solutions of Satan, certainly not entirely or consciously, but in mingling light with darkness, God and Caesar, the suggestions of Satan and the refutations of Christ.  It was an ambiguous empire, for it distorted the cross... Constantine founded an empire whose greatness and prosperity were more dangerous than the cruelties of Nero." (p.143)

Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Amazon book, Nov 1, 2002)

Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (Amazon book, Nov 1, 2002) a creative, socio-rhetorical reading of Paul's letter to the Colossians.  Deserves careful consideration.  They do not sufficiently explore Paul's engagement with the Old Testament, however.

Pui-Lan Kwok, Don H. Compier, and Joerg Rieger, Empire and the Christian Tradition: New Readings of Classical Theologians (Amazon book, 2007) a vital counterpart to biblical exegesis: major theologians from the early church to the present; rereading them is vital

Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals (Amazon book, Mar 3, 2008) a readable introduction to this topic

Richard A. Horsley, In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance (Amazon book, Oct 31, 2008)

Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and the Powers: Conflict, Covenant, and the Hope of the Poor (Amazon book, Oct 1, 2010)

Davina C. Lopez, The Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul's Mission (Amazon book, Oct 1, 2010)

Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies (Amazon book, Apr 28, 2013) This was a wonderful collection of essays bringing us up to date on what New Testament scholars believe about whether the NT has an anti-imperial message within its pages. In some ways, it is a literature review, and a very helpful and illuminating one at that. Each contributor to the book not only does an even-handed job with the scope s/he was given (on Matthew, or John, etc.) they take a position curbing the enthusiasts. That curbing is well taken, given that the scavenger hunt for anti-imperial clues has been on since the ‘post-colonial’ paradigm for studying literature, politics, and the social sciences has dominated the field for a few decades: One is likely to find a bit of ‘empire’ to criticize if you go looking hard enough! This book is a good examination of that. So it is with disappointment that I must disagree with each author and the book as a whole. I do so because their methodology is truncated and incomplete: Each author analyzes the correspondences between images and phrases used by the Roman Empire and also used by the New Testament, like comparing ‘Caesar is Lord’ with ‘Jesus is Lord;’ they say that the New Testament’s deeper concern is not confrontation with empire per se, but correspondence with the Old Testament. With this I wholeheartedly agree. However, they stop there, and that is their methodological problem. The Old Testament itself was anti-imperial, and the New Testament builds upon it. For instance, God scattered Babel, then designed Israel to be an open community with laws that respected human dignity and relations, with strict limits on its land claims. Israel’s Scriptures criticized urbanization, the centralization of power in a kingship, and the Temple cult itself. When the major Gentile empires emerged on the scene, Daniel condemned them as beastly against the visionary backdrop of a new Adam figure who would be enthroned above them. So the correspondence between the New and Old Testaments on this issue is deeper than these New Testament scholars perceive. The New Testament is anti-imperial because the Old Testament is anti-imperial. I have put my position into the mouth of Apollos in my fictionalized account of his time in Ephesus, Character Sketches for 1 Corinthians.

Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Towards the Biblical Concept of Peace (Amazon book, Jun 1, 2014)

Berry Friesen and John K. Stoner, If Not Empire, What? A Survey of the Bible (Bible and Empire, Jun 1, 2014) is a helpful resource, although they tend to downplay historic Christian eschatology to stress this life

Adam Winn, An Introduction to Empire in the New Testament (Amazon book, Jun 24, 2016) with contributions from Beth Sheppard, Davina Lopez, Neil Elliot, Warren Carter, and others.

Kristina Stoeckl, Ingeborg Gabriel, and Aristotle Papanikolaou, Political Theologies in Orthodox Christianity: Common Challenges - Divergent Positions (Amazon book, 2017) examines multiple angles from various scholars wrestling with modernity; includes chapters on prophetic, ecclesial, civic, and symphonic positions. A must-read, especially as it comes from the Christian tradition with the longest history.

Ashley M. Purpura, God, Hierarchy, and Power: Orthodox Theologies of Authority from Byzantium (Amazon book, 2018) examines the theology of hierarchy - a technical term not identical with power structures, but which would become intertwined - beginning with Dionysius the Areopagite 

Krishnan Kumar, Were Empires Better Than Nation-States at Managing Diversity? (Zocalo Public Square, Mar 16, 2018) a thought-provoking article which makes us ask the question of whether Nation-States are necessarily an improvement over Empires, and why Pentecost-expressions might have been more intuitive in formal Empires rather than formal Nation-States.

Walter Scheidel, Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity (Amazon book, Oct 2019) explores the role of Christian faith from the fall of Rome in 476 as one of many factors