Formation: Christian Empire and the Roots of Exclusion

It can be easy, in the world we live in today, to overlook the fact that the sacred scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition are mostly written from the underside of power. The central story of the Old Testament is about a remarkable escape of numerous Hebrew slaves from a powerful empire, while the New Testament is centred on a small group of people who follow a prophet largely rejected by his own people and executed as a criminal by the State. Whether we realise it or not, this profoundly shapes the writings of both ‘testaments’; a fact that can be commonly obscured if we read them in the light of a Christianised Western world 2,000 years later. We can read of 1st century Christians working hard to establish their identity in the world, but the same words sound very different when they come out of the mouths of Emperors and warlords many centuries later. 

All of this means that in the Christian tradition it is important that we understand and own our history, and own the ways in which this history has shaped the exclusionary (and sometimes violent) worldview of modern Christianity.

Early Christianity was a sub-group of Judaism; a strange little Jewish sect that wasn’t particularly interesting to the wider populace. Over time however, the church became a Gentile-inclusive movement which enabled it to spread throughout the Greco-Roman empire, and then by the end of the 1st century (after the destruction of Jerusalem) the church had become a predominantly Gentile movement. For the first 3 centuries churches were treated differently depending on the time, place and predispositions of the rulers. Sometimes they were ignored by the empire at large (although they were often persecuted at a local level) and sometimes they were violently persecuted at an imperial level.

The early apologists for Christianity were trying to defend the faith against these various attacks, seeking to defend the reasonableness of Christianity to avoid ridicule and/or violence. These Christians were facing religious prejudice (how could they follow a God who was killed?), class prejudice (Christians were often inclusive and honouring of the poor and marginalised), and claims of cannibalism (for eating the body of Christ). 

In the late 3rd century, a great persecution broke out against Christians:

·     many were killed for refusing to join the army

·     Christian buildings and books were destroyed

·     loss of social privileges

·     arrests of church leaders who were forced to sacrifice to the gods

This means that we have to read much of the New Testament and the early Christian theologians as operating within a context in which they were an oppressed minority. 

In the early 4th century, Constantine has a vision of the cross and the statement “in this sign conquer”; he subsequently defeats Maxentius and becomes Emperor (312). For the first time, being a Christian brought advantage with it e.g. special tax concessions if you joined the church. This change had a profound impact on the church and its place in society. As Richard Fletcher notes: “Imperial patronage colossally increased the wealth and status of the churches. Privilege and exemptions granted to the Christian clergy precipitated a stampede into the priesthood.” Thus, Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman empire. Constantine encourages the unity of the church and calls for the council of Nicea to solve theological disputes, but in this context, disagreement in the church is seen as a threat to the stability of the empire. While meaningful theological conversations were taking place, it is vital to note that the importance of ‘orthodoxy’ was shaped by political forces, as was the attitude toward the ‘heretics’. In the post-Constantine era, the church comes to see the emperor as leader of the church along with the idea that the empire could make Christianisation of the whole world possible. 

In other words, the empire = kingdom of God = church = army = orthodoxy = control

This unavoidably shapes the theological conversation, and the efforts of early theologians to advocate for their identity in the midst of a persecuted situation, now become used by a powerful majority to enforce their views on the world.

During the following centuries we see the decline of the Roman empire, the rise of Germanic and then Anglo-saxon empires as well as the emergence of the Islamic empire. The church, however, maintains serious political, economic and military power. For several hundred years (from the 11th century onwards) the crusades saw Christians engage in religious, violent and political attempts to retake Jerusalem (and the holy lands), and aside from the profound conflict and loss of life between Christian and Muslim forces, Christians also massacred many Jews.

It is sobering to note that ‘crusade’ became the favourite name of the modern church for an evangelistic meeting.

In more recent times, Christians were involved in the bringing of African slaves to Europe and North America, with the importing of nearly 12 million slaves from Africa enabling the USA to become a global economic powerhouse (e.g. through cotton and tobacco). America, who saw themselves as a Christian nation, destroyed and debilitated generations of life on the African continent. Alongside this, the British empire and its efforts at colonisation, which included conversion of the so-called heathen to Christianity, was often active in destroying and overwhelming indigenous peoples around the world. 

So why is this important to know? 

Well, we must be aware that Christian theology, mission and evangelism have been shaped by a colonialist, imperialist past. Early Christianity was a radically inclusive and subversive underground movement… but we must now reflect on how empire and colonisation have shaped concepts like the mission and evangelism of the church. It compels us to ask the question, what could be truly transformative and distinctive about the Christian faith that is not based in exclusion? This is a question we’ll be exploring throughout this series.


Beyond TribalismClint Gibson