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Power brokers in the church?

There is a huge gulf between the simple message of Jesus and the mega-institution that is the organised church today. To the author of this book that is a sad state of affairs. The book is The Fall Of The Church by Roger Haydon Mitchell (Wipf & Stock, 2013. ISBN: 978-1-62032-928-3). Mitchell contrasts the loving approach of Jesus with the heavy-handed manner that the church—notably in the Western world—has adopted down the centuries, which is suited more to tyrants and generals than to the followers of Christ. It was Jesus, after all, who said to his followers: ‘You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you . . .’

The ‘sovereignty’ approach, expressed most clearly in the deification of the Roman emperors, is the very thing Jesus set about dismantling in his day, yet the church came to adopt it as its own. The result has been a power-play that today leaves Christians feeling they are being marginalised by secular people, and vice versa.

The author shows how the ‘sovereignty system’ in the church really got going with the conversion of Constantine in 312 AD, when Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, and how it has continued in various guises ever since—he has some fascinating comments on aspects of Western history. But God has graciously continued to be with his church, even in its most hierarchical forms, in order to purge it of such attitudes from the inside. The author suggests how we might best co-operate with the Lord to that end.

This book is a ‘popular’ outline of the author’s more technical doctoral thesis on the subject. It is still in pretty heavy English, which doesn’t make for a smooth read. He even introduces a new term: kenarchy, meaning the deliberate emptying of oneself of dominance in order to serve others. I like it. But if you find this all rather off-putting, let me encourage you to stick with him in order to grasp his important message.

[The numbers after the quotations below are Kindle location numbers.]

Many of us, while recognizing that the story of Jesus meets our contemporary desire, find a constant tension between Jesus and the largely hierarchically controlled, legalistically orientated, temple-centered organization of the church. (37)

While Christians perceive themselves to have been on the back foot, pushed increasingly toward the margins of the public forum for the last one and a half centuries, the typical secular humanist feels the same way. They feel that it is the Christians who have dominated and they who have been disadvantaged. (103)

It is clear that as far as the first few centuries went, the church managed to maintain its counterpolitical distinctiveness. (204)

Before long the leaders of the early church began to see themselves as having the same kind of authority as the Roman lords of the Gentiles, despite Jesus’ warnings. (223)

The human condition [came in time to be] presented as the consequence of the failure to submit to God’s superior power. Eusebius and those who agreed with him were seemingly unaware that this rendered God moral only by virtue of the extent of his power to dominate, and that this made God immoral even on his own terms. If insisting on our own way and power is sin, then why is it not sin for God to insist on his own way and power? Is it only because his power is greater than ours? But if so, he is worse than us, not better. (272)

The understanding of God as absolute hierarchical ruler led to a return to the Old Testament law as the basis for theology and politics, despite Jesus’ clear teaching, continued by the apostle Paul, that the law was brought to its full end in him. (295)

While recognizing that the Reformation introduced many to a direct experience of God and made significant inroads into the absolute politics of the sovereign hierarchies of church and empire, this soon transitioned into new forms of hierarchical power represented by the sovereignty of the People, the nation state, and the new capitalism that undergirded it. (337)

It is the message of this book that the real hope for future peace is neither a partnership in sovereignty nor the misguided attempt to separate sovereignty from transcendence but the rediscovery of a transcendence free from sovereign power. (366)

How is it that even the best of church experience in both traditional and radical expressions so often tends to relapse into hierarchical domination and control? (447)

The three components of sovereignty embedded in Eusebius’s soteriology, sovereign power, sovereign law, and sovereign payment, coincide with the basic constructs of empire. (488)

The Council of Nicaea that Constantine called and presided over, and the creeds which he helped draw up there, eventually became the basis for the universal sovereignty of pope and emperor. Rather than primarily being about theological truth, their purpose was subordinated to the unity of thought and clarity of content necessary to the exercise of sovereign power. (527)

It is because the cross and resurrection are so central to the incarnation as the consummation of the gift of love that its association with a payment that brings about an appeasement is so detrimental. It makes appeasement by payment basic to the nature of the relationship between God and humanity, and between humans and each other. Instead of love and gift being established as the key motivations of human life and peace, payment and exchange take their place. (550)

The Reformation, despite its laudable rejection of indulgences as a means of paying for salvation, failed to reach behind the corruption of the salvation story to the heart of appeasement itself. As a result, the daily exchange taking place in the mass, and thus substantiating payment for sovereignty in the heart of the system, was replaced by an equally mistaken Protestant emphasis on a once-and-for-all payment to God by Jesus on the cross. The myth of peace through payment continued to be endorsed by church theology and practice. (669)

I am not rejecting all substitutionary ideas of the atonement here… It is the enduring idea of the cross as appeasement or payment for God’s offended sovereignty that I am highlighting and exposing as a corruption of the gospel testimony. (759)

It would appear that God was used to adjusting to the insistent demands of human beings, particularly of his covenant people. Rather than giving up on them, his love moved him to persevere with them along paths which were clearly not his preferred route. (843)

…to see the Old Testament as the story of God’s gift of himself to humanity in which, by act after act of self-emptying, he climbs into Israel’s embrace of empire in its basic constructs of law, monarchy, and temple, none of which were his image for humanity. Looked at this way, the law was the replacement for covenant relationship, the monarchy for God’s loving lordship, and the temple for his presence with his people everywhere. (855)

The cooperative societies, friendly societies, allotment associations, and allied experiments in the collaborative stewardship of land and property have provided good examples of the direction in which future experiments might yet take us. (1071)

The Western economic system, birthed out of the partnership of church and empire, appears to be coming to a final crisis at last. (1214)

The exponential growth of the [Pentecostal-Charismatic] movement means that it is impossible to ignore it any longer. Current statistics give the number of Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians as more than 614 million, consisting therefore of approximately one in eleven of the current population of the world. They can be found in 9,000 ethno-linguistic cultures, speaking 8,000 languages, now extending mainly beyond the boundaries of the West… It is important to remind ourselves of the initial egalitarian character of the three main recognized Pentecostal-Charismatic outpourings of the twentieth century. (1239)

There is an absence of a fully applied incarnational theology of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Jesus. This sense of something seriously missing in the understanding of the way the Holy Spirit operates, or what the theologians call pneumatology, has been frequently expressed over the last few decades. (1368)

Charles Finney’s theology of atonement strongly rejected the idea of the appeasement of an offended sovereign God, and his consequent view of the cross as the ultimate reach of God’s incarnation clearly positioned the kingdom of God as a template for socio-political reform… Students and faculty [of Finney’s Oberlin College] engaged in civil disobedience, not only by harboring and hiding fugitive slaves, but in some cases invading the South to free them. Members of the college served prison sentences of four years, five years, and twelve years for such activities. (1424)

The conservative evangelical approach to the Bible seriously mythologizes the character and purpose of the incarnation. (1709)

Jesus fulfilled and consummated the Old Testament understanding of law, monarchy, and temple by turning them completely upside down and inside out. Now love supersedes law, humility empties out monarchy, and the temple is his body positioned in and through the whole creation. (1719)

The advent of Jesus and his identification with those displaced by empire, such as women, the homeless, the asylum seeker, and the poor, made clear that the kind of society that sided with empire for its own survival and prosperity was far from the kingdom of God. (1757)

We can say confidently from the testimony of Jesus that if there is any ongoing prophetic destiny for the Jerusalem “below” it must be as a place of inclusive blessing for all nations, including its enemies. (1774)

The current Middle Eastern tragedy is a clarion call for kenarchy coming from the very place of its source. (1803)

A properly incarnational theology always argues from Jesus to God. This works forwards as well as backwards. That is to say that our expectations about the future peace that Jesus came to bring needs to be of the same substance as the incarnation. (1828)

For Jesus, love is politics, and love of one’s enemy is at its heart. (1891)

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