The last twenty years has seen new insights from biblical scholars, opening the first two centuries of Christianity in a way that was unknown to previous scholars, ministers, and lay persons.
One aspect of this new information is the realisation of the importance of the Roman Empire to New Testament writings. Adam Winn, editor of “An Introduction to Empire in the New Testament” writes that,
“As will become evident throughout this volume of essays, the Roman Empire dominated and pervaded virtually every aspect of life in the ancient Mediterranean world. Though Christianity was birthed under the power of this empire and every page of Christian Scripture was written under its shadow, the Roman Empire has played a relatively insignificant role in the history of modern New Testament scholarship.”
Another aspect is found in the way we look at history. Putting that another way: how we understand history depends upon whose eyes we look through to assess what happened. Dennis Janz, editor of a seven volume new series, “A People’s History of Christianity” writes,
“What had always been left out of the story, of course, was the vast majority of human beings: almost all women, obviously, but then too all those who could be counted among the socially inferior, the economically distressed, the politically marginalized, the educationally deprived, or the culturally unrefined.”
As those who wrote were part of the elite, the top five percent or so who were literate, and this includes the New Testament writers, we know very little about the lives of the ordinary early Christians. Significantly, the first communities of Jesus’ followers were made up of the other, the ninety five percent.
A third aspect derives from the tendency in our time to separate “church and state”. This has resulted in our dividing what was NOT divided in the first centuries: religion and politics and economics. If these areas are divided, then Jesus is seen simply as a religious leader, a spiritual person. The New Testament thus would not be concerned about matters political or economic. According to Richard A. Horsley in his “Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder”, this view would picture Jesus as
“a depoliticized individual teacher uttering isolated aphorisms that pertain only to an individual counter-cultural lifestyle in no particular political-economic context and with no political implications. It is difficult to understand why the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, would have bothered to crucify such a figure.”
There are other aspects that help create this new insight: the uncovering of a multitude of ancient inscriptions by archaeologists, the insights coming from what is called postcolonial studies… But this is enough, hopefully, to tell you we are blessed with knowledge of the Biblical world that would make an Augustine of Hippo, or Thomas Aquinas, or Martin Luther, or Jack Finegan my New Testament professor of fifty years ago, envious of the time in which we live.
There is a question our modern academics have not answered, though: What difference do these new insights make for today’s congregations?
I’m writing this post for a purpose. It is my contention that within this new scholarship is the possibility for the transformation of the church. That transformation would be grounded on returning our congregations to being alternative communities, whose loyalty is to Christ and the Kingdom he taught, and not to the empire of his day or ours. Subversive is what they were before the church began the long collusion at the time of and with Constantine.
Of course, not all readers of the current biblical scholarship will see what I see. McKnight and Modica in “Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies” see it differently.
“The affirmation “Jesus is Lord” requires not so much a strident denunciation of earthly lords as a studied silence concerning their pretensions.” They (that is, McKnight and Modica) follow a brand of individualistic evangelicalism which is concerned with gaining personal salvation. A “studied silence” has often been the approach of the colluding church.
But McKnight and Modica’s stance is different from the great majority of current biblical scholars. Just one more example. Walter Brueggemann refers to what he calls the “totalism”. In “Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture” he writes, “Power, whenever and wherever it can, will present itself as a totalizing system, the wishful thinking of every empire, every regime, and every orthodoxy. Such totalizing claims, as best they can, answer all questions, provide all resources, guarantee all futures, and deny the possibility that anything meaningful or valuable can fall outside of the totalizing ideology.”
In order for us to move toward becoming a subversive church I see four areas needing to be covered. They are found on my blog under ‘Blog Outline in the main menu. The first two areas focus on the 1st century church, and the last two focus on the 21st century church:
I Context: Empire and Kingdom in the First Century
II Text: The New Testament in the Empire Setting
III Empire in history and today
IV Empire context implications for the church today
I feel comfortable in dealing with the first three areas, laying out the academic material found in the 100+ books in my bibliography. But when it comes to the fourth- what would this look like in our congregations today- I’m going to need a lot of help.
To include you in the process I have begun a new Facebook page, “Subversive Church Dialogue.” I know there are persons out there who are either already involved with or would like to be involved in this project. Some of you may be involving the reality of empire in your preaching; some of you may be trying to edge your congregations toward being alternative communities, like the first century congregations were.
If you want to join with me in the process, would you either click the ‘like’ or ‘follow’ button on the Dialogue Facebook page. (I really don’t know what Facebook’s difference is between like or follow.) This dialogue page gives the option for persons to make comments directly. Please take advantage of this. Lastly, if you have written something more lengthy, I would be happy to consider it as a guest post on my blog.