Being the Church in the Midst of Empire

I began this writing project a number of years ago with the thesis that the work of the biblical scholars on empire as the context for the earliest church had relevance for the mission of the church today. This is reflected in my goal statement in the outline of my Subversive Church blog (https://subversivechurch.blog/new-blog-outline/) “TO HELP THE 21ST CENTURY CHURCH REFLECT THE 1ST CENTURY CHURCH’S SUBVERSIVE FOCUS TOWARD EMPIRE”

To restate this as a thesis: “I believe that the new material which biblical scholars have just uncovered in the last quarter century about the mission and role of the church in its context is applicable for a model of the church in this twenty-first century”.

I summarize the two parts of my project in the blog outline:

The first part is about the earliest century of the church: from the time of Jesus death by crucifixion to the middle of the second century. The two elements of this are: what was the nature of the world in which the church was born, and what was the nature and mission of the church in its day.

The second part is the present, the twenty-first century: what is the nature of the world in which we live, and out of that, what should be the nature and mission of the church.

Developing the first part was rather straight forward. It consisted of locating and reading the books that the biblical scholars had written. My bibliography (https://subversivechurch.blog/bibliography/) lists many of those books. I will not here repeat what I have written in laying out the conclusions of the biblical scholars concerning ‘empire’ in the first century. I refer you to the posts I have written in my previously mentioned blog outline.

The second part proved to be more difficult for me. That being the finding of voices in the church today which speak of ‘empire’ as relevant to the issue of today’s church’s mission. My first attempts to find those who believed that the model of mission of the earliest church were applicable to the contemporary church came up with insufficient evidence.

In my blog-post titled “Help!” (https://subversivechurch.blog/2018/12/11/help/) I sought to find clergy or other writers who had written about the church’s mission in the context of empire. There were no voices suggested to me beyond those I had already found. I wrote about those in a blog titled A ( Proposed) Manual for Resisting Empire. (https://subversivechurch.blog/2019/11/28/a-proposed-church-manual-for-resisting-empire/) There didn’t seem to be enough material written about today’s church living in the midst of empire to verify my thesis.

It was not until a ‘friend’ on Facebook pointed me toward documents developed by councils of churches in the last couple decades that my hope for proof of my thesis was revived. By councils of churches I am referring to the likes of the World Council of Reformed Churches (WCRC), the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the Council for World Mission (CWM), and the World Council of Churches (WCC). (Links to these documents may be found in the conclusion of my blog outline.)

The use of the word “empire” to express the context of the contemporary church and its mission seems to have first appeared in council documents in the Accra Confession (WCRC 2004).

“We perceive that the world today lives under the shadow of an oppressive empire. By this we mean the gathered power of pervasive economic and political forces throughout the globe that reinforce the division between the rich and the poor. Millions of those in our congregations live daily in the midst of these realities.” 

These sentiments echo the context of the first century church as discovered by the ‘empire’ biblical scholars about whom I have been reading and blogging.

The LWF document underscores this parallel of the contemporary church with the earliest church: Being the Church in the Midst of Empire (2007). That was closely followed in the same year by a denominational paper by the United Church of Canada, Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire. That was followed couple years later by the CWM with Mission in the Context of Empire.

At this point the different families of the church, Reformed and Lutheran, involved the umbrella group, the World Council of Churches and together they produced AGAPE, an acronym for an Alternative Globalization Addressing People and Earth. Where the LWF, UCCan, and CWM documents had laid the groundwork for establishing empire as the context for the life and mission of the church, the WCC document took the next step in beginning to lay out the Christian alternative to empire.

The first century church (and the New Testament) referred to the alternative as that which Jesus spoke of as the kingdom of God found also in the Old Testament. Consider the psalmist, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”. It was not the possession of the Roman Empire. The Empire was a rebellion against the will of God.

Returning to the WCC document, whether you consider the central message of Jesus being the proclamation of the kingdom or whether it is divine love, it is expressed in the title. The acronym AGAPE forms the word the New Testament speaks of as God’s unconditional love, as in Ἀγαπήσεις τὸν πλησίον σου ὡς σεαυτόν, love your neighbor as yourself. And the longer title Alternative Globalization Addressing People and Earth, is the WCC’s terminology for the Christian alternative to empire.

If “Alternative Globalization” is a secular way of referring to the kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed, the “People and Earth” addressed is a reference to the twin major problems that the contemporary empire has helped greatly to contribute to the world- economic disparity and ecological disaster.

Thus, the church associations have first identified today’s major social problems with ‘empire. Then they have begun to work through the World Council of Churches to develop a Christian alternative. My reading of the books by biblical scholars on the context of the first century and the earliest response of the Jesus communities seem to be a clear parallel to this. See, for instance, the three books on the Pauline communities by Daniel Oudshoorn, Paul and the Uprising of the Dead.

The current turn my project has taken is to discover what has been the outcome in the church due to the documents which have been produced by church agencies focussed on trying to be the church in the midst of empire. Are there communities centered around studying and applying the insights of these documents? Or are the documents, like so many others produced by the church, gathering dust on ecclesiastical shelves?

5 thoughts on “Being the Church in the Midst of Empire

  1. Ray Donnelly

    A more limited response to the “modern empire” comes from the South
    African Council of Churches, dealing with the global environment…the effects on empire, tangibly expressed. It’s not a theoretical document and may not be on point…but in my view it makes the theory come alive. https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0?ui=2&ik=0bba344639&attid=0.2&permmsgid=msg-a:r6175630533692765683&th=174181035d22e1bd&view=att&disp=inline&realattid=f_ke668t7g1

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      1. Excellent. Timely. Needed.
        An excellent book that goes deep into this topic is “Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation then and now” – Orbis books.
        A total game changer for me. It finally allowed me to actually appreciate and value the book of revelation in a way that actually makes sense and applies to followers of Jesus seeking to be faithful today in the midst of empire.

        ~ Roger Wolsey, author, Kissing Fish: Christianities for people who don’t like Christianity

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      2. Hi Roger. Thanks for your comments and recommendation. I’m currently locked down in Kirkland WA, just a few miles from where Wes lives. I hope to get on the phone with him one of these days. Bud

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    1. I do have a follow up paper to the Accra Confession by Jerry Pillay. He spells out the consultation between the Reformed Church in Germany and the Uniting Reformed
      Church in Southern Africa over some definitions of ’empire’.

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