WHAT DO I MEAN BY SUBVERSIVE CHURCH?
I’ve just realized that, with all the posts I have written for a blog titled “Subversive Church” I have never explained exactly what I mean by that title. So I’m finally going to do that.
First, I borrowed the word ‘subversive’ from the book that got me into this whole topic of Jesus, Kingdom of God, Empire, Church. It is from Allan Street’s book, “Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century”, which is still, with one exception, the only book that brings together the two threads of recent biblical scholarship: namely the Greco-Roman Meals (which thread is the basis for my work on Dinner Church), and Empire critique (the basis for my work here on Subversive Church.) In these two threads of scholarship, members of the Society for Biblical Literature have, for the first time, pulled back the curtain on what the earliest church gatherings looked like and what the world they went back into after their meetings. was like. I’m convinced that if the church today finds what has been discovered about the earliest church, it will transform how we meet and what we see our major mission as being.
Oh yes, that only other book which combines the two threads of scholarship is “In the Beginning Was the Meal: Social Experimentation and Early Christian Identity” by Hal Taussig.
There are many books that by now have been written on these two threads. The bibliography on my Subversive Church blog includes over 130 titles. Among these there are several which use the term, subversive, to explain the relationship of the followers of Jesus to the power and authority that claimed to be in charge of the world, the Roman Empire. These include: in addition to the aforementioned “Subversive Meals”, “Subversive Christianity- Imaging God in a Dangerous Time”, “Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation”, “Holy Subversion: Allegiance to Christ in an Age of Rivals”, “Subverting the Devil’s Kingdom 24/7”, “Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed”, “Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire”, and “The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus”.
If I hadn’t used the term ‘subversive’ I would have used the word ‘resistance’ in speaking of the relation of the Church to the powers of the world. And that word is found in the titles to others of the books in my bibliography. In fact, over 20 books use some form of resist or resistance in their title. Do a ‘resist’ search of my bibliography to find all of them. I’ll just mention a couple: “Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions For the Church in a Time of Empire”, “Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent”.
This means that differing from my first-time blog readers, the use of the terms subversive, subversion, resistance in relation to the mission and role of the church doesn’t make me nervous. There are lots of writers out there who have read the recent scholarship and see the church needing to take a more critical and over-againstness stance to the world in which it lives.
Let me help you be more at ease in this new/old image of the church. Namely, that the twenty-first century church needs to recapture the countercultural stance of the first century church. Ed Stetzer is an editor at Christianity Today, not a place one associates as a hotbed of social radicals. He is author of the aforementioned “Subversive Kingdom: Living as Agents of Gospel Transformation”. In his book, he uses an analogy that many might find helpful. He writes about his adopted state of Tennessee. During the time of the Civil War Tennessee was one of the border states.
He says that West and Middle Tennessee increasingly sided with the separatist sentiments of the Confederacy. Yet the eastern part of the state felt differently. Where the west and middle were in rebellion,
“East Tennessee was in rebellion against the rebellion. As a result, they were treated as cross-state enemies, eventually being invaded by the armies and militias of their own state who had been deployed with orders to keep this splinter section under control. They were forced into a sort of guerilla warfare for daring to insist that the rightful rule of their country resided in Washington, DC, not Richmond, Virginia”.
He concludes that the role of the church is like the role of east Tennessee ‘rebelling against the rebellion’.
“In many ways we as believers in Christ— followers of another Ruler, citizens of another kingdom— are much like the people of East Tennessee in Civil War America. We live among a world system that, even though ultimately under the reign of a sovereign God, temporarily exerts a competing authority that seeks to enforce an unjust, unrighteous order on those it claims to rule.”
Let me turn to the scriptures to spell this out.
The stance of Israel was that God was ruler of the world. For instance, Psalm 24 begins “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” This is in spite of the fact that the Israelites lived most of their existence under one empire or another which claimed authority over the things of the world. Even during their time of suppose self-rule under their kings they believed God was in control. It was during this time that God sent the prophets, and they came because they said the kings ruled as if God was not sovereign. In God’s name Amos thundered to the king, “Let justice role down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”
In the time of the all powerful Roman Empire Jesus preached about the reality of God’s Kingdom. Jesus was confronted with the question of whether the Jews should pay taxes to the empire. Today because we think of religion and politics being separate realms we may misinterpret his response. When he said “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s”, Jesus’ people, the Jews, knew what he really meant- what the Psalmist told them- that all belonged to God. Like the West and Middle Tennesseeans in the 1860s the Empire was in rebellion against God. Jesus and his followers were in rebellion against that rebellion.
Pilate and his Roman soldiers knew where Jesus’ loyalty lay. “Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”” Jesus was not killed because he was simply a spiritual leader for our souls, but because he was a threat to the power of the Empire. He was a rebel against that rebellion against God. This means that if we follow his injunction to “Take up your cross and follow me”, we as the church will need to overcome our normal reluctance to resistance or subversion.