This is a new outline to my project on this blog, Subversive Church.
My goal is TO HELP THE 21ST CENTURY CHURCH REFLECT THE 1ST CENTURY CHURCH’S SUBVERSIVE FOCUS TOWARD EMPIRE.
(Here is my old Blog Outline.)
This study is about the nature and mission of the church: what is it in terms of the world in which it finds itself. It has two parts. 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.
For the first part, I am dependent upon the latest work of biblical scholars. One group of them has uncovered, for the first time, the realities of the church and its world of the first century. For the second part, I am relying on the work of contemporary church councils who are asking the same the questions about what should the church look like in terms of the world in which we live. One of these council documents epitomizes this whole project: What does it look like to be Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire?
Outline: (short version)
1. LIVING FAITHFULLY IN THE MIDST OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE:
A. The First Century Context- Caesar and his Empire of Rome
B. The First Century Community
1. Jesus and his Reign of God
2. Reading Scripture in the Midst of Empire
3. Early Christian Gatherings in Empire
2. LIVING FAITHFULLY TODAY IN THE MIDST OF EMPIRE
A. The Context in the Twenty-first Century: Global Empire
B. The Church in the Twenty-first Century: a new paradigm from the first
century church: resistance and subversion
1. Inspiration From writers and preachers
2. Road Maps From Church Council Documents
a. The Accra Confession WCRC
b. Being the Church in the Midst of Empire: LWF
c. Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire: UCCan
d. Mission in the Context of Empire: CWM
e. AGAPE: World Church in a World Empire: WCC
Outline: (long version)
Note: B-P= A blog post snapshot= My notes on a book
1. LIVING FAITHFULLY IN THE MIDST OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE:
A. First Century Context- Caesar and his Empire of Rome:
It is the discovery in the last several decades by biblical scholars of the relevance of the Roman Empire for understanding both the First Century and the Twenty-first church that is key to all that follows. It is not that their discovery of the Roman Empire started from scratch. Prior to the exploration by biblical scholars there had already been much known about the Roman Empire. It has been a major aspect for classical scholars for a long time. What was different is expressed by scripture scholar, Warren Carter, when he wrote in The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide, “This book is not about “Roman backgrounds” to the New Testament, because it understands Rome’s empire to be the foreground…. This book recognizes that Rome’s empire does not disappear or go away when it is not explicitly mentioned. It is always there. It forms the pervasive context of New Testament writings.” Just about everything in my project flows out from that insight. Jesus, his followers and the subsequent faith communities all lived their everyday lives, as another of the books tells us “In the Shadow of Empire”. And the consequence of all this scholarship is to give us a new insight about the paradigm shift today’s church and its understanding of its mission and vision. Besides Carter’s book many of the books in my bibliography help us to understand the Roman Empire and its influence.
Besides Carter’s book many of the books in my bibliography help us to understand the Roman Empire and its influence. These are particularly helpful: (to be supplied)
Blog posts and snapshots on empire
B-P Why Empire Scholarship? Found here
B-P Empire: Foreground of the New Testament Found here
B-P The Roman Imperial World Found here
B-P Books on Imperial Religion Found here.
The Roman Imperial Religion Blog in progress.
The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide,
Warren Carter 2009 snapshot
God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now,
John Dominic Crossan 2009 snapshot
Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder,
Richard Horsley 2002 snapshot
B. The First Century Community
1. Jesus and his Reign of God:
The Jesus communities met decades before the New Testament materials began to appear. Jesus was crucified around C. E. 30-33. Paul’s earliest letter to Thessalonians was written about two decades later. The first Gospel, Mark, was not written for another two decades. So those earliest communities of the followers of Jesus existed for over a generation with depending primarily on oral memories of Jesus life and message. The last of the materials to be included in what became the New Testament weren’t written until over a century after Jesus’ ministry ended. The New Testament in the form we know it was not established for several centuries. Eusebius wrote his Ecclesiastical History three centuries after the Crucifixion. And in his time he said the book of Revelation was still disputed as to its inclusion in Scripture.
What Jesus left those early followers was a message centered upon the Reign of God (Kingdom of God, Kingdom of Heaven) which spelled out a Way that was different from the way of Caesar’s Empire. It was first the oral tradition and then later documents that provided an alternative to the context of an oppressive, exploitative, violent empire. Their alternative was so successful that by the fourth century the emperor, Constantine, coopted the Christian religion to prop up the declining empire by giving it legitimacy. The major cost to the Christian community was the saving of its life by losing its alternative soul. For the next millennium and a half it effectively lost its Way. Our Mission, if we accept it, is to restore the church to its original vision: of being a resistant, subversive, alternative to the empire of our time.
B-P Kingdom- Alternative to Empire: I Introduction Found here
B-P Kingdom- Alternative to Empire: II In Richard Horsley Found here
B-P Kingdom- Alternative to Empire III Baptism As a Politically
Subversive Act Found here
2. Reading Scripture in the Midst of Empire:
In my years of preaching, as most clergy, I made use of interpreting the Bible. I was never aware of it, but I shared the assumption that the Bible was of universal use, like the writings of a philosopher. Truth is always truth, or so it seemed. That is, the writers of the Old and New Testaments wrote in a way that it was equally usable for Jews and Christians in any time and in any place. In a way, that is true. But we never thought that the Gospels or epistles might have been written with its contemporaries and the particular problems they faced specifically in mind. Our ‘empire critical’ scholars don’t see it this way. They have written an avalanche of books, on the Bible or New Testaments as a whole or on specific books of scripture, their standpoint addressed to first century people living in the Roman Empire. As well as that, many scholars have written on ‘Jesus and Empire’ or ‘Paul and Empire’. For instance, one book I found particularly enlightening is, Galatians Reimagined, by Brigitt Kahl. Its subtitle is “Reading With the Eyes of the Vanquished”, which described most of the people of the Roman Empire. We find a reflection of that in the Book of Acts. Anyone who has read in a worship service the events of the Day of Pentecost will remember struggling over the pronunciation of the different peoples who were in Jerusalem that day. Not only were there many vanquished peoples (Greek: ethne, meaning ‘nations’), but of the 60 million population of the empire, one-third or about 20 million had been defeated and made slaves.
As well, Kahl tells us that when Paul is discussing ‘the Law’, he is not, as we thought, talking about the Jewish Law. As vanquished people of the empire, it was the empire’s laws that pervaded the practical life of the early Jesus community. The armed soldiers that enforced the peace were not the Jewish Legions; they were the Roman Legions. It was they who were commissioned to use whatever force necessary to keep the Pax Romana. It was the Romans, not the Jews, who had authority to use crucifixion as the punishment for refusal to give loyalty to the Emperor. A century before Jesus was crucified for claiming to be a rival king, Spartacus, the gladiator/slave, had rebelled against Rome. When he was finally defeated, 6,000 of his slave followers were crucified, mile after mile, along the Appian Way south of the city of Rome.
In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance, Richard Horsley (ed) 2008 snapshot
Come Out, My People! God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, Wes Howard-Brook 2012 snapshot
Galatians Re-Imagined: Reading With the Eyes of the Vanquished, Brigitte Kahl 2010 snapshot
3. Early Christian gatherings in Empire:
In this aspect, the ‘empire critical’ findings intersect with the work of another sub-group of biblical scholars: those who present findings of the ‘Greco-Roman meals’ group. These meal meetings were the major form of social gathering in the Greek and then the Roman civilization. There were various names for the gatherings: symposiums, associations, etc., but they followed a similar meeting pattern. If you have read Plato’s Symposium you have encountered the ‘association’. This meal pattern began with the Greeks around 600 BCE, was picked up by the Romans when they conquered the Greeks, and continued for several hundred years into their empire.
Not only was it used by the Greeks and the Romans, it was also adopted by the many different peoples when they were defeated and absorbed into the empire. It was the in way to meet by any group who decided to have meetings. Any group wanting to look unthreatening used its pattern, including Jews and subsequently Christians.
There was a three-fold pattern. First, a full meal, mostly of bread and wine with a few embellishments, was eaten reclining on couches with the normal group size being of nine to seventeen attenders. Next came a libation, a toast, to the emperor. Gatherings of our faith ancestors substituted their own form of libation in memory of Christ, not Caesar Augustus. Last was the time of interaction and could be anything from Plato’s learned discussion to an ’Animal House’ like bacchanalia.
For this time the ‘Christers’ had two goals. First was personal. Their community consisted of the 90% non-elite of the empire- those who were either slaves or whose level was just above subsistence living. For them the Good News that they were beloved children of God went in the face of how they were considered and treated outside the association. Second, the communal objective, they deliberated over how to live by kingdom values in a world that had crucified their Lord.
For more detail on the structure of the gatherings, read Christ’s Associations: Connecting and Belonging in the Ancient City, by John S. Kloppenborg. For seeing the link of the meetings to early worship, consult Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century, by R. Alan Streett.
2. LIVING FAITHFULLY TODAY IN THE MIDST OF EMPIRE:
A. The Context of the Twenty-first Century: Global Empire
The first question to be dealt with: Is there an empire today? If there is not, then the first century context is useless for today and today’s church. To begin with, there are sources that her us answer that question.
Books by David Korten are helpful in diagnosing our situation with respect to empire. In The Great Turning he informs us that in the 6000 years of civilization there has always been an empire. Since humankind moved into an agrarian economy and started building cities, empire has been our default setting. Korten is of limited in help in his prescription. He does not look to the Gospel or the church for a solution. He is leading an uprising of what he calls an ‘earth community’ which will help him stop the devastating of the earth by corporations.
John Dominic Crossan provides better aid for those of us who look to scripture for our vision. In his God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, he also posits that empire has been with us for as long as there has been civilization. After laying out the nature of the Roman Empire he finds the contemporary form of empire in America. But, like most academics, his detailed diagnosis is followed by only brief remarks about negotiating the American empire.
B-P Crossan: I Empire and the Barbarism of Civilization Found here
So I was forced to turn to Christian writers and ministers to find practical application for what academics discovered about the first century church in order to find mission and vision for the twenty-first century church. this will be the focus of my next section.
B. The Church in the Twenty-first Century:
The question I began with was “What, out of world in which we presently live, should the church look like today? The first place turned to for an answer was individuals and individual congregations. And I found some, but not enough to flesh out a model that gave enough specific direction.
1. Inspiration from writers and preachers and congregations. There were several who stood out.
Among writers the most insightful I found was Brian McLaren. His most relevant book is “Everything Must Change: When the World’s Biggest Problems and Jesus’ Good News. collide”. The first quarter of the book is spent on asking what is the problem of our present world. He says the conventional view of the Good News is personal salvation, the setting of our minds away from the world and its problems to a heavenly home. Against that he portrays a Jesus who came to deal with the global mess we’re in. Jesus confronts empire then and now.
But again, like the biblical scholars, there is little in his book beyond good theory for the local church or local pastor for practical use. An excellent book for the analysis it gives. But instead of laying out a mission for the future, Brian, when he finishes the theory, like other authors, turns to find a subject for his next book. After reading his book, I’m still looking for a handbook for the church’s future.
How about local ministers? There are several good books out there. Ginger Gaines-Cirell, pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church, has written Sacred Resistance: A Practical Guide to Christian Witness and Dissent. Robin R. Meyers, now emeritus minister of Mayflower UCC, Oklahoma City, has given us The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus. And Rick Ufford-Chase, along with 13 mostly Reform colleagues, produced Faithful Resistance: Gospel Visions for the Church in a Time of Empire.
But, as good as they are, I would not feel confident in using any or all of the books with the leaders of a local congregation to build a model and mission. We need to keep looking for practical guide on developing a future church.
B-P (Proposed) Manual for Resisting Empire Found here
The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, Robin R. Meyers 2012 snapshot
Faithful Resistance: Rick Ufford-Chase snapshot
The Fall of the Church, Roger Haydon Mitchell 2013 snapshot
2. Roadmaps From Church Council Documents:
It was at this juncture that a Facebook friend pointed me toward some documents written by church councils or associations to help educate their people for living in a world of empire and providing the church with a model of an alternative community, like our first century forebears were. There are several that I found most helpful, as well as dovetailing nicely with the research of the biblical scholars that I have used for the first half of my project. That is clear from the titles of three of the documents: Being the Church in the Midst of Empire, Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire, and Mission in the Context of Empire.
a. “The Accra Confession”: There was one document before these three were created that began this thinking by church bodies of the church in relation to empire. In 2005, the World Council of ReformedChurches held its meeting in Accra, the capital of Ghana on the west coast of Africa. One part of their meeting was a tour of two “castles” on the Coast of Ghana that held those who had been captured into slavery until their were put on ships to be taken to the New World and a life of slavery on plantations.
“We entered a room used as a church, with words from Psalm 132 on a sign still hanging above the door (“For the Lord has chosen Zion…”). And we imagined Reformed Christians worshipping their God while directly below them, right under their feet, those being sold into slavery languished in the chains and horror of those dungeons.”
This opened the eyes of the conference attenders in being aware of the need to be clear about the mission of the church! As the Barmen Confession came out of the German church’s facing of Nazi Germany, just so did the Accra Confession come out of the Reformed tradition’s experience of the blindness of the church to the horror of the empires of the 15th to 19th centuries.
b. Being the Church in the Midst of Empire: In 2007, the Department for Theology and Studies of the Lutheran World Federation produced a document of 286 pages spelling out a theology “in relation to the overall global reality of what today, in shorthand, is considered ‘empire.’ ” In more specific terms they said what the church is facing is “neoliberal economic globalization”
c. Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire: In the same year, the United Church of Canada produced a 58 page document. The term ‘empire’ was used 16 times before you even got out of the table of contents.
The World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) in 2005 said that neoliberal economic globalization is no longer an adequate term to describe the appalling plight befalling God’s creation (Accra Statement). The Canadians quoted the Accra statement: “As we look at the negative consequences of globalization for the most vulnerable and for the earth community as a whole,” WARC said, “we have begun to rediscover the evangelical significance of the Biblical teaching about Empire.”
d. Mission in the Context of Empire: Council for World Mission grew out of the work of the London Missionary Society. What began as the thinking of European missionaries toward the colonies in which they gave their labor evolved into a council of 32 denomination of which all but five were churches of the formerly colonized. Or in their words, CWM transformed “from a colonial British mission agency to an international community of churches sharing together in God’s mission as equal partners.” In 2010 the CWM produced a 28 page document to guide their churches into a vision of mission in today’s world which they termed in shorthand, ‘empire’ and in longhand “neoliberal economic globalization”, or “globalised market forces”.
e. AGAPE: Alternative Globalization Addressing People and Earth. The World Council of Churches’ usual way of working is to respond to its constituent church bodies actions and issues. So, it was at the urging of WCRC, LWF, and CWM that a document was drafted “to inspire the churches and the wider ecumenical movement to continue to address current global problems so as to respond resolutely to the intolerable levels of poverty in our world” as well as confront the reality that “(m)other earth is groaning because of the many ways in which we continue to exploit her.”
From reading of the five documents, one can become aware of the consensus in the picture of the world that the church confronts in the 21st century and also the mission the church has to respond.