Jesus and empire, state and church

Generative AI summary:

There is a perceived contradiction between Jesus’ values and the practices of Christendom, leading to the view that the church’s historical actions were a betrayal of the gospel. However, from a narrative-historical perspective, the conversion of the Roman Empire can be seen as fulfilling New Testament expectations. Jesus’ teachings in Mark 10:35-45 emphasize that glory and kingdom are achieved through suffering, not through Gentile-style authority. The early church, as a priestly community, maintained distinct ethical standards from political powers. The New Testament focuses on enduring persecution, not on the church’s role in a post-pagan imperial order.

Read time: 8 minutes

There is an obvious contradiction—at least in the popular imagination—between the values of Jesus and the practices of Christendom, and it is not surprising that what is left of the Christendom church in the West now largely views its past with horror and shame. Surely, the conversion of the Roman Empire was just a ghastly mistake, a betrayal of the gospel, an insult to the memory of Jesus the pacifist, the lover of enemies, the friend of tax collectors and prostitutes, the anti-establishment prophet and social revolutionary?

So how can it possibly be claimed that the historical victory of the church over pagan Rome constituted a proper fulfilment of the goals of Jesus or of the early church?

Well, I think that it is a reasonable claim to make from a narrative-historical point of view if we allow that the New Testament is fundamentally as realistic in its outlook as the Old Testament. Isaiah could imagine the pagan nations of Mesopotamia abandoning their idols and swearing allegiance to the one God of exiled Israel; Paul was convinced that something like this was about to happen in his own world (Is. 45:22-46:2; Phil. 2:10-11).

But do we not find in a passage like Mark 10:35-45 an ethic, an attitude to power, quite incompatible with the immediate realities of Christianised Rome?

Glory and kingdom

James and John ask to sit either side of Jesus in his glory or in his kingdom (Mk. 10:37; Matt. 20:21). Jesus has just said to his disciples that the Son of Man will be handed over to the authorities and executed by their Roman overlords but will rise on the third day. The presumptuous sons of Zebedee have perhaps not fully grasped the import of this, but Jesus’ words should have brought to mind the image of Daniel’s “one like a son of man,” who comes to the judgment seat of God to receive the glory and kingdom that will be taken away from the ferocious fourth beast—the most vicious, destructive and blasphemous of kingdoms (Dan. 7:9-14). They would have understood that he is telling a story about political transformation.

Jesus then makes it clear that participation in this glory and kingdom comes only by way of suffering. Are the disciples willing to drink the same cup of God’s wrath against Israel? Are they willing to be baptised into the same death for the sake of Israel? They are willing, and Jesus affirms that this will be their fate; nevertheless, “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared” (Mk. 10:40).

The other disciples are upset by the behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings of James and John, a bit of a row breaks out, and Jesus has to call them all to order.

And having called them, Jesus says to them, “You know that those recognised as rulers of the nations exercise lordship over them and the mighty ones of them exercise authority over them. But it is not so among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you will be a servant of you, and whoever wishes to be first among you will be a slave of all; for indeed, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his soul (as) a ransom for many. (Mk. 10:42-45*)

Jesus does not have rule over the nations in view here. His disciples are not to seek a share in his glory and kingdom after the manner of gentile rulers, but his horizon remains the chaotic, apocalyptic reformation of Israel, climaxing in the destruction of Jerusalem and the overthrow of the old régime.

His teaching is directed at those who will continue his prophetic ministry to Israel in the end-of-the-age period leading up to the war against Rome.

It is the members of the Council who will “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62).

The “kingdom” and “glory” belong to the “regeneration (palingenesiai), when the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory… judging the twelve tribes of Israel,” with the disciples enthroned alongside him (Matt. 19:28*). This is all part of the same apocalyptic tableau.

This “regeneration” does not encompass the nations; in the context, it is a term for the renewal or “rebirth” of God’s people. Josephus says that when Zerubbabel was appointed by Darius to restore the land of Israel, the Jews “betook themselves to drinking and eating, and for seven days they continued feasting, and kept a festival, for the rebuilding and restoration (palingenesian) of their country” (Josephus, Ant. 11:66).

Still, there are some conclusions to be drawn about these two very different paths to greatness which may help us to understand the relation of the church to political power in Christendom.

There’s nothing wrong with gentile greatness

Jesus does not criticise or condemn the manner of government among the gentiles. He merely observes that the recognition of sovereignty and greatness, which is what James and John have sought for themselves, derives from the exercise of lordship and authority over the peoples. In Luke, we have “kings” who exercise lordship and people in authority who are “called benefactors” (Lk. 22:25).

For Jesus’ followers, however, recognition of sovereignty and greatness and benefaction in the new order—their reputation in the community of believers and perhaps more widely—would be attained in a very different way. The twelve would have renown and would be held in high esteem because they served others and because they endured suffering and, in all likelihood, martyrdom.

Carry this over into the post-pagan-imperial situation hoped for (Rom. 15:12-13) by the early apostolic communities across the Greek-Roman world, and arguably what we are led to expect is a continuing ethical distinction between the nations and the church, even though the nations have renounced idolatry and now worship the one God who made the heavens and the earth.

Nations have their political hierarchies but they also have their priesthoods, whose purpose is to maintain a balance between the earthly and the heavenly orders. What happened (in principle) with Christendom was that the church as a priestly people of the living God, heirs to the history of Israel as a royal priesthood among the nations, took over the role of the old pagan priesthoods. But the two realms, the political and the priestly, operated according to different sets of rules—the pragmatics of worldly government, on the one hand; the demands of priestly holiness, on the other.

The church was obviously going to have its work cut out maintaining the balance between the social-political life of nations and the radically new set of standards that came with worship of the just God who made the heavens and the earth. But there is no reason to think that the values of formally “Christian” societies should be the same as the values of the sanctioned priestly communities.

But the New Testament is not much help here

The New Testament prescribes behaviour for the overlapping interim periods—the end of the age of second temple Judaism, the end of the age of classical paganism. The expectation in both cases is that those who believed in these new futures would have to endure severe persecution, so central to the ethos of these movements is a passive, non-retaliatory, self-denying response to violence.

Glory and kingdom are the culmination of these periods of faithful witness, and the task given to these martyrs, seated alongside Jesus, will not be to take up their crosses, turn the other cheek, leave vengeance to God, serve one other, etc., but to judge and rule throughout the coming ages.

The New Testament, however, does not address the question of how the church has a priestly people for nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē should behave in the new order, when the pains that attend the birth of the age to come have abated, when the tribulation has come to an end, when the threat of violence has been removed. The New Testament deals with the war (cf. Rom. 13:11-14), not with the peace that comes after the war is won.


As I was about to post this, I came across this comment by Stephen Langton on a recent piece by Ian Paul on attendance numbers in the Church of England:

IF the Bible taught that Christian churches are supposed to be ‘national’ in the way the CofE is I guess we’d have to just accept it; but the trouble is the Bible does not teach that—the NT outlines a very different way for the Church to relate to not just individual states but the surrounding world in general.

Against this, I would argue that the Bible does indeed envisage the church as the official “priesthood” for the nations of the Greek-Roman world, as the concrete and realistic vindication of Israel’s witness to the living God after centuries of regional pagan-imperial domination. That’s cutting a long story short, of course.

The New Testament explains how this outcome would be eventually achieved—through the faithfulness first of Jesus, then of the marginalised, persecuted churches in a hostile world. This has often been mistaken for an ideal and permanent arrangement. It’s not. It was a way to get from A to B—like the exodus or the second exodus of the return from exile. The wilderness experience is not normative, it is transitional, and never much fun.

However, the fulfilment of the regional eschatological vision in history has also not proved durable, and in narrative terms the case for the persistence of a state church is extremely weak. The disestablished churches may think of themselves as reformist, returning to the New Testament pattern, but they are really harbingers of a new exile. The likeness to the early communities of Jesus followers is important but in an important historical sense incidental.

I am thrilled and convinced about the new jesuanic peace-ethics…

With the great New Testament scholar Walter Wink, who researched the trilogy on the language and concepts on “powers” in the Bible, I was convinced for years of the fundamentally non-violent mission of the church. Now, faced with the brutal invasion of an empire on the nation on Europe’s eastern border, Ukraine, I had to ask myself, how would Jesus argue in this context? 

Does non-violent resistance, i.e. “pacifist” reaction, still apply as the rule here? Using methods of non-violent resistance, the Ukrainians had stood up to the Putin-backed Moscow-friendly government at the Euromaidan in 2014 by means of a popular uprising in the face of armed state power with great willingness to suffer and even with “martyrs”.  But against the Russian invasion, the war of an empire with brutal weapons “anonymously” aimed at civilians, they reacted “on an equal footing” with self-defence as a nation with their weaponry. Could that be justified in Jesuit terms?

The New Testament explains how this outcome would be eventually achieved—through the faithfulness first of Jesus, then of the marginalised, persecuted churches in a hostile world. This has often been mistaken for an ideal and permanent arrangement. It’s not. It was a way to get from A to B—like the exodus or the second exodus of the return from exile. The wilderness experience is not normative, it is transitional, and never much fun.

I would argue in this logic of interpretation that we should always read Jesus’ teachings in their very specific context of an apocalyptic time of upheaval and cannot draw any general conclusions, especially as our current contexts have shifted radically from those of the past or differ significantly from the intentions of Jesus or the contexts of the disciples.

The prevailing desire to construct “eternal” teachings from the New Testament — especially for the ethics of peace! — At the same time, the historically conditioned prophetic perspectives of the Old Testament are very much recognised, but are registered as “past” and therefore theologically irrelevant. I would casually call this an anti-Jewish interpretative reflex (Old Testament is old, New Testament is eternal). This arose in the 2nd century, as if the New Testament witnesses were not Jews and the first Christians were, with Jesus, a “new revelation of God” and thus “a new religious community”. Neither Jesus nor Paul abandoned the Jewish narrative and they had no intention of establishing “Christians” as an anti-Jewish religion. This impulse only came after the turmoil of the Roman-Jewish wars from 66 AD, when the Christians increasingly differentiated themselves from “the rebellious Jews”, also for social self-protection, in order not to perish in Roman violence… But that is a new story.