I have addressed the troubling longer term historical implications of my reading of the New Testament in a number of posts, some of which are listed below. But the question has come up again, so here’s another go at outlining a response to the charge that Constantine and Christendom were a very poor realisation of the kingdom of God.
1. We cannot draw a line between Jesus and the Old Testament; therefore, we should not expect the future envisaged by Jesus and the apostles to be so different from their Jewish past. The scriptures saw the hand of God in acts of violence.
2. Jesus believed that the violent destruction of Jerusalem within a generation was not only inevitable but directly attributable to YHWH as an act of divine punishment. We are naturally very uncomfortable with all of this, but I don’t see anyway of getting round it.
3. Biblical faith, in my view, is not idealistic or utopian. There is some hyperbole, perhaps, but the prophetic-apocalyptic vision is essentially realistic. So short of the final new creation, sin and violence remain an inescapable part of the experience of the people and of the government of God.
4. Paul believed that he had been given the task of proclaiming the lordship of Jesus from Jerusalem to Spain (Rom. 15:19, 24) in the expectation that eventually—in the terms of Isaiah 45:22-23—the nations that currently opposed God’s people would confess the Son of God as Lord. In other words, he was proclaiming the coming annexation of the Greek-Roman world for the God of his fathers. Remarkably, this is what happened.
5. Christendom happened because growing numbers of people across the empire rejected their pagan background, began to serve the one living God of the apostolic preaching, and waited for his Son from heaven to deliver them from the wrath that was coming on the pagan world. It was the result of a huge sea-change in religious and moral culture. What Constantine did was a consequence of that, a political recognition that history was on the side of the churches, not a cause of it.
6. If the New Testament vision, grounded in Old Testament hopes, was of a new civilisation or new empire that worshipped the one true God and honoured his Son, then it was out of the question that this new social-political order would be entirely just and peaceful.
7. So here is a key question: is the New Testament vision of the kingdom of God essentially historical, as in the Old Testament, or is it supposed to transcend history? My argument is that “kingdom” language always presupposes the nasty messiness of history: government is necessary only where there is internal injustice and external threat. That is the whole point of the frequent recourse in the New Testament to Psalm 110:1 to explain the significance of Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God. There will be no kingdom in the new creation because there will be no more sin and no more enemies.
8. Jesus expected his disciples to forswear violence. The saying about taking a sword with them in Luke 22:36 is not an exception. The historical process that would bring in God’s rule, through his Son, over the nations of the Greek-Roman world would happen not through violence and coercion but through patient testimony and integrity of lifestyle and practice. That is why so much is said about suffering. It is why, following the overthrow of idolatrous and corrupting Rome, the martyrs would reign with Christ throughout the symbolic thousand year period of world history.
9. During this thousand year period, the extreme Satanic power that inspired Roman opposition to the Lord and his Anointed and to his people is confined to the abyss, but the fact that Christ and the martyrs reign in heaven at the right hand of the Father is another expression of the relevance of Psalm 110:1: it presupposes the continuing presence of hostile opponents to the priestly-prophetic work of the church, including, of course, the last enemy, death.
10. Christendom is not to be confused with the church. Christendom is nations going about the business of being nations (social and economic development, criminal justice, security, etc.) on what I suppose are really binitarian grounds: there is one God, not many, and he has made Jesus, who was executed by Rome, judge and Lord at his right hand. I exclude the Spirit because nations cannot dispense with law.
11. The church, on the other hand, as a dedicated community, was supposed to function as the priesthood that would represent and manage the “worship” of the nations. The church functioned on trinitarian grounds because it walked by the Spirit and not by Torah.
12. I presume that Jesus’ injunction against using violence remained in force, in principle, for a priesthood that ministered in his name, though the relation of the priesthood to the warring societies in which it was embedded was obviously complicated.
13. The “established” status of the church was unavoidable in societies which confessed Jesus as Lord. But that shouldn’t have led to the suppression of a prophetic voice and a critique of power. Unfortunately, this usually happened through dissidence, not through official channels.
14. In the post-Christendom world the church in all its forms is a redundant priesthood, its services are no longer required by the nations. We are having to work out new and unorthodox ways of relating as God’s priestly-prophetic people to the aggressively secular-humanist social matrix in which exist. But we still operate according to the rules and values of Jesus—though social violence (as opposed to domestic violence) is probably the least of our problems.