The Christian claim that Christ is Lord always puts it at odds with the state and other power structures. Demand of absolute loyalty to God alone makes the faith something that will threaten rulers who seek to have total control and demand complete allegiance.
This has always been the case, and was certainly true when the faith first developed and spread. In this regard a somewhat recent aspect of New Testament studies has arisen, known as “Empire criticism”. It asks how much of NT writing is in fact a political swipe at Roman imperial rule, especially as found in the book of Revelation.
How much is the emphasis on Christ as Lord a direct assault on Caesar as Lord? It obviously is an attack on the notion of the worship of Caesar – the Roman imperial cult. The early Christians knew that only Christ is to be worshipped and given total allegiance.
The idea of an anti-imperial NT, and various political connotations of it, has been made by N. T. Wright and others of late. Are they correct? That particular debate cannot here be entered into. But those wanting to take it further are invited to peruse a very helpful volume on this edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph Modica: Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not (IVP, 2013).
In it the authors argue that this theme has been pushed too far and the attempt to make the case has been overblown. While there is some validity to this thesis, too much is being read into the NT texts, and too much politicisation is going on.
However it is still true that the absolute claims of Christ and the gospel compete with statist claims. Here I want to look at one earlier voice that offered prophetic warnings about the dangers of statism and its absolute claims. Francis Schaeffer often spoke about this, and in his very important 1976 volume, How Should We Then Live?, he spoke to it at various points.
Let me quote parts of it here. The book’s subtitle is “The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture.” Early on in the first chapter he discusses ancient Rome, and he says this:
Rome was cruel, and its cruelty can perhaps be best pictured by the events which took place in the arena in Rome itself. People seated above the arena floor watched gladiator contests and Christians thrown to the beasts. Let us not forget why the Christians were killed. They were not killed because they worshiped Jesus. Various religions covered the whole Roman world. One such was the cult of Mithras, a popular Persian form of Zoroastrianism which had reached Rome by 67 B.C. Nobody cared who worshiped whom so long as the worshiper did not disrupt the unity of the state, centered in the formal worship of Caesar. The reason the Christians were killed was because they were rebels. This was especially so after their growing rejection by the Jewish synagogues lost for them the immunity granted to the Jews since Julius Caesar’s time.
We may express the nature of their rebellion in two ways, both of which are true. First, we can say they worshiped Jesus as God and they worshiped the infinite-personal God only. The Caesars would not tolerate this worshiping of the one God only. It was counted as treason. Thus their worship became a special threat to the unity of the state during the third century and during the reign of Diocletian (284-305), when people of the higher classes began to become Christians in larger numbers. If they had worshiped Jesus and Caesar, they would have gone unharmed, but they rejected all forms of syncretism. They worshiped the God who had revealed himself in the Old Testament, through Christ, and in the New Testament which had gradually been written. And they worshiped him as the only God. They allowed no mixture: All other gods were seen as false gods.
We can also express in a second way why the Christians were killed: No totalitarian authority nor authoritarian state can tolerate those who have an absolute by which to judge that state and its actions. The Christians had that absolute in God’s revelation. Because the Christians had an absolute, universal standard by which to judge not only personal morals but the state, they were counted as enemies of totalitarian Rome and were thrown to beasts.
And at the end of his book he offers “A special note”. In it he makes three points. First, he exhorts believers not to fall into humanistic thinking and “existential methodology”:
We do this if we try to keep hold of the value system, the meaning system, and the “religious matters” given in the Bible, while playing down what the Bible affirms about the cosmos, history, and specific commands in morals… If we do this, the generation which follows will certainly be undercut as far as historic Christianity is concerned. But also, if we ourselves bear the central mark of our generation, we cannot at this moment in history be the voice we should be to our poor and fractured generation; we cannot be the restorative salt which Christians are supposed to be to their generation and their culture if in regard to the Scriptures we, too, are marked by the existential methodology. If we are so marked, we then have no real absolute by which to help, or by which to judge, the culture, state, and society.
Second, he reminds Christians that “we are not only to know the right world view, the world view that tells us the truth of what is, but consciously to act upon that world view so as to influence society in all its parts and facets across the whole spectrum of life, as much as we can to the extent of our individual and collective ability.”
Third, he looks at past anti-slavery activism and reminds us of our present calling, including “speaking out and acting also against the special sickness and threat of our age – the rise of authoritarian government.” He explains:
The danger in regard to the rise of authoritarian government is that Christians will be still as long as their own religious activities, evangelism, and life-styles are not disturbed. We are not excused from speaking, just because the culture and society no longer rest as much as they once did on Christian thinking. Moreover, Christians do not need to be in the majority in order to influence society.
But we must be realistic. John the Baptist raised his voice, on the basis of the biblical absolutes, against the personification of power in the person of Herod, and it cost him his head. In the Roman Empire the Christians refused to worship Caesar along with Christ, and this was seen by those in power as disrupting the unity of the Empire; for many this was costly.
But let us be realistic in another way, too. If we as Christians do not speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state. No truly authoritarian government can tolerate those who have a real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary absolutes and who speak out and act upon that absolute. This was the issue with the early church in regard to the Roman Empire, and though the specific issue will in all probability take a different form than Caesar-worship, the basic issue of having an absolute by which to judge the state and society will be the same.
Here is a sentence to memorize: To make no decision in regard to the growth of authoritarian government is already a decision for it.
He concludes by quoting from Ezekiel 33, from which the book’s title is derived, and then says this: “This book is written in the hope that this generation may turn from that greatest of wickednesses, the placing of any created thing in the place of the Creator, and that this generation may get its feet out of the paths of death and may live.”
Since writing those words over four decades ago the state in the West has grown even more bold in its absolutist claims and intrusive powers. Yes, freedom remains, but it continues to shrink, and faith continues to be restricted and undermined by the state. Thus we need to heed the warnings made by people like Schaeffer.
The question is: Will we?