‘How is it that the best of church experience in both traditional and radical expressions tends to relapse to hierarchical domination and control?’ This is Roger Haydon Mitchell’s chilling question in his introduction to his newly published PhD thesis, Church, Gospel & Empire (Eugene, OR, 2011.) It isn’t the only question posed but for the purpose of this blog it is possibly the most important.
And it includes within it some vital clues as to how Roger Mitchell intends to answer his own question. The phrase ‘hierarchical domination and control’ is a key to understanding how he sees the weak point that has made the church so ineffective in its original calling. While others have sought to explain this weakness as a shift ‘from the religious to the secular’, Mitchel sees it as a shift from ‘the egalitarian to the hierarchical’, a shift that saw the church stop being a servant within creation to being a vehicle of dominance.
Mitchell, of course, isn’t the only theologian to have made this argument. The Anabaptist and Mennonite traditions of today – and of the 16th and 17th centuries – also interpret church history in this way, and like them Mitchell has concluded that the point at which the church was infected was during the so-called ‘Constantinian shift’ when the pagan Roman Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity in 312 C.E. and eventually made his new faith the faith of the Empire. And just as an email can carry a virus into the heart of your computer, so the Constantinian shift contaminated the church with principles that are far from Christ-like.
On the back cover one of Mitchell’s recommenders says, ‘This is a disturbing book. To reach the end is to discover that Mitchell has brought you to a crossroads and that business as usual is no longer an option for the twenty-first-century church’. I arrived as those crossroads some time back after reading another post-Christendom writer, Stuart Murray Williams. But in Mitchell’s book we will be taken even deeper into the theological tangle that the church found herself in after the fourth century.
How do we understand sovereignty?
How is creation to be restored and how will peace – in all its manifestations and consequences – be effected within it and between it and God? Roger Mitchell understands the gospel way of doing this as a ‘kenotic gift’, a giving away by God of himself and his power for the good of creation. But it is the opposite of this that he sees in the church as it was subsumed by the ‘imperial sovereignty’ of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.
He defines sovereignty as the expression of the rule of a sovereign – that rule being supreme and with hierarchy at the heart of its outworking. For example, in pre-parliamentary days the monarch of Great Britain was the supreme ruler of these islands and its overseas territories. The monarch was in full control of all the decision making process and by exercising this power was in full control of his/her empire. The monarch was, therefore, sovereign. This principle, argues Mitchell, infected the church with the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine in 312 C.E. to the extent that the means of ensuring peace and the restoration of creation was transferred from the gospel way (kenotic gift) to using sovereign power by church and state working in tandem. Peace was not to be effected by the giving away of power any longer but by being concentrated in the hands of the few and being used against the many.
The church, therefore, became a partner in the empire’s use of sovereign power. But it wasn’t just that church practice changed in this process; church belief – its theology – was also changed. Maybe in order to justify this unrivalled sovereign power, God himself was invested with imperial sovereignty. (More on this in a later post.) If Mitchel is correct in this then it will not do just to change church practice and structure; we must also ask some difficult questions about what we believe about God and his character. For in the quest to legitimise the imperial principle in church life the early medieval theologians created a god in their own image – a creation that may well have survived down the ages to our own day.
In the closing section of his introduction Roger Mitchell sketches some of the reform movements that have challenged this imperial power within church – groups such as the Anabaptists in the later Protestant Reformation. However, in the sketching of these movements he makes this sobering comment – ‘Even the most radical alternatives have tended to default to the machinations of sovereign power.’ This isn’t just a historical problem, I would suggest, but one we possibly see being outplayed today in Wales and no doubt other nations.
Eusebius: the church historian
How could the church have been so infected by imperial power to render it so ineffective? This is the question that Roger Mitchell attempts to answer in the remainder of the first two parts of his book. He introduces key characters and periods in which the imperial principle was introduced and consolidated. The first of which is Eusebius of Caesarea.
Eusebius has the distinction of being referred to as ‘the father of church history’ and his most famous of books, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, was the first work of church history since the Book of Acts. Born around 260 C.E. in Palestine, he became the Bishop of Caesarea shortly after 313 and though he began the History in 290 he took a generation to complete it. These dates show that he was a contemporary of and a witness to some of the most momentous happenings of the early church period. His work did not just chronicle historical facts, however. He was also a theologian and an interpreter of events and his interpretation would become the accepted wisdom for centuries to follow.
Contrary to what we would expect, possibly, Eusebius did not portray Constantine as the one who ushered in messianic peace to the world. He was quite clear that this was the work of the church and was the continuation of the work already begun by Israel. However, while only the land of Israel was affected by this peace under Israel’s tenure, under the church’s tenure the whole of the empire was drawn in. Indeed, Eusebius saw the empire’s success – economic, political and military – as the result of the church’s success. A Christian emperor and a Christian empire was a sure sign that God’s work in his church was triumphant.
If a united empire and one emperor was the mark of success then the enemy over which this success was gained was polytheism and political plurality. Mitchell notes that to Eusebius this was the cause of all humanity’s problems and had to be defeated. Behind it was a demonic influence which stood against God and his plans for peace and restoration. In this kind of reasoning we can immediately see how Eusebius could then claim that empire and uniformity was a sign of victory and how plurality in either church practice or theology or in national governments was to be avoided at all costs. God’s sovereignty was manifested by uniformity in church and politics.
Eusebius, therefore, tied church and empire closely together. He probably wasn’t the first or the only one to make some of these connections but he was by far the most influential and his influence would last for a long time.
Nicea… Imperial Power
It takes a brave theologian to open-up Nicea. It was at the council held there in 325 C.E. that the church decided to define the divine nature of Jesus of Nazareth. This definition has been accepted as orthodoxy in the world-wide church ever since – though many minority groups have questioned it. In his chapter on how the historian Eusebius of Caesarea managed to infect the church with imperial values Roger Mitchell takes a critical look at Nicea, suggesting that the defence of God’s hierarchical sovereignty had as much to do with the Council as a theoretical Christology.
Traditional teaching on Nicea has focussed on how some, including a cleric called Arius, were questioning whether Jesus actually shared God’s divine nature. Though they accepted him as the best example of humanity that had ever lived and the he was Son of God, they did not believe that he co-existed with God from eternity or that he was divine.
A deep split occurred within the church over the issue and while many post-Christendom thinkers have suggested that the healing of the split for the sake of unity in the empire was a motivating factor in calling the world’s first ecumenical church council, Mitchell is suggesting that there were deeper theological issues at stake. These were to do with how the sovereignty of God was viewed and how this sovereign power was transferred to the bishops and to the emperor. Eusebius was originally an Arian. It quite suited him to have God has supreme sovereign, then Jesus as a secondary figure, and then Jesus’s representatives on earth (bishop and emperor) below him – with power transferred down the hierarchical line. Having Jesus as a divine Son could not be countenanced as this would suggest a plurality of deities and monarchies.
So how did Nicea make it possible for the biblical emphasis on Jesus’s divinity to be accepted along-side the hierarchical principle? Mitchell – borrowing from another theologian – draws on the key Greek Nicene word homoousios. (You can’t go through theological college without having this word drilled into your brain!) It is translated simply as ‘of the same nature’. So Jesus is declared to be homoousios – ‘of the same nature’ – as the Father. But in choosing this word it is suggested that Constantine (who was in full control of the Council) deliberately chose a word that in pagan circles had the meaning of two separate gods sharing the same nature but with a subtle hierarchy between them. It was a word that certainly suited him as it gave legitimacy to hierarchy and monarchy while at the same time defending Jesus’s divine nature.
On the basis of this understanding of homoousios Mitchell goes to offer a critique of Nicea that may well prove to be controversial. He sees the Gospels as ‘affirm[ing] a human and kenotic Christ’ who confronts the sovereign power of empire. However, Mitchell claims that Nicea ‘tended to subdue the human kenotic Jesus and ascribe sovereignty to both the Father and the Son’. And what of Nicea’s defence and definition of Jesus’s divinity and its relationship to the Father? It would seem that Mitchell would rather have left this question as the mystery that is presented in the Scriptures. For in attempting to address the issue Nicea, in Mitchell’s view, became little more than a ‘political device’ that legitimised imperial power.
The cross of Jesus and military superiority are inextricably linked in the story of Constantine. In 312 C.E. he faced his enemy and co-emperor Maxentius near the Milvian Bridge, which crossed the River Tiber. Before entering into battle Constantine saw a vision of the cross with the words ‘By this sign conquer’. Though still a pagan at the time he took it as a sign that he should fight under the Christian God’s protection and when he won the battle the story of his vision – however much of it is true – became part of the myth and legend that surrounds him.
Though the above account is an important feature of Constantine’s conversion story, it is Eusebius’s view of the atonement that is key to understanding another facet of the shift that happened under the Emperor. According to Eusebius all of humanity’s problems could be explained by the demonic powers that lay behind polytheism and political pluralism. Such pluralism was an affront to the sovereignty of the supreme God who had to be appeased. This happened in the crucifixion of Jesus. The cross, therefore, becomes the means by which sovereignty is not only appeased but also maintained. It is the power that overthrows demon worship and destroys the power of the evil spirits that lay behind polytheism.
As can be seen above Eusebius believed that the power to destroy spiritual enemies is God’s alone but the church is then invested with that power as she is tasked to carry out God’s work on earth. Through her worship – especially in communion – the church is able to exercise this power and rid territories of evil spirits. This then allows the imperial military power to clear the land of the plural political power that was the result of the demonic influence. Thus the empire and the emperor are given the task of exercising political power on behalf of God and the church. Imperial power is now seen as a necessary part of God’s work in bringing eschatological peace and harmony to the world with the ‘sign of the cross’ an essential element.
In his assessment of Eusebius’s work Roger Mitchell concludes that God is viewed as a supreme ruler with the emphasis on Old Testament theocratic leadership that is ‘unqualified by an incarnational theology’. A key weakness here, Mitchell suggests, is that instead of reading the OT through Jesus we are encouraged to read Jesus through the OT. By so doing Jesus is given a secondary position under the sovereign, supreme God who then in turn empowers the emperor. ‘Christ was now configured as the universal cosmic emperor and the earthly emperor was his servant and vicar.’
The antidote to this, of course, is to understand Jesus from a Gospels perspective – the self-giving servant who gave himself over to death. Once we understand this ‘kenotic’ Christ we can then read the OT through our Jesus glasses and begin to correctly critique both empire and church hierarchy. If Eusebius of Caesarea gave us a problem, it is Jesus of Nazareth who provides us with the answer.
Recent stories in the news here in the UK – such as banning prayers in local councils and government ministers calling for a strengthening of ‘Christian Britain’ – show how crucial Roger Mitchell’s analysis in Church, Gospel & Empire really is. Already in our tour through the book we have seen how the historian Eusebius and the Roman Emperor Constantine managed to tie both church and empire together is such a way as key imperial principles were subsumed by the church. The consequence was a redefining of who Christ was in terms of Old Testament theology about sovereignty and hierarchy and the self-giving Jesus of the Gospels was moved to one side.
This process developed further in the middle-ages under the leadership of Pope Innocent III, who came to power in 1198. The world was a different place compared to Eusebius’s day. The empire had been divided into a number of states and Islam had made military inroads into the ‘holy land’. Church leaders – the pope especially – had also become far more concerned about territory as political leaders fought to control land.
Innocent’s particular concern was the defence and retention of the Papal States – a political entity under the control of the pope that had emerged after the break-up of the empire. And Innocent was very prepared to use military force to ensure success. It was to justify such violence that he developed a theology of ‘taking the cross’ – a theology that was particularly emphasised during the Crusades. Taking up arms for the sake of the faith (‘taking the cross’) was seen by Innocent as a sacred act by which the sins of crusaders would be fully remitted if confessed. Under Eusebius military action was seen as the physical deed of clearing the land of political enemies which followed the church’s liturgical action in the spiritual realm. But under Innocent both military and liturgical actions were seen as one and the same. As Mitchell puts it, ‘The act of taking up arms was now itself given liturgical and soteriological significance. By associating the atonement with the military recovery of territorial sovereignty, Innocent added saintly virtue to the act of crusading.’
The unplanned-for consequence of this, however, was that the political/military powers could now receive their ‘divine affirmation’ directly from God without any recourse to the church. If all I have to do to gain God’s approval is to fight in a crusade then why would I bow to the church? In time this would lead to a struggle of supremacy between church and state.
The banking world
Crippling debt has become a feature of our landscape since the banking crisis of 2008. On mainland Europe we see nation-states struggling to keep up with debt repayments while here in the UK we see nationalised banks battling to regain profitability. Few, however, know of the connection between monarchs, church and banks going back to the 17th century and the roots of our banking system come into focus as Roger Mitchell examines church and empire.
Church, Gospel, & Empire explains how imperial values of supreme power and hierarchy had been subsumed into the church in the fourth century, how God’s sovereignty had been distorted in the process, and how the church found herself vying with imperial structures for this power in the 12th century. In the quest for eschatological peace the church ‘fell’ from the position of being the servant of God’s power to cooperating with military power in defence of land and territory.
This process continued in the 16th century as the Europe of empire became the Europe of nation-states at war with one another. While the Dutch States had become economically powerful France was a military might and was determined to be dominant. Under threat from France William III (of Orange) saw that it was only by being allied to England – whose crown he now controlled through his wife Mary – could he defeat the French. War, however, is a costly business and key to the raising of funds was the setting up of the Bank of England. War was long ago established as a legitimate way of establishing peace and now money was added to it – ‘thereby open[ing] the door to the lordship of Mammon’. The Bank became a convenient tool for rich people to lend money to the government – thus beginning the national debt.
Mitchell notes how the establishing of the Bank was explained ‘using soteriological terminology’ in the work of a William Paterson. ‘He states that it will bring dead money to life; that it will be secured by the effectiveness of English Christendom; that the paper currency will deliver many from oppression; and that it will fulfil the eschatological hopes of the nation.’ Messianic indeed. Added to this was the view of William and Mary as some kind of ‘godly magistrates’ – exercising power in God’s name and saving the nation from the evils of Catholicism.
Church, monarch and now money were drawn together at what we now see as the beginning of the modern world. An important aspect of this time was that monarchs lost the supreme authority of the former emperors and saw sovereignty shared with parliaments. But while sovereignty was spread more widely it still had that supreme sense to it – amply displayed by the lack of tolerance towards any church groups that were nonconforming with the state Church of England. Indeed at times such groups were severely persecuted, proving that however broadly the sovereignty had been spread the imperial nature of intolerance towards dissent was very much alive.
How church and empire combined to establish peace on earth through the use of sovereignty is the key theme in Roger Mitchell’s book and so far I have sketched out the way Roger has traced this theme through history beginning with Constantine. The last post looked at how money was brought into the equation and how the Bank of England was set up to lend money to the crown as it strove to defend the sovereignty of the emerging nation state.
In the last chapter before looking at what might be a counter movement to imperial church Mitchell borrows from the neo-Marxist critique of power and examines how people were seen as labour and were exploited in the pursuit of wealth. The creation of this wealth was necessary to pay the enormous debt entered into as the nation state used military power in the pursuit of peace. This resulted in the ‘domination of the many by the few for the benefit of the few’. Despite the goal being the establishment of peace and wellbeing in creation the result is that the masses are exploited.
Mitchell brings his analysis bang up to date as he examines the subject through the actions of the current UK government and recent events on the world stage. First, the survival of the nation state is secured through debt and the creation by the Bank of England of ‘magic money’ based on future prosperity. An example of this is the debt that university students are saddled with for the sake of their education. Second, the law is exposed as merely of secondary value as it is so easily set to one side by government. As an example Mitchell cites the US administration’s decision under Bush to set aside the laws regarding human rights and incarcerate suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay. These suspects neither enjoy rights under the Geneva Convention nor under US law as America reacted to threats against it. And third the way the West has reached for the tools of war to defend sovereignty can be seen clearly in the actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At each stage Mitchell has attempted to show how in reaching for God’s promised eschatological peace church and state have depended on sovereignty, hierarchy and power with law, money and violence becoming the primary tools at their disposal. Based on an Old Testament understanding of a sovereign God this peace has been imposed from above. The antidote in Mitchell’s view is the self-giving, kenotic love of Jesus and it is to this that he turns in the final section of his book.
If the first two sections of Roger Mitchell’s Church, Gospel, & Empire are a little difficult to navigate due to their in-depth (and wholly necessary) theological treatment of the subject, the third section has a life-giving quality to it that raises the book above the level of a mere academic volume. It has a radical cutting edge to it that offers the reader a glimpse of what church could look like if we embraced ‘kenarchy’.
Kenarchy… a way forward
As that last word testifies, however, the third section is no less theological than the first two! So let’s begin our treatment of the final section with trying to understand what Mitchell means by this word. Kenarchy is a composite word that Mitchell himself has come up with and is a synthesis of the Greek words kenō (to empty) and arkhō (to rule). Both concepts come into play in what we sometimes know as the Christ hymn in Philippians 2, where Jesus is said to have gained the highest point in the cosmos through emptying himself. Mitchell emphasises that Jesus doesn’t just have humility as a moral aspect of his Kingly role; it isn’t that he’s a very nice King but look out he’s still carrying a sword. Rather this humility and self-giving love is who he is. And it is not a temporary thing either – as if he should revert to the dominant sovereign once his period of humiliation is over. Kenarchy, therefore, is the very reversal of what imperial domination is.
Mitchell proposes that we understand God through this self-emptying lifestyle of Jesus’. Rather than follow the imperial understanding of God by viewing him through the Old Testament alone or view him through a temporary kenosis we should permanently view him through the vision afforded us by the story of Jesus in the Gospels. One of the key strengths of this approach, I believe, is that, as Mitchell says, it does away with the ‘two Gods’ problem, where the God of the OT is pitted against the God of the NT. But ‘there is no other God than the one incarnated in the kenotic Christ.’
Once this truth is grasped it can propel us to live our lives under the same self-giving principle. It calls us to ‘overcome empire and bring salvation to the poor in body and spirit’. It is also very liberating and so life-giving.
Roger calls on us to understand God exclusively through the self-emptying love of Jesus. By doing this God is stripped of the imperial sovereignty that he has had to carry in the Christian church since the 4th century. But this new way of perceiving God (or at least a return to an original perception) must then lead to the followers of Jesus adopting the same lifestyle themselves. That is, the church must itself be kenotic in its practice.
In abandoning itself to a life of faith and self-giving love Mitchell suggests the church would begin to see the reversal of some of the problems faced in Western society, breaking the link between work and money and ensuring the many get the benefits and not just the few. He also suggests that the gap between church and society could be overcome since the church would reorient itself and become a body serving the creation rather than serving itself.
One area that would change should we become kenotic people is the way we view time. Mitchell argues that our understanding of time has not been orientated by the incarnation – where God breaks into creation in an eschatological event – but rather by the subsumption of church by empire in the fourth century, an event that was seen as the beginning of the eschatological peace entering the world. The timeline of peace on earth therefore begins with the joining of church and empire rather than the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth. And the church has been dominated by this timeline ever since.
Through acts of kenotic love, however, we can break free of imperial time. Taking our cue from the incarnation – where the transcendent God enters creation – we can become conduits of incarnation in the midst of imperial time. These are moments where God comes in and changes the world. According to Mitchell many church practices – such as preaching, the sacraments, liturgy – have the potential to operate as ‘triggers of transcendence’ where God can break into creation. Our practical acts of love can also work in the same way. In this way the timeline of the imperial can be interrupted by incarnational events of God’s presence in the world.
In closing this section Mitchell argues that three particular church practices need to be redeemed so as to be triggers of transcendence – the Holy Communion from the Roman Catholic tradition; the preaching of the Word from the Protestant tradition; and the use of spiritual gifts from the Pentecostal/charismatic tradition. Whilst there is a need to reconfigure them he claims that they could be important practices once again as carriers of a transcendent God.
In developing a theology of kenarchy Roger Mitchell also provides the beginning of a method of interpreting the Bible in a way that would help us to more clearly see the self-emptying Jesus and the kingdom-based-on-humility within its covers. For many the idea of having to interpret the Bible is anathema. All we should do, they say, is to read what’s on the page and a take literalist approach to the text. However, that approach is itself an interpretation of the text as it is clear that many passages and some whole books are meant as allegory and myth. So interpretation is not something that can or should be avoided.
In forming an interpretive method Mitchell borrows from the work of the well-known Anglican Tom Wright and the possibly less well-known Graham Ward. Wright places a lot of emphasis on worldview – especially the worldview of the person reading the text. Being aware of the lens through which we view the world can help us be more objective as we attempt to understand what the Bible says. Ward emphasises a method that has been emerging recently – that of the ‘standpoint’ – where the text is read from the standpoint of those being dominated or marginalised in today’s society, e.g. women or ethnic minorities. Mitchell argues that this method could be applied to the self-giving love of Jesus in that his kenosis becomes a subversive tool in a world dominated by empire.
The other major strand to Mitchell’s interpretive method is to understand the literary genre in which the Gospels and other New Testament documents were written – Hebrew apocalyptic; and the political/cultural context in which the events happened – domination by the Roman Empire. Taking these two aspects into account as we read the Gospels can radically change our understanding of them. (This is something Tom Wright masterfully does in his latest book How God Became King and in a previous volume Simply Jesus.) Through understanding the genre of Hebrew apocalyptic we see Jesus standing in a long line of prophetic figures bringing a message of hope to Israel and the nations in a world dominated by empire. The difference with Jesus, of course, is that God actually accomplishes his kingly rule in and through him.
The study of the historical context has been something of a revelation in the recent years as we have come to understand how the Roman Empire conducted its business in first century Palestine. A great example of this is to understand that the titles the Gospels ascribe to Jesus were the same titles Rome ascribed to her emperors; so when Jesus was being referred to as Son of God, so was Caesar. In taking all these tools together we can see a Jesus who stood against domination and who did so through humility and self-giving love and that this, it is argued, was his key message. God does become king – but a very different king to the world’s expectations.
And so we come to the final and concluding chapter of Church, Gospel, & Empire. It has been a challenging read with some difficult concepts being discussed. His forthcoming ‘more accessible’ volume will undoubtedly be welcome! But there is little doubt in my mind that it is a piece of work that is crucial to grasp and implement for those concerned about seeing a transformed church.
In providing a theological understanding for what has gone wrong since the fourth century Mitchell has given us an invaluable tool with which to attempt to first reform and then release church into her world-changing role.
In his final chapter, however, he notes once again those reforming voices through the ages who attempted to do the same thing but who ultimately failed. And he offers three reasons why this failure happened. First, in trying to reconnect with an older, truer Christian faith they failed to understand the need to see God through Jesus and this resulted in them holding onto a sovereign, hierarchical God. Second, they did not devise an interpretative tool that could have given them a surer guide on their journey. And third, they did break free from the imperial church that eventually dragged them back in to the very heart of the problem. Despite these issues, however, Mitchell can see some hope in the movements and is keen to value the potential lying within each of them.
It is the book’s central call that the ‘connection between sovereign power and eschatological peace’ must be broken. Imperial church must become servant church. Without this ‘it is difficult to see how the church can ever recover from its present marginalisation and be trusted by the multitude’. Thus Mitchell sees a direct connection between the current marginalisation of the church and its deep imperial links. In this he himself is quite a marginalised voice, for in their call for church to be restored to its central role in society alongside the power of the state, the majority are actually denying the connection.
In this review I’ve attempted to give you a flavour of Roger Mitchell’s thinking. I hope I’ve done enough to draw in more people on the path of what is, in my view, an essential journey towards recovering the purpose of the body of Jesus.