Strange Bedfellows: Church and State
As another presidential primary season begins to boil in the wake of a dramatic Supreme Court decision, I found it helpful to revisit Chris Casberg’s excellent article series, The Future of Christianity in America. In this article, I present five examples of church-state integration (including American), and then close with the ultimate example of stateless Christianity.
CHURCH VERSUS STATE
When Jesus promised to build his gathering of believers in Matthew 16:18, he did not call his gathering “synagogue” which was the simpler and more prevalent Old Testament word for a gathering. “Synagogue” actually occurred more than twice as often as “ecclesia” in the Septuagint (the most common form of the Old Testament scriptures in that day). Jesus called his gathering “ecclesia” though, which literally means “called out.” To look at the relationship between church and state, we should recognize that the “church” are the ecclesia, those called out to trust in the kingdom of God through God’s Anointed (Christos) King.
THE FIRST CHRISTIAN STATE
Beginning in 130 BC, the kingdom of Osrhoene (good luck with pronunciation) stretched between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers within modern Syrian and Iraqi borders. Osrhoene spent much of its history as a vassal of either Persia or Rome. King Abgar VIII of Osrhoene converted to Christianity in the late 2nd century AD.
Abgar VIII introduced the first state-sanctioned persecution of pagans by Christians. The capital of Osrhoene was Edessa, where temple worship of the goddess Tar’ata included self-castration by male worshippers. Abgar ordered anyone who engaged in the ritual to have his hand cut off as well.1 While Paul’s letter to the Romans allows governments the power of the sword, I doubt any Christian today would defend Abgar’s decree.
On the other hand, Edessa under Abgar also enjoyed the luxury of erecting the first historically documented Christian building for worship.2 Across three continents and nearly two hundred years, Christian structures had been impossible under the persecution of Rome’s imperial cult, Persia’s Zoroastrianism, and countless religions outside those empires. Should we lament the Osrhoene mixture of church and state for mutilating pagans, or should we celebrate the first mixture of church and state for enabling Christians to erect the first distinctly Christian building?
ARMENIAN CHURCH AND STATE
The next Christian nation was Armenia which encompassed the land formerly known as Osrhoene and far more lands around it. At the beginning of the 4th century AD, King Tiradates III of Armenia converted to Christianity. Our earliest record of Armenia’s conversion comes from Agathangelos in overly glowing terms. Yet even in such a favorable record, we are hard pressed not to perceive forced conversions as Armenian soldiers destroyed every pagan temple in the nation and defeated “demons in the form of armed soldiers.” If we take Agathangelos (meaning “good messenger”) at his word and assume there were no forced conversion, we will find instead widespread feigned conversions. For upon the death of Tiradates, pagans arose in a large armed rebellion.
On the positive side, the explosion of Christianity in Armenia birthed the first Armenian alphabet and literature as the scriptures were translated and a multitude of converts were instructed in the faith. Since the Christian government prevailed against the pagan uprising at Tiradates’ death, we have almost two thousand years of rich, Armenian Christian writings and tradition. We have Armenians alone to thank, for example, for the preservation of the second century book “The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching” by Irenaeus of Lyons, the oldest extant summary of Christian theology. Should we lament the Armenian state for apparently introducing the crime of forced conversion to Christianity, or will we laud the merging of church and state for inventing Armenian literacy and 1700 years of rich tradition?
ROMAN CHURCH AND STATE
After the decree of Emperor Theodosius in AD 380, Rome attempted to Christianize an entire empire. Christians had been a peaceful minority community in the empire. By the fifth century, however, mobs of so-called “Christians” rioted and fought in the streets in response to the deposing of their favorite bishops in Roman Africa and Asia Minor. The fourth Roman crusade (intended to free Jerusalem from Muslim rule) turned into the slaughter of Eastern Orthodox Christians in Constantinople. If we attempt to condemn the marriage of Roman church and state however, we must realize that this devastating alliance also helped protect two millennia of developing Christian thought, meticulous records, and some of our most treasured writings by theologians like the great African Bishop, Augustine of Hippo.
RUSSIAN CHURCH AND STATE
For nearly one thousand years, Russia claimed to be the kingdom of God, born for the propagation of the gospel throughout the world.3 Roman Catholic nations frequently invaded Russia throughout her history because Russia was born from and defended Eastern Orthodox Christianity. When Russia today speaks of the danger of an increasingly militarized Poland, she does so with a history of defending herself from Polish invasion.
The long and deep connection of the Russian Orthodox Church with Russian government inevitably led many citizens to blame the Orthodox Russian Church for inequalities in the nation and for perceived oppression of peasants, especially in the 19th century. With the 20th century communist revolution, Vladimir’s Lenin established the 1918 decree of separation between church and state, which ended Russian monetary support for the Russian church as well as the church’s influence in Russian government. In recent years, Vladimir Putin has begun strengthening Russian ties between church and state.
AMERICAN CHURCH AND STATE
For about 200 years, Protestant Christianity enjoyed the approval of American government, and exercised great influence over it. Among white American Christians today, it is popular to look back with rose tinted glasses, imagining there was once a truly Christian America. People have redemptive faith in Jesus; governments do not. Our first leaders institutionalized the atrocities of slavery. We replaced slavery with segregation and more racial violence. We replaced segregation with child-sacrifice under the euphemism of “abortion.” Our government openly maligns those who protest the new state religion, as if such protesters are engaging in a “War Against Women.”
While Democratic Christians vote for welfare spending, Republican Christians vote for those who promise to stand against in-utero infanticide. In election after election, Christians vote against Christians in the name of Christianity. All the while, poverty continues to run rampant and innocent children continue to be killed in their mothers’ wombs ad nauseam.
In the Roman Empire when our Lord walked the streets, our own scriptures document the power of democratic advocacy, yet Jesus never exhorted us to it. It was, after all, the advocacy of a crowd which prompted Pilate to execute our own Lord. Jesus preached, and so did his apostles, as if Christians had no earthly political power to wield. What would happen then, if Christians divorced themselves from politics? For that scenario, we might give attention to a branch of the Christian faith which has never wrestled with the strange combination of church and state.
THE CHURCH WITHOUT STATE
Of the five major branches of Christianity, only the Assyrian Church of the East has operated without church state integration, offering us a nearly two millennium case study. Assyrians have lived under varying degrees of hostility beginning in Zoroastrian Persia, then Muslim Caliphates, Shamanist Mongolia, and modern Muslim nations. In the 8th and 9th centuries under Patriarch Timothy I, the Church of the East was the dominant form of Christianity in Abbasid Muslim Persia.4 Without church-state integration, they still managed to build many churches in Muslims realms,5 increase Christianity in India, and successfully evangelize in China.6 Again in the 13th century, Assyrian influence spread across Asia, even winning over a few of the peripheral Mongolian royalty.7
Yet Ottoman and Iraqi massacres nearly wiped this branch of Christianity off the map in the first half of the 20th century, sending Assyrian refugees fleeing en masse to Western lands where church and state have enjoyed greater historical mixture. Even before the ISIS rampage, the Assyrian Church of the East had already been reduced to just 400,000 adherents, only one 100th of 1% of global Christianity. The record of Assyrian Christianity almost makes one appreciate that unnatural and often poisonous union: church and state. Do the scriptures support such a union, though? Or do our traditions justify it? Our King clearly stated, “My kingdom is not of this world.”Show Sources
- Moffet, Samuel Hugh, “A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume I,” (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, MD) 58-59.
- Ibid, 58.
- Strickland, John, “The Making of Holy Russia,” (Holy Trinity Publications, Jordanville, NY).
- Moffett, 339, 431, 446-447.
- Ibid, 339.
- Jenkins, Philip, “The Lost History of Christianity,” (Harper Collins Publishers Inc., New York, NY) 15, 64.
- Moffett, 402-443.