Christianity as Empire
Posted on March 21, 2012
And in the days of these kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people; it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand forever.
If evangelical Christians are to have an impact for the transformation of this society, in which they constitute one of the largest and most highly motivated minorities, but in which their influence is largely felt by default, it will be necessary to kill the sacred cow of pluralism.
Harold O. J. Brown
A Tale of Two Pluralisms
Perhaps no word more accurately describes the modern and postmodern age than pluralism. Pluralism is the peaceful coexistence of multiple world-views, religions and ethical standards in a single society — negatively, the refusal of society (and notably the state) to select a single, popular explanation of reality by which to order itself. Pluralism implies that Buddhists, New Age adherents, atheists, Christians, Muslims, National Socialists, Marxists, Hindus, and Fascists can and should live together harmoniously in the commonwealth. The guarantee and security of this harmony is the state, which provides maximum freedom of expression for any and every world-view and protection from coercive hostility by the others. Implied in the devotion to pluralism are two assumptions: (1) that world-views are a private and not a public matter, and (2) that these world-views should not be embraced too passionately, so as to upset the neutral public order by assuming that all citizens must and should embrace one (the correct) world-view. Competing world-views can survive because they keep their beliefs out of the public square and because they do not insist that everybody else see things their own way. In this arrangement, a détente of world-views is the hallmark of pluralism.
Structural pluralism. Christianity embraces one chief definition of pluralism but not the other. We must distinguish between structural pluralism and substantive pluralism. Christianity supports structural pluralism. This is the view that the structure of a society, and especially the state, should not be tilted to advantage Christians or adherents or any other religion or world-view. For example, the state should not issue quotas for religious adherents in the labor force, should not require that only one world-view be represented in government, should not dictate that anyone become a Christian or any other religion or life-system or punish anyone for apostasy from that religion or life-system (as, for instance, Islam does). Structural pluralism creates a level playing field of society.
Christianity supports structural pluralism because it relies on the power of the Holy Spirit and (subordinately) human persuasion for its success. Individuals come to Christianity by faith, a voluntary act of trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (Rom. 10:9-11). Christianity is happy to have a society comprised of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, New Agers, and atheists because it does not need the coercive power of the state to win converts. This is why Christianity has been at the forefront of constitutional democracy and the liberties it affords. Christianity is a religion of peace (Ac. 10:36), and it can afford for the structure of a society to be pluralistic; Christianity is not a statist or coercive religion.
Substantive pluralism. However, Christianity does not countenance substantive pluralism. This is the idea that multiple, mutually exclusive world-views, religions and ethical standards can peacefully coexist because none is entirely correct, all containing truth and contributing to the beautiful “mosaic” of a “diverse” society. No religion or other world-view should hold its views too strongly, knowing that each is only relatively valid. Belief itself, not merely the structure of a society, is pluralistic. The social pests, therefore, are those who insist that their own view is right. They are troublemakers, because they lead people to believe that one specific way (their way) is right and all others are wrong. Substantive pluralism, by its very nature, is relativist.
Obviously Christianity — or, at least, a Christianity that takes its Founder, Jesus Christ, and its founding document, the Bible, seriously — cannot embrace substantive pluralism. Jesus himself claimed to be the — not a — “way,” “truth” and “life” (Jn. 14:6) and excoriates as “thieves and robbers” (Jn. 10:8) all who try to approach God in any alternative way. The primitive Christians preached that Jesus’ is the only name by which men must be saved (Ac. 4:12). It was everywhere assumed that those who do not follow Jesus Christ are on the path of destruction (Mt. 7:13-14). Christianity as originated by its Founder and interpreted by His earliest followers is hostile to today’s substantive pluralism.
Severe hostility to substantive pluralism can be perceived also when one grasps the so-called Great Commission that Jesus gave to His disciples just before His ascension (Mt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15). He charged them to preach the Gospel to all creatures, discipling and baptizing all nations. Clearly His goal was to bring all peoples in subjection to Him by means of the Gospel message centered on the fact of His redemptive work on the Cross and from the empty tomb (1 Cor. 15). Joyous reception of this exclusive Gospel is simply incompatible with all other alternatives. Christianity (like the authentic Jewish faith of the Old Testament) is the antithesis of syncretism — its goal is not the union of all religions and viewpoints but the vanquishing of all other religions and viewpoints. This is just what the Gospel is calculated to accomplish — the worldwide victory of Christianity.
When the Great Commission calls for global evangelization and discipleship, it equally and necessarily calls for global Christianization. The first necessitates the second. It is manifestly inconsistent to appeal for laborers in the Lord’s harvest to reap a world’s field overgrown with lost souls while simultaneously opposing global Christianization. Why? Every soul that trusts in Jesus for salvation, bowing the knee to His Lordship, begins the process of sanctification by which he or she gradually is conformed to the image of Jesus Christ and begins to influence the social environment in which God has placed him or her (Rom. 6; 12:9-21). As more individuals are saved and sanctified, the more the society will enjoy the salt and light (Mt. 5:13-16) of God’s truth and grace. As that salt and light pervade the world, individuals walk in the path of righteousness and re-shape the institutions of which they are a part, subordinating them to Jesus Christ. This is precisely how Christian culture emerges (or re-emerges). Evangelization (properly implemented) necessitates Christianization.
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream. This Christian culture becomes a worldwide empire under the authority, not of any nation-state, but of Jesus Christ Himself. The Jewish prophet Daniel (Dan. 2:24-45) interpreted King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, which, employing a huge human image as a metaphor, unfolded history as a succession of empires: the Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman. Each empire from the second onward not merely succeeds but also supplants and supplements the preceding one. This imperial sequence is precisely what occurred historically in the ancient Near East. Daniel identifies the final worldly empire as the image’s feet comprised of iron and clay. There can be no doubt that this is the Roman Empire. In his interpretation of the dream, Daniel sees a small stone hurled supernaturally against the image’s feet, and the feet are thereby crushed, crumbling the entire image. The little stone then grows to fill the entire earth, constituting an unshakable kingdom-empire. What is most notable is that this stone-induced empire, established in the days of the ancient empires and specifically supplanting the Roman Empire, will stand eternally and never be shaken and supplanted.
This empire can be none other than the empire of Jesus Christ — birthed, executed, resurrected and exalted during the Roman Empire under the reign of Caesar Augustus. This Christian Empire established at Jesus’ first (not second) Advent is, according to Daniel, the final, ultimate, and unshakable empire, and none can supplant it or compete with it — not an Islamic Empire, not an Ottoman Empire, not a National Socialist Reich-Empire, not a Soviet Empire, not a British or an American or United Nations Empire. The era of worldly empires is past, and the only empire is the global empire over which Jesus Christ rules and reigns from heaven (Ac. 2:29-36), progressively subordinating His enemies by the Gospel until every knee bows to Him (1 Cor. 15:22-28).
N. T. Wright argues that primitive Christianity was anti-imperial at its very core — that is, it was calculated to overturn the pagan Roman Empire and replace it with the Gospel Empire of Jesus Christ. In His death on the Cross, He trounced Satan and his hosts, who had led the world into sin’s slavery, and in His resurrection He inaugurated God’s new order, his new Kingdom of righteousness designed to flood the earth. Jesus of Nazareth is now King Jesus, Who subverts and condemns Caesar as the Roman emperor and any other pretenders to empire. While Christ’s is not a political kingdom, His Gospel crushes the devotion of man to any political emperor or empire and redirects that devotion to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord — and Emperor.
Description of Jesus Christ’s Empire
The empire of Jesus Christ is His rule in the earth. He rules by means of His written Word, the Bible. Whenever individuals, convicted and repentant of their sin, trust in Jesus alone for salvation, bowing the knee to His authority, they become members of His Empire (Col. 1:13). They are baptized, join His people in the church, and they live in accord with His Word by the power of the Holy Spirit. This means, concretely, that husbands love and lead and sacrifice for their wives; that wives assist their husbands in family life; that parents train their children to love and serve God at all times and in all spheres; that children and young adults surrender their lives to the Lord to obey His Word and His Spirit. It means that Biblical faith does not stop at the family hearth or the church’s four walls but bursts out into society: Christians as salesmen and mechanics and scientists and politicians and teachers and businessmen and -women and software engineers and in all other vocations apply in their daily calling the truth of God’s Word appropriate to that vocation. The Christian salesman adheres to Biblical truth in representing products and services and seeks to benefit his customers (in Biblical language, his neighbors) while also validly seeking to benefit himself and his family. The Christian software engineer or computer scientist employs Biblical principles of creativity and mathematical order to devise new digital programs for human use or to render the market more successful and more honest. The Christian politician mines the Bible for the truth of justice as it relates to the state and incorporates this truth in his or her legislative, judicial or executive capacity. And so on.
While faithful to legitimate subordinate authorities like family, church and state, Christians’ ultimate allegiance is to Jesus Christ, their Emperor. They do His will in the specific realms in which He has placed them.
Politics. While this empire includes politics, it is not essentially a political empire at all. In fact, its chief concern with politics is to ensure a civil government that grants religious (and other) liberty and minimally protects the judicially innocent and punishes the judicially guilty (Rom. 13:1-7). The Christian stake in politics is not to impose Christianity on citizens but to preserve and perpetuate the liberty-inducing structural pluralism of Christianity: freedom of religion, assembly, speech and press; protection of minorities (constitutionalism); and checks and balance (legislative, judicial or executive branches), for example. Christianity’s substantive exclusivism demands structural pluralism. Christian empire relishes religious and political liberty because Christianity believes that God alone possesses the power to change individuals religiously by the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. Christians therefore champion political and religious liberty precisely because they champion God’s sovereignty. Jesus Christ’s global empire depends on the Gospel and the Holy Spirit, not on politics and the state.
Hostility to Imperial Christianity
We should not be surprised that competing faiths like Islam abhor imperial Christianity, since Christianity’s global success spells the latter’s global failure; but we may be perplexed why Christians oppose it. For instance, in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, Samir Selmanovic writes that for too long Christianity has been influential in the West. He writes:
Looking back nostalgically to the times when Christianity was an empire, we tirelessly monitor our power, our growth, our numbers, our financial success, our political strength. Maybe the time has come for Christianity to lose.
To argue that Christianity needs to fail really is implicitly to argue that the Gospel needs to fail and that Jesus needs to fail and that (for instance) Satanism and Islam and the New Age need to succeed, winning converts and leading professed Christians to deny their faith and eventually overwhelm the earth with hostility to Jesus Christ. If this proposal from a professed Christian sounds perverse, that’s because it is.
The Anabaptist strain, too, has long been heavily invested in the social failure of Christianity. In this view, following our Lord means obedience to and life monopolized by “the gathered church.” Culture and society are irretrievably evil, and the Christian’s job is to come apart from them and join with other sequestered Christians in the local church, preparing for the imminent coming of the Lord. Society and culture are to be abandoned to their rightful owner, Satan.
Similarly, the Protestant fundamentalists, drinking deeply from the world-denying well of dispensationalism, emphasize separation not only from sin (a good thing) but also from Christian influence in culture and society (a bad thing). Bob Jones III, chancellor of the Protestant fundamentalist Bob Jones University, writes:
I don’t see a scriptural mandate for the believer to Christianize the culture. That certainly wasn’t the early church’s mission. Preaching the Gospel and evangelism was the church’s responsibility to the lost world; and from that, the foundations of the Roman Empire were shaken. We need look no further than Constantine to see what happens when an attempt is made at merely Christianizing the culture.
The church’s early mission, despite the political powerlessness of most Christians, was successful largely because it created a successful alternative culture to the collapsing Roman Empire surrounding it. Evangelism dictated discipleship, and discipleship dictated a new culture — an entirely new way of living within (not separate from) the wider pagan culture. This full-orbed Faith is what shook the foundations of the Roman Empire.
Emergents, Anabaptists and Protestant fundamentalists, despite their differences, join together in condemning imperial Christianity, the present reign of Jesus Christ over all things.
Hostility to Jesus’ Empire will come from three distinct sources: (1) from false religions like Islam, seeking their own global — and often politically coerced and terrorist-secured — empire; (2) from substantive pluralists, usually secularists, who hate any religious truth claims exercised beyond anybody’s two ears; and (3) from (justifiably) anti-pluralistic Christians who (unjustifiably) believe that Jesus’ Empire is doomed to defeat or who think that reclaiming the world for an imperial Gospel is misguided.
In these face of this hostility, we imperial Christians must work prayerfully, patiently and resolutely to press the claims of our crucified and risen Emperor everywhere God places us, expecting eventually victory on His timetable, not our own. And we may never shrink back from imperial Christianity in the face of pervasive and intimidating pluralism.
Jesus is the world’s Emperor, and we dare not compromise his exclusivist claims.
 Harold O. J. Brown, “Evangelicals and Social Ethics,” in eds., Kenneth S. Kantzer and Carl F. H. Henry, Evangelical Affirmations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 279.
 On the relationship between modernity and postmodernity, see David Harvey, The Condition of the Postmodern (Cambridge, Massachusetts and Oxford, England, 1990), 3-65.
 Chris Rohmann, A World of Ideas (New York: Ballantine, 1999), 307.
 See, e.g., John Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995).
 For a critique of substantive pluralism (though never naming it that), see Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 25-43.
 Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew (London: Elliot Stock, 1909), 429-436.
 John Jefferson Davis, Christ’s Victorious Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1986).
 Christopher Dawson, The Historic Reality of Christian Culture (London: Routledge and Keegan Paul Ltd., 1960).
 Edward Young, Daniel (Edinburgh: Banner or Truth, 1949, 1972), 72-80.
 The Second Advent will punctuate Jesus’ imperial authority, the final exclamation point to His Gospel Kingdom. See 1 Corinthians 15:22-28 and F. W. Grosheide, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 366.
 N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), ch 3.
 George E. Ladd, Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952), 77-81.
 Carl F. H. Henry, Twilight of a Great Civilization (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway, 1988), 54.
 Samir Selmanovic, “The Sweet Problem of Inclusiveness: Finding Our God in the Other,” in eds., Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Baker Books, 2007), 198.
 Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1973), 36-48, 101-133.
 Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965). For a refutation (though sometimes too polemical), see John Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing the Word of Truth (Brentwood, Tennessee: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991).
 Bob Jones III, June 10, 2002, in private correspondence with the author.
 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1997).