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The Spread of the Gospel in Hindsight: The Church’s First 1452 Years

There are two more considerations. One of these involves the misapprehension of Augustine’s The City of God and how the Christian community should relate to civil society and to the social and political order. It needs first to be considered in relationship to the proclamation of the kingdom of God and to St. Paul’s recommendation as to the Christian community’s relationship to “government authorities” set forth in Romans 13 and expanded upon within the letter to the Ephesians. There is a hint of the church as a “colony of heaven” within Paul’s letter to the Philippians. There is no justifiable reason for the church in western Europe to have taken a “triumphalist” position over the state after Pope Leo the Great confronted the Hunnic general Alaric in A.D. 452 and a few years later defended Rome from Gaiseric’s army by meeting face to face with the Vandal leader. When the civil state’s order fell apart, the church helped to keep order. From that point on, with tolerance on the part of the newer rulers after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Bishops of Rome, now referred to as “popes”, took the initiative to crown future rulers. Neither Paul nor Augustine, ever conceived of the church having that kind of authority.

By the same token, the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire, known better by historians as the Byzantine Empire, involved themselves within the affairs of the church. Some of them were concerned Christians themselves, but many were Christians in name only. John Chrysostom, first in Antioch and then in Constantinople, suffered exile when he chastised an empress. Other Christian leaders suffered the same faith. The exiles only stiffened resistance against the civil authorities.

What can Christians living for centuries under Hindu and Muslim rulers teach Western Christians today?

The intent of the New Testament writers was that the church exist within whatever civil order was in place but not exercising authority over the civil order. It is a counter-cultural community, the lifestyle of which influences the civil order without overt involvement. By the same respect, there can be no wall between the two as though church and state represent two separate entities. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God as leaven. As an outside agent, the church, like leaven, influences the whole “bread” or social order. “Look,” said Justin, and many others, “how these Christians love one another.” Very early the church was regarded by the citizens of the Roman Empire as a “burial society” who cared for the dying and who also saved discarded babies. Augustine’s The City of God is a far more transcultural reality which instills into society and the civil order a better quality of life for the citizens of a state.

In the Islamic world and in India, the church has precariously continued throughout the centuries without any relationship to the socio-political order. This should give us pause on how to face the challenges of our modern world and how we involve ourselves within the public square and influence the social order. We are to have a lifestyle that resembles the leavening operation of yeast but without a yeast infection. It is not a matter of withdrawal from the public square or controlling the public square. It is a matter of being in the world but not of the world.

The last item to note is the impact of the church within their cultural contexts in both the East and the West. The monastic movement in both the Western branch of the Church and the Eastern Branch had an influence that is beyond measure. Their withdrawal was much like the bending of a bowstring empowering the momentum of a flying arrow. John Cassian was the man who introduced the principle of withdrawal, creating potential for the movement of western monasticism through private devotion and world outreach. Basil the Great was the man who promoted the principle of contemplative prayer and world outreach.

 

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“… But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. I have given them Your word: and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they also may be sanctified by the truth. I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”

John 17:13-21 NKJV

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Category: Church History, Fall 2017

About the Author: Woodrow E. Walton, D.Min. (Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions), B.A. (Texas Christian University), B.D. [M.Div.] (Duke Divinity School), M.A. (University of Oklahoma), is a retired Seminary Dean and Professor of biblical, theological and historical studies. An ordained Assemblies of God minister, he and his wife live in Fort Worth, Texas. Walton retains membership with the Evangelical Theological Society, American Association of Christian Counselors, American Society of Church History, American Academy of Political Science, and The International Society of Frontier Missiology.

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