Contemplating the Influence of Power and Wealth on The Church

It is “a supreme paradox” that ‘the church in freeing itself from the secular itself became a state”, says Tom Holland.

Miniature showing siege scene of conquest of Jerusalem, 1099. Nunez de Balboa House-Museum, Jerez de los Caballeros, Spain

I am working my way through Tom Holland’s book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind. I have just finished the segment on Pope Gregory VII and Pope Urban II at the turn of the first millennium since the birth of Jesus Christ.

Since Jesus first told an antagonistic group of religious leaders that people should “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s”, and for centuries afterward, the church was at the mercy of the state. Not even a generation after Jesus died, the Roman government, which controlled Judea where Jesus lived and his following sprung up, ransacked Jerusalem, scattering Jews and Christians into the countryside and beyond.

Through the first three centuries, the best the followers of Jesus could hope for was an indifferent Caesar or provincial ruler. At various times, they suffered at the hands of a Nero or more local prefects of local Roman rule in places like Lyons, Vienne or Carthage. The powerful Roman government was to be suffered and obeyed.

Christianity was illegal until Constantine decreed the prohibition lifted. Within a generation or two, Christianity was not just legal in the Roman Empire; it became the favored religion. Christian rulers became part of the governing structure of Rome, serving by the appointment and the pleasure of ruling authorities from mid-way through the 4th Century on.  

Over the centuries, the Roman Church became a player in the ebbs and flows of power and influence in western and central Europe. When Gregory VII was made Pope by acclamation of the people, however, he hid himself, not having been chosen through the usual protocols. When he was affirmed, nevertheless – his affirmation having as much to do with popular will as with political protocols, it marked the beginning of a change.

Gregory and Henry IV, the Roman Emperor, had a fitful relationship. Gregory excommunicated him three times, each time undoing it, the last time on his death bed in a remote outpost to which he been banished by the powers that be. Henry IV, for his part, declared antipopes in opposition to the papacy of Gregory, but his antipopes never rose to the position of acceptance by the people. The tide was turning.  

When Pope Urban II gathered and commissioned a vast army in the sacred duty of marching on Jerusalem to reclaim it from the Saracens who had overrun it a couple centuries earlier, the victory they attained in 1099 AD (the First Crusade) marked the completion of a transition. Carrying forward the efforts of Pope Gregory to divorce the church from the state, the goal was accomplished by the military victories won for Christendom – not by any Caesar or secular emperor, but by people marching under the banner of The Church.

Holland described the irony that, in obtaining freedom from the state, the church became a state. Holland calls it is “a supreme paradox” that ‘the church in freeing itself from the secular itself became a state”.

I have long thought that the turning point in the 4th century, when Christianity went from illegal, to legal, to favored status, was the beginning of corruption that would overtake the church and threaten to undo it. I am not sure my sense of that history is perfectly correct. I look forward to reading on in Tom Holland’s book.

As with most truth, it’s likely a very mixed bag. A Christian believes Scripture when it says that God is sovereign, and He works all things together for the good for the purposes of God. This is as true in regard to the persecution of Christians under Nero as for the triumph of Christians rallying under Pope Urban II to rise above secular rule.

Jesus said from the very beginning, however, that weeds would grow up among the wheat, and so the wheat would grow amidst the weeds until the harvest when the weeds will be separated from the wheat. (Matt. 13:24-30) We shouldn’t be surprised, then, to find history substantiating that statement. The church isn’t immune to corruption.

The same is certainly no less true today. The church is corrupted by the “weeds” that grow along with the wheat.

I have often believed that, when the church is hitched to the state (when the church is a state), corruption grows and is magnified. If the saying is true that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, it will be borne out in the pages to come in Holland’s book.

At the same time, one might argue that the good is magnified also when the church gains power and influence. (I am going to hold that thought as I make my way through the rest of the book. Check back for my assessment.)

On the other hand, I go back to Scripture. Jesus provided us a picture of how his followers should be in the world: “the greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matt. 23:11); the world shall know you by your love for one another (John 13:35); and no greater love can be demonstrated than for one person to lay down his life for another (John 15:13).

This picture of the suffering servant is not what we think of when we imagine a political leader.

When Paul holds up the example of Jesus for believers to follow, this is the example he encourages:

“Have this attitude in [among] yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, as He already existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself [set aside his divine rights] by taking the form of a bond-servant and being born in the likeness of men.And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross.”

Phil. 2:5-9

The example Paul provides looks nothing like the usual power and influence wielded by politicians and governing authorities. Is it possible to have the same attitude as Jesus in the role of a politician or governing authority? I think so, but how often do we see it?

My thesis has been for many years now that Christians who aspire to political power and influence choose a dangerous ambition. Like the rich man whose labor to enter into heaven is like a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle, achieving the same attitude as Christ in a role that tends to attract opposite motivations and characteristics may seem impossible.

While all things are possible for God, should we desire riches or power? It may be that most of us, especially in the west, could be categorized as rich or powerful (compared to the rest of the world), but are those things we should actively seek?

We may believe that we are seeking wealth or seeking political influence for the betterment of mankind and for the purposes of God, but we are easily deceived by our hearts. (Jer. 17:9) Thus, I am skeptical of my own inclinations in those directions, which I know well.

True it is that wealth, by itself, is not evil. It’s “the love of money” that is “the root of all kinds of evil”, but desiring money has led many people to wander from the faith. (1 Timothy 6:10) I dare say that political power and influence seem to carry a similar kind of liability.

As I read through the rest of Holland’s book, I will be keeping an eye on the thesis I have long maintained – that power in the church leads to corruption in the church. Maybe I don’t know “the rest of the story” as well as I think I do. We will see.

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