A kingdom, but not as we know it

By Christopher Rowland
November 20, 2008

The People of God and the State in the Bible - a Disestablishing Agenda

It has always struck me as a very strange phenomenon that a church rooted in Scripture can so readily try to offer theological support for an established church. Of course, a large part of the biblical story concerns the fallibility of human nature and the consequent need for appropriate structures to ensure a modicum of reflection of the divine goodness in a fallen world. But one dimension of that is a community which bears witness in its practice and proclamation to the divine perfection of God’s kingdom — a goal of, and an environment and criterion for, present action. Such sentiments are not easily pursued when there is the kind of cosy relationship between church and state which we find throughout the history of Anglicanism.

The biblical witness offers testimony enough that those obedient to God should tolerate establishment only with the greatest reluctance and suspicion. In this essay I want to examine the strands of biblical theology which point in that direction in both the Old and New Testaments. I do not want to suggest that the Bible offers an unambiguous message. William Blake’s witty aphorism in The Everlasting Gospel, ‘Both read the Bible day and night / But thou readst black where I read white’, is a reminder to us as we embark on any discussion of ‘what the Bible says’ on any subject, particularly of a political nature. Blake, of course, believed passionately that at the heart of Christianity lay forgiveness of sins and repudiation of ‘religion hid in war’ and that too often the Bible had been adopted in the service of oppressive, imperial power. But precisely because of its function as part of a dominant ideology, he recognised the constant necessity for scrutiny of such appropriation, particularly by those who wielded political power.

The Old Testament

God’s kingdom plays an important though ambiguous role in the long history of the people of God. Its importance is such that it provided one of the main building bricks for Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign, exemplified in acts of power and compassion to the disadvantaged and in riddling challenges to hearers through the parables. The frequent designation of him by his followers as Messiah — the anointed and expected king who would bring peace, prosperity and justice as the prophecy of Isaiah hopes (Isaiah 11) — continued that biblical tradition.

Despite the attachment to David and the dynasty, exemplified in such Psalms as 89 and 132, there is throughout a deep ambivalence towards monarchy. On occasion this can take the form of anti-monarchical sentiments (1 Samuel 8), but these words which come with divine sanction are paralleled with a similar divine approbation of the Davidic dynasty in 2 Samuel 7.14. The activities of that dynasty, whether it be in Judah or Samaria, are a catalogue of misdeed and iniquity which ultimately put the whole dynasty in jeopardy. The story of 2 Kings breaks off with the descendant of David a recipient of a royal dole in the Babylonian court.

The Torah hardly contemplates monarchy with equanimity. Its vision of society is of a community of the elect which, if not exactly egalitarian, works according to a vision of social intercourse in which injustice is corrected, whether through the release of debts (Deuteronomy 15) or the Jubilee (Leviticus 25, though even here the exigencies of the ‘real world’ demand some kind of dilution of the ideal). Even in Deuteronomy, where the likelihood of kingship does seem to be contemplated (Deuteronomy 17.14ff), it is a grudging acceptance in which the effects of monarchy are duly rehearsed.

The curious thing about the story of the Davidic dynasty, with its central position in the story of God’s people, is that in large part it actually serves to point out the inadequacies of that particular structure. Throughout the books of Kings, in particular, we are offered a catalogue of travesties of the divine righteousness. Even beacons of hope such as Hezekiah are shown in less than flattering light. The same is true for those founding figures, David and Solomon, whose heroic deeds and empire-building are viewed with a mixture of admiration and suspicion.

The prophet Samuel’s denunciation of the establishment of a monarchy and his continued subversive behaviour with regard to the king who marked the transition to dynastic succession, Saul, indicate the depth of feeling against it. According to the memories of Israel settled in the Promised Land, there was a tradition of charismatic leaders, the Judges. God raised up leaders to meet particular needs, whether administrative or military. In the midst of the stories told about this period, suspicion attached itself to the ambitions of those who would make themselves kings.

Israel’s reflection on its God and its politics involved recognition that settlement was a mixed blessing. Not only is there nostalgia for the time before arrival in the Promised Land (Hosea) but also a frank recognition that settlement meant accommodation with a very different culture, the culture of Canaan. The invective against Canaan and idolatry in the Old Testament is testimony enough to the inability of settled life in Israel and Judah to enable the alternative vision of Yahweh, exemplified in a later form in the book of Deuteronomy, to be kept alive.

The fact that Canaanite culture invaded the activity and furniture of the temple is evidence of the pervasive effects of the culture. It stubbornly refused to die, probably because it offered a superficially more adequate expression of the aspirations of a settled people. The rejection of Canaan, however, is in large part a rejection of settlement and an insistence that the alternative Yahwistic horizon in all its awful holiness throws into the sharpest possible relief those arrangements which glibly claim divine support while really reflecting the predilections of the powerful.

Monarchy involved military power and the oppression of the people in the name of expansion, a fact of life in Solomon’s reign, ruefully reflected in the law of the king in Deuteronomy 17. It demanded centralisation achieved in the reign of David and Solomon by the creation of a new capital at the Jebusite city of Jerusalem. That centre was given ideological justification when the portable ark was situated there and, under Solomon, a temple built to house it and act as a demonstrable site of God’s presence with Israel, subject of a subtle critique by Stephen in Acts 7.

While there is little to suggest that in the early stages priesthood and prophecy were in the patronage of the monarchy, in succeeding generations the canonical prophets criticised the distortions of the understanding of divine righteousness. The outsiders Amos and Jeremiah paid the penalty for their contumacious behaviour in condemning false prophecy and the complacent delusions of grandeur and safety which religion gave to the political establishment in Jerusalem.

The telling of the story of pre-exilic Israel was in large part the result of the experience of the destruction of Solomon’s temple and exile to Babylon. Dwellers in Zion began to see that the horizon of judgement which cast a new light on the religio-political settlement of David and Solomon demanded an understanding of God’s righteousness. This could not easily be identified with the temple, the king, the priesthood. The all-holy God is presented as one who stands over against the people and their structures, distancing divinity from every human attempt to trap it in idol or cult. The God of the universe had been seen to destroy precisely those institutions believed to be invincible because they seemed to express the divine will concretely, permanently and infallibly.

But even the Exile did not prove sufficient. Within a generation of the return there was a new political settlement. The king may have disappeared, only to fuel hope of an eschatological Messiah, but in his place we find the establishment by imperial decree of a privileged elite to minister in the temple. The ideological buttress of the Davidic dynasty persisted, therefore, even without that dynasty. The priesthood became a focus of political power and the activities of the temple the essence of the life of God’s people.

In finding justification for the temple and its sacrificial cultus in the Mosaic traditions, the emerging canon significantly had the effect of relativising that particular political settlement, too. The stories of the portable tabernacle and a utopian vision of a society on the point of entrance into the Promised Land in the pages of Deuteronomy enshrined an alternative horizon in the authoritative writings of the post-exilic community and contrasted starkly with the permanent building replaced after the Exile.

That implicit questioning of the permanence and completeness of post-exilic political arrangements by harking back to an ideal world without temple where Moses the prophet kept alive the alternative vision coincided with the voice of protest against the impoverished response of the post-exilic community. Claims for divine sanction for the building of the temple in the pages of Haggai and Zechariah are matched by the breadth of vision and voice of criticism in the later chapters of Isaiah. Whoever wrote these enigmatic oracles found not a nation purified and pursuing the divine righteousness but demoralised and despondent. Isaiah does not entirely reject the temple, but sees it functioning as an international centre celebrating God’s justice (cf. Isaiah 2 and Micah 4). The barbed comments about sacrifice and temple in Isaiah 65-66 and the desperate yearning for a liberation beyond human agency in Isaiah 64 indicate that satisfaction with the temple was not widespread.

Such people were those who kept alive that alternative horizon and who could see in the emerging canon not a justification for the status quo but reason to challenge it and the raw material for other constructs for the behaviour of God’s people. The eschatological horizon emerged among such people. They had eyes to see that things were not as they should be. The divine righteousness was far from the land. They could see it because they were not part of the establishment. They were probably castigated as false prophets (Zechariah 13.2) whose eccentric ways proved that no self-respecting Jew should pay much attention to them.

The hope for the Messiah and the coming of a reign of peace and justice (Isaiah 11) was both a protest at present arrangements and a way of offering an alternative horizon to a hegemonic culture. A future hope for a better world encompassing all peoples and the visions which appeared to establish this as divine wisdom were central means of asserting this alternative. Apocalyptic could become the epistemology of protest and subversion, therefore. To assert that what appeared to be the case did not represent God’s will was to place all political arrangements under the critical divine gaze. History had to be seen sub specie regni Dei, and those who exercised power were challenged to see that theirs was not the fulfilment of the divine purpose and may (in the eyes of some) have been regarded as a clear departure from it.

The New Testament

It is in the context of such views that we must see the New Testament’s views about the exercise of power and the relationship of God’s people to contemporary political arrangements. According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus of Nazareth preached the reign of God and thus oriented his heaven to that alternative horizon which the eschatological hope had kept alive. Present arrangements were not the norm, therefore. The imminent arrival of the messianic age heralded new priorities and broadened horizons (Luke 4.16, Matthew 11.2ff).

The gospel portraits do not present Jesus as a wide-eyed visionary whose preaching was not matched by practice. In Mark, for example, the paradigm for the Christian gospel, the rejection of the message of the kingdom of God is accompanied by an emphatic distancing of himself from contemporary political arrangements. In Mark 11 the messianic demonstration is followed by action in the temple, which Jesus condemns in words borrowed from the earlier denunciation of the temple by Jeremiah and the breadth of vision of Isaiah of the Exile.

The juxtaposition of action in the temple with the cursing of the barren fig tree indicates the redundancy of an order whose priorities conflict with the kingdom of God. Attempts to turn this into a dichotomy between the religious and the political miss the point that political authority in Jerusalem was in fact wielded by the priestly aristocracy and the Judean ruling class. That the challenge is against this group rather than the Romans merely indicates the locus of political power.

The concluding chapters of the synoptic gospels leave the disciples with little idea of what the messianic reign will be like. They can be in little doubt, however, that followers of the Messiah will want to maintain a critical distance from contemporary institutions.

The gospel of Mark is a sophisticated, narrative form of the Christus Victor theology in which the economic, institutional and spiritual power of the temple is destroyed at the moment of Jesus’ death to be replaced by a ‘counter-culture’ based on service. Conventional ties are loosed and custom is abandoned for a new way (1.40, 2.23ff, 5.25, 7.19).

This ‘good news’ contrasts with the secular ‘evangel’ of the imperial propaganda and challenges that dominant ideology. Mark’s Jesus challenges a culture of status and customary practice and institutions. In 10.42, the disciples want to sit and rule but are only offered baptism and a cup of suffering. There is to be an alternative perspective in the circle of disciples: learning to be free of dominant ways of looking at the world (4.18, 8.28ff) characterised by the taking up of a cross (8.34 cf. 10.42ff), a rebel’s fate.

The gospel is not merely about the propounding of an alternative but also predicts the destruction of the present religio-political order which is intimately linked with the death of Jesus. Within the context of the gospel as a whole, Jesus’ death comes at the end of a narrative in which — from chapter 11 onwards — the temple is a dominant theme. Jesus is portrayed as a prophet of doom teaching in the centre of the Jewish empire and attracting a mixed response. The temple is not only of narrowly religious significance, for it is seen as being at the heart of a socio-economic complex of great importance for the Judean area and an ideological system of central importance for most Jews.

From the moment that Jesus enters the temple, it is apparent from Mark that the cursing of the fig tree, which sandwiches the so-called ‘cleansing’, comments thereby on the bankruptcy of that institution, suggesting that its fate will be that of the cursed tree. But elsewhere in 13.28 the fig tree is used as a sign of imminent change. The destruction of the temple may also be the moment of the growth of something new in the ‘counter-culture’ proposed by Jesus.

The text which has become the bedrock of discussions of the church and politics is Mark 12.13-17. No passage has been subject to more detailed scrutiny than the discussion of the tribute money, and yet it can hardly bear the weight of a political theology. The context of the saying is one in which Jesus is being put to the test by his opponents. This is especially clear in the introduction to Luke’s version: ‘so they watched Jesus and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor’ (Luke 20.20, cf. 23.2). In such a situation, Jesus is portrayed as giving an ambiguous ruling — one that would have associated him with neither the Jewish freedom fighters who rejected Roman power nor those collaborators who had come to some accommodation with the occupying force.

Jesus’ response may indicate at most that participants in the Roman economic system, based as it was on slavery and conquest, were bound to pay the tax. But those who recognised the supremacy of God over the universe maintained their distance from Rome and its exploitative and idolatrous practices (a theme explored in the Apocalypse of Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation). Put in a tight corner by his opponents, Jesus offers not a definitive ruling on relations between his followers and the state but a clever, enigmatic riposte. It is a politically acute answer with which those who had found themselves in similar spots would readily identify.

The gospels are full of challenges to conventional wisdom about monarchy, as found particularly in the character of the Messiah in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus is presented as a humble king (21.5), contrasted with Herod who is no true king of the Jews (2.2). Herod slaughters the innocents (2.16ff) whereas the true king reacts positively to children (18.2, 19.14, 20.31). Those who are pronounced blessed share the characteristics of this humble king (5.3ff) who engaged in acts of compassion and healing which affected crowds rather than leaders (9.36, 14.14, 15.32). Final judgement (25.31ff) is based on response to the Son of Man hidden in the destitute lot of his brethren (cf. 7.21ff, 10.42f) who will be revealed as in some sense identified with ‘the least’ at the moment of ‘apocalypse’ on the Last Day. Concern for one’s final destiny is a present response to those who, like the earthly Son of Man, have nowhere to lay their heads (8.20).

The gospel of John is misunderstood if the tag ‘the spiritual gospel’ deceives us into thinking that it is little concerned with the politics of real life. Indeed, this gospel insists that the key movements in Christian existence are highly political acts in which the participants demonstrate their allegiance to a different way of being the people of God. In its treatment of Jesus’ confrontation with Pilate, it articulates a rival interpretation of kingship: this king is one who washes his disciples’ feet. Jesus’ reply to Pilate, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’, is not a statement about the location of God’s kingdom but about the origin of the inspiration for Jesus’ view of the kingdom. Its norms are the result of God’s spirit and righteousness. It is otherworldly only in the sense that it is wrong to suppose that the definition of kingship and kingdom is to be found in conventional regal persons and practice.

This apparently inward-looking gospel, therefore, turns out to be a witness to an alternative practice matched by an alternative consciousness. By calling for adherence to a king, the authority and pattern for whose kingship is ‘not of this world’, the followers of Jesus do not fight ‘but remain in the world bearing witness to the truth before the rulers of synagogue and empire’. The fourth gospel offers us an example of the way in which kingship is redefined in the New Testament (John 18.33ff). It is not ‘of this world’, in the sense that its origin and inspiration are not exemplified by the exercise of power by the hierarchy or their Roman allies. (We should put behind us the notion that the New Testament is not concerned with power, only powerlessness; the issue on almost every page is the way that power is exercised.)

Nicodemus and other rulers have to learn that they must make a public, political act which requires them to change sides, leave behind the politics of the national leadership and identify themselves with the one whose baptism meant initiation into a very different perspective on the world. They must share the perspective of the heavenly Son of Man who suffered the opprobrium of the political establishment. The position of the follower is going to be no different from that of the Master (John 15.24ff).

Even in the gospel of Luke — which, together with the Acts of the Apostles, seems to be more positively inclined towards the temple and Jerusalem as well as Roman officials — the alternative horizon is maintained. Like Mark, Luke–Acts rejects the contemporary Jewish settlement, a fact which consistently attracts hostility. The apparently gentle treatment of the Romans should not be construed in too positive a light, however. What we have is the recognition of the supreme overarching presence of Roman power. This had to be accepted in the short term, and the space available to the messianic movement to bring about change compatible with its renunciation of violence exploited to the full. Direct confrontation with Rome was to be avoided wherever possible and the situation of political powerlessness recognised with all the constraints it involved. The alternatives were either futile insurrection or gentle exploitation of opportunities for change.

It is not that God’s purposes are fulfilled in the triumph of Rome: there is nothing in the story of Luke–Acts which suggests that Rome and its emperors fulfil any messianic or evangelical purpose. There is, however, a recognition that in the divine economy there is a ‘time of the Gentiles’ (Luke 21), the reality of which had to be accepted. It was futile to live in a false messianic fantasy which pretended that the triumph of the Gentile nations was merely a bad dream (the prophecy of Daniel was important in this respect).

Familiar passages in Luke’s gospel suggest a very different perspective from the world of ancient convention: that of the insignificant Mary who gives birth to the Messiah in obscurity, the women followers and supporters, the Samaritans and the ‘prodigals’. All these in different ways ‘flesh out’ the manifesto which Luke’s Jesus offers as good news to the poor in 4.16ff. The reader of the gospel is left in little doubt about the appropriate response to those such as Lazarus.

Yet there are nods in the direction of accommodation and understanding. Zacchaeus does not have to sell all his goods: the reparation of half of what he owns seems to be adequate. The ambiguity is no more evident than in chapter 16, where the utter repudiation of Mammon and the disparagement of Dives sits uneasily with assertions that one has to use the Mammon of unrighteousness in order to be considered worthy of heaven.

Luke orients Christ towards the outcasts and rejects of the world and sets the story of Jesus, an insignificant victim of Roman justice, in the midst of the history of the great and the good of the Graeco-Roman world, using a literary genre which hitherto had largely served the interests of the politically and economically powerful. In his narrative he sets down a story which might hardly merit a record in the annals of the ancient world and in so doing includes a glimpse of those poor and insignificant people who were the primary beneficiaries of the gospel. The mighty people in his church needed to learn humility, service and identification with the poor.

According to Luke, Christianity is in a position of nonconformity to contemporary culture, a characteristic feature of the Christian church in the pre-Constantinian era. We have in Luke–Acts biblical writings whose author is seeking to persuade readers who perhaps too readily entertained the ‘philosophy of being at ease with itself’. Another horizon was needed for the more affluent churches of the Pauline mission, too easily preoccupied with their ecclesial concerns.

Such distance from the powers that be and scepticism of unquestioning subservience is to be found even in that passage which has formed the cornerstone of conformity and participation in the establishment: Romans 13. A reading of the passage indicates quite clearly that subservience to the powers is not a matter of unquestioning obedience but is premised on the authorities’ concern for the good of the readers. What is offered, therefore, is an ideal pattern which states should implement. It is a message directed to the ruled rather than the rulers, possibly because some of the ruled in the Christian community in Rome were questioning the necessity for — or, indeed, competence of — the state (though that is not to deny the centrality of rulers learning their role within the divine economy ).

The necessity of the ‘powers that be’ is not in question. It is a mark of the old age which is still very much in force. But the state has to seek the good of its subjects. Such good must be defined by the character of God’s goodness (the word elsewhere in Romans refers to that). That is the state’s obligation; in so far as it fails to do this, or interprets the good as what serves the interests of the powerful, it undermines the obligation so carefully enunciated in these verses.

Since most political regimes fall short of the goodness of God, at the very least subservience and acquiescence are bound to be heavily qualified. What is more, Paul’s expectation of Christ’s coming and reign necessarily cast its shadow over the permanence and rightness of any political regime, however enlightened. By virtue of their pursuit of sectional interests, all are marked with the mark of the Beast. A reading of Romans 13 will always need the corrective of Revelation 13 so that accommodation and co-operation can at all times be seen for what they are in the light of the Messiah.

The most uncompromising rejection in the New Testament of state power and accommodation with its culture is to be found in the book of Revelation. Suspicion of this book by the state is well exemplified by the marginal status of the book in Anglicanism. For centuries, the Church of England allowed only small parts of the book of Revelation to be read at morning and evening prayer . In the Book of Common Prayer of 1662, lessons from the Apocalypse are to be read only on certain feasts. (The situation changed later when Revelation — except, significantly, chapters 9, 13 and 17, which include the material about the state — was read in the month of December). In a church which asserts in its formularies that the Scriptures contain everything necessary for salvation, this is a remarkable phenomenon and may be paralleled in the impoverished provision of readings from the Apocalypse in the eucharistic lectionary for the Alternative Service Book. The situation is little better in the Revised Common Lectionary, where readings from Revelation are prescribed ten times over the three years. Of these, five are from Revelation 21-22, four from two passages (1.4-8 and 7.9-17), and one from chapter 5.

What we read in church is a political matter and helps form the Christian consciousness. One can understand why Reformation states, insecure about their own foundations and boundaries and suspicious of Anabaptism and radical politics, might have regarded the subversive potential of Revelation 13 and 17 and the effects on ordinary people as too threatening to contemplate, but that is no reason for endorsing a similar attitude today.

The challenge to the complacent, and the word of encouragement to the hard-pressed, stand side by side in a book which unmasks the reality of power and the fallibility of human benevolence. In many ways it offers one of the most coherent accounts of the church’s relationship to the state, and in so doing offers a pungent warning to the kind of cosy accommodation which churches have allowed themselves to slide into. In its stark contrast between the Lamb and the Beast, the Bride, New Jerusalem and Babylon, it juxtaposes the choices facing men and women and reminds followers of the Lamb of the dangers of becoming entangled in a political system based on a completely different set of values.

What is particularly disturbing is the ruthless questioning of the motives of the benevolence of the powerful. The deceit involved is frightening. The remedy is simple: exodus and refusal to join in life as usual, because that is complicity with the culture of Babylon. One must resist, contradict and prophesy against the way the world is ordered. Christian life according to the Apocalypse means becoming an outsider. That is a salutary thought for all those who would promote a close alliance between Christ and Caesar.

The church in the first three centuries grew not because people went out and preached the gospel on street corners. Indeed, there is very little evidence that they did that at all. The first Christian communities do not seem to have seen it as their role to go out and persuade people to become Christians. Rather, worshipping communities were to be distinctive and to some extent apart, given to public demonstrations of their faith in acts of martyrdom. They were known to their neighbours as members of a superstition, a deviation from the norms of accepted behaviour. They were distinctive because Jesus’ teachings and way offered perspectives and ways of living that were new.

The picture we have of early Christianity from the sources is a ‘sectarian’ picture which sits uncomfortably with all that we hold dear. From the position of discomfort, persecution, oppression and minority status, Christian people found that the Bible resonated with their lives. For all their protestations of loyalty to the emperor, they refused to conform to the demands of empire. For them there was another king, Jesus. And they dreamt that to him every knee would bow. There could be no compromise between God and Caesar. Allegiance to the resurrected Christ meant that in any conflict of loyalty, the nation state had to take second place to the pearl of great price which those who confessed Jesus as lord had discovered.

"Would that all God's people were prophets"

A dominant theme throughout the Bible is prophecy, a phenomenon which consists not only of prediction but of social critique, forth-telling as well as foretelling, as Blake reminds us:

Prophets in the modern sense of the word have never existed. Jonah was no prophet, in the modern sense, for his prophecy of Nineveh failed. Every honest man is a prophet; he utters his opinion both of private and public matters. Thus: If you go on So, the result is So. He never says, such a thing shall happen let you do what you will. A Prophet is a Seer, not an Arbitrary Dictator.

The involvement of the prophets in the politics of their day is particularly marked in the pre-canonical prophets such as Samuel and Elijah but is also evident in the case of Isaiah and Amos as well as Jeremiah. They cut isolated figures protesting against the dominant thrust of their nation’s life, particularly its idolatry and departure from the norms of social justice as set out in the ancestral traditions. The prophets are in a sense deeply conservative, as any true radical must be, objecting to the modernising of their day with its compromises with the lifestyle and values of the surrounding culture and looking back to the roots of the nation’s life in its single-minded commitment to Yahweh and the social morality which that worship entailed. Theirs was the task of raising awareness of the fact that ‘the Beast and the Whore rule without control’.

Prophecy as an active part of a nation’s life is absent from the New Testament, largely because the church members were on the fringes of the political life of the Roman empire. But John the Baptist and Jesus were both hailed as figures in the tradition of the prophets (Peter’s confession in Matthew 16.17f and Matthew 23.26ff), reminding us that both were seen as irritants to those in power. John, according to the Jewish writer Josephus, was suspected of fomenting revolution (Antiquities xviii.116f), and that seems to have been the attitude towards Jesus on the part of the hierarchy in Jerusalem who feared Roman reprisals if Jesus was allowed to go on behaving as he was (John 11.49). Indeed, in Mark’s gospel Jesus’ action in the temple was the last straw which persuaded the authorities to assassinate him.

Prophecy is no mere ecclesial office offering occasional admonition or pious platitudes. Like Jeremiah, the prophet must utter prophecies over many nations, races, languages and kings (Revelation 10.11, cf. Jeremiah 1.10) and be prepared to pay the price of so doing (Revelation 11.7, cf. Mark 13.9ff). It is not a specialist vocation but one to which the church as a whole is called.

Prophets read the signs of the times, something about which generations of religious people with a comfortable position in society were — and are — ambivalent. This has become an important component of Christian social criticism as a result of formulations such as ‘the church has always had the duty of scrutinising the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the gospel’ (Gaudium et Spes 4). Bound by habit and conservative as we are, we react uneasily to the prophetic voice raised in protest in the name of Christ at some aspect of our common life. How can one claim to speak the word of God? How is it possible to be sure that inscrutable purposes of God are truly divined in human history? Yet the continuation of that prophetic task is a central part of the life of the church whose role is, like Jeremiah and John of Patmos, to prophesy about many peoples and nations and discern the Beast and the Babylon as the trade which afflicts human lives so inhumanely is carried on (Revelation 18.13).

Eschatology and Establishment

The eschatological hope of God’s kingdom on earth which is such a dominant thread in New Testament theology cannot allow any easy accommodation between the church, the community of those called to bear witness to the reign of God, and political powers. While still living in an age which is passing away, the church is bound to have to make choices about the extent of its involvement and participation based on its assessment of the extent to which, in whole and in particular policy, the kingdoms of this world manifest the way of the Messiah.

This is a complicated process in which one might expect significant differences of opinion. But when that wrestling with the issues is carried out in a situation where integration into a political system is a continuing datum, the chances of critical awareness are dramatically diminished and the dangers of being used to baptise social, political and economic systems which are far from reflecting the righteousness of God are increased.

There is a deep-seated biblical view that the present does not represent the demonstration of God’s purposes and a hope for something different based in common humanity created in God’s image, with a consequent mutual concern. Throughout the Bible, that hope is not merely an ideal but a motivating force, for in their common life the people of God share that vision and, however imperfectly, seek to bring it to fruition.

The contrast between the city of God and the human city has been one of the dominant themes of Christian theology, later taken up by Augustine in his monumental City of God. That contrast has become an excuse for otherworldliness and despair of changing this world and for concentrating on the next. Beside this, however, there has been the view that the city of God is not something solely beyond history but is to be worked for through God’s grace as part of the divine economy.

We dare to hope because our hope is rooted in the story we tell of ourselves and our God and the sense we make of our world in the light of it. Yet it is not merely our story we proclaim, nor even the church’s, but God’s. As we tell it, we hope and pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it already is in heaven. As we break bread together, we echo the words of the former head of the Jesuit order, Pedro Aruppe, who said that as long as there is anyone in the world who is hungry, our Eucharist is incomplete. Ignoring those needs and explaining faithfulness to Jesus without attention to them or to our hope is to undermine the claim of our worship. We run the risk of leaving Christ knocking outside the door of our churches in the persons of the poor and outcast while imagining that ‘the Lord is here’.

It is because of Jesus that we hope for something different and dare to warn of the effects of ignoring God’s justice. It is because of our hope that we look to our own practice and seek at every opportunity to embody the promptings of the eschatological spirit in words and deeds. These must mirror that time when sorrow and sighing will flee away and each human will be recognised, equally stamped with the name of our God, and we shall see God face to face (Revelation 7.15f and 22.4f).

The politics of relationship and structure require distance from the political process and not intimate involvement with it. This is not to advocate opting out of politics; that would be impossible in any case. Rather, it means attending to that which has enabled the prophets to speak: distance, marginality, faithfulness to the traditions of Scripture and the saints.

Of course there have been court prophets such as Nathan who have heard and proclaimed the hard words at the appropriate time (2 Samuel 12). The problem is the ease with which the prophets lose the perspective of Sinai and the Wilderness and end up encouraging their hearers to be at ease in Zion. All of us know how tempting it is to buoy people up with false hope, to give voice to our own fancies and to proclaim that no harm will come (Jeremiah 23.16). The prophet has to stand trembling in the council of the LORD and proclaim the words of God to people.

Close involvement in the political realm as part of the establishment makes the vocation of bearing witness to the dawning reign of God at best difficult and at worst impossible. For example, the demands of the state can readily brush a vocation which is at the heart of the gospel story: the nonviolent way of the Christian Messiah. Since states are, in the last resort, always going to retain by force the power and influence of those whose interests they serve, the church is inevitably going to have to compromise over the issue of violence. This is something about which William Blake constantly reproached the church of his day when he accused it of promoting ‘religion hid in war’.

Pacifism has not had a strong tradition within the churches, not least the Church of England, where Anabaptist tendencies are roundly condemned in Article 37. Disestablishment of the church is no panacea in this respect. Indeed, there will be many supporters of the cause of disestablishment who are not pacifists. Nevertheless, it does bring a greater critical distance from the processes of government and would put the church in a better position to examine the theological assumptions which have supported its alliance with military power and explore the propriety of exercising another form of power rooted in the, to Anglicans, unfamiliar tradition of nonviolence. Christians, who claim to be living between the ages and who walk by faith and not by sight, should be particularly keen to stress the appropriateness of the way of nonviolence precisely because of its witness to the gospel of love and its recognition of human fallibility.

When Jesus asks ‘who made me Lord over you’, he enunciates a question which should echo in the ears of all those who seek to put into practice the messianic way of the cross. It is commitment to that way which demands of Jesus’ followers that they take seriously the word: ‘It shall not be so among you’ (Mark 10.42). Taking that to heart demands renunciation of the privilege and power of establishment and acceptance of the power of that ‘more excellent’ way which is a more fitting way to bear witness to the dawning reign of God before the principalities and powers now subservient to the risen Christ.


J. Barr, The Bible as a Political Document (1980).
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (1988).
David Rensberger, Overcoming the World (1988)
O. O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations (Cambridge, 1995).
F. E. Brightman, The English Rite, Vol. I (London, 1915), p. 51.
K. Wengst, Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (London, 1988)
Alan Kreider, Worship and Evangelism in Pre-Christendom (Nottingham, Grove Booklets, 1995).
Annotations to Watson’s Apology in Blake, ed. Keynes, p. 392. Blake quotes Numbers 11.29 in the Preface to Milton in Copies A and B, where we also find the poem commonly known as ‘Jerusalem’.
R. Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge, 1995).
On false prophecy see O’Donovan, op.cit., especially pp. 62ff and p. 11. ‘God has no spies. He has prophets, and he commissions them to speak about society in words which rebuke the inauthentic speech of false prophets. But true prophets cannot speak only of the errors of false prophets. Their judgement consists precisely in what they have to say to God’s purposes of renewal ... .’


(c) Christopher Rowland is the Dean Ireland Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. He is co-author of The Bible foor Sinners - http://tinyurl.com/654rlc

This essay was first published in Setting the Church of England Free: The case for disestablishment, edited by Kenneth Leech and published by the Jubilee Group.

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