The Spiritual Disaster of “Christian” Countries
Rob Buckingham

Rob Buckingham

History reveals that Christianity rarely flourishes when it has the power.  Consider the first few hundred years of the church’s existence.  The Book of Acts tells of a church that exploded in growth especially when persecution scattered the believers.  “The spread of the Christian church in its earliest centuries is one of the most amazing phenomena in all of human history.” [1] The church was on the edges of society and took up Jesus’ mandate to love and serve those who were also marginalised.

Justin Martyr, an early Christian theologian, wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius describing Christians as follows: “We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ, we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause.”

Christians met together in close-knit communities and lived out their faith in their daily lives.  They were known for their honesty and integrity in business dealings, care & prayer for the sick, and for looking after widows and orphans.  By the year 250 A.D., Christians were feeding more than 1,500 of the hungry and destitute in Rome every day.

Emperor Julian (“the Apostate”), who was no friend of the Christian faith, said that Christianity “has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers and through their care of the burial of the dead. It is a scandal that there is not a single Jew who is a beggar and that the [Christians] care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help we should render them.”

The early Christians were often scorned and ridiculed.  They had no government approval, political power or official support but they lived out the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus Christ and, by the end of the First Century, there were an estimated one million believers in the Roman Empire.  Christianity continued to grow throughout the next two centuries as it started to get more organised; something that became necessary once Christians realised the Second Coming of Christ was not as imminent as the apostles believed it would be.

But everything started to change for the church in 312 A.D. when Constantine and his troops marched towards Rome to do battle with Maxentius.  Constantine’s army was smaller than that of his opponent, and so he sought divine help.  The historian Eusebius wrote, “So, he sought his father’s God in prayer, pleading for him to tell him who he was and to stretch forth his hand to help him. As he prayed (it was a little after noon), Constantine had an absorbing vision. He saw the sign of the cross emblazoned across the sky and the words “In hoc signo vinces,” “In this sign, you will win.”  Constantine was struck with amazement, along with his whole army (which also witnessed the miracle). That night in his sleep it was confirmed: this was the Christ of God he was dealing with.  Constantine accepted the vision. He adopted the sign. He had the cross inscribed on his soldiers’ armour. He went into battle. Even though his forces were outnumbered, he won.” [2]

The irony of this was that a pacifist Christian Church would receive its right to exist through a political and military conquest; and it would never be the same again.  Constantine eventually made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Unbelievers flooded into the church, but many did not convert, choosing instead to bring their pagan practices into the Church. Being a Christian was now the fashionable thing to do.  The church became diluted in spiritual power as its prestige increased and, with political power, the church became the oppressor as much as it had been the oppressed.  For the next one thousand years, the world entered the Dark Ages which included the Crusades and the Inquisitions (the latter not entirely ending until the 20th century).

In the 1930s Germany was a “Christian” country, and what a disaster that turned out to be. Two-thirds were protestant and one-third Catholic, and the church, by and large, supported Hitler.  We often wonder how a Holocaust can happen; one way is when the church finds itself in bed with politics and demonising groups of people.  Jesus told His first followers that all power was given to Him, and He was empowering them to “go and make disciples of all the nations.” [3] He didn’t tell them to Christianise countries, nor to lobby governments to enforce morality. Jesus’ way is subtler; the inward transformation of individuals who desire to work together in a community and manifest heaven on earth in their everyday lives.

The one thing we learn from history is that we rarely learn from history.  Some churches, church leaders, and Christians are still hell-bent on political power mongering and the Gospel is always the loser.  Consider the recent survey in the USA showing 14% of Christians have left their churches since the last election because of their clergy being too political, especially by endorsing Donald Trump. [4] In the United States, almost a billion dollars is spent every year by so-called Christian organisations on lobbying politicians.  The same takes places in Australia albeit on a much smaller budget.  One can only wonder at the impact that money would have if it were used to help the poor, to spread the true gospel of Jesus, and to speak out for those who have no voice as the Bible asks us to: “Speak out on behalf of the voiceless, and for the rights of all who are vulnerable.  Speak out in order to judge with righteousness and to defend the needy and the poor.” [5]

Whenever the church tries to get its way through political power, the Gospel message always gets drowned out.  In fact, the only countries where Christianity is still growing is where the church and Christians work humbly, and sometimes secretly, on the margins of society; like Nepal, China, and the UAE. [6] Most of these countries are in Asia and Africa and many in Muslim majority nations.  In 2015, mission organisation Operation World named Iran as having the fastest growing evangelical population in the world, with an estimated annual growth of 19.6 percent. [7] In North America, Europe, and Australia the church is shrinking.  In these countries, the church’s position on ethical and moral issues is well known, but people don’t understand the gospel message because it’s been drowned out by all the other things they hear from us.  This needs to change!  People need to discover the gospel, the good news about Jesus Christ.

Richard Rohr sums all this up so well, “Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control, power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We’re often given a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of “Christian” countries that tend to be as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class-conscious, and addictive as everybody else-and often more so, I’m afraid.” [8] Confronting words and sadly true.

 

[1] https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1-300/the-spread-of-the-early-church-11629561.html

[2] https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/301-600/constantine-11629643.html

[3] Matthew 28:19

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/04/11/yes-many-voters-left-their-congregations-over-trump-so-what-else-is-new/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.67201ab554bd

[5] Proverbs 31:8-9

[6] https://www.christiantoday.com/article/which-country-has-the-fastest-growing-church-in-the-world/95924.htm

[7] https://discipleallnations.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/the-top-20-countries-where-christianity-is-growing-the-fastest/

[8] Richard Rohr, Breathing Underwater

 

Rob Buckingham is the founding pastor of Bayside Church, Melbourne Australia

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