The other day I watched a review of the history of the Reformed Church done in response to accusations made at the “Strange Fire” conference sponsored by John McCarthur. Watching this video confirmed my long held view that one of the most discouraging things that you can do as a Christian is to review the history of the church. From the behaviour of Christians in America with regards to racism and slavery, to the wars between “Christian” countries, to persecutions by Protestants and Catholics, to the antisemitism of Replacement Theology, the history of the visible church is a long history of persecution and violence in the name of Jesus Christ.
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)
In my view, the whole purpose of this world is to teach human beings that we cannot be good without recognizing our absolute dependence on Jesus Christ. For this reason, the hardest part of the ugly history of the visible church is not the actual ugliness of the history itself. If I was a Christian when I first came to Christ twenty years ago, then I know that Christians can have some very rough edges and an ugly church history is not that surprising. Rather, the hardest part is squaring church history with the words of the Lord. Looking at the bleak history of the church, it looks as though the forces of “Hades” did overcome it. One tends to think that if the church has not been overcome, then this is more of a testament to the grace and mercy of God than to the faithfulness of the church.
Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ (Matthew 7:22)
Of course, most Christians will answer this difficulty by arguing that those who did these terrible acts were not really “Christians” and that “real Christians” would have behaved much better. While I agree that a number of those responsible for these sins will be rebuked by the Lord as described in Matthew 7, it seems clear to me that many of the people involved were, in fact, genuine believers in Jesus Christ. As I have discussed in a previous post, respected Christians like Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine have all played a serious role in Replacement Theology, which I regard to be the greatest single blot on the record of the church because it laid the foundation for the Holocaust. Not only that, but if you read the New Testament, you will find Paul and Jesus rebuking believers for truly egregious behaviour. If we Christians are to understand church history, therefore, we have to go beyond the easy answer that no “real Christians” ever did anything terrible. We have to examine the underlying cause of all the horrific failures.
Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. (Lord Acton 1887)
Though these words are not in the Bible, they encapsulate a great deal of Biblical truth. In the strictest sense, these words are dangerously false as only Almighty God has absolute power and He is incorruptible. In the context of human political power in a fallen world, on the other hand, these words are undoubtedly true and serve as the foundation for the principle of checks and balances that is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States.
The problem in the history of the church has been that historical Christian believers either didn’t know the truths encapsulated in these words or exempted themselves. “Absolute power might corrupt other people”, we can imagine these people saying, “but I am a Christian with the indwelling Holy Spirit and I know the Word of God. I am incorruptible and infallible and power is safe in my hands, or in the hands of those who agree with me.” For someone with this attitude, the best form of political government is going to be an authoritarian state where the “correctly interpreted” principles of the Bible are enforced by a militarily empowered clergy. Since Old Testament teachings more readily lend themselves to practical governance than New Testament teachings, this has meant that Christians have historically advocated one of the worst forms of government imaginable with predictably disastrous results. How could it be the worst possible form of government if it is based on the infallible Word of God?
If you read the book of Romans with attention, then you will notice that the purpose of the Old Testament law given by Moses was to increase transgression so that human beings would know that we are incapable of attaining righteousness through our own obedience. Since it is impossible for human beings to keep the law, every government based on the Old Testament must be rife with corruption and moral failure. This is because only a Pharisee capable of the worst form of self-deception can believe that they are righteous before God by works as would seem to be necessary if you are going to enforce the Old Testament as the law of the land. But how would such a Christian authoritarian interpret the failure of a system based on God’s infallible word? The obvious answer is that the truth of God’s word is being opposed by demonically deceptive and evil men! How do we deal with such people? How does the Old Testament tell us to deal with them? In this way, Pharisaism, dogmatism, violence and persecution are the inevitable byproducts of any attempt to base a government on Biblical principles without a genuine understanding of those principles.
The light of the body is the eye: therefore when thine eye is single, thy whole body also is full of light; but when thine eye is evil, thy body also is full of darkness. (Luke 11:34)
This fundamental problem with Biblical governance is compounded by the fact that once the church has become corrupted there is no source of truth that can turn the society around. Since the truth of the gospel is ostensibly being proclaimed by the government, only government approved teaching is available to the public. In this way, Christian authoritarianism is a tremendous obstacle to truth and the spread of the gospel.
The lessons of church history make it especially frustrating to see how Christians have responded to the attempts of humanist liberals to take over the United States using the political process and the courts. While the attempt to fight fire with fire is understandable, politics cannot be used to defend Christian truth. Humanist beliefs are based on the appealing foundation of human goodness and universal human brotherhood and they must be more fashionable and reasonable to anyone who does not understand the truths that Paul expounded in Romans. Only by boldly teaching the truths of the Bible and using spiritual weapons to tear down enemy spiritual strongholds can a Christian nation survive. Over the last few months, I have rejoiced to see this truth being recognized by Christian leaders like Chuck Missler and Ann Graham Lotz, but I fear it is too late.
if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. (2 Corinthians 7:14)