The Shared Priority of American Evangelicalism and the Medieval Papacy
If American evangelicalism dies, suicide will be the cause of death listed on the official Coroner’s report. American evangelicalism will likely not die due to external persecution. Historically, persecution tends to strengthen the church. If it dies, it will die because it has tied a rope around its own neck, placed a loaded gun against its own head, and laced its own food with arsenic.
There are a number of ways American evangelicalism is attempting to kill itself: by lusting after secular political power at any cost, by allowing gross heresy to be taught and promoted in its churches, seminaries, and publishing houses, by following the method of modernist liberals in replacing Scripture with culture as its standard of faith and life, and by embracing a rabid form of radical anti-intellectualism. For now, I'd like to focus on the first of these - the lust for political power at all costs and how it echoes the fatal mistake of the medieval papacy. I hope to address and explain some of the others in future blog posts.
Anyone who has studied the history of the Western church cannot help but be struck by the radical difference between the church we read about in Paul’s epistle to the Romans and the Roman Catholic Church of the late Middle Ages. The first century church in Rome consisted of a collection of humble house churches scattered around various parts of the city of Rome. That first century church described in Paul's epistle bears no resemblance to the prideful power, pomp, and perversity of the Renaissance era papacy. Rome didn’t even have a monarchical bishop until the last decades of the second century, but by the late Middle Ages the bishop of Rome becomes one of the most powerful men in the Western world and claims to be the one without whom there is no true church. How did we get from point A to point B?
Rome will usually appeal to some kind of development theory to explain the dramatic differences between the first century church and the papacy. An oak tree doesn't look like an acorn, it will be said, but the tree developed from that little seed. True enough. Oak trees do develop from acorns, and oak trees don't look like acorns, but when an appeal is made to development to explain this difference, the DNA connection must be established. Under the right conditions an acorn will grow into an oak tree. But acorns don't grow into elephants, and what we find in the late Middle Ages is an elephant. Be that as it may, how did we get to the point of having an elephant that claims to have developed from an acorn? How did we get to the late medieval papacy?
There are a number of inter-related factors involved, but one of the most important of the factors that moved the church in Rome from the point of being one local first-century collection of house churches among many others to being the seat of an institution so corrupt that many considered it to be the throne of Antichrist was the church’s relation to the secular powers. When the leaders of the church in Rome remained just that, namely leaders of the church, we still find much that is good there. The writings of some of the early bishops of Rome are often as theologically rich as the writings of other early church fathers. The bishop Leo, for example, was instrumental in dealing with the heresy of Eutychianism, and the Council if Chalcedon points readers to one of his letters (along with several letters by Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria) as the place to go for a full exposition of biblical Christology.
Over the centuries, however, various events occurred that eventually led to the bishops of Rome becoming secular rulers as well as being spiritual leaders of the church of Rome. The sacking of Rome by the barbarians, the political infighting of various emperors, the rise of Islam, and more created a dynamic in which the bishops of Rome found themselves willingly pulled. The way they dealt with it is the problem. By the time we reach the late Middle Ages, the bishop of Rome is one of many secular Italian princes with his own little secular kingdom to oversee. There is a constant battle between the Pope and secular rulers for secular political power. The forged Donation of Constantine is a part of that story since it was used by the papacy in its claims for political power.
For centuries, the desire to gain secular political power and the desire to keep it gradually and thoroughly corrupted the church of Rome. That desire to gain and retain political power at any cost inevitably led the papacy to what such desire always leads: the compromise of principle. That is what "at any cost" entails. Over the centuries, that compromise of principle led the Roman Catholic Church to the levels of theological, ecclesiastical, and ethical corruption that necessitated the Protestant Reformation.
The history of the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church is important because American evangelicalism has stolen a page out of the playbook of the medieval papacy in the way that it has so prioritized secular political power that it too has become willing to compromise the most basic biblical principles in the name of pragmatism and power. The result of this power at any cost mentality has always been the same, and it is always going to be the same – ecclesiastical, ethical, and theological corruption. Its lust for secular power led the church of Rome to become so corrupt that the Pope began to be identified by some as the Antichrist.
Speaking of the antichrist, American evangelicals ought to pray fervently that the antichrist never runs for a high political office in the United States. Why? Because if the antichrist himself ran, professed to be a political conservative, and promised Christians certain kinds of appointees and legislation, many evangelicals in their lust for secular political power at any cost would line up in droves to get his name tattooed on their foreheads or right hands. At the very least, they would purchase a bumper sticker and loudly criticize any Christian who refused to support the antichrist. And before anyone asks, this is not primarily related to Trump or Obama or Bush or Biden. This attitude has existed within American evangelicalism for decades. It has been a common result of the conflating of Christianity with American civil religion.
Historically, the prioritization of political power at any cost by professing Christians has always led to a compromise of biblical principles The lust among the bishops of Rome for secular political power corrupted the church of Rome to the point that it mutated into the papacy. The church of Rome has never recovered and regained its original biblical principles. The lust among American evangelicals for secular political power regardless of the cost will corrupt and kill our churches just as it corrupted and killed the church in Rome.
Look around at American evangelicalism. In its fear-based desire to capture political power at any cost, it has compromised some of the most basic principles of the Christian faith. In setting Jesus to the side, in rejecting and sometimes even mocking what He taught us, in prioritizing a secular political message over the message of the Gospel (Gal. 1:9), American evangelicalism, like the medieval papacy, has become Christian in name only.
If you are a Christian, you have been transferred into the Kingdom of Jesus Christ and are His subjects (Col. 1:13). You are citizens of His kingdom (Phil. 3:20). Just as Paul was first and foremost a citizen of Christ's kingdom while also being a citizen of the earthly kingdom of Rome (Acts 22:25–27), we are first and foremost citizens of Christ's kingdom while also being citizens of various earthly "kingdoms." So, wherever your secondary citizenship is (1 Pet. 2:11), pray for the peace of that city, but never forget who your true king is, and never forget that it profits nothing to gain the whole world (including all of its political power) if in doing so you forfeit your soul.
UPDATE: May 11, 2021
To clarify, I am not objecting to political engagement and seeking the common good (biblically defined) of our earthly nations in whatever way our earthly citizenship allows. My issue is with evangelicals falling into the same trap that the medieval Roman church leadership fell into, namely prioritizing the gaining of secular political power at any cost. It's the "at any cost" that is the problem, It caused the Roman church leadership to compromise biblical principles and become thoroughly corrupt. The results will be the same with American evangelicalism if we follow the same "at any cost" attitude toward political power. The result will be thoroughgoing corruption.
Perhaps I could have been clearer on that point in the original post (This was why I kept using the phrase "at any cost"), but it's the fear-driven compromise of biblical standards that concerns me. It always corrupts. There is something askew in the way evangelicals have conflated biblical Christianity with American civil religion over the last 50 or 60 years.
I'm not objecting to political engagement or addressing sin in the culture or voting, etc. I am ONLY concerned when we do anything that compromises the ultimate lordship of Jesus Christ and leans heavily toward any kind of idolatry. That is what an insatiable lust for secular political power at any cost always does. It compromises key biblical principles.
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