To Whom Shall We Sacrifice?
In the early church, the essence of Christianity was uncompromising obedience to Christ. That’s it. It takes no theologian to realize that.
That’s why human magistrates were so often struck with the obstinacy of Christians. These civil authorities understood citizenship in terms of unquestioning obedience to the state and its laws. This included not merely living orderly lives but veneration of the emperor himself as a public act of allegiance to the state.
The early Christians rejected all this. To agree to sacrifice to Caesar meant false allegiance to Christ. To refuse to sacrifice was to “confess” Christ. (Remember: The “public profession of faith” in the early church was not raising a hand or signing a pledge card or “going forward” but baptism, that singular event at which a new believer pledged his or her allegiance to Christ by uttering the words “Jesus is Lord”). In other words, the church rejected any possible compromise with the Caesar cult.
The ensuing confrontation between church and state was inevitable. Christianity was considered a source of “superstition” – a capital offense – while its closed meetings were view with deep mistrust. Both Nero and Domitian demanded worship during their lifetimes by everyone – Christians included. For these demands the believers had a ready response. When God-given authority was transgressed and Christians were confronted with a choice between obedience to civil authority and the commandments of God, it was “for us to obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29). To capitulate to the unjust demands of civil government was tantamount to blasphemy (this is how the church read the book of Revelation, chapter 13). As Tertullian summarized it, “As the divine and human are ever opposed to each other, when we are condemned by you, we are acquitted by the Highest.”
One might argue that the church in modern America, like the church in Nazi Germany, has failed to understand any of this. An authentic, biblical doctrine of church and state is sorely lacking today both among the masses of evangelical Christians as well as among our theological elites. Like the early believers, we need Christians today who will refuse to compromise their biblical faith when confronted with emperor or empire worship in whatever modern guise it may appear.
The church of today has two complementary responsibilities, as I see it. On the one hand, it must say no to the state whenever the occasion demands it; and on the other hand it must create conditions within the state under which the need to say no would never arise. The first is the duty of every believer individually; the second is a corporate duty of the church at large. This would mean, for example, that I could never vote for an individual who supported murder (abortion) since the latter is a clear violation of the law of God. But it would also mean that I could never support a political party that tolerated the taking of innocent lives.
It was Kierkegaard who said that where everyone is a Christian, no one is. Our culture is desperate for Christians to be the church. I often wonder what redemptive effect the church would have on the social order in the United States if it lived up to its calling. Whatever else may be said about the evangelical church in America, it most certainly cannot be described as offering its exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ.
September 21, 2004
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com. His latest book is Why I Stopped Listening to Rush: Confessions of a Recovering Neocon.