Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus? [Questioning faith #7]

Ted Grimsrud—November 21, 2022

From the time I made a commitment to Christian pacifism in the mid-1970s, I have believed that Jesus and the Bible as a whole support that commitment. In the years since, I have learned a lot more about how this “support” is complicated and at time ambiguous. However, I still believe that the general message of the Bible and more clearly the message of Jesus obviously point toward peace, compassion, care for the vulnerable, and what we now refer to as restorative justice—even if some may quibble about whether it explicitly teaches pacifism.

A few years after my turn toward peaceable Christianity, my wife Kathleen and I spent a year at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. We gained a terrific foundation there of biblical peace theology, especially from Old Testament professor Millard Lind and New Testament professor Willard Swartley. I have preached through much of the Bible in the 40 years since attending AMBS, each year during my 20-year teaching career at Eastern Mennonite University I taught a class called “Biblical Theology of Peace and Justice,” and I have written several books on peace based on the Bible. I feel quite established in my sense that the Bible (especially, but not only, Jesus) gives us a strong message of peace.

The difference between the Bible and Christian practice

So, that leads to the obvious question. What happened to Christianity? The history of Christianity is a history full of wars and militarism, conquest and domination, crusades and the embrace of empire. One statistical piece of evidence comes from the United States. In 1940, after several years of intense lobbying by peace advocates, the legislation passed to begin a military draft included allowance for pacifists to be exempt from joining the military. So, this proved to be kind of a test case.

From my analysis, I would estimate that about one out of 1,000 American Christians chose the conscientious objector route. For the vast majority of the young men who were drafted, the option to be a CO—and the sense that Jesus would support such a stance—seemingly never even entered the realm of possibility. Not only have Christians around the world almost always supported their nations’ wars, even when they would be fighting other Christians, it actually seems to be the case at least in the United States that Christians are more likely than non-Christians to support wars and preparation for wars. It doesn’t seem farfetched to call Christianity a pro-war religion—the opposite of Jesus’s message.

So, again, the question: Why the transformation? This is a question that has interested me for a long time, but I have never devoted serious attention to it. I have come up with a preliminary list, though, of what seem to be key elements of the evolution away from Jesus’s teaching.

Was early Christianity self-consciously pacifist?

Let me say first, though, that I do suspect that it may be most accurate to start with a sense that early Christianity was never the self-consciously pacifist community that some have suggested. We have very little clear evidence from the first couple of centuries of Christianity, and the evidence we do have may be interpreted in various ways. The Bible itself, when read as a whole, gives us more a picture of a community in constant travail over issues of justice and peace. Just as Jesus himself was condemned to execution by the leaders of his faith community, so earlier prophets of justice were marginalized and worse. Those who followed immediately after Jesus, most obviously Paul and John of Patmos, were also minority voices among Christians and generally in conflict due to their teachings.

The history of Christianity since, say, the fourth century, might not be that much different from the biblical faith community. We do continually have witnesses to a strong message of peace, but peace advocates have been treated with hostility by the leaders of the faith communities. This has not been much different than how biblical prophets, including Jesus, were treated. I would say, then, that my question is not so much about why Christianity as a whole has changed in relation to Jesus’s peaceable message but more about why Christianity is so much different from what Jesus taught—and why it perhaps always has been. Again, this would be a similar question to what we could ask of the biblical story itself: Why was the faith community of ancient Israel and earliest Christianity so inhospitable to the message of the prophets?

The key reason for the distance?

In what follows, I will focus mainly on the history of Christianity and discuss five different moves that Christians have made since Jesus’s time that have distanced the faith from Jesus’s own message. I am confident that we could apply this analysis to the biblical story and find many parallels with the biblical faith communities.

The first, and I suspect most important, move had to do with the Christian churches developing a positive relationship with the Roman Empire. This was a gradual change that in a key sense culminated with the Emperor Constantine’s efforts to connect with the churches in the early part of the 4th century. One indication of the change may be seen in the transformation from the beginning of the 4th century when Christians were considered ineligible for military service to the end of that century when only Christians were allowed in the military.

If we read the Bible in light of the Constantinian arrangement, we will note that the tension represented by the relationship was present throughout the biblical story. The story begins with the conflict between Egypt’s Pharaoh and the enslaved Hebrews. The story establishes that from the beginning empire is the enemy of a faithful relationship with Yahweh. Early on, though, we also read of some Hebrew people being disenchanted with the demands of a Yahweh-centered life and expressing longing for a return to Egypt. The move by the Hebrew elders to seek to have a human king in order to be li9ke the nations is characterized in 1 Samuel 8 as an act of disrespect toward God—and as a decisive move back toward the problems of being under the empire’s thumb. From that point on, the desire to be in a positive relationship with the ways of empire characterized many of the kings and other leaders in the community.

Jesus’s teachings and practices emphasized the incompatibility of his hopes for a politics of compassion with the tyrannical politics of empire (both the Roman Empire and the empire-like practices of his faith community). This incompatibility was underscored when the Roman Empire acted decisively to end Jesus’s life with its vicious and humiliating form of execution. The gospels indicate, though, that even among Jesus’s closest followers, the temptation to organize themselves with empire-like hierarchies was all too present.

This tension between the ways of the empire and the values and practices of Christian communities is a major theme in the final book of the New Testament. We have to look for it, but when we do we see numerous allusions to the desire for a harmonious relationship with the empire on the part of many in the churches of Revelation. The author of the book, John, expresses vehemently his opposition to such a quest for harmony. For John, the Roman Empire is symbolized as being the agent of Satan—the direct agent for the murder of Jesus and the other prophets (18:24).

It is hard to say how deeply and widely Jesus’s antipathy toward the empire characterized the Christianity of the first several centuries. Clearly, though, by the time of Constantine, most of the leaders of the churches were more than willing to accept the emperor’s embrace and subsequent domination over the churches with little resistance. This acceptance came to be the default position for Christianity since the 4th century—witnessed by the morality of what we could call “the blank check” concerning warfare where the vast majority of Christians have done exactly what their respective governments have asked of them concerning war participation.

More moves away from Jesus’s message

I will mention only briefly four other “moves” away from the message of Jesus that many Christians have made over the years.

  1. God as Other. The biblical picture of God emphasizes God’s engagement with the creation. There is a sense that this God is transcendent, one who acts “from the outside” as it were. However, God made what is, infused it with God’s Spirit, and continues to be involved with it—most directly in the loving witness of Jesus. By the time of the great creeds and confessions beginning in the fourth century, the picture of God more presents God as separate, as the Other. This God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and autonomous. The relationship between convictions about Jesus and about God become focused more on Jesus’s godness and less on God’s humanness. As well, the “perfect” God is characterized by an abhorrence of humanity’s sinfulness.
  2. Original sin. The biblical picture of humanity emphasizes that we are created good, in God’s image, and capable of relating creatively with God and with each other. The story tells of brokenness in the relationship, but the premise both of Torah and the teaching of Jesus is that human beings can understand and respond faithfully to God’s expectations—albeit always only partially faithfully. Again, key changes are apparent by the fourth century with the emergence of the doctrine of original sin that emphasizes the idea that human beings actually inherit our sinfulness at birth. And we are severely limited in our potential to transcend the negative impact of that inheritance.
  3. Satisfaction atonement. In face of this seemingly hopeless problem—the perfection of God and the profound sinful imperfection of human beings—how could salvation be possible? In time, a theological answer to this dilemma was provided by the doctrine of the satisfaction atonement, where Jesus’s death provides a necessary sacrifice that satisfies God’s need for payment for the debt that humanity has to God. Only this sacrifice can make God’s forgiveness of sin possible. This theology has the impact of reinforcing the sense that punitive violence is a core part of the character of God. It also has the impact of minimizing both Jesus’s message of God’s merciful embrace of human beings in our frailty and brokenness and Jesus’s call to imitate his suffering love.
  4. Inert nature. The sense of God as Other seems to have helped set the stage for the more modern sensibility that the natural world is profoundly separate from humanity, that humans may treat nature as something to be dominated and exploited, and that nature itself is spiritless. Jesus can be understood as embodying a theology of God as creator who loves and is present in the natural world.

These five points all seem to interconnect. Certainly, we must recognize many other influential factors that diminish the impact of the message of Jesus on the Christian religion over the generations. However, consideration of the moves I have mentioned here surely will be necessary is we want to restore the biblical vision as central to our faith.

Questioning Faith blog series

8 thoughts on “Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus? [Questioning faith #7]

  1. I wonder if another factor that has played no small part in distancing Christians from the message of Jesus is simply the overwhelming power of the two-fold message that lies at the heart of empire, namely that (i) my group is the most righteous and (ii) might is right. Indeed, the human psyche seems to be innately vulnerable to the attractions of this message, so that it takes very high levels of awareness, commitment and inner strength to be able to resist it and live in a counter-cultural way.

    1. Good point, Rob. I guess the points I made help explain why it is so difficult for Christians to sustain the “very high levels of awareness, commitment and inner strength” that would be needed to resist the messages of empire.

  2. Glad you’re posing this question. Lots good in the post I could respond to. I’ll have to remain brief… if I can!

    Such a question brings up just how much of that “fallen” (flawed) nature we have makes deep spiritual commitment difficult. That’s on an individual level first. Then layer on how we behave in groups and groups form into institutions and build up cultures, and it gets very complex.

    I think we who are primarily looking at biblical history and literature, and the derived theology can learn a lot from other points of focus such as cultural anthropology and those few biblical scholars who are well versed in both, or anthropologists who focus on ritual and religion within given cultures, comparatively.

    Tho I’ve not read him directly, I think Rene Girard is a good example. Perhaps you’re familiar with him, especially his work on the social functions of scapegoating.

    Two others would be the late Jonathan Z Smith and his sometime-partner, Burton Mack. One of Mack’s lesser-known works is a full development of “social interest theory” in religion. Very insightful for understanding the development of religions and sects.

    Another 2021 pertinent resource I know you’d find helpful, if not yet read, is “After Jesus Before Christianity” by the Westar Institute, collating the work of several major scholars on the first two centuries CE. It addresses some of the same issues you raise here.

  3. Thanks Ted! Two brief reflections that connect with your question/quest for when, how, why Christians claim to follow/worship/obey Jesus yet persist in living counter-Christ (my words and way of phrasing the “problem”). One, Wes Howard Brook brilliantly and systematically traces the entire biblical trajectory and beyond through second century Christian history in two books showing God’s Way of creating people with free will to choose God or Empire. Self-proclaimed Christians persistently chose/choose Empire over God. Wes’ two books are Come Out My People: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond (Orbis Books: 2010) and Empire Baptized: How the Church Embraced What Jesus Rejected (Orbis Books, 2016). Second: the entire Christian colonial domination project since the 15th century was/is grounded in the Doctrine of Discovery, reaching its zenith in American exceptionalism and entitlement, is rooted in the choice for Empire as god over God.

    1. Thanks, Weldon. Those books sound real interesting. In relation to my comments above re. the importance of culture and “intercultural/international” relations, does he deal in depth with this, historically?

      Israel’s geographical and geopolitical position plays heavily into its religious development and self-designation (to me) and God’s Chosen People. It is this very concept, even if prompted more by survival than dominance, that I imagine led pretty directly to apocalypticism, of both radical/violent sorts and more passive sorts. This, in turn, has influenced domination concepts and probably the Discovery Doctrine.

      1. Howard, I don’t remember how much Wes deals with culture/intercultural matters. I strongly encourage you to read both books in sequence. Full disclosure: Wes is a dear friend and I was his pastor for over a decade at Seattle Mennonite until I retired at the end of November 2013. Wes is also a brilliant scholar with a fascinating story, grew up as a Jew, became Christian then Catholic then Mennonite, became a lawyer in Wash DC for a Senate committee, then for Wash state Attorney General’s office, taught religion and Bible for years at Seattle University (Jesuit), recently retired but producing multiple YouTube videos on his bible work. Go to YouTube and search for Radical Bible and Wes Howard-Brook.

    2. Thanks again, Weldon (I’m not sure just where this will get placed, as I’m not getting a reply option under your last reply). I have interest in Wes’s books, but am behind on both Ted’s, Walter Wink’s (per Ted, particularly but not exclusively) and others! And little free time.

      What time I can for 5 years now, I’ve tried to support/advance the currently-crucial movement toward gaining traction for principles and processes of “deliberative democracy”, via several mechanisms.

      Examples are civil dialogs (“across difference”, esp., including intrafaith and interfaith), collaboration among orgs with closely related missions on creating wiser democracy, advancing the common good, and such.

      Finally, as there’s broad agreement that polarization is out of control, there are hopeful signs. One is the Forward Party, as a transpartisan effort with doable plans using proven improvements on our current systems without removing most of them… prime examples there being ranked-choice voting and open primaries.

      You can imagine how this would consume my time (especially as retirement age but unable to retire, and not yet being paid anything for the above).

      I’m glad to have made your acquaintance (if I hadn’t earlier)!

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