Why Institutions Matter – Pt. 4

Michael Metzger

Believers are called to love their neighbors. Loving others means willing their wellbeing. Willing the wellbeing of others is shalom. Shalom is at the root of our faith. Yet many modern faith communities don’t see the Cultural Mandate, shalom, and central institutions as being at the root of their mission. That’s an incorrect understanding of the church.

The Early Church and Central Institutions
Some believers have the unfortunate impression that the Cultural Mandate, shalom, and central institutions are only taught in the Old Testament and only applied to the Jews. This is wrong. The early church pursued shalom. The church worked mostly in central institutions and rarely on the periphery. It wasn’t until ideologists in the 1800s misrepresented the history of the early church that this important legacy was lost.

In the 1800s, writers such as Karl Marx sought to diminish the historic influence of the early church. They portrayed the church as primarily constituting the poor and disenfranchised. This view “was popularized over the last several hundred years by Friedrich Engels, claiming that Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: it first appeared as the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of people subjugated or dispersed by Rome.” But it’s an inaccurate rendering of history. “Far from being a socially depressed group, then… the Christians were dominated by a socially pretentious section of the population of big cities. Beyond that, they seem to have drawn on… the household dependents of leading members.” The results from pursuing shalom through central institutions were striking.

Tertullian, for example, could brag to the Romans of the 3rd century that the church had filled and formed “every place among you – cities, islands, fortresses, towns, marketplaces, the very camp, tribes, companies, palace, senate, forum – we have left you nothing but your temples.” This is why, according to historian Wayne Meeks, the early church focused on center institutions and institutional leaders who congregated in cities of the ancient world. “The cities were where the power was. They were also the places where change could occur.” Meeks says this is why Paul self-identified as a city person.

Paul’s world consisted, practically speaking, only of the cities of the Roman Empire – which is why he could say to the Christians in Rome: “From Jerusalem and as far as Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ” (Rom. 15:19-23). In Athens, Paul engaged the city’s leaders on the Aeropagus (Acts 17). In the Book of Acts, Luke noted that the first recorded convert on Cyprus was the Governor. Meeks points out that Erastus, Corinth’s city treasurer, was a member of the Corinthian church. Christians were also among the aristocracy in Rome, including Senators. These influential leaders shaped the institutions that shaped Roman life. In 300 years, 50 percent of the Roman Empire had converted. The means, however, weren’t simply conversion and church planting – it was shalom through center institutions.

The church did care for those on the periphery. But the periphery is not where the church focused its efforts. “The power of Christianity lay not in its promise of otherworldly compensations for suffering in this life, as has so often been proposed,” Rodney Stark writes. “No, the crucial change that took place in the third century was the rapidly spreading awareness of a faith that delivered potent antidotes to life’s miseries here and now! The truly revolutionary aspect of Christianity lay in its moral imperatives such as “Love one’s neighbor as oneself.” Shalom.

Many modern faith communities know little of this legacy. “What is certain is that there is no room for the later romantic myth of Christians as a perpetually hounded minority, literally driven underground by unremitting persecution,” historian Peter Brown notes. “Nor is there much more truth to the modern myth that presents the advancement of Christianity as the rise of a religion of the under-privileged.” Brown goes on:

The third century, indeed, was an age of surprising Christians, of whom the emperor Constantine was only the last. Marcia, the influential concubine of the emperor Commodus had been a Christian and a protector of the bishops of Rome. Bardaisan was both a courier and a Christian. His king, Abgar VIII of Osrhoene, was believed to have been a “pious man,” even a “believer.” Julius Africanus, a Greek polymath from Palestine, was a Christian. He visited Bardaisan, wrote to the great Christian theologian, Origen of Alexandria, and then went to Rome to help the emperor to set up a library in the Panthenon. Newly discovered inscriptions show a more lasting phenomenon: a Christian gentry already established in Asia Minor. In the Upper Tembris valley, (southwest of Ankara, Turkey) gentlemen-farmers, complete with plough-teams, and wives bearing the covenantal woman’s distaff, speak of themselves, on large gravestones, as “Christians for Christians.”

If faith communities are going to promote shalom, then they must focus on the individuals, networks, and institutions most critically involved in the production of a culture, those operating in the “center” where prestige and the potential for influence is the highest; not on the periphery, where status and significance is low. One cultural analyst reminds us, “It is sometimes true that political revolutions and economic revolts occur from the bottom up, but on their own terms, they are almost always short-lived.” If the outcome is loving our neighbor through shalom, which means making culture for human flourishing, the most productive strategy is getting institutions closest to the center to take our definition of reality seriously and act on it. We should be actively engaged in equipping and encouraging individuals with the ability and opportunity for access to these center institutions. These are the best leverage points for shalom.

So how would a modern-day faith community bring about shalom? That’s Part Five of The Clapham Institute Manifesto, “Why Institutions Matter” – published next Monday.

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4 thoughts on “Why Institutions Matter – Pt. 4”

  1. What say ye regarding the American Christians being perceived as in bed with the Republican Party. The mix of religious and political power so often breeds contempt and suspicion. Is this where the church should be operating?

    (Os Guinness – “The Case for Civility”)

    Certainly, the Church should be making culture. YES! How does that happen apart for political co-opting?

  2. Politics is primarily about laws and legislation. The power of coercion. Culture is about framing the habits of the heart. It is a completely different game.

    For nearly twenty-five years, evangelicals have been politically active. Large sums of money have been raised. Political PACs and think tanks have been formed. Elections have been won — even as far as the White House. Nonetheless, American cultural life has continued to decline over the same period. What was considered scandalous when aging Boomers were in college is now regular programming on family TV. We have not been effective in influencing culture.

    It is wise to know the trump suit, when playing a game of cards. If you think you are playing Hearts, when you are actually playing Spades, you’ll soon find that you are holding a losing hand. The game determines what is trump. Cultural change requires changing minds and hearts. It cannot be forced. It involves shaping the stories and images that powerfully influence the way we perceive reality.

  3. Aside from John making a powerful point about churches politicizing the culture-making process, the church has also institutionalized an underdog approach to culture. That was my main point. We actually take it for granted that we’ve always been on the “outside” when it comes to shaping culture – that the church has always been primarily about helping the disenfranchised and dispossessed. We are called to help the poor. But the disenfranchised aura of today’s church accounts for much of the emphasis on the poor – they are the only ones looking to us for help. Such a solo emphasis allows many churches to ignore their obligations to make culture with culture-makers as well as the poor.

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