Here’s a question for which there is no simple answer, but which any Christian community will need to face up to: Why does any such community, which the Apostle Peter describes as aliens and exiles / pilgrims and strangers, need the official sanction of ‘the powers that be?’

Such a question has risen frequently in recent years as many college and university administrations have insisted that any Christian group seeking approval as a campus organization, and ability to use college facilities for its meetings must, therefore, conform themselves to the college’s guidelines that forbid discrimination, including discrimination against those belonging or holding office who are not confessing Christians. The problem comes that when you want the blessing of the college administration and the use of college meeting rooms . . . then you must play by their rules.

But, . . . does a colony of brothers and sisters in Christ need, or even want, the approval and official status of the powers? Do they need to meet in college-owned properties, or need sanction to advertise as an official campus organization? Certainly such prohibitions by campus powers are discriminatory in their own right, but then they are the existing authorities within the college, and they can make the rules. Taking the college to court in a lawsuit begs the question.

Christians, by their nature, are a counter-cultural bunch, and whole different order of humanity. They have their own authority and their own guiding lines. They have their own New Creation understanding and calling. Whenever they must submit to other authorities and guidelines, they have already forsaken something of their calling. (Do they even need to ‘own’ church property?)

The church, often in its times of greatest exponential growth has been an outlaw group. Such was the early church. The Roman Empire sought to exterminate the Christian church, seeking them out in their assemblies and persecuting them ruthlessly. Nevertheless, the church grew in mind-boggling ways. It was free to be flexible,even elastic, and to operate under radar, to avoid the principalities and power that would force them to adopt the authority of the state. This was the case for the first several centuries, . . . until the church was adopted by an emperor ostensibly converted to the Christian faith, and who made it the official religion of the Empire. But such adoption came at a tragic price: the church became captive to the empire. It was a trade-off: you Christians pray for the Empire, . . . and the Empire will take care of you and grant you all kinds of ‘perks.’

This has been termed: Christendom by some historians, i.e., the identity of the church and the Empire: “God save the queen!” or “God bless America!” To oppose the primacy of the empire would be to be unpatriotic, so the church is captive to the principalities and powers, even when the principalities and power are engaging in policies that are vastly unjust and inhumane, and in violation of the very teachings of Jesus.

Alas! . . . but the principalities and powers, the empire, has granted the Christian church all the ‘perks’ of tax exempt status on church giving and church property, and that makes the church vulnerable to the empire, and not being able to always be what it is called to be and to do, not always able to be light in the darkness.

Meanwhile, there are vibrant companies of Christians in many, many campus setting that do not need official sanction, and have found places to meet not subject to the secular guidelines of the campus authorities. Or, when the Cultural Revolution expropriated the church properties of the church in China, much of the church went underground and grew unimaginably, so much so that these several decades later the church in China is arguably the largest Christian church in the world. Occasional rumors leak out of a vibrant, though horribly persecuted Christian community in North Korea. That’s just a taste-whetter. The question is still: Does the Christian community need official sanction by the ‘authorities’ of this present age, or does its essence as the community of the Age to Come almost require it to avoid such? Controversial? You bet!

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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