Subversive Gospel | The Voice 13.06: February 05, 2023

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The Voice

The Subversive Gospel

The Good News of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return has turned the world upside down. Many of the kingdoms of this world can no longer merely ignore or seek to suppress its message and those who live according to Him; now they must try to find ways of rationalizing their behavior in light of the Gospel.

The Western world has experienced such rationalizations and compromises of the Gospel for the past 1700 years. Ever since Constantine raised the banner of the cross at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312, many of the governments of the nations were content to cultivate a form of Christianity amenable to them to domesticate and placate their citizens or subjects, and plenty of those who professed Jesus were willing to compromise aspects of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return to earn the government’s favor and to become the presumptive religion of the realm.

This “Constantinian compromise” marked the Western world from then until now; it inaugurated the world of “Christendom” and the pursuit of “Christian kingdoms” and “Christian nations.” Even in nations notionally established as representative republics or democracies maintain many citizens who remain ideologically wedded to a form of Constantinian Christendom, presuming or desiring a “Christian nation.” And yet the very premise maintains a “poison pill,” for the good news of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return remains subversive to all pretensions of the powers, principalities, governments, nation-states, just as it was before Constantine.

We can see the forces at work that attempt to accommodate the Gospel to reinforce an oppressive, unjust status quo or to establish an oppressive or unjust institution. We can also see how faithfulness to Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, lordship, and imminent return subverts such injustice and oppression with gender relations, slavery, and violence.

The political, economic, and social power of the Roman Empire in the first century CE depended on patriarchy and slavery, and the entire enterprise was obtained and maintained with violence. Jesus, the Apostles, and all of the early Christians lived under this regime, and most of them were among the heavily oppressed. To this end the Apostles bore witness to all people, rich and poor, male and female, free and enslaved, citizen and subject, to heed the message of what God had done in Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and lordship, and prepare for His return. They exhorted everyone to submit to the Lord Jesus and to His ways.

Many people in the modern world find the apostolic exhortations to women, children, and slaves highly problematic. Paul and Peter exhort wives to submit to their husbands and children to obey their parents in the Lord (Ephesians 5:23-6:1, 1 Peter 3:1-6). Slaves are exhorted to serve their masters faithfully and well, working as unto the Lord; Peter fully expected such slaves to be mistreated despite doing good, and encouraged them to bear it like Jesus bore His suffering (Ephesians 6:5-9, 1 Peter 2:18-25).

Ever since, many have viewed these apostolic messages as tacit or even explicit acceptance of patriarchy and slavery; Western history is littered with attempts to justify the superiority of men to women and of certain types of people over other people, thus giving rationalization for the former in their enslavement and exploitation of the latter.

Yet attempts to excuse or justify patriarchy or slavery based on these exhortations pervert the Gospel, for they have missed the subversive aspects of what God has done and proclaimed in Jesus. Paul and Peter did not merely exhort wives, children, and slaves; they also provided exhortations to husbands, fathers, and masters (often the same person!). Paul did expect wives to submit to their husbands as to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22), yet Paul expected husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, in a self-sacrificial way, and to nourish and cherish her as his own body, and considered this the means by which the husband would submit to the wife in reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21, 23-33). Peter well understood the power dynamics at play: he spoke of wives as the “weaker vessel” and thus expected husbands to dwell with them understanding as much and to show them honor as joint-heirs of the grace of life, having no less standing, value, dignity, or integrity before God than them (1 Peter 3:7). Children were called upon to obey their parents, but parents were called upon to not exasperate their children and to embody Jesus toward them faithfully (Ephesians 6:1-4); one can well argue such is how parents submit to their children in reverence toward Christ (Ephesians 5:21). Paul did not exhort slaves to be obedient to their masters, working as unto the Lord, in order to prop up such an exploitative, oppressive system; instead, Paul completely obliterated the justifications and rationalizations for the system by declaring the slave the Lord’s freedman, and the free man as the Lord’s slave (1 Corinthians 7:22). How can anyone say Paul supported slavery when he told Christians that none should become the slave of another (1 Corinthians 7:23)? Paul encouraged slaves who had an opportunity to gain their freedom to do so (1 Corinthians 7:21); he would leverage every rhetorical tool at his disposal to persuade Philemon to not only forgive and accept his runaway slave Onesimus, but to return him to Paul for the service of ministry (Philemon 1:1-25). Paul exhorted all Christian masters to treat their slaves well and to remember they had a Master in heaven (Ephesians 5:6-9); it would remain wise to understand how such would be how the master would subject himself to his slaves in reverence toward Christ (Ephesians 5:21).

The only way the Roman system could be sustained was with violence: violence toward slaves who did not comply or who revolted, violence toward those who would challenge and question Caesar’s power. The pax Romana came at the end of a sword; Jesus’ cross was one of many the Romans raised in restive parts of their empire to remind everyone who was boss. Western rulers have been enamored with the Roman empire and the power of the Caesars ever since, and many have attempted to establish a new “Roman Empire” as a new Caesar (or Kaiser, or Czar) with the prospect of violence throughout Europe or in other parts of the world.

But the Roman system of patriarchy, slavery, and violence would not be overcome with patriarchy, slavery, and violence; patriarchy, slavery, and violence have just begotten themselves. Instead, Jesus of Nazareth subverted the Roman system by suffering the violence without responding in kind, overcoming the powers and principalities over this present darkness (Colossians 2:15). In the Kingdom of Jesus the lowly would be lifted up and the arrogant would be brought low (Matthew 23:12, etc.). Faithful followers of Jesus would take up their crosses and follow the example of His life: they could not seek to be great or first as the Romans did, but instead would become the servant and slave of one another, and thus embody Jesus the Son of Man who did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

The Apostles proclaimed and embodied the message of Jesus. In Christ there would not be male or female, slave or free, barbarian or civilized, Jewish or Gentile, for in His death Jesus had made them all to be one body in Him (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). Such fundamental equality is rooted in the humility demanded of all believers, the confession how all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, all worthy of condemnation, all fully dependent on the grace and mercy of God displayed in Jesus the Christ (Ephesians 2:1-3:12, Titus 3:3-8). Christians thus receive love, grace, and mercy when they proved least worthy of any of it; thus they should treat others with love, grace, and mercy, even when such people would prove unworthy of it (Luke 6:27-36, Romans 5:6-11).

From the beginning the Gospel of Jesus has been proclaimed in unequal, patriarchal, oppressive, exploitative, and violent societies, and people have become faithful Christians in these societies. Yet none of them will be able to receive the commendation of the Lord Jesus if they justified and perpetuated inequality, patriarchy, oppression, slavery, and violence. Jesus called them to humbly love, care for, and submit to one another in reverence to Him (1 John 4:7-23). Patriarchy is rooted in the presumption men are superior to women; in Christ women are joint heirs of the grace of life with men, one with men, and men are called upon to submit to women in reverence to Jesus. The Gospel thus subverts patriarchy. Slavery has always been justified by degrading and dehumanizing the slave; in Christ the slave is to be reckoned as the Lord’s freedman, and every free person must submit to the Lord Jesus and consider themselves to be His slaves, just as Paul, Peter, James, and Jude did (Romans 1:1, James 1:1, 2 Peter 1:1, Jude 1:1). A Christian master is to love and care for his slaves and share table fellowship with Christians who are slaves; such teachings and practices subvert the systems upholding a slave society. In the modern world we could consider the same in terms of blue- and white-collar workers and the exploitative and oppressive systems of our own time.

The Roman Empire suffered all sorts of miseries and difficulties, and continually turned to state violence against the Christians which it believed undermined their existence. Early Christians did not retaliate with violence but bore witness to their faith. Despite the terrible slander and suffering Christians experienced, their numbers continued to increase throughout the Roman Empire on account of the witness they bore to the Kingdom of Jesus. Christianity reached the point at which Constantine could decide to co-opt it not by assimilating or accommodating themselves to the ways of the Roman Empire, but by subverting the pretenses, justifications, rationales, and animating force of the Roman Empire. We deeply lament how many have followed after Constantinian Christendom by compromising the Gospel witness to get ahold of power; such people have caused great grief to Jesus’ Kingdom by becoming the very kind of oppressors God subverted in Jesus. We do better to hold fast to what God has done in Christ and allow the Gospel message to subvert in us the ways of this world; we do best when we humbly love and serve one another out of reverence for Christ. When we do so, we give no quarter to the exploitative and oppressive power dynamics of this world. May we live as Christ so we might obtain the resurrection in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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