Sociology of Christendom

gustave courbetThe Sociology of Christendomcross

By Rev. Dr. Brian M. Abshire

With the very title of this book, Restoring Christian Civilization, the authors are making an assumption; if something needs to be restored, it is implicitly assumed that it once existed, has subsequently fallen on hard times and now therefore must be rebuilt. And yet this assumption is often challenged by many evangelicals today. It has become fashionable in some circles to deny the very possibility of a Christian civilization; i.e., “The Bible gives us no blueprint for a Christian culture.” Others wonder whether even if possible, such a civilization is desirable. Pointing to the Inquisition, the Crusades, religious intolerance, bigotry, etc., some have said, “if this is Christian civilization, then I want nothing to do with it.” Hence, even in Christian academic circles, many question whether a Christian culture has ever existed, and even if it did, the dismal failures of the past ought to warn us of any attempt to try and build one again in the future.

The sins of the past are of course legitimate concerns but often such positions reflect not only a lack of a sound historical understanding of the growth of Christianity and its influence on society but as well a lack of clear definition of what we mean by the word “Christian.” A “Christian” civilization is sometimes defined in terms of utopian or millennial terms, rather than as a simple description of what our ancestors accomplished. Hence, anything less than the ideal becomes unacceptable. This is an example of the Donatist heresy, i.e., the quest for an unrealistic perfectionism and therefore denies the Biblical principle that the Kingdom grows incrementally. Of course all “Christian” cultures have been imperfect because all men are imperfect. But even the most cursory examination of history will demonstrate that Christian culture is ALWAYS an improvement over pagan ones. Is it not better to have something better than we already have, even if that something better is less than ideal? If a man was living in a card-board box, but knew that one day he would inherit a mansion, would he be justified in refusing to live in a 3 bed-room tract house because it wasn’t the ideal? And yet that appears to be the cause of some dissatisfaction among many about the efforts of Christians in the past; they see the failures, but do not recognize that even those failures were magnificent improvements over prior states.

Furthermore, since the social sciences have long been at enmity with the Christian faith, few Christian scholars are really equipped to handle the broader issues of what constitutes a culture, what forces shape and develop a culture and what role religious assumptions play in forming one. Having been educated in a hostile academic milieu there is often a genuine lack of understanding of the contributions Christianity has made to creating a safe, prosperous society. Some Christians act as if the blessings of liberty were just an accident of history, not understanding that if their spiritual ancestors in the faith had not done what they did, we would not enjoy the blessings that we have today (and are losing). Pietism and an unwavering faith that the end of the world is at hand has robbed many Christians of seeing the necessity of building a truly Christian civilization. Many appear to be quite happy looking for the second coming and simply exiting this life as soon as possible, with as little trouble as possible, not realizing that this very view destroys any future we might have.

For whether some may realize it or not, a “Christian” culture is an inevitable fact of life. Henry Van Til defined culture as “religion externalized;” i.e., the sum total of the religious presuppositions of a people worked out in every area of life. Therefore, a culture is the way that people live, the laws they pass, the values they hold, the institutions they build, etc., based upon how their religious assumptions control both the way they see the world, and how their values shape the use of their resources; etc. It can be scientifically verified that one’s basic beliefs about the nature of Creation invariably leads to forming value systems in harmony with those religious beliefs. What people value controls how they allocate resources, set priorities, make laws, educate their children, etc. For example in modern American culture, the two dominant values are personal peace and prosperity. Children are murdered in the womb, and this horrendous practice is lawful and morally acceptable to the majority of Americans, ONLY because the inconvenience of having children violates the “greater” values of personal peace and prosperity. This value system derives directly from a materialistic humanistic world view and “religious” faith in human autonomy. In other words, the modern American’s belief that he has a RIGHT to sexual “freedom” (i.e., sex without responsibility) exceeds the RIGHT of a baby to life. Therefore if a baby is created as a result of sexual irresponsibility, modern American culture gives mothers the RIGHT to murder him so that their personal peace and prosperity will not be interfered with.

Any group of people living and working together form a “culture.” In this sense, a “culture is a set of shared beliefs, morals, values and priorities. Therefore, Christians working out the implications of their religious beliefs will make a “Christian” culture. When Christianity is the dominant religion of a society (as has been true in the past), that society will reflect Christian values and beliefs. When Christians are in a minority, their religious beliefs will create either a counter-culture (as in the first century) or a “corner” culture (as we do today). A counter culture is one that is opposed to the dominant values and creates a successful alternative. A “corner” culture is one that exists within the mainstream social structure but has little direct influence on it. Christians value different things than Muslims, or Humanists or Hindus, etc., and these values will work out in how they use their time, money, spiritual energy, etc. This is inescapable.

The issue therefore is NOT whether we will have a Christian culture, but what sort? Different kinds of Christians will make different kinds of cultures. In the past, European civilization was coterminous with Christian civilization; imperfect, inadequate and legitimately subject to criticism. But it was still a Christian civilization all the same. Since not all Christian groups share the exact same religious presuppositions, variations in doctrine will lead to different values and subsequently different cultures. Roman Catholicism has one set of religious beliefs, Eastern Orthodoxy another, modern American Evangelicalism still a third. Granted all three groups share some things in common, but the differences will lead to various definitions of what a “Christian” civilization ought to be like.

Therefore it is helpful to discriminate between “Christian” civilization and “Biblical” civilization; i.e., that there is an ideal model revealed in the Scriptures that represent God’s will for social norms. It is this ideal to which we all aspire; regardless of whether it be the “natural law” of Romanism, “hope for heaven someday” pietistic evangelicalism, the “purity of the church is all we can get” Amillennialist, or the “eat, meet, and retreat” Fundamentalist. Granted, this side of eternity, we will all fall short and all forms of Christian cultures will also fall short (death continues even in the millennium), but still there is an objective standard by which we can evaluate the past and prepare for the future. Hence we can study our history to see how various attempts at Christian civilization were constructed, what went wrong with them so that we can avoid those errors in the future (and in the meantime, no doubt making errors of our own).

For the purposes of discussion, we define a “Biblical” civilization as one wherein a culture derives its core beliefs and values from a consistent understanding and application of the Scriptures. As noted in previous chapters, the failure of Christian civilization in the past can be traced in part, to a lack of a consistent Biblical world view applied to every area of life. As will be demonstrated below, there are also other, more subtle influences from the culture surrounding us that has also influenced how we read the Scriptures, understood them and then applied them. In Western culture today, we have both a mixture of some remnants of Biblical values, one hundred years of materialistic humanism with an ever increasing degree of neo-paganism. But as and will be demonstrated, many “Christian” cultures in the past also mixed Biblical and non-Biblical systems together sowing the seeds of their own dissolution and the subsequent revival as Christians developed a more consistently Biblical world view. Postmillennialists believe that eventually, like leaven, Biblical culture will rise up and permeate the entire society, affecting every area and subduing all to Christ. But if the Church does not preach and teach a consistently Scriptural world view, then, like a little boy poking his finger into rising bread dough, we can collapse the leavening effect for some time.

A consistently Biblical world view affects not just social institutions such as the family, but extends down even to the smallest details. Take for example, the chop-stick. Western people use knives and forks, while many Eastern people use chopsticks. Is there any significance to this difference? Is this just a quaint custom or is there something deeper at work here? Would a Christian culture use chopsticks? In the past, Christian missionaries were ridiculed and attacked for “cultural imperialism” when they introduced Western styles of clothing, worship, etc. In many respects they were trying to implement Western cultural values because they saw those values as intrinsic to Christianity. Were they simply naieve?

It can be shown that as times go on, cultures become increasingly consistent with their religious beliefs. God will not be mocked. Romans 1:18ff clearly says that nations that do not worship the one true God will suffer inevitable social disorder and collapse. Therefore, religious presuppositions will eventually lead to social consequences even in the smallest details of life. Regardless of whether or not one enjoys using chopsticks, there is a religious reason why they became a national custom. Chopsticks are used because the cultures which developed them were mineral poor and could not afford to waste precious mineral resources for eating utensils when those same materials were needed for weapons or more essential tools for survival. Now one might then argue that this is an accident of history and geography (and there are certainly environmental influences at work here). But more to the point is that often natural resources place a more limited role than many environmental determinists believe since it is not just whether resources are available, but what people do with them. Many societies were mineral poor was because their religious presuppositions did not allow them to develop and subdue the creation. Science and technology are unique products of a Christian world view. The Chinese discovered both the printing press and gunpowder hundreds of years before the West but their religious presuppositions (mostly Taoism) did not give them an intellectual basis to exploit their own discoveries. It remained for Christianized Western culture to transform gunpowder from a toy into a tool and printing from an artistic curiosity into a publishing industry. The invention was not as important as the ability to utilize and develop it. The essence of Eastern religion is that the material world is an illusion, and nirvana is reached by denying the material world (as in Hinduism and Buddhism). Therefore there is no incentive to exercise dominion over the creation, because it’s not really there! In the same way, Taoism teaches that contentment and fulfillment is found in NOT resisting the material world, but in going along with it. Again, therefore there is no mechanism to develop resources and take dominion over the earth. Hence neither Chinese nor Indian culture were ever were able to exploit the resources God gave them in creation because their religious presuppositions acted against it. It is interesting that many modern Westerners want to embrace some form of Eastern religion or philosophy, never stopping to think that if they were successful, they would only build the exact same kind of cultures that exist in India or China! (Neither nation is over-populated, but badly managed. Britain has a higher population density than India and few of her natural resources, but nobody starves in Britain, and Britain once ruled India as a colony!).

Oil in the Middle East would have stayed in the ground if Western technicians had not established a market for it, discovered it, drilled for it, set up refineries for it etc. Africa is mineral rich, but poverty stricken, because the values that derive from their pagan world view (now seasoned with a good dose of Marxism) does not reward hard, diligent labor, long term focus, thrift, responsible living, sexual morality, etc. So even in such an innocent case as “chopsticks,” ultimately, religious beliefs are at the bottom of a cultural practice. Now granted, whether one uses chopsticks or forks is of little consequence in terms of eternity. Anyone who has gone camping has probably used twigs and sticks to hold food over a camp-fire. There is certainly nothing innately immoral with using chopsticks. But they are a symbol of poverty, caused by a non-Biblical world view. Knives and forks are more efficient than chopsticks; you cannot eat a steak with chopsticks. But then again, in pagan cultures steak is not a normal part of the menu because they are POOR! However, if people obey God and become blessed by Him, they eat steak, and they have enough wealth to create something more than sticks to eat with.

Now going back to our first point, just what IS this Biblical culture to which we all aspire and by which we judge and evaluate all other cultures? Well, that is the issue. Some are willing to offer a comprehensive answer right now, others are more hesitant. Over the past thirty years, Van Til, Rushdoony, et. al., have done the preliminary work by demonstrating the need for a truly Biblical philosophy that does not compromise with humanist presuppositions and of the necessity of Biblical Law. Yet, most scholars in this field are willing to admit that we have only laid down the basic foundation of where we ought to begin Hence there is considerable disagreement on what Biblical laws apply and how they apply. These debates will undoubtedly continue for quite some time; wisdom is incremental. The kind of social superstructure we build on this foundation will take generations to work out. But at least now we have identified crucial missing ingredients in previous attempts. But undoubtedly all these great men have made some mistakes somewhere. But that’s OK, we have time. We can all learn from them, make mistakes of our own, and hopefully, our children will learn from ours. Hence “Restoring Christian Civilization” is a first attempt to lay out a description of what a truly, Biblical culture would look like based upon both the experience of the past and consistent extrapolations of the universal principles of Biblical Law applied to social structures.

In conclusion, we once did have a “Christian” civilization though it wasn’t necessarily a Biblical one. There is a difference between the two. For the past two thousand years, Christians have been struggling with how to integrate a truly consistent Biblical worldview into the way that we do things. Sometimes we have succeeded, sometimes we have failed. In this section we will be primarily be analyzing the sociology of Christendom looking at how factors outside of the church have influenced not only our perception of the faith, but our practice of it. This analysis is crucial especially in contrast with those Christians who paint the past with a large brush called “Christianity” wherein the past is glorified and its failures glossed over. There is more than a little nostalgia present when Christians talk or write about the past; e.g., broad evangelicals often demonstrate a passionate fantasy about life in the 1950s. Comparing the innocence, family values and morality of previous generations with the cynicism, immorality and vice of modern programming, many broad evangelicals wistfully wish for a return to “the good old days.” But there is no going back. There can be no return to innocence, once innocence is lost. We can learn however what went wrong in the past, and strive by God’s grace to make sure it does not happen again in the future.

Up until this point in time ALL Christian cultures have compromised somewhere with pagan ideas leading to social problems. Furthermore, the very ideas themselves are often shaped by cultural and environmental forces, forces that must be understood. Hence, in this next section, it is our goal to understand the sociology of Christendom, how various Christian societies were built and why they failed, specifically looking at the effects that the culture had on us, as well as the effects we had on culture.

The Schizophrenic Presuppositions of Modernismearth

 The world is the way it is because that is how God designed it to be. Men may rail against it, they may create myths or false religions to explain it, they may confuse and distort the evidence about it, but they cannot change it because it is indelibly stamped with the image of the God Who created it. Psalm 119: 1ff., is clear that everything in Creation was designed by God to reflect his glory. Every rock and tree, every blade of grass, every atom or molecule exists only by the prevenient grace of God and reflects something of His person, nature and purpose.

Thus even though modern men hate the doctrine of predestination, they cannot escape from of it, no matter how hard they rebel. The very idea of a sovereign God is repugnant to unregenerate men, so therefore they must suppress the truth about it. But SOME sort of predestination is inescapable because it is part of God’s image in creation. Therefore rebellious men exchange the truth of God for a lie, and create a form of predestination compatible with humanist assumptions. For example, in the past 150 years, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, psychologists, etc., have been embroiled in what has been called the “nature vs. nurture” debate. The issue concerns whether man’s genetic inheritance, or his social environment is more important in determining his values, beliefs, personality and nature. Notice though, how the debate is framed. Is it social determinism or genetic determinism? Either way it is some sort of determinism. The question is, which sort will be accepted by modern man?

On the one hand are the socio-biologists who are convinced that Darwinian evolution explains all of our behaviors today — falling in love, the differences between men and women, origins of the family, affinity to tribe and nation, causes of aggression, etc. are all the result of survival mechanisms developed by millions of years of selective adaptation. Even modern American men’s obsession with women’s breast size supposedly began as a genetically inherited trait that males would be more likely to mate with females with more pronounced secondary sexual characteristics. Therefore in this view, the key to understanding man, is to understand how evolutionary forces have shaped and guided the development of his behaviors. Man, it is said, is “hardwired” to respond to the environment in certain ways. He thus is the sum total of millions of years of natural selection wherein those behaviors that contribute to survival were enhanced, while those that were contra-survival die off.

However, even though consistent with the materialistic evolutionary hypothesis, the “nature” view is rejected by many because men cannot control genetics. He rebels against the idea of being predestined by his genes. Furthermore, if the evolutionary hypothesis is accepted, this invariably leads to legitimizing behaviors that are no longer socially acceptable or tolerated; e.g., Feminists especially at the university level have consistently squelched research into the biologically based fundamental differences between men and women because it upsets their presupposition that women are oppressed by male dominated culture. On the other hand, homosexuals eagerly seek for biological justification for sexual orientation because they are then no longer morally culpable for their actions. Presuppositions it seems, have more to do with the acceptability of a scientific hypothesis than whether the “facts” support the hypothesis!

On the other end of the spectrum are those who hold that the determining factor is mostly, if not purely the result of environmental conditioning; i.e., that man is what he is because societal forces have made him that way. In the main, the social sciences have adopted the environmental or nurture argument, not because there is necessarily convincing evidence to support it, but rather because it is compatible with the dominant philosophical assumption of the age. If man is the product of his genetic inheritance, then there is little that can be done. However, if man is the product of the environment, then you can change the man by changing the environment. Therefore if you control the environment, you control the man. Hence C. S. Lewis’ observation that the power of science is really the power of some men over other men. Both Brave New World and 1984 are both grim pictures of a human future determined by a political and social elite. But please notice that this is still a form of predestination, just on different terms. Man is still determined by something else but in this scenario, but now man rather than God or impersonal nature can be the determiner.

  1. F. Skinner, the founder of modern school of psychology known as “Behaviorism,” took scientific determination to a new level. Skinner (building on the work of Pavlov and Watson) developed methodologies to train animals to perform certain acts by rewarding behaviors he deemed desirable, and punishing those deemed undesirable. He was thus able to train pigeons to peck a tune on a toy piano, push certain buttons in response to lights, throw switches, etc. The military even studied using pigeons as a way of guiding missiles before the advent of computer chips. Skinner developed an entire religion around the idea that controlling the environment was the key to personality and human behavior. In fact, when his daughter was born, he created a “Skinner Box” for her which allowed him to completely control what stimuli she was exposed to and what behaviors were rewarded or punished. He thought he could create a perfect child merely through environmental conditioning. Not unsurprisingly, he failed. People it seems, are more complex than pigeons.

However, the dream of humanism to control man by controlling the environment remains despite evidence to the contrary. Socialists, Marxists, Fascists and the current U. S. Federal government all hold to environmental determinism as a basic religious belief. Supposedly, all Man’s problems come from poor socialization, inadequate reinforcement mechanisms, a failure of society to meet the deepest human needs, etc,. Utopia, or heaven on earth, is thus considered possible if we can only find the right environmental system. This religious view is promulgated in our national churches (State universities and colleges), enacted through legislation, enforced by the courts and financed by your tax dollars.

Now obviously, orthodox Christians must reject this nonsense. Our environment does not determine who we are or what we are, and our problems are not caused by society, but by our sin. We are all born in the image of our fallen father, Adam, and enter life with a sinful orientation that colors every attitude, affects every action. The more consistent we become with that sinful orientation, the more corrupt we make our society. Humanists say, “bad cultures make bad people.” The Bible says, “bad people make bad cultures” (cf. Rms 1:18ff). This is basic, orthodox Christianity. Yet Christian children sent to the average evangelical Christian college are more than likely to develop humanist sociological presuppositions rather than consistently Christian ones. The reason is simple, most theologians do not apply their theology outside of their own narrow discipline. Pietism has robbed them of a consistent world view and hence they are comfortable living in a spiritual ghetto while the humanists control everything else. Because the theologians have NOT done their jobs, Christian professors in social science disciplines, have been unable to resist indoctrination into various forms of humanism as a part of their graduate education. It is sad to say, but one really ought to hold anyone with an advanced degree in the social sciences guilty until proven innocent. His “facts” are likely to be colored by humanist presuppositions. Evangelical scholars dress up these alien presuppositions in Biblical language and imagery, and college trustees, donors, students and the parents who foot the bill, accept them as the cutting edge of “Christian” scholarship regardless of how badly they deviate from basic Biblical truth. It is not so much intentional deception, as the inevitable result of a truncated Biblical world view. Thus rather than influencing culture towards godliness, instead, the culture influences us towards godlessness.

Hence it is very difficult for Christians to study these areas from a consistently Biblical world view. Orthodox theologians in seminaries and graduate schools are hesitant to step out of their own limited field of expertise. Christian social scientists are often unknowingly compromised. As a result, good men are often severely tempted to either ignore the issue, or so over-react that they fail to understand how the sociological does affect the spiritual. Some, even go so far as to say if “this is wrong, then the opposite must be right.” However, reality is often more complex than that. For example, since the Reformation, orthodox theologians are usually men of ideas who think and live in the world of ideas. Our best and brightest will often trace the history and background of a philosophical or religious concept and say something to the effect that “this idea lead to this idea, which lead to this idea, which is how we got to where we are today.” Francis Schaeffer’s series, “How Then Shall We Live?,” is an excellent example of this kind of thinking, demonstrating that ideas have consequences by analyzing the art and culture of Europe. But those ideas do not exist in a vacuum. Our environment does play some role, Paul says, “bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Cor 15:53). It is folly to think that someone simply sat around cogitating until one day suddenly saying, “Wow! I’ve got a great new idea!” and then revolutionized the world. Those ideas themselves are often subtly conditioned or influenced by that person’s environment. Good men sometimes have not so good ideas, because they live in a certain cultural situations. Some good ideas never become widely accepted at the time because environmental factors act against them. Some heresies become entrenched because there are cultural and environmental forces that encourage them. Granted, ultimately it is the providence of God working all things after the council of His will that determines history, but at the same time, can we not examine HOW that providence normally works itself out and therefore understand His purposes better?

Therefore restoring Christian civilization requires more than just analyzing the history of ideas (as important as these may be). Ideas do shape and influence cultures, but those cultures also influence and shape the ideas. The pertinent question must be “why did those ideas, at that time, arise in that place” at all? It could well be that at present, there are certain sociological reasons why American culture is resistant to the gospel, hardened in her heart, refusing to repent of her sins so that judgment is coming on her. Those reasons, if once understood, could be used to pave the way to repentance and national reformation. The restoration of Christian civilization requires a consistent counter-cultural religion, one that succeeds where the prevailing culture is failing. Furthermore, it can be demonstrated that healthy cultures require certain sociological mechanisms to make that culture work. What are those ingredients and how has God used them in the past to bring about reformation and renewal?

This process of studying the creation to discover how God’s providence works out is one of the primary reasons why science and technology successfully won its preeminent place in Western culture. Men studied the creation, understood how God normally works and then acted in accordance with the results. They thus developed unprecedented power over the environment, power they abused and misused in a futile attempt to de-throne God as the Lord of all life, but genuine power, none-the-less. The ideas of the Enlightenment would never have successfully destroyed Christian civilization unless the power of the scientific revolution had supported them. Can we not also study the creation, learn how God operates in history and then seek to rebuild Christian civilization for His honor and glory? Can Christians not carefully study and analyze how God works in cultures so that by His grace we might hasten the day when His blessings flow? Do we not need to develop a clear idea of how God has worked in history, what forces he has used and how He has used them if we want to roll back the humanist juggernaut that has crushed the Church in the past 100 years? Is it not helpful to understand how God creates a culture, how He shapes and forms it and what happens when He judges it? And therefore, can we not then examine our own situation and see how to use those same forces for rebuilding a genuinely Christian civilization? Are we not required by God’s grace, to exercise dominion by taking advantage of those same forces in seeking to bring about reformation and revival?

Some may argue that the Apostles did not use such an approach; that they simply preached the gospel and were satisfied with the blessings God gave, and if those blessings appear random or uncontrollable, then it was the hidden will of God and must be accepted. But it can also be argued that the Apostles, especially Paul, were astute men of their times, understanding their culture’s sociological hot buttons and phrasing their message in ways that punched those buttons without sacrificing truth (cf. Paul’s sermon on the Aeropagus Acts 17:22ff)). All that is being suggested here is that we study what they did and how they did it so that we can learn to speak the unchanging truth of God’s Word in the most effective way possible. The real value of this study will be to demonstrate that God works through means. It is always God Who is at work, but the means themselves may give us invaluable insights into how we may experience His blessings. There have been 2000 years of church history and we have the great successes and the miserable failures of our fathers to learn from. Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat the failures of history but most Christians are very short-sighted. The average broad evangelical knows little or no church history (for some, history goes back no further than D. L. Moody and the modern missionary movement) and has no idea of our past, or how we got into the problems of the present. Instead, we need to understand the broader panoply of events to look back at what has happened, and why it happened so that we can begin to understand what we need to do now to change the world.

Therefore, while aware of the dangers of allowing humanist presuppositions to color our own judgment, the following overview of the sociological influences on the development of Christendom is offered as a preliminary analysis of how God works in time and space. It is then our desire to learn from this study practical methodologies that we can then use in our own efforts at evangelization and discipling of the nations. Obviously, this study is over-generalized for the serious academic. But even so, it may well provide a desperately needed insight into how God builds reforms and judges a culture.

Part Two: The Early Church – First Centuryplanting

One way of demonstrating the power of sociological influences on the development of Christian civilization is to examine the historical situation regarding the timing of Christ coming into the world. Within 300 years, Christianity went from a provincial religion held by a handful of uneducated peasants into a world conquering faith. Was this just an example of God unleashing His supernatural power or are there environmental aspects that affected both the birth and spread of Christianity in the ancient world?

God did not bring Jesus into just any time in history. If the Messiah had come a hundred years earlier, Christianity could not have achieved the influence it did. There were certain environmental factors at work that ensured that when Jesus came, His message could reach the most people, in the shortest amount of time, right up to the modern industrial age. At first, this may sound radical, but really, all that we are saying here is that God works through means. Understanding the means facilitates better understanding the God who used them.

For example, in the three centuries before Jesus was born, God’s providence was working in the world to prepare the way. Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire were allowed to conquer most of the known world a necessary pre-requisite to the eventual spread of Christianity. Alexander the Great’s empire reached from Greece in the East to India in the West, conquering essentially the entire known world of his day. Reputedly, he wept when he realized that there were no new worlds to conquer. Dying at the age of 33 without heirs, his empire was divided among four of his generals. But Alexander’s lasting contribution was his commitment to Greek culture and civilization, a commitment his generals shared. Despite their own power games, these generals were convinced that Greek civilization was the highest to which man could aspire and therefore instituted a program of Helenization throughout their domains attempting to transform them into copies of Greece.

Eventually, this program of cultural imperialism led to a vicious, nasty civil war in Israel. Though the Greeks were eventually defeated, Helenization had two unintentional side effects; the first was the creation of two Jewish sects that would have a profound influence on Israel during the time of the Messiah. One sect were the Pharisees, the descendants of those Jews who had led the war against the Greeks, and were therefore committed to an extreme form of Jewish religion and nationalism. The second sect was the Sadducees, who adopted at least some aspects of Greek philosophy (e.g., denying the bodily resurrection). Both these groups would later lead the main opposition to Jesus and cause discord in the early church.

But the more important impact was that as a direct result of Hellenization, Greek was a universal language by the time of Christ. For the first time since the Tower of Babel, a man could travel the entire range of the “civilized” world using only one language. That is why our Scriptures come down to us in Greek, not in Hebrew or Aramaic. As a result, Christian missionaries were able to literally travel the length and breath of the Roman Empire sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ without having to learn 50 different languages. This was an incredible sociological phenomenon that would not be repeated, even to this day. Even modern English, recognized world-wide as a useful second language, does not have the same influence as ancient Greek. But as a result of a militaristic, empire building, self glorifying young man, God prepared the way for His gospel to reach the entire known world.

A second aspect of ancient civilization that allowed the incredible spread of Christianity was the Roman Empire, established about 200 years after the time of Alexander the Great. Rome forced every nation around the Mediterranean to their knees, acknowledging Roman sovereignty and submitting to Roman law. But as a result, Rome imposed order and peace in the world. Jesus came during one of the greatest period of peace that the ancient world had ever known; the “Pax Romana” which lasted about 200 years. Coming after the Roman civil wars and upon the success of Octavius Caeser (Julius’s adopted son, later named “Augustus”) the Pax Romana was a time when there was no major internal dissolutions of society, no foreign invaders devastating the country-side, no countries going to war, no widespread famines. Hence this period of stability allowed Christian missionaries to travel the length and breadth of the Empire, sharing the gospel without having to worry about murder, war, famine and disaster.

There was peace (relatively speaking) in the world because Rome imposed that peace by military force. To enforce that peace, they built roads throughout their empire allowing their armies to travel quickly from one end to the other. Today we take roads and rapid transportation for granted but two thousand years ago, a person could only travel as far as his legs could carry him in a day. A good straight road enables one to travel ten times the distance than the meandering goat tracks that most of the ancient world called “roads.” And the Romans laid them out as straight as they could throughout their Empire. They thought they were doing it to maintain control of the provinces, but in reality, God used those same roads to send His missionaries throughout the known world. A hundred years earlier, even if everyone had spoken in Greek, it would not have done any good to send missionaries to foreign lands — there would have been no way to get them there.

God providentially, arranged for the spread of a universal language, the establishment of a stable Roman empire and the construction of the most effective communication system until modern times, all to coincide with the arrival of Jesus. After Rome fell in 476 AD, that opportunity did not come again until the 20th century. There was a unique window in human history when the Christian gospel could go forth in power, and it happened during the life-time of the Lord Jesus. These environmental factors contributed directly to the spread and the shape of ancient Christianity and provided the raw material out of which Christian civilization would be built.

Though Christianity began initially in Israel, as it spread throughout the early Roman world it became a counter-cultural movement. People were converted from something (paganism), to something, a total, complete, Biblical world-view that revolutionized their lives. It changed them profoundly in various ways. In the ancient world, idolatry was almost universal. Every single decision that a man made in life had to be made with the acquiescence of the priests, with the testing the auguries to ensure that all things were done in the right way and in the right time (supposedly, one Roman general lost a crucial battle for not sacrificing his chickens in the proper way). Demonism, witchcraft and superstition controlled the average person’s life. Throughout Greece, even today in rural areas, crossroads are often marked with a shrine to propitiate the local gods. Conversion to Christ freed men from slavery-to-idolatry. Rather than the natural world being the results of random events, or the capricious acts of arbitrary spirits, Creation was governed by an omnipotent God whose character and nature were authoritatively revealed in the Scriptures. As opposed to Greek philosophy that saw matter as intrinsically evil, the Christian gospel saw creation as something created by God Himself, controlled by God and under the dominion of men. There was therefore incentive to study the creation. Men who had been hapless victims of capricious and arbitrary spirits were now empowered to do something about their lot.

When men repented of their sins and put their faith in Christ they brought their families under the covenant of King Jesus. In so doing, they were not just making an individual decision, then going about their lives simply doing something special on Sundays. Instead, they were converting to a whole new world view. Granted, they were not always consistent with how they worked that world view out. Granted, since they were starting off on square one, mistakes were made, compromises with heresy common, flirtation with the dominant philosophical world view attempted. But despite their failures, very quickly the ancient church created a true counter-culture. For example, throughout the New Testament, the Apostles make reference to brothers and sisters. Yet the early church consisted of slaves, freemen, local bureaucrats and even members of Caesar’s own household. Granted, they still retained their distinctions and rank in society, but inside the church, a new social grouping developed: they were one people, one mind, one family, one hope. Perhaps our modern emphasis on a “classless” society leads to a lack of appreciation on this point, but in Roman culture, the brotherhood of the church tore down barriers that had existed from antiquity. In any given society, talent, gifts and abilities are not universally distributed. A class oriented society cannot take advantage of the limited number of extraordinary people because caste, not ability is the prime determinant of whether those abilities will be utilized. However, with the creation of the church, there now existed a new social mechanism that allowed talent and ability to flourish. Onesimus, a slave in Philemon’s household was granted his freedom and became an associate of Paul. Abilities within the church were recognized and utilized the betterment of the entire culture.

The Christian gospel often had great psychological appeal because it met a genuine need in a culture with great extremes between rich and poor. Estimates place the numbers of slaves in Rome at seventy percent or better. These slaves were often captives in war, separated from their own families, languages, customs etc. The Christian gospel erased the barrier between slave and freeman, and offered a whole new culture that included both. Hence, the gospel met an actual sociological need and benefited by it.

In the same way there is a very well recognized sociological phenomenon concerning those belonging to one culture, when that culture is surrounded by another. One of two things happens. If the smaller culture has no distinctive beliefs, values, customs, language, etc., then a process of assimilation occurs wherein the dominant culture and its values eventually displace the smaller one. However, if the smaller culture has certain distinctives that prohibit it from integrating with the larger culture, the tendency is for that culture to become much more loyal to its distinctives.

For example, American military personnel stationed overseas speak a different language, are members of a select group with recognizable status symbols (i.e., rank, uniforms, haircuts, etc.,) and usually share distinct values from their civilian counterparts. When placed in a foreign culture with its own language, values, customs, etc., one might think that a 19 year old American with a fat wallet and no expenses, would want to experience that culture; travel as they say, is broadening. In fact, many affluent families invest a considerable amount of money in sending their children to Europe just for this same kind of experience. The American GI thus has an all expense paid, two to four year vacation in Europe. Does he integrate into the new culture? Rarely; normally though the most “American” Americans, one will ever meet, are those stationed in a foreign culture. The military provides them with American movies on base, often even American television, American fast food restaurants, American grocery stores, American shopping malls, etc. It is not unusual for some young GI’s to spend an entire tour overseas and NEVER LEAVE THEIR BASE. Complaints about the “hardship” of living overseas are constant and this very “hardship” creates a sense of community that does not exist, even when these people return for state-side duty.

When confronted by a dominant culture at odds with one’s own social system, there is a tendency to over identify with one’s own cultural values. The very “alienness” of a foreign culture makes one more committed to one’s own cultural distinctives. This same dynamic was at work in the early church. Faith in Christ brought one immediately into conflict with family, church and state. Faithfulness to Christ required refusing to sacrifice to a statue of the Emperor, placing Christians outside the dominant religious and cultural practices of their day. Research studies in social psychology demonstrate that the higher the social cost, the more committed a person becomes to one’s ideas, beliefs and values. Hence whether they realized it or not, the WORST thing that the Romans could do (from their perspective) was persecute the Church. The more the State persecuted Christians, the more committed they became to their ideas. The more that Roman society ostracized Christians, the more they felt a sense of belonging and identify inside their own Christian sub-culture.

As Rome suffered from the corruption of power and affluence, the Imperial bureaucracy became ever more tyrannical and self destructive. It can be demonstrated that as State power grows, it invariably destroys wealth and productivity. Affluence breeds a love of ease and a lack of commitment to anything except one’s personal peace and prosperity. Roman armies became mercenary forces, filled out with provincial troops with no commitment to Rome because Roman citizens no longer regarded the cost of military service worth the benefits. Roman culture itself destroyed its own future with widespread abortion and infanticide. Meanwhile, population demographics demonstrate that because of a lack of commitment to traditional marriage and growing acceptance of sodomy and adultery, Roman birth levels actually decreased while the slave population increased. In order to maintain some balance, Roman citizenship was increasingly extended to provincials who did not share fundamental Roman values (citizenship became a matter of economic or social advantage, not a matter of commitment to cultural ideals).

While Rome was declining the Christian church was growing. Because of Christian values, exposed children were saved and reared in Christian homes, large families were accepted and encouraged and the children raised to be responsible, hard working and industrious citizens. The perverted sexual practices of the cultural majority (practices that can be demonstrated to be contra-survival to any society) were slowly replaced by stable family units as the church spread in influence and power. The Church began hospitals, provided essential services to the poor and destitute and actually bought their brothers and sisters out of slavery. Widows and orphans were cared for. Over a four hundred year period, as the Rome of the Caesars declined, the new Christian consensus slowly replaced it to a certain degree because there was no other place for people to turn in times of trouble. By the time the Western Roman Empire fell to pagan invasions in 410 and 476 A. D., the Church had grown to affect every area of life. As the Empire degenerated into its final, God-hating, epistemologically self-consistent rebellion, it eventually fell of its own weight. Scores of thousands of barbarians conquered millions of Romans because to a great degree, the depredations of the pagans were preferable to the tyrannical taxation and oppression of the Imperial bureaucracy. And the only organization left in the entire world to pick up the pieces was the Christian church.

In terms of how the environment influences doctrine and practice, notice the shift in eschatology from the third to the fifth centuries. Early on, some Christians adopted “Chilianism” or what we would call today, “Premillinnialism.” The church was persecuted by a perverse and tyrannical State. Psychological relief came in the form of an imminent coming of Jesus who would destroy the pagan Roman persecutors and usher in His own perfect millennial kingdom. But when Rome became Christian, Chilianism died off fairly quickly. Augustine, writing at the time of the sack of Rome, after Rome had converted to Christianity as the official state religion, is usually given credit for developing “Amillennialism;” i.e., that the Kingdom is now here, but it is no longer the perfect utopia of some earlier theologians. Both groups developed doctrinal distinctives partially because of the sociological influences of the time.

The influence that environment has on our understanding and practice of the faith can also be seen on the model of church government developed as the Roman Empire declined. As the church grew in power and influence, tempered by battles with heretics and apostates, it became increasingly necessary to organize the local congregations into some kind of official relationship. And it was the Roman Empire — our arch enemy that provided the model of church government. The bureaucracy of the fifth century church is modeled after the bureaucracy of ancient Rome since in many respects, the Church had inherited both the duties and responsibilities of the old Empire after it fell. For all its faults, Rome had kept the peace and civilization going for five hundred years. And from the fifth to the tenth centuries as the church became ever more centralized, it continued to develop that bureaucracy until it tried to control every aspect of medieval life.

The sociological reason is not hard to understand. These five centuries were a time of turmoil, barbarian invasion and local conflict. Commerce and trade were impeded, the ancient arts largely forgotten, the universal language lost and local people thrown on their own resources. The Church was the only social organization that crossed linguistic and national lines. Wealth and power flowed to the church, and since church structure was centralized, the Bishop of Rome acquired increasing power over the rest of the church. Eventually, this led to the split between the Eastern and Western church by the 10th century. Our point here is not to criticize the medieval church, but rather to attempt to understand why it developed the way it did. Christ says that power flows to those who serve, and power did flow to the Church because it did serve. However, Lord Acton also recognized that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Church was given power, and then used that power for its own ends.

One way the Church attempted to Reform itself was through celibacy. Celibacy already had a long and respected history in certain parts of the church due to the influence of neo-platonism. Greek philosophy disliked creation and anything to do with it. God was spirit, and therefore anything spiritual was therefore superior to the material world. Matter was evil, and therefore procreation though lawful, was not considered as high and holy as celibacy because it brought more matter into the world. However, large segments of the church allowed married clergy until the 13th century. Celibacy then became mandatory in all the national churches. The reason for mandatory celibacy was partially the fear of nepotism, wherein dioceses and desirable parishes would over time, become the purview of certain families. It only makes sense. Most sons follow their fathers’ calling, i.e., married priests would tend to have sons who would also become priests. Over time (and we are talking centuries) eventually, most priests would be related and their loyalties would tend to lean more towards their families then the Church. The family was therefore a threat to the power of the Church. Hence a celibate clergy was one way of ensuring that the Church maintained control.

It is interesting to note that Henry VIII’s argument in separating from Rome was that the bishop of Rome had no authority over the national Church of England. He of course was referring to a time, not all that far back in the past, where the pope had considerably less power over the entire church than was exercised in the sixteenth century. Everyone is familiar with Henry Tudor’s political motivations for reforming the English church, but there is in fact, some theological justification for his actions; Rome had no real authority over an English church or the Bishop of Rome over the Archbishop of Canterbury. Hence sociological factors influenced what theological ideas would be accepted and confirmed.

The very real problems that the Reformers would address in the 16th century had their origins in the church adopting an essentially Roman model of church polity in the 4th and 5th centuries. Their theology influenced the development of their social structure. As society collapsed someone had to step in and do something, but the model they used was the very imperial tyranny they were replacing. For a time, that model worked. The ancient church began a genuine Christian civilization. No longer either a counter-culture or a corner culture, for the next thousand years, as Christendom spread, it was THE culture. The universal Church kept learning alive in monasteries, sometimes-feeble lights indeed in a sea of barbarian invasion. Hospitals continued to be built widows and orphans cared for, and some missionary work did get done. But the gains were outweighed by the shortfalls because they adopted unbiblical ideas and practices from their culture. The church continued to develop with certain sociological frameworks that influenced not only the doctrines of the church, but as well, shaped the future.

*****

From Christian-civilization.org

Brian Abshire

“Dr. B” has served as a Biblical counselor, lecturer in theology, youth, singles, young married and senior pastor. He is currently the Teaching Elder at Highlands Reformed Church, (Hanover Presbytery, Reformed Presbyterian Church).

 

 

 

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