Against Christianity by Peter J Leithart. A Review and Critique by Douglas W Jerving

Permission is granted to reprint the following article as long as no changes are made and the byline, copyright information, and the resource box is included. Please let me know if you use this article by sending an email to

Against Christianity by Peter J Leithart. A Review and Critique by Douglas W Jerving
Part Five: The Church and the State.

Copyright © September 4, 2011 Douglas W. Jerving.
All Rights Reserved.

Part Five: The Church and the State.

This is the last in a series of articles examining Dr. Leithart’s book. I am not writing a critique of the final chapter “For Constantine” so much as using it as a spring board to my own examination of the problem of Church and State relations. I agree with Dr. Leithart’s conclusions for the most part, although I am trying to deconstruct the history of the early Church a bit further than he does. I want to discover the over-riding principles that have brought Western thought to the place we are today. Like Leithart, I believe the answer to the problem is found in the Church unqualifyingly being the Church. But what does that mean?

Introduction and History

What happens when the Church takes the great commission seriously and begins teaching the nations to obey all that Christ commanded? It is easy for us to criticize the early Church because of the wave after wave of false doctrine and practice and heresies that divided them. In reality that has been an ongoing problem for 2000 years. After much consideration of what the early Christians stood for, and stood up against, I cannot charge them with compromise. The very existence of the emperor Constantine in the fourth century is proof against such a charge.

Despite great inner struggles that included false brethren, paganism, Judaism, and numerous doctrinal aberrations, the early church presented an almost unified front against her right to exist and to govern herself. When the emperors demanded unqualified obedience or face torture and death, the vast majority of believers gladly embraced death, counting it a privilege to give their lives for King Jesus. Like Patrick Henry their attitude was “Give me liberty or give me death”.

For 300 years the Christian front declared the authority of Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords. Rome demanded unqualified obedience and obeisance to the Emperor. The Church consistently declared “We must obey God rather than men”. The more the blood of Believers in this new universal King flowed, the greater the outreach of their faith. By Constantine’s time the new faith was spread throughout the empire. Rome tried to stop the Christians by slaughtering them, but the emperors found themselves losing the battle. A Kingdom of love, peace, forgiveness and joy was overcoming their ruthless war.

Whatever we believe about Constantine has little bearing on his place in history. We may or may not believe his conversion to Christ was serious. That he was the major catalyst in the development of Christendom and Western culture down to the present time is part of the historical record. Constantine’s reconstitution of the Roman Empire as an essentially Christian estate was no doubt based upon a real fear that he would lose the empire if he did not do something radically different about the Church. Knowing that these gentle people would never cease their march to martyrdom, Constantine realized the constitution of Rome itself must be altered. The fourth century saw the end of persecution against Christians, at least as a matter of policy. It saw the Emperor reinvent himself as the secular head of the Church, and the gradual assimilation and institutionalization of the Church by the State.

Whatever we make of the earliest Church prior to Constantine, it is hard if not dishonest to say they were compromisers of the faith. After Constantine a shift began towards Statism. The heresies and inner turmoil of the Church prior to that time were family secrets. After the empire became the sponsor and benefactor of the Church, her inner struggles over doctrine and practice became matters of State interest. The Arian heresy was even favored by Constantine for a time. The state granted more favorable status to bishops of larger communities, and those more politically aligned with the emperor. Persecution as a matter of policy ceased as we said, but only for those groups within the emperor’s favor. Many closed their eyes to the shift towards Statism, feeling powerless to challenge it. The rise of a dominant religious hierarchy in the ministry, owing more allegiance to Caesar than to Christ was in large part the result of this “Constantinian shift”. The empire was Christianized, but the Church was compromised in the process.

Subverting the Common Priesthood: The Great Ecclesiastical Error

The error that led to the Constantinian shift shows up first in the apostolic period, and much of the New Testament (NT) is written to combat it. That error has been variously referred to as Nicolaitanism, a clergy versus laity elitism, or simply, the denial of the priesthood of every believer. From NT times, we witness an undercurrent moving steadily away from a common priesthood and in the direction of a hard clergy-laity distinction.

The necessity of leadership is an undeniable part of NT ecclesiology. Ministry gifts including administrative abilities are recognized and approved of by the apostles (Acts14:23). It is assumed that the local church is spiritual enough to pray and search the scriptures and examine a man’s life to determine his qualifications for leadership (Acts 1:21-26; 6:1-6; 13:1-3; 17:10-11; 20:27-38; 2 John 9-11). Even the leadership ministry of those coming into the local church from other communities has value (Acts 8:4-8; 3 John 5-7). But it is within the authority of the local church to determine their validity (Acts 9:26-27; I Thess. 5:12-13; I Tim. 3; Titus 1:5-9; Rev.2:2). The Church of the NT was a local, visible and autonomous community of believers where ever it existed. The Church of the NT displays a far more decentralized role than it does in its later development toward Constantinianism.

The breakdown of the concept of the “priesthood of every believer” (I Peter 2:9-10; 3 John 9-12; Jude 16; Rev. 2-3; 5:9-10; 7:13-15; 20:4-6) and the rise of the strong distinction between clergy and laity gave Constantinianism its roots. However logical or natural it may have been for the leaders of larger communities to gain preeminence over the Church as a whole, it still was a practice that lay outside of the Biblical pattern (Rom.12:16; I Cor. 1:10-13; Eph. 4:11-16; Ph. 2:3-5; Col. 3:17-22; James 3:13-14, 17), and should have been resisted (Rom. 16:17-18). These were doctrinal aberrations, but certainly not compromise with the empire. By the end of the third century many smaller groups were actively resisting the rise of non-local mega-churches viewing them as an encroachment on the authority of the local congregation. Most of those groups were ultimately assimilated by the Constantinian mega-church. Those that resisted were branded heretics of one form or another and either shunned or persecuted (see E. H. Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church, 1931; also Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History).

The term Nicolaitan is derived from the 2nd chapter of the Book of Revelation (Rev. 2:6, 14-15). There is no certainty just what the Nicolaitans believed or practiced. We will not concern ourselves with that here, since others have done an admirable job investigating them. The term “Nicolaitan” in its literal sense, means “ruling the people”. I am co-opting that idea when I use the term. At this point, whenever I use the terms Nicolaitan, Nicolaitanism remember that I have reference to the doctrine that denies the priesthood of the believer and nothing more than that. Nicolaitanism is here, equivalent to the practice of a hard clergy-laity distinction in the Church.

Clerical Rule, the Separation of Powers and Modernism

Separation of powers has always been a political doctrine affecting the Church in one way or another. We can trace the separation of powers back to the early Church’s infatuation with clerical rule. As some church leaders began to rise in ascendancy over the body of Christ, it was natural to recognize them as having special talents from God that allowed them the governance over larger Christian communities, townships, cities and even regions. Local church governments out of deference to their leadership often gradually, without realizing it, gave up their autonomy in the local church. By the time Constantine began legalizing Christianity, the clergy-laity distinction was fully in place, and the recognition of bishops that ruled over large groups of churches had become commonplace.

The political recognition of this hierarchy within the 4th century Church was part of what made Constantine successful. As the Church became more centralized, Rome found it easier to steer the whole Church by manipulating its most prominent officers. The leadership of the Church and the leadership of the empire had joined hands under the influence of Constantine. But the Nicolaitan separation of powers was still in effect. Though the Church and State formed an uneasy union under Constantine, they found themselves definitely united on one thing: the crushing of disparate groups within Christendom that opposed this Statism. Many of the so called heretics of the Patristic/ Medieval era were falsely so called, and the only real history we have of them comes down to us from their opponents in the State Church developed by Constantine.

The Reformation was a reaction against the State Church and for some it was an attempt to reinvigorate the common priesthood. Unfortunately, many of the Reformers did not recognize the real problem, perpetuating a hard division between clergy and laity. Even while seeking to separate the Church from the State, they created microcosms of the same. Whether the Church controlled the State or the State controlled the Church was inconsequential, ending in multiple versions of the state-run Church. Lutheranism in Germany, Calvinism in Switzerland, Episcopalians in Great Britain all were examples. Still the Lordship of the clergy remained unchallenged.

The splintering of the concept of a State Church was an inherently modern problem. It went hand in hand with the modernist tendency to become one’s own interpreter of the world. The humanist movement arose among the philosophers of the Reformation era. They taught that man is qualified within himself to discern the nature of reality. Modern science grew out of a resistance to the Church authority that crushed empiricism as a black art. The post-reformation era witnessed the apparent inability of the Church to offer real solutions to modern problems. The State Church’s demand upon the individual in an increasingly fluid world appeared both irrelevant and removed from real world politics. Privatization and intellectualization arose in opposition to the medieval concept of the One Kingdom of Christendom.

Post-reformation modernists wanted to believe in the authority of the Bible as a guide for all of life while denying the authority of the Church to tell man how to live. This illogical position is a denial of the Church’s existence as the representation of the Kingdom of God having the authority of the Law of God which is the very Bible we revere! The pre-modernist thinkers of the patristic/medieval era believed Christendom represented the Kingdom of God on earth, however imperfect it was in its manifestation. For them, as for Dominion theologians today, Christendom visibly manifests the eschatology of the NT. The Kingdom of God is continually breaking forth in ever greater and more irresistible ways upon the governments of man. Dominion theology and the patristics before it expected the ultimate subjugation of the kingdoms of man by the Kingdom of God.

For the postmillennialist Christendom is part of the inevitable triumph of the Christian gospel over all the earth before the return of Christ. The amillenialist is certain the gospel only changes men in the conversion of their souls. The Kingdom of God does not triumph over political darkness until the return of Christ. Strangely, the premillenialist is even a worse pessimist than the amillenialist. The premill has no hope that Christianity will gradually see the triumph of God’s law over the kingdoms of this world. But neither does he have hope that the souls of men will more and more turn to Christ and be saved. Instead, premillenialism believes the closer we get to the return of the Lord, the less effective the gospel will be to the conversion of men to Christ, and the more God’s own people will fall away from the faith.

The Sovereignty of God and History

History has a way of correcting itself because God is sovereignly working in history. Once the reformation was in full swing Christendom lost power over the more modernist thinkers, and their ideas filtered down to the man in the street. Some went so far as to question the authority of Scripture itself. The so-called enlightenment, which produced the bloodbath of the French Revolution, threw off all restraints, opening the doors to atheism, evolutionism, socialism, and a host of other –isms. The onion was peeled back layer by layer, but there was nothing left underneath. Many of those doctrines are recognizable has-beens, relegated to history’s dustbin. Others are becoming more and more exposed as failures as the post-modern world challenges their orthodoxy. This is the sovereign work of God.

Leithart says whether we like Christendom or not, it was (and is) a historical reality. But was it a mistake? Most of his final chapter wrestles with that question. Leithart later reminds us that a denial of this historical reality is a denial of Divine providence. I have already implied it is a denial of the sovereignty of God. That’s pretty much the same thing. If Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords, if He rules over the nations and all events come about by His fore-ordination, then all things are under His providential care. There are NO mistakes.

The implication is that if God is Sovereign, then despite all the failures of Christendom, the rule of God as King exists even now on earth, and that rule becomes progressively more complete, as it is in heaven. Despite the errors of Christendom, yet God has allowed it for His good pleasure and He has used it to promote His purposes in the earth. Whether those purposes are judgment or blessing they exist as evidence of His providential control. As Christian people we exercise our ability as salt and light to influence the world around us. The culture of Heaven overtakes that of earth when the godly stop hiding their lamps under the bushel basket. While there are setbacks, some decades or even centuries long, yet the Kingdom of God prevails and all kingdoms of this earth will bow the knee to Jesus. This is no philosophy of Two Kingdoms, nor is it a pessimistic millenarianism. It is an optimistic Eschatology of Victory as J. Marcellus Kik once called it. History is the outworking of the personal directive will of God, preparing all things in advance of His ultimate purpose (Ephesians 1).

Ancient Gnosticism and Post-Modern Irrelevance

Constantinianism produced a dualism in the concept of Christian vocation and calling. The NT saw every believer as a minister of Christ, fulfilling ministry in whatever vocation Christ found him when he was called. Nicolaitanism emphasized the distinctions between clergy and laity to an unhealthy degree. That heresy grew in the early Church until it was formalized during the post apostolic period and then institutionalized under Constantine. Constantinianism became the basis for medieval separations of clergy and laity that utterly denied the priesthood of the believer.

An examination of the hard clergy/laity (Nicolaitan) distinction is important. The politicization of that concept after Constantine developed into the separation of political and religious powers during the early modern period. The rise of separation of powers within the strictly political sphere has been influenced to some degree as well, although the basic idea goes back to Athenian democracy. Separation of powers in the civil realm is not what I am talking about here, nor do I have problems with it. The freedoms we enjoy today in America are dependent upon the separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, and also separation of state, county and federal powers. They are not predicated on a hard separation of Church and State that proscribes the influence of religion from ever in any way influencing or informing the State.

The Nicolaitan demarcation between clergy and laity was Gnostic dualism. It divided between the religious and nonreligious, the sacred and profane, the dedicated and the common. For members of society working outside of a religious setting “Christian vocation and calling” was non-existent. There was nothing special or holy about being a carpenter, or bricklayer, or a merchant. The king could go about his kinging so long as he let the priest go about his priesting.

By modern times the idea of Christian vocation implied employment as a pastor or a priest, or at least the church secretary. “Calling” was an anachronistic throw back to medievalism. Soon even the concept of kings and royalty was retired to the dusty museum of ancient thought. Our postmodern view of royalty is a condescending wink to a figurehead of bygone days. Democracy and individualism reign supreme. The “useless eaters” of kingly and priestly castes were thrown off our backs. Christianity, embracing the Gnostic dualism of Nicolaitanism, brought about its own demise. It produced its own insufficiency in a postmodern world.

The culture of modernism produced the Marxist separation of Church and State that most folks view as sacrosanct. It also produced the postmodern drift toward anarchy, rebellion, antinomianism, and even mysticism. The gamut of cultural heresies is all traced back to the Nicolaitan Gnosticism of the early Church. Constantine can only be blamed for formalizing and perpetuating the heresy which by his time was viewed as orthodoxy. Others following Constantine went further than him, institutionalizing and apologizing for what was the equivalent of, (though not the same as), Babylon, the great whore of Revelation. (On the subject of whom, or what the whore Babylon is, Leithart is correct in identifying it with the Judaizers: “the ‘circumcision party’”, p.153, but we do not need to waste time with that here. It is enough to say the same spirit of apostasy that John attacked in ancient Judaism was present in Romanism, and continues to our own times in many ways.)

Our acceptance of the separation of powers into clergy and laity, Church and State, has led to the feminization of Christianity. We tone down the NT message fearing that we might offend some of our audience. As a result we lose our ability to influence the world in any real way. We become talking heads that can be ignored because the message has lost its edge. We are afraid of being viewed as intolerant, or oddities, or uneducated bumpkins or holy rollers. We have become irrelevant.

This is exactly Leithart’s point in the parable of the prophet Stanley. Like Jonah, Stanley convinces his Nineveh of their need for repentance and reformation. The king and his subjects obey the prophet’s demands. Instead of rejoicing that the king is obedient to the Kingdom of God, Stanley has a pity party, he goes off pouting. Today’s Church is like Stanley and Jonah before him. We refuse to believe the City might actually repent and be saved by our message. We do not really believe in the converting power of our message, so we either compromise it or we demand martyrdom for it. This is a symptom of the dualistic heresy of Christianity. If the world is converted there will be no need for a professional class of preachers, so we better make sure the world never actually gets converted. We work against the very message of change that we preach.

Like Jonah, we secretly hope the world will not repent, validating our message. We feel better about judgment than conversion. We talk about worldwide revival, but believe it is always for the future. For now, we think, only a few will be saved and come out of the dark night of modern culture. We believe in two autonomous kingdoms with no hope that the one we are in will ever influence or convert the other. This is a denial of the most basic concept of NT religion: that Jesus Christ is Lord of lords and King of kings. He is as Paul said, One Lord [one faith, one baptism.]

One Lord, One Kingdom and One Church Triumphant

If there is one Lord one faith and one baptism, and Jesus is Lord of lords and King of kings, then there is but one kingdom. It is the Kingdom of God. We can call this Christendom if we like, but I think that confuses it with Constantine. The Christendom of Constantine was an unwitting acceptance of Nicolaitan Gnosticism. That is the reason why we labor these points, because the Church is confusing the Kingdom of God with that the Nicolaitan error, (and I think maybe Peter Leithart does too to a lesser extent).

When the Church preaches the Gospel of the Kingdom of God without qualification the kingdoms of this earth are challenged to bow to Christ’s Lordship or claim the priority of their own lordship. Leithart says (page 149). “The introduction of the Church into any city means that the city has a challenger within its walls. This necessarily forces political change, ultimately of constitutional dimensions.” If the king or ruler recognizes the Church’s authority as Christ’s, and obeys, then his little kingdom manifests to that degree the Kingdom of God (or Christendom, says Leithart). If the king squelches the Church through persecution he forces his domain into an unwinnable battle to the death. The uncompromising Church knows its head is Christ, and the resistant king has chosen homicide or suicide. The ruler’s demand for a “monopoly of authority… sounds like a claim to a monopoly of worship…. [A]nd it becomes obvious that his regime is implicitly totalitarian.”

When the Church really acts her part in the world, she fulfills her calling as an ecclesia, as the political assembly of the Kingdom of God, as the elders in the gates to whom a redress for grievances has its final recourse. The term ecclesia makes “a claim to governance of the city. Why, after all, set up an ekklesia unless you’re planning to run a city?” (Leithart p. 152).

Leithart shows how the entire book of Revelation revolves around the coronation of Jesus Christ, the manifestation of the Kingdom of God and the priority of His bride, the Church. When the kingdom of this world opposes and bleeds her, her blood becomes the very testimony by which the false kingdom is condemned (p.153-154). The gravity of Leithart’s theme in this chapter here becomes evident. Christ-opposing kingdoms have never won, nor will they ever win. Like Rome under Constantine, the empire always gives in or perishes.

It has been said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” No seed however, remains dead in the ground. Eventually the seed puts forth shoots, grows into a great tree and bears fruit. Its eternal purpose is growth. The Revelation of John portrays a Church without compromise. She presents a unified front against the kingdom of darkness, challenging the empires and the Caesars down through history. When the empire strikes back it sheds the very blood that seals its overthrow. If the empire repents and receives the law of God as its guide then it is blessed and prospers. Always the good fruit of the Kingdom of God is advanced.

Until the Lord returns there will remain wicked men on this earth, many of them in the highest positions of authority. There will always remain opponents to the Truth, haters of God, and murderers of His people. The horrific battle to usurp the worship and honor due to God alone portrayed in the Revelation did not end in 70 AD, or with the capitulation of Roman culture to Christ under Constantine. It has continued down through the millennia to our times in many places and in many ways. Persecution has always taught lessons of faith and purification to the Church. It has always developed a more vibrant and unshakable manifestation of the Kingdom of God against evildoers. Out of oppression have always come the downfall of the tyrant, the triumph of truth and the furtherance of the law of God in the city, state, or nation.

Persecuted but Not Forsaken

Persecution and martyrdom often is the result of the clash between an uncompromising Church and an obstinate unjust ruler. The NT does say “all that live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” Martyrdom however, is not inevitable in every place and time. Rulers do bow the knee, some willingly, others, grudgingly recognizing the power of King Jesus to remove them from office if they will not govern wisely. Leithart rightly says there is no such thing as a perpetually martyred Church. “A church forever martyred without relief is a cross without a resurrection.” God is the God of the living (p. 154-155).

In a certain sense the Revelation is a treatise on martyrdom; the very meaning of the word is “testimony”, not “death”. Revelation is about the triumph of God’s people through their testimony, even when it leads to death. Ultimately the obstinate king is buried, but the resurrected Christ and His glorious Bride are set on the throne on earth, ruling the nations from New Jerusalem for a thousand years. But here is where we see the greater glory. If the cross produces resurrection, and martyrdom brings forth the glorious New Jerusalem, then it is clear that the Kingdom of God has overtaken and subsumed the kingdoms of this world. Constantine has been converted. The city of God has pulled down Jericho. The coronation of Jesus Christ has been accomplished, and every knee must bow.

Leithart now turns the coin over. If there is no cross without resurrection, neither is there any resurrection without the cross. There is no glorious triumph, no vindication, without martyrdom. A compromised Church is not a martyred Church. The Church of Constantine’s time gave up her hope of glory to the extent she compromised. So do we give up our hope when we let the world dictate to us how we should live and speak. “The fear of man is a snare.” Unless we are willing to go to the cross we cannot expect the crown. Leithart says “The Church can gain victory only on the other side of the cross. She finds her way to the city center by first being led to the gibbet outside the city walls.”

Exile and Return

As Israel went into exile for her sins so has the Church. Dr. Leithart reminds us of the weeping prophet Jeremiah, the prophet of the exile. But Jeremiah also prophesied a return: the return of the people’s hearts to God and the return of the people to their land. There is no exile without return! On page 156, (the whole of section 27), Leithart says

The modern church is in exile; we have chosen exile, and the Lord has delivered us to our desires. But we do not worship the God of permanent exile. We worship the God of exodus.

He calls us to faith, and that means renouncing Christianity and all its works and all its pomp. It means clinging to the gospel, believing the gospel, preaching the gospel, living the gospel as the Church, even to the shedding of blood.

If we are living and breathing the full gospel, not a truncated fundamentalist version of it, then we can expect it to challenge the constitutionality of the kingdoms of this world. When we realize our calling as a common priesthood of all believers we will pull down all strongholds whether they are in the Church or the State. It may be that we are persecuted as sheep sent to the slaughterer before this is accomplished. Or it may be that the king bows his knee realizing that refusal means his ultimate destruction. Either way the Kingdom of our God is set up over the kingdoms of men. Passive or active resistance or direct unblinking involvement, we need only be the Church and let our Sovereign God do the rest of the Work. The Stone cut without hands crushes the image made of earth. The New Jerusalem comes down from Heaven. She is not of the earth, earthly. But she grows and fills up the entire earth. As a bride adorned for her husband and king, she rules with Him over the nations in wisdom and righteousness.


Doug Jerving is the publisher of the You may contact him at


Return to The New Edison Gazette main site.