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