Masada, the Jewish-Roman War of 66-73, and the Writing of the Gospels

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 4 June 2009 0 Comments
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Your vision of a reformed Christianity is easy for me to embrace. However, I am concerned that this vision is not compatible with "The Church Catholic." Do you believe the dream of a unified church is a necessary casualty of the Reformed Church?


Dear Michael,

The first thing that I think you and everyone else must face is that there never has been a unified church. That is nothing less than ecclesiastical propaganda on the part of those who like to suggest that anyone disagreeing with their church today disagrees with a specific historic Christian tradition. What Christians refer to today as "orthodox Christianity" is a reference to that part of the Christian Church that actually won the battle for supremacy. Winning never means you were right, it means only that you were stronger. If you read the work of someone like Bart Ehrman, a University of North Carolina Religion Professor and New York Times best-selling author, the multiplicity of competing Christian groups in the early years of Christian history becomes very apparent. There was really no such thing as "early Christianity," as church polemicists use that phrase today. There were in fact "early Christianities." The battle to be able to define what orthodox Christianity consisted of was finally decided on the basis of political power. The Bishop of Rome turned the power of his location in that capital city of the known world into the ability to define Christianity and to limit the understanding of the past to his particular interpretation of the past. So we need to disabuse our minds of the idea that there ever was a unified Christianity to which we must now seek to return.

Second, we need to recognize that the New Testament never speaks of Christianity as a majority movement. The Fourth Gospel has Jesus pray that "they all may be one," which clearly implies that they were not one or the prayer would not have expressed this hope. The image of the relationship of the Church to the world in the gospels is never an image of Christianity dominating or ruling the world. Christianity is always portrayed as a minority movement, a remnant if you will. The New Testament expresses the idea that in the vast darkness of the world, the Christians are to be a lighted candle, in the soup of life the Christians are to be the salt, and in the lump of dough, the Christians are to be the leaven that makes the bread edible.

Our job as Christians is never to conquer or to dominate the world, but to give the world a new quality. That is all I seek to do today. I want to be a light shining in both the darkness of the world and of the church. I want to be the seasoning that makes the soup tasty or the leavening agent that causes the loaf to rise. History teaches me that the reformation of Christianity never comes from the dominant center of the church, but only from the marginalized edges. In this generation I watch a faithful church slowly emerging, but it is not yet and may well never be a majority movement. I listen in despair to Christian leaders who think they can bring unity by imposing propositional truth on all people, or to leaders who are willing to sacrifice truth in order to achieve unity. I believe that being faithful is always more important than being unified. This means that in the present struggle in my particular church, I would rather see my church divided than to see it united in homophobia, patriarchy or racism.

~John Shelby Spong




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