It is hard for us, in our relatively settled Western political environment, to understand just how revolutionary it was that first-century Christianity – a religious movement that explicitly opposed the cult of the emperor that was the mainstream religion throughout the empire – should also instruct its members to obey the emperor and his authorities. There were plenty of religious movements opposing the worship of the emperor; and there were plenty of religious movements that taught their members to offer due deference to civic leaders. But only Christianity ever did both.
In the event, the Roman governing authorities felt far more threatened by the early Christians’ disinterest in power-politicking than they felt by any of the religious movements that taught their members to disobey the emperor. At least they knew what to do with cults that openly rejected civic authority. But Christianity is confusing – it neither worships nor hates power, and consequently can’t be controlled by it.
Civic authorities still find Christianity threatening today, and for the same reason: because we neither oppose them nor slavishly adore them and their power, they just don’t know what to make of us. It terrifies them. Not just in places like North Korea or Somalia – where Christians are thought so dangerous for their unideological good behaviour that they are frequently sent into forced labour, tortured, or killed. Even in our own United Kingdom our politicians seek to convince us we should support them with quasi-religious fervour (and reject the other guy!) at precisely the same time as they try to keep our critique out of the public eye, declaring us irrelevant to modern society or at best a niche morality.
We shouldn’t be surprised. But like everything else under the sun, God has this under control, as well. Our job is to pray for our civic leaders, to respect their authority, to obey them because God asks us to, to be abundantly clear that the power they exercise isn’t their own, and to get on with serving God wherever we find ourselves.
These devotions were originally written for the parish of All Saints, Ascot and we are grateful for permission to republish them on Fulcrum.
Patrick is curate of All Saints’, Ascot in Berkshire. A musicologist by training, he is married to Lydia, a university lecturer, and dad to Madeleine. He writes (sporadically) at benedixisti.wordpress.com and tweets (even more sporadically) as @patrickgilday.