The relationship of the Church to the social order has been long and vexed. At the forefront in the modern era has been the relationship of Church to state. After enjoying, for over a millennium, certain supervisory powers, the Church has abandoned any interest in possessing direct power over the state. At issue in the present day are questions about what the role of religion will be in the public square and how the Church should shape its voice to be a constructive contributor in the various debates about public policy.

In the early stages of the expansion of the Christian movement, the issues were quite different. Rather than exercising any control over public policy, the early Church had to worry about its very survival in the face of real or threatened persecution. The question of the day was how to translate the Church’s countercultural message so as not to appear seditious to the secular authorities without compromising the Church’s fidelity to the gospel. This was no easy task, for the apostles felt themselves duty-bound to proclaim boldly the lordship of Jesus Christ and the inbreaking of his kingdom.

In his most recent book, World Upside Down: Reading Acts in the Graeco-Roman Age , C. Kavin Rowe takes up this problem of the early Church’s stance toward the Roman Empire through a close reading of a number of stories within the Acts of the Apostles. But Rowe’s book is not merely the result of careful historical work on the first century. In his final chapter he puts the results of his exegesis in conversation with contemporary debates about the role of Christianity in the public square. Thus, this book is a true tour de force. It should attract considerable attention from biblical scholars, theologians, and students of political thought. It is a brilliant piece of work by a young scholar of considerable promise.

At the heart of Rowe’s argument lies a fundamental paradox. On the one hand, it has long been the opinion of New Testament scholars that the Book of Acts argues for the possibility of a harmonious existence between the Roman Empire and the members of the early Christian movement. There can be no question that this view finds weighty support in the Book of Acts. When, for example, the Jews of Corinth bring charges against the Christians to Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, they are summarily dismissed (Acts 18:12“17). The Jews claim that Paul is “persuading the people to worship God in ways that are contrary to the law.” Gallio responds that such charges would be serious if they concerned the public order, but because they touch on matters internal to Jewish law, they will have to be solved outside the framework of the state. The position of Gallio is seconded at the conclusion of Acts, when Paul is tried by the Roman authorities in Jerusalem and Caesarea. In both cases it is determined that the dispute concerns Jewish, not Roman, law and that Paul and his fellow Christians pose no obvious threat to the Roman order.

On the surface, this ruling of Gallio (and the later ruling of Agrippa in Caesarea) speaks to the claim that the Roman government has nothing to fear from the Christian movement that has taken root among the Jewish communities of Asia Minor and Greece. Yet, as Rowe so shrewdly observes, it is not the case that pagan culture would be unaffected by the results of the nascent Christian movement. Rather, he says, “the cultural space created by this new identity simultaneously spells the possibility of pagan cultural collapse. It is to this possibility that the Roman legal system cannot remain indifferent. Of all this Gallio seems unaware.”

To see the legitimate dangers that the Christian movement posed to the pagan order, one needs to turn elsewhere in Acts. When, for example, Paul and Barnabas enter the town of Lystra (Acts 14), they heal a lame man. When the crowds take notice, they quickly acclaim Paul and Barnabas as incarnations of Zeus and Hermes who have descended from heaven. Paul is aghast at the response and instructs the crowd that they are mere mortals and are acting at the behest of the “living God” who created heaven and earth. As Rowe observes, it was a common practice in antiquity to identify the gods of one culture with those of another; it was a defining feature of ancient theological pluralism. By refusing to equate the God of Israel with Zeus or Hermes, Paul is urging the demolition of a respected pagan model and asking his potential Gentile converts to rethink the character of God from top to bottom.

Another excellent example is the turmoil that boils to the surface in Ephesus in Acts 19. This town was well known in antiquity as a home to magicians, practitioners of a popular craft in antiquity and one that could provide a handsome income. When Paul enters the city, he begins to work extraordinary miracles. As many of the locals are attracted to the Christian movement, they begin to reject the practice of magic. The first scene of this chapter ends with the remarkable report that many of these magicians collected their books”books that were worth a considerable sum”and burned them publicly. As Luke reports, “So, the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.”

The horror of seeing his livelihood put at risk leads a magician named Demetrius to gather his fellow tradesmen and instruct them in the potential economic costs they will incur if Paul and his friends are to continue preaching. Not only will their trade be endangered, but the temple of the goddess Artemis will be scorned. As Rowe notes, this was no idle thought, for such temples were not just places of worship and sacrifice; they also functioned as “an arbiter in regional disputes, a bank, a place for civic archives” and other public duties. The temple of Artemis was “an indispensable pillar in the cultural structures and life of Asia, and was therefore a crucial factor in the lives of all . . . whom Christianity hoped to convert.”

One must take the worries of Demetrius with utter seriousness. The success of the Christian mission posed a serious danger to a long-established way of life. Rowe concludes that Luke’s depiction of the nascent Church does not press for some anodyne form of “toleration” within Greco-Roman society, as one might have concluded from Paul’s appearance before Gallio. Instead, Luke takes great care to display the profound and often troubling cultural destabilization that was basic to the way the Christian mission was realized in space and time. The converts in Ephesus faced a stark choice: either the practice of magic and veneration of Artemis or the worship of Christ as Lord of all. As the subsequent success of the Christian movement over the next few centuries demonstrated, the consequences of this new religion for urban life were enormous.

In sum, it is much too simple to claim that Luke, in Acts, is seeking to portray the Christian movement as innocent of the charge of sedition. Although that is certainly part of his purpose”and the lengthy narrative about the trial of Paul that begins in Israel and will conclude in Rome underscores that point”Rowe’s book plumbs the issue at far greater depths. The Christian message, Rowe argues, has considerable effects on the body politic, primarily because the gospel impinges on the social order in three profound ways. First, it straightforwardly asserts that Jesus is Lord of all. Although this does not make the Christians into political revolutionaries, it does mean that Christian converts will reject pagan practices that are near and dear to the flourishing of normal civic life (so the events in Ephesus). Christianity will not allow for the coordination of its God with the gods of the Roman pantheon. Second, the conviction that the good news about Jesus Christ must be shared with one and all means that the danger of pagans abandoning native practices cannot and will not be limited to a city or two. The universal mission means political and economic challenges of a universal scope. Finally, the founding of communities of Jews and Gentiles in towns such as Antioch gives the movement a visible public presence.

But what does all of this serious scholarship mean for the identity of Christians in the modern world? It is a tribute to the deep learning of this author that his work presses to a theological conclusion about the relationship between religion and politics in our own day. As Rowe observes, the position advocated by Luke in Acts has proven a challenge for contemporary believers. The claim that Christ is Lord of all is likely to be heard as a “totalizing narrative” that obliterates the integrity of “the other.” It is impossible to do full justice to the richness of the final chapter’s discussion, but a judicious reading of the works of figures such as Jan Assman, Charles Taylor, and Alastair MacIntyre leads Rowe to conclude that the promotion of the gospel ought not to lead to the coercing of the religious other for some putative public good. Instead, the truth of Jesus’ lordship leads, in Rowe’s words, to “a mission that rejects violence as a way to ground peaceful community and instead witnesses to the Lord’s life of rejection and crucifixion by living it in publicly perceivable communities derisively called Christian.” In short, the mission that Luke envisions in Acts does not necessitate the coercion of others but, rather, a bold witness to the claim of Jesus’ unique (i.e., cruciform) manner of establishing his lordship. To be sure, a faithful embodiment of such a cruciform witness will never be without its attendant dangers. As in the days of Paul, the faithfully lived Christian life is prone to grave misinterpretation.

Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament at the University of Notre Dame.

Articles by Gary A. Anderson

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