To many readers of the book of Acts, the early church looks like an ancient sect, a counter-community blissfully unconcerned about public life. That’s a misreading. Luke records individual and mass conversions, but he views the church’s mission through a theopolitical lens. To be sure, the church is a distinct communion with its own ethos and practices, but it’s also a political force that shakes the foundations of civic life.
The church’s enemies certainly see it as a threat to the political, religious, and cultural status quo. On Pentecost, three thousand have been added to the fledgling church, separated by the rite of baptism (Acts 2:41) to adopt a new set of beliefs and habits: devotion to the teaching of the apostles, breaking bread, prayer, and communion, including a communion of material goods (Acts 2:42-47). Soon, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem accuse Christians of overthrowing Jewish customs (ethe; Acts 6:14), and, as the church spreads through the Roman world, Gentiles recognize that the church’s “customs” (ethe) clash with the Roman way of life (Acts 16:21).
The apostles intend to challenge the status quo. In Philippi, Paul expels a spirit of divination from a slave girl. Deprived of their livelihood, the girl’s owners drag Paul and Silas to the magistrates, charging them with attacking the customs of the proudly Roman colony of Philippi. Mob and magistrates strip the missionaries and beat them with rods, and the city leaders throw them into prison (Acts 16:16-24). Overnight, an earthquake shakes the prison open, which leads to the conversion of the jailer and his household. The next morning, the humbled magistrates offer to let Paul and Silas leave town quietly, but Paul refuses. The magistrates have permitted Roman citizens to be beaten and imprisoned without trial, and Paul wants the magistrates to admit their error in person (Acts 16:35-39). That is, Paul demands a vindication as public as the violation. That vindication has long-term effects. If the magistrates allow Paul and Silas to preach openly in Philippi, they’ll also tolerate the group of believers gathered at Lydia’s house (Acts 16:40).
Paul wins a legal and political skirmish, but he achieves far more. He leaves behind a new Philippi, which now permits a religious group to teach a subversive Way that, by the Philippians’ own admission, “it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans” (Acts 16:21). The mere existence of a Christian community in Philippi forces the city to alter public norms.
We should see the apostles’ triumphs over false prophets, magicians, and idolaters in a similar light. In Samaria, Peter and John lay hands on believers to confer the Spirit. Simon, a magician who “claimed to be someone great” and was known as “the Great Power of God,” offers to pay the apostles to teach him the trick. Peter severely rebukes Simon’s bondage to iniquity and the “gall of bitterness” (Acts 8:9-24), and Simon, recognizing a power greater than his own, pleads with the apostles for forgiveness. You can bet Simon lost some prestige among the Samaritans after that incident. At Philippi, Paul expels a demon, and in Ephesus he provokes a riot among worshipers of Artemis (Acts 19:23-41). These are spiritual battles, but spiritual and political power were inextricably mixed in the ancient world. Exotic messengers from Judea who win power battles with magicians and prophets are a political force to be reckoned with.
Paul’s confrontation with Bar-Jesus at Salamis is of particular note. At the beginning of the story, Bar-Jesus is “with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus” (Acts 13:6-7). He’s a court magician and prophet, like the magicians of Pharaoh or the prophets of Ahab, a Jewish adviser at the right hand of a Gentile ruler, like Joseph with Pharaoh, Daniel with Nebuchadnezzar and Darius, Mordecai with Ahasuerus. When Paul rebukes Bar-Jesus as a “son of the devil,” Sergius Paulus is impressed: “the proconsul believed . . . being amazed at the teaching of the Lord” (Acts 13:12). A Roman proconsul stops taking advice from one Jew in order to listen to his namesake. The placement of this episode in the narrative of Acts is noteworthy. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’s first sermon at Nazareth anticipates his entire mission as Isaiah’s Spirit-anointed Servant of Yahweh (Luke 4:14-30). Set at the very beginning of Paul’s first missionary journey, the story of Bar-Jesus and Sergius Paulus also has programmatic force. This, Luke implies, is what Paul’s mission is all about. The apostle to the Gentiles prevails over false teachers so Roman officials will submit to the teaching of the Lord.
Christians today debate whether the church should regroup into separated communities of virtue in order to prepare for a future evangelization (Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option) or seek to transform institutions from within (Adrian Vermeule’s strategy). In Acts these aren’t conflicting or even alternative strategies. They’re two prongs of the same mission; Christ is both against culture and its transformer. The church challenges and transforms public life precisely because it confronts the world as a people loyal to another king, one Jesus (Acts 17:6-7).
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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