Church History: Sacerdotalism and Church As State

by John Ellis

(This is the slightly edited manuscript for the class I taught this past Sunday at my church. It’s been edited for others to read instead of it being written for me to speak. Even with that, though, there may be places where it hits your “ear” funny because you’re reading something that was meant to be delivered to your actual ear by a specific voice.)

History has always been one of my favorite subjects, but it hasn’t always been my favorite class. Where I went to college, History of Civ was dreaded by almost everyone. It was a dry, fast-moving survey course, filled with dates, names, and often seemingly disparate facts. What does 1215 have to do with 1776?[1]

For many people, history itself is boring. And that’s unfortunate. History can help reveal who we are and why we do things the way we do them. And church history is no different.

How history is taught is vital, though, which should be a tautology but, sadly, is not. The way the subject is often taught reinforces in many peoples’ mind that history bears little relevance to today. It’s like a family tree. Fun to look at it, but past a couple of generations, the names are flat and existentially disconnected from the present.  

Ignoring or dismissing history as largely irrelevant is the (exact) same thing as opening a novel up to chapter 2022 (it’s a really long book) and begin reading, largely ignoring all the previous chapters. But those previous chapters, and let’s focus in on Church history, communicate vital information and narrative threads to us.

How have we been shaped? How are we responding? What blind spots have we inherited? And even more importantly, what does the gospel and the history of God’s people, even going back to the Old Testament, have to say about who we are? Are there moments in church history in which God’s people have taken their (our) eyes off Jesus? If yes, how is that affecting us?

And this is my challenge: To look at Sacerdotalism and the issue of the Church as state in ways that help shine a light into our lives.

To begin, let’s briefly look at Psalm 119:41-48

41 Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord,
    your salvation according to your promise;
42 then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me,
    for I trust in your word.
43 And take not the word of truth utterly out of my mouth,
    for my hope is in your rules.
44 I will keep your law continually,
    forever and ever,
45 and I shall walk in a wide place,
    for I have sought your precepts.
46 I will also speak of your testimonies before kings
    and shall not be put to shame,
47 for I find my delight in your commandments,
    which I love.
48 I will lift up my hands toward your commandments, which I love,
    and I will meditate on your statutes.

Over the previous two weeks of this class, Clark has talked to us about how the Psalmist presents God’s words as the perfect provision for a journey, recognizing the vital need for the words of God as a sojourner.

Why the need?

Well, God’s words provide life. They provide sustenance for the journey. They also provide light.

The metaphor of a path is used throughout the Psalms, and 119 is no different. And that metaphor speaks to a destination. The sojourner isn’t just traveling for the sake of traveling. There’s an endpoint. A final resting place.

But to get there, to reach that Rest, the Psalmist recognizes his complete dependence on God. The need for God and God’s words to light the way.

Carrying that into these verses, a specific framing for this section is highlighted. It’s found in verse 42 – “then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me, for I trust in your word.”

The Psalmist is facing resistance along his journey.

Taunts are a form of bondage. An undermining of our value and our ability to accomplish those things we’ve set out to accomplish. They call into question our identity. With his words, mockers can paralyze us into indecision. Trap us into a personal stasis that stops us in our metaphorical tracks. Or, sometimes, they can redirect us in ways that we wouldn’t have chosen otherwise and then later regret. If you’ve played sports, you get this.

Trash talking is a way to question the opposing player’s abilities and is intended to shake the confidence in ways that undermine his or her ability to effectively compete on the court or field. The question is, where do you – as the athlete being taunted – find your athletic identity? If that identity is rooted in hard work, practice and more practice, and a dedication to competing hard, the taunts will have little to no effect. If, however, the athlete’s identity is rooted in dreams of grandeur, Walter Mitty-styled flights of fancy, or an unearned confidence in untested abilities, the taunts will likely work. He or she will have no answers to their mocker.

This truth finds parallels in the Christian life. Where, or in whom, is our identity? Where, or in whom, is our hope, our strength?

For the Psalmist, his identity is found in God’s salvation. And that identity creates a spirit that loves God’s words, His commandments. And this identity brings the Psalmist liberty. The taunts are no match for God’s mercies – His love – because, as the Psalmist realizes, God’s statutes bring life. Bring salvation.

While the Psalmist at this point in history had yet to have the fullness of God’s salvation in Christ revealed to him, these verses remind me of one of my favorite verses in the Bible – Paul’s encouragement found in 1 Corinthians 3:23, “and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.”

Different commentators offer two interpretations of the salvation here: 1. The salvation is purely eschatological. On the Final Day, the Psalmist will be exonerated before his persecutors. Or, 2. The Psalmist can live joyfully and fully in the here and now resting in the knowledge of God’s mercies and His salvation. The taunts of his persecutor are emptied of their force.  

I say, why choose? Pick both.

Our salvation is eschatological, but it also delivers freedom for us in the present and provides flourishing in the here and now in ways that allow us to continue forward to the prize of God’s heavenly calling in Christ Jesus.

I love how Charles Spurgeon puts it in his comments about this Psalm in The Treasury of David, “Salvation is an aggregate of mercies incalculable in number, priceless in value, incessant in application, eternal in endurance.”[2]

Moving forward, I want to briefly draw attention to two main points that will help provide a doxological and biblical foundation for our turn to sacerdotalism and Church history. First, this Psalm provides the great comfort that our hope – no matter the trials and troubles – our hope is in the steadfast love of our Father and the salvation He has provided.

Secondly, God’s laws – His character, who He is – are the path (verse 45, “and I shall walk in a wide place, for I have sought your precepts”) are the path to the full flourishing of God’s blessings. I worded that intentionally. God’s blessings are flourishing.

But what are God’s blessings?

And this is a question that trips up many Believers (throughout Church history). How do we define flourishing?

For the Psalmist, the answer is found in who God is. In his salvation and in His law.

First and foremost, God is the blessing. Through our union with Christ, we get God. “and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” Flourishing (eschatologically and in the here and now) is inseparable from our union with Christ and the blessings of being able to call God our Father.

One of my favorite songs is “Where the Streets Have No Name” by U2. And there is some confusion about its meaning. Some people believe it’s about heaven. It might be. It definitely has themes that echo of the eternal Rest. Bono is fairly cagey when talking about what his songs are about, and he says different things in different interviews. But he has revealed that he began writing the song while U2 was doing aid work in Ethiopia.

Going into the experience, the band believed that they had something to give. They were there to “save” the oppressed. But what they found was the exact opposite.

While joining in the corporate worship of a church in a refugee camp, Bono and his bandmates were ashamed to realize that they didn’t really understand God’s blessings. They assumed that their riches, privilege, and fame were blessings. The things they had accumulated, the trappings of the here and now – “Look at how God has so richly blessed us!”

But listening to Believers, who’re the opposite of blessed from an earthly definition – they have nothing of the here and now that we generally prize, no trappings – listening to those Believers praise God with great joy through song, prayer, and the preaching of God’s word, the band was confronted with what it means to be truly blessed. The truly blessed grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ, no matter their circumstances.

I’m going to say something that may make some uncomfortable – I’ve gone from teaching to preaching – but for many of us, our definition of flourishing is at odds with Psalm 119. Our understanding of our very real role as sojourners on a specific path to a specific resting place has been waylaid and hijacked by John Bunyan’s Vanity Faire.

We believe that our comfortable lives, our access to political power, the nice houses with swimming pools we live in, our bountiful meals, those things are evidence of God’s blessings, we believe.

Not to excuse us, but that thought, this dragging of God’s blessings into the crass material, goes way back in church history. And we’re going to look at that under Church as State.

Similarly, the notion that, for God’s children, access to the Father is somehow mediated (mediated better, at least) via a special person or our actions, whether we kneel in prayer or stand with head bowed and eyes closed or whatever, is a thought that has been passed down to us from well-intentioned forebears but who were still mistaken.

It’s easy to look at the worst examples of these things and say, “We thank God that we’re not like that denomination.” It’s easy to pat ourselves on the back as we claim to believe the truth that God’s salvation – His love, His mercy, Himself – is fully and freely offered through union with Christ. But are we sure we don’t have a few splinters in our own eye?

This is why church history matters. Understanding how we’ve been shaped by events and beliefs from the past is important.

And with that, I turn now to Sacerdotalism. I considered including a dictionary definition, but I think I have a better way to help you remember it.

Let’s say one Sunday, Jim, my pastor, comes to me before the service and says, “John, we’re shorthanded this morning. Will you help serve communion? I’ll take one table, you take the other.”

When communion is served, half the congregation goes to Jim’s table. The other half comes to my table. Meaning that everyone who went to Jim’s table receives a greater blessing than those who came to my table. Right? I mean, Jim is a pastor, and I’m not.

That’s sacerdotalism in a very non-seminary speak nutshell.

Priests (pastors) are special mediators between God and man. Something supernatural and extra-spiritual adheres to them within their office and, in some cases, even within their person. Their prayers are more effective. They have the ability to convey grace through the sacraments. The benediction is pronounced not announced – do you know the difference? If I pronounce God’s blessing, I’m releasing that blessing to you; I’m the gatekeeper, the mediator. If I announce God’s blessing, I’m simply telling you what’s already true.

Earlier this year, our church had a Sunday school class on worship. In that class, Robert, one of the teachers, explained that there was a time in the Roman Catholic Church when only priests were allowed to drink the communion wine (the consecrated wine) because the congregation was too sinful to interact with Jesus in that way.[3]

Where does this come from? And, before we chalk this up as just a Roman Catholic problem because we, as protestants, believe in the priesthood of all believers, so does the Roman Catholic church.[4] But they also have what’s called ministerial priesthood – the holy orders (sacerdotalism) – and technically we, as protestants, do not. In practice, though, at times, I think we might.

But this is technically a church history class, and I haven’t given ya’ll much history.

Backing way up, towards the beginning of the 2nd century, Ignatius of Antioch provides us a starting point. While the date of his death is somewhat contested, the traditionally received date for Ignatius’ martyrdom is 108 A.D. On the way to Rome, where he was to be executed as part of the entertainment program for a military victory celebration, he wrote 7 letters.

Those letters are noteworthy for several reasons. They’re some of the earliest extant literature we have from church history. If you accept 108 as the year of his martyrdom, the letters were written in 108. And they give us a brief look into the life of churches in the early 2nd century.

One of the common themes among all 7 letters is Ignatius’ plea to honor and listen to the Bishop, presbyters (or elders), and deacons. A second common theme is Ignatius’ warnings against heresies and false teaching. Both of those things are related.

Already, early in the 2nd century, we see ecclesiastical structures. Now, and we could get in the weeds on this, but it’s difficult to make hard and fast claims about specific ecclesiastical structures of the early 2nd century church. Little information has been passed down to us, and some of the documents seem to contradict other documents.

The point is that already the second and third generation of Christians were applying organization and structure to their church life. I mean, we see this in the New Testament with the first generation of Christians.

Acts 6 where the seven deacons are selected. The church councils in Jerusalem. Paul’s qualifications for elders and deacons. His instructions in 1 Corinthians on celebrating communion. And there are others.

And what we see in the New Testament is the desire to govern God’s people in ways that allow for right worship, for the flourishing of God’s people, and to protect the church from errors.

Why did the twelve ask the congregation to select seven men to be deacons? What was the need? To provide for the Hellenists who were being overlooked in the distribution of resources.

Why did Paul include “he must not be a recent convert” when writing to Timothy about the qualifications for elders? To help ensure that God’s people hear the right teaching of God’s word. Right worship devoid of errors leading to flourishing. There is a causality there.

After I became a Christian in 2004, if you had asked me to articulate what I believed, you would’ve walked away from that conversation thinking, “John is a classical Deist.” William Paley’s God as watchmaker analogy. You probably would’ve also uncovered some trinitarian heresies in my thinking. None of that meant I wasn’t a Christian, because I was. It meant that I needed to be discipled and taught by mature Believers. By God’s grace, I was. But it would’ve been incredibly harmful to the church (and to me) to have elevated me to a position of authority or even allowed me to teach Sunday school.

So, from the beginning, the Church has had a form of governance – a polity, to use a seminary word. Because it’s important. It helps guard against errors and heresies, build us up in the faith, and promote flourishing.

But this brings some tension, this understanding of the importance of church polity, because we are living and worshipping in the here and now and not the not yet. And the rise of a special priest class, this sacerdotalism, wasn’t initially a power grab, it largely didn’t begin as an ungodly desire to turn Christ’s Church into a Tower of Babel.

It really began to take shape in the latter half of the 2nd century in response to the Montanist controversy and then later the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Decius in the 3rd century.

Like other disciplines, history uses the heuristic of necessary and sufficient conditions. While it can be argued that these two events were necessary conditions for the development of sacerdotalism, in and of themselves, they weren’t sufficient. Other things happened that helped bring it about.

But we only have so much time, and I’ve selected these two things for pedagogical reasons. They tie nicely into the larger theme I’m wanting us to walk away with: Depending solely on God for our salvation and sustenance for our pilgrimage and receiving our definition of flourishing from God and not the world.

So, sometime around the middle of the 2nd century, a man named Montanus appears on Church history’s stage. At that point, the Church was growing exponentially. And with that growth, came problems. For Montanus, one of the problems in his estimation was that the Church was becoming too worldly. As the church historian Bruce Shelley puts it, “Had he halted there, he could have done little but good, but he went much further.”[5]

Montanus and his disciples believed that they not only received new Divine revelation from God, they believed that God possessed them and spoke directly through them. One church history book I have subtitles the section on Montanus as “From Montanus to Azusa Street?” which I don’t think is entirely fair but still funny.

Anyway, Montanus’ “prophecies” grew increasingly weirder. To the point where he taught that the Church was entering the last days (since Jesus’ ascension, the Church has believed that we are in the last days – Montanus taught the Church had entered a new age) and he added that Jesus, in his person, works, and teachings, was no longer to be considered the decisive and normative revelation from God. Of course, as you can probably guess, Montanus was happy to now fill that role.

If you pastor begins claiming that he has prophecies that have authority over Jesus’s teachings, how much longer do you think he’d be employed?

However, let’s exercise caution in our judgment. There may be times when we reveal that we functionally believe that our specific cultural context has interpretative authority over the Bible.

But the Montanus controversy did help expose deepening problems in the growing Church. Problems of authority. Problems of apostolic succession. Churches were being planted that couldn’t trace their lineage directly back to one of the apostles. Questions about what’s canonical. Questions of how extensive clerical authority is. Many of these problems were exacerbated in the middle of the next century – the 3rd century – after Decius became emperor of Rome in 249.

The previous 50 years or so, the Church had suffered very little persecution. Of course, there were localized pockets of persecution from time to time, but there wasn’t a widespread systematic persecution of Christians. Decius changed that. He made it illegal to not worship the pagan gods.

You see, Decius wasn’t interested in giving Christianity more power by creating martyrs. He wanted to create apostates. Via torture combined with promises, the authorities were able to force many Christians to abandon their faith.

Let’s be careful here, it’s really easy for us to sit in a climate-controlled room and declare that no amount of torture could get us to betray Jesus. In fact, though, I bet most of us can think of times when we remained silent about Jesus when the worst that was at stake for us was getting made fun of.

But it is tempting to shake our heads and roll our eyes at brothers and sisters in Christ who, during the intense agony of torture, were compelled to say whatever needed to be said to get it to stop. And this temptation existed in the 3rd century, too.

Decius’ persecution only lasted about 2 years. And minus a short time of persecution about 6 years later, the Roman empire returned for about 40 years to the temper of the first half of the 3rd century when Christians were rarely persecuted. During this time, a controversy arose: the question of the lapsed. What to do with those who renounced Jesus during Decius’ persecution but who now wanted back in the church?

It’s not as simple a question as it might appear on the surface.

For example, there were some of the lapsed who repented and returned to the Church while the program of persecution was ongoing (they put themselves back under the threat of being tortured). And then there were those who capitulated to Decius’ policy without even being tortured. They saw the handwriting on the wall and signed whatever they needed to sign to avoid the persecution. Also, a black market of forged documents existed that Christians could buy that they could show to the authorities as proof of their obedience to Decius and allegiance to the pagan gods but then later say to other Christians, “Well, I didn’t really renounce Jesus because my document was fake.”

So, there was a debate about how to view the lapsed and how to respond to them. And this debate grew to the point that it created a schism within the Church. Some believed that the lapsed should be welcomed back to full fellowship and others believed, “yeah, no, they blew it. They’re not one of us.”

At the same time, there was another group: the confessors. Unlike the lapsed, the confessors were those Christians who had suffered torture but who had not renounced Jesus. And a growing number of people began to believe that the confessors were the ones who had the right to determine who among the lapsed could be restored to communion. In this view, the confessors had a special authority.

Some confessors grabbed hold of that and begin issuing pardons and restoring some of the lapsed. Many of the bishops were not happy about this. And competing systems of who had authority and how that authority could be meted out and whom among the lapsed could be restored and how emerged.

And two of the people who are important in this debate are Cyprian and Novatian.

Cyprian was the Bishop of Carthage, and when the persecution under Decius started, he thought it best for he and other church leaders to flee and hide. That way, they would be safe to minister to the church.

Some churches, specifically the church in Rome whose Bishop had been martyred, did not look kindly on Cyprian. And many in Carthage thought he had acted cowardly, and they believed the confessors had more authority than Cyprian did. Considering that Cyprian was later martyred for his faith, those of us living in 21st century America should probably refrain from questioning Cyprian’s faithfulness and courage.

As the debates and controversy grew, Cyprian called a synod. That assembly of Bishops debated these issues and came up with a system of who can be readmitted and when and how. As best we know, based off his own words, Cyprian’s main motivation was protecting the unity of the church. He believed that if various churches were allowed to come to different conclusions on the matter, eventually it would lead to different communions.

Ironically, as we know from history, that happened anyway. Different communions sprouted from the seeds Cyprian and others sowed, including a man named Novatian.   

In the words of the ancient church historian Eusebius, “About this time appeared Novatus, a presbyter of the church of Rome, and a man elevated with haughtiness against these (that had fallen), as if there was no room for them to hope for salvation, not even if they performed every thing for a genuine and pure confession.”[6]

Novatian (or Novatus) believed the lapsed were being readmitted too quickly and too easily, and he was none too happy about it. He quickly became a thorn in the side of Cornelius, the bishop of Rome. So much so, that a schism happened. And it lasted several generations. And that schism played a role in Cyprian’s synod and writings calling for unity.

These events, and others – for example, there had been a fairly contentious debate early in the 3rd century about forgiving and readmitting those who had committed sexual sins – did show a concern for the purity of the Church. And in the main, I think we can sympathize (and be grateful) that they were grappling with serious issues.

But they were also the seeds for a centralized polity that quickened the rise of Sacerdotalism. Church historians point out that these events and questions were the genesis for the system of penitence the Reformers reacted to. Something happened, though, in the 4th century that acted as a type of super-fertilizer for the seeds of sacerdotalism that had been sown in the previous centuries. Emperor Constantine happened.

Briefly, and I’m assuming many, are aware of the bare timeline, in 312 AD Constantine professed faith in Jesus. An argument can be made that he leveraged the Christian faith to help him consolidate the empire by elevating himself from emperor alongside three other emperors among whom the empire was divided to sole emperor over the entire empire.

Was Constantine a genuine believer? Only God knows. And Constantine. The point is, none of us know, nobody currently on this planet (or in the space station) knows, and none of us will be able to figure it out in this life. To be blunt, I don’t think it’s an interesting question because it can take our eyes off what was happening and the consequences.

I’ve said and written this many times, but I believe that one of the biggest mistakes in Church history was the Church allowing Constantine to marry her to cultural and political power and prestige. One of the biggest mistakes of the Reformation was the failure to initiate a divorce.

For the record, because this is technically a Church history class, and so we should get our history correct, Constantine functionally made Christianity the top-dog among religions in the empire. Theodosius is the emperor who legally made Christianity the official religion of the state in 392 by outlawing all pagan religions.

One of the immediate consequences was that many of the bishops, elders, and even mobs of lay Christians quickly grabbed the literal sword after Theodosius outlawed pagan religions. The tremendous error of the Church wielding the sword began immediately upon the merging of the Church and state. One church historian points out, “There is ample evidence of violence committed by Christians against pagans.”[7]

That same historian reveals to us, “The new privileges, prestige and power now granted to church leaders soon led to acts of arrogance and even to corruption.”[8]

Prior to what’s called Constantinianism – the emergence of an earthly Christendom – the beginning stages of sacerdotalism were generated by legitimate theological questions and concerns. Issues of authority needed to be interacted with. Questions of how to respond to Christians who fall into grievous sin needed to be answered.

Now, though, as the Church entered the 5th century, the allure of an earthly flourishing altered the landscape. Constantine’s Christianizing the Roman Empire, to steal the title of a noteworthy history book, meant that earthly, material concerns began to play a syncretistic role in the battle for souls.

Ramsay MacMullen, the author of that book, wrote, “Overnight, it seemed, [Constantine] created ‘a Christianity whose bishops and clergy had had social horizons blown wide open by finding the open-handed Constantine in their midst.”[9]

Constantine passed out riches, power, and prestige to bishops and the clergy. And Ramsay convincingly argues that after Constantine, it’s difficult to extrapolate genuine conversions and resolutions of Church disputes from temporal, self-serving concerns and desires for wealth and privilege.

When the Church and state are conflated, often not being a Christian becomes a cross to bear. Flipping Jesus’ encouragement, “take up your cross and follow me” on its head. But many Christians at the time, including Eusebius, believed that Constantine was God’s anointed to bring the Church into the beginning of its final glory.

Now, I’m not naïve about the overall mood in this country and in our communities. These are issues and questions that arouse a lot of passion, even anger. And I’m doing my best to avoid grabbing some specific third rails. Because, in this class, we’re not going to solve the issues nor answer the questions dominating our collective conversation. We don’t have the time. And if we’re being honest, we likely don’t have the requisite skills and knowledge anyway.

But what we do have is God’s Word. And we have a few minutes left. And for these remaining minutes, I want us to look at God’s Word, combined with some peeks back into Church history, and see if we can find some authoritative presuppositions that will help carry us into better conversations about these issues.  

During the previous two weeks of this class, Clark gave us a good theological scaffolding as we look at this. He talked about two types of theology: pilgrim theology and theology of the blessed.

Theology of the blessed = those pilgrims who have been taken home to that rest, to plagiarize Clark. And pilgrim theology looks like Psalm 119. An understanding that we are sojourners and utterly dependent on God for life and for strength as we journey along His path to His final Rest.

I’m sure many are familiar with the already/not yet distinction. It’s implied in the pilgrim theology and theology of the blessed tension. As Christians, we enjoy all spiritual blessings in Christ but have yet to experience the fullness of those blessings. One day, on that Final Day, when King Jesus brings to completion the last days and ushers his people into our final Rest in the New Earth, the fullness of those blessings will become a reality for us.  

So, a question Christians should think about and pray about: Are we guilty of dragging the “not yet” into the already? Have we assumed a current posture of the theology of the blessed at the expense of what should be our pilgrim theology?

While not perfect, the very early Church was characterized by a robust pilgrim theology.

King Jesus told his followers – told us – that we should expect persecution. John 15:18, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” Two verses later, that “if” is shorn of its uncertainty when Jesus adds, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”

Here’s the most rhetorical questions of all rhetorical questions: Was Jesus hated and persecuted?

So, IF they persecuted me (and he was persecuted), they WILL also persecute you (are we being persecuted? Likely not). Later in the New Testament, we read Paul’s grave reminder to Timothy that, “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12).”

Without question, the early church was persecuted. Christians in the early church found themselves at odds with basically every aspect of society. As Bruce Shelley put it, “the early Christian was almost bound to divorce himself from the social and economic life of his time if he wanted to be true to his Lord.”[10]

But by the 5th century, and in contrast to the very early church, many Christians and increasingly the institutional church were wholeheartedly embracing a theology of the blessed. Their faith was now married to the social and economic life of their time. For many of us, we believe that our faith has the right to married to the social and economic life of our time.

So, what are we to take away from all this? I’ve mentioned some things throughout, but as we conclude, I want us to look again at Psalm 119:41-48 and be confronted by the words of the sojourner psalmist who writes in verses 46-47, “I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love.”

I’m afraid that in our context, we read “shall not be put to shame” with a healthy dose of temporal triumphalism. We think blessings mean being vindicated in the here and now before kings.

We take the war metaphors of the New Testament – put on the whole armor of God – that apply to our sanctification and drag them into earthly political battles in order to justify our embrace of the theology of the blessed in the here and now. We hijack the Bible to use in a self-serving ploy to protect our own power, esteem, and comfort. But this isn’t the posture of the psalmist. As one commentator puts it, this is a promise by the psalmist of faithfulness as a worshipful response to God’s faithfulness.

The psalmist is declaring, “No matter what. No matter how difficult things become for me on this journey, I will not be ashamed of who You are and what You’ve done and are doing for me. And I will speak boldly of your promises and of who You are, even if I’m standing in front of a king.”

It’s in verse 48 – why the psalmist won’t be put to shame. “For I find my delight in your commandments, which I love.”

The psalmist’s definition of flourishing was inseparable from God’s salvation. The psalmist’s hope was in God, and his final endgame was reaching that final rest without being waylaid by the distractions of the world. And the only way to do that was by delighting in God’s words and not in the power and riches of kings.

When we look back over Church history, we have much we can be thankful for. Unfortunately, in the middle of the first millennium, over legitime concerns and issues, they began to forget that true flourishing is God’s blessings – is God Himself.

And in place of that definition of flourishing that keeps us moving forward in our sojourning, they began to accumulate definitions of flourishing held out by the world – power, wealth, esteem, safety and comfort.  

Here’s what I know: We are to love God. And then we are to love our neighbors. All of them. No matter how they look, what they say, or what they do. And we are to submit ourselves to the ordinary means of grace – the gathering of the Saints, placing ourselves under the right preaching of God’s word, participation in the sacraments, and being faithful in communing with our Heavenly Father through prayer and the reading of His word.

We are to love God’s salvation and delight in His word.

Clinging to God and His word is essential to avoiding errors like sacerdotalism and the tempting synergy of church as state.

We are still going to be distracted. There will still be temptations that snake themselves into our heart. Questions of ethics will continue to confront us (how do we live faithfully in the here and now as sojourners?), and we will undoubtedly get some of them wrong. But seeing ourselves as God sees us, in Christ, is the only way to preserve unity and move forward faithfully as we sojourn together to our final Rest.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] In 1215, King John agreed to the Magna Carta. 1776? Well, even if you didn’t remember 1215, you probably realized what I meant by 1776. And you now likely understand the difference. In the mid-90s, though, although I’m sure that a few threads were sewn between the two events, dates, and the various names involved, those threads were so thin and poorly connected as render them mostly contentless.

[2] Charles Spurgeon, The Treasury of David: Classic Reflections on the Wisdom of the Psalms vol. 3 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), 226.

[3] There are still Roman Catholic Churches that still limit the wine to the priests. The reason now, though, (at least the stated reason) is far more pragmatic. It would be difficult and possibly a health hazard to pass a single chalice around to everyone.

[4] Vatican II answers how this works in Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity. The “lay priests” are called to consecrate things in everyday life – meals, work, hobbies, etc.

[5] Bruce Shelley, Church History In Plain Language 4th ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 71.

[6] Eusebius, Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History trans. C.F. Cruse (Merchant Books, 2011), 248.

[7] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: Harper One, 2010),142.

[8] Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 143.

[9] Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), 49.

[10] Shelley, Church History In Plain Language 4th ed., 43.

One thought on “Church History: Sacerdotalism and Church As State

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