As the church becomes visible in the world, occupying space and time, turning people toward Christ in devotion and loyalty, and transforming the way they live and relate to others, the world fights back on all fronts. In the New Testament, the “world” is understood in two ways. It can mean God’s creation, which he loves and wishes to save (John 3:16). Or, it can refer to the twisted order that exists in the human mind wherein something other than God holds the place of honor. This perverted order manifests itself in such individual vices as lust, greed, and pride and in all levels and combinations of the social order:
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15-17).
I will leave to one side the individual and focus on the social dimension. We are born into a network of social relationships of ever increasing abstraction—the biological family, local communities, and finally the state. We enter other communities voluntarily—businesses, friendships, schools, gangs, clubs, unions, and professional organizations. Each of these societies has a preexisting identity and tradition. In volunteer societies, identity and tradition are expressed in rules and ceremonies, and in the state they are expressed in laws and symbols. Every association demands that its members conform to the group in ways that preserve group identity and facilitate achieving its purpose. Individuals that refuse to conform are disciplined or excluded.
According to the New Testament, we should not be surprised but expect that the entire social network into which we are born—that is, “the world”—is wrongly ordered. Everything is out of place. As I said above, the world and everything in it is God’s creation. But if we love it as a whole or in part more than we love God, we become “the world” in that second sense.
We cannot evade sin and our responsibility by forming corporations and associations. Human associations do not escape but mirror and magnify the vices and virtues of the human heart. Sadly but quite clearly, most people do not love the Father more than they love world. Consequently, the human institutions and associations they form are always ordered to worldly goods—pleasure, wealth, honor, and security—as their highest value. So much so that John can say “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19).
The state more than any other human institution mirrors and magnifies human vices and virtues. Like other human institutions composed of lovers of the world and dedicated to worldly ends, states cannot love the Father more than they love themselves. But more than that, since states by their very nature reserve to themselves the ultimate power of life and death over their individual members, inevitably they come to think of themselves as gods. Perhaps some states are better, more just, or more benevolent than others when measured by the gospel’s morality. I don’t deny this. But whether promulgated as the will of the Pharaoh of Egypt, the King of Babylon, the Emperor of Rome, or the will of people speaking in their representatives in Western democracies, the “law” is always a human law, never the will of God. And it’s always accompanied by the threat of death. The confession “Jesus is Lord” is heresy in every municipality, county, state, and country in this age or any other.
When the church becomes visible in the world, the world expects it to submit to its order. Everyone else does. But the church replies to every family, friendship, business, friendship, school, gang, club, union, professional organization, and state, “Jesus is Lord.”
“But I can give you pleasure, wealth, honor, and power ‘if you will bow down and worship me’” (Matt 4:9), a confused world answers.
“Jesus is Lord,” The church repeats.
“Then I will confiscate your property, put you in prison, torture your body, and kill you!” the world shouts, trembling with anger.
Then, remembering Jesus’s words, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. (Luke 12:4-5), the church asserts without hesitation, “Jesus is Lord.”
The devil’s primal instinct leads to a second defeat. But he has one last trick up his sleeve—for he is an expert liar.
Next Time: The devil offers to embrace Christianity. He pledges to protect and defend the church, to give it favored status and a prominent place in the imperial court. “I will open my games, assemblies, courts, with prayer to your God. I will suppress your enemies and build magnificent basilicas for your worship. Only, pray for me and urge the people to obey me in all things related to the temporal order.”