The beginning of the first century AD saw the rapid rise of the Roman Imperial Cult. This religious cult was based upon the proclaimed divinity of Augustus Caesar (c.62 BC – 14 AD / Reigned 31 BC – 14 AD) and subsequent Roman Emperors. This Imperial Cult was a unifying political and religious factor across the whole Roman Empire in the first century. The emergence of the Imperial Cult preceded, but also developed with, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
The earliest written Christian records we have are the Letters of St. Paul from the mid-first century. A good summary of the theme of his gospel message is contained in the Letter to the Romans Chapter 1, Verses 3 &4: “…concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead…”.
In the opinion of British theologian N.T. Wright, “Despite the way Protestantism has used the phrase (making it denote, as it never does in Paul, the doctrine of justification by faith), for Paul “the gospel” is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Lord.”
Wright goes on to explain that Paul’s euangelion, his gospel (Good News) message, was every bit as much a confrontational and subversive political proclamation as it was a religious one: “Paul was announcing that Jesus was the true King of Israel and hence the true Lord of the world, at exactly the time in history, and over exactly the geographical spread, where the Roman emperor was being proclaimed, in what styled itself a “gospel”, in very similar terms.”
Later, Wright applies Paul’s gospel message to his [Paul’s] vision for the ekklesia, the church. His basis for this comes from Chapter 3 of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Wright tells us: “We may begin with 3.20. “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await the Saviour, the Lord Jesus, the Messiah”. These are Caesar-titles. The whole verse says: Jesus is Lord, and Caesar isn’t. Caesar’s empire, of which Philippi is a colonial outpost, is the parody; Jesus’ empire, of which the Philippian church is a colonial outpost, is the reality.”
Wright goes on to discuss the implications of Paul’s vision of this empire of Jesus: “if Paul’s answer to Caesar’s empire is the empire of Jesus, what does that say about this new empire, living under the rule of its new lord? It implies a high and strong ecclesiology, in which the scattered and often muddled cells of women, men and children loyal to Jesus as Lord form colonial outposts of the empire that is to be: subversive little groups when seen from Caesar’s point of view, but when seen Jewishly an advance foretaste of the time when the earth shall be filled with the glory of the God of Abraham and the nations will join Israel in singing God’s praises.”
Paul’s vision for this ekklesia, as subversive colonial outposts of the coming empire of Jesus, could not be realized after a series of events in the fourth century. In AD 313 Constantine the Great issued the Edict of Milan, a proclamation of religious tolerance that officially ended the persecution of Christians. The Christian Church greatly increased in power and influence in the fourth century under Imperial patronage. The Church quickly became fully integrated into the political and cultural fabric of the Roman Empire, culminating with The Edict of Thessalonica, also known as Cunctos populos, issued on 27 Feb 380, by Roman Emperor Theodosius I. This edict ordered all subjects of the Roman Empire to profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. The edict officially made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire.
And the Church has been “sleeping with the enemy”, the world’s domination systems and institutions, for the entire 1,700 years since. This is Christendom. This is not the vision of the ekklesia of the Apostle Paul.