The Church and Christ

The church is a unique social formation, that is, unique in world history! It is a religious organization independent from the state. There has always been competition between the two, because it has always been an issue who used whom for the promotion of its own purposes. Sometimes the state has used the church in support of its moral legitimacy. Sometimes the church has only supported the state as a means to take charge of everything in civil life itself apart from warfare: education, care for the poor, the administration of law. Such competition sometimes turned into a blunt power struggle. But nevertheless, or precisely because of that, competition has led to the civil liberties we know today.

No absolute power for the government

Wherever the institution of the church got a substantial foothold, the government could not exercise absolute power anymore. There was always opposition between the two. Certainly, the emperors of the Byzantine Empire and even Charlemagne and his followers also considered their imperial power as a Christian office. And certainly, from their side they always tried to interfere in the policies of the Church, precisely because it had such an influence on the government. But one thing was ruled out from the beginning: After Constantine the Great became Emperor and recognized the Church, cooperated with it, and depended on it even for his legitimacy, no emperor could become a Son of God (or of the gods) anymore. The Egyptian pharaohs, the Chinese emperors, and from Caesar onwards also the Roman emperors were always elevated to divine status. The universe had granted them their powers and with their actions and decisions they carried out the will of the universe: it was written in heaven. That was literally the case in Egypt. From the position of the stars (in July Sirius had a position just above the horizon) one could read when the Nile would start to rise. Whoever saw that coming could base an organization on it and Pharaoh and his entourage did precisely that. When the water rose, people started working on the Pharaoh’s structures for four months. After four months the water had subsided and the land was divided in plots for the farmers. In China, the emperor went to live in a different part of his palace during every season. In this way he made it clear to the people that he was at the controls of the climate. A heavenly kingdom like that of China or Egypt had its foundation in the firmament. The emperor was included in the family of the Gods and ruled the earth as a divine possession. His control was absolute.

State = Empire minus religious halo

One often comes across the word state in history books about the Babylonian Empire or about Egypt or other imperial cultures, instead of terms like heavenly kingdom or empire. Actually that is unhistorical. A modern institution is projected back to a situation that had no room for it because it was literally hierarchical. Hierarchy means holy order. And indeed when church and state coincide, if officials are also priests, then there is a holy order and it is sacrosanct, with absolute rule. State, on the other hand, meant the current state of affairs. The word state underlined the secular nature of power. Of course, survival in war and labor was also important, which is why something like the state was unavoidable. But that was simply a stupid fact of life. It was without any spiritual legitimation, which is why the church opposed the secular to the spiritual. The spiritual order and with it the divine order exceeded the present state of affairs and for that reason the church considered it as its task to connect the future to the present, through social work, education, care for the sick. The monarchs in England, France, and Germany (also anachronisms, as they did not exist as nation states at the time) dealt with war and land ownership, but the church was thinking on the long term and introduced education, created employment through land reclamation, cared for the poor and the sick, for mining and agriculture. It could be said that all departments except foreign affairs were then in the hands of the church. It is not surprising that this commitment to and by ordinary people eventually turned the church into quite a powerful institution. Therefore, it is remarkable and strange that today people often seem to be only impressed by the power at the Church. For in fact, everything we now call the Civil Society originated from the ecclesiastical opposition to Imperial control, first that of Rome, later that of the German Empire and other powers. That people can practice solidarity outside their own family and clan is a result of bottom-up civil cooperation initiated by the Church.


Where does it come from that so much public morality and concern for one another and cooperation with one another have been raised to a higher level in comparison with the Roman Empire and among the tribes? It is simply the imitation of Christ by people who also went “The Way”. The Way – that was the name for Christian life at the time. And that was a way of self-denial and sacrifice. The word God could no longer be spoken without thinking of the crucified Christ. And that entailed some consequences for sons of gods who live in luxury. He was resurrected in every person who followed him. That was then literally called the “resurrection of the corpses”. The victim’s corpse is resurrected by his followers following the same way. Besides religious consequences and in one package with it, it also had social consequences: volunteering. People helped each other with food, and – sounds crazy – with a funeral. At that time, it often happened that poor people were left dead on the street and ended up only being dumped with the waste.

In short, whoever went The Way lived by grace. The word grace is hardly used nowadays, and if you want to interpret it, you could best speak of “gratuitous love”. Here the revelation of Christ is the decisive force. What is then revelation? Until then, the ideal of humanity was autarky, self-sufficiency. Being independent. From Christ onwards, however much by his followers themselves and not only by those the new principal was sinned against, man is no more than a conduit of gratuitous love and without that one cannot really speak of a human being. Ecce homo – see man! That is what Pilate says when he points to Christ who is an object of ridicule with a crown of thorns on his head and a purple cloak on his bloodied body. This skeptical Roman says here: what is a human being more than that! The Gospel writers wrote that word down because it appealed to them. Indeed: a human being is no more than that! Only the gratuitous love that goes from person to person makes the difference.