The Wheat, the Tares and Looking at History

In Matthew 13:24-30, Jesus tells a story.  A few verses later (vs 36-43) he tells his disciples what that story means.  The story is about a man who sows good seed in his field.  While he is sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares (or weeds) in that field and went away.  As the wheat begins to grow, the weeds begin to grow up along with the wheat.  The servants of the man who sowed good seed want to pull up the weeds.  But the sower of the wheat makes an interesting decision.  He says, “no, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them.”  He tells them to “let them both grow together until the harvest”.  At harvest time the weeds are gathered first, bundled together and thrown into the fire. The wheat is then harvested and gathered into the barn.

When Jesus explains the story to his disciples, he identifies himself (the Son of Man) as the one who sows the good seed.  The field is the world. The good seed are the sons of the kingdom.  The weeds are the sons of the wicked one.  The enemy who sowed the weeds is the devil.  The harvesters are the angels and the harvest is the end of the age.  In verse 41, Jesus states that thus “the Son of Man will gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers”.

Great, what does this have to do with church history?  Glad you asked. One of the most frustrating realities in looking at church history is how muddled the picture can be.  The same characters in the drama are capable of often both capable of amazing devotion to Christ and actions which go horribly wrong.  Constantine is just one example.  He ends the persecution of the church and is concerned that the church be unified and strong.  He seriously studies Christian doctrine and changes the laws of the Roman Empire to greatly better the position of women and slaves while abolishing some horribly evil practices.  He also ruthlessly executes his enemies (including his wife and one of his sons) and continues other evil practices of Roman law.  So who is he, really?  Like wheat and tares, it is often hard to tell.  Wheat and tares greatly resemble one another in their early stages of development.  The plants have to begin to mature before you can really tell them apart.  I am not just picking on Constantine, either.  All of biblical and church history are filled with characters with profoundly mixed records.  David, the man after God’s own heart, commits adultery and murder.  The list of examples in nearly endless.  History, it seems, is like a field filled with both wheat and weeds.  The fact that Jesus states that at the end of the age he will “gather out of His kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers” lends itself to the obvious conclusion that in this present age a lot of sin and law-breaking exists in His Kingdom, which includes you and me.

What conclusions can one draw from looking at history through the lens of the story of the Wheat and the Tares?

1.  We need to re-think our role in resisting evil.  This means we need to be careful of the Law of Unintended Consequences.  To quote Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, “even the wise cannot see all ends”.  Just war theorizing and pacifism both are fatally flawed.  It is easy to point out “just wars” that have gone horribly wrong.  But nonviolent resistance cannot be idolized either.  For every apparent success there are numerous failures. Gandhi’s nonviolence movement resulted ultimately in the independence of India from British colonial power.  It also unleashed a bloody civil war that killed over one million people and left generations of simmering hatred.  The civil rights movement under the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. resulted in the end of legalized segregation and generations of voting disenfranchisement.  But a generation later, the African-American community still lags behind in every measure of poverty and over 70% of African-American children in the United States are born out of wedlock. The nonviolent movements in the former Soviet bloc in the late 80s and early 90s were successful in throwing off the yoke of Soviet oppression in countries all over Eastern Europe.  But a similar movement in China was crushed in Tiananmen Square.  Earlier movements in Europe (such as Hungary in the last 1950s and the Prague Spring in the last 1960s) met similar fates.  The Arab Spring movement that we see in Egypt, Syria and other countries may or may not result in anything of lasting value.  We cannot make idols of methods and always assume the purity of our motives or the rightness of our cause.  Even our best intentions can go horribly awry.

2.  The Wheat and the Tares are intertwined and it is beyond our power to uproot the Tares on our own.  In fact, on our own strength we are powerless to uproot evil even out of our own lives, much less the lives of others or the course of nations. In the story, the Tares are removed by angels, not by the sons of the kingdom.  We are utterly dependent upon divine action to uproot evil.  This is as true of individuals as it is of nations. This isn’t an excuse to do nothing.  But it is a call to humility.  I can’t uproot sin out of my own life, but I can cooperate with the Holy Spirit in obedience as He pulls the weeds.  Likewise, we are not in charge of history. When we look at the actions of the past, it is not our role to be judge and jury of past characters, groups or nations in the drama of history.

All history is revisionist.  To state the obvious, we weren’t there, we don’t know all of the facts and we can’t say with certainty what we would or wouldn’t have done in the same circumstances.  We all read, write and think with our own biased point of view.  So why read history?  Why think about and examine the actions, motivations and characters of the past?  It isn’t about the past, it is about the present.  It isn’t about them, it is about us.  It isn’t to judge the past.  It is to discern the present.  Most of the problems we face as individuals, as families, as churches and as nations have been faced by someone before us.  They made decisions and took actions that resulted in consequences that we have the privilege to see and examine.  It is a gift we should not take lightly.  It should not be wasted by the taking the easy path of categorizing the world into “victims” and “oppressors.   In looking at church history it is just as big of a waste to view the story in the terms of “Constantinianism” and some sort of glorified “remnant”.  The same person or nation can be both a victim and an oppressor (often at the same time).  The same Christian or church can be faithful and unfaithful (again, often at the same time). We can’t change the past and the future isn’t written yet.  What we have is today.  What we have is the opportunity to hear God and obey in our own circumstance. What we have is the influence that God has given to us.  Most of all, what we have is the promise that although we aren’t in charge of history, we can play a part in serving the One who is.

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Defending Constantine – The “Fall” View of History

After much delay, here is the second blog post regarding Peter Leithart’s book, “Defending Constantine – The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom”.  In this post I would like to deal with a primary pillar of Leithart’s debate with John Howard Yoder (and his various successors, notably Stanley Hauerwas) and his view of the proper relationship of the church and earthly (primarily political) powers.  This pillar is a sustained critique of Yoder’s view of church history.  This view is best characterized as a “fall” view of history.  The best way to characterize this view is as follows.

The church, in its beginnings, faithfully represented the teachings of Christ in its relationship to earthly powers, namely the Roman Empire.  It was a persecuted minority which stood as a witness of the power of Christ’s Kingdom over and against the dominant earthly powers and maintained a separate community.  At some point around the fourth century,  the church “fell” from its faithful witness by engaging the earthly powers more directly, becoming a power player within the structure and polluting the witness of Christ’s Kingdom.  Particularly in the Western world, the church has never really recovered.  Although there have been pockets of faithfulness in many times and places, the church as a whole has failed in its mission as a faithful witness and has fallen repeatedly for the temptation of temporal power, becoming oftentimes just as bad (or worse) than its more earthly counterparts in the power structure.  Although Yoder does not directly lay the entire blame for this on Constantine, for him Constantine is symbolic of this entire problem and terms this problem “Constantianism”.

One doesn’t have to use much imagination to see that variants of this kind of thinking is prevalent in much of the church in America today.  This is true certainly of those who share Yoder’s Anabaptist background and pacifist views.  This viewpoint looks skeptically on any significant Christian involvement in the political process.  But even those who don’t share this viewpoint can very much buy into this general outline of church history.  Many Protestants tend to view most of church history between the early, persecuted church and the Protestant Reformation as one long, nearly completely uninterrupted stretch of apostasy or near-apostasy.  Perhaps the best example of this line of thinking is found in Martin Luther’s famous writing, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”.  Pentecostals and Charismatics tend to view church history similarly, with the added wrinkle of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in all of its fullness being curiously absent from the church for the better part of nineteen centuries.  Frank Viola and George Barna’s recent book, “Pagan Christianity” takes this even farther, basically treating almost all conventional church practices in present day America (including a salaried church leadership, most church buildings, worship and administrative practices) as un-biblical and borderline sinful innovations upon the pure original gospel of Jesus Christ. The imagery of this kind of thinking finds common cause with much of the prophetic language of the Old Testament, wherein the majority of Israel’s history was one of unfaithfulness with a common theme of a faithful remnant that perseveres throughout.  The question is, is this a correct way to view church history?  Leithart takes issue with this and builds a pretty convincing case that Yoder at least has a distorted view of the reality of the fourth century.  And while I think his case is convincing, it only serves to refute (at least in some ways) Yoder’s particular view of church history.  It doesn’t effectively answer the overall tendency of Christians to view history with some variant of this template.  The question of whether Yoder’s pacifism and view of Christian non-engagement with the earthly political process in a direct way is dealt with separately, but at this point is not the primary question at hand.  At this point, the question of the proper view of church history is the primary question.  What is the proper view?  A clue of this at least is found for me in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares.  Which will be the topic of the the next post (which won’t take nearly as long).