Saint John Chrysostom (c. A.D. 347–407) is famous for his golden-tongued oratory, and also for his resistance to imperial power. He is less well known for his works of charity. In his day, the Christians at Constantinople numbered c. 100,000. According to J. G. Davies, the Christians held “themselves responsible for the maintenance of fifty thousand poor folk.” In addition to the support of the clergy, three thousand widows and virgins were supported. The funds for the varied works of the church came from the tithes and offerings of the faithful; there were also receipts from lands and properties bequeathed to the church, and the emperor gave an allowance to the church. The poor-fund had Chrysostom’s especial attention and concern.1 At the same time, Chrysostom served as a judge, a function assumed early in church history in terms of Paul’s command in 1 Corinthians 6:1–6.2 These hearings were held on Mondays so that peace might be reestablished between the contending parties by and after the decision and before the following Sunday.3
All this was by no means unusual. Christians took seriously Paul’s command that Christians must judge or govern the world (1 Cor. 6:2–3). They early established their own courts of law, schools, welfare work, hospitals, and more.
W. H. C. Frend, in surveying the history of the church to A.D. 604, mentions in passing some of the activities Christians had instituted. Many of these were things common to Jewish life, in obedience to Biblical law. The apocryphal Book of Tobit gives us evidence of this. Tobit counsels his son to give alms faithfully, to pay all workmen promptly, to eat his bread with the hungry and the needy, and to clothe the naked. “See that thou never do to another what thou wouldest hate to have done to thee by another” (Tobit 4:16). The apostate emperor, Julian, recognized that pagans were attracted to Christianity by its community life: “No Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well.”4 Hermas wrote of the Christian duty to care for widows and orphans, to relieve distressed believers, to practice hospitality, to reverence the aged, to practice justice, and to preserve their brotherhood. All the early literature stressed such responsibilities.5 Prisoners seized by raiders were ransomed. The church, like the Jewish synagogue, acted as a trustee for widows and orphans, and Cyprian compared the clergy with the Levites of the Old Testament in their responsibilities.6 The sick and captives were to be visited; a decent burial for the Christian dead was seen as another responsibility.7 Church buildings were more impressive and better constructed than others, and they included rooms for the storage of provisions for the needy.8 Basil the Great used monks to staff schools, orphanages, and hospitals.9 Pope Gregory I took care not to waste the Lord’s assets. Careful records were kept of all those who received charity, how much and on what date. Fraud was emphatically discouraged. Gregory’s palace entertained strangers and fed the sick.10
The medieval era saw such ministries developed and extended. They continued after the Reformation. In England, the preaching of Thomas Lever (1550) started a major movement to undo the depredations of Henry VIII against the church by making a massive restitution to God by way of Christian works: educational, charitable, and so on.11 The Church of England’s charity schools were a factor in later years.12
This very brief survey makes it clear that Christians assumed the responsibility for health, education, and welfare. They also provided courts of law to which, in the early centuries, pagans as well as Christians went for justice. Clearly, the basic government of society was in the hands of Christians, and Christian institutions.
This should not surprise us. According to Isaiah 9:6, the government shall be on Christ’s shoulder. With His coming, His death, Resurrection, and ascension, we are told that He “is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings, and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15), is, not shall be. As kings and priests unto God in Christ (Rev. 1:6), Christians have a duty to rule for Him. We are given this office by virtue of His atonement (Rev. 1:5), so that we are now His dominion people and therefore His justice men, His law defenders.
This faith was not a matter of debate or discussion within the church but a tacit assumption. To assume such governmental powers was an affront to the Roman Empire, as it is an affront to the nations today. Marxist states strictly prohibit it. Where a pretense of religious freedom is maintained by some, Christians are limited to worship in a few churches, but barred from a governmental and dominion function.
Dominion is the exercise of government, and a religious fact. It was only natural that monks should have first created new lands in the Netherlands with their dikes, cleared forests for farms, and taken rocky and barren areas and converted them into fertile lands. All this and more meant the exercise of dominion, of government in Christ’s name.
This governmental mandate was diminished and sometimes extinguished by two things. First, within the church, faulty theology, pietism, and antinomianism, and, later, eschatologies of flight and escapism, led to the collapse of Christian governmental action. Second, statism sought to hold exclusive dominion and government in every sphere, and it has successfully gained such powers.
Behind all this have been religious doctrines and movements, humanistic crusades and faiths. In the United States, this anti-Christianity came into focus in Ralph Waldo Emerson, and in Walt Whitman. Whitman’s announced purpose, as set forth in “Starting from Paumanok,” in the 1892 version, was “solely to drop in the earth the germs of a greater religion.”13 Whitman saw himself as a poet-prophet, patterning himself after a fictional character in a French novel.14 In “Chanting the Square Deific” (1865), he presented himself as the current expression of a pantheistic divinity:
Chanting the square deific, out of the One advancing, out of the sides; Out of the old and new—out of the square entirely divine, Solid, four-sided, (all the sides needed) … from this side JEHOVAH, am I, Old Brahm I, and Saturnius am; Not Time affects me—I am Time, old, modern as any, Unpersuadable, relentless, executing righteous judgments….15
In the same “poem,” Whitman also identifies himself as Satan.16 This was not new. In 1885, in “The Sleepers,” Whitman declared himself to be Lucifer’s “sorrowful terrible heir.”17 What begins as a protest against slavery becomes a “poem” celebrating homosexual fellatio (in section 8).18 According to Helen Vendler, who admires Whitman, this is compared to the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, and Christ turning water into wine. (Vendler sees the episode as between Whitman and a virgin.)19 For our purpose, it is sufficient to say that Whitman, more rigorously than Emerson, not only adopted a new religion but also a new morality. Moreover, for him man’s true future was democracy. Whitman’s monism, as Rosenstock-Huessy pointed out with respect to all monism, leads to slavery. The only truth for Whitman was the voice of the people, whatever it may say, provided that the people were not Christian. Whitman’s writings are a prolonged revolt against Christianity and Christian dominion and government.
Because Whitman’s religion is the faith of intellectuals and educators, we have seen the steady advancement of monocratic government by the state. When people today speak of “government,” they mean the state, whereas the true government begins with the self-government of the Christian man, and government means the family, church, school, our vocation, our society, and its many institutions and agencies, and only partially the state.
By surrendering dominion and government, churchmen have made themselves irrelevant to God and to man, to heaven and earth alike. Because Christ by His atonement has made us kings and priests unto God, we have an inescapable duty to exercise dominion and government.
Man is in Christ a prophet, priest, and king. As a prophet, we must each interpret our lives and world in terms of God’s law-word and apply that word to every sphere. To be a prophet in Christ is to live by God’s every word (Matt. 4:4).
As priests, we dedicate and consecrate ourselves, our world, and our every activity to the triune God. All things must be made holy in Him (Zech. 14:20–21).
As kings, we are to rule the world in Christ and to develop all its potentialities for Him, so that the desert places blossom like the rose (Isa. 35:1).
Our offices in Christ are governmental and dominion callings. We have none other calling in Him.
1. J. G. Davies, Daily Life of Early Christians (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1953), 167–168.
2. Ibid., 169–172.
3. Ibid., 169.
4. W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 25.
5. Ibid., 133.
6. Ibid., 404–405.
7. Ibid., 421.
8. Ibid., 558.
9. Ibid., 631.
10. Ibid., 885.
11. Thomas Lever, Sermons, 1550 (Westminster, England: Constable, 1901).
12. W. K. Lowther Clarke, Eighteenth Century Piety (London, England: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1944), 45–46, 69ff.
13. Lawrence Buell, “Unitarian Aesthetics and Emerson’s Poet Priest,” American Quarterly 20, No. 1 (Spring 1968): 3.
14. Esther Shephard, Walt Whitman’s Prose (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1938).
15. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, n.d.), 425.
16. Ibid., 427.
17. Ibid., 98.
18. Ibid., 94.
19. Helen Vendler, “Body Language,” Harper’s Magazine, October 1986, 64–65.