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the radical edge

May 29, 2013

Yesterday I wrote about the parish system, that came from the way that Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman empire after Constantine, but it was not only the parish system that changed.

The Celtic Christianity that Cuthbert grew up with had come from Roman citizens who had travelled from the Mediterranean bringing the faith that they had discovered. This faith was pre Constantine. It was a faith that existed among a persecuted minority of people in the empire, and it is more than likely that the people who travelled vast distances came to escape the violence of the persecutions. They had a view of the empire which was undoubtedly coloured by their experiences.

Their view was clearly different from the official Christianity that came later, but who was right?

For the Celtic Christians the empire stood in opposition to the Kingdom of God, they could no more swear allegiance to the Emperor (who after all claimed to be God) that they could bow down and worship idols. To them the phrase Jesus is Lord,  was in direct opposition to the empires call to recognise Caesar as Lord. So strong was the antagonism that Paul and Peter have to write in the New  Testament that  Christians should obey rulers and authorities even when they are not good! These passages were later used by the official church to justify accommodation to the State, but it was unthinkable that they were originally meant to be understood in this way.

So everything that the Celtic Christians did was counter-cultural. They had an allegiance to Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God, anything beyond that was a step too far.

In a similar way the early Christians had been forced to develop a fluid system of networks, rather than a formal structure of direct authority and accountability. There was some mutual accountability but it was limited – we see this when Paul visits the Jerusalem Church and is prepared to stand up to Peter. Rather there was a much more messy development of relationships; Paul cared for the churches he had planted, but was more cautious and tentative in writing to the already established Church in Rome.

Today the equivalent are the kind of apostolic “spheres” that we have in our Newfrontiers church networks, churches are not organised regionally, but relationally – our ChristCentral Churches sphere includes links across the globe as well as in the North of the UK, but other Newfrontiers churches in the North of the UK related to other spheres. It is messy, but there is a mutual accountability that seems to me to mirror the Celtic Churches who related from Ireland, to Iona (Scotland) to Lindesfarne (Northumbria) but still leaving room for other church plants, such as Ripon to choose to relate to the Roman Church of the South of England.



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