In the city of Pergamum, the governing center of Asia Minor, when the Apostle John arrived on the scene in the decades after Paul and Timothy’s work there, he found cities that were intensely religious, though not at all predominantly Christian.
The people in this city worshiped many gods, of whom the predominant ones were:
Dionysus – the son of Zeus and the god of wine and orgy, and patron god of theater. His shrine provided free wine and meat to those who came to worship him there, and he was said to provide life for all, even after death. It was also believed that, during secret rituals, he converted water into wine to give to the people.
Asclepius – The god of healing and medicine. His temple complex – the asclepieion, was, as Dr. Tim Brown puts it, “the Mayo Clinic of the ancient world”. The sick and infirm could come to worship at the asclepieion and receive free healing and medical care.
Demeter – The goddess of grain and fertility. Worshipers at her temple could have their sins forgiven by sacrificing bulls and bathing in their blood. Additionally, they could receive free bread and clean water from her temple.
And then, above all of these gods was Caesar – the “king of all kings and the lord of all lords” in Rome (as Domitian demanded he be called). Pergamum was the first city to deify the Caesars, beginning with Caesar Augustus. At the top of the hill on which Pergamum sits was the temple of Caesar, who provided for all of the gods, and to whom homage must be paid in order to receive the blessings of the gods – wine, food, water, health, and basic welfare (through other minor gods like Hestia, Cybele, etc.).
It is no wonder, then, that the Apostle John chose to emphasize certain miracles of Jesus to provide counterpoint of Jesus’ lordship, with the first three sets of miracles mentioned being 1) turning water to wine (Jesus is Lord and provider of eternal life, not Dionysus); 2) Jesus healing the official’s son and the man at the pool of Bethesda (Jesus is Lord and provider of healing, not Asclepius); and 3) Jesus feeding the 5,000 (Jesus is Lord and provider of our bread, not Demeter).
In short – it is Jesus, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who is the provider of all, and not the gods and governments of this world.
In John’s book of Revelation, he twice condemns a group of people called Nicolaitans, who appear to hold to a form of antinomianism, believing that because God had fulfilled the law with Christ, they could be free to live as they wished, and that they could partake in the different forms of temple worship and have their needs met, because they knew that the “gods” of these temples did not really exist.
In Ephesus, it is believed that the Nicolaitans were able to escape persecution under Nero and, later, Domitian, by burning incense to Caesar and accepting his “mark” on their goods and their person. This allowed them to freely buy and sell in the marketplace (agora), to hold public office, and to avoid the punishments of Rome for not worshiping Caesar (see Rev 13:16-17).
By now, some of you are probably thinking something along the lines of “Thanks for the history lesson, Chris, but what does this have to do with a ‘Christian’ position on health care?” Others likely see where I’m going with this:
As Christians, we should all be concerned with the gods of this world – particularly the government – taking over the responsibility for the expanded provision of the needs and desires of its people.
I would underscore this by noting that when we forget who our provision comes from – from God, alone – and see it as the product of our own work, our employer or our government, we become idolaters. However, I see the warnings from John to the early Christians as two-fold – don’t seek to have your needs met by the passive gods of the world, but also beware of what will happen when an active, intrusive one steps in to take over.
This is not to say that we should be in favor of maintaining the status quo, or in turning away the poor from life-saving medical treatment. Rather, we should be looking for ways to make such government take-overs unnecessary.
All Things in Common
A few weeks ago, Rob Bell and Ed Dobson taught at Mars Hill Bible Church on the early church in Acts 2:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
They noted that this was a free, loving choice on the parts of the believers, and not something done out of guilt or coercion. Supporting coercive government systems (socialism, communism), they noted, are not the way of following the early church. Subscribing to a “survival of the fittest” or a laissez-faire mindset is not the answer, either. Rather, it comes down to those who have been blessed with abundance to share out of love and those who have been blessed with scarcity to receive out of love (as Peter did, when he allowed Jesus to wash his feet).
A government-managed system of provision, though, circumvents both ends of this equation – coercing those who have (under threat of law) to provide for those who do not (by the government’s definition) under the guise of “dignity” (i.e. they can thank the government for their provision, not individuals or organizations).
The way of Jesus is for the church to see a need and to be enthusiastic about trying to fill it – not out of coercion or guilt – but freely, out of love.
The problem with depending on the government, though, is that every time the government decides to encroach in an area of “benevolence”, the church sees no need and then retreats. This has happened historically, and is particularly evident in the American experiment of the past 233 years or so. Whether it is education, health, welfare, or the homeless, when Christians have acceded these areas of service to the government, the church has retreated and become further irrelevant.
It is no mistake that fundamentalism arose in parallel with this abdication, as focus on the temporal needs of the masses withered and the focus on the eternal became all-encompassing. It is also no mistake that the predominance of the emerging/emergent 180-degree “flipping” of focus from eternal to temporal will exacerbate the problem just as easily.
From where does my help come? If, slowly, as it has been doing, the Caesar of today becomes the all-giving provider of needs, how quickly will worship of this Caesar become the predominant “religion” of the land – or has it already happened – on both ends of the political spectrum?
If there are members of our churches – brothers and sisters – who must take government assistance because they are not receiving it from the church, it is a crime we in the churches are committing via our lack of love. If these members won’t take the assistance from the church, but prefer the “dignity” of the state, it is a matter of the sin of pride. If our churches exist in communities where people are unable to get the care they need, the provision of the government is an indictment of the faithlessness of those churches.
Why should Caesar coerce and redistribute what the church was designed to give out of love?
The Nicolaitans, Take II
Now, just as there were Nicolaitans in the first century, there are sure to be some today who would note that the state is a lifeless entity which need not be feared/revered, but only appeased so that it might be used for humanitarian purposes. Where the line is crossed, though, I believe, is similar to the point at which the temple of Demeter became an instrument of Caesar (or more accurately, where the Church became an instrument of Constantine) – where benevolence becomes compulsory and acceptance of the “dignity” granted by the nanny state is mandatory.
Which is what is, inherently, what is being proposed by the US House of Representatives and committee bills in the US Senate. While there is a good deal of smoke-and-mirrors involved in the plans, the long-term trajectory of these plans is a single-payer system in which the health of the citizenry is beholden to Caesar, and 97% of the people have to accept his mark (noting that I’m speaking from a partial-preterist position, not a dispensationalist one…) or go without.
Will we be selling a little bit of our souls to the state by accepting their mandatory hand-out? Will we just be good little Nicolaitans, crossing our fingers and rationalizing that God is providing to us through the faceless entity of Caesar, while our churches fade into further irrelevance?
Or will we be willing accomplices of the state, cheering it on with homilies like “My hope is that the Church will rise up and speak for the least of these who cannot speak for themselves” while supporting its takeover of the church’s mission? Or will we try and shame the Church into selling out to the beast by saying “my hope is that the Church, despite the prospect of having to make sacrifices, some even costly in more ways than one, will stand up and say, ‘This is the way of Jesus’?” Or might we just try and work the coercive shame on individual Christians, making this into an issue of “selfishness” by telling them “I would like to see less of Christians demanding their ‘rights’ and more of demanding justice for all,” as if this were actually an issue of justice, rather than one of mercy and kindness.
Summing it Up
The bottom line – the government is not a friend of the church or of the people. Its purpose, according to Scripture, is to provide a judicial system, common defense, and societal order. Its mission is completely different than that of the church, and its lifetime is limited.
No matter how much we, like Jesus’ disciples, want the kingdom of God to be a literal, physical, political power on earth, that is not what Jesus came to create. When we abdicate the purpose of the kingdom and hand it over to the kosmos, we are no longer advocates for the kingdom. When we try to make the kosmos the tool of the kingdom – whether from the right or from the left – we are destined to fail. Spectacularly.
In my view, and in light of the roles given to the church in Scripture, I would say that it is no more the place of government to take over the health care system than it is for the church to take over the national defense. That it is even being contemplated is an indictment against the Church and a potentially disastrous overreaching on the part of the state.
Here’s to hoping that sanity will prevail. Government can play a role within its biblical mandate – particularly within the realm of the justice system and in maintaining order – in ‘fixing’ what is currently broken in the US health care system. Making health care a “right”, provided by the state, is beyond its mandate, though, and the church should not be its water-carrier.
[A couple of programming notes - 1) I have briefly ended my self-moratorium on political news/discussion, insofar as it concerns health care issues, as I do have some expertise and interest in this area that could be useful for the discussion; 2) I don't plan on expanding it to other areas of politics; 3) While this article fits the demographic of CRN.Info, I may not cross-post later articles which do not deal with issues of the intersection of Christianity and the health care debate.]