Urban Theology (12) Jesus, City and Empire

Is Christianity a set of timeless truths which have then been adapted into different contexts throughout church history?

We’re looking at Chapter 7 of David Smith’s book, Seeking a City with Foundations:  theology for an urban world, ‘From Jesus to John of Patmos’

This is a key chapter of the book in terms of a NT theology of the city. And the point Smith is making here is that Christianity cannot be understood properly apart from its specific 1st Century context – and that context is an urban one.

Pauline Christianity is entirely urban, located within cities of the Roman Empire. Paul was a city person.

So the NT documents reflect the urban context of the first century. Their primary purpose is to tell the story of Jesus in that setting and to provide teaching and pastoral support for small and marginal groups of Christians scattered through cities of the Graeco-Roman world.

Yet much of Western Christianity interprets these documents through the lens of Christendom, assuming the place of the church at the centre of political and religious life.

So Smith’s appeal – which sounds sympathetic to an Anabaptist reading of Christianity and Empire.

With the passing of Christendom and the exploding urban world of the 21st century, he says there is an urgent need for a re-reading of the NT, recognising the marginal urban setting of the first Christians.

– NT Christians created ‘contrast societies’ within urban settings.

– the use of the term ekklesia was a common Greek word for assembly of free citizens in a Hellenistic city. Smith suggests this reflects a self-understanding of an open, engaged mission to the city rather than opting for a withdrawn religious minority cult identity.

– Church is here an authentic ekklesia, in contrast to the propaganda of Rome that its rule extended freedom and peace to all. Here is another, an alternative, assembly for ‘all nations’ under the universal Lordship of Jesus. Smith traces how in Acts, the mission of God’s universal blessing to all nations stands opposed to Rome’s mythic narrative of world domination.

Next post: Smith takes a look at Paul’s letter to the Romans, not as a set of ‘timeless truths’ but as a counter-cultural text, written to an ekklesia of urban Christians living in the very heart of Empire.


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