In September 1933, soon after Adolf Hitler came to power, the national church in Germany met to elect a new “Reich Bishop”.

The meeting came to be known as the “Brown Synod”: members of the clergy paraded around in the brown shirts of the SA (or Nazi Storm Troopers), sporting swastikas and Nazi flags, and raising their arms in the “Heil Hitler!” salute.

The story of the church under Nazi rule is, for the most part, a terrible tale of capitulation and failure. Many German Christians fell under the spell of National Socialism, enthusiastically supporting the regime. Others simply stood by in silence, and so became complicit in the worst crimes of the state.

It is an appalling picture of a church seduced by power, at the cost of some of its core beliefs.

It didn’t have to be this way

Those rare stories of individuals who risked their lives to oppose the Nazi agenda show what might have happened in Germany, had more Christians “played in tune” with the teaching of Jesus.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of those opponents. From the beginning of Hitler’s rule, he spoke out against the government’s extreme nationalism, aggressive foreign policy, and treatment of the Jews.

He would eventually become implicated in a plot to assassinate the Führer – and pay for it with his life.

The story of Bonhoeffer and of the wider German church in the 1930s and 1940s offers striking answers to the question: What happens when Christians cosy up to power? And what happens when they exercise power for the benefit of others, as Jesus commanded?

"The church is the church only when it exists
for others."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Turning point

The first Christians were a powerless and periodically persecuted minority.

Nonetheless, this new movement spread throughout the Roman Empire in the first few centuries after Jesus, as well as up and down the social scale, from slaves to possibly even the wives and mothers of emperors.

So when Emperor Constantine became a Christian in 312 following his victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, which he attributed to the intervention of Christ, he was (in a way) the last domino to fall – and things began to change dramatically for the churches as a result.

Contrary to popular belief, Constantine did not make his new faith the official religion of the empire, or force anyone to adopt it. But the Edict of Milan in 313 granted full tolerance to Christianity (and all other religions), and having the emperor on your side meant quite a few perks for the churches – including increasing access to the corridors of power. It was to be a mixed blessing for the church … and for the world.

Teresa Morgan, Professor of Graeco-Roman History at the University of Oxford, explains:

Undoubtedly Christianity changed. It became more establishment. It became more interested in money. It became more interested in protecting itself and its own prestige because of being allied with imperial power.

On the other hand, it acquired opportunities to do what it saw as good, so I think it’s always a very two-edged thing, acquiring power – for any religious tradition, including early Christianity.

A thousand years later, at the height of what we have come to call Christendom, there is no shortage of examples of what a church obsessed with power can look like.

The first will be last

When it comes to power and prestige, how does the “tune” that Jesus wrote go? How well or badly have Christians played it over the centuries?

It’s not as though the subject didn’t come up.

Jesus consistently taught his disciples a radical ethic of humility: those in charge were to serve the lowly and put the needs of others above their own. His teaching that “the first will be last and the last will be first” represented the upending of social hierarchies – and in the highly stratified culture of the ancient world, it was almost incomprehensible.

In the end, it wasn’t just what Jesus taught that transformed Western culture’s understanding of humility from merely humiliation to a sought-after virtue. It was his crucifixion.

Today we take it for granted that humility is a good thing, and are mostly suspicious of arrogance and self-promotion. We admire those who wear their power lightly and lower themselves for the good of others.

In this, we’ve been deeply influenced by the “humility revolution” that Jesus started.

"Christian history is littered with instances of Christians behaving badly when they have a chance to pull the levers of power."

John G. Stackhouse, Jr

A chequered past

Jesus’ tune of humble service represented a shift in what was seen as admirable, and therefore what was possible, within Western culture when it came to the use of power.

The execution of that tune, though, has been far from perfect. All too often, what the less powerful – women, the poor, indigenous peoples – have experienced at the hands of the church has been the opposite of what Jesus taught and modelled.

Oppressive or liberating?

One of the most common accusations flung at the church is that it has been oppressive for women – and with good reason. Church leaders, overwhelmingly male, have over the centuries used the Bible to fuel thinking that characterised women as seductresses, intellectual inferiors, or threats to their power.

It’s quite a turn-around from the early days of the church. In the second century, the Greek writer Celsus sneered at Christianity as a religion of women, children, and slaves. These groups clearly saw something attractive and even liberating in the Christian faith – and to him, that was reason enough not to take it seriously.

Was Jesus a feminist?

From Joan of Arc to suffragist Susan B. Anthony, from queens and abbesses to the idea of “separate spheres” for men and women, a tug-of-war has been playing out over the last 2,000 years between the humanity of women, forcefully affirmed by Jesus, and the impulse to repress and subordinate them.

One of the most notorious episodes in the church’s record on the treatment of women is the witch hunts that swept Europe – and America – in the early modern period, sowing suspicion and hatred, and leaving thousands dead.

Strangely enough, in the year 1400, witches didn’t concern most educated people in Europe.

In 1600, most people thought witches were a threat to society – and that they should be burned at the stake or similar.

By 1800, few educated people even believed witches existed anymore.

Europeans leading up to this period believed the Bible; most of them still believed it afterwards. But, except in this early modern period, they didn’t hunt witches.

So what happened in between? What was it that made neighbours, families, sometimes complete strangers turn on each other – in this way – and during this time in particular?

Fear and loathing in Salem

"In its inception Christianity set before women a true possibility of complete transformation on equal terms alongside men. But at the same time, it very quickly accommodated itself into existing religious and cultural mores. And you could say that that tension has been played out since then."

Sarah Coakley, University of Cambridge

The Age of Empire

What happened when “Christian” Europe began to extend its influence globally, in the age of conquest, and colonialism? Do we see humble service … or naked power?

The colonial project

How missionaries changed the world

The stereotype of the colonial missionary is far from positive. But surprising links between Christian missions and the health of nations today are borne out both by research and by the lives of individuals like William Carey.

"Christianity has been absolutely foundational … It hasn’t always been used on the side of the political or the cultural or the economic angels. But to think you can understand the present, let alone the past – to think you can understand our idea of right, democracy, human dignity, the scientific revolution, even the welfare state without understanding Christianity – you’re making a big mistake."

Nick Spencer, Theos Think Tank


Christianity’s place in our world is highly contested. For some, it represents an oppressive past – a nightmare we need to wake up from. For others, it’s just a phase of history, soon to be forgotten.

But many believe it’s the source of some of the things we love most in Western culture.

Whether we're talking about the human tendency to violence, the value of the individual, charity, or the uses of power, Jesus wrote a beautiful tune: “Do to others as you would have them do to you”, “Blessed are the peacemakers”, “Love your enemies” – a message he literally embodied in his own death.

When Christians have played out of tune, the results have been disastrous.

But when they’ve followed in Jesus’ footsteps – played the tune well – that’s shaped our world in ways we can all be glad of.

The more of that kind of Christianity, the better.