I recently returned from a week-long trip to Rome, Italy. It was an incredible experience and I saw places that I’d been dreaming of since I was just a boy (after my “Native Americans” and “dinosaurs” phases, I went through an “Ancient Rome and Egypt” phase). Walking in the Roman forum and standing beneath the arches of the Colosseum and craning my neck to view the ceiling of the Pantheon felt surreal but also gave me a deeper sense of reality of these historic places. These weren’t just vivid images in travel books or documentaries; I was there, looking at these stone marvels with my own eyes. My wife, children, and mother also joined me so it was especially wonderful to share these memories as a family.
Of all the wondrous places we visited, the highlight was the Vatican, and St. Peter’s Basilica in particular. The Vatican was incredibly crowded and it was impossible to fully appreciate the majesty of its miles of galleries and the glorious Sistine Chapel. But even a few minutes with those masterpieces stamped an indelible impression on my giddy imagination. And then we entered St. Peter’s. I’ve been a big fan of medieval and Renaissance architecture, especially churches and cathedrals, for a long time and I’ve seen a few spectacular buildings in my travels, but St. Peter’s left me speechless. Its dimensions were mind-boggling, and the incredible paintings on the ceiling and dome weren’t paintings, but mosaics composed of tiny colored tiles. Our tour guide informed us that the sanctuary ceiling bore more than six thousand pounds of gold, carved into delicate and intricate designs. If I had to sum up St. Peter’s Basilica in one word, it would be “sublime.” It truly felt like heaven on Earth, which was its creators’ intention.
Yet despite the opulence and majesty surrounding me, I also felt disquiet in my heart. It was very obvious that this church was an idol, and while it was claimed to have been built for the glory of God, it inspired feelings of awe for man instead, and for the Holy Roman Church. Imagine how a poor peasant from the countryside would feel stepping into the rapturous sanctuary. It would be simply overwhelming, and their spinning head would be subject to the whims of the church, which valued money over prayers and sound doctrine. St. Peter’s Basilica is a grand propaganda tool, a display of the might of the church and a testament to the power of the Pope, supposedly God’s voice on Earth.
The Bible admonishes Christians on multiple occasions that the Spirit-filled walk will be marked with persecution and trials. Never are we exhorted to seek out political or military power or to set up “Christian” empires. That’s not to say that worldly power is bad, and when Christians find themselves with that power, they are expected to use it for God’s glory and the good of the church. Yet it is a constant temptation to seek power, because let’s face it: no one likes persecution.
In nations with a strong Catholic tradition, the power of the church is more overt. In the USA, with our Protestant roots, we bristle at the thought of a massively powerful corporate religious entity, but we seek the same power in different ways. We try to keep our government as “Christian” as possible through our votes. We brainstorm ways to infiltrate secular strongholds like entertainment and media. We try to cultivate Christian “soft power” to counter the poisonous culture in which we live. All of these are noble pursuits but we need to first ask if we are doing so to increase our witness or simply to make our earthly lives more comfortable and/or profitable. The rallying cry of “We need more Christians in ______” isn’t automatically God’s will. It may very well be, but we need to remember whose glory is the most important. If you’ve ever walked into a grand cathedral, ask yourself: was your first thought “Wow, God is so wonderful!” or was it “Wow, these architects and craftsman were incredible!” The cathedrals we build today, whether real or virtual, should be subject to the same scrutiny.