Of Movies and Church Corruption

Birkebeinerne Carrying Håkon Håkonsson – by Knud-Bergslien, 1868

I watched a Norwegian movie this past weekend called “the Last King” (that’s the English title, “Birkebeinerne” in Norway). The story takes place in the year 1206, and tells of 2 soldiers (Birkebeinerne) carrying the future king of Norway, Håkon Håkonsson, to safety when he was a baby. Because he and his mother were living in a village in territory controlled by an opposing faction in Norway’s civil war, the dangerous ski trek through a blizzard in the mountains, carrying a little baby, pursued by enemies wanting the baby (and any supporters) dead, makes for a great story. In fact, the epic true adventure is commemorated each year in Norway with the 54km (33.5mi) Birkebeinerrennet ski race, where participants carry a 3.5kg (8lb) backpack to pay tribute to the 2 soldiers carrying baby Håkon.

While I enjoyed the movie, there was a particular theme in the movie that caught my attention for its cynicism. Part of the plot of the movie is a villainous Catholic Bishop wanting to dominate all of Norway, who orders the hunting down and killing of the would-be heir to the throne. The audience is taken into the dark cathedral, where the Bishop gives his goons the following pep talk before dispatching them on their deadly mission:

“We have just received word from Nidaros. King Håkon is dead. The Birkebeinerne have lost their unifying force. The time of kings is past. But, the Church will always endure. When one man falls, another will take his place. And he answers only to God. We rule Eastern Norway. Western Norway is next. Soon the Church will have dominion over all of Norway. But one task remains. King Håkon is survived by a son. Today, an innocent boy. Tomorrow… our mightiest foe. The boy is being hidden on a farm in our territory. The man who finds the king’s son, shall enjoy great wealth all of his days. Show no mercy during your hunt for the child, for the Lord is eternally merciful, but He also requires sacrifices. Let law and order yield along the way… and bring me the boy’s head.”

Whether the Bishop in the movie is historically accurate or not, this evil Bishop is unfortunately how many people view the Church, and consequently Christianity. But is that an accurate portrayal? Reports of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic church, the marital infidelity of Protestant pastors, greedy televangelists, charlatans of the “Prosperity Gospel”, and corrupt “Christian” charities stealing donations only add to the impression of a corrupt and scandalous church no better than the rest of the world, and indeed, worse for the hypocrisy. But let’s compare our movie villain, the Bishop, to what the Bible teaches.

  • The Bishop desires a physical empire for the Church, yet  Jesus told Pilate at His trial that His kingdom is not of this world [Jn 18:36]. Rather, while foxes had holes, and birds had nests, He had no home [Mt 8:20]. The warnings of the moral dangers of chasing wealth and power are too many to mention here. However, our dear Bishop could’ve at least remember the model pointed to in Hebrews where the author talks of heroes of the faith who “went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted, and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them.” [He 11:37-38] This desire for earthly power is not an example of the Church’s calling, but rather of the universal fall (corruption) of mankind explained in Genesis 3.
  • The Bishop offers lifelong wealth as a reward to the one finding the king’s son for him. Yet riches were never a motivation of Jesus, His apostles, or any of the early Christians. Jesus said to store up for ourselves treasures in Heaven rather than on earth, and that man cannot have both God and money as his master [Mt 6:19-24].  He even warned how easily riches could get in the way of one getting to Heaven [Mt 19:23-24]. Instead, we are to seek His kingdom and His righteousness first, and God will provide what we actually need [Mt6:33].
  • The Bishop specifically said to “show no mercy” and to kill an admittedly “innocent boy” who might become his foe someday. Jesus disagrees. As He put it, “Blessed are the merciful” [Mt 5:7], “Love your enemies, and pray forthose who persecute you” [Mt 5:44], and do not simply refrain from murdering someone, but rather do not even be angry with them [Mt 5:21-22]. Paul likewise said to “overcome evil with good”  [Ro 12:21]. A far cry from the Bishop here.
  • The Bishop’s reference to God requiring “sacrifices” in this context is just an awful perversion of God’s Word [Mk 12:33].
  • The Bishop said to set aside law and order to accomplish his orders. Yet Paul and Peter both told all Christians to obey the civil government whenever possible. The only real biblical exception is when civil obedience would require disobedience to God [Ro 13:1-7, 1 Pe 2:13-16, Ac 4:18-22]. The Bishop was right that we answer to God, but God has also said that we must answer to the rulers He has allowed to preside over us.

Is the Bishop’s behavior an example of Christian practice? Hardly! On the contrary, it’s strongly opposed to what Jesus actually says. In fact, the Bishop’s attempt to kill a baby he fears will become his enemy someday is more reminiscent of King Herod trying to have Jesus killed as a baby [Mt 2:13,16]! While the Bishop was a fictionalized church leader, the examples I listed earlier are very real headlines. Nevertheless, each of them is also behavior that clearly goes against the Bible. Discounting all of Christianity because of some of these bad examples would actually be to commit the logical fallacy of composition: “arguing from the part to the whole, ignoring the fact that what is true of the part is not necessarily true of the whole.”[1] Are these perpetrators corrupt? Absolutely. Do they invalidate Christianity? Absolutely not. Their behavior doesn’t flow from the Bible, and is, in fact, opposed to it.  So next time you’re tempted to cast a cynical look at Christianity because of disobedient Christians or people only claiming to be Christians [Jn 15:8,14,16], keep that cynicism focused on the person whose actions actually warrant it, and not the faith they are disgracing.

[1] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), p. 87.

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