Three ways the Church is a spectacle in the Media Age

May 20, 2019

A brilliant photograph on Instagram, an eye-catching billboard along the interstate, an ambitious landscape inside a new adventure video game, a magazine centerfold, a witty commercial, a music video, an ever expanding television series, a hot blockbuster movie, a sports clip of an athlete’s glory (or injury), a viral GIF on social media—we live in the age of the spectacle. Multiple spectacles. Millions of digital spectacles vying for our time, our attention, our love, our wallets, our outrage, and our votes.

But as she follows Christ, the church is unveiled, changed, and progressively made more beautiful. And she herself becomes a spectacle to the world.

Exploited Spectacles

Christians in the earliest Roman churches were branded as scum. Society hated them for the simple reason that Christians resisted the massive industry of pagan idolatry. Idolatry was the power plant of the entire spectacle-spawning industry, spectacles that became “the very things Romans saw as essential for integration into society.”[1] To resist the idols of ancient Rome was an open rebuke to the whole culture.[2]

This explains the hate projected at Christians by Nero, “the most flamboyantly theatrical of all Rome’s emperors,”[3] who exploited his notorious spectacles for political capital. Christians will never forget one tyrannical example after a nine-day fire that ravaged Rome in the summer of 64. The emperor was so mentally unstable that swirling rumors in Rome suggested that Nero himself instigated the fires. To rebuff the accusation, Nero pinned the blame on Christians, made them his scapegoat, and unleashed his vengeance on them throughout the empire. His retribution was spectacular.

Under Roman rule, crimes against the state were met with like punishments, and the condemned were cast into a theatrical role before a gawking audience. For example, a fake king was given a crown of thorns and crucified naked, mocked and derided by his fake subjects.[4] In this case, Nero called for the Christian “arsonists” to be sacrificed to the gods through fire (crematio) and burned at a privately hosted spectacle (a spectaculum, as it was called), to light Nero’s garden at night.[5]

Even today Christians are made a spectacle in three ways.

A Spectacle of Scorn

First, the church is a spectacle of scorn to this world. Reminiscent of Nero, John Bunyan’s famous pilgrims were beaten, covered in mud, thrown into a cage in Vanity Fair, and “made the objects of any man’s sport, or malice, or revenge.”[6] They were made a spectacle of trash to entertain the city: rejected, mistreated, and slandered. Our otherworldly focus confuses the world. Our focus on the Spectacle of Christ rebukes the worldly. As a result, the church is “sometimes . . . publicly exposed to reproach and affliction” (Heb. 10:33). Being exposed to public ridicule of onlookers, we are “made a spectacle” by the Neros of the world. To preach Christ is to evoke spiritual and human opposition in this world, something like having the Colosseum's wild animals unleashed on you (1 Cor. 15:32).

Or in the testimony of the apostle Paul: “For it seems to me God has made us apostles the last act in the show, like men condemned to death in the arena, a spectacle to the whole universe—to angels as well as men” (1 Cor. 4:9).[7]

The apostles were like a capstone spectacle in the arena, the supreme sacrifice to satisfy the bloodlust of the world. In their weakness, pain, and suffering, they become to this world just another form of public theater” (θέατρον).

In reality, martyrs embraced their deaths with less drama. Historians believe that early Christian martyrs slaughtered before throngs in the Colosseum welcomed death to the degree that it made their killings rather boring in comparison to the deplorables who begged for mercy and were shown none, or, more spectacularly, who fought with zest and zeal to defend their lives, in vain.[8] Christian composure in the face of death meant that the martyrs publicly rejected both the role of victor and the role of defeated foe—fearless in the face of death, they stood before the mobs and subverted the whole spectacle-making industry of Rome.[9] Nevertheless, Christians were killed to satisfy bloodthirsty spectators. Historians believe that Nero had the apostle Paul beheaded in Rome during this post-fire rage against Christianity, doubtlessly staging Paul’s death as a bloody spectacle of its own.

A Spectacle of Victory

Second, the church is a divine spectacle of God’s victory over evil. Matched to the multi-million dollar CGI spectacles of Hollywood, the church’s interior spectacles seem dull. But they are beautiful and profound. Each week the local church reenacts the same things—Bible preaching, the Lord’s Table, water baptism—all of them faith-based, repeated, microspectacles (unlike the sight-based and unrepeated, expiring spectacles of the world). These church ordinances are weighted with cosmic influence.

In Colossians and Ephesians, Paul is careful to show how the gospel-driven love and unity of local churches is a spectacle of the victory of Christ to the powers and principalities who seek to destroy God’s created order. The church is the perpetual resistance movement. And from generation to generation, she displays a spectacle of God’s victory to his cosmic foes, repeatedly striking those enemies with déjà vu of their defeat at the cross.

A Spectacle for Heaven

Third, the church is a divine spectacle for heaven. Paul often used the metaphor of the athlete to depict Christian diligence and gospel ministry (1 Cor. 9:24–27; Col. 1:28–29.) Indeed, the church is a spiritual athletic association, competing before the audience of angels and faithful saints (Heb. 12:1–2). All those past saints, who made it through this world with their faith intact, are watching and cheering us home. In spite of the relentless bombardment of spectacles that seek to dominate our attention and define our identity, we gather on the Lord’s Day, a diverse cast brought together by divine grace, actors of the true drama of the ages.

Despite the loud theatrical trailers of the world’s spectacle-making machines, the church is the true dramaturgy of the ages. God has authored the weakness of his people on purpose, to highlight the power of his gospel. And in this weakness, the world thinks that they see something quite different from what is really being enacted. When the final curtain drops on world history, the world will have missed the whole point. The world watches the slandered church as something of a vain curiosity, but in reality the church is a spectacle of her own—a large cast collectively playing the starring role as bride in the human drama for which all of creation was made as a theater to display.

Content taken from Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.


  1. ^ Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (Abingdon-on-Thames, UK: Routledge, 1998), 245.
  2. ^ Donald G. Kyle, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, 2015), 332.
  3. ^ Richard C. Beacham, Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), 200.
  4. ^ Matt. 26:66–68; 27:26–44; Mark 15:15–32; Luke 22:63–65; 23:6–11; John 19:1–5.
  5. ^ Beacham, Spectacle Entertainments of Early Imperial Rome, 222–23.
  6. ^ John Bunyan, The Works of John Bunyan (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1854), 3:128.
  7. ^ Revised English Bible (Oxford, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  8. ^ The martyrs’ compliance in their own deaths and their defiance of authority infuriated spectators. After some initial novelty value, and even with costumes and spectacular forms of death, Christians provided a rather poor show. They were not skillful performers like gladiators, so they received no hope or privileges. Their use is best explained by Roman hatred or religious anxiety, as punitive executions or propitiatory sacrifices, not by their entertainment value.” Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome, 248. See also Kyle, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, 334.
  9. ^ Peter J. Leithart, “Witness unto Death,” firstthings.com, January 2013.

Tony Reinke

Tony Reinke is an author and senior writer for DesiringGod.org and the host of the popular "Ask Pastor John" podcast with John Piper. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24