Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom (part one of a summary of the book).
Over the past week I have been reading Stuart Murray’s fine book ‘Post-Christendom‘.
Make no mistake: Stuart Murray thinks that Christendom was, on the whole, a bad idea. He doesn’t dispute the fact that it might have had some good side-effects, but in his view this does not change the fact that it required the Church to mutate the gospel and the shape of discipleship into something very different from the original vision of Jesus and the New Testament.
Christendom – if you aren’t familiar with the terminology – was the state of affairs that existed after Christianity became, first a tolerated religion and then the official religion of the Roman empire. Before this, the Christian church was a movement on the edges of society, a group of wild-eyed fanatics who talked about brotherhood and loving your enemies, about selling your possessions and giving to the poor and so on. In order to join them you had to go through a demanding process called the catechumenate which lasted for several years, at the end of which you went through an adult baptism. There was a strong sense of purpose in the movement, and a clear line of demarcation between those who were in it and those who were not.
This changed in the fourth century when Constantine, the Roman Empire, decided to promote Christianity as a bold new religion that could unite his empire. He not only tolerated it – he gave financial inducements for people to join it, lionized its bishops and leaders, and built it some huge churches. He presided over its theological councils, even though he himself had not been baptized and apparently saw no difference between the god of the Christians and the Unconquerable Sun, his own family god. The process of co-option of Christianity as the official religion of the empire continued under Constantine’s successors, so that over an eighty-year period the church went from being a persecuted movement to being itself a persecutor (with the help of the machinery of state). Obviously, when that happens, something radical has changed.
Stuart tells the story of the Christendom shift and the changes it brought to the church. The story includes:
- The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the city, state, or empire.
- Movement of the church from the margins to the centre of society.
- The creation and progressive development of a Christian culture or civilization.
- The assumption that all citizens (except Jews) were Christians by birth.
- The definition of ‘orthodoxy’ as the belief all shared, determined by powerful church leaders with state support.
- Imposition, by legislation and custom, of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (although it was normally Old Testament morality that was applied, not the teaching of Jesus).
- Infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into Christian society.
- The defence of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality and schism.
- A hierarchical church system based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, analogous to the state hierarchy and buttressed by state support.
- A sharp distinction between clergy and laity, and the relegation of the laity to a largely passive role.
- Sunday as an official holiday.
- The requirement of oaths of allegiance and oaths in law courts to encourage truth telling.
- The construction of massive and ornate church buildings and the formation of huge congregations.
- Increased wealth for the church and obligatory tithes to fund the system.
- Division of the world into ‘Christendom’ and ‘heathendom’ and wars waged in the name of Christ and the church.
- Use of political and military force to impose Christianity, regardless of personal conviction.
- Enemy-loving and peacemaking replaced by the formation of a Christian army and the ‘just war’ theory or ‘holy war’ ideology.
- Reliance on the Old Testament, rather than the new, to justify these changes.
He makes the further telling point that in order for the church to be brought in from the margins to the centre of society, Jesus had to be banished from the centre to the margins of the church, in the sense that his example and teaching no longer held centre sway – a Master who taught love for enemies, simplicity of life and caring for the poor would have been a little awkward for a rich and powerful empire! So in Christendom the worship of Jesus was emphasized at the expense of actuallyfollowing his teaching and example. This can be seen most strikingly in the creeds, which date from this period of time. They jump straight from the birth of Jesus to his death and resurrection, but say nothing about his life, his miracles, his relationships, his teachings, or his subversive lifestyle at all!
From time to time dissenting voices emerged, challenging the Christendom system and calling the church back to a model more consistent with Jesus and his way. But the beginnings of the disintegration of Christendom might be traced to the reformation of the 16th century, even though most of its features remained for centuries afterwards. The Protestant Reformers did not oppose the Christendom system, but their activities led to the fragmentation of Christendom into competing, and eventually warring, mini-Christendoms – Lutheran Christendom in Germany, Zwinglian Christendom in Zurich, Calvinist Christendom in Geneva, and Anglican Christendom in England. And in 1525 a little group of Christians gathered in a house in Zurich took the radical step of baptizing each other as adults in obedience to the command of Jesus and in rebellion against the infant baptism system; the Anabaptist movement had begun. Anabaptists were significant because they alone, at the time of the 16th century, questioned the whole structure of Christendom; they had gone back to the New Testament and discovered there that the church was meant to be a voluntary community of people who had freely chosen to follow Jesus, not something you automatically belonged to by virtue of being born in a so-called ‘Christian country’. For this (despite the fact that they were mostly pacifists) they were seen as dangerous subversives and were viciously persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike.
The undermining of Christendom continued quietly in the centuries that followed. Stuart identifies the following as some of the causes of it:
- Disillusionment with religion resulting from incessant warfare between supposedly Christian nations.
- The reliance of philosophers and scientists on reason and experimentation rather than revelation.
- The impact of industrialization and urbanization on traditional beliefs and structures.
- Postmodernism, pluralism, and fragmentation.
- The persistence of dissent, and the emergence of the ‘free church’ tradition.
- The globalization of the church and its mission.
All of these have contributed to the post-Christendom situation we face today – which, in Stuart’s view, is not a disaster, since the Christendom system was not what Jesus had in mind anyway!
However, he points out that there are still many vestiges of Christendom in the popular mindset. He writes in an English context and some of the examples he gives are particular to Britain. However, some of the more general ones include:
- Many church buildings contain military paraphernalia, and most denominations endorse the ‘just war’ theory.
- Many denominations and agencies maintain structures that perpetuate outdated ‘sending nations’ and ‘mission fields’ concepts.
- Infant baptism is still widely practiced, but there are concerns with indiscriminate christening where there is no evidence of Christian commitment.
- The popularity of tithing in newer churches is encouraging Anglicans and Catholics to return to a Christendom practice.
- Church discipline is not taught in seminaries, congregations are not equipped to practice it, and attempts to exercise discipline are frequently ineffective and authoritarian.
- Inherited or chosen architectural styles of church buildings maintain aspects of Christendom church thinking. Many resemble lecture halls or theatres, disabling multi-voiced worship.
- Special clothes continue to designate a clergy caste with special powers and privileges.
- Churches enjoy the presumption that their activities are charitable and so receive tax privileges.
- Holidays are planned around Christian religious festivals.
Other continuing issues include:
- Overemphasising internal church issues at the expense of God’s mission and kingdom.
- Confusion about the relationship between patriotism and ultimate loyalty to God’s kingdom and the transnational Christian community.
- Predilection for large congregations that support a ‘professional’ standard of ministry…
- Approaches to evangelism based on the assumption that people will come to us(being a welcoming church), rather than on our responsibility to go to them(being a missionary church).
- Thinking the Christian story is still known, understood, and widely believed within society.
- Reluctance to concede that Christendom inoculates people against real Christianity rather than evangelizing them.
- Assuming that churchgoing is normal and that people feel comfortable inside church buildings.
- Attitudes to church buildings that assume that they are ‘God’s houses’.
- Attitudes toward other faith communities that assume that because we are a ‘Christian country’ Christianity should be given special preference.
How have churches responded to the end of Christendom?
- Denying – some refuse to concede that it has happened and go on as if nothing has changed.
- Defending – some see the end of Christendom as a disaster and are determined to fight against it tooth and nail.
- Dissociating – newer churches sometimes suggest that the end of Christendom has nothing to do with them.
- Demonising – completely dismissing Christendom as having no good features at all.
- Disavowing – repenting of the sins of Christendom and facing resolutely forward into the new era.
- Disentangling ourselves from the machinery of Christendom, deconstructing the old structures that are no longer appropriate, disembarking from the Christendom ship.
The final chapters of Stuart’s book suggest strategies for doing mission and being church in post-Christendom, and suggest some resources to help churches in this new world we find ourselves in. But this article is already too long, so more about that later!