Celebrating liberation from the church’s supposed captivity under reputedly fallen Christendom has become popular among some conservative and liberal Protestants. According to this narrative, cultural Christianity often suffocated authentic faith and facilitated superficial religion.
Under Christendom, politicians mouthed pieties they didn’t believe, and persons attended church for business contacts and socializing. Now that Christendom is supposedly over, the wheat is more clearly separated from the chaff, and the more authentically faithful can witness to Christian truth with greater clarity, amid greater cultural and perhaps even legal adversity. Martyrdom will purge and embolden the true church.
Christendom’s obituary was even hailed at the recent Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 221st General Assembly (2014), where it was determined, according to a denominational news report, that “post-Christendom life in the United States can be pretty exciting.”
But should Christians really welcome the “excitement” of a more unChristian America? Apparently so, according to one speaker among the Presbyterians.
“Christendom is over,” declared Lillian Daniel of First Congregational Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois at the General Assembly Breakfast. “The denominational market-share no longer exists. And in some ways, that is a beautiful thing.” She added, “It is good that we live in a multi-faith world.”
Of course, Christianity has always existed in a multi-faith world, but maybe here she was referring to America specifically, although the adherents of non-Christian religion, according to one recent survey, are only 5 percent of U.S. population.
Neo-Anabaptist theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who never believed in Christendom, told the Presbyterian Foundation Breakfast, “We may be living in a time where we are watching Protestantism come to an end … (which) will leave the church in the position where it has nothing to lose. All we’ll have is truth. It’ll be a good opportunity to yet make Christians interesting – even in America.”
Hauerwas’ suggestion begs the question: how “interesting” should Christians want to be if the condition of such interest is cultural hostility to Christian faith and practice?
In further dancing on Christendom’s grave, Rev. Daniel surmised: “I think it’s exciting to be in the church at a moment in time when business deals are not made through your connection to the church, that it does not presume that your ethnicity is something, that it does not presume that you will be a certain denomination, generation after generation, simply because you must. We have the enormous privilege of being the church after Christendom, where we can presume that the people there actually want to be there.”
Reports of Christendom’s death maybe overstated. The percentage of Americans who report attending church regularly has stayed about the same for 80 years. So are church goers now more genuinely faithful than 50 years ago?
As to the ostensible interlopers who attend church to sell insurance or find lunch partners, shouldn’t we celebrate that they are exposed to the Gospel? And do any of us ever have completely pure motives for church involvement or anything else?
Christendom never claimed adherence to pure Christianity. It once mostly meant the confessional monarchies of Europe with state churches. Later it more widely entailed Western cultures historically rooted to Christianity, like America. Supposedly it’s now over because Europe is secularized and the commanding heights of culture in America are secularized, even if the people aren’t. But there are more Christians globally than ever before. So maybe Christendom is just readjusting.
But even to accept the critique of Christendom as a sometimes false facade of faith enabling hypocrisy, isn’t it still preferable to most other cultural arrangements? Isn’t a nominally Christian society preferable to an aggressively pagan or godless one?
Would you prefer well behaved nominal Christians as neighbors or loud pagans who sacrifice chickens in the backyard to Thor the Thunder God?
Aren’t politicians who halfheartedly espouse vaguely Christian virtues preferable to ones who unabashedly exalt pagan savagery or totalitarian secularism?
Isn’t a nominally Christian culture respecting individual freedoms and rule of law preferable to theocracy or a rigid authoritarianism?
Christendom was never completely Christian of course. But it offered a moral architecture for liberty, for humanity, for beauty and culture, for equality under the law and for respect for dissent. At its best, it espoused dignity for all. Its attributes have been the glorious exception to calamitous human history and decidedly not the norm.
Most alternatives to Christendom are not so promising. Yes, cultures adversarial to Christian faith offer greater opportunities for courageous witness. But many will fail the test, which we dare not celebrate, since the Body of Christ is called to care for even the weak and uncourageous. Not everyone is called to martyrdom, and we should pray for unexciting times when martyrdoms aren’t necessary.
Suffering is always the opportunity for greater faithfulness, but the Scriptures warn against willfully seeking pain, and we should never wish it on others. The terminally ill or the falsely imprisoned can make tremendous witnesses. They can also become angry and bitter. But even if a noble witness, we must never welcome calamity or injustice for others, supposing that God will be glorified.
Protestants especially, more so than other Christians, often seek a spiritual purity that is admirable but not typically viable, especially culturally and socially. Christendom is certainly not pure, but it does at least offer some protection for the seekers of purity.
Let’s pray for the sake of all that some semblance of Christendom persists and that our future times are not exciting but rather placid, conducive to faith and happiness for all.