David French recently asked if Christendom in America, so racked by sexual, financial and political scandal, needs to die so that authentic Christianity may live. He cited Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard who resented his country’s state church for homogenizing faith and discouraging genuine imitation of Christ.
As Whitman College professor Matt McManus explains, Kierkegaard believed Christendom is dangerous to Christianity:
For Kierkegaard, the middling and enforced homogeneity of Christendom was the greatest danger facing genuine Christianity. In many ways, it was far better to see Christendom shrunk down to a few genuine believers than to see it ballooned and enforced into a parody of itself. It was designed, in his famous phrase, to “make the way [to Christianity] easier” when, in fact, the genuinely faithful must always make the way harder.
Here’s the tension existing in Christianity at all times everywhere. When it grows, Christians and the church become wealthy, influential and successful. There then is less sacrifice involved in profession of faith. There is potentially even gain to be had. Christian faith becomes easier, more blasé, easier to exploit for social gain.
With this observation, there’s the famous John Wesley quote Max Weber cites in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:
I fear, wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches. How then is it possible that Methodism, that is, a religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away. Is there no way to prevent this – this continual decay of pure religion? We ought not to prevent people from being diligent and frugal; we must exhort all Christians to gain all they can, and to save all they can; that is, in effect, to grow rich.
The perennial dilemma is that Christ calls the church to preach the Gospel to all people and to renew society. When people respond and the Gospel transforms society, Christianity becomes established and privileged. And true deep faith often begins to wane in favor of comfortable nominal faith.
In this vein, there is the common Protestant mythology that Emperor Constantine forever corrupted the early church from its original simplicity by legalizing and patronizing it. The formerly persecuted church became the chaplaincy to empire and never recovered, according to this narrative.
This myth has some truth but ignores that the legalized and ascendant church created a new culture infinitely superior to cruel paganism from which hundreds of millions would benefit across centuries. For every rich corrupt hypocritical bishop with concubines there were thousands who still practiced genuine faith and tried to live according to the Gospel. Christendom produced corrupted faith and a global ethic in which theoretically each person has dignity as a divine image bearer.
Who are the true Christians within American or global Christendom? Only the Lord knows. And He warns us from trying to separate the wheat and the chaff or drawing final judgments about individuals. We can trust that within Christendom and within institutional Christianity there will always be a mix of the genuine and the hypocritical. This division is not just between persons but also within individuals.
In North Korea’s tiny persecuted church, much of it in frozen labor camps, faith is presumably very genuine and honored by God. In South Korea, millions of wealthy Christians worship in often opulent sanctuaries. Does God prefer North Korea’s cataclysm over South Korea’s version of Christendom?
French concluded his essay on corrupted American Christendom this way:
As Kierkegaard reminds us, it’s an old crisis. There are times when the great enemy of Christianity is Christendom itself. But Christendom isn’t Christianity. Indeed, the collapse of the institutions of Christendom does not mean the collapse of Christianity. And their collapse may be necessary for people to see through doctrine, through celebrity, and through politics to catch at last a glimpse of the man who is the faith, the man who carried a cross and now commands us to do the same.
Maybe true. But both Christendom and its institutions are needed to proclaim and sustain Gospel precepts in the world. We now live in an era of distrust in institutions and reliance on the individual. But individuals are just as corruptible as institutions. And individuals cannot accomplish what institutions can. The Church of Jesus Christ is preeminently an institution, both earthly and eternal. Its quixotic partner in social renewal, Christendom, can be both shoddy and glorious. God will use both even despite themselves.