killing christendom

Killing USA Christendom?

Mark Tooley on May 19, 2021

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.

French noted:

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.

  1. Comment by td on May 19, 2021 at 1:05 pm

    Excellent commentary, Mark. These are very hard times for those of us caught in the middle between warring factions, each of which contains (to varying degrees) the truth revealed by our Lord.

    Thanks for your work.

  2. Comment by Dan W on May 19, 2021 at 6:01 pm

    God’s blessings are not the problem – our priorities are the problem.
    Pray constantly for the Lord’s guidance in all things.

  3. Comment by Eddie on May 19, 2021 at 10:29 pm

    I’m one who agrees that sticking close to the heels of the Teacher will leave you imprisoned or worse: headless. Which is why I fear GMC is destined to fail. By the time it finally launches in the U.S. believing in the Bible and God will get a church shut down . Happens in Canada in 2021. Why would we think it would not happen in the U.S. in 2023?

    The Bride of Christ will live on, regardless. She always has and will.

  4. Comment by Diane on May 20, 2021 at 12:23 pm

    I agree – individuals can be just as corrupt as institutions. I left a free-church denomination because its historic emphasis on the individual’s confession of faith, with little to no acknowledgment of one’s commitment to the corporate church’s confession of faith, was frustrating. I read an article recently on this characteristic of free churches (especially re the Restoration movement and Baptist churches, where youth and adults make their confession of faith and are then baptized)…these churches tend to define social justice response as one reserved best for individuals, not the corporate church. Founders of the Restoration Movement churches (Disciples of Christ, Church of Christ) emphasized church unity, relegating issues of slavery, abolition, integration, to the political realm. Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone, for example, did not advocate for racial equality. Both were leaders in the 1800s Restoration Movement. Today, most of the Disciples churches refuse to take a congregational stance on lgbtq inclusion, even if the without-power Disciples’ General Assembly has done otherwise. Emphasis on individual faith and witness is a mainstay mantra in Disciples and conservative Church of Christ (not UCC) churches. There are pros and cons to emphasis on individual vs corporate/institutional witness.

  5. Comment by Salvatore Anthony Luiso on May 21, 2021 at 4:46 pm

    Whether David French has properly explained Kierkegaard’s distinction between Christianity and Christendom I do not know, but I think what he has described is a false dichotomy. The problem isn’t Christendom (which he calls “the collective culture and institutions (universities, ministries) of the faith”), but the *people* in them. If these people were perfectly faithful to Christ, there would be no problem with the culture and the institutions. But, of course, they are not, and never will be, perfectly faithful to Him–regardless of the existence of the institutions. And so their imperfection is reflected in the culture and the institutions.

    In other words: the root of the problem is not in Christendom, but in Christians.

    In his article, French addresses a particular type of error to which Christians in America seem especially prone nowadays: thinking–or assuming–that the ends justifies means when, in fact, it does not.

    Also: It sounds as if French believes that doctrine is also *per se* problematic. It is not. To the contrary: true doctrine is essential to Christianity. Thus it is misleading to say we should “see through doctrine, through celebrity, and through politics to catch at last a glimpse of the man who is the faith”. We need doctrine to see that man–including the doctrines of self-denial and cross-bearing which French espouses in his article.

  6. Comment by Jim Radford on May 23, 2021 at 8:30 am

    Really good. Yeah, God’s going to use people, even cantankerous people, for His Glory. I love Kierkegaard. “The trouble with Christianity is Christendom.” Perfect. Peanuts’ Charlie Brown once said, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” My rendition of that is, “I love Christianity; it’s Christendom I can’t stand.” God will use even the Global Methodist Church, as screwed up as it already is. Hallelujah.

  7. Comment by Larry Waddell on May 24, 2021 at 11:50 am

    I am afraid that I must side with Dietrich Bonhoffer on this issue. What the Christian institutions lack is an understanding of Discipleship.
    Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
    — Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship)

  8. Comment by Roger on May 27, 2021 at 4:29 pm

    There are many Articles that comment: Christ calls us to preach “The Gospel”. What is the Gospel, they are talking about? We are not ‘One” with other Churches about the Gospel to preach. Polls show that Chistiandom doesn’t know what the Gospel is ! Is it the Gospel of Christ? Is it the Gospel of the Kingdom ? Is it the Gospel of Grace? The Gospel of Grace, for Salvation is : 1 Corinthians 15: 1 – 4. These verses says it is “THE” Gospel, the only one and it saves. Along with this, there is a warning whether we preach this Gospel correctly: Galatians 1: 8, we become accursed if we preach any other gospel. Also, if we preach for Salvation and leave something out or add to this gospel, something else to do or not do , according to Galatians 5: 2, Christ will profit you nothing. Many Pastors will preach the death and burial of Jesus but will leave out the Resurrection or they will add, baptism, repentance, other kinds of works. Salvation is a Gift and acceptance only comes by acceptance through believing the stated Gospel in Corinthians.

  9. Comment by The Rev. Dr. Lee D. Cary (UMC ret.) on June 21, 2021 at 10:19 am

    “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,”

    1. Christendom is not an ‘institution,’ Mark. Never has been. When it becomes institutionalized, it dies, sooner or later.
    2. No institution is needed ‘to proclaim and sustain Gospel precepts.’ belief is all that is required.
    3. Individuals are not as corruptible as institutions. The bigger the institutional headcount, the greater the danger of corruption. Hence, individuals are increasingly suspicious of institutions. We can thank the world wide web for that evolution.
    4. The Church of Jesus Christ is not an institution – ‘preeminently’ or otherwise.. To say that it is represents a ridiculous, anthropic assertion. The Body of Christ is not a line-and-block chart, has no pecking order, nor operates on a yearly fiscal budget.
    5. “Its quixotic partner in social renewal.” The word ‘quixotic’ makes no sense in that sentence, sir. (i.e., idealistic, unrealistic and impractical?)

  10. Comment by Harry on July 3, 2021 at 4:48 am

    Mark, good points about Christendom. Jesus is the king of all human culture and institution. Every knee must bow before him and every tongue must confess he is Lord. Any cultural arrangement that pushes mankind closer to that biblical ideal is superior to one that does so less. All hail King Jesus of Nazareth, his most Serene Majesty, the leader of leaders, the King of Kings, tht Prince of Princes, the Lord of Lords! Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

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