The End of Christendom

I wonder if part of what we've been discussing the past few days has to do with the end of Christendom and a re-orientation of what Christian community is going to have to mean?

I read this in the newsletter of Messiah Episcopal Church and it got me thinking:

Thoughts on the Future
Reverend David Langille, Priest Associate

This special summer edition gives me an opportunity to write not so much about upcoming events, but about something that has been on my heart and mind. As a Priest, a Youth Minister and as a husband and dad I know full well that we are facing a whirlwind of change, in the church, in the culture and in our political life. It seems that many of the underpinnings of Christendom, the civil and cultural religion of the “West”, where Christianity was the privileged religion, are fast falling away. By underpinnings I mean more often Christian culture than necessarily authentic Christian gospel. This falling away is something that has been championed by many secularists and even by some in the church. Many of the underpinnings have been seen as unjust, contrary to the gospel or just plain wrong. The example of Christian nations validating slavery and segregation on a wrong reading of scripture show the painful relation between Christendom and the Gospel.

We are living in an age where in many former Christian nations there is little more than a corona of Christianity in the culture. The special status afforded the Christian church is challenged. Many see Christendom as an obstacle on the road to full social justice. (To the point, the acceptance by Canada and many American states of same-sex marriage.) As with so much of Christendom, institutions—including marriage—are not so much critiqued and changed but simply swept away. I for one always thought Christendom would be around to critique, tweak and finally get it right. Now I find that to be a lost cause. Many voices in the culture (and even the church) are determined to undo Christian privilege, yet they offer no cogent alternative foundation for our culture’s ethics or morality.

So where does that leave us as a church, and me as a minister of the gospel of Christ? We may be living through an epochal shift, like the great Arian controversies that led to the Nicene Creed, or Constantine’s official recognition of the Church and ensuing Christendom, or the Protestant Reformation. We need to come to grips with what it will be like to live as Christians and as a church in an age where Christendom is undone. Today, more than ever, it is very important for the church to be the best church it can be. We must always recall that we are part of a communion of saints, of many who have preceded us and of generations, if Christ tarries, who will follow us. It would seem that, in epochal times like this, the church has been renewed and revived not in seeking cultural relevance—our death--but in recapturing the fire and power of the biblical church—our life. Where do we find this? By living Acts 2: 42-47 and by knowing and defending “the faith once delivered to the saints”. This is the “apostolic deposit”, the scriptures read and lived through the lens of the great creeds of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

What does this look like? I think of the Evangelical Revival in the Church of England (1750’s-1850’s). We know it’s effect: revived churches, the end of slavery, the building of public schools and the establishment of just labour practices. Do we recall its beginnings?

The church was spiritually lifeless. A culturally relevant theology, Deism, was ascendant. Religious “enthusiasm” was suspect. Into this mix came John Wesley, a young High Churchman whose nickname was “Primitive Christian”. He called the church to be the church, to restore the power of the Book of Acts. He prayed, preached and called others into this vision. Change came when the church was authentic. And this would seem to be what we too can be. We are the best church when we are the church we were meant to be.

Let me conclude with this one thought. I’m reminded of the grave concerns many feel at Messiah with regard to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. I share them. It’s somewhat easy for biblically orthodox folks to react to the presenting issues by simply being for the Bible. Amen to that! However, it’s not enough to simply be for the Bible as it is to live by the Bible. Biblical orthodoxy is about far more than defending theological position; it is about being radically faithful to the Holy God. I’m reminded of something the late Episcopal theologian William Stringfellow wrote about living as a Christian in America, and it applies to all of us today. “We need to comprehend America Biblically … Biblical living honors the life-style of the people of God set out for us in the Bible. A spontaneous, intimate and incessant involvement in the biblical Word as such…is the most essential nurture of contemporary biblical people while they are involved, patiently and resiliently, in the common affairs of the world.”

I want to be such a “biblical person”; Lord, help us to be such “biblical people”. Faithful in this way, we will be part of God’s great and vital future for His Church.

I wonder if thoughts about the purpose of the church in the world as it relates to external norms is not related to this collapse of Christendom and the rethinking of the purpose of the People of God this side of such an epochal change?


J.J. said...

Jon:"I wonder if thoughts about the purpose of the church in the world as it relates to external norms is not related to this collapse of Christendom and the rethinking of the purpose of the People of God this side of such an epochal change?"

Yes, I agree. I think we are living in a world in which the Christian story cannot be assumed (at least here in the Northwest!). An accurate representation of what it means to be "biblical people" is even more important in this new setting.

Do you think the Achilles heel you've been talking about has contributed to the fall of Christendom?

JPB said...

Yes, I do think this Achilles heel has contributed to the downfall of Christendom. In a nutshell, I think the creation of de facto rules of external conformity run directly counter to many basic, human, God-given impulses and desires to such an extent that when Christendom came to rely upon them as a signficant dimension of its identity, people rightly revolted. It is up to us to listen to what the Lord is saying to us in that revolt and re-center our sense of the gospel in culture. If we were being interviewed by humanity for the job of "repairing the ruins of our first parents," what would we say? If we say, "Well, if you hire us we will help you take care of all these external concerns," then I think humanity has every right to say, "That's not what we need."

That's why I love big-picture thinking about the church in the world. Shalom. Restoring creation. Recovering freedom from sin -- true freedom that includes freedom from the law and not merely a new legalism.

On the other hand, I think if you look at the 19th and 20th century split between the pietists and intellectuals, the rise of both liberalism and fundamentalism, the rise of Evangelicals, etc, there may be something of a chicken-egg thing with whether this sort of thinking contributed to or flowed out of the decline of Christendom. I can see it both ways and both may be true. Gosh if I were a history scholar that would be a great topic. (I did write a paper on it once now that I think about it...)

What do you think?

Richard said...

Craig Carter's book, 'Rethinking Christ and Culture', has some interesting insights. I think it's crucial for us to focus on the importance of worship, discipleship and evangelism. Carter's premise is that this can only happen if we approach one another in a non-coercive manner forsaking spiritual and intellectual, as well as physical violence.
True christian faith will be revealed as we nurture loving communities, as we speak God's truth to one another even when it hurts.