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Christendom still in our hearts?

April 6, 2011

Recently I was asked to write a piece for a Minister’s magazine for the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand on the topic of what the church is called to be in the world. In particular I was asked to write on our post-Christendom situation. Theologians will recognize the influence of Yoder and my current reading immediately… but for what it’s worth here’s my take.

What exactly is the church called to be in our world? On living post-Christendom

The difficulty with discussing ‘the church’ in ‘the world’ lies primarily in the ambiguity surrounding the term ‘world’. In talking of the end of Christendom, we need to be clear from the beginning that we are focussing on the social world or worlds, in relation to which the church stands as itself a distinct social entity. What’s more we do so in a way that is inevitably reminiscent of the New Testament, and in particular, John’s term kosmos and the Paul’s aion hautos which often highlight the fallenness of those social worlds.

It has become commonplace in discussion of our mission situation to begin by talking of the end of Christendom. No longer is the church integrated into the whole of society as a part of something more or less Christian. Often this fact (the end of Christendom) is not evaluated theologically but treated as a neutral datum of assumed Providence which the church must come to terms with. However, this approach is not enough, perhaps even detrimental, for it obscures problematic assumptions. As John Howard Yoder succinctly puts it ‘…we can no longer so simply identify the course of history with Providence. We have learned that history reveals as much of Antichrist as of Christ’ (1)

We begin to understand the challenge of reflecting more theologically on history when we notice that our new historical situation is already reflected in the above question. To ask about ‘the church’ in relation to ‘the world’ is to presuppose that they are distinguishable realities again. There are (at least) two social orders here, where once there was thought to be an integrated unity of which the church played a part. However an acceptance of the new situation, without a theological consideration of the ideas implicit in Christendom has meant that its unravelling has not necessarily resulted in a church that ‘looks different’ and is ‘visible’ (‘a city built on a hill’ Matt 5: 14) and able to address the world or (worlds) as ‘the world’. I believe this is particularly true for those churches of the reformation which ended up reinforcing the constantinian synthesis rather than critiquing it(2). Here the worldview of constantinianism(3) commonly persists even when Christendom is gone.

What you think the church is called to be post-Christendom depends on where you stand in relation to the constantinian perspective that informed Christendom in the first place. Two responses are indicative of the continuing constantinian perspective. One is the continuing privatising of the essence of faith. This needs to be understood as a hangover from a time in which the state (for our purposes a key aspect of ‘the world’) was given responsibility for socio-political order and ‘space’. The other response is the ‘publicising’ of faith as service of the orders of ‘the world’ which bring ‘progress’(4). For both responses the church as its own social order (or rather Christ’s social order) is invisible to the world. It fits into and effectively conforms to that world, its modes of operating, its notion of power and its practices. A consequence of this is that ‘the world’ is not addressed by an Other – a social order conformed to the interruption called Jesus Christ. In other words to truly bear witness to the world we need to understand the difference Christ is and makes socially. To put it the way Yoder and Hauerwas have often done: the first thing the church must do for the world (post-Christendom) is to be the church, i.e., rediscover what it means to be the church. We must consider the otherness of the church(5).

The problem with constantinianism, then, is Christological. As Christians we bear witness to the presence of God in history as an interruption to history. The resurrection of Jesus puts the cross at the centre of history as the definition of the power of God (1 Cor 1: 17-18). It is, thus apocalyptic. It reveals something that history cannot contain, a singular newness, which in turn casts light on the historical processes which cannot extinguish it (John 1:5). The witness that flows from such an apocalyptic event claims a perspective on history which is not merely a reflection of the latest changes. The cross of Christ reveals the world to be ‘the World’. By interrupting the social order of humanity it reveals its fallenness. Christ was crucified by the world, i.e. by ‘structured unbelief’(6). As Paul puts it, in the cross of Christ the power of God meets the dominion of the principalities and powers and is victorious (Col 2:15). In particular it is victorious as an alternative mode of operation from that of the world (1 Cor 2: 1-8)(7). Such a christological and crucilogical perspective clearly challenges the very roots of the constantinian synthesis where it was assumed that the state’s use and threat of force had become the means of God’s rule.

Such Christology means that the church’s witness is an expression of the difference Christ is and makes socially. As Pauline scholarship is rediscovering(8), the mission of God is the calling and formation of a people. Thus, the church is ‘not simply the bearer of the message of reconciliation in the way a newspaper or a telephone company can bear any message with which it is entrusted. Nor is the church simply the result of the message as an alumni association is the product of a school or a crowd in the theatre is the product of the reputation of a film.’(9) The NT presents the ‘priestly kingdom’ as neither instrumental to, nor epiphenomenal of the mission of God, but part of its purpose, embodying socially the difference Christ is and makes. It bears the message of reconciliation as an embodiment of reconciliation (Eph 2: 16, 2 Cor 5: 18). What’s more it does so in relation to a world enslaved to principalities and powers (e.g., market, military, state, media) whose apparent power to direct history and be ‘effective’, is precisely that – merely apparent. However, to go beyond constantinianism is not to depart from these orders in a kind of withdrawal from the world, but to engage them by addressing them concretely in the otherness of the church’s life in which the form and content of the gospel are bound together.

Once we have learnt to appreciate the importance of the church’s social otherness, we can then follow our original question and explore what the church is called to be. For not just any kind of social otherness will do, certainly not a reactionary counter-culture. Missional otherness, of the kind that participates in the missional interruption of history we call Jesus Christ, will thus be both christological and cruciform. It will have its own positive form and content enabled by the Spirit.

Some examples of the continuing constantinianism within the Reformed tradition may help to clarify what is at stake. In the PCANZ much of what might count as ‘feeding the hungry and clothing the naked’ has been farmed out to independent bodies like Presbyterian Support, which although it bears the name Presbyterian is not a eucharistic/worshipping community and is structurally independent of such. The outcome of this is that inasmuch as local churches do this they are in danger of sub-letting  their responsibility to be themselves visible witnesses to the life of Jesus and to become, in the words of St Paul, ‘the justice of God’ (2 Cor 5:21). Effectively it is similar to regarding tax-paying as ‘missional’ since the government (and its principalities and powers) is now presumed to have responsibility for the bringing in of the kingdom(10).

Two further examples of the continuing influence of constantinianism struck me when I attended the inaugural meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) at Grand Rapids, Michigan (July 2010). This international gathering came 6 years after the meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Church (its predecessor organisation) in Accra (2004). From Accra had come an influential confessional declaration in which the Reformed Churches in the period prior to our current economic crisis, offered a powerful challenge to what they called ‘empire’. In other words, they sought to address the world as ‘world’ in the New Testament sense. They defined ‘empire’ as “the coming together of economic, cultural, political and military power that constitutes a system of domination led by powerful nations to protect and defend their own interests.”(11) In particular the Accra confession was so bold as to address the role of neo-liberal economics in this contemporary empire. However, by the time this encouraging reversal of reformational constantinianism had reached Grand Rapids in 2010 it was unclear whether the reformed tradition had much more to offer beyond prophetic rhetoric. It seemed that for all the willingness to challenge the principalities and powers, constantinian imagination still knew only one way to address the world’s problems – namely by means of the structures and systems established by the same principalities and powers. For many present, an understandable sense of urgency rendered insignificant the challenge of forming local embodiments of ecclesial ‘otherness’ and alternative models of micro-economic resistance – a city built on a hill. It should be said, however, that, in contrast to the predominant confusion, the German churches, who had been at the forefront of much of this discussion were certainly also leading by example with their commitment to a 40% reduction in carbon footprint across all their institutions and churches.

The other example of continuing constantinianism from this gathering of the WCRC was their rejection of a proposal that the new international Communion express its unity in Christ with a minimal commitment ‘not to kill one another’. From the dominant Reformed tradition this seemed like a naïve pacificism in spite of its strong christogical and eschatological basis. I was shocked that those who claim to be a communion and thus ‘body of Christ’ seemed to fail to appreciate that a commitment to cruciform non-violence was an integral part of their witness to the world.

What often goes unnoticed in the passing of Christendom is the profound link between the establishment of Christendom and the legitimation of violence, or, to be more precise, between constantinianism and a major failure within the life of the church to take serious the cruciformity of divine power as we encounter it in Jesus. Jürgen Moltmann makes this point well:

Does the Sermon on the Mount count as valid? And is it something that has to be practised? This is going to decide whether in Western societies Christianity turns into a civil religion which…no longer demands anything and no longer consoles anyone; or whether we arrive at a community of Christians which confesses Christ, follows him alone, and follows him entirely. In an age when the nuclear annihilation of the worlds is possible at any time, the choice is going to be made through Christianity’s witness for peace…(12)

If we are really going to go beyond Christendom (and not merely flow with the trends of history) for the sake of the world we will have to reconsider the peace witness of church.

In summary, then we might say that Christendom is not merely another moment in history which we can now leave behind. Rather it is, for all its complexity and attractiveness, one expression of a kind of practical heresy whose temptation remains with us. It is a failure of ‘applied christology’. In conclusion we will seek to take the word ‘exactly’ with due seriousness in answering our title question. Here, then, are two more specific positive implications for mission beyond the constantinian mindset. Essentially these are ways of avoiding the twin errors of privatisation and publicisation, and rediscovering the churches own visible witness to the world.

  1. Firstly, we will be cross-centred(13) communities. Rather than fitting the cross, somewhat awkwardly into our egocentric and psychologised ‘personal’ worship, we will fit our worship around the cross, and so be formed in the way of the cross.
  2. Secondly, we will function in small(13) enough communities to share not just our ideas and emotions but also practical elements of socio-political kingdom life in 21st century NZ, becoming members of one another not just theoretically but in ways that are visible and mutually accountable.



1. John Howard Yoder, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, edited by Michael G. Cartwright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), p. 55.

2. Presbyterians especially need to learn from the more radical wing of the reformation what the magisterial reformers failed to address by baptizing (i.e., ratifying rather than drowning and raising) forms of social order like the civil magistrates.

3. I am not offering a critique of Constantine so much as a critique of a set of assumptions which were operative prior to and after his adoption of Christianity. More on this further down.

4. Note the implicit theology in the term ‘progress’

5. See “The Otherness of the Church” in Yoder, The Royal Priesthood, pp. 54-64.

6. Yoder, The Royal Priesthood, p. 62

7. On this see Arthur C. McGill, Suffering: A Test of Theological Method (etc)

8. See in particular 2009’s crop of major contributions to the new perspective on Paul: N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009 )

9. Yoder, The Royal Priesthood p. 74.

10. All of this is, of course, not a criticism of either taxation or of Presbyterian Support, but a critique of the church’s avoidance of embodied witness.

11. The Accra Confession: Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and the Earth, (published by the North American Covenanting for Justice Workgroup and updated in 2010) p. 5

12. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, translated by Margaret Kohl (SCM Press, 1990), p. 132

13. It should be noted that the keywords of these two suggestions, ‘cross’ and ‘small’, should not be understood as exclusive of others like, ‘resurrection’ and ‘big’. In fact they presuppose them.


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