Stuart Murray Williams
Unpacking the 3rd Core Conviction
Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever it positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post- Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.
‘Christendom’ was both a political arrangement and a way of thinking. It can be traced to the decision of the emperor Constantine in 313 to adopt Christianity as the imperial religion and to bring the churches in from the margins of society to the centre. Almost a century later the emperor Theodosius made Christianity compulsory, and the once persecuted church became a persecuting church. The church gained enormous wealth, power and status and grew massively in numbers and influence. But it also changed in many ways.
The Christendom shift required the Bible to be read in a different way: Old Testament practices were adopted in the Christian empire; interpretations that supported rather than challenging the status quo were preferred; the unsettling teachings of Jesus were explained away or postponed to the future kingdom. The church also changed from a multi-voiced community to an institution dominated by professionals; from a mission-oriented to a maintenance-oriented organisation; from small groups of committed disciples to huge congregations of mainly nominal Christians. The commitment to truth telling was replaced by the swearing of oaths; the commitment to peace was replaced by justification for war; and the commitment to sharing resources was replaced by the tithe.
Gradually the whole of Europe was drawn into the culture known as Christendom – some willingly, others under pressure of coercion or inducements. All aspects of life were infused with new ideas. Christianity inspired the creativity of artists and sculptors, musicians and poets, architects and craftsmen. The biblical story and Christian theology provided the framework for literature and legislation, judicial practices and imaginative writing. Many have judged the ‘Christendom shift’ to have been a God-given opportunity to explore the implications of the gospel throughout society. Undoubtedly it resulted in a rich, vibrant and enduring civilisation.
But it was a totalitarian culture, where dissent was not tolerated. It was marred by such institutions as the Inquisition and the Crusades. And it became increasingly corrupt and resistant to challenge. Various medieval radical movements (Waldensians, Lollards and others) dared to criticise the system – and paid a high price. By the early 16th century, the protests were increasing: the peasants rose up seeking social justice, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg (calling for reform) and the Anabaptist movement picked up the baton of more radical dissent from the medieval movements. Christendom fractured into mini-Christendoms that went to war against each other. The attempt to reform Christendom did not work. Those who protested that this was an illegitimate system that distorted Christianity seem, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been right.
Four centuries later, assailed by the Enlightenment and secularism, discredited by the church’s involvement in warfare, splintered further by division, Christendom is coming to an end – at least in Western Europe, though it lives on in various forms elsewhere. Whatever we think of Christendom, this era is coming to an end. We are heading into the unknown territory of ‘post-Christendom’, where the church is no longer at the centre but on the margins and where, if it is to flourish or even survive, it must rediscover its calling to be a missionary community.
Scattered across church and society, though, are vestiges of Christendom – practices, institutions, privileges, reflexes, attitudes, ways of speaking and thinking – that are not only outdated and inappropriate in a plural society but often unjust and a hindrance to the church’s mission. We will need to divest ourselves of these and learn different ways of thinking and acting in post-Christendom.
The Anabaptist tradition is a helpful resource for this task. For nearly 500 years, it has represented an alternative way of discipleship, church and mission. Having rejected the Christendom shift, Anabaptists have explored different perspectives on all kinds of issues and have experimented with different practices. Though far from perfect, it does offer fresh insights that are far more suitable for post-Christendom than the mainstream traditions we have inherited from Christendom. Christians from many traditions today are drawing gratefully on these insights.
But above all the Anabaptist tradition insists on the centrality of Jesus. Perhaps this was the greatest price paid for the Christendom shift: to come in from the margins to the centre, the church had to push Jesus to the margins. And perhaps this is the greatest opportunity on the threshold of post-Christendom, as the church finds itself once more on the margins – to restore Jesus to the centre. It is the insistence on the centrality of Jesus that may be the Anabaptist movement’s greatest gift to us.
- Reflect quietly on this conviction and then (if you can) share with one or two others your response to any of these questions:
How (if at all) does this differ from what you have known and believed before?
Who do you know who lives out this conviction and commitment?
How does this conviction inspire your imagination?
How does this conviction challenge or empower your faith?
How might this conviction impact the way you live?
- Read the article on the Anabaptist Mennonite Network website that explores this conviction:
What questions does this article raise for you?
What aspects of the core conviction does it not address?
Are there elements of the article or the conviction with which you disagree?
Are there elements that you strongly affirm?
- How do you regard the ‘Christendom shift’ in the fourth century – as a courageous attempt to Christianise society, as unfaithful compromise with empire, or something else?
- What are the gains and losses as Christendom comes to an end in western culture?
- Which vestiges of Christendom do you regard as inappropriate and unhelpful – in church or society – and how can they be removed?
- How do you answer those who ask why, if Christianity is true, so many Christians have behaved so appallingly over the centuries?
- Now that the church is once more on the social margins, what new opportunities do we have?
- What liturgical resources – songs, prayers, poetry, icons, rituals, etc. – do you know that might enable you or your church to express and celebrate this core conviction and renew this commitment?