After Christendom

The Anabaptist Network is working in partnership with Paternoster to produce a major series of books on the meaning and significance of the end of Christendom in western culture.

Many Christians have focused on the challenges and opportunities of the perceived shift from modernity to postmodernity in recent years, but fewer have appreciated the seismic shifts that have taken place with the disintegration of a nominally Christian society. Although the term 'post-Christendom' is used more often now, it is generally not used with great precision and is frequently confused with postmodernity.

The 'After Christendom' series will explore the implications of the demise of Christendom and the challenges facing a church now living on the margins of western society. The various authors all write from within the Anabaptist tradition and draw on this long-marginalised movement for inspiration and insights. They see the current challenges facing the church not as the loss of a golden age but as opportunities to recover a more biblical and more Christian way of being God’s people in God’s world. For a discussion of the rationale behind the series, see

The series will address a wide range of issues, such as social and political engagement, how we read Scripture, peace and violence, mission, worship and the shape and ethos of church after Christendom.

These books are not intended to be the last word on the subjects they address, but an invitation to discussion and further exploration.

Post-Christendom: church and mission in a strange new world by Stuart Murray

The first volume in the series was published in 2004. This investigated the coming of Christendom in the fourth century, identified the main components of the 'Christendom shift' and traced the development and subsequent decline of Christendom over the following centuries. After explaining why Christendom as a political entity disintegrated during the twentieth century, the book examines the Christendom legacy, which consists of vestiges in church and society and a mindset that may persist long after Christendom itself is defunct. Three final chapters suggest ways in which church and mission may be reconfigured in light of the end of Christendom. Post-Christendom raises numerous issues that will be further explored in the books that follow.

To read the first chapter of Post-Christendom go to

Church after Christendom by Stuart Murray

The second book was published in 2005. It explores various questions. How will the Western church negotiate the demise of Christendom? Can it rediscover its primary calling, recover its authentic ethos and regain its nerve? The author surveys the ‘emerging church’ scene that has disturbed, energised and intrigued many Christians. He also listens carefully to those who have been joining and leaving the ‘inherited church’. Interacting with several proposals for the shape the church should take as it charts a new course for its mission in post-Christendom, the author reflects in greater depth on some of the topics introduced in Post-Christendom and the practical implications of proposals made in that book. Church after Christendom offers a vision of a way of being church that is healthy, sustainable, liberating, peaceful and missional.

To read the first chapter of Church after Christendom go to

Faith and Politics after Christendom: the church as a movement for anarchy by Jonathan Bartley

For the best part of 1700 years, the institutional church has enjoyed a hand-in-hand relationship with government. Indeed, the church has often been seen as the glue that has stopped political systems from disintegrating into anarchy.

But now for the first time in centuries, the relationship has weakened to the point where the church in the UK can no longer claim to play a decisive part in government. Faith and Politics after Christendom, published in 2006, offers perspectives and resources for Christians and churches no longer at the centre of society but on the margins. It invites a realistic and hopeful response to challenges and opportunities awaiting the church in twenty-first century politics.

To read the first chapter of Faith and Politics after Christendom go to:

Youth Work after Christendom by Nigel & Jo Pimlott

This book, an unexpected but very welcome addition to the series, was published in July 2008. The authors had read Post-Christendom and had realised that this perspective on mission and culture had many implications for youth work, especially youth work on the margins of society. Youth work, in fact, was another lens through which to investigate the Christendom legacy; just as post-Christendom was a new lens through which to search for appropriate and creative forms of youth work in a changing culture. If youth culture represents the leading edge of cultural and societal change, or at least reflects the pressures and possibilities emerging in our society, this volume may be one of the most important in the ‘After Christendom’ series. For if we can re-imagine and re-shape youth work for a post-Christendom culture, perhaps other dimensions of ecclesial and missional transformation will follow.

You can read an extract from this book by going to

Worship and Mission after Christendom by Alan & Eleanor Kreider

Alan and Eleanor Kreider are American Mennonites who lived in England for thirty years and were at the heart of the emerging Anabaptist movement here. Their jointly authored book, due for publication in October 2009, explores the relationship between worship and mission and how this relationship is crucial in post-Christendom. In worship the followers of Jesus are equipped to participate in the mission of God. This book explores the dynamics of the kind of worship that will equip and inspire us to be missional disciples.

You can read an extract from this book by going to

Reading the Bible after Christendom by Lloyd Pietersen

Lloyd Pietersen is Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies at the University of Gloucestershire. This book is in three parts: in the first section the author provides an historical overview covering biblical interpretation pre-Constantine, the effects of Constantine on reading the bible and the contribution of 16th century Anabaptists to biblical interpretation. The second section forms the heart of the book in which the author takes the reader book by book through the Bible, pointing out what can be seen when reading from the margin. In the final section two brief contemporary applications of such readings are explored: reading the Bible for spirituality and for mission. The book’s thesis is that reading the Bible should be a communal activity and so the author opens ways of reading to enable readers to explore the contents of scripture together.

You can read a sample chapter by going to

Hospitality and Community after Christendom by Andrew Francis

Shared meals can change lives. From the radical Anabaptist tradition, Andrew Francis grew up experiencing hospitality in many contexts. He applies this to Christian congregations: through the use of Communion and prayer breakfasts, house groups which always gathered for meals, self-catering church weekends and outreach events built around food, folk renew their interest in both discipleship and the ‘Jesus community’. Biblical narrative interwoven with contemporary examples explore shared food and lives. This book challenges traditional notions of religious community, offering models for today. ‘Table liturgies’ for congregations and home groups, and a bibliography (with cookery books) are included, too. Andrew Francis is a poet, community theologian and keen cook.

Atheism after Christendom by Simon Perry

To be atheist is to reject the gods of the age. Throughout Western history, those gods have included: the gods of Greece, whom Socrates opposed and was hence executed on the charge of ‘atheism’; Roman Emperors, gods whom Jews and Christians resisted and were hence persecuted as ‘atheists’; the pseudo-Christian god of Christendom, against whom Christian groups like Donatists and Waldensians, Lollards and Anabaptists rebelled and were outlawed as ‘atheists’. The god of Christendom was eventually pronounced dead by Friedrich Nietzsche. Since then, atheists have continued to rebel against this dated and defunct god. Now that we live in a post-Christendom era, the New Atheists boldly oppose the god of a bygone age whilst dutifully worshipping the gods of our own age. These new gods resemble very closely the old Roman gods, Mars (celebrating the visible, military supremacy of ‘us’) and Venus (worshipping the economic structures that defend our privilege at the expense of ‘them’). Atheism After Christendom is a call to both atheist and Christian, to be faithful to their atheistic heritage.

You can read an extract by going to

Women and Men after Christendom by Fran Porter

This book argues for Christian understanding and practice that takes the hierarchy out of gender relationships. It demonstrates how the structures and mindsets of male dominance and female subordination have been and still are perpetuated, and offers alternative understanding rooted in biblical and theological reflection. From the gospel witness and the lives of the first Christians, through the patriarchal gender order of Christendom, to the challenges of equality movements, and the impact of our theological imagination on the social relations between women and men, this book traces how unequal gender power relations are both entangled and defied, inviting Christian communities to explore non-hierarchical ways of relating between women and men.

You can read an extract by going to

God after Christendom? by Brian Haymes & Kyle Gingerich Hiebert

Whatever is happening in history, whatever deals are struck between Church and State, whether Christians are influential or vulnerable in society, marginal or in power, God remains God and that is good news. At least it is so long as God remains God and not some being, even a Supreme Being, made in our image. This book revisits the long tradition of Christian speech about God in the conviction that in Scripture and the story of Christian reflection there are resources to help keep the church in the way of faithful discipleship, even in the face of contemporary temptation to focus on who or what is less than God. Beginning with the Bible, the authors move to explore some classic Christian affirmations and why they remain crucial, to reflect on how we now speak of God, facing issues of evil and suffering and why faith in the true God must always lead to worship and peace.

To read an extract and commendations go to

Further titles planned for the 'After Christendom' series:

There are further titles under discussion, but at this stage four more have been accepted for publication by Paternoster.

Relationships and Emotions after Christendom by Jeremy Thomson

Relationships and emotions are essential to all our lives, and yet loneliness appears to be rising in Westernised societies. Some people find their own feelings hard to recognise, difficult to express or impossible to handle; others are intimidated by emotions strongly expressed by people they live or work with. This book explores the small-scale interactions of our lives and the somewhat larger-scale dealings of our churches and local communities, often marred by low intensity antagonism. It begins with the relationships and emotions of Jesus and explores the interface between theology and psychology to illuminate social interaction and encourage personal reflection. As Christendom unravels, it appeals for followers of Jesus to live out a style of social relationships that is emotionally healthy, that handles conflict constructively, that challenges injustice creatively, and that forgives graciously.

Security after Christendom by John Heathershaw
Missional Discipleship after Christendom by Dan Yarnell and Andy Hardy
Theology after Christendom by Joshua Searle

Other books that explore post-Christendom themes:

There are various other books, not part of the 'After Christendom' series and not all written from the same perspective, which engage with the issues raised by the transition from Christendom to post-Christendom and explore related themes. These include:

Scott Bader-Saye: Church and Israel after Christendom (Westview Press, 1999)

Craig A Carter: Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Brazos Press, 2007)

Rodney Clapp: A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society (Downers Grove: IVP, 1996)

Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch: The Shaping of Things to Come (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004)

Michael Frost: Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2006)

Vigen Guroian: Ethics after Christendom (Eerdmans, 1994)

Douglas Hall: The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity (Harrisburg: Trinity Press, 1996)

Stanley Hauerwas: After Christendom? (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991)

Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon: Resident Aliens (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991)

Philip Jenkins: The Next Christendom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Harry Maier: Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation after Christendom (Westminster: Fortress Press, 2002)

Hugh McLeod (Ed.): The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe, 1750-2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Stuart Murray: Beyond Tithing (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2000)

David Smith: Mission after Christendom (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2003)

Bryan Stone: Evangelism after Christendom: the Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007) For a review, see

Nigel Wright: Disavowing Constantine (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000)

Ryan Bolger (Ed.): Gospel after Christendom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012)

'After Christendom' study guide

If you are interested in accessing a study guide to the first two books in the 'After Christendom' series, go to

Post-Christendom booklet

You can download here an illustrated summary of Christendom/post-Christendom in pdf format. The second version is formatted so as to enable you to print it off as a booklet.

What is Post-Christendom? - front page (18KB)
What is Post-Christendom? for on-line reading(207KB)
What is Post-Christendom?, for printing as booklet(223KB)

After Christendom articles

In this section we intend to publish various articles on the 'After Christendom' theme.

One article is attached and can be downloaded below: 'Reading the Deuteronomistic History after Christendom'. Others appear further down this page.

Gospel and Culture after Christendom

Books, Critics and Responses

In 2004 Post-Christendom was published, the first book in an ongoing series under the overall heading ‘After Christendom’. Various writers, all influenced by the Anabaptist tradition, have been exploring the ramifications of the transition within western societies from ‘Christendom’ to ‘post-Christendom’. These freighted terms are becoming familiar but are still quite often misunderstood or their significance minimised. The conviction of the authors is that this transition impacts church and society in many and profound ways, just as the much earlier ‘Christendom shift’ did in the fourth and fifth centuries. Then, the church came in from the margins to the centre at the invitation of the Roman emperor, Constantine I, and his successors; now, the church is being pushed out to the margins and needs to reflect deeply on this new context and make all kinds of adjustments.

Each author of books in the series poses questions about beliefs and practices that have been common, maybe simply taken for granted, in many churches for many years. In conferences, seminars, classes, conversations and correspondence we have repeated these questions. Sometimes we have spoken with conviction and have tried to persuade others to reconsider long-held beliefs and re-examine cherished practices. More often we have asked questions and invited dialogue to subject our convictions to scrutiny and to explore other ways of looking at issues. Some conversation partners have found these discussions invigorating, even liberating, but others have found them disturbing.

One response we often encounter is some variation on the question: ‘Aren’t you allowing cultural changes to dictate what you believe?’ This is not surprising. After all, our starting point is that post-Christendom is a very different cultural context than the Christendom era that is now drawing to a close. In light of this, we argue, we need to take a fresh look at how we read and interpret the Bible, how we understand and communicate the gospel, what we need to nurture and sustain discipleship, how we practise mission and respond to contemporary ethical questions, and what it means to be worshipping communities in this new environment. These are issues that go to the heart of our faith, so it is understandable that some find them uncomfortable, even threatening.

Do we really need to revisit these issues? Is the cultural upheaval all western societies are experiencing – however we describe and analyse this – really that significant? What if we hold our nerve instead and refuse to abandon or question beliefs and practices that have sustained us through many generations? What if we take the view that, despite initially struggling, the church has survived previous cultural shifts in western societies over the past twenty centuries and has eventually flourished in whatever new culture emerged? G. K. Chesterton famously commented on these culture shifts: ‘At least five times…the Faith has to all appearance gone to the dogs. In each of these five cases it was the dog that died.’ Perhaps our calling is to hold true to familiar beliefs and practices, to retain confidence in the gospel and to wait for the emerging culture to discover its need for this once more.

Of course, as most of our critics acknowledge, we may need to make some adjustments. Indeed, one of the glories of the gospel is its translatability into all cultures. We have no sacred language and no privileged culture. Cross-cultural missionaries have not always been true to this insight, too often imposing their own culture and confusing this with gospel values, but lessons have been learned and we are all so much more aware now in a global church of the need to distinguish between gospel and culture. In the changing and increasingly plural culture of western societies we will also need to engage in this kind of translation and adaptation. But this kind of contextualisation need not mean questioning foundational doctrines and practices or reopening debates about gospel and culture that our forebears settled generation ago, need it?

What is at issue, then, it seems, is the scope of contextualising we should encourage, the depth of questioning we should allow, and the boundaries we should or should not draw around doctrines and practices that are beyond debate. And if we can agree on guidelines about what we should or should not investigate, there is the further issue – summarised in the question we have so often heard – of what influence contemporary culture has on the discussion.

We want to take seriously the concerns of our critics. We recognise in many of them their integrity, their commitment to the authority of Scripture, their confidence in the power of the gospel, their watchfulness against heresy and illegitimate collusion with alien cultural or philosophical ideas, and their pastoral concern for us, fearful lest we be led astray. We want to remain open to their critique and open to the possibility that we are getting things wrong. We struggle with the tone of some of the criticism, but we do not want to let this distract us from hearing whatever we need to hear.

We acknowledge also the very real dangers of being co-opted by prevailing ideologies, colluding with changing cultural values and expectations, succumbing to the temptation to water down the gospel to give less offence in a society that prides itself on ‘tolerance’ and imbibing uncritically the iconoclastic and relativistic spirit of post-modern culture. And we may be even more prone to fall into these traps at a time when the church is not only grappling with cultural changes but declining in numbers and in social influence. Desperation may prompt some to try to save the day by reinventing the Christian faith in the hope that they can present a more amenable version that will be congenial to more people.

This strategy will be familiar to those who have studied European church history during the past two centuries. While some churches set their faces against the technological and philosophical changes associated with the Enlightenment, reasserting familiar belief and practices and resisting ‘modernisation’, others chose to adjust and adapt their beliefs and practices so that they fitted more easily into the culture that was emerging. By the middle of the last century this latter strategy was widely discredited. What became known as ‘liberal’ Christianity seemed to have power neither to retain the allegiance of the faithful nor to convince others that the Christian faith had anything to offer. Lest this paints too polarised a picture, we should add that modernisation and secularisation impacted the more traditional churches (especially the Evangelicals) far more than most recognised at the time; and some of the perspectives adopted by more liberal churches have helpfully informed other traditions.

Questions, Suspicions and Assumptions

But the tradition out of which the ‘After Christendom’ authors write is not ‘liberal’ but ‘radical’. Our historical reference point is the Anabaptist movement that represented a more radical reformation than any other during the culture shift of the early sixteenth century. Not adequately categorised as Protestant or Catholic then or as Evangelical or Liberal now, this movement has generally been regarded as counter-cultural or hostile to contemporary cultural norms rather than tending to collude with or be unduly influenced by the surrounding culture. There are many examples of cultural non-conformity within the Anabaptist movement, some of which are much more unyielding to cultural changes and pressures than most of our critics would countenance. So it is a little disconcerting, and occasionally amusing, to be accused of allowing cultural changes to dictate what we believe. This is certainly not what we understand ourselves to be doing.

Rather, in continuity with the early Anabaptist communities, we welcome the opportunity that the end of Christendom affords to re-examine a range of theological, ecclesiological, ethical and missional issues. The early sixteenth century witnessed the fragmentation of the monolithic Christendom culture that had dominated Europe for a millennium. Across Europe Anabaptists and others had access to the Bible as never before and studied it with a passion. What they discovered was a huge discrepancy between what they read there – especially in the teaching of Jesus – and the beliefs and practices of the churches. And this discrepancy was much greater than the Protestant reformers recognised and affected many more aspects of discipleship, mission, social ethics and church practice than these state-supported theologians dared admit. The culture shift they were living through gave them the opportunity and incentive to revisit foundational beliefs and familiar practices – and to question how much of the mainline church’s theology, ethics and ecclesiology was actually the result of previous collusion with the prevailing culture.

Our motivation and concern is the same. Our suspicion is that there are many dimensions of theology, ethics, ecclesiology and missiology that owe much more to the culture, ethos and political arrangements of Christendom than to Scripture. We believe the Anabaptists identified quite a number of these in the sixteenth century but many more are coming to light as the Christendom era moves beyond fragmentation to disintegration. When we ask questions about the beliefs and practices of the churches, our purpose is not to advocate conformity to contemporary culture but to critically review the ways in which previous generations wittingly or unwittingly colluded with the norms of their cultures. The end of Christendom gives us a vantage point from which to see instances of this more clearly.

Some examples might be helpful at this point. We know these are all highly contentious issues (and not all the authors of the ‘After Christendom’ books necessarily hold identical positions on them), but our intention here is not to raise the stakes or assert our views, but to illustrate our approach.

• We question the ‘penal substitution’ interpretation of the atoning work of Christ – not primarily because contemporary culture finds this ethically offensive or even incomprehensible, but because we are unconvinced that biblical teaching supports this analysis and we believe it resulted from the influence of the medieval feudal context in which the ‘satisfaction’ theory was formulated and the juridical ideas of early modern Europe in which the ‘penal substitution’ theory gained prominence.
• We question the ‘just war’ approach to discussions about the legitimacy of church support for wars declared by the nation in which they are located – not primarily because of scepticism in contemporary culture about the motivation behind recent conflicts or the difficulty of applying principles formulated centuries ago to very different forms of warfare today, but because we cannot square this approach with the teaching of Jesus or the developing story the Bible tells, and we believe it was adapted from pagan philosophy in the fourth and fifth centuries so that the church could find a way of addressing issues of warfare as a partner of the empire.
• We question the central role and monologue style of preaching in many churches – not primarily because emerging culture reacts badly to this or because evidence suggests it is far less effective than most preachers believe, but because we do not believe there is biblical warrant for this over-emphasis and we believe it resulted from the church in the early years of the Christendom era adopting cultural norms as it adjusted to its newly favoured status in the empire.
• We question the advocacy of tithing as the biblically mandated mechanism for determining levels of giving and addressing issues of stewardship – not primarily because this distracts attention from deeper issues of lifestyle and discipleship or because it is good news to the rich and bad news to the poor, but because this was not the practice of Christians in the New Testament or the early centuries and we believe it was adopted on the basis of poor exegesis of Old Testament texts in the early Christendom era as a way of funding an increasingly expensive hierarchical church structure.

We are raising these and other questions, not primarily because of the culture shift which we are currently experiencing at the end of Christendom (although this opens up space for such reflection), but because we believe that the Christendom shift that ushered in the Christendom era resulted in multiple compromises with culture and serious distortions in how the gospel and its implications were understood.

We repeat: what we are engaged in and advocating is no different from the process of theological reflection on the relationship between gospel and culture that cross-cultural missionaries have practised over the centuries. As we experience a significant shift in our culture, this kind of theological reflection is vital. So why does this provoke suspicion? It seems that some Christians in western societies are much more reluctant to explore this relationship, maybe assuming that there is no need to open up questions about gospel and culture in our own societies, because these were satisfactorily resolved during the era in which Europe was a ‘Christian’ culture. This assumption, we suggest, is itself a legacy of the Christendom mindset and an expression of western arrogance (as theologians from other parts of the world point out).

Why should we assume the Christendom synthesis of gospel and culture is normative and beyond critique, rather than a way of contextualising the gospel into a particular social, political and cultural setting? This synthesis has been exported in imperialistic fashion to many other societies, so one of the crucial tasks of post-colonial theology is to break free of this imposition and develop indigenous approaches to the relationship between gospel and culture. The assumption that the Christendom synthesis is normative also discourages theological reflection on the relationship between gospel and culture in post-Christendom western societies, especially when this reflection probes too deeply into certain issues.

Perspectives, Principles and Conversation Partners

The perspective from which the ‘After Christendom’ series is written can be summarised as follows. We reject the assumption that the Christendom synthesis of gospel and culture should be regarded as normative and will resist any discouragement from critiquing this. We suspect that this synthesis between gospel and culture was a mixture of compromise and authentic contextualising. We note the persistence of alternative approaches to issues of gospel and culture in renewal movements and on the margins of Christendom and want to learn from these. We regard the demise of Christendom and the accompanying shifts in our culture as an opportunity to revisit decisions made in that era about the relationship between gospel and culture, and an opportunity to open up afresh a range of theological, ethical, missional and ecclesial questions. We will not discount the wisdom of the past or reject beliefs and practices just because they emerged during the Christendom era, and we will not uncritically embrace perspectives that may owe as much to collusion with post-Christendom and post-modern culture as earlier perspectives owed to collusion with the cultures of Christendom and modernity.

It might be helpful if we also identify the principles which guide us and the resources on which we draw. In common with the early Anabaptists, we are committed to the authority of Scripture and its interpretation within the Christian community. This means we expect to hear the interpretive voice of the Spirit through multi-voiced interaction between those who reflect together on the text. The books we write may have named authors but they all benefit from the input of others throughout the writing process. We are committed also to operating with a consistent hermeneutic that challenges our presuppositions, prejudices and preferences. Because of the culture shift we are currently experiencing and in light of our own limitations, we are further committed to provisionality in our understanding and openness to fresh insights (another historic Anabaptist trait).

And, as indicated above, we do not regard any subject, formulation of doctrine, ethical approach, ecclesial practice or missional perspective as off-limits or sacrosanct. This does not, of course, mean that we expect to reach new or different conclusions on every issue. We may find ourselves reaffirming established views and resisting challenges to these. But we want to do this after examining closely the arguments for and against such views, rather than retreating from such discussions or immediately labelling other perspectives as heretical. Consequently, we are unafraid of exploring controversial issues: two current examples are homosexuality and universalism, but there will be others.

We are grateful for several conversation partners. In addition to the Scriptures, we value also the witness of the early Christians. While we do not equate post-Christendom with pre-Christendom, we suspect that there are insights from the pre-Christendom churches and their literature that will help us engage critically with what we have inherited from the Christendom era. We want to learn from the experience of the Anabaptists and other movements that were critical of the Christendom system and developed alternative ways of interpreting Scripture, building Christian communities, engaging in mission, making ethical choices and understanding the relationship between gospel and culture. We are grateful also for opportunities to learn from the global church and from the experience of cross-cultural missionaries as we reconsider issues of gospel and culture, anticipating that insights from elsewhere will help us to critique our own presuppositions and conclusions. We appreciate the work of others who are also attempting to draw on the past in order to engage with contemporary challenges, although we are concerned that some of these (for instance the ‘deep church’ perspective) seem inadequately attuned to the influence of the Christendom shift. And we are open to the possibility, perhaps the likelihood, that there will be ways in which the emerging culture can help us recover dimensions of the gospel that have been obscured in the culture that is now fading. This we regard not as colluding with culture or uncritical co-option but confidence that the Spirit is at work beyond the churches as well as within them.

This article was written by Stuart Murray and is endorsed by Jonathan Bartley, Nigel Pimlott, Alan & Eleanor Kreider, Lloyd Pietersen and Glen Marshall.


1. Books published to date are Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom (2004), Stuart Murray: Church after Christendom (2005), Jonathan Bartley: Faith and Politics after Christendom (2006), Jo Pimlott & Nigel Pimlott: Youth Work after Christendom (2008), Alan Kreider & Eleanor Kreider: Worship and Mission after Christendom (2009) and Lloyd Pietersen: Reading the Bible after Christendom (2011). Several further books are being written. All are published by Paternoster in the UK and some also by Herald Press in North America.
2. In The Everlasting Man (1925), part II, chapter 6.
3. Who are these critics? Most are identified with the conservative wing of Evangelicalism and with a Reformed or Neo-Reformed theology; although on some issues our approach is questioned by a wider range of Evangelicals and others. Some regard our emphasis on the influence of the Christendom shift and the subsequent demise of Christendom as excessive; others argue for a return to Christendom in some form or other. A recent example is Peter Leithart: Defending Constantine (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010).

Post-Christendom, Post-Constantinian, Post-Christian…does the label matter?

by Stuart Murray


The term ‘post-Christendom’ has become increasingly familiar in conversations about church and mission in contemporary western societies. Some first encountered this term in the ‘After Christendom’ series, published by Paternoster and written by members of the Anabaptist Network since 2004.1 These books offer resources to help us understand and engage creatively with the challenges and opportunities of post-Christendom culture. But many others are also using this language, and have done so for many years, even if its significance has not been widely recognised until quite recently. ‘Post-Christendom’ appears to be a significant lens through which to view the emerging cultural landscape.

However, different people use the term ‘post-Christendom’ in different ways. Sometimes this helps us engage with the issues we face; but sometimes it simply causes confusion. In the emerging church conversation, for instance, ‘post-Christendom’ is often used as if it were a synonym for post-modernity. Understanding and engaging with post-modernity is undoubtedly important, but referring to this as ‘post-Christendom’ does not aid clarity of thinking. The transition from modernity to post-modernity and from Christendom to post-Christendom confronts us with a cultural and missional ‘double whammy’. These shifts overlap, complement and reinforce each other in various ways, so we do need to explore their inter-relationship and dual impact. But post-Christendom is not the same as post-modernity. Post-Christendom presents different challenges and opportunities.

The first book in the ‘After Christendom’ series offered a definition of post-Christendom: the culture that emerges as the Christian faith loses coherence within a society that has been definitively shaped by the Christian story and as the institutions that have been developed to express Christian convictions decline in influence.2 It also identified seven transitions that mark the shift from Christendom to post-Christendom, each of which has implications for how Christians understand their role within society:

  • From the centre to margins: in Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
  • From majority to minority: in Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Christendom we are a minority.
  • From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, exiles and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
  • From privilege to plurality: in Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
  • From control to witness: in Christendom churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
  • From maintenance to mission: in Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
  • From institution to movement: in Christendom churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must become again a Christian movement.3

This definition and these transitions appear to be gaining widespread acceptance, even if the significance of the transitions and how we respond to these continues to be debated.

It is within these debates that more helpful differences emerge in the ways the term ‘post-Christendom’ is used. Some, for example, use the term to signal the end of a historical era in western culture but apparently see no need to investigate the legitimacy or legacy of this era. Christendom is coming to an end. An emerging culture will require fresh ways of thinking, speaking and acting.4 The authors of the ‘After Christendom’ series propose that a more thoroughgoing disavowal of the Christendom mindset is necessary – both for the sake of the church’s integrity and to enable us to see clearly enough to envision new approaches. For some, the demise of Christendom represents a major cultural shift; others are less convinced that it is as significant as authors of the ‘After Christendom’ series are claiming.5

There is also some discussion about different kinds of Christendom. Using the same term to cover the diverse cultures and political arrangements in Europe between the fourth and twentieth centuries (and extending this to other western and non-western6 contexts) is undoubtedly problematic. In the eyes of some it is illegitimate. Christendom, they argue, degenerates into an all-purpose swear word, devoid of historical accuracy and focus. The perspective from which the ‘After Christendom’ series is written is that, underlying these diverse forms of Christendom (which are recognised and discussed in Post-Christendom), are fundamental assumptions, attitudes, theological and ecclesial commitments, missional priorities and expectations. For this reason, the term is meaningful and heuristic, even if distinctions and clarification may sometimes be needed.

An insightful and provocative contribution to this debate appears in Nigel Wright’s Free Church, Free State7. Developing recommendations for how the church (especially in the ‘free church’ tradition) might engage with the state, Wright agrees with other critics that Christendom ‘is often used in an undifferentiated way which overlooks the complexity of the phenomenon.’8 He proceeds to differentiate between three approaches.

The first approach is ‘theocracy’ or ‘Caesaro-papism’ in which any significant distinction between church and state disappears. The head of state is invested with divinely ordained authority over both church and state. For several centuries Byzantine emperors exercised this role over the church in the East.

The second approach is ‘Constantinian Christendom’, associated with the relationship in the West between the emperor, or national rulers, and the Catholic Church. Church and state are partners, the church legitimising the activities of the state and the state enforcing the decrees of the church. This partnership was not without its tensions, competition for supremacy and hesitations on both sides. But it was an enduring and effective partnership that enforced Christianity throughout Europe and suppressed dissent.

The third approach, which Wright calls ‘non-Constantinian Christendom’, is presented as a possibility, rather than an experienced historical reality, although he argues that the free church tradition has laid the foundation for this approach in its advocacy of freedom of conscience and religious liberty. State and church are decoupled; coercion in the sphere of religion is renounced; but ‘Christian truth’ is ‘determinative for the public realm’.9

Separating out these three approaches is helpful. Christendom was certainly constituted and experienced in different ways at different times and in different regions. But perhaps the distinction between the first and second approaches is one of degree rather than kind. The seven transitions from Christendom to post-Christendom noted above seem equally applicable to either form of Christendom. There were different kinds of Christendom – just as there are different expressions of post-Christendom (post-Protestant versions are rather different from post-Catholic versions) – but the generic term still serves to focus attention on fundamental, and deeply problematic, features of this system.

The third approach is intriguing. What if Europe had been converted through persuasion rather than imperial incitement, favours and pressure, followed by force of arms? What if a community or people embraces ‘Christian truth’ without coercion and enthusiastically?

Some might suggest that the United States is the prime example of ‘non-Constantinian Christendom’, with its constitutional separation of church and state but the persistent influence of Christian rhetoric in the public domain. If this is so, many would have very serious concerns about such an arrangement, wondering to what extent ‘Christian truth’ is always liable to be co-opted and domesticated rather than truly being determinative.10

My only personal experience of anything like what Wright posits was a few days among the Karen people in the hill country of North Thailand. Although I was well aware from reading mission history that in cultures that are less individualistic than the West ‘people groups’ (villages, clans, tribes) are converted, I had never before encountered a whole community that was Christian, indeed Baptist. Everyone belonged to the church as well as to the village, and there was no apparent sacred/secular divide. Although I was unable to probe deeply some of the questions I had about the depth and diversity of commitment to Christ in this community, I found these days exhilarating and hopeful. But for someone with deep-seated objections to the notion of Christendom, they were also disconcerting!

But is this Christendom in any of the senses Wright describes? The Karen are a marginal Christian community in an overwhelmingly non-Christian nation. They lack the power to coerce religious conformity or suppress dissent (hopefully their Baptist convictions also discourage any such instincts). There is no state, as such. Nor are there other religious or secular minorities, whose treatment would be the acid test for any ‘non-Constantinian’ expression of Christendom, and who might contest ‘Christian truth’ as determinative for the public realm.

The phrase ‘the gospel as public truth’ is associated especially with Lesslie Newbigin11, who insisted that he was not advocating a return to Christendom. Wright adopts a very similar turn of phrase, suggesting that Christian truth can be determinative for the public realm but, unlike Newbigin, he does not dissociate this from the notion of Christendom but proposes a ‘non-Constantinian’ version of Christendom.

I am attracted by Wright’s proposal and endorse his vision of a society where the state does not attempt to coerce conscience or favour any religion, and where the church does not attempt to bolster its witness by seeking state support. But I am not convinced that it is helpful to suggest that Christian truth should be ‘determinative’ for the public realm or that the language of ‘non-Constantinian Christendom’ is appropriate (any more than I am persuaded that Newbigin’s programme could lead anywhere else but to a reconstituted Christendom).

If at some point in the future the Christian community increases so substantially as to comprise a significant majority of any society, there will be crucial decisions to make about how that community proclaims the truth it professes, how it embodies this socially, politically and culturally, and how it copes with those who do not accept its convictions and norms. The separation of state and church, freedom of conscience and advocacy of ‘Christian truth’ in ways that do not disparage or disadvantage those who hold firm to other convictions (rather than calling for Christian truth to be determinative in the public realm) would be essential foundations for such decisions. But what emerges from this decision-making process should not be labelled ‘non-Constantinian Christendom’. It is simply not feasible after so many centuries of Christendom (however many expressions of this we identify) to rehabilitate this term. Nor is it possible to detach it from notions of imposition and the privileging of Christian faith over against other faiths (which is surely the implication of Christian truth being determinative for the public realm). We really do need to embrace post-Christendom now.

The term ‘post-Christendom’, contrary to the claims of some critics, does not imply the withdrawal of Christians or the church from the public realm.12 Rather, it suggests that the nature of our involvement in politics, culture and society needs to be renegotiated in light of changing circumstances and changing theological convictions. The ‘post’ aspect of the term invites us to leave behind the compromises of the past; the ‘Christendom’ aspect is a reminder of the legacy with which we must grapple and from which we must learn as we explore uncharted territory.

But Wright’s term ‘non-Constantinian Christendom’ does invite further reflection. What does ‘Constantinian’ mean, why do some writers use this term rather than ‘Christendom’ to refer to the era which is coming to an end, and is this helpful?


The term ‘Constantinian’ points us back to the beginnings of the Christendom era in the fourth century and to the emperor Constantine I, who adopted Christianity and began the process of replacing paganism with Christianity as the imperial religion. Historians argue about Constantine’s motives and the depth of his commitment to Christ. They also make very different assessments of the effects of the so-called ‘Christendom shift’ on church and empire. These are not issues we can explore further here.13

Undoubtedly, Constantine’s ‘conversion’ and his invitation to the church to partner him in Christianising the empire set in motion a train of events that led inexorably to the full-blown Christendom system of succeeding centuries. Although Christendom would take shape over centuries, it was Constantine who initiated the process. To call what emerged ‘Constantinian’ acknowledges his foundational role. In other regions, especially beyond the empire in the East, the Christian community waxed and waned over the centuries but never had an equivalent political champion. There was no Asian Christendom.

But there are reasons to query whether ‘Constantinian’ is an appropriate synonym for the Christendom era.

First, although Constantine identified himself as a Christian, lavished favours and finance on the church, increased its influence to the disadvantage of paganism and made it clear that he wanted everyone in the empire to follow his lead, he did not impose Christianity on the empire. There were inducements to convert, but no coercion. These inducements were effective and the church experienced massive growth during the fourth century, to the consternation of those who advocated a return to the old imperial religion. But under Constantine and his immediate successors paganism and other religions were permitted to continue unmolested. At the end of the fourth century no more than half the population of the empire was Christian, and the Roman senate was still almost entirely pagan in 380.

Only under the emperor Theodosius I, at the very end of the fourth century, did imperial pressure begin to mount significantly, and not until Justinian in the sixth century was the full force of imperial law invoked to require all to be Christians. The totalitarian system, the full partnership of church and state, the imposition of compulsory tithing and the use of coercion to suppress dissent that characterised the Christendom era for many centuries was not operational until long after Constantine’s reign. It is arguable that Constantine set this process was in motion, that he refrained from using coercion for political rather than ideological or theological reasons, and that an imperial system will inevitably move to crush dissent sooner or later. But perhaps the term ‘Constantinian’ should be reserved for designating situations where the political authorities favour Christianity, but refrain from imposing it.14 Perhaps ‘Theodosian’ (or ‘Justinianian’ if it were pronounceable) would be a better term for the emerging Christendom system?

Second, although Constantine’s influence revolutionised the social context within which the fourth-century church operated, it was not the emperor who revised its theology and transformed its ecclesiology and missiology. Indeed, many early church practices, such as the baptism of believers rather than infants, persisted throughout the fourth century. It was Constantine who summoned the church leaders to great councils to debate theology and formulate creeds, and it was his patronage and that of his successors that influenced the outcomes of these, often rancorous, gatherings. But it was the theologians and bishops who adapted Christianity to its new imperial setting – not least the famous Augustine of Hippo. Augustine was more critical than Eusebius of Caesarea of some features of the new regime, insisting that this was not ‘the city of God’, but he introduced many novel theological, hermeneutical and ecclesial ideas that enabled the church to adjust to its new social and political context. Some of these flew in the face of three centuries of tradition but with little opposition they became the new orthodoxy. Maybe ‘Augustinian’ (if this term were not already used with a different meaning) would be a preferable alternative to ‘Constantinian’? For it was Augustine, not Constantine, who laid the philosophical and theological foundations for the Christendom era.

There are other, more mundane, reasons why the term ‘Constantinian’ is problematic. It does not exactly slip off the tongue and may suggest that the subject under discussion is primarily for academics. ‘Christendom’ is a much more accessible term. It also connotes a specific historical development and may not facilitate the wide-ranging conversations about church and mission that the term ‘Christendom’ often does.

However, ‘Constantinian’ and ‘post-Constantinian’ are labels favoured by many writers, especially those who discovered these concepts in the writings of Mennonite theologian, John Howard Yoder. Stanley Hauerwas, for example, reflecting on the political demise of Christendom but the persistence of Christendom ways of thinking and behaving, writes: ‘Constantinianism is a hard habit to break.’15 Liberation theologian, José Miguez Bonino, insists that Christians can no longer be primarily concerned with upholding the social order: ‘the question of the Constantinian church has to be turned completely around. The true question is not “what degree of compatible with the existing order?”, but “what kind of order, which order is compatible with the exercise of justice...?”’16 Lesslie Newbigin warns against the dual temptation of either trying to restore Christendom or of imagining ourselves back in the days of the early church, as if the Christendom shift had never occurred. He writes: ‘We are in a radically new situation and cannot dream either of a Constantinian authority or of a pre-Constantinian innocence.’17 And Yoder himself identifies ‘Constantinian reflexes’ in the areas of ethics (validating actions on the basis of calculating costs and benefits) and ecclesiology (the fear of separatism).18

Yoder also introduces the term ‘neo-Constantinian’ to describe a transmuted version of Christendom that may look quite different politically, but shares basic assumptions about the role of the church in society.19 In a consultation involving Latin American liberation theologians, Mennonites and radical Protestants in the late 1980s, Mennonites raised the issue of neo-Constantinianism. Noting an incident in early Anabaptist history in which an attempt was made to build a radical new Christendom, Willard Swartley warned of the danger of liberation theology taking the same course.20 Other participants rejected this concern but Yoder countered: ‘The respondents are not to blame for thus underestimating the weight of the Constantinian question. It is, after all, not their language. It is the code language of radical reformers at least since Waldo, and designates threats to a Gospel ethos more deep-seated than what our respondents assure us will not happen.’21

The danger of neo-Constantinianism is very real, especially if Christendom is interpreted merely as a historical era or political arrangement, rather than an ideology and ‘a hard habit to break’. Yoder even introduces categories such as ‘neo-neo-Constantinianism’ and ‘neo-neo-neo-Constantinianism’ to underline his concern about the capacity of this ideology to reproduce itself in new and more subtle forms. But if he is correct that this is actually ‘code language’ within the radical dissenting tradition (of which the Waldensians and Anabaptists are representatives), this is all the more reason to use terminology that is more readily understood than ‘post-Constantinian’.


So, why not go further, abandon both ‘post-Constantinian’ and ‘post-Christendom’ and adopt an even simpler term, ‘post-Christian’?

This is certainly a term that many writers are using to describe an increasingly secular but also multi-religious western society. It picks up the common assumption that Britain and other western societies were once ‘Christian’ nations and acknowledges, generally with regret, that this is no longer the case. Some urge strategies that might help to restore the Christian foundation of our societies; but most recognise that there is no way to turn the clock back and that we need to develop new approaches in this emerging context.

‘Post-Christian’ may be simpler than the alternatives, but using this term involves serious risks of misinterpreting the past and misconstruing the opportunities and challenges of the present.

Just as those who are critical of the Christendom synthesis can easily fall into the trap of imagining that the pre-Christendom church was pristine and glorious, so those who hark back to when our society was ‘Christian’ can assume that most Europeans were church-going, God-fearing and steeped in Christianity. The reality is more complex. Secularism and other faiths were far less significant throughout the Christendom centuries; there was a widespread belief in the reality of God and the spiritual life; and the church was central to culture in a way that we now find hard to imagine. But church-going (in itself a term steeped in Christendom assumptions) was rarely as consistent as we might expect; many priests – let alone ordinary church members – were profoundly ignorant of the basics of the faith; moral standards were often really low; and pagan ideas and practices survived for centuries, either mixed with Christianity or existing in parallel. Christendom was not as Christian as we might assume.22

Furthermore, using ‘post-Christian’ language may cause us to ignore or avoid the issue of the Christendom system. However Christian or otherwise individuals and communities may have been, was Christendom itself Christian? Was any European nation ever truly ‘Christian’ – and what would this have meant? Particular emperors, popes, monarchs or princes may have been godly people, but were they enmeshed in a structural framework that was fundamentally non-Christian or even, as dissidents persistently claimed, ‘anti-Christian’? Is there any way of legitimately calling ‘Christian’ a system that persecuted these dissidents, oppressed the poor, justified crusades and wars of aggression, denigrated cultures and colluded in injustice?

But the term ‘post-Christian’ can too easily gloss over such concerns and prevent us from engaging at sufficient depth with the very mixed legacy of the Christendom era. There were, of course, remarkable and deeply Christian aspects of the Christendom era that we rightly celebrate and need to retain as we move into post-Christendom. However critical we may be of the malign features of Christendom, we will not write off the thought and experience of many centuries and a multitude of Christian people. But there was much that we equally rightly reject, grieve over, disavow and renounce as being fundamentally unchristian, even anti-christian. Using the term ‘post-Christian’ does not encourage us to discriminate carefully enough.

Another problem with this term is that referring to western societies as ‘post-Christian’ undervalues the persistence and quality of Christian faith in contemporary culture. The churches are shrinking and the influence of the Christian story is much less than it was previously, but there are still millions of Christians in these societies. Western culture may be post-Christendom, but it is not entirely devoid of Christians.

Differentiating ‘Christian’ from ‘Christendom’ is especially difficult in several European languages. Suggesting that we should celebrate the end of Christendom (as I have done in seminars in a number of European nations) results in confused and anxious glances: am I really suggesting we should celebrate the end of Christian faith in Europe? It is surely not insignificant that in these languages ‘Christianity’ is conflated with ‘Christendom’, as if this were the only way in which the Christian faith can be embodied in a culture! Clarity is essential here: post-Christendom is not necessarily post-Christian.

Indeed, the end of Christendom might open up space for the recovery of authentic forms of Christian faith. Post-Christendom could be more Christian than Christendom, not less. As imperial Christianity in its various guises disintegrates and we reflect on the impact of the Christendom shift on our theology, hermeneutics, ethics, ecclesiology and missiology, what emerges might not only be contextually more appropriate in a changing culture but more authentically Christian, more faithful to our true heritage, and more hopeful. For the foreseeable future, Christians will be a small minority in most western societies. These societies may legitimately be labelled ‘post-Christendom’, for the Christian story will no longer shape their culture, even if its memory does not entirely fade. But they need not be designated ‘post-Christian’ if the church rediscovers its capacity to form communities of resilient, counter-cultural disciples who will witness faithfully and creatively in a plural culture.

There are no guarantees. The western church may simply not survive the shock of post-Christendom. The necessary adjustments in thinking and practice may be too much. The churches may wither. There are historical precedents for the virtual disappearance of the church from regions of the world where it was once dominant. Missionaries from other parts of the world, handicapped by Christendom assumptions of their own that western Christians exported to them, may try in vain to call Europeans to faith in Christ. Europe and other western societies could then become truly ‘post-Christian’, believing another story or losing faith in all stories.

But there is more hopeful scenario. As post-Christendom advances and we discriminate carefully between the treasures, trinkets and treachery of the Christendom era, perhaps we can find the resources we need for this emerging culture. As we embrace the reality of post-Christendom and recognise the opportunities as well as the challenges, perhaps we can find the courage and creativity to re-imagine a church on the margins that is humble, faithful and winsome. As our imperial aspirations and attitudes gradually fade, and as the incoherence of our post-modern, secular, consumerist and increasingly nihilistic culture becomes more obvious, perhaps we can live out another story and invite others to join us. And perhaps our brothers and sisters from the global church can help us do so. For there are resources in the Gospel, in the dissenting tradition through the centuries, in the world church – and even in the Christendom era – that can enable us to testify persuasively to the way of Jesus.

So, does the label matter? Yes, I think it does. ‘Post-Constantinian’ and ‘post-Christian’ may allow unchallenged or even unrecognised assumptions to undermine our attempts to re-imagine mission, church and discipleship in contemporary culture. ‘Post-Christendom’ may have its own limitations, too, but it is probably the best way of signalling the nature of the challenge we face and encouraging creative responses.

1 Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom: church and mission in a strange new world (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004); Stuart Murray: Church after Christendom (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005); Jonathan Bartley: Faith and Politics after Christendom (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2006); Jo & Nigel Pimlott: Youth Work after Christendom (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008); further books forthcoming.
2 Murray: Post-Christendom, 19.
3 Murray, Post-Christendom, 20.
4 This appears to be the approach of Loren Mead: The Once and Future Church (Washington: Alban Institute, 1991) and Bob Jackson: Hope for the Church (London: Church House, 2002).
5 A recent example is Martin Robinson: Planting Mission-shaped Churches Today (Oxford: Monarch, 2006).
6 As in Philip Jenkins: The Next Christendom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
7 Nigel Wright: Free Church, Free State (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2005), 272-274.
8 Wright, Free, 273.
9 Wright, Free, 274.
10 The extent to which the US is moving towards, or is already in the throes of, post-Christendom is widely debated. Some argue it will be an exception; others that it will follow the pattern of other western societies.
11 See, for example, Lesslie Newbigin: The Gospel as Public Truth (London: CEN Books, 1992) and Truth to Tell: the Gospel as public truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).
12 See Craig Carter: Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), which exposes the serious flaws in H. Richard Niebuhr’s famous typology of Christian social involvement and challenges the widespread perception that Anabaptism inevitably advocates or results in withdrawal from society.
13 See Murray, Post-Christendom, 23-46, 74-108.
14 Maybe, in fact, the situation Nigel Wright envisages and labels ‘non-Constantinian Christendom’!
15 Stanley Hauerwas: After Christendom? (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), 18.
16 José Miguez Bonino: Towards a Christian Political Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 83.
17 Lesslie Newbigin: The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (London: SPCK, 1989), 224.
18 John Howard Yoder, ‘Orientation in Midstream: A Response to the Responses’, in Daniel Schipani (Ed.): Freedom and Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989), 163.
19 John Howard Yoder: The Priestly Kingdom (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985), 142-143
20 Willard Swartley, in Schipani, Freedom, 70.
21 Yoder, in Schipani, Freedom, 163.22 See further Anton Wessels: Was Europe Ever Christian? (London: SCM Press, 1994).

Translocal Ministry After Christendom

by Stuart Murray

Early in the fourth century, the Roman emperor Constantine I identified himself as a Christian and initiated the process of accommodating church and state that would result in the establishment of the sacral society known as Christendom.1 He quickly recognised that the support of the church’s translocal leaders – the bishops – was the key to achieving his aim of constructing a united empire-wide church, with the help of which he might confront the many social, political and cultural problems that were destabilising and fragmenting his realm.2

Constantine wooed these men through patronage of their interests, extensive financial support for their congregations and ambitious building projects, delegating to them social responsibilities and status beyond their congregations and frequent invitations to dine with him in imperial surroundings. In 325, he summoned them to Nicaea for an ecumenical council to determine a creedal basis for a united church – a church that would no longer be dependent for its cohesion primarily on friendship and mutual respect between churches within which divergent patterns, traditions and emphases flourished.

Translocal ministry, in both theory and practice, was significantly and permanently impacted by what historians call the Christendom shift. The changing focus and functions of fourth-century bishops were early indications of what lay ahead.

Christendom and translocal ministry
The role and authority of bishops had been developing during previous decades, especially during the second half of the third century, as churches expanded in size and influence in many parts of the empire. A gradual (though contested) movement towards hierarchy, clericalism and institutionalisation – detectable even in the New Testament – had gathered pace in the past half-century. But the Christendom shift exacerbated these tendencies and introduced new elements into the theory and practice of translocal ministry. Identifying and assessing these developments and their legacy will help us discern which remain appropriate as we negotiate the further shift from Christendom to post-Christendom, and which are problematic in this changing context.

Among the main effects of the Christendom shift on translocal ministry were the following:

  • As the centre of gravity in the church shifted away from local congregations towards a translocal institution, fewer decisions about faith and practice were taken locally. Doctrinal discussions took place in translocal gatherings and agreed formulae were imposed on local churches. Church discipline was exercised by translocal leaders and conferences without reference to the congregations to which those placed under discipline belonged. Missionary initiatives were undertaken by individuals or organisations commissioned by and accountable to translocal bodies rather than congregations.
  • The close and long-term relationship between congregations and those who exercised local leadership3 was transformed into a serial form of ministry. A clerical caste developed, who exercised local ministry for shorter periods in various contexts before transferring to another as servants of an institutional church. Local ministry, in fact, developed into local expressions of what was essentially now a translocal role. Church leaders owed primary allegiance to the translocal church and were deployed locally for periods of service before moving on (sometimes, it seems, mainly to enhance their career prospects).
  • The emergence of a territorial diocesan and, later, parish system within an increasingly bureaucratic church imposed severe restrictions on translocal ministry that was unauthorised by church authorities. Wandering preachers were perceived (sometimes rightly) as threats to good order, not welcomed as gifts from the wider church. Translocal ministry became institutional and restrictive, with bishops defending their territorial rights, excluding other expressions of translocal ministry.
  • Gradually, as the boundaries of Christendom were established, within which it was assumed all were Christians, translocal ministry lost all vestiges of its earlier missional focus and became thoroughly maintenance-oriented. Those who exercised translocal ministries were responsible for sustaining what was rather than bringing into being what was not yet. Only beyond the boundaries of Christendom were missional expressions of translocal ministry feasible or perceived as necessary.
  • Consequently, the gifts needed for translocal ministry were redefined. The creativity, flexibility and pioneering spirit required for missional forms of translocal ministry were supplanted by the organisational and institutional abilities of those responsible for managing a large, wealthy and socially influential organisation. What we might term ‘apostolic’ and ‘prophetic’ forms of translocal ministry were regarded as obsolete (both theologically and practically) in an era when translocal ministry had become essentially pastoral and administrative.

Translocal ministry, then, was both enhanced and restricted by the Christendom shift, as its focus and modus operandi were adapted to the changing context. The legacy of the Christendom era includes both structures and ways of thinking about translocal ministry that need to be reconsidered as this context changes again and churches from many traditions grapple with the challenges of post-Christendom. Understanding the Christendom era and discerning which elements of its ecclesiology are helpful or disabling in post-Christendom is crucial for developing appropriate expressions of translocal ministry today.

Translocal ministry on the margins

There are other models of translocal ministry from the Christendom era to help us work towards a contextually apt and ecclesiologically coherent expression of translocal ministry. On the margins (and subject to pressure from both secular and ecclesiastical authorities) were several dissident movements, whose rejection of the Christendom system was accompanied by creative thinking about many aspects of local church life and by experimentation with alternative models of translocal ministry.

These groups do not offer a fully-fledged theology of translocal ministry, immediately transferable structures or strategies for our very different context (any more than New Testament examples of translocal ministry provide a blueprint for contemporary practice). Furthermore, information about most of these movements is limited, since a primary responsibility of the more conventional state church translocal ministers who suppressed them was to eradicate their supposedly heretical writings.

But there are glimpses of principles and practices operating within medieval and early modern movements such as the Waldensians, Lollards and Anabaptists4 that might stimulate creative thinking about appropriate forms of translocal ministry today. There are also warnings within these movements about the tendency of innovative expressions of translocal ministry to revert to the default forms embodied so powerfully in the dominant Christendom system. Translocal ministry, it seems, is particularly vulnerable to institutional retrenchment and loss of mission dynamism.

What can we learn from models of translocal ministry on the margins?

Translocal ministry can be dynamic. Waldensians, Lollards and Anabaptists all recognised that their scattered congregations needed to be visited and resourced by those whose experience and gifts equipped them for this task. Some of this activity in the early years appears to have taken place with minimal coordination and without the processes of ordination, training and accreditation required in the state churches. As the movements aged, normal processes of institutionalisation become apparent, with accreditation and training mechanisms emerging to support those involved in translocal ministry – such as the Waldensian ‘schools’ and their mentoring system for new translocal ministers, or the strategic planning of missionary journeys by Hutterite communities in Moravia and their moving commissioning services for missionaries likely to become martyrs. But by comparison with translocal ministry in the state churches, organisation was light and flexible, able to respond to emerging needs and opportunities rather than being locked into rigid structures.

Translocal ministry can be relational. The Christendom understanding (which exacerbated developing pre-Christendom tendencies) of translocal ministry implied a hierarchy of ministry: local church leaders were inferior in stature and authority to those with translocal responsibility. Not only were the dissidents’ instincts against such hierarchical assumptions, but the terms they used to identify translocal ministers appear to be consciously challenging hierarchical notions. Waldensians commissioned to translocal ministry were called barbes – ‘uncles’ – in contradistinction from Catholic ‘fathers’, and Lollards employed the relational and non-hierarchical term ‘known men’ to designate those who travelled between their congregations. The dissidents were suspicious of honorific titles and favoured the simpler familial terminology of ‘brothers and sisters’ for translocal ministers and local leaders. A relational understanding of church, which respects congregational integrity and values contextual decision-making, need not be threatened by translocal ministry.

Translocal ministry can be mission-oriented. The dissident movements appeared threatening to those who were committed to the Christendom system, because they challenged the centuries-old assumption that Europe was Christian and so needed pastor-administrators in local and translocal ministry roles. Translocal ministry on the margins certainly included pastoral care and coordinating tasks, but it was primarily concerned with missional activities – evangelising communities, calling people to repentance, baptising and catechising new believers, planting churches, deploying missional resources and pioneering initiatives.

Transgressing parochial and diocesan boundaries to the dismay of the state churches’ translocal overseers, Waldensians, Lollards and Anabaptists offended the settled clergy and maintenance-oriented churches of Christendom. Justus Menius, for instance, expressed Lutheran irritation at translocal Anabaptist missioners, claiming biblical support for his insistence that ‘the Servant of the Gospel does not travel here and there in the land in one church today and another tomorrow, preaching one thing in one and another in the other. But one servant serves with true industry his assigned church and remains with it, leaving other churches to peace and tranquillity. Thereby each church has its own constituted servant and avoids and excludes strange, unlicensed landcombers.’5

But, for Anabaptists, the mission imperative (which was regarded as binding on all believers rather than applying only to specialists) took precedence over ecclesiastical sensibilities and produced a different understanding of translocal ministry. Hans Arbeiter, a Hutterian missionary captured in 1568, ‘asserted that no earthly magistrate had the right to forbid God’s missioners from setting foot on their land, for the earth was the Lord’s (Ps. 24:1), and the Lord had called the church to mission.’6

Translocal ministry can be pluriform. Within the dissident movements many church members (women and men) were involved in translocal ministry, as individuals or in teams. Nor was there an assumption that ordination was required. Anabaptists often sent out teams of three, with a preacher accompanied by an assistant and by someone else whose main responsibility was liaising with the churches. It is not always easy to differentiate clearly (in the dissident groups or contemporary church life) between those exercising itinerant ministry and those exercising translocal responsibility. It may be possible to distinguish these, at least in theory, by reference to their level of influence, continuing involvement or strategic oversight, but this is rather less helpful in practice. Many Lollard tradesmen, Waldensian merchants and Anabaptist artisans evangelised in the course of their daily work as they travelled the roads of Europe. Some devoted more and more time to ministry until their trade was secondary and were as influential among dissident congregations as any bishop in the state churches.

Translocal ministry can be exercised by apostles and prophets. The activities and roles of those involved in translocal ministry on the margins seem closer to New Testament descriptions of apostles and prophets than is apparent with state church models. Nor was there the same reticence about using these terms as in the state churches or, indeed, in many contemporary churches, where such language is assumed to imply enhanced status or authority. Anabaptists designated some of those who travelled between their congregations ‘apostles’ and recognised the ministry of ‘prophets’ who also moved among the churches. Their contemporaneous friendly critic, Sebastian Franck wrote about the Anabaptists: ‘They wish to imitate apostolic life…moving about from one place to another, preaching and claiming a great calling and mission.’ Some were so convinced of their calling, wrote Franck, that they felt ‘themselves responsible for the whole world.’7

Hans Kasdorf, comparing the Anabaptists with the earlier Celtic missionaries, writes: ‘Like the famous Irish peregrini almost a thousand years before them…Anabaptist preachers wandered from place to place and proclaimed the gospel. But unlike the peregrini, these Anabaptist missionaries baptized new converts, established Christians in their faith and gathered them into local congregations…The Anabaptist churches discerned and systematically sent out many apostles. The designation apostle was deliberately chosen for those who were sent out in apostolic teams.’8

The term ‘apostle’ appears also (though not frequently) in Waldensian writings to describe translocal ministers, and their contemporaries too compared Waldensian missionaries to New Testament apostles. Although Lollards did not use this term themselves, Anne Hudson (a leading historian of the Lollard movement) describes their preachers as ‘apostles’ and ‘prophets.’9 Historians of such movements (and many later missional movements) are often drawn to such terms to describe the phenomena they encounter.

Translocal ministry can easily revert to inherited models. The fluid, missional, relational and multi-faceted expression of translocal ministry we can see at least glimpses of in the early years of these dissident movements was susceptible to co-option back into traditional models of ministry. Pressure of persecution might discourage evangelisation and result in translocal ministry becoming more concerned with survival and maintenance than mission. The growing complexity of developing movements might load increasing administrative and pastoral responsibilities on the shoulders of those with translocal roles. Waldensian and Lollard communities (perhaps because they were too widely scattered for greater organisation) resisted such institutionalisation for many decades, but Anabaptist apostles rather quickly transmuted into Mennonite bishops once the movement began to settle down and a maintenance-oriented role superseded the earlier missional focus.

Translocal ministry after Christendom

The emerging culture of post-Christendom in western society10 is very different from the Christendom context within which traditional models of translocal ministry have been developed and marginal alternatives periodically flourished. Drawing on the experience of this era but refusing to be unduly restricted by it, what are the issues we should consider as we reflect on the development and renewal of models of translocal ministry today?


The most fundamental and pressing issue facing Christians in all traditions is the need for a decisive and thorough paradigm shift from the inherited maintenance-orientation that has shaped our churches to a mission-orientation that will enable us to recalibrate our structures and refine our strategies for a different world. No attempts to reorganise or re-brand translocal ministry will effect more than cosmetic changes unless this shift takes place. This mission-orientation does not denigrate vital maintenance activities or naively oppose ‘mission’ and ‘maintenance’, but it insists that maintenance fits within a mission framework, rather than vice versa. If those who exercise translocal ministry are burdened with maintenance-oriented responsibilities and expectations, they will be no more able than most of their predecessors to function as mission strategists.

Like other social organisations, denominations usually begin as movements around a shared vision and gradually develop into institutions. A popular description of this seemingly inevitable process – man, movement, machine, monument, mausoleum – uses non-inclusive language for the sake of alliteration but has a familiar feel for students of church history. But the normality and seeming inevitability of this process (regarded by some as maturing, by others as degeneration) does not preclude the possibility of re-imagining a denomination as a movement rather than an institution. Studies of organisational development have discovered models and processes whereby institutions can be revitalised rather than continuing along the anticipated path towards institutionalisation.

In a postmodern and post-Christendom context, in which institutions are culturally suspect and the marginalisation of the churches and discursive Christianity requires a radically different mindset and structure than was appropriate in an earlier era, such revitalisation is crucial. How could this be accomplished? We might ask what our churches would look like if they perceived themselves as participating in a movement rather than an institution. Or how would a denomination change were it to function as a truly missional movement?

Changing our terminology will certainly not, by itself, achieve this. The language of ‘missionary congregations’ or ‘missional church’ has become familiar over recent years and has impacted how denominations and congregations operate, but familiarity with this language can lull us into a false sense of security, imagining that talking in missional terms equates to developing a missionary movement. What is required is an exercise of corporate imagination that has very practical outcomes that can be costed and subject to ongoing monitoring. Nothing less than a radical shift from institutional mode to a movement for mission will suffice in post-Christendom. Translocal forms of ministry have a vital role to play in this imaginative and practical paradigm shift, for this cannot be accomplished at local level alone. But only mission-oriented forms of translocal ministry will be able to make this contribution.


All of which suggests that those moving into translocal ministry need not only a process of induction and instruction about institutional issues and working practices in their new roles, but re-training. If men and women commissioned to local forms of ministry are deemed to require training and formation to enhance and reflect on their (often substantial) prior experience of congregational leadership, preaching, pastoral ministry and mission, surely those who move from this local sphere into translocal ministry need such training. Not only has the cultural context within which they were trained for local ministry changed dramatically over the intervening years, so that a refresher course might be useful; but new theological, missiological and pastoral perspectives that have informed the training of new local ministers (to whom they will have responsibilities and with whom they will soon be working) should also be on any re-training agenda. Post-Christendom requires a whole-heartedly missional approach and fresh thinking on a wide range of issues, for which many of those moving into translocal roles were not prepared by their initial training for ministry in institutions and contexts still deeply immersed in Christendom ways of thinking.

Furthermore, in their new translocal ministry many will encounter different issues and require new skills that were not part of their previous local experience. Some will now be working as members or leaders of staff teams, rather than guiding and coordinating the work of volunteers. Their priorities and the tasks that will occupy the majority of their time will be quite different from those with which they were familiar as local ministers. Strategic thinking, mentoring colleagues and local leaders, grappling with disciplinary issues and many other responsibilities require time for equipping and reflection.

Inadequate preparation of translocal ministers can result in disorientation, confusion, overwork, ill-health and unwise intervention in local contexts. Translocal ministers can do much harm as well as a great deal of good. My personal experience of those exercising translocal ministries has been very mixed. Some translocal ministers have been excellent, but on the whole I have been disappointed by the quality of translocal ministry I have encountered, and frankly some have been incompetent and operating in roles for which they were not gifted or for which they had not been equipped. Effective and sustainable translocal ministry requires an investment in induction training and the provision of ongoing opportunities for skills training, peer mentoring, supervision and theological reflection.


One of the lessons emerging from the experience of church planting since the early 1990s has been the importance of partnership between local and translocal leaders in developing mission strategies. Denominations that have relied on local entrepreneurial leadership to initiate church planting have discovered that this will founder without translocal direction and support; it will also result in churches being planted in less strategic contexts. Denominations that have attempted to initiate all church planting centrally or regionally have not been able to galvanise local action effectively.11

What is true of church planting is probably equally true of other aspects of mission and ministry. Neither independently-minded congregations that eschew the wider perspective of translocal ministry nor models of translocal ministry that attempt to impose strategies or marginalise local congregational discernment and vision will do. Partnership in a non-hierarchical structure that recognises different spheres (rather than levels) of ministry and is rooted in friendship and mutual respect offers better prospects for developing and sustaining the missionary movement needed. It seems likely that many congregations will require as much retraining as those moving into translocal ministry if this kind of partnership is to reach its full potential. A clear and coherent understanding of the potential and purpose of translocal ministry is needed at local church level. In order to facilitate this re-education of local congregations, training for local ministry should also incorporate an understanding of the scope and contribution of translocal ministry.


One important aspect of partnership, to which more attention may need to be given, is the accountability of translocal ministers – not just to their regional association or the denominational council, but to the local congregation of which they are members or from which they were commissioned to their translocal role. It seems from the New Testament writings that those involved in translocal ministry reported back regularly to their commissioning congregation, as well as conferring with others involved in translocal ministry. Paul certainly consulted with the Jerusalem apostles (Galatians 1:18-2:10), but he and Barnabas spent considerable time reporting to the church in Antioch from where they had been commissioned (Acts 14:26-28).

Missionaries in other cultures regularly return to their home churches for periods of rest, reflection and renewal, where they report on their activities and (at least in some cases) draw on the insights of their home congregation as they discuss issues they are facing. There are indications that Anabaptist apostles and Baptist messengers were accountable to their commissioning congregations in ways that those involved in translocal ministry today might also find beneficial. Such periods of reflection and consultation might further erode any hierarchical dimension of translocal ministry; it would hopefully also help to ensure that those involved in translocal ministry are less isolated than at present and less likely to suffer from burnout; and it would encourage them not to lose touch with grassroots congregational life in a way that can happen if their involvement in local churches is primarily as a visiting preacher or pastoral fire-fighter.

Trans-denominational ministry

If translocal ministry is to thrive in the post-denominational era that is emerging from the demise of Christendom, it will need to operate in a creatively and generously trans-denominational way. This is not the same as the development of ecumenical relationships and the signing of formal covenants between those with translocal responsibilities in different denominations. These honourable and helpful arrangements were aspects of the institutional kind of ecumenism that is fast giving way to grass-roots post-denominational networking in an era when relationships, exchange of ideas and resources and seizing opportunities will seem much more relevant than debating issues of ‘faith and order’ or forming representative and carefully balanced ecumenical committees.

In post-Christendom a messier and more mission-oriented ecumenical networking will be the order of the day. Territorial and denominational defence-mechanisms are anachronistic and rather silly when the churches are all on the cultural and spiritual margins. The primary emphasis will need to be on the challenges and opportunities for mission in a society where networks are as strategic as neighbourhoods and where co-operation will be vital for survival and any attempt at mission effectiveness. The old structures and sensitivities will have to give way to a new level of trust, mutual recognition of ministry and partnership. Appointing to translocal roles those unable or unwilling to adapt to and flourish in this broader and less circumscribed environment will not be wise. Networking skills will be much more valuable than understanding of institutional processes.

Appointment and terminology

A practical implication of all this is that the expectations, job-descriptions, skills and priorities of those called into translocal ministry need a thorough overhaul. Putting this fairly bluntly, denominations need to appoint people with pioneering and strategic gifts rather than administrative skills or successful local ministries, people who are mission-minded, oriented towards envisioning, change-management and risk-taking rather than supervising stability or managing decline. Having ‘a safe pair of hands’ or ‘knowing the right people’ will not be sufficient!

One term for the kind of role we are envisaging is ‘apostolic.’ Reflecting on models of church and mission in a changing world, Eddie Gibbs insists: ‘the church needs to move from the Constantinian model – which presumed a churched culture – to an apostolic model designed to penetrate the vast, unchurched segments of society.’12 This ‘apostolic model’ implies changes in the ways congregations operate, but the catalyst for such local changes may be ‘apostolic’ forms of translocal ministry.

This does not mean that all translocal ministers should be gifted as apostles, or that this terminology should necessarily be used to describe those who are. The question of terminology may be significant. It is worth asking whether the use of ‘apostolic’ terminology will help or hinder churches from embracing and benefiting from translocal ministry. If the term worries, confuses or offends local ministers and their churches, is it worth persisting with? On the other hand, if employing a generic term like ‘translocal’ locks churches into maintenance-oriented models and fails to help them engage with missional challenges or strategic and visionary leadership, maybe the term ‘apostolic’ will be vital to signal the changes of priority and ethos that are essential in a post-Christendom era.

Whether the term ‘apostolic’ is used or not, collapsing all expressions of ‘translocal ministry’ into ‘apostolic ministry’ will not be helpful: translocal pastors and teachers, administrators and evangelists can also play important roles. Indeed, the pastoral and organisational abilities that have traditionally been sought in translocal ministers will still be needed by those exercising ‘apostolic’ roles, but these abilities will need to be deployed in new ways and with different priorities in a mission context. A successful track record in successful suburban churches may be an inadequate, even unhelpful, qualification or preparation for those called to exercise a translocal missional ministry in the urban, postmodern and multicultural contexts that represent the main challenges facing the churches in post-Christendom.

But, if this is the case for translocal ministry in post-Christendom, there may also be implications for local ministry. Suitable candidates for translocal ministry are likely to be found primarily among those already experienced in local ministry, so what has been suggested regarding the appointment, skills and training of translocal ministers needs also to impact the appointment, skills and training of local ministers. Anne Wilkinson-Hayes questions whether ordination to a ministry of ‘word and sacrament’ is an accurate understanding of what translocal ministers are called to do. Perhaps we need to question whether this hallowed definition is any longer appropriate or helpful even for local ministers. The maintenance orientation that it can (though perhaps need not) carry may not encourage ministers to prioritise wisely the multiple challenges facing the churches in today’s mission environment. Maybe reflection on the nature of translocal ministry will stimulate renewed thinking about the calling of local ministers and how the churches might perceive their role.

These last reflections may seem to have strayed beyond the subject of this article, but it seems that reflection on any aspect of ecclesiology can disrupt accepted notions and priorities in other areas of church life. The fourth-century shift from pre-Christendom to Christendom deeply impacted many areas of church life, but the changes were felt first among translocal ministers. Perhaps the further shift from Christendom to post-Christendom, which will provoke profound changes in twenty-first century churches, will also be discerned as clearly as anywhere else in the sphere of translocal ministry. And perhaps a renewed expression of translocal ministry will be one of the critical factors in equipping the churches to engage effectively with this strange new world.

1 For further details, see the authoritative collection of essays in Alan Kreider (Ed.): The Origins of Christendom in the West (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2002).
2 See H.A. Drake: Constantine and the Bishops: The Politics of Intolerance (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000).
3 See Everett Ferguson: ‘The Congregationalism of the Early Church’ in Daniel Williams: The Free Church and the Early Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), pp130-135.
4 The Waldensians flourished especially in southern France and northern Italy between the 12th century and the Reformation era and also spread into German-speakers areas, despite sustained persecution. In 14th century England radical followers of John Wyclif were dubbed Lollards and established churches in many parts of the country, some of which survived until the Reformation. Anabaptist communities sprang up in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands in the 16th century and offered a more radical approach to reformation than their Protestant contemporaries. For a succinct summary of the history and convictions of these movements, see Other chapters in this book explore the relevance to contemporary discussions about translocal ministry of the history of English Baptists.
5 Justus Menius: (Von dem Geist der Widerteuffer, Wittemberg 1544), cited in Franklin Littell: ‘The Anabaptist Theology of Mission’, in Wilbert Shenk (Ed.): Anabaptism and Mission (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1984), p20.
6 Leonard Gross: ‘Sixteenth-Century Hutterian Mission’ in Shenk, Anabaptism, p111.
7 Cited in Hans Kasdorf: ‘The Anabaptist Approach to Mission’ in Shenk, Anabaptism, p64
8 Kasdorf: ‘The Anabaptist Approach to Mission’ in Shenk, Anabaptism, p59.
9 Anne Hudson: The Premature Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p449.
10 For a detailed study, see Stuart Murray: Post-Christendom (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004).
11 See further George Lings & Stuart Murray: Church Planting: Past, Present and Future (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2003), pp17-19.
12 Eddie Gibbs: Church Next (Leicester: IVP, 2001).

After Christendom study days

he fourth book in the popular 'After Christendom' series was published in July 2008. This means that four are now available:

Post-Christendom by Stuart Murray
Church after Christendom by Stuart Murray
Faith and Politics after Christendom by Jonathan Bartley
Youth Work after Christendom by Jo & Nigel Pimlott

Two more are scheduled for publication in 2009:

Reading the Bible after Christendom by Lloyd Pietersen
Worship and Mission after Christendom by Alan & Eleanor Kreider

Stuart Murray, Jonathan Bartley, Jo & Nigel Pimlott and Lloyd Pietersen are available for 'After Christendom' study days. These can be organised and hosted by churches, colleges or other organisations and customised according to interest. Depending on what topics are required, the appropriate authors are willing to work together as a teaching team for the day.

For further information, contact

After Christendom: A Study Guide

developed by Stuart Murray Williams

Note: You can find a downloadable version of this guide at the bottom of this page.


Since Post-Christendom was published by Paternoster in March 2004 to launch the ‘After Christendom’ series of books, a number of people have suggested to me that a study guide would be useful to help them work their way through the many issues the book addresses. This might include:

• A timeline to show how Christendom developed and its relation to other historical events.
• A short chapter-by-chapter summary to help those who struggle with book-length arguments.
• Diagnostic exercises to help us identify Christendom-oriented thinking.
• Practical examples of how the Christendom legacy continues to influence us.
• Further questions to consider (beyond those at the end of several chapters).
• Bible studies to encourage us to reconsider interpretations unduly influenced by Christendom.

My initial response was that Post-Christendom is only the first of several books in the ‘After Christendom’ series. It contains much more historical material than the other books will and lays foundations on which others will build. Later books in the series will unpack its ideas and explore many issues in more detail. Maybe further resources are not necessary at this stage.

Early responses to Church after Christendom, since its publication in February 2005, indicate that many people have found this second book in the series more accessible. It seems to have addressed some of the issues a study guide might have covered. This may also be the case with books that have yet to be published, which will provide further insights and resources on issues that Post-Christendom mentioned only briefly.

However, as I have reflected on the responses to Post-Christendom, I have warmed to the idea of a study guide with at least some of the resources requested. The best way forward seems to be a web-based resource that is freely accessible and also available in a form that can be downloaded for personal or group use. So I hope what follows is helpful and meets the needs of those who have approached me over the past year or so. And I welcome suggestions for improving and developing this.

Timeline and Maps

The approach of the ‘After Christendom’ series is to divide the history of the church in Western Europe into three periods:

• Pre-Christendom (from the birth of the church until the first part of the 4th century)
• Christendom (from the 4th to the 20th centuries)
• Post-Christendom (from the 20th century onwards)

This is, of course, over-simplified (as all such schemes tend to be) and the shifts from pre-Christendom to Christendom and from Christendom to post-Christendom cannot be dated precisely. But the authors of the series argue that there are major differences between the approaches of Christians in these periods to the topics they cover – faith and politics, worship and mission, church and society, etc. We find it surprising that those who trace the history of the church and its mission do not more often comment on the significance of these shifts. See further on this, if you are interested, an article by Alan Kreider entitled ‘Beyond Bosch: the Early Church and the Christendom Shift’ at

There are several websites with timelines, maps and other resources that illustrate the major incidents and characters in church history. Although these sites do not use the threefold division we are advocating, they provide very helpful background material that can easily be cross-referenced with the books in the series and the other resources we provide here. It does not seem necessary to try to duplicate here the resources of these websites, so we are simply listing some of the more interesting sites: an extensive collection of resources covering the whole era. a timeline that covers the biblical period as well as an overview of significant figures in church history. a century-by-century timeline with commentary on significant events and people. a detailed timeline from Jesus to Constantine (313). timelines that provide a simple overview and (by clicking on the period of interest) more information as required. timeline of the whole of church history from a Roman Catholic perspective. various timelines grouped under subject areas and all from an Anglican perspective. a timeline from the perspective of the Orthodox Church, which regards most of western Christendom as a deviation from the true church. simple maps of the biblical era and the spread of Christianity. an enormous set of links to maps of all kinds, including many that illustrate the context of church history in Western Europe. a collection of maps showing Europe at the beginning of every century from 1 to 2000. a similar resource to the previous one, showing Europe (and North Africa and the Middle East) from 1 to 1500.

Post-Christendom: A thumbnail sketch

The basic argument of the book can be summed up in the following steps:

Chapter 1: The End of Christendom

• The church in western societies is experiencing a significant culture shift and is moving, slowly and unsteadily, into uncharted territory (the ‘strange new world’ of the book’s subtitle).
• Although this culture shift has many different components, including the shift from modernity to postmodernity, one key element is the end of Christendom.
• We experience this as a period of decline and discouragement as the church in western societies (but not in many other parts of the world) loses ground in terms of numbers and influence.
• We may be tempted to indulge in nostalgia, to bury our heads in the sand or to pin our hopes on revival, but it may be better to welcome post-Christendom as a new opportunity for faithful discipleship and creative mission.
• In order to understand the significance of post-Christendom, we need first to explore the Christendom era that is now fading and the legacy it has left us.

Chapter 2: The Coming of Christendom

• The beginning of the Christendom era can be traced to the 4th century and the decision of the emperor Constantine I to adopt and promote Christianity.
• Historians argue about the nature of Constantine’s conversion and his motives in championing Christianity, but his influence was profound, bringing the church in from the margins to the centre of society.
• The church had been growing very rapidly during the previous century, but Constantine’s decision took church leaders by surprise and they acclaimed him (almost unanimously) despite questions about his character and intentions.
• As a result of the patronage of the church by Constantine and his successors, including substantial financial support, the church grew in numbers and social status during the 4th century.
• Conversions were due to several factors: the intellectual appeal of Christianity, the church’s care for the poor, growing social pressure, better career prospects and some forms of coercion.
• At the end of the 4th century the emperor Theodosius I effectively outlawed all other religions so that Christianity became the official imperial religion.
• But was the church right to accept the patronage of Constantine and to allow itself to be co-opted as the imperial religion?

Chapter 3: The Expansion of Christendom

• At the start of the 5th century, Christians were at the centre of society but still as a privileged minority, rather than a majority.
• Over the next few centuries remarkable efforts were made to strengthen the hold of Christendom upon its heartlands and to extend its influence across the empire and beyond its boundaries.
• Gradually paganism and most other religions were eradicated (the Jews were allowed to continue but were often under pressure) and in 529 Justinian made conversion compulsory.
• As the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe entered the so-called Dark Ages, the church functioned as a unifying and civilising force, successfully making the transition into a new era.
• Christendom spread through various methods: gradual infiltration, missionary enterprises, inter-marriage, conquest and coercion. The conversion of Europe was finally completed late in the 14th century.
• In theory everyone believed, behaved and belonged within Christendom, but the catechesis (introductory teaching)of new Christians was now very limited.
• Christendom had triumphed and its achievements were wonderful, but how Christian was Christendom and its missionary methods?

Chapter 4: The Christendom Shift

• Before tracing the history of Christendom into the Middle Ages, we need to examine carefully the nature of the 4th-century shift from pre-Christendom to Christendom.
• The theological architect of Christendom was Augustine of Hippo. Although he was ambivalent about the empire, he accommodated the church’s theology and practices to the new situation, introducing numerous innovations.
• The Christendom shift was profound, involving in effect a re-engineering of the church’s DNA in the areas of faith and discipleship, church and society, church life, mission and ethics.
• Further details of this critical shift can be found here.
• Two potent illustrations of this shift are the dramatically changed meanings of both baptism and the cross.
• Despite the overwhelming support of the church for this shift, there were some who objected, including the monastic movement, the Donatists and Pelagius. Their concerns were dismissed at the time but resurfaced in later centuries.
• But what were the costs and benefits of the Christendom shift, and were there any alternatives in the 4th and 5th centuries?

Chapter 5: The Heart of Christendom

• The culture of Christendom that flourished during the Middle Ages was rich and remarkable, but it was also oppressive towards any who dissented.
• The outworkings of the Christendom shift became entrenched in society, as pre-Christendom approaches to issues such as truth-telling and violence were superseded by oath-taking and participation in warfare.
• Christendom required that people read the Bible in ways that supported the status quo, gave precedence to the Old Testament and marginalised Jesus.
• Church life also reflected the Christendom shift as large congregations were dominated by a clerical caste, who performed services and gave monologue sermons, and who operated in a hierarchical structure that imposed punitive church discipline.
• In the Christendom era the emphasis was on institutional maintenance rather than mission. Where evangelistic mission occurred it was generally delegated to specialist agencies and sometimes involved coercion. Other dimensions of mission involved offering counsel to the state and christianising culture.
• But throughout this era there were marginal movements that protested against the Christendom system, advocating and practising alternative approaches to the Bible, church and mission. These included the Waldensians and Lollards.
• How do we listen to both the mainstream and the margins from this era? What can we learn from each?

Chapter 6: The Disintegration of Christendom

• By the 16th century Christendom was in turmoil – economic, political, social and spiritual – and was starting to disintegrate.
• The Protestant Reformation offered one way forward, retaining most of the assumptions of the Christendom system, including state churches, but trying to reform this system.
• The reformers, however, made only limited changes on the issues of biblical interpretation, church life and the nature of mission.
• Catholicism also underwent a process of reform and reorganisation, with the result that different versions of Christendom – Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican – emerged. Christendom fragmented into competing and hostile mini-Christendoms.
• Another way forward was the Anabaptist movement, the heirs of the medieval marginal movements, which rejected the Christendom system as beyond mere reform and planted new churches free from state control.
• Anabaptists developed alternative approaches to biblical interpretation, church life and mission, but they were persecuted by both Catholics and Protestants.
• How do we respond when we perceive problems within the church – remain in the current structures and work for renewal, or come out and build anew on fresh foundations?

Chapter 7: The Christendom Legacy

• Between the 17th and 20th centuries the demise of Christendom took place, as various factors undermined its legitimacy.
• These included: the Enlightenment reliance on reason rather than revelation, the impact of industrialisation and urbanisation, the arrival of postmodernity, the persistence of dissent and the globalisation of the church and its mission.
• However, there are numerous vestiges of Christendom that have outlasted the political entity, both in the church and in society.
• Further details of these vestiges can be found here.
• As we identify these various vestiges, we need to consider their significance and decide whether to endorse, ignore or challenge them.
• More pervasive, though less obvious, is the Christendom mindset that guides our thinking and reactions on a range of issues.
• Further details of this mindset can be found here.
• There are different ways of responding to the Christendom legacy: denying it, defending it, dismissing it, dissociating ourselves from it, demonising it or disavowing it.
• Disavowing is the best option, which involves disentangling the many threads, deciding what to retain and what to reject.
• In what ways are we influenced by the Christendom mindset or enmeshed in Christendom vestiges, and how will we respond to these?

Chapter 8: Post-Christendom: Mission

• Although the Christendom era was characterised primarily by maintenance rather than mission, in the latter part of the era mission returned in various forms.
• Mission took place beyond the boundaries of Christendom as Catholic and then Protestant missionaries accompanied those who explored and conquered the New World.
• Despite noble exceptions, these missions were marred by cultural imposition and considerable violence.
• Mission also took place within Christendom as concern grew about the low level of morality and spirituality within an officially Christian society.
• Evangelism is problematic in post-Christendom, not least because of the very ambiguous legacy of mission within and beyond Christendom in the previous centuries.
• Despite the temptation to abandon it, we need to rehabilitate and reconfigure evangelism for post-Christendom.
• There are important challenges facing us as we engage in mission in a plural society and learn to engage creatively with other faith communities.
• We also will need to learn fresh ways of engaging in social transformation as a marginal community that no longer wields social power of the kind we were used to exercising.
• And we will need to renegotiate our relationship with the state, succumbing neither to delusions of past status nor temptations to disengage.
• What will it mean to be reconstituted as a marginal missionary movement in the strange new world of post-Christendom?

Chapter 9: Post-Christendom: Church

• Reconstituting ourselves for mission also involves rethinking what kind of church can incarnate the good news in post-Christendom.
• Across western culture, fresh expressions of church are emerging, energised by longings for more authentic forms of community, worship and mission.
• Examining these emerging churches through the post-Christendom lens both affirms their significance and poses significant questions for them.
• But the vast majority of Christians belong to inherited forms of church and the shift to post-Christendom offers opportunities to take a fresh look at practices that were rooted in the Christendom system and challenged by the dissidents.
• These include the clergy/laity divide, monologue sermons, church discipline and attitudes to war and economics.
• Church after Christendom will need to be relatively simple if it is to survive.
• But simplicity does not mean banality. We need to re-imagine church for post-Christendom.
• We might re-imagine the church as a community stirred by poets and story-tellers, a monastic missionary order and a safe place to take risks.
• Are the immediate prospects of the church in western societies best summed up as revival or survival?

Chapter 10: Post-Christendom: Resources

• There are many more questions than answers in the current transitional period between Christendom and post-Christendom.
• Our responses to contemporary challenges need to be provisional and we will need to appreciate many kinds of resources.
• We can draw on pre-Christendom, anti-Christendom (dissident), Christendom and extra-Christendom (global) movements.
• We will need to think carefully about how we interpret the Bible, recovering marginalised texts and questioning received interpretations, rejoicing in the new angle of vision available to a marginal community.
• We may need to reconsider important theological commitments and ethical stances, suspicious of the influence of Christendom on them.
• Some images may help us come to terms with our current situation, including marginality, liminality, exile, pilgrimage and church on the edge.
• And our terminology may need adjusting as we reflect on the language used in the Christendom era and its suitability (or lack of this) in post-Christendom.
• Most fundamentally, post-Christendom offers us an opportunity to recover the radical Jesus whom Christendom marginalised and follow him courageously onto the margins of this strange new world.

The Christendom Shift

Chapter 4 of Post-Christendom contains a long list of issues that were impacted by the 4th-century Christendom shift. It is not possible to summarise these, so here is the list in case it is useful in this form for further study:

The transformation in how the church understood itself and its role in society was not accomplished in one generation. Some developments had roots predating Constantine and would take centuries to develop fully. Over time, however, the Christendom shift involved:

• The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of city, state or empire.
• Movement of the church from the margins to the centre of society.
• The creation and progressive development of a Christian culture or civilisation.
• The assumption that all citizens (except Jews) were Christian by birth.
• The development of a ‘sacral society’, corpus Christianum, where there was no freedom of religion and political power was divinely authenticated.
• The definition of ‘orthodoxy’ as the belief all shared, determined by powerful church leaders with state support.
• Imposition, by legislation and custom, of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (though normally Old Testament morality was applied).
• Infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into Christian society.
• The defence of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality and schism.
• A hierarchical ecclesiastical system, based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, analogous to the state hierarchy and buttressed by state support.
• A generic distinction between clergy and laity, and relegation of laity to a largely passive role.
• Two-tier ethics, with higher standards of discipleship (‘evangelical counsels’) expected of clergy and those in religious orders.
• Sunday as an official holiday and obligatory church attendance, with penalties for non-compliance.
• The requirement of oaths of allegiance and oaths in law courts to encourage truth-telling.
• The construction of massive and ornate church buildings and the formation of huge congregations.
• Increased wealth for the church and obligatory tithes to fund the system.
• Division of the globe into ‘Christendom’ and ‘heathendom’ and wars waged in the name of Christ and the church.
• Use of political and military force to impose Christianity, regardless of personal conviction.
• Reliance on the Old Testament, rather than the New, to justify these changes.

The foundation of Christendom was a theocratic understanding of society and a close, though sometimes fraught, partnership between church and state, the two main pillars of society. The nature of this partnership varied. Over the centuries, power struggles between popes and emperors resulted in one or other holding sway. Previous chapters have revealed one emperor presiding over a church council and another submitting to a bishop’s authority. But the system assumed the church was associated with a status quo understood as Christian and had vested interests in its maintenance. The church provided religious legitimation for state activities; the state provided secular support for ecclesiastical decisions.

Christendom excluded or reinterpreted elements of New Testament teaching that had been important in pre-Christendom:

Faith and discipleship

• Faith in Christ was no longer understood as the exercise of choice in a pluralistic environment where other choices were possible without penalty.
• The term ‘conversion’ mainly described, not the start of the Christian life, but entrance into a monastic community.
• Discipleship was interpreted as loyal citizenship, rather than commitment to the counter-cultural values of God’s kingdom.
• Preoccupation with individual eternal destiny replaced expectation of the coming of God’s kingdom.

Church and society

• There was no longer any significant distinction between ‘church’ and ‘world’.
• The state was no longer accorded a limited preservative function but had replaced the church as the bearer of the meaning of history.
• Church was defined territorially and membership was compulsory, with no room for believers’ churches comprised only of voluntary members.
• Such voluntary communities, called ‘churches’ in the New Testament, were now called ‘sects’ and condemned as schismatic.
• The church largely abandoned its prophetic role for a chaplaincy role, providing spiritual support, sanctifying social occasions and state policies.
• The idea of God’s kingdom was reduced to a historical entity, coterminous with the state church, or relegated to the future.

Church life

• Believers’ baptism as the means of incorporation into the church was regarded as appropriate only for first-generation converts from paganism.
• Church services became performance-oriented as multi-voiced participation and the exercise of charismatic gifts declined.
• A sacramental and penitential system developed that enabled the church hierarchy to control and dispense ‘salvation’, often at a price.
• Clerical power and the disappearance of the ‘world’ meant church discipline was punitive, even lethal, rather than expressing pastoral care and mutual admonition.


• The church’s orientation was now towards maintenance rather than mission, and mission was carried out by specialist agencies, not congregations.
• Pastors and teachers were honoured, while apostles, prophets and evangelists were marginalised or regarded as obsolete (cf. Ephesians 4.11).
• Mission within and beyond Christendom was accomplished by top-down methods, including coercion and offering inducements.
• The vision of a new Christian nation, corpus Christi, scattered through the nations was replaced by a vision of an earthly Christian empire.


• The church became more concerned about maintaining social order than achieving social justice.
• Because the church exercised control, ethical choices were justified by anticipated outcomes or consequences rather than inherent morality.
• Pleas for religious liberty were forgotten and persecution was imposed by those claiming to be Christians rather than upon them.
• Enemy-loving and peacemaking were replaced by the formation of a Christian army and the ‘just war’ theory or ‘holy war’ ideology.
• The cross was less a reminder of the laying down of life than a symbol carried into battle by those who would take the lives of others.

Assessing the Christendom Shift

Look again at the above summary of the impact of the Christendom shift on church and society.

How are we to assess this shift and its consequences? Here is a simple exercise to help us consider the possibilities.

Work through the summary and place by each item a number representing one of the following assessments:

1. This was a positive development that evolved quite naturally from the traditional thinking and practice of the pre-Christendom churches.

2. This was a positive development that was a deviation from traditional theology and practice but was justified by the changing circumstances.

3. This was a necessary development in the changing circumstances that had neither particularly positive nor particularly negative consequences.

4. This was a necessary development in the changing circumstances that had negative and regrettable consequences.

5. This was an illegitimate development that contravened the theology and practice of the pre-Christendom church and is difficult to square with the spirit of the gospel.

6. This was an illegitimate development that compromised the church and its message and led to horrendous consequences in the coming centuries.

You might also want to construct further categories (7, 8, 9 etc.) if these do not give you all the options you want to work with.

Once you have completed this assessment of the Christendom shift, you may want to identify the issues that concern you most and consider how you or your church might grapple with these.

Alternatives to the Christendom Shift

Chapter 4 of Post-Christendom challenges the suggestion that the church in the fourth century had no option but to accept the invitation to becoming the imperial church. It suggests that there were other ways fourth-century Christians might have interpreted Constantine’s adoption of Christianity and responded to his invitation:

• They might have recognised that all Roman emperors had used religion to impose order on the empire: Constantine was acting in a typically Roman (not Christian) way.
• They might have questioned his continuing allegiance to the Unconquered Sun and the nature of his allegiance to Christ.
• They might have challenged him to become a catechumen (novice Christian) earlier and to have prepared for baptism before he became terminally ill.
• They might have encouraged him to behave as a true Christian, rather than a normal emperor, accepting this might have resulted in his reign being brief.
• They might have reflected on their survival and growth through 250 years of intermittent persecution and decided they did not need imperial protection or patronage.
• They might have differentiated between toleration and imperial endorsement, welcoming the former and courteously but firmly refusing the latter.
• They might have explained to Constantine that massive basilicas and lavish bequests were inappropriate for followers of Jesus.
• They might have insisted the cross symbolised sacrificial suffering and was inappropriate as a military standard, explaining that Jesus’ followers were a peaceful people, who would not fight to defend the empire.
• They might have recalled their own experience of persecution and historic commitment to religious liberty and refused to persecute or pressurise others.
• They might have listened to dissenting voices warning that the theological reinterpretations of Augustine and others were leading them away from their roots and core values.

Another exercise: rank these suggestions in order, according to your judgement as to how realistic they seem to be. Then, starting with what you consider to be the most realistic, assess what impact this might have had on the development of Christendom.

And some further questions:

1. Some claim that the phenomenal growth of Christianity in this period means that, if not under Constantine, under one of his successors Christianity would have become the numerically dominant religion. Do you agree?

2. If so, need a numerically dominant religion become a state religion?

3. Might Europe have been christianised from the bottom up rather than from the top down, and what difference might this have made?

4. If the continuing numerical growth of the church had not been turbo-charged by state endorsement, might effective catechesis have continued, and what effect might this have had on church and society?

5. What can we learn from the history of the church in the Persian Empire, which never had a Constantine figure (but was very viciously persecuted once Constantine declared the Roman Empire Christian)? After centuries of mission, during which it became more numerous and widespread than European Christianity, it was eventually eradicated from large areas of Asia. Is this inevitable for a non-state religion?

6. If in the future the church in Europe again becomes numerous, even numerically dominant, what are the alternatives to re-inventing Christendom? Is faithfulness only possible for marginal communities, or is there a truly Christian way to handle power?

Vestiges of Christendom

Chapter 7 of Post-Christendom contains a long list of Christendom vestiges. It is not possible to summarise these, so here is the list in case it is useful in this form for further study:

Ecclesiastical vestiges

• The Church of England is the established church, acknowledging the monarch as supreme governor and claiming official status by its very name, which by implication excludes other denominations.
• The self-identity of the non-established Church of Scotland is of a national church.
• The monarch appoints Anglican bishops, on the recommendation of the prime minister, from a shortlist of candidates the church prepares. The state can veto episcopal appointments.
• Church leaders participate in state ceremonies, during which they engage in acts of worship (although increasingly representatives of other faiths also participate).
• Some decisions of the Church of England’s General Synod require state endorsement (the requisite majority of the ‘three houses’ approved the decision to ordain women, but this needed ratification by both Houses of Parliament).
• The parish system symbolises and implements the ubiquity of the established church, regardless of the presence of other congregations.
• The Church of England is legally obliged to provide marriage and funeral services. Clergy of many denominations act as state registrars.
• The Church of England is a major landowner and, despite falling income and rising costs, a very wealthy institution.
• The Chi-Rho symbol, Constantine’s labarum, adorns many churches and chapels instead of the cross.
• The cross is associated in many communities with conquest and coercion, not suffering and self-giving love.
• Many church buildings contain military paraphernalia, including regimental flags, plaques commemorating war casualties and soldiers’ graves.
• Most denominations endorse the ‘just war’ theory.
• Though many denominations have more members elsewhere than in Europe, representatives of historic Christendom nations dominate their structures and culture.
• Many denominations and agencies maintain structures that perpetuate outdated ‘sending nations’ and ‘mission fields’ concepts.
• Infant baptism is still widely practised (not only in the state church), but there are concerns about indiscriminate christening.
• Leadership structures in many newer denominations mirrors Christendom arrangements (albeit with different titles).
• The dominance of monologue sermons is evident in all denominations (with longer sermons in newer churches).
• The popularity of tithing in newer churches is encouraging Anglicans and Catholics to return to an abandoned Christendom practice.
• Church discipline is not taught in theological colleges, congregations are not equipped to practise this and attempts to exercise discipline are frequently ineffective or authoritarian.
• Inherited or chosen architectural styles of church buildings maintain aspects of Christendom ecclesiology. Many resemble lecture halls or theatres, disabling multi-voiced worship.
• Special clothes continue to designate a clerical caste with special powers and privileges.

Social vestiges

• The monarch’s coronation takes place in Westminster Abbey and involves senior church leaders, who present a Bible as a ‘rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes’, anoint the monarch with oil with reference to Old Testament kings, present a sword for the monarch to ‘protect the holy Church of God’ and bestow a ring with a ruby cross, urging the monarch to be the ‘defender of Christ’s religion.’
• The monarch swears to ‘maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel’; ‘maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law’; ‘maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England’; and ‘preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them.’
• The National Anthem combines unquestioning support for the monarch with prayer for military success.
• Coins carry inscriptions committing the monarch to defend the (Anglican) faith (D.G.REG.F.D).
• The Union Flag comprises crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick, the ‘patron saints’ of England, Scotland and Ireland.
• Remembrance Day ceremonies offer prayers of thanksgiving for military success.
• State-funded chaplains serve in the armed forces and accompany them to war, implicitly supporting their actions.
• Christian prayers take place daily in both Houses of Parliament.
• Two archbishops and twenty-four diocesan bishops are ‘Lords Spiritual’ sitting in the House of Lords.
• The English legal system includes ‘canon law’, which governs church affairs, and ecclesiastical courts.
• Anyone on the parish electoral role (whatever their religious views) may vote to elect church wardens.
• The launching of ships involves a ‘christening’ ceremony, invoking God’s blessing on the vessel.
• Blasphemy laws (though rarely invoked) protect only the Church of England, not other denominations or religions.
• Churches enjoy the presumption their activities are charitable and so receive significant tax benefits.
• Schools must provide daily acts of collective worship ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.’
• School, college and bank holidays are planned around or associated primarily with the Christmas and Easter festivals.
• Despite continuing erosion, there are still restrictions on economic and social activities on Sundays.
• Use of oaths in the courts and legal processes (although affirmation is now available) remains normal.
• Oaths of allegiance are sworn by people in various institutions. Members of the police force, for instance, swear oaths in an annual service.

Responding to the Vestiges of Christendom

Look again at the above summary of the vestiges of Christendom in both church and society.

Here is an exercise to help us consider how to regard these vestiges and engage with them. Work through the summary and place by each item a number representing one of the following assessments:

1. This is a practice derived from the Christendom era that is wholly welcome, despite the demise of Christendom, and worth defending and retaining.

2. This is a practice derived from the Christendom era that, despite being rooted in an outdated and flawed system, has become a valued part of our cultural heritage and is worth retaining (albeit for other than the reasons it was originally introduced).

3. This is a practice derived from the Christendom era that no longer makes sense in a post-Christendom society but has no harmful effects and is not worth challenging.

4. This is a practice derived from the Christendom era that is regrettable and damages the church and its witness but which there is yet no realistic prospect of eradicating.

5. This is a practice derived from the Christendom era that is regrettable and damages the church and its witness so seriously that we should take action to eradicate it.

6. This is a practice derived from the Christendom era that is unjust and inappropriate in post-Christendom and that church and society should take action to eradicate.

You might also want to construct further categories (7, 8, 9 etc.) if these do not give you all the options you want to work with.

The Christendom Mindset

Chapter 7 of Post-Christendom contains a list of aspects of the Christendom mindset. It is not possible to summarise these, so here is the list in case it is useful in this form for further study:

• Orientation towards maintaining (but perhaps tweaking) the status quo rather than advocating radical and disturbing change.
• Wanting to control history and bring in God’s kingdom (even coercively) rather than trusting the future to God.
• Assuming Christians would govern nations more justly and effectively than others or that having more Christians in influential positions (especially in politics) would be beneficial.
• Over-emphasising church and internal ecclesial issues at the expense of God’s mission and kingdom.
• A ‘moral majority’ stance on ethical issues, assuming the right of churches to instruct the behaviour of those beyond the church.
• A punitive rather than restorative approach to issues of justice and support for capital punishment as ‘biblical.’
• Disgruntlement that Christian festivals (particularly Christmas and Easter) are no longer accorded the spiritual significance they once enjoyed.
• When reading the Bible, identifying naturally with the perspective of the rich and powerful.
• Readily finding analogies between Old Testament Israel and Britain (or America) as a ‘Christian nation’, reapplying biblical prophecies.
• Confusion about the relationship between patriotism and ultimate loyalty to God’s kingdom and the transnational Christian community.
• A ‘mainstream’ interpretation of church history that marginalises the laity, dissident movements, women and the poor.
• Euro-centric theology that marginalises other perspectives on mission, church and biblical interpretation.
• Inattentiveness to the criticisms of those outraged by the historic association of Christianity with patriarchy, warfare, injustice and patronage.
• Using ‘spiritual warfare’ language without reflecting on issues of violence and insensitivity to its effect on users and observers.
• A latent persecution-mentality that lacks theological or ethical objections to imposing beliefs or behaviour on others.
• Partiality for respectability, top-down mission and hierarchical church government.
• Predilection for large congregations that support a ‘professional’ standard of ministry and exercise influence on local power structures.
• Approaches to evangelism that rely excessively on ‘come’ rather than ‘go’ initiatives.
• Thinking the Christian story is still known, understood and widely believed within society.
• Reluctance to conclude Christendom vestiges inoculate rather than evangelise.
• Celebrating survey evidence that 70% of the population claim to be Christian, as if such notional Christianity is significant.
• Assuming churchgoing is a normal social activity and that most people feel comfortable in church buildings and services.
• Attitudes towards church buildings that imply these are focal points of God’s presence.
• Orientation towards maintenance rather than mission in ministerial training, congregational focus and financial priorities.
• Proliferation of church activities that are inappropriate and exhausting for marginal communities in a mission context.
• Preferring authoritative pronouncements, preaching and monologue over dialogue, conversation and consensus.
• Pontificating and lecturing, often in a sanctimonious tone that understandably irritates others.
• Discomfort among church leaders if members ask questions or express doubts or disagreement.
• Performance-oriented services and the tendency of short-lived multi-voiced developments to revert to the default mono-voiced position.
• Solemnity, formality and even morbidity when breaking bread and sharing wine in contrast to the joyful and domestic informality of the early churches.
• Despite decades of decline and marginalisation, triumphalist theology and language (especially in our hymnody).
• Consequentialist and utilitarian approaches to ethics, more concerned with outcomes than right motives and means.
• Attitudes to other faith communities that vary from opposition to tolerance but assume Christianity should be accorded centrality and privileges.
• Expectations that imminent revival will restore the fortunes and influence of the churches in society.

Detecting Christendom Toxins

The language of Christendom ‘toxins’ is used in Church after Christendom, so you may want to consult that book too, but the toxic mindset of Christendom is illustrated by the above summary from Post-Christendom.

Here is an exercise to help us consider how to regard these attitudes and assumptions, and how to engage with them.

1. Work through the list. Are you convinced that each item represents the legacy of Christendom? Might some be authentically Christian, or unconnected with the issue of Christendom? Place ? beside any items you are not convinced about.

2. Work through the list again. How significant are these items? Place ! beside items you regard as particularly important.

3. Work through the list you have highlighted. Choose 5 of these and put together a proposal for how each of these might be addressed by an individual or a church.

4. Work through the hymnbook or song collection of your own church/denomination. Note down any Christendom toxins you discover.

5. Listen carefully to sermons, prayers and conversations during one month. Note also any books or magazines you read during this month. What Christendom toxins, if any, do you detect? How might you respond to what you discover?

Reading the Bible after Christendom

The sixth book in the ‘After Christendom’ series will be written by Lloyd Pietersen. This will investigate the influence of the Christendom shift on biblical interpretation and ask how we might read the Bible with fresh perspectives after Christendom.

However, earlier books have already indicated that familiar interpretations of various biblical passages may need to be reconsidered now that Christendom is coming to an end. The influence of power, wealth and status on the church during the Christendom era may have distorted its understanding of many texts. We face the disturbing but exciting challenge of looking afresh at the Bible from our post-Christendom position on the margins of society.

While we wait for Lloyd’s book, it might be helpful to ponder a few sample passages, asking whether we have allowed the Christendom mindset to impact the way we have interpreted these. We will concentrate on passages from the Gospels.

Matthew 5:13

1. What are the various ways in which you have heard the term ‘salt’ interpreted?
2. Which of these have you found most helpful or persuasive?
3. Do any of these interpretations make sense of the term ‘earth’ (soil, ground)?
4. Do any of these interpretations make sense of the context – the climax of the Beatitudes?
5. Did you know salt was used in ancient times as a fertilizer? Might this make more sense of the verse and its context?
6. Why do you think ‘salt as preservative’ was a more popular interpretation during the Christendom era than ‘salt as fertilizer’?
7. Which makes better sense in post-Christendom?

(NB: for further resources on this passage and its interpretation, see Alan Kreider’s article at:

Matthew 5:38-42

1. What do the phrases ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘go the second mile’ imply when used today?
2. How is this interpretation good news to oppressed and victimised people?
3. Might our interpretation of this passage be different if we realised ‘do not resist’ really means ‘do not resist violently’?
4. How would our understanding of Jesus’ teaching by affected by discovering that:
(a) A blow on the ‘right cheek’ suggests a master disciplining a slave with the back of his hand and turning the other cheek might represent passive resistance?
(b) Poor people in first-century Palestine wore only two garments?
(c) Roman soldiers could force people in occupied territory to carry their equipment for only one mile and would risk punishment if this went further?
5. What might it mean to behave in such ways today?

(NB: for further resources on this passage and its interpretation, see Walter Wink: Engaging the Powers, pp175-193)

Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

1. Within the Christendom church this passage was used to justify a mixed church made up of believers and unbelievers. Is this legitimate?
2. Where does the term ‘church’ appear in this parable? Can it be inferred?
3. In dissident groups a different interpretation was given. What do you think this was?
4. What do you think is the message of this parable and its contemporary application?
5. Can you think of other biblical passages where the focus is on the kingdom of God (v24) but the Christendom shift identified this with the institutional church?

Matthew 21:33-46

1. Who do you think the various characters in this parable represent?
2. What is the moral and teaching of this parable?
3. Would your interpretation be any different if the word translated ‘landowner’ was instead translated ‘mafia boss’?
4. Would your interpretation be any different if you knew that absentee landlords who extorted income from peasant farmers with threats of violence were deeply resented and sometimes violence was met with violence?
5. Is it possible that the son who is killed does not represent Jesus?
6. What, then, would be the point of this parable? Might Jesus be proposing another way that challenges the violence on both sides?
7. How does this parable equip followers of Jesus for mission today?

Mark 12:41-44

1. Is this incident simply about the extraordinary generosity of a poor widow?
2. What difference, if any, do the verses (38-40) immediately before this passage make?
3. What difference, if any, do the verses (13:1-2) immediately after this passage make?
4. Why are the political, social and economic implications of this passage rarely mentioned in sermons today?
5. How does this parable equip followers of Jesus for mission today?

Luke 1:1-2:40

1. Read carefully through Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus.
2. During the Christendom era most people assumed God worked from the top down rather than from the margins. In this passage how many instances can you find of God working from the margins?
3. You might want to make a similar list from Matthew’s account (1:18-2:23).
4. What political implications of the coming of Jesus do you detect in the story (note especially the songs of Mary and Zechariah and the comments of Simeon)?
5. What is the significance of ‘peace’ in this story? Note the various references to this word.

Luke 18:18-30

1. With which character in this passage do we generally identify? Or do we detect only one character apart from Jesus?
2. What do we understand as the good news in this passage?
3. What happens if we identify, not with the rich ruler, but with ‘the poor’ (v22) to whom his treasures are to be distributed?
4. What would Jesus’ hearers likely have assumed about the reason why this ruler was rich, despite living in occupied territory?
5. How does the conversation between Jesus and Peter (vv28-30) affect the way we interpret this incident?
6. Is there any support in this passage for the frequent distinction made between our actions and our attitudes in relation to our possessions?

Luke 19:11-27

1. Who is the hero in this parable and who is the villain?
2. What kind of behaviour is this parable advocating?
3. Is it possible that the king is not Jesus or God? What sort of character is he?
4. What difference would it make to your interpretation if you knew that the hated Archelaus, a Herodian puppet king, had recently rushed off to Rome to be confirmed as ruler of the Jews (contrary to popular demands against this)?
5. What difference does the context make (the encounter with Zacchaeus in verses 1-10 and the entry into Jerusalem and clearing of the temple in verses 28-48)?
6. What is Jesus trying to communicate about the nature of God’s kingdom (v11)?
7. How does this parable equip followers of Jesus for mission today?

Church after Christendom: A thumbnail sketch

The basic argument of the book can be summed up in the following steps:

Part One: Shape: Prologue

• The first section of the book explores the shapes church after Christendom might need to take in a changing culture.
• The core biblical text for this section is Acts 11:1-18, in which the early church grappled with a profound paradigm shift.

Chapter 1: Church after Christendom: Belonging/Believing/Behaving

• As Christendom gradually disintegrates, the relationship between believing and belonging is unravelling in various ways.
• Beyond the churches there are various degrees of alienation from the church and its message.
• Understanding the complexity of this relationship is important for mission and church life.
• An additional factor is behaving, which raises questions about the meaning of conversion, baptism and membership.
• Centred set churches are becoming popular but these require a strong core as well as open edges.

Chapter 2: Church after Christendom: Comings and Goings

• As Christendom fades, it is helpful to understand why people are leaving and joining churches in a changing culture.
• There is considerable research available on church leavers, which needs to be examined critically in order to understand the various factors involved.
• How churches respond to church leavers is important, both for the well-being of the leavers and for the churches themselves.
• Listening to the concerns of church leavers can reveal key issues for churches to address in order to be more attractive and authentic.
• Understanding why people join churches is important both for mission and for reflection on church life.
• Cross-referencing lessons from leavers and joiners focuses attention on some critical issues for healthy church life.

Chapter 3: Church after Christendom: Will it Emerge?

• The demise of Christendom has been accompanied by both fragmentation of the church and a search for unity.
• During the late 1990s, a new wave of churches began to emerge, prompting some to suggest church after Christendom will emerge rather than evolving.
• Although categorising emerging churches at this stage is risky and inexact, a threefold division into mission-led, community-led and worship-led may be helpful.
• Different expressions of emerging church interact in different ways with the post-Christendom agenda.

Chapter 4: Church after Christendom: Will it Evolve?

• Some regard emerging churches as less promising, suggesting that church after Christendom is more likely to evolve from inherited forms of church.
• It may be that the strongest hope consists in partnership and mutual learning between inherited and emerging churches.
• All churches are in some senses both inherited and emerging; conversations can help various kinds of churches draw on each other’s resources.
• The global dimension is also important, as inherited and emerging churches learn from churches elsewhere and from missionaries and ethnically diverse churches in Europe.
• But what evolves or emerges must be about the ethos of the church, not just its style or shape.

Part Two: Ethos: Prologue

• The second section of the book explores the ethos church after Christendom might need to develop in a changing culture.
• Perspectives from both inherited and emerging churches (and church leavers) should inform this discussion.
• The core biblical text for this section is Ephesians 4:1-16, which offers a glorious vision of a healthy and participative church.

Chapter 5: Church after Christendom: Mission

• Church after Christendom will need to make a decisive shift from maintenance to mission in its basic orientation.
• This will involve action at a translocal as well as congregational level, so that institutions take on aspects of being missionary movements.
• Denominations, training institutions and other agencies need to move beyond missional language to substantive changes.
• The centre of post-Christendom society is contested, with competing claims being made for secularity and spirituality.
• Church after Christendom must embrace its marginality and develop strategies appropriate to mission from the margins.
• This will involve rehabilitating and reconfiguring evangelism.

Chapter 6: Church after Christendom: Community

• Interest in church growth has in recent years partly been superseded by concern for church health.
• Church after Christendom needs to identify the Christendom toxins and flush these out of its system.
• Induction processes and ongoing training is needed to build healthy churches.
• The neglected and maligned practice of church discipline is crucial if honest and loving communities are to evolve and emerge.
• Interactive and fully participative church life builds healthy and harmonious communities.
• Leadership models need to be reassessed and reconfigured in church after Christendom.

Chapter 7: Church after Christendom: Worship

• During the Christendom era, worship predominated over both community and mission, but these elements need to be re-balanced in post-Christendom.
• Emerging churches offer fresh and instructive perspectives on worship.
• Some are proposing that gathering together becomes less important, but this is unwise in post-Christendom.
• Inherited churches offer rich resources and long experience that church after Christendom will need to draw on and rework.

Chapter 8: Church after Christendom: Simple and Sustainable

• Church after Christendom must be both sustaining of Christians in emerging culture and also sustainable.
• Questions need to be asked about the focus, frequency and extent of church activities.
• Church after Christendom must be simple, but not simplistic, and capable of sustaining hope.

Church after Christendom: Some Questions

1. In what way can people belong before they believe in your church?

2. What are your church’s core values and how do you sustain these?

3. How do you engage creatively with those who leave your church?

4. What are you doing to encourage conversations between emerging and evolving churches?

5. In what ways can your church become more truly missional?

6. How do you induct new people into your church?

7. What practices in your church sustain healthy community life?

8. What activities in your church might you do less often or stop doing?

9. When you change the shape or style of your church, how do you engage with the question of its ethos?

10. What five things might your church do in response to the issues raised in this book?

You can download this study guide in .pdf format here:

After Christendom: A Study Guide (22p, 110KB)

After Christendom: invitation to write a paper

Six books in the 'After Christendom' series have now been published. Three more are currently under contract and we are in conversation with other likely authors.

However, there are some subjects that may not warrant a whole book but are well worth exploring from an 'After Christendom' perspective. We have already had suggestions along these lines. So we intend over the coming months to publish papers, essays and articles on this website.

If you have anything that you would like to offer, please let us know and we will be glad to consider this.

Mission, Anabaptism and Post-Christendom

"This paper seeks to explore the current context for mission in Britain in the light of the claim that this country is now entering a new epoch in which the church is no longer closely intertwined with state and society. It will be argued that this centuries-long relationship has been a problematic one, which has significant implications for mission by a church now finding itself increasingly on the margins of a society over which it had once been able to exercise considerable influence, if not outright control. However, it will further be proposed that Anabaptism, a Christian tradition historically marginalised thanks to its rejection of any symbiotic relationship between church, state and society, offers distinctive insights to the wider church which may enhance the task of mission in this period of transition and uncertainty."

Jonathan Blakeborough has made his MTh dissertation, entitled "A critical reflection on the Anabaptist contribution to mission in Britain in the context of Post-Christendom", available to the Anabaptist Network. You can download the text below.

Women and Men After Christendom Introduction

Women and Men After Christendom:
The Dis-Ordering of Gender Relationships


I moved house recently. In this new house, my husband and I each have our own room. We have taken the two smaller bedrooms and made them both into studies. One of these rooms is bigger than the other – not by very much, but obviously so on opening the doors. I have the bigger study.

We had a removal firm help us with the move. The team of three men moved our desks into our respective rooms, brought in the bookcases, lining up the furniture where we asked, and then began bringing in the boxes of books, papers and computer equipment. I stood at the top of the stairs indicating which carefully labelled box should be taken into which room.

Part way through these ‘box runs’, one of the team came out of my room and asked me, without any humour, irony, sarcasm, hint of friendly banter, or cheek, ‘Why do you have the bigger study?’ This was a highly gendered question. His question was not so much one of curiosity as it was of bafflement. Something clearly did not add up for him, and despite his otherwise professional manner, he was compelled to cross the boundary into asking for a justification of our choice of room allocation.

Somewhat taken aback, I gave a highly gendered answer. I did indeed attempt to justify the situation, and in doing so accepted his assumption that there was something about this arrangement that was questionable. So, rather than replying with another question, ‘Why shouldn’t I?’, I simply said that I worked from home so spent more time in my home study and that my husband had an office at work. In other words, in terms of square footage, he had the larger space than me, albeit in two locations. I was giving reassurance, not to worry, all is in order in the world, just as it should be, with of course the man having the greater space.

All of us live lives impacted by gendered thinking and structures, however much – or little – we are aware of this. This book is about gender – about how women and men relate together. It consciously explores historical, theological and social influences that have shaped the social relations between women and men.

While I was finishing writing this book I had a conversation with a 19-year-old student. He was finding his chosen course of study frustrating because he felt it was focused on how to get a job in his field rather than the ‘whys and wherefores’ of his subject. Something of a self-taught philosopher, he was interested in the bigger picture that he felt was missing. He told me about life as a student, some of the things that had brought him to this point, and what he hoped he might do in the future.

He then asked me what I did when I left school. I briefly outlined what had brought me to the point of being involved in social and theological research and some of the things I had done. ‘Do you have faith yourself?’, he wanted to know. I replied yes, I was a Christian and so I was an ‘insider’ to much of the work I did. His response was immediate: ‘But don’t you find Christianity really offensive to women?’

I asked him to tell me what had led him to say this. He was very clear. Men wrote the Bible to tell women what to do, to keep them unequal. And that was what all religion was – it was about controlling people, keeping them in their place. In his sharp critique of what he thought about Christianity, he summed up the focus of this book, which is looking at the relationship of women and men in the light of the shift to post-Christendom.

The term ‘post-Christendom shift’ refers to how we are moving away from a situation where the church has religious, social and political power which can be imposed upon others to one in which Christians witness to the gospel by the way they live, not by the power they wield. This book is concerned with what this new understanding and practice might mean for relationships between women and men, which throughout Christendom have followed a hierarchically ordered gender pattern. The dis-ordering of the book’s subtitle is not about advocating chaos, but about dismantling this pattern of male dominance and female subordination.

While the transition to post-Christendom may at times feel disorienting as the church and Christians are dislocated from a privileged centre in society to a more marginal and peripheral status, it is also an opportunity to re-imagine ourselves differently. This is no less so in terms of the social relations between women and men. Can considering this age-old conversation in the emerging light of a post-Christendom framework offer us fresh or renewed insight?

In this re-imagining, I share with the student the pull of the bigger picture. Therefore, this is not so much a ‘how to’ book, but a ‘why we should’ book. It does not provide models to follow, but seeks to expose the nature of the challenge. This is partly because understanding something of the dynamics of Christendom’s gender hierarchy is necessary if we are to move beyond it, if we are to have more than superficial attempts to live as women and men after Christendom. And it is partly because I believe such living will look different depending on particular situations. A witness to re-imagined relationships will involve diversity as much as it does innovation. This diversity itself will be an implicit challenge to the highly restrictive gender order bound up in Christendom thinking and behaving.

So imprinted on us is a Christendom order of gender that the first difficulty we face is trying to think outside of its constraints. To help us to do this, and to remove ambiguity over some of the terms used in this book, Chapter 1 begins with making plain a number of contexts in which our consideration takes place. It introduces the breadth of the notion of Christendom and the importance of its integral idea of order, which I am challenging in this book. It notes how patriarchy – which includes a hierarchy of males over females – is enmeshed within Christendom; hence, the ethos of empire is sustained by women’s subordination. A discussion of the terms sex and gender, and sexuality, affirms the value of our embodiment as women and men while highlighting the way sexual distinction has been used to structure inequality in terms of belief, value and behaviour.

The chapter finishes with a note on hermeneutics, which I use both in a broad and more particular sense in this book. Broadly speaking, hermeneutics is about the framework we use for interpreting our world; a Christendom framework is one of a divinely ordered hierarchy (the word hierarchy comes from the Greek hieros meaning sacred and arche meaning rule). This contrasts with the frameworks of equality and friendship that are discussed in later chapters. In a more specific sense, biblical hermeneutics is about how we interpret the Bible, crucial for any discussion on gender relationships. But centuries of being told that the Scriptures prescribe patriarchal gender norms have left us unable to see that the biblical narratives actually contain challenges to such norms.

Chapter 2, therefore, explores the New Testament, both gospels and epistles, to tease out an unfolding narrative of groups of believers who were wrestling with the impact of their experiences on their social and political relations, including that of gender. The patriarchy of the world before Christendom was entangled with the Roman Empire (as it would be with the Christian empire that followed). The Christian claim, therefore, of belonging to a new community in God, rather than identifying with family, religious, political or national allegiances, was disturbing to the existing social and indeed sacral order. It questioned the usual social conventions of marriage, kin and household that structured the lives of women and men, particularly in the light of the expected imminent return of Jesus. The image of God as father was a direct challenge to the place of all patriarchs, whether in kin networks, households, or as heads of states. Its significance is not as a male as opposed to female metaphor, but as a picture that confounds systems of domination. A challenge in the world of the first Christians, it has the potential to continue to be a challenge to Christendom thinking, both past and present.

The chapter traces some of the diversity among believers in the first churches as they adjusted to the realities of a prolonged period of living in ‘the last days’ in the midst of mainstream society and culture, which, of course, had nurtured and formed them before their encounter with Christ. The emerging organizational structures of the church developed in the second and third centuries to a dominant patriarchal pattern, but not without well-attested counter traditions. Such counter traditions continued throughout the Christendom period, despite various attempts to obscure them.

It is the impact of Christendom on the relationship between women and men that I turn to in Chapter 3. Whatever his motivation, the decision of the emperor Constantine at the start of the fourth century to favour Christianity within his empire not only brought an end to the persecution previously experienced by the church. It also began a realignment of Christianity from the margins to the centre of the state and its power. To help illustrate the enormity of this change, I begin the chapter with a broader view of the impact of this mainstreaming of Christianity in the empire, including how religious orthodoxy became enforced with the power of the state. I then look at three dynamics through which the enmeshment of the church with the trappings of empire impacted on gender relations.

The first of these is the solidifying of the division between clergy and laity, with an increasing move to a priesthood that was not only male, but also celibate, and one that church authorities put much energy and law into enforcing. This spiritual and social hierarchy between clerics and laity relied on and reinforced negative and detrimental views of women – their physicality and their intellectual and moral capacities, for even celibate living was insufficient to bestow on women the purity that would enable them to serve at the altar. Second, the chapter considers the impact of the Reformation’s understanding of the relationship between family, church and state. The Reformers’ renegotiation of the relationship between sexuality and holiness that saw them closing convents and monasteries and promoting clerical marriage was imbued with patriarchal ideology. Marriages, and particularly those of the clergy, became ‘the showcase of Christian living’, and foundational to this was the authoritative role of the father in the household, which in turn was viewed as an analogy of the state. Women or men stepping outside of accepted patterns were considered disorderly and a threat to society’s wellbeing.

Chapter 3 finishes looking at a third dynamic underpinning the first two: Christian understandings of sex and sexuality. In particular, the double standard inherent in much Christian sexual ethics not only has seen women more associated than men with humanity’s sexual nature, but also viewed them as more culpable than men for humanity’s sexual failings. The outworking of this dynamic may have presented itself differently over the centuries, but sexual ethics remains core to Christian self-understanding up to the present day. It is possible to see contemporary churches’ struggles to maintain more traditional structuring of relations between women and men as attempts to maintain a distinctive Christian identity in the context of their declining power and influence in a post-Christendom world.

Chapter 4 considers a more recent and continuing response to patriarchal and Christendom gender order – the discourse of equality. Equality is a framework for envisioning the relationship between women and men that does not put them in subordinate and dominant positions. Rather, it challenges the values and the practices that perpetuate such arrangements, whether in domestic settings or public institutions. To survey the progress in equality that women have gained in various ways in the twentieth century is to realize that gains have come slowly and been imperfectly implemented. Failure to address the deeper ways that gender inequality is structured in both personal and public life has inhibited greater equality while at the same time giving a general impression that sufficient equality has been achieved. However, among other achievements, women’s movements have succeeded in putting male behaviour and privilege under a spotlight. The response to this has been an identifiable men’s movement, including a spectrum from the therapeutic mythopoeticism of Iron John to pro-feminist White Ribbon campaigns that focus on ending male violence against women.

Christian responses to the contemporary context of equality are dominated by the discourse of the feminization of the church. This chapter explores this conversation and the responses, epitomized by the Promise Keepers in the USA, that focus on how men might be engaged in Christian and church life. It suggests that the opportunities for personal growth that men are experiencing (and their female partners are often valuing) through such responses should not stop a more in-depth critical analysis of the discourse of feminization. A historical perspective on so-called feminization enables us to see how, from the eighteenth century, patriarchy has been adapting through various social changes, re-inventing itself but keeping a gender hierarchy intact, despite rhetoric to the contrary. The chapter concludes that equality is a demanding ethic, both personally and socially and, while perhaps not the most natural language for theology, one that finds resonance with the life of Jesus and the practice of the first churches.

It is theological imagination that is thought about in Chapter 5. The sense we make of the transcendent reality of God in our lives shapes our human communities. This is no less so for gender relations. When we say that humanity is made in the image of God but the chief human images we draw on to picture God are male, while at the same time finding it deeply disturbing, for example, to refer to God as ‘she’, this has implications for the relationship between women and men. Our gender-exclusive language reveals what is often denied, that we situate femaleness differently to maleness in terms of the relationship to deity, and this has implications for how women and men are situated with each other. Our theological imagination determines our social gender relations.

Of course, the unique image of God we have is Jesus, and Chapter 5 goes on to ask what meaning we are to take from the fact that Jesus was male. Contrary to much focus on the significance of Jesus’ sex, I suggest the key question here is not whether God could have become incarnate as a woman. Rather, it is whether there is anything about women and femaleness that means they are not suitable to image the divine. I explore this question through reflecting on responses to encountering artistic portrayals of a crucified Christ in female form. The visceral reactions that such representations provoke tell us much about the underlying symbolism that structures our theology and our gendered social organization.

The crucified Christ, of course, has a central place within Christian tradition. Here too, theological imagination has had a profound impact on how women and men relate. Frequently, Jesus’ submission to his own suffering has been used to encourage or coerce women to accept the suffering and injustice they encounter – not least from male abuse and violence, but also from patriarchal social systems that treat women unfairly – rather than to challenge it. Finally, therefore, Chapter 5 revisits the meaning of the cross, suggesting that its role in endorsing suffering cannot be accounted for simply as a perversion of Christian theology. Such meaning derived from the death of Christ is, rather, imbued with the legacy of Christendom understandings of atonement, which developed in the medieval period when cross and sword combined to coerce Christian political and religious allegiance.

The focus of Chapter 6 is on the Bible and in particular the New Testament. The overwhelming tendency has been to understand gender relations on the basis of a select number of New Testament verses, sometimes called the ‘hard passages’. In contrast to this contracted approach, I suggest an expansive threefold way of reading the New Testament when thinking about the relation between women and men. First, this means letting the whole text inform our understanding of gender relations. This involves making gender visible where it has been absent from our reading and discovering about gender relations in unexpected places. Second, it means bearing in mind the breadth of church life, experience and dialogue that we meet in the New Testament and joining in that conversation ourselves. These two approaches provide the context for the third way of reading that I suggest, which is a close-up look at the so-called ‘hard passages’. These verses remain important to explore, but through engaging in an expansive approach to New Testament reading, we open ourselves up to new encounters with these texts.

In effect, Chapter 2 consists of the first two approaches so in Chapter 6 I focus on the third approach, illustrating it by considering 1 Timothy 2:8–15. These verses have been used as the definitive, authoritative verdict confirming women’s subordination but, as I demonstrate, it is not only possible but more plausible to read them differently.

In the light of centuries of gender relations that have been characterized by antagonism, I suggest, in Chapter 7, that we use the notion of friendship to think of women and men, not just or even primarily as individuals, but as a paradigm for thinking about humanity as female and male. By drawing on ancient practices of friendship – which contrast with contemporary ones, but which also are partially subverted to new ends in the New Testament – I propose this motif offers us a qualitatively different approach to a Christendom mindset of power and control.

Finally, I return to the bigger picture with which I began and a reminder of how Christendom’s patriarchal gender order shapes all our lives. I do so with the hope that Christian communities, in grasping the importance of giving attention to gender, will creatively engage in their own dis-ordering of gender relationships

Worship and Mission after Christendom - Sample Chapter

Chapter 1: Worship After Christendom

During the Christendom centuries the phrase “Worship and Mission” occurred rarely, if ever. Worship was what the church in Christendom simply existed to do; worship was its central activity. Mission, on the other hand, was peripheral and rarely discussed. Mission took place “out there”, in “regions beyond”, in “mission lands” – beyond Christendom. In the last centuries of Christendom a small number of enthusiasts promoted mission; and an even smaller number of specialists traveled abroad to carry it out.1 But worship services were near-by, in one’s immediate neighborhood, not out there but “here”, in every town and every parish. The main task of the clergy – the large corps of religious professionals – was to preside over these services.

From Italy to Britain

Across Western Europe worship services provided cohesion for Christendom societies and articulated their values. Consider two examples, one glorious and one homely.

In the sixth century, a great artist created the mosaics in the dazzling church of San Vitale in Ravenna, on Italy’s Adriatic coast. On both sides of the chancel the artist depicted processions heading toward the altar – on the north wall the Emperor Justinian, carries the Eucharistic bread, surrounded by clergy, civil servants, soldiers and a donor; on the south wall the Empress Theodora bears the Chalice, in the company of attendants and civil servants. Over the altar the artist depicted Christ, King of kings, of whose rule Justinian’s reign was to be an image.2

In Christendom, in which the reign of Christ was actualized, human potentates played a prominent role in the central act of the civilization, the worship service, the Mass. And the Mass, with its regal setting, gave legitimation to the emperor’s rule. In 529 this emperor, Justinian, had issued an edict requiring all inhabitants of the empire to be baptized and to attend services of worship.3 In a Christendom society, worship was unavoidable; thanks to government compulsion, mission was unnecessary.

In contrast to the splendor of San Vitale, a parish church deep in England’s Norfolk countryside is unimpressive.

The parish church of Tivetshall St Margaret is conventional in design, with a modest-sized nave separated from the chancel by a filigreed carved gothic screen through which the laity can observe the Eucharistic action. Originally, a rood (crucifix) stood high and central on this screen flanked on each side by statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. In the 1560s, however, the local power-holders, the gentry, decided that the statues were idolatrous – graven images – and they removed them. We may assume that some people were unhappy with this. And in 1587 the gentry replaced the discarded images with a wooden panel that filled the chancel arch up to the roof. On the panel an artist expressed Christendom values which, as in Ravenna, involved the “powers that be”: the coat of arms of Queen Elizabeth I was central; under this in neatly calligraphed letters were the Ten Commandments, the words of Paul in Romans 13 – “Let every soule subiect hymselfe vnto the auctorite of the hyer powers” – and a prayer: “O God save our Quene Elizabeth.” And to each side of this central ensemble were the names of the churchwardens (possibly local gentry) who may have paid for the improvement. Royal arms, Bible text and local gentry – a formidable visual evocation of Christendom.4 In this space, week after week, the local agricultural workers and their betters were supposed to gather, by royal command, for services of worship.

Worship in that culture was essential; mission – through which God changes minds and subverts inevitabilities – was in nobody’s minds.

So, for centuries in places like glorious Ravenna and rustic Tivetshall, ordinary Christians – the laity - were expected to attend the services of worship led by the clergy. Gradually European church and civil law established regulations for attendance at worship services. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 required Roman Catholics to take communion once per year; laws in Elizabethan England required people to attend a Church of England service every week in their local parish church; in England the 1944 Education Act required all children, of whatever religious conviction, to attend a daily act of worship in their schools. In Christendom, worship was the responsibility of the religious professionals. Non-professional Christians were expected to attend. The professionals spent a lot of their time organizing these acts of worship; liturgical theologians thought about what happened in the services of worship; and the laity – who, churchmen complained, often skipped the services put on in their behalf - spent most of their time engaged in secular activities.

Today, after Christendom, we’re in a different world. The clergy still organize services of worship, and some lay people attend them. But, in Europe and in many places in North America, Christianity has come to be “a minority cult in a cross-cultural situation.”5 For most people in the West, worship services are strange; they take place in an unfamiliar environment, using archaic vocabulary and an incomprehensible ritual language. And so, mission has emerged as a major concern for Christians who think about worship. But post-Christendom, in which Christians at last think about worship and mission, has not only caused some Christians to think about mission in new ways. It has also caused them to re-examine what they mean by worship.

Worship: actions and emotions

In Christendom, in which Christians could assume that most people would attend church, one way of talking about worship predominated. Worship denoted religious actions, which scholars call cultic actions. (Here, cult is descriptive, not pejorative.) Worship was what Christians did when they gathered in church. “Worship consists of our words and action, the outward expressions of our homage and adoration, when we are assembled in the presence of God.” So wrote the Scottish theologian W.D. Maxwell in the 1930s,6 and it expresses one dimension of worship which continues to be important – the cultic actions of humans in response to the presence and action of God.

But in the 1970s or so, as people in many places increasingly absented themselves from the churches and as Western cultures became more emotionally expressive, a second way of talking about worship became common. Worship – or “true” worship, as it was often called – now came to be associated with experiences and feelings. These emotions occur through an encounter with God that is real and personal. We “really” worship God when we sing, or when we praise God, or when “our hearts worship the Lord.”7 Worship, according to Sally Morgenthaler, occurs when humans “meet God,” when they have “a heartfelt response to a loving God”. The task of the worship leader is to enable this personal, affective encounter to take place; the leader must “allow the supernatural God of Scripture to show up and to interact with people in the pews.”8 In a culture in which legal compulsions to attend church have disappeared and social compulsions are withering, in which there are many attractive ways to spend leisure time, and in which consumer values have become all-pervasive, people attend worship services because they want to receive something. This emphasis upon heartfelt encounter is important. Like Maxwell’s emphasis upon cultic action it is an essential part of the picture. And we may realistically note that, in a post-Christendom world in which religious participation is voluntary, if people find that worship services don’t make them feel better, they will simply not come back!

New Testament words for worship imply mission

But worship is more than cultic actions and potent experiences. The New Testament writers used three words that deepen our understanding.9 One of these words, precious to the liturgical traditions, is leitourgia. Etymologically this means “the work of the people”, and in the ancient world it often had to do with a service that someone performed voluntarily for the state or the wider community. This is the word that the book of Acts uses to describe the worship of the Christian community in Antioch: “While they were worshipping (leitourgounton) the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul . . .’” (13.2). Was this worship “liturgical” in its order of actions and use of Psalms and other set prayers? The worship was clearly flexible enough to allow for the spontaneous inbreak of the divine word. And this worship led to action. It led to the missionary journeys of Paul, and eventually to Paul’s role as a public servant; leitourgos is what Paul called himself as he brought a redistributive financial gift from the Gentile churches to the impoverished Christians in Jerusalem (Rom 15.26; 2 Cor 9.12). It is thus not only Christians in the “liturgical” traditions that are drawn to leitourgia; so also are Christian social radicals who remind us that authentic worship expresses itself in mission – in action which makes justice.10

Many Pentecostal and free church Christians, on the other hand, ignore leitourgia altogether but discuss a second word - proskunesis - as if it were “the Greek New Testament word for worship.”11 Ancient writers used proskunesis to designate the custom of prostration before persons, reverencing them and kissing their feet or the hem of their garment. New Testament writers such as Matthew used proskunesis and its derivatives to connote affective, whole-bodied reverence (Matt 2.2; 4.9; 28.9); in his Apocalypse, John depicts scenes in heaven in which worshippers prostrate themselves before God and the Lamb (Rev 5.14; 7.11; 19.4; 22.8). The term proskynesis is almost completely missing from the epistles. The exception is significant - 1 Corinthians 14.25, in which outsiders, experiencing the presence of God in the multi-voiced Corinthian Christian assembly, “bow down before God and worship him, declaring, ‘God is really among you.” Proskunesis – worship that engages the affections and mobilizes the body – gives Pentecostal and charismatic Christians New Testament warrant for their emotionally and physically expressive worship. And there is a strategy of mission here. Pentecostals contend that today, as well as in first-century Corinth, worship of the proskunesis sort attracts, touches and converts people.

A third New Testament worship word, latreia, connoted formal religious acts, especially sacrifice. According to the evangelist Luke, the aged Anna engaged in latreia day and night in the temple, praying and fasting (Luke 2.37). For Paul latreia had come to refer not to ceaseless temple worship but to worship that permeates all of life. In a famous passage, Paul urged the Christians in Rome – in light of God’s amazing work of incorporating Gentiles along with Jews in God’s peoplehood - to offer their bodies as “a living holocaust” which is their latreia “that makes sense” (Rom 12.1-2).12 As a result of their worship - sacrificial, life-encompassing and ceaseless - the Roman Christians would be distinctive, not conformed to patterns of the Roman world but transfigured within the Roman world into the image of Christ. Latreia - worship that involves total personal holocaust, that affects one’s body and all areas of life – is radical. As Canadian missiologist Jonathan Bonk has written, “True worship involves sacrificing that which is most dear to us.”13

Although contemporary writers on worship tend not to give much attention to it, latreia has historically often dominated the awareness of theologians; in fact, the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 explicitly subordinated proskynesis to latreia, which it asserted is the “true worship of faith which alone pertains to the divine nature.”14

Worship: ascribing worth to God

But Greek words may seem beside the point; readers of this book do, after all, tend to think in English. What English word can we use that encompasses what we have seen so far - worship that is words and actions, that is emotionally heartfelt, that is the work of the people, that is full-bodied and emotionally expressive, that is radically sacrificial? If we probe the inner meaning of the English word worship, we find it surprisingly able to convey the large, all-encompassing meaning of the biblical words.

Of course, every language has its worship words. German has Gottesdienst (the service of God); Spanish has adoracion; Indonesian has kebaktian which combines meanings of adoration, loyalty and obedience – “adore-obey”. Each of these words holds out special possibilities. Each of them also has limitations that are inevitable given the size of the reality that we are asking this word to denote. As a single, short-hand, all-embracing word the English language has worship. This is a particularly strong word. Worship is an Old English compound, made up of weorth and scipe – worth/worthiness and create/ascribe. Ascribing worth – in the most basic sense, this is what humans do when they direct their lives towards God. When humans ascribe worth they reveal what it is that they ultimately value, what is most important to them. As the Hebrew prophets remind us, people worship what they trust for their security. They are like the merchant in Jesus’ parable who found treasure in a field: they worship what they will sell everything to get (Matt 11.44-46). They worship what they organize their lives around and what they are willing to die or kill for. As Philip Kenneson has written, “Every human life is an embodied argument about what things are worth doing . . . All human life is doxological” – of God or of something else.15

In light of this understanding of worship, every worshipper must ask whether our lives and our priorities ascribe worth to the God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ. Our words may ascribe worth to God but our life choices may indicate that our deepest concerns are estranged from those of God. The Old Testament prophets saw this and labeled it idolatry. They inveighed against it. The prophetic critique assumed that the covenantal relationship between God and Israel had two parts - God’s saving acts and God’s “call to ethical obedience.”16 Israel ceremonially repeated this foundational covenant at times of revival. The recitation of God’s acts and the people’s response in word and ceremony were “the essence of worship.”17

The Old Testament prophets were particularly alert to the constantly lurking temptation to trust in human sources of security. They were convinced that we worship what we trust; we ascribe worth to the sources that we rely upon for our comfort and security – wealth, oppression, and military strength (Is 30.12; 31.1; Hosea 10.13). Jesus, too, taught in this tradition: “No one can serve two masters; you cannot worship God and mammon” (Matt 6.24). Idolatry is thus not primarily the action of genuflecting to graven images; it is ascribing worth to God in words and cultic actions and then undercutting these by ascribing worth to other sources of security in our choices and commitments. Idolatry is, to quote Paul, “worshipping the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1.25).

Worship is for all of life

The vision of the biblical writers is deeply holistic. The biblical writers invite us to worship God – to ascribe worth to God - in all of life. For them there is no sacred/secular divide which confines worship to religious places or cultic acts. The latreia that Paul describes in Romans 12.1-2 involves the transformation of all aspects of the believers’ lives so that they will be conformed to Christ. And in the Hebrew Scriptures the prophets’ most terrifying warnings come to people place their trust in conventional sources of security. In the temple or assembly, with word and rite they proclaim that God is Lord; then, in their everyday activities, they ignore God’s law, defy God’s priorities and trust in their wealth and weaponry. Such people want God’s blessing without committing themselves to live in response to God’s saving acts. They think that by participating in the cult they can short-circuit the route to blessing. They do not need to behave according to God’s law. But, in the words of Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The authenticity of the liturgy is conditioned by the quality of the ethical life of those who participate.”18

God, according to Isaiah, could not “endure solemn assembles” of people whose lives were unjust and whose hands, lifted in prayer, were “full of blood”; when the worshippers refused to advocate for the oppressed, orphans and widows, God hid his eyes and would not listen (Isaiah 1.13-15). Similarly, in Jeremiah’s day the Israelites assumed that if they stood before God in the temple and engaged in cultic actions their nation would be secure – even if in their everyday life they oppressed immigrants and orphans and widows, shed innocent blood, and worshipped other Gods. Not so, said Jeremiah. When the worshippers do not live compassionately and justly, the temple is a “den of robbers” whose cultic acts God repudiates (Jeremiah 7.1-11). As both Isaiah and Jeremiah realized, there must be congruence in worship between the worshippers’ words that ascribe worth to God, and the worshippers’ lives which are conformed to the character, purpose and mission of the One whose worth they proclaim. Wolterstorff’s pithy phrase catches the prophetic vision: “not authentic liturgy unless justice.”19

Jesus of Nazareth, whom contemporaries often called a “prophet mighty in deed and word” (Luke 24.19), stood in this tradition. The distillation of his teaching, the “Sermon on the Mount”, ends with Jesus’ reflections on worship and life. Jesus was concerned that people would worship him – call him “Lord, Lord” – and “not do the will of my Father in heaven.” They would hear his words and not act on them. Their responses would be disastrous for them: in judgement Jesus would not recognize them; and their whole worlds would collapse (Matt 7.21-27). Jesus’ vision thus parallels that of the prophets: not authentic liturgy unless discipleship.

Where this congruence between word and life is lacking there is idolatry - false worship which God judges. Christian leaders across the centuries have often restated this theme. In mid-third century Carthage, for example, bishop Cyprian stated as one of 120 precepts to be memorized by catechumens (people being prepared for baptism): “That it is of small account to be baptized and to receive the Eucharist, unless one profits by it in both deeds and works.”20 In sixteenth-century Holland, the Anabaptist leader Menno Simons, on the run from the civil and religious authorities, berated the Protestant clerics:

O preachers, dear preachers, where is the power of the Gospel you preach? . . . Shame on you for the easygoing gospel and barren bread-breaking, you who have in so many years been unable to effect enough with your gospel and sacraments so as to remove your needy and distressed members from the streets, even though the Scripture plainly teaches . . . [that] there shall be no beggars among you.21

There was, however, another way – the way of repentance which would make the words and behavior of the worshippers congruent with the character of God. According to Isaiah, God invited the people to “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Is 1.17); according to Jeremiah, God promises the people, “If you truly act justly . . . if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan and the widow . . . then I will dwell with you in this place” (Jer 7.5-7); according to John the revelator, God will reward his servants, both small and great, when they reverence God’s name and refrain from participating in “destroying the earth” (Rev 11.18). God’s people can repent by repudiating worship services which offer God brilliant music and solemn sacrifices without challenging their unjust living; “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (Amos 5.24). Then, as God desired, the people will ascribe worth to God consistently, with integrity, in “lives offered up to the agenda of God.”22

Worship services must be in keeping with God’s character and mission

In worship, all of life is the point. All of life must be lived in keeping with God’s character and agenda. But the ritual events, although secondary, are also important.23 In lives that ascribe worth to God, there must be times of concentrated attention to God which we call “worship services”, or, in short, “worship”. These are not the sum total of worship, but they are an essential part of worship, both weekly and daily. They are essential because if we do not give God specific, dedicated times in which we verbally and ritually ascribe worth to God, we will soon not ascribe worth to God at all. As pastoral theologian Eugene Peterson has written, “Worship is the time and place that we assign for deliberate attentiveness to God – not because he’s confined to time and place, but because our self-importance is so insidiously relentless that if we don’t deliberately interrupt ourselves regularly, we have no chance of attending to him at all at other times and in other places.”24 So in this book, we insist that all of life is worship, but we also assume that dedicated cultic acts – these markers of life that we call worship services – are indispensable.

Why indispensable? Because in worship services we can, by God’s grace, encounter the God of life. This encounter is God’s gift. In fact, worship is not simply a human activity; it is “primarily something that God does.”25 The Holy Spirit is at work, taking the initiative, beckoning us to gather in God’s name.26 God’s voice speaks; Jesus is present in our midst; the Holy Spirit bestows gifts to heal our wounds, restore broken relationships, and empower us to participate in God’s mission. Worship is “the self-communication of the Triune God.”27

When we worship God we enter an environment of praise. We read the scripture and proclaim the Good News; we pray and sing and bring testimony; we share in the eucharist. And, even in our brokenness and sin, God graciously encounters us. Through these means God enables us to tell and retell the story of God and God’s people; God reorients us by the story; and God reforms our habits and re-reflexes our instinctive behavior. In short, as we worship God, God nourishes in us the character of worshippers – humility, trust, obedience. As we worship God, we experience what Gerhard Lohfink calls a “de-idolizing effect.”28 With new alertness we see the tools and instruments, the forces and institutions which cast God in our own image and “whose exacting demands elude scrutiny and technique” – and whose unwitting instruments we would be if it were not for worship.29 When we say “Jesus is Lord,” when we bow at his feet, we radically restrict the worth we ascribe to Caesar. And as people freed from the thrall of false gods, we respond by giving thanks to God and praising God, and by committing ourselves to live in light of God’s mission so that we flow with it and not impede it.

Speaking specifically of the Eucharist, J. G. Davies asserted that “one of the fruits of communion, i.e. growth in the likeness of Christ by the reception of his humanity, is identical with one of the goals of mission.” He continued, “To partake of Christ’s person in the eucharist is to be engaged in” the task of Christ’s mission.30 As we recall or enact certain historical events, we as worshippers become participants in the significance of those events. Since “the context of the divine acts was mission, . . . [so] our present evocation and participation in them includes us in the mission” of God.31

Of course, as the biblical writers warn us, the worship services themselves can be unjust – instruments of irrelevance and oppression that reflect the rebellious daily lives of the people. In his first letter to Corinth, Paul tells his Corinthian friends that the humiliating way that they organized their common meal kept it from being “the Lord’s supper” (1 Cor 11.20-22); in its injustice it stood in the way of God’s mission. Without justice there was no worship. Similarly, when Jesus in the last days of his life entered the Jerusalem Temple, he encountered a worship system that was functioning efficiently but actually was blocking God’s mission. Its cultic enterprise zone in the court of the Gentiles excluded the outsiders and oppressed the poor. Quoting Jeremiah and Isaiah, Jesus exclaimed: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations. But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11.17).32 In anger Jesus upset the tables of the Temple bureaux de change and drove out the sellers of animals. Dramatically and offensively, Jesus indicated that, even in this holy place, without justice there could be no worship. The worship of God must not only be in harmony with the entire lives of the worshippers; the acts of worship themselves must also be in harmony with the mission of God. That mission is just and peaceable.

Worship services reveal the character and purposes of God

This, indeed, is the point: in worship we encounter our God, Creator and Redeemer, and in this encounter God’s character and purposes shape us. As we shall see in chapter 3, the God whom we worship is passionately committed to moving history in a particular direction, towards cosmic, creation-encompassing, unimaginable reconciliation. In Christendom, in which rulers and peasants were both Christian, Christians assumed that Christ’s rule had already been realized and that the established order had been divinely ordained. After Christendom we are aware that the world – both the world of Christendom and the world of post-Christendom that is succeeding it - is deeply flawed and marked by rebellion and idolatry.

But formed by worship and the story of God that we recount and enact in worship, we confess that God is committed to a different kind of world, whose future will be realized by alternative means. Through Christ, according to a lyrical passage in the letter to the Colossians, God will reconcile to himself “all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross” (Col 1.20). By suffering, by servanthood God has worked and is working to bring about reconciliation of people with God, of people with their enemies, of people with the created order. This is God’s mission – to bring right relationships in every area of life, to make multidimensional shalom. In post-Christendom, in which the world is in God’s control and not the control of the emperor Justinian or of the Norfolk gentry or of us, mission will therefore be central to the life and preoccupation of God’s people. We cannot participate in mission without worship. We’re not strong enough or clever enough. But when we respond to the Holy Spirit and in our weakness assemble for worship, the Spirit meets us in our need and equips us to live towards God’s vision. This is why “the very act of assembly is part of the mission of God.”33 As we attune ourselves to God’s mission and align ourselves with God’s purposes we will ascribe worth to God. We will discover, in all of life, that worship and mission belong together.

So how do we evaluate the worship services of our churches? Not by the expertise and correctness with which they are led; not by the emotions they elicit or the way they move our hearts; not by the way they break through the “culture barrier” by employing “the language, music, style, architecture, and art forms of the target population”;34 not by their pizzazz, which certain English Evangelicals call the “wow factor.”35 Rather, we will ask – does the worship of our churches ascribe worth to the missional God? Does our worship give space to the Holy Spirit who equips God’s people to take part in God’s mission? And we will ask, with Baptist theologian Stephen Holmes, whether is it possible that a God who “is properly described as ‘missionary’ . . . can only be worshipped by a missionary church?”36


1 Wilbert R. Shenk, Write the Vision: The Church Renewed. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1995, 51-52.
2 For photos of the Ravenna mosaics see:
3 Codex Iustinianus 1.11.10, cited in Alan Kreider, "Violence and Mission in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries." International Bulletin of Missionary Research 31.3 (2007), 130.
4 For photos of this church, see
5 J. Andrew Kirk, What is Mission? Theological Explorations. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, 187.
6 W.D. Maxwell, An Outline of Christian Worship. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936, 1.
7 Dan Kimball, Emerging Worship: Creating Worship Gatherings for New Generations. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, 112.
8 Sally Morgenthaler, Worship Evangelism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995, 23, 31.
9 Everett Ferguson, The Churches of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 208ff; C.F.D. Moule, Worship in the New Testament, Grove Liturgical Study 12/13. Nottingham: Grove Books, 1983, 74-76; I. Howard Marshall, How far did the early Christians worship God? Churchman 99 (1985), 216-229.
10 Rodney Clapp, A Peculiar People: The Church as Culture in a Post-Christian Society. Downer's Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996, 174. 
11 Miguel A. Palomino and Samuel Escobar, “Worship and Culture in Latin America,” in Charles E. Farhadian, ed, Christian Worship Worldwide: Expanding Horizons, Deepening Practices. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2007, 126.
12 Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, “Living the Word,” Christian Century, August 26, 2008, 20.
13 Jonathan J. Bonk, Missions and Money. revised ed, American Society of Missiology Series, 15. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006, 147.
14 Second Council of Nicaea (787), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd ser, 14, p 550; cf Augustine, City of God, 10.1.
15 Philip Kenneson, “Gathering: Worship, Imagination and Formation,” in Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, eds. The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006, 54.
16 Nicholas Wolterstorff, "Justice as a Condition of Authentic Liturgy." Theology Today (1991), 14.
17 Millard Lind, Biblical Foundations for Christian Worship. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973, 25.
18 Wolterstorff, "Justice as a Condition of Authentic Liturgy," 9, 16.
19 Ibid, 12. See also Christopher Marshall, The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2005, 30: “In the absence of justice . . . religious performances merely nauseate God.”
20 Cyprian, Ad Quirinum 3.26.
21 Menno Simons, “Reply to False Accusations” (1552), in Complete Writings, ed. J.C. Wenger. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956, 559.
22 Doug Pagitt, cited in Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005, 231.
23 John Witvliet, “Series Preface,” in Farhadian, Christian Worship Worldwide, xiii.
24 Eugene H. Peterson, Leap over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997, 152-153.
25 J.G. Davies, Worship and Mission. London: SCM Press, 1966, 71.
26 Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007, 17-18.
27 Michael B. Aune, "Liturgy and Theology: Rethinking the Relationship - Part II." Worship 81.2 (2007), 167.
28 Gerhard Lohfink, Does God Need the Church? Toward a Theology of the People of God. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1999, 217.
29 Bob Goudzwaard, Bob, Mark Vander Vennen, and David Van Heemst. Hope in Troubled Times: A New Vision for Confronting Global Crises. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007, 44.
30 J. G. Davies, Worship and Mission, 97-8
31 Ibid., 106
32 Jesus was quoting Isaiah 56.7; Jeremiah 7.11.
33 Thomas Schattauer, ed., Inside Out: Worship in an Age of Mission. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999, 3.
34 George G. Hunter III, "The Case for Culturally Relevant Congregations." In Global Good News: Mission in a New Context, edited by Howard Snyder. Nashville: Abingdon, 2001, 98.
35 David W. Bebbington, "Evangelicals and Public Worship, 1965-2005." Evangelical Quarterly 79.1 (2007), 17.
36 Stephen R. Holmes, "Trinitarian Missiology: Towards a Theology of God as Missionary." International Journal of Systematic Theology 8.1 (2006), 89.