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.

Endnotes

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

Post-Christendom

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?

Post-Constantinian

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 justice...is 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’.

Post-Christian

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.

Endnotes
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?

Mission-orientation

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.

Re-training

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.

Partnership

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.

Accountability

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.

Endnotes
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 www.anabaptistnetwork.com. 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).