AT 33: Re-inventing Christendom

by Nigel Wright
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 33, June 2003

A few years ago I published my doctoral research under the title Disavowing Constantine.1 I was pleased that my supervisor Professor Colin Gunton, the news of whose untimely death arrived just as I write, was willing to pen a commendation, which read in part:

It is now almost a commonplace that the Constantinian settlement of the Christian church was a mistake and must now be renounced. A commonplace, however, often brings oversimplification in its train, and this is no exception. Unclarity abounds both in describing the situation and more especially in replacing it with a more satisfactory theology of the relation of church and state.

What follows is an extended reflection upon this comment. The persuasion that Christendom was a bad idea is now commonplace but in being rejected the issues surrounding ‘Christendom’ are often oversimplified and unclear. A satisfactory theology of church and state is indeed more difficult to construct than Christendom is to deconstruct.

Gunton identifies a widespread sense that Christendom was a mistake. There are exceptions to this, of course. Some believe the Christendom ideal to have been rightly intentioned even if regrettably blemished. At a high scholarly level is the work by the ethicist Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations.2 At the level of the practitioner there are contributions like the unpublished paper by Dr Esmond Birnie MLA, ‘In Praise of Constantine and the Reformed State’. There are informed and intelligent advocates supporting the establishment of the Church of England as a residue of Christendom, such as Paul Avis, Church, State and Establishment,3 or Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali. Nor should it be assumed, as it often is in a multi-cultural society, that either non-Anglican or non-Christian religious traditions are necessarily in favour of disestablishment. Changing times have shifted the balance. The issue for many has now become not which religious worldview will undergird the instruments of government but which will most likely resist displacement by secularism.

Such weighty exceptions apart, however, there does seem to be a widespread mood that the Christendom project proved in the event an unwise one, that it became itself a kind of sectarianism identifying Christian faith with particular national identities, and that it made the church complicit in acts of coercion which are not only alien but inimical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Readers of Anabaptism Today are most likely to be among the ranks of those opposed to Christendom, for whom the notion of re-inventing Christendom is likely to be provocative. If it was mistaken, why re-invent it? In explaining the title I need to clarify:

  • In the West any re-invention of Christendom is remote. Its precondition, as it was in the Roman Empire, is a growing and vigorous church gaining the allegiance through persuasion of large numbers of the population. This is not our situation. But just this is happening in many nations, which will face their own Christendom questions in ways that do not mirror the early fourth century. The West does not define the world by its religious decline or its theological inclinations.

  • We need to reckon with at least two kinds of historic Christendom,4 one that has been achieved by the application from above of what Ramsey MacMullen called ‘flattery and battery’,5 and another that has come to pass from the bottom up from the simple fact that the preaching of the Gospel has been successful. If the former has employed coercion then the latter achieved transformation through consensus. Both Christendoms represent the dominance of Christian belief as the primary metanarrative of a culture, but one was achieved by force, the other by persuasion. In democratic societies the convictions and worldviews of a population, in this case Christian ones, will translate through legislation into a code of regulation thatis enforced. As this is how democracy works, it is hard to object to it and, if the loss of Christendom means that public policy is now determined by a secularist worldview, I find it hard to rejoice in it.

  • What I am exploring has to do with the way in which Christendom was mistaken. It was surely never wrong to offer a theological interpretation of the state with the intention of giving guidance to the exercise of worldly power. What was wrong was that the way this was done was inadequately controlled by the theological and spiritual resources at the heart of Christian faith, particularly not by a theology of the cross. Furthermore, it is not wrong to seek to influence social and political structures along the way of Christ, nor is it wrong to see human states as being explicitly responsible to God and to Christ. We need a Christian vision of the state which, even if imperfectly realised, can guide our action. But once we say this is desirable we are committed to a kind of Christendom vision in which both church and state are understood within the context of God’s purpose made known in Christ.

So we are back to Gunton in the search for ‘a more satisfactory theology of the relation of church and state.’ I contend that just as the Anabaptist vision is not about the rejection of church but a better and more faithful way of being the church, so an Anabaptist vision of the state does not simply abandon it to the world of unbelief and disobedience, but holds out better possibilities for it. Indeed, without some such vision, a conviction that some things are relatively right for the state and some absolutely not, it is difficult to see how there can be a prophetic voice calling political agents to be true to their vocation. This represents some kind of Christendom vision.

With these explanations stated then, how might we re-invent Christendom, this time with a more thoroughgoing Christian vision? In answering that question I immediately run up against difficulties – that for instance of reading my own political prejudices or conditioning into a theology, or that of applying a limited Western imagination to the task. What we might offer are several theologically derived co-ordinates defining a space within which particular theologies might be constructed, leaving open the possibility that a variety of theologies might do. These coordinates are not meant to specify what a political stance might contain in the way of policy but to provide a number of broad issues which might construct a space within which such discussions might take place.

What might these co-ordinates be?

1. A universal Trinitarian perspective

I am of the school that sees Trinitarian thought as the grammar out of which talk of God, and all else, is constructed. Trinity is a direct outgrowth from Christology: the Christian God is self-revealed in Christ who is according to the Barmen Declaration ‘the one Word of God we are to hear and obey in life and in death’.

One criticism of Baptist theologies is that they have been Christological without being robustly Trinitarian and that this has contributed to the lack of a theology of creation. By contrast, Reformed theology has been strong on the cultural mandate: stewarding the earth is part of the image of God in humankind. Building institutions and political structures is part of this mandate and so we please God and realise ourselves when we engage in these activities. Moreover through Christ’s redemption we learn to do this better – in the light and with the power of the Redeemer. That we should do so is a given requirement of created, and so Christian, existence and so part of our duty.

2. The eschatological horizon

Having acknowledged this, the second co-ordinate is eschatological and concerns the familiar ‘now and not yet’ understanding of the kingdom of God. Christendom thinking represented a form of over-realised eschatology in its belief that the kingdom of God had been realised significantly in the conversion of the Emperor. We need a degree of empathy here: in the circumstances we might have concluded the same. But the conversion of Constantine was the beginning of a long, incremental process that would issue in historic Christendom. What it would become was by no means evident from how it began. It came to be seen as a triumph for the kingdom of God and interpreted in millennial terms – the coming of Christ’s reign in historical reality. By a process of assimilation many characteristics of the earthly Empire, particularly its power to coerce, were incorporated into the church as the expression of the heavenly kingdom.

The theologian who gave most powerful expression to this was Augustine, who articulated a theology whereby the church made use of the state’s power for disciplinary purposes. To be fair to Augustine, we need to understand that he saw it as precisely that – not a means of destroying the wayward but of disciplining them back into the fold. By and large Christendom continued to see the use of coercion as disciplinary rather than punitive in nature, but eventually, as we are aware and regret, resort was had to widespread execution. Augustine’s theology became the norm and justification of this approach even within the variants of Protestant and Reformed religion. It was first effectively challenged in the 16th and 17th centuries by those who espoused the radical tolerationism that has since become the received orthodoxy even among those who argue for a Christendom model of established religion.6

An eschatology that distinguishes more radically between the present age and that which is to come is a necessary co-ordinate for understanding what is possible now and what is only possible in the fullness of God’s purposes. If the present age is characterised by domination, the kingdom of Christ is not of this world in that it is not realised in the same terms and by the same means as worldly domination. A distinction between two kingdoms is required, but not in the sense of a false dualism between the two, nor in a kind of Lutheran resolution which allows each to operate by its own principles. The future impinges upon the present by relativising it, by judging it and by drawing it albeit partially in the direction of a better future. The present world of domination may be qualified, influenced and modified in the light of God’s future, but it will not finally be resolved until the onset of the messianic kingdom.

3. The church is the bearer of the future, not the state

With Christendom, hope for the future shifted towards the state as a millennial realisation of God’s kingdom. In John Howard Yoder’s term the state therefore became ‘the bearer of the meaning of history’,7 displacing the church from this central task and further implicating the church in the application of coercive violence. The kingdom of God is to be assisted through worldly power. The difficulty with this construct is its optimistic view of the church. The state can sometimes perform better than we might expect and the church often behaves worse. However, whatever the church’s compromises and failures it is the locus of that energy we call the kingdom of God: ‘The kingdom of God is among you.’ In spite of the church, there is that within it which has that power of newness – which makes for renewal.

4. All human power structures are ambivalent

Walter Wink’s penetrating analysis of ‘the Powers’ repeatedly affirms that the powers are simultaneously created, fallen and to be redeemed.8 Each of these dimensions is significant:

  • Created – for a purpose related to the enhancement of life and to secure that stability in which human beings might flourish.

  • Fallen – in that they have collapsed in upon themselves and tend to become idolatrous.

  • To be redeemed – in that they are comprehended within the scope of final salvation. In this latter area we have sounded the note of eschatological caution – the ‘not yet.’

Enthusiasts for established religion tend to emphasise the createdness of the powers in the form of national identity and government (and possibly their capacity for redemption) and point to the explicit acknowledgement of a transcendent dimension in remaining true to their created intent. Opponents of establishment religion, like Anabaptists, emphasise the fallenness of the powers and the fact that for the church to be governed by them, as in state churches, or too closely tied to them, is to compromise the church’s freedom. They are more comfortable with a hermeneutic of suspicion applied to established religion and see legitimation of the state by religion being exchanged for social privilege.

Does that leave us then with a godless state? Are we to abandon the powers to idolatry? Sometimes I gain from Anabaptist friends the impression that they are so keen to be free of Christendom that a godless state is exactly what they would prefer. By contrast, I want to contend that the vision of a non-sectarian state can actually be a Christian vision for the state. I fully agree that no state can be value-neutral. When this is claimed it is simply a cloak for the fact that the state has become secularist and this is in itself a form of state religion. But ‘neutrality’ can have various meanings, including those of impartiality and active fairness and these are embedded in a web of values about what it means to be human and just. A non-sectarian state pursues the fair application of values based upon a respect for our common humanity. It proceeds not from the tolerance of indifference (which argues that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe it doesn’t matter) but from a productive tolerance which is genuinely respectful of real differences. This approach, and this is both my primary contention and my re-invented Christendom, is grounded in a religious and theological vision.

5. The issue is not whether the church should have a vision for the state, but the content of that vision

Christians should not be prepared to abandon any part of creation to godlessness. They insist that things only make sense as they are seen in the light of the one through whom all things have been created. Yet the Christian community is the source of our insights into the true nature of the civil community. The kind of experiment taking place in the one is applicable to the other. How we think of the church shapes how we approach society and state. From the politics of the church which are rooted in egalitarianism, service, sharing, consensus, welcoming and participation we can derive a vision of God’s intention for all societies.

With these co-ordinates I am conscious that I am not saying much that is new. But if there is something new it is in the spin suggested by the title. It was right to have a Christian vision for the state, even if the content of that vision became distorted and corrupted. It is right to see the past as an arena in which the grace of God has been at work. We are able to learn from it, disavowing parts of it and building on others, but within the co-ordinates laid down as a frame and a guide for us to do better, if we can, than did our forbears.

Nigel Wright is the principal of Spurgeon’s College and recent past president of the Baptist Union.


1. Disavowing Constantine: Mission, Church and the Social Order in the Theologies of John Howard Yoder and Jürgen Moltmann (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000).

2. The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

3. Church, State and Establishment (London: SPCK, 2001).

4. See further on this my New Baptists New Agenda (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2002), pp. 98-101.

5. Christianizing the Roman Empire: AD 100-400 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), p. 119.

6. John Coffey traces this in Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England 1558-1689 (Harlow: Longman, 2000).

7. The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), p. 11.

8. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992).