After Christendom: Following Jesus on the Margins

The After Christendom Study Course examines the current trend away from a chuch-dominated society towards one in which the church finds itself again on the margins of society. Is this a disaster? Has the church lost its way? Or is this perhaps where the church was meant to be all along? In order to understand the challenges and opportunities the church faces at the start of the 21st century, we need to travel back in time to the 4th century and trace the story of how the church came in from the margins to the centre of society. We need to examine the system known as “Christendom” by which the church became powerful, wealthy and able to impose its beliefs on almost everyone in Europe.

Was what happened in the 4th century the problem? The Anabaptists and many other radical movements were sure the church took a wrong turning at that point. In this course we will look at the Christendom years and the impact this system had on the church and its mission. Then we will be in a better position to think about how we respond to the end of Christendom.

The course also explores the more practical aspects of a post-christendom congregation. How might a church on the margins operate? This course looks mission, preaching, church discipline and bible study in the Christendom context and explores what they might look like after christendom

The full text of this study course is available in Adobe pdf format.

Download here: After Christendom: Following Jesus on the Margins (90pp, 315KB)

Some Excerpts:

From Session 1.1:The Christendom Shift

The Anabaptist tradition has been deeply suspicious of the Christendom shift and its impact on many matters of discipleship, mission and church life. Here are two examples:

  • Pilgram Marpeck (important Anabaptist leader/writer in Strasburg and Augsburg until 1556): “The early Christians to the time of Constantine exercised no temporal rule or sword among themselves. The command of their master did not allow it. He granted them only the sword of the Word. Whoever, after sufficient admonition would not listen, was regarded as a Gentile and unbeliever [Matt. 18:17]. But when at that time, the pope, as a servant of the church was married to Leviathan, that is, temporal power, but in the disguise of Christ, the Antichrist was conceived and born and has now been revealed.”
  • The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren (c1580):“At that time, however, the thirtyfourth pope, Sylvester, testified to Constantine the Great, the forty-third emperor, and won him over with many flattering words, accepting him as a Christian through baptism. With the good intention of doing God a service, the emperor obtained peace throughout his kingdom for the pope, as the bishop of Rome, and for all those who called themselves Christians. Here the pestilence of deceit that stalks in darkness and the plague that destroys at midday swept in with force, abolished the cross, and forged it onto the sword. All this happened through the old serpent’s deceit.

    “In the course of time the Roman bishops took over. They gained full power over emperors and kings, becoming the Babylonian harlot, seated in power on the sevenheaded beast, daring to rule over all peoples, giving them drink out of her cup, and daring to alter time and law. Anyone who ventured to speak against the Roman bishop or pope was soon judged a heretic and condemned to die by the sword, fire, or other cruel means. In this way the sheep took on a thoroughly wolfish nature.

    “These ungodly dealings were promoted by the emperor Charlemagne (who was chivalrous and pious in the world’s eyes) and by his son Louis and their descendants. They swore fealty to the popes to the point that they willingly did whatever the popes wished. They gave the papacy power, wealth, cities, islands, and kingdoms, with their people. In addition they endowed religious foundations, universities and monasteries, to spread the papal religion. In fact, whatever His Holiness the Pope wished for, these emperors were willing to grant, promising all kinds of privileges.

    “And so the new ‘Christ’ in Rome, supported by the emperor, sent out his apostles into all lands with his ‘gospel’” of violence. He wanted to convert mighty kingdoms and strong nations by means of war and bloodshed. His realm increased so enormously as a gathering of the wicked that hardly anyone dared oppose it. So God the Almighty left these supposed Christians to their error of serving the creature rather than the Creator.”

From Session 1.2: The Fall of Christendom:

What is the legacy of Christendom? How is the story of Constantine and the Christendom shift relevant to us today? However we evaluate Christendom, two things are becoming increasingly clear.

First, the long era of Christendom is coming to and end. There is plenty of evidence now of a second shift, the transition from Christendom to post-Christendom:

  • The percentage of the population attending churches in most European nations is now very small.
  • Frequent calls are heard, even within state churches, for separating church from state, for changes to the parish system and the practice of infant baptism, and for recognition that a new era is dawning.
  • Few now divide the world into Christian and pagan nations, and the growth of non-Christian religions in Europe is forcing us to explore the implications of witness in a pluralistic society.

Given its long history in Europe and its all-pervasive nature, the fall of Christendom is unlikely to be sudden or total. There are still many areas of life where the legacy of Christendom can be seen: bishops in the House of Lords, prayers at the start of each day in Parliament, the blasphemy laws, a favoured place for Christianity in the schools, the inscriptions on our coins, etc. And even when the official relationship between church and state is dissolved, many vestiges of this system will remain.

Some Christians long for the way things used to be, but there is no way back. Our task is to rise to the challenges of Christian discipleship in a different kind of culture. There are real difficulties in this situation, but there are also great opportunities.

Second, it is a way of thinking rather than a political arrangement that is at the heart of Christendom. For fully three-quarters of its history the church in Western Europe has operated within a Christendom framework. Only in the first three centuries, in various persecuted dissident movements between the 4th and 16th centuries, and increasingly in the last five centuries, has this way of thinking been challenged.

This way of thinking has deeply affected the way European Christians have interpreted the Bible, thought about mission and the church, made ethical decisions and understood discipleship. Among other things the Christendom mindset operates as though the church is at the centre of culture, responsible for the way history turns out, exercising a top-down influence. This was how the Christendom churches worked and how they saw the world. But in post-Christendom, the churches are not at the centre but on the margins; any influence we have is likely to be bottom-up; and perhaps we can now learn once more to trust God to make sure history turns out right while we concentrate on being faithful disciples and seeking first his kingdom.

Being on the margins rather than in the centre will require a change of perspective. It will mean re-thinking many issues, discovering the ways in which the Christendom legacy continues to influence us. It will require creativity and courage as we engage with our changing culture and wrestle in fresh ways with what the gospel means in this culture.

From Session 2: Reading the Bible After Christendom:

For three-quarters of its history, as we have seen, the European church has operated within Christendom, a system challenged until recently only by various persecuted movements, including the Anabaptists.

Those who dared to challenge Christendom usually did so because they had begun to interpret the Bible in different and (to their opponents) socially dangerous ways. This was how such movements typically developed:

  • Their protest might start because they refused to accept the traditional interpretation of the Bible on some issue.
  • As they read further, they began to ask whether it was the Christendom system itself that was the root of the problem, rather than a particular issue.
  • And once they reached the decision that the Christendom system was suspect, they became deeply suspicious that the Bible was being misinterpreted to justify this system. It was as if they were now looking at the Bible through a different lens from the Christendom churches.
  • This led to them thinking deeply about how to read and apply the Bible and to all kinds of interpretations and applications that threatened the Christendom system still further.
  • These things reinforced each other. Their different view of the Bible energised their protest against Christendom, and their protest against Christendom energised their different view of the Bible.

So there were alternatives to the official line on biblical interpretation. But these were minority voices that were quickly and often brutally silenced.