by Stuart Murray Williams
On the inside back cover of Anabaptism Today are seven "core convictions" that summarise the values, principles, commitments and concerns of many who are part of the Anabaptist Network. They represent an Anabaptist way of understanding what it means to follow Jesus at the start of the 21st century. In a series of short articles we are unpacking these convictions, exploring their implications for faith, mission and discipleship.
The third conviction is the longest. It reads:
"Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving."
‘Christendom’ was both a political arrangement and a way of thinking. It can be traced to the decision of the emperor Constantine in 313 to adopt Christianity as the imperial religion and to bring the churches in from the margins of society to the centre. Almost a century later the emperor Theodosius made Christianity compulsory, and the once-persecuted church became a persecuting church. The church gained enormous wealth, power and status and grew massively in numbers and influence. But it also changed in many ways.
The Christendom shift required the Bible to be read in a different way: Old Testament practices were adopted in the Christian empire; interpretations that supported rather than challenging the status quo were preferred; the unsettling teachings of Jesus were explained away or postponed to the future kingdom. The church also changed from a multi-voiced community to an institution dominated by professionals; from a mission-oriented to a maintenance-oriented organisation; from small groups of committed disciples to huge congregations of mainly nominal Christians. The commitment to truth telling was replaced by the swearing of oaths; the commitment to peace was replaced by justification for war; and the commitment to sharing resources was replaced by the tithe.
Gradually the whole of Europe was drawn into the culture known as Christendom – some willingly, others under pressure of coercion or inducements. All aspects of life were infused with new ideas. Christianity inspired the creativity of artists and sculptors, musicians and poets, architects and craftsmen. The biblical story and Christian theology provided the framework for literature and legislation, judicial practices and imaginative writing. Many have judged the ‘Christendom shift’ to have been a God-given opportunity to explore the implications of the gospel throughout society. Undoubtedly it resulted in a rich, vibrant and enduring civilisation.
But it was a totalitarian culture, where dissent was not tolerated. It was marred by such institutions as the Inquisition and the Crusades. And it became increasingly corrupt and resistant to challenge. Various medieval radical movements (Waldensians, Lollards and others) dared to criticise the system – and paid a high price. By the early 16th century, the protests were increasing: the peasants rose up seeking social justice, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg (calling for reform) and the Anabaptist movement picked up the baton of more radical dissent from the medieval movements. Christendom fractured into mini-Christendoms that went to war against each other. The attempt to reform Christendom did not work. Those who protested that this was an illegitimate system that distorted Christianity seem, with the benefit of hindsight, to have been right.
Four centuries later, assailed by the Enlightenment and secularism, discredited by the church’s involvement in warfare, splintered further by division, Christendom is coming to an end – at least in Western Europe, though it lives on in various forms elsewhere. Whatever we think of Christendom, this era is coming to an end. We are heading into the unknown territory of ‘post-Christendom’, where the church is no longer at the centre but on the margins and where, if it is to flourish or even survive, it must rediscover its calling to be a missionary community.
Scattered across church and society, though, are vestiges of Christendom – practices, institutions, privileges, reflexes, attitudes, ways of speaking and thinking – that are not only outdated and inappropriate in a plural society but often unjust and a hindrance to the church’s mission. We will need to divest ourselves of these and learn different ways of thinking and acting in post-Christendom.
The Anabaptist tradition is a helpful resource for this task. For nearly 500 years, it has represented an alternative way of discipleship, church and mission. Having rejected the Christendom shift, Anabaptists have explored different perspectives on all kinds of issues and have experimented with different practices. Though far from perfect, it does offer fresh insights that are far more suitable for post-Christendom than the mainstream traditions we have inherited from Christendom. Christians from many traditions today are drawing gratefully on these insights.
But above all the Anabaptist tradition insists on the centrality of Jesus. Perhaps this was the greatest price paid for the Christendom shift: to come in from the margins to the centre, the church had to push Jesus to the margins. And perhaps this is the greatest opportunity on the threshold of post-Christendom, as the church finds itself once more on the margins – to restore Jesus to the centre. It is the insistence on the centrality of Jesus that may be the Anabaptist movement’s greatest gift to us.
Stuart Murray Williams, editor of Anabaptism Today, lives in Oxford and works as a trainer and consultant under the auspices of the Anabaptist Network.