By Stuart Murray Williams
The Anabaptist Network was invited to present a paper to the Commission on Faith, Church and Nation set up by the Evangelical Alliance. Stuart Murray Williams wrote this and appeared before the Commission in September 2003.
Until the second half of the twentieth century, students of the Protestant Reformation encountered Anabaptists only as brief and dismissive footnotes to the main story of the rivalry between Catholics and Reformers. Anabaptist perspectives on missiology, ecclesiology, hermeneutics and discipleship were usually neglected or misrepresented. A classic example of this (which is particularly relevant to the subject of this paper) is the characterisation (without any supporting evidence) of the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition by H Richard Niebuhr as embodying an irresponsible ‘Christ against culture’ position.
But during the past sixty years the disintegration of Christendom has encouraged historians to investigate this movement, read its own writings as well as its opponents’ polemics and suggest their approaches to biblical interpretation, church and mission might be helpful. The inclusion of an Anabaptist perspective on ‘faith, church and nation’ within the contributions considered by this Commission is a further indication that this marginalised tradition is now taken more seriously.
What is offered here as an Anabaptist contribution needs to be qualified at the outset in three ways:
1. There is no single Anabaptist perspective on ‘faith, church and nation’: Anabaptism has always been a coalition of people with shared values but divergent views on their application. If and how Christians might engage with the state and politics has been disputed from the earliest years of the movement.
2. Anabaptism does not have a fully worked through approach to all the issues this Commission is considering. Some other traditions have much greater experience of grappling with the intricacies of church-state relations. Anabaptists have not often been in contexts where they could develop positive relations with political authorities or reflect on the implications of these. The Anabaptist tradition has largely operated as a protest movement on the fringes of Christendom, highlighting what it has perceived as illegitimate and unfaithful forms of Christian political engagement.
3. The demise of Christendom has encouraged Christians from many other traditions to consider the unusual perspectives of the Anabaptist tradition – partly because their own inherited views on many issues now seem anachronistic and troubling, partly because Anabaptist perspectives now seem very pertinent. But Anabaptists have yet to adjust fully to the opportunities presented both by the end of Christendom and the openness to their perspectives now to be found in other traditions. The development of positive theological contributions from a contemporary Anabaptist perspective on issues of ‘faith, church and nation’ is an important challenge that some Anabaptists (and those sympathetic to Anabaptism) are taking up.
An Anabaptist contribution to a discussion of ‘faith, church and nation’ might include the following components:
1. A trenchant critique of Christendom and the ways in which the churches in Western Europe have historically engaged with society and the state.
2. Examples of alternative approaches to engagement with society that require neither partnership with the state nor top-down strategies.
3. Reflections on the Christendom legacy and its significance in the emerging culture of post-Christendom.
4. Perspectives on ways in which marginal churches in Western Europe might engage with society and the state.
The term ‘Christendom’ (which, in its Latin form christianitas, was used from the seventh century) refers historically to the Christian civilisation which was dominant in medieval and early modern Europe. This civilisation was the social, institutional, intellectual, cultural and spiritual consequence of the adoption of Christianity by the Roman emperor Constantine, early in the fourth century, as the official imperial religion, and the coercive measures taken by the emperor Theodosius at the end of that century to outlaw other religions.
Ideologically, however, the term denotes an understanding of Christianity that partially pre-dated Constantine, was confirmed by his successors, and is the mindset which has dominated western church history. Assessments of the ‘Constantinian shift’ that occurred during this period vary from enthusiastic endorsement, through grudging acceptance, to complete rejection. But there is general agreement that the changes were radical and produced the Christian Europe that endured for over 1500 years.
Familiar and fundamental features of Christendom include Christianity as the official religion of city, state or empire; the assumption that all citizens (except Jews) were Christian by birth; the development of a sacral society, where there was no effective distinction between sacred and secular, where religion and politics were inter-twined; the definition of orthodoxy as the common belief, determined by socially powerful clerics supported by the state; the imposition of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire population; a political and religious division of the globe into Christendom and heathendom; the defence of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain immorality, heresy and schism, and by warfare to protect or extend Christendom; a hierarchical ecclesiastical system, based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, analogous to the state hierarchy and buttressed by state support; a generic distinction between clergy and laity, and the relegation of the laity to a largely passive role; obligatory church attendance, with penalties for non-compliance; the practice of infant baptism as the symbol of incorporation into the corpus Christianum (only first-generation adult converts were baptised as believers); and obligatory tithes to fund this system. The basis of the Constantinian synthesis is a symbiotic relationship between church and state. Its form may vary, with either partner dominant or with a balance of power existing between them. But the church is associated with the status quo and has vested interests in its maintenance.
Christendom excluded or reinterpreted elements of New Testament teaching that had been important in pre-Christendom. Of relevance for this paper are the following:
Faith and discipleship
* Faith in Christ was no longer understood as the exercise of choice in a pluralistic environment where other choices were possible without penalty.
* The term ‘conversion’ mainly described, not the start of the Christian life, but entrance into a monastic community.
* Discipleship was interpreted as loyal citizenship, rather than commitment to the counter-cultural values of God’s kingdom.
* Preoccupation with individual eternal destiny replaced expectation of the coming of God’s kingdom.
Church and society
* There was no longer any significant distinction between ‘church’ and ‘world’.
* The state was no longer accorded a limited preservative function but had replaced the church as the bearer of the meaning of history.
* Church was defined territorially and membership was compulsory, with no room for believers’ churches comprised only of voluntary members.
* Such voluntary communities, called ‘churches’ in the New Testament, were now called ‘sects’ and condemned as schismatic.
* The church largely abandoned its prophetic role for a chaplaincy role, providing spiritual support, sanctifying social occasions and state policies.
* The idea of God’s kingdom was reduced to a historical entity, coterminous with the state church, or relegated to the future.
* Mission within and beyond Christendom was accomplished by top-down methods, including coercion and offering inducements.
* The vision of a new Christian nation, corpus Christi, scattered through the nations was replaced by a vision of an earthly Christian empire.
* The church became more concerned about maintaining social order than achieving social justice.
* Because the church exercised control, ethical choices were justified by anticipated outcomes or consequences rather than inherent morality.
* Pleas for religious liberty were forgotten and persecution was imposed by those claiming to be Christians rather than upon them.
* Enemy-loving and peacemaking were replaced by the formation of a Christian army and the ‘just war’ theory or ‘holy war’ ideology.
* The cross was less a reminder of the laying down of life than a symbol carried into battle by those who would take the lives of others.
Supporters of Christendom argue that this system enabled the Lordship of Christ to be exercised over every aspect of society and demonstrated the triumph of the gospel. Opponents consider that this apparent victory was achieved at the expense of compromising on important issues and that, in fact, Christianity was conquered and domesticated; rather than society being sanctified, the church had been secularised. A mediating view is that the church had no option in the fourth century but to accept imperial endorsement and that Christendom, despite its excesses, was a providential means of Christianising culture and advancing God’s kingdom.
The Anabaptist tradition has opposed the Christendom shift as illegitimate, criticised its effects on many aspects of Christian discipleship and argued for the separation of church and state for the benefit of both institutions. It has developed alternative ways of engaging with social, economic and political issues and it welcomes the demise of Christendom as an opportunity for more faithful discipleship. It rejects the assumption that the only alternative to the Christendom shift in the fourth century was the church abandoning state and society to their own devices and retreating into ghetto-mode. In several areas it has modelled and pioneered other forms of social engagement.
Anabaptism and society
Anabaptists were early advocates of religious liberty. For persecuted movements to advocate religious liberty may seem unsurprising, since they will be beneficiaries of this policy. But we can too easily, in an era where such liberty is almost universally championed in western culture, take for granted the idea that religious convictions should be uncoerced. This was not obvious in Christendom where the dictum ‘error has no rights’ and the need to preserve society from dissent combined to override sensitivity to individual conscience. The Reformers appeared to challenge this, but within territories under their control they operated in the traditional coercive manner.
Anabaptists argued for religious liberty – not just for themselves but for all, including Jews and Muslims. Hans Denck insisted: ‘no one shall deprive another – whether heathen or Jew or Christian – but rather allow everyone to move in all territories in the name of his God.’ Kilian Aurbacher declared: ‘It is never right to compel one in matters of faith, whatever he may believe, be he Jew or Turk… Christ’s people are a free, unforced and uncompelled people.’ Such statements are important antecedents of later declarations of religious liberty.
Contemporary arguments for religious liberty are often based on the assumption that truth claims are illegitimate and accompanied by resistance to the idea of evangelism. The Anabaptist vision was different from this anaemic form of toleration. Convinced faith could not be coerced, they also believed evangelism was crucial in a society they did not perceive as Christian. While pressure to believe should not be exerted, every effort should be made to persuade people to become disciples of Christ. Through unauthorised preaching, interrupting church services, itinerant evangelism and conversations at work and in homes, Anabaptists evangelised their communities, baptising any who received their message and incorporating them into their churches.
Anabaptists, like others dismissively labelled ‘sectarian’ by those still operating with Christendom assumptions, have often been charged with lacking vision or strategy for engaging with wider culture. Undoubtedly a separatist tendency is apparent in the early years of the movement, which has recurred over the past five centuries, but this is not the full story. The record of Anabaptists in areas of social engagement such as disaster relief, restorative justice, agricultural and economic development, conflict mediation, campaigns against war and capital punishment, provision of mental health services and education compares well with most other traditions.
Why have critics not acknowledged this? Perhaps Christendom categories have again been definitive: because many Anabaptists regarded involvement in the army or magistracy as inappropriate, and because critics regarded their stance on issues of truth-telling, violence and economics as idealistic, they have been dismissed as separatist and unwilling to engage with wider social concerns. But Anabaptists did not deny the legitimate role of government, even if they were less convinced than the Reformers that governmental action tended to advance the cause of the gospel.
Government, according to most Anabaptists, was appointed by God and performed a divine function, whether it was benevolent or tyrannous. This function was to reward the good and punish the evil. It kept order by force in a world in which Christ’s spirit had not yet captured all hearts and made them obedient. Anabaptists never disputed this use of force. Because governments were instituted by God and acted in God’s stead, they should be obeyed. Taxes should be paid without resistance (although the Hutterites refused to pay taxes to support war or capital punishment). On all this, Reformers and Anabaptists agreed.
Where they parted company was on a Christian’s relation to government. Luther argued Christians must participate in government out of love for their neighbours and be ready to coerce and kill to protect them, which they could do with good conscience because they were carrying out a divine mandate. Anabaptists were unconvinced those in government needed to be Christians and were sure Christians should not participate in lethal aspects of government out of love for their neighbours. Servants of Christ must not coerce or kill because this was contrary to Christ’s commands.
Some Anabaptists rejected all participation in government for these reasons – and also because any sixteenth-century Anabaptists participating in government would soon find themselves prosecuting members of their own church!
Anabaptists, therefore, excluded themselves from certain forms of engagement with wider culture, both because of their understanding of biblical principles and because of their socio-political context. Some opted for separatism but many were concerned about society: they just did not engage with social issues in the ways normally associated with state churches:
* As a marginal and persecuted movement, active and public promulgation of their principles was dangerous and likely to be ineffective.
* As a movement committed to non-violence and opposed to oaths, it is difficult to see how they could participate in public service or governmental roles (even if they had been tolerated).
* As a refuge for many involved in the peasants’ war, commitment to social justice permeated the movement, together with recognition political action had been ineffective.
* As a community largely comprised of poor and powerless people, their instinct was towards grass-roots action rather than top-down strategies.
* As a tradition guided by a ‘hermeneutic of justice’, not a ‘hermeneutic of order’, they tended towards radical criticism of society rather than advocating reformation and improvement.
The pertinent issue is not whether Anabaptism had a vision for engaging with culture but how such a vision might be expressed without subscribing to coercive methods and centralist perspectives. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists engaged with economic and political issues in two ways: by modelling within their own communities distinctive practices based on principles derived from the New Testament; and by commending these principles and practices through their writings and testimonies. In a different social context, where other forms of government are operative and other perspectives than the dominant one can be expressed without fear of persecution, a more overtly political strategy is possible. But for marginal communities this approach – modelling alternatives and speaking as a prophetic minority – may be the most effective strategy.
As a marginal tradition for many centuries, Anabaptism is not fazed by the growing marginality of the churches in western society but recognises this as an opportunity for creative engagement. It advocates a thorough critique of the legacy and mindset of Christendom, so that unhelpful attitudes, models and structures are abandoned and only what is valuable is carried forward into the new post-Christendom era.
Post-Christendom is 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. Post-Christendom includes the following transitions:
* 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.
The end of Christendom will require radical changes in our understanding of mission and the role of the church in society. Over the coming decades, as the last generation who are familiar with the Christian story and for whom churches still have cultural significance dies, the change of epoch from Christendom to post-Christendom will be complete. Some residual knowledge and belief will persist, though this will become attenuated and syncretistic, and church buildings will still provide vital community space. But we will no longer be able to assume we are in a ‘Christian society’ where most are latent Christians and lapsed churchgoers.
We are not quite there yet. We are in a lengthy transitional phase. Christendom took centuries to develop and will not collapse overnight, but this era is fading. We must prepare for change. New expressions of church and mission will be needed, new ways of thinking on ethics, politics and evangelism. Anything proposed at this stage must be experimental, tentative and modest, since we cannot yet see more than the outlines of the emerging culture. But post-Christendom is coming and we cannot continue as if Christendom will endure for ever.
Vestiges of Christendom
Christendom as a political arrangement, Christian civilisation or sacral culture may be defunct; but vestiges of Christendom survive in our supposedly post-Christendom society. This is understandable after so many centuries. Some are ancient practices adopted from paganism through indiscriminate syncretism or various attempts to contextualise the gospel; others were derived from the Bible (primarily the Old Testament) and adapted for Christendom. Some flowed from the alliance of church and state and the privileges entailed; others reflect the permeation of Christianity into European culture.
We should identify these vestiges and assess their significance. Some may be as harmless as pagan vestiges early missionaries chose to ignore, assuming these would eventually wither and die. Others are inappropriate for a marginal church in a plural culture but are defended on grounds other than those that originally undergirded them (arguments for infant baptism based on prevenient divine grace and covenant theology are classic examples). Some vestiges may be wholesome, representing the church’s maturation during Christendom, rather than its deviation from earlier and healthier traditions. Others may compromise our witness and jeopardise our ability to engage sensitively in mission in post-Christendom.
We may respond differently to different vestiges. We can eradicate some through internal church decisions; others need legislation to remove or change. Some will involve minor adjustments; others might have serious economic, political and social consequences. We need not indulge in mindless iconoclasm or adopt a postmodern ‘hermeneutic of scepticism’ that interprets everything in the worst possible light. But we will be suspicious of vested interests and historic privileges, sensitive to others in a plural society and guided by a ‘hermeneutic of justice’, not a ‘hermeneutic of order.’ In post-Christendom, which vestiges are unjust or inappropriate, and how do we deal with these?
There has already been progress towards ameliorating the effects of some vestiges, as with the requirement of oaths in the courts. It seems perverse to require witnesses to swear by a God they may not believe in to speak truthfully lest this God strikes them down, which nobody in the court believes will happen – and to do this holding a book whose authority they may not accept and in which some detect prohibitions of oaths! The introduction of a right to ‘affirm’ is welcome (although those choosing this are often made to feel awkward), but maybe we should encourage further reform to abolish oaths entirely.
On some issues there have been attempts to strike a balance between introducing change and maintaining traditions. The 1996 Education Act, while requiring schools to ensure acts of worship are ‘broadly Christian’, does not require Anglican liturgy and, like previous legislation, permits withdrawal of pupils from acts of worship. The section on religious instruction reads: ‘Every agreed syllabus shall reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain.’ Although some criticise this for conceding too much to other faiths and others for conceding too little, it seems reasonable in this transitional period. Given Christianity’s pervasive influence on British culture, prioritising this helps children understand their cultural heritage. But prescribing ‘broadly Christian’ worship indefinitely in post-Christendom is neither feasible nor desirable.
On other issues there is increasing momentum for change. Archaic blasphemy laws will surely be superseded by measures protecting all faith communities from those inciting religious hatred, removing the injustice in a plural society of favouring one community. The offence of blasphemy originated in Luther’s use of this term (rather than ‘heresy’) to persecute Catholics, Jews, Anabaptists and peasants. Those who resist changing blasphemy provisions may feel a beleaguered minority today but should feel some discomfort knowing such laws were used to persecute minorities in the past. Ignorance of history may mean Christians supporting policies and practices that injured their forebears.
Removing some vestiges will require enormous persistence, as the long campaign to abolish tithing demonstrates. There is growing support for disestablishment among Anglicans, although many still vehemently oppose this. The House of Lords debated this for the first time in 2002, and several senior church leaders favour severing links with the state. This would remove many vestiges, but so entwined are church and state, a decade of parliamentary work could be required for full disestablishment. As this is not high on the political agenda, whittling away at links may be more effective than full-scale assault. One possibility under discussion is detaching the church from the monarchy but retaining its established status. Other creative ideas are needed. But disestablishment of a state church can be achieved, as the uncoupling of the Lutheran Church from the Swedish state in 2000 demonstrates. And there are many precedents for non-established Anglicanism (including Wales, Scotland and Ireland): the Church of England is the only established church in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
But eradicating Christendom vestiges is threatening to Christians desperate to retain remaining privileges. Recent campaigns have tried to persuade a post-Christendom society that Christians should continue to dictate how it operates. The ‘Keep Sunday Special’ campaign achieved temporary success before its inevitable defeat. There were positive aspects of this campaign, which publicised probable consequences of liberalised Sunday trading and licensing regulations: pressure on family life, loss of rest, exploitation of workers and growing consumerism. But it was marred by its reliance on a Christendom-oriented interpretation of the Old Testament, its blatant appeal to Christians’ self-interest (‘your Sunday is under threat’) and its susceptibility to derision for presenting an utterly predictable reaction to the threat of forfeiting a Christendom vestige.
Such campaigns demonstrate resistance to change is not restricted to members of the established church. Indeed, as the EA Commission’s introductory paper notes, many Anglicans are troubled by the church-state link and more sensitive to issues of justice in a plural society than members of other churches. Senior Anglicans have been more critical of government policies than colleagues in other denominations. Within most denominations some want to preserve privileges (or regain lost ground), while others welcome the removal of Christendom vestiges. Nor does theological or political liberalism necessarily locate someone on the side of reform: some liberals support establishment as ensuring religion and politics are not disconnected.
Despite their historic opposition to establishment, many Free Church Christians are ‘vicarious establishmentarians’: although they do not belong to the established church, they regard it as a bulwark against the incursions of secularism and other religions. In September 2002, a letter to the Baptist Times argued: ‘The Christian church faces many challenges. On the one hand there is the growing secularism which may lead to the disestablishment of the Anglican Church and a consequent weakening of Christianity as the dominant faith, and on the other hand, the rise of other faith communities.’ Oblivious of his Baptist heritage, he represents many Free Church Christians dismayed by proposals for disestablishment. He identifies three threats: the philosophy of secularism, the weakening of Christianity as the dominant faith and the growth of other faith communities. His argument is clear: an established church guarantees Christian dominance and benefits all Christians.
This letter suggests that if the Church of England is eventually disestablished, many Christians in other denominations will face a serious identity crisis. Not only is their Free Church identity not rooted in theological convictions; it appears parasitic on establishment. The disintegration of Christendom has produced a society much closer to what the dissidents demanded, but unless the dissident tradition is reclaimed more wholeheartedly than in most denominations, disestablishment may be liberating for Anglicans but disorientating for Free Church Christians. Rediscovering an identity that is more than ‘not established’ is crucial for Free Churches in post-Christendom.
Resistance to dismantling Christendom vestiges pervades the churches, but there may also be unexpected disquiet elsewhere, though this may diminish as post-Christendom develops. Many today are deeply critical of Christendom, which encourages us to dismantle its relics; but residual affection for the trappings of Christendom may hinder their removal. Church buildings are more attractive for weddings than registry offices and impart something ‘spiritual’ to the occasion. The solemn and colourful participation of archbishops enhances state pageantry. Closure of, or alterations to, church buildings can provoke hostility from local residents, who never attend services but feel the building symbolises something in the community. Many still turn to churches in times of local or national distress, reminding us we are in transition from Christendom to post-Christendom.
How do we interpret this? Should we retain some vestiges and encourage those who approach churches occasionally for rites of passage or public ceremonies to move beyond ‘folk Christianity’ into discipleship? Or should we draw sharper lines between ‘church’ and ‘world’, discouraging civic and sentimental Christianity? There are strategic and theological issues. What will we gain or lose by providing services for the diminishing, but still substantial, number who do not participate regularly but expect churches to be there in emergencies?
We may also be intrigued – or disturbed – by evidence of support for establishment from some Jewish and Muslim community leaders in Britain! Why do they urge continuation of preferential treatment for Christianity? The main reason is fear that the only alternative is a secular state that might become less tolerant than this vestigial Christendom arrangement. We must consider this if we propose disestablishment and avoid naïve assumptions about the tolerance or neutrality achievable in a society based on secularism. But it is unlikely the anaemic form of Christianity embodied in the Christendom vestiges will offer lasting protection against secularism, intolerance or social fragmentation.
The Christendom mindset
Christendom lasted a long time. For centuries its assumptions, spirit, values, priorities and expectations permeated church and society, shaping the institutions and processes that sustained the system and the mindset of all who lived within Christendom. This mindset – a way of thinking, judging issues and responding to situations that is both conscious and reflexive – comprises Christendom’s most significant legacy. Even if the church/state partnership is dissolved and the vestiges are removed, Christendom thinking will persist. The Christendom mindset includes (among many other things) attitudes that are relevant to this paper:
* Orientation towards maintaining (but perhaps tweaking) the status quo rather than advocating radical and disturbing change.
* Wanting to control history and bring in God’s kingdom (even coercively) rather than trusting the future to God.
* Assuming Christians would govern nations more justly and effectively than others or that having more Christians in influential positions (especially in politics) would be beneficial.
* A ‘moral majority’ stance on ethical issues, assuming the right of churches to instruct the behaviour of those beyond the church.
* Disgruntlement that Christian festivals (particularly Christmas and Easter) are no longer accorded the spiritual significance they once enjoyed.
* Readily finding analogies between Old Testament Israel and Britain (or America) as a ‘Christian nation’, reapplying biblical prophecies.
* A latent persecution-mentality that lacks theological or ethical objections to imposing beliefs or behaviour on others.
* Attitudes to other faith communities that vary from opposition to tolerance but assume Christianity should be accorded centrality and privileges.
Such attitudes and reflexes appear in books, articles, sermons, conferences, songs, programmes and conversations. Some are rarely expressed openly and are instinctive, not conscious; but challenging them uncovers strong feelings and indicates the continuing influence of Christendom thought patterns. As Stanley Hauerwas writes, ‘Constantinianism is a hard habit to break.’ The Christendom mindset is the ‘default’ position. As with the vestiges, we need discernment about which reflexes should be valued and retained and which jettisoned or revised in post-Christendom.
In the EA Commission’s introductory paper there are indications that the Christendom mindset is alive and well. Specific examples include: the idea of ‘challenging the institutions of power to honour God’ (p1), without explaining what this might mean in a post-Christendom society; the advocacy of ‘the upholding of religious liberty’ but fear of the growing influence of other faiths (p2 and passim); the ‘presumption …of the pre-eminence of the Christian faith within a UK context’ without discussion of how to avoid marginalising other religious groups (p3); a list of perceived threats from secularists that are entirely related to Christianity and ignore other religious communities (p4); the suggestion that a post-Christendom society should embrace Judeo-Christian values, as if this were feasible or desirable without Christian faith (p4); an emphasis on the fallenness of society without corresponding sensitivity to the fallenness of the church (p6). Although the paper helpfully raises questions and offers diverse perspectives on many issues, its underlying assumptions seem to this writer to be deeply rooted in the Christendom mindset.
There are indications that the Christendom legacy might be problematic (e.g. pp3, 6, 8), but the issue of Christendom is much more pervasive and disorientating than the EA Commission’s paper acknowledges. Secularism is persistently presented as the enemy, whereas it may be that secularism has been a necessary defence against the religious intolerance represented by Christendom. Rather than railing against the ideology of secularism or trying to hold on to or reassert historic privileges, perhaps Christians should investigate our own flawed heritage in the social and political arena. Unless this is acknowledged and disavowed, the benefits as well as the dangers of a secular state will be difficult to detect and appropriate forms of social and political engagement in post-Christendom will be hard to discern.
Church and society
The church’s involvement in all spheres of society is rightly regarded as an enormous advantage of Christendom. The church no longer operated on the edges of society but at its heart. The collapse of boundaries between church and world, whatever problems this caused, enabled Christian values to permeate culture, transform institutions, inspire caring and creative initiatives and influence every aspect of human life. The Christendom legacy includes organisations, legal and judicial principles, voluntary agencies, charitable activities, cultural expressions, social and political developments and much else that can be celebrated as Christian contributions to human flourishing. None of these should be undervalued.
However, this should not be construed as legitimating Christendom. Already in pre-Christendom and from the margins, churches had pioneered initiatives that deeply affected their society. Their revolutionary approach to economic sharing and social care, rejection of violence, sacrificial service to plague victims and undermining of patriarchy and slavery in egalitarian communities impressed, challenged, outraged and attracted their contemporaries. The third-century expansion of the church and increasing official toleration derived from and resulted in growing social influence. So was partnership with the state, the Christendom shift and the church’s dominant social role necessary? Might continued grass-roots influence have transformed society as effectively? Indeed, might this have accomplished as much and even more while avoiding many disfiguring and corrupting consequences of ecclesial coercion, wealth and status?
For the Christendom legacy in many areas of social and cultural engagement is deeply flawed:
* If the Christendom shift offered opportunities for social transformation, it also lured churches away from creative and radical perspectives and ensured their thinking and practices became increasingly conventional.
* The nominality and superficiality of Christendom church life meant pressure and penalties were required instead of moral influence and exemplary living.
* The churches’ enhanced social status generally precluded them from taking or endorsing initiatives that threatened the status quo and dulled their sensitivity to injustice.
* Churches often obstructed rather than pursuing greater social justice. Even when individual Christians promoted social transformation, official church policy and attitudes of church leaders delayed or frustrated progress.
* Many social initiatives were marred by controlling attitudes, patronising and demeaning forms of charity and conditions imposed on beneficiaries.
* Patronage of the arts and educational activities involved indoctrination and censorship as much as encouraging creativity and developing human potential.
* Church leaders often adopted a ‘moral majority’ stance in public debates and a tone of voice that conveyed this.
The demise of Christendom has dramatically circumscribed the church’s involvement in society. Schools, universities, hospitals, voluntary societies, charities, aid agencies, campaigning organisations and other institutions with Christian foundations are now thoroughly secular and often under state control. Few cultural developments in the twentieth century (unlike previous centuries) were inspired by the Christian story or connected with the church. Some Christians supported twentieth-century campaigns against the arms trade, nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, apartheid, racism and sexism, but churches often seemed to be playing ‘catch-up’ or worse. Polarised debates about evangelism and social action, rooted in Christendom assumptions about the church’s status and social role, hindered churches from doing either effectively.
Rather than bemoaning what has been lost, clinging desperately to remaining vestiges of past social influence or trying to galvanise the support of declining congregations for multiple worthy causes, we need to develop a post-Christendom strategy for social and cultural engagement. What might this mean?
* Accepting our resources are limited (and diminishing); we cannot be involved in every issue. This is unnecessary now others are carrying responsibilities churches once carried – a cause for celebration, not regret – so we can use our resources strategically.
* Doing nothing rather than acting in ways that contravene our values. Marginal communities recognise there are things we cannot change or prevent without forsaking our principles. This does not mean condoning evil, but choosing not to endorse the myth of redemptive violence and other such counter-productive strategies.
* Rejoicing we need no longer worry about ensuring history turns out how we think it should (a Christendom delusion). This frees to live ‘out of control’, acting faithfully and trusting outcomes to God.
* Acknowledging we can no longer expect to be consulted or demand a role on the basis of privilege or past status. Any contributions will be based on ability, expertise, imagination and commitment.
* Realising marginal churches can take risks and pioneer initiatives mainstream institutions cannot or will not. We can experiment with different ideas and strategies – especially on issues where conventional thinking is moribund.
* Rediscovering the ‘prophetic minority’ stance and a tone of voice that befits marginal communities. Rather than pontificating or moralising, we can model alternatives to dominant cultural and social norms and commend these with integrity, grace and winsomeness.
* Offering a perspective that transcends ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ agendas, making connections between abortion, capital punishment and ‘collateral damage’ in warfare, or between racism, environmental destruction and pornography, and forging unpredictable and holistic alliances.
* Embracing realistic expectations that deliver us from pretensions and despair. Christendom believed God’s kingdom could be built by human hands and was the church’s gift to society. In post-Christendom we need a ‘kingdom vision’ that inspires action but awaits God’s future.
* Choosing to believe God’s mission can be effective from the bottom up rather than top down.
The church on the margins is not called into ghetto-mode. Like the pre-Christendom churches, medieval dissidents and early Anabaptists, there will be limits to our social engagement but also new freedoms. Powerless churches need no longer wrangle over the relationship between evangelism and social action (this was always essentially about power), but can develop fresh perspectives on seemingly intractable social issues, because things look different from the margins. We can more easily identify with those mainstream society excludes. There are already encouraging signs, as churches develop initiatives for paedophiles who want to change, pioneer victim-offender reconciliation and seek alternatives to the failing strategy of prisons.
Social engagement in post-Christendom may be more modest than in Christendom. It may involve social responsibility and social irresponsibility if our primary vocation is to be Christian rather than effective. But it can also be creative. Churches are still in many communities highly significant in terms of their human and physical resources, their connections within and beyond the local area and the trust placed in them. There will be no shortage of opportunities. But transformed attitudes, expectations, models and priorities are needed to incarnate the gospel in a world we no longer control.
Nigel Wright writes: ‘We are living after Christendom. But to have a Christian vision for the social and political orders was never wrong. The church at the time of Constantine was right to offer what it could for the good of the social order. Along the way it was drawn into ways of acting that eroded its witness and integrity. The challenge is to find a true vision, and one that resonates with the Christ we follow, and to pursue it with intent.’
Church and state
A Christian vision for the political order? How might this be cast and pursued in post-Christendom? If the alliance between church and state, which was at the heart of Christendom, is obsolete and illegitimate, what is the alternative? Christendom’s defenders argue that, for all its flaws, Christendom represented a proper attempt to bring political authority under Christ’s lordship. Winston Churchill once defended democracy as the worst form of government – except all others that had been tried; Christendom is similarly lauded as better than paganism, secularism or pluralism. What alternative do its critics offer?
Three initial responses can be made. First, those who acknowledge Christendom was flawed rarely examine the extent of these flaws and whether they were incidental or inherent in the system. But assumptions that an equivalent system largely free of such flaws might be introduced, or that these flaws are insufficient to abandon the whole arrangement, are open to challenge. The evidence may suggest the system itself is the problem, which no refinements or safeguards can make useable.
Second, criticisms of Christendom are not invalidated by the absence of fully-formed and persuasive alternatives. After many centuries of partnership between the state and a powerful, wealthy and established church, when dissenting voices were quickly and often brutally silenced, developing an alternative Christian political vision may take time. Deconstruction that clears the ground, together with wholehearted disavowal of a flawed system and attentiveness to hints offered by dissenters, may be necessary starting-points.
Third, churches on the margins (especially those adjusting to this unfamiliar location) may have other priorities than developing political philosophies or strategies they cannot implement and that may receive little support.
Whatever our ideal view of church/state relations, Christianity will be, soon and for the foreseeable future, one among many religious minorities in a society dominated by secular assumptions. In such a society, the state’s responsibility is to be religiously neutral, ensuring the interests of all minorities are protected and that none exercises undue influence. Churches will receive no special treatment and will be subject to restrictions similar to those imposed on other minorities. Christians are complaining greater sensitivity is shown to the feelings of other communities than to Christians and that others are gaining ground at our expense, but this is understandable in light of our previous dominance.
Whether we welcome this prospect or not, as Christendom fades and churches lose or renounce remaining privileges, we will have a secular state governing a plural culture. Some welcome this enthusiastically, seeing the combination of plural context, level playing-field and neutral state as the healthiest environment for mission. Here, faith can be exercised without pressure and churches can participate in the political arena on the basis of merit rather than patronage. Others regard ‘principled pluralism’ as denying the lordship of Christ and dismiss as naïve notions of neutrality. A secular state, they argue, is guided by secularist ideology and cannot be regarded as neutral.
These are valid concerns, but we may be unconvinced Christ’s lordship requires a dominant church or partnership with the state; indeed, if it is true not only that Jesus is Lord but that Jesus is Lord, our understanding of how his lordship is exercised may preclude this arrangement. Nor should we dismiss (as the EA Commission’s paper appears to do) the possibility of a secular state respecting the rights of religious minorities and acting impartially as an expression of its secularist values. A Christian vision for the political order might include a state committed to principled pluralism that values the contributions of faith communities, safeguards their liberties and restricts their ability to control or dominate others. Such a state cannot be guaranteed and, if it is achievable, vigilance will be needed lest secularist assumptions gradually erode religious liberties. But this is more feasible than the restoration of a Christian state – and more Christian.
The most urgent questions, then, are not how the church should respond when invited into partnership with the state or when its numerical strength means it can exercise decisive influence. These questions faced fourth-century Christians and may face Christians in Europe again if our current decline is arrested and substantial growth occurs. They are legitimate questions (and live issues in other nations) and we may want to examine various responses or at least establish theological reference points within which to assess these. But reflection on this hypothetical issue must not distract us from discerning how to engage in politics as a minority community in the coming years. If we learn to do this faithfully, when the churches’ influence increases we will be able to draw on other memories than Christendom and be better placed to shape and pursue a vision for the political order that is consistent with the gospel.
What theological and ethical principles should inform a post-Christendom vision for the political order?
* Understanding the state as one of the ‘principalities and powers’, created for human well-being, fallen and prone to idolatry and self-aggrandisement, but capable of at least partial redemption.
* Recognising the state is only one such power – although it often claims greater significance. What it can achieve is limited, because of its own inadequacies and the influence of other (economic, social, cultural and political) powers.
* A principled commitment to the freedom of the church from the state and the state from the church, liberating both to fulfil their divine vocations and interact with each other in diverse and creative ways.
* A hermeneutic of justice, rather than order, that prioritises the powerless and poor, and a vision of shalom that inspires multi-faceted goals and action.
* Insisting Christians owe primary allegiance to God’s kingdom and the global church community (and have obligations to our planet and global human community). National interest and party loyalty, though valid, are secondary. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar’s authority is limited.
* Suspicion of top-down notions of political engagement and confidence in the subversive and creative potential of prophetic truth-telling and grass-roots action. We may decide involvement in education, the arts, the media, business, industry, local government, symbolic protests or civil disobedience will have greater potential for effecting lasting change.
* Rejecting the philosophy that ‘the end justifies the means’ and adoption of ‘speaking the truth in love’ as a political strategy: affirming what is good in opposing viewpoints or parties, avoiding name-calling or manoeuvring for position, choosing gentleness and integrity over efficacy.
* Modest expectations that neither dismiss political engagement as worthless nor accord this messianic significance (as in Christendom and many post-Enlightenment secular systems).
Rodney Clapp writes: ‘Non-Constantinian Christians are in no position to overthrow the system. What we can hope to do, most often and over the long haul, is survive it and subvert it to its own good. What we are about might then be called sanctified subversion.’ We should also heed Kenneth Leech’s warning that the nature of politics is changing, not least because of disillusionment with political processes. He writes: ‘Much, probably most, political action occurs outside the party machines. Religious groups are increasingly involved with political issues. What seems to have occurred has been a shift in the centre of gravity of the political. It is therefore vital that churches in the future do not allow their approach to political action to be confined within dated conceptions.’
Leech identifies seven forms of political engagement – reinforcement, retreat, rescue, reform, radicalism, resistance and revolution – arguing all (even reinforcement, which characterised Christendom) are appropriate in specific contexts. Flexibility is crucial. This befits a theology that places limited confidence in the state and maintains a critical distance, connects with political realignments in contemporary culture and is feasible for churches on the margins as it was not for a church at the centre, locked into political structures. Post-Christendom churches may not have their accustomed access to political influence. They may redefine political engagement. But scope for such engagement will be greater than ever.
The development of a post-Christendom political praxis will take time, both because the nature of politics is changing and because churches are not yet familiar with their post-Christendom status and calling. This calling involves mission from the margins, not the centre, and requires new perspectives and skills. Electing more Christians to Parliament is inadequate – even dangerous – if they collude with the status quo and operate from old paradigms of church and state. Authentic political engagement will, above all, require churches to incarnate the good news they share and model political and social strategies they advocate.
1. The invitation to offer an Anabaptist perspective on the issues under consideration by this Commission is itself an indication of a change of perception with regards to the Anabaptist tradition – which was once regarded as antagonistic to all engagement with politics or wider society.
2. The Anabaptist tradition offers some distinctive (though not unique) perspectives on the issues you are investigating. However, note the three introductory cautions:
(a) No single position
(b) No fully developed historical position
(c) No fully developed contemporary position
3. The Anabaptist tradition offers instead instincts, reflexes, historical analysis, some theological perspectives and an odd angle of vision that may cast fresh light on issues.
4. The primary frame of reference is the transition from pre-Christendom, through Christendom to post-Christendom. Others have divided European church history into periods with different paradigms operating in each: David Bosch’s work is among the most popular and developed. But Bosch makes little of the Christendom shift in the 4th century or the post-Christendom shift in recent decades. Anabaptists regard these shifts as fundamental with huge implications for church-state relations, missiology and hermeneutics. The Anabaptist tradition would encourage this Commission not to underestimate the often malign influence of Christendom on contemporary debates about the church and society.
5. A second, though closely related, frame of reference is that of marginality. Unlike historic Catholic and Protestant approaches to faith, church and nation, Anabaptists have examined these issues from a position of powerlessness and marginality. Things look different from the margins. The marginal Anabaptist perspective on a wide range of missiological and ecclesiological issues is attracting increasing attention, partly because it squares with so much of the biblical story, partly because the future of the church in western culture for the foreseeable future will be marginal. The Anabaptist tradition would encourage this Commission to recognise this marginal position and debate issues realistically, rather than hankering after fading modes of influence.
6. A third contribution relates to strategy. The Anabaptist tradition encourages grass-roots social, economic and political engagement and anticipates the possibility that lasting change will come through subverting rather than dominating institutions, by stimulating trickle-up transformation rather than imposing top-down changes. It has confidence in the power of nonconformist communities to model ways of living that in time have wider effects. A consistent emphasis on religious liberty and peaceful living, for example, has gradually impacted the wider church and wider society.
I hope this summary is helpful as an introduction to the paper you have in front of you, and I hope the paper itself has been of some use to your deliberations. One final comment: the Anabaptist tradition is collaborative by instinct, so this paper has been developed and refined in conversations with others, rather than being all my own work. But I’m happy to engage with you on any issues it raises.
Anabaptism was a sixteenth-century radical renewal movement, contemporaneous with the Protestant Reformation, which operated mainly in territories now comprising Switzerland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Alsace, and the Netherlands. Its distinguishing features included Christocentrism, new birth, discipleship in the power of the Spirit, believers’ churches free from state control, economic sharing, and a vision of restoring New Testament Christianity.
Anabaptism drew adherents primarily from the poorer sections of society, though its early leaders included graduates, monks, and priests. Missionaries travelled widely, ignoring parish and national boundaries, evangelising, baptising, and forming new congregations. Assessing the numerical strength of an underground movement is very difficult; it influenced many more people than those baptised as members.
The traditional view of Anabaptism as a radicalising of the ideas of Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli has been challenged by growing recognition of the influence of Thomas Müntzer and the Zwickau prophets, other radical reformers, and Spiritualists. Monastic reform movements, the devotio moderna, Franciscan Tertiaries, humanism, Erasmus, pre-Reformation radicals, German mysticism, peasant unrest, millenarian hopes, anticlericalism, and popular pamphleteers all contributed to the radical reformation context within which Anabaptism developed.
Historians identify four main branches of the movement – Swiss Brethren, South German/Austrian Anabaptists, Dutch Mennonites, and communitarian Hutterites – comprised of numerous groups gathered around charismatic leaders. Anabaptism was a diverse, complex, and fluid but coherent movement; various stimuli provoked its development, resulting in significant regional variations. Anabaptists shared several central convictions, but there were divergent views on the various wings of the movement, and some sharp disagreements. Anabaptism achieved greater uniformity of belief and practice by mid-century.
Catholics and Protestants both persecuted Anabaptists and the movement was nearly exterminated. Those who survived did so by finding refuge in tolerant cities, keeping on the move, meeting in secret and becoming quiet about their beliefs. Gradually Mennonites and Hutterites migrated into Eastern Europe and Russia. From all over Europe, further migration took many to Canada and America. But most Anabaptists now live in the Third World. In the twentieth century, through extensive and creative mission activities (evangelism, church planting, disaster relief, development work, and action for peace and justice in divided communities) Anabaptism has become a global movement.