Thursday, July 17, 2008

Evangelicals and Christendom

The essence of Christendom is worldliness. In Christendom, the church is not only in the world; it is also of the world, says Craig Carter in "Rethinking Christ and Culture: A Post-Christendom Perspective" (Carter 2006, p. 78). Critiquing Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic work entitled "Christ and Culture," Carter unmasks the flawed presupposition of Christendom upon which Niebuhr built his famous typology of five ways that Christ and culture can interrelate.

Tracing the rise and reign of Christendom from Constantine in the fourth century to Western Christianity today, Carter defines Christendom as follows:

Christendom is the concept of Western civilization as having a religious arm (the church) and a secular arm (civil government)…The essence of the idea is the assertion that Western civilization is Christian. (Carter 2006, p. 14)

In reading and reflecting on this book, I have come to realize that the malaise in North American Christianity today, which also affects most evangelical denominations, cannot be fixed just by tinkering. Why? Because the root problem is that we have embraced and built upon the presuppositions of Christendom. Consequently our ecclesiastical and denominational cultures look a lot more like the world than the true Church of Christ.

Here is just part of the list I have made regarding ways that North American Christianity looks a lot like the world:
1. Embracing a culture of capitalism, prosperity, consumerism, and indulgence
2. Confiding in human reason, initiatives and endeavors through science and technology to address the ills of our world
3. Acquiescing to unbridled claims of individual rights without due regard to the marginalized, the poor, the suffering and oppressed (consider evangelical cloistering in the suburbs)
4. Seeking growing political influence, at times involving compromises through alliances with the government and other worldly institutions (consider the growing presence of evangelical advocacy groups in political centers)
5. Supporting our nation’s policies and practices of coercion and killing (consider the evangelical backing of wars)

Carter shows how Western Christianity’s embrace of Christendom has resulted in a tragic chain of abuses and atrocities from Constantine to the present day, either in the name of or with the support of people who have called themselves Christians. My short list would include the following:
1. Persecution of heretics (non-orthodox Christians) under the Roman government
2. Persecution of Jewish people over the centuries
3. Persecution of Anabaptists in the 16th century
4. Invasion, conquest, subjugation, and massacres of peoples on the American continent (in both South and North America and in the Caribbean)
5. Acquiescence worldwide of the holocaust
6. Treatment of slaves and their descendents in North America
7. Complicity in the marginalization of ethnic minorities and their continued segregation
8. Support of unholy wars that cause Christians to fight against Christians (pitting the call to patriotism over our Lord’s commands to refuse to take up the sword)

How can Christians commit such atrocities? For Carter, the answer in large part is Christendom. As a result, our ability as Christians to witness to the Good News has been compromised all around the world. Nowhere is this more evident than in Muslim lands where Christianity is assumed to be a Western religion.

Today many lament the coming demise of Christendom in the West and wistfully hope to see Christendom prosper again. In contrast, Carter sees the fading of Christendom’s influence as God’s fresh invitation to repent and return to true Christian faith. Another human strategy, campaign, or initiative will not suffice to rescue Christendom, even if doing so were desirable. We have had
1. The church growth movement
2. The church health movement
3. The seeker sensitive church movement
4. The ancient-future church movement
5. The emerging church movement
6. The church multiplication movement
7. The missional church movement
While each may have had some good to offer, Carter says that we don’t need another movement.

Instead, we need to repent and turn away from Christendom with all its flawed presuppositions upon which sixteen centuries of Western Christianity has been built. Only then can we truly carry the cross which Christ calls us to take up in His name.

As I see it, if Carter is right, the bottom line is pretty simple for all who desire to truly follow Christ. Either we keep tinkering with this flawed project called Western Christianity with all its trappings and machinery, or we repent and ask God to do a brand new thing in, among and through us.

So what do you think? Do you agree that it's time to stop tinkering and instead take the radical steps of repentance and obedience? If so, what are some practical ways to respond as truly devoted followers of Jesus Christ? How can we genuinely take up our cross daily and follow Him?


Steve Lennox said...

Two thoughts: First, I've not read Carter but have read Niebuhr. I found helpful his treatment of how the various flavors of Christianity interact with culture. Sounds like Carter is only considering one kind of Christianity (mainstream evangelicalism) and neglecting the rest of the global scene. Would you concur? If so, his prescription may only apply to those who have been co-opted by Western ideals.

Second, I'm uncomfortable with the thought of apologizing for Christianity (taking "Christianity" as another way of describing the Church). Certainly, the Church has not always lived up to its NT description, but it remains the Bride of Christ. Critiques like Carter's only see the visible church and ignore the beautiful but all-too-invisible Bride. When we profess, in the Creed, our belief in the Church, we speak of more than the visible, I think.

Nor do such criticisms even take account of all the evidence for the visible church. The good that has been and is being done by the Church far outweighs its faults, in my opinion. And the Church has a good record of "always reforming." In short, the report of the church's demise may be (as it always has been and will be) premature.

Norman Wilson said...

Steve’s reactions to my comments posted above are helpful and appreciated as I try to clarify my thoughts regarding Evangelicals and Christendom. Let me preface my response with two caveats.

First, my comments above regarding Carter’s book are not a fully adequate representation of his ideas, nor am I inclined to be his advocate. I am still not totally convinced of Carter’s assertion that the situation has changed so significantly as to render Niebuhr’s typology of little use. In fact, Carter’s proposal regarding a “post-Western Christendom” typology still takes Niebuhr as a point of departure. Nevertheless, I am convinced with many others that the ground is shifting under our feet regarding Christianity and world-views, radically changing the ways that we will relate to society and cultures going forward. Carter asks us to turn the prism in looking at Niebuhr’s typology, to see if we are missing something in viewing Christianity and culture through a popular typological lens of the previous century. I welcome these kinds of critiques as I try to get handles on ways to understand better the situation.

Second, I do not want the tone of my reflections to put evangelicals so much on the defensive such that we miss some of Carter’s observations that can help us to be “always reforming.” For me, the terms “Christianity” (“as another way of describing The Church”—to take Steve’s definition) and “Christendom” (where “the church is not only in the world; it is also of the world”—to take Carter’s definition) can be helpful in our discussion. I share Steve’s concern that we may “…only see the visible church and ignore the beautiful but all-too-invisible Bride.” He’s right that God is at work in a multitude of ways through His Body, The Church, and that we should not apologize for Christianity.

I cannot tell who all Carter had in mind in writing his book. Nevertheless, I am hesitant to concede that the concerns raised by his critique apply only to “mainstream evangelicalism.” For me, the twin questions raised by Carter’s critique are also worth serious consideration by all fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ:

1. In what ways have we allowed ourselves to be co-opted and shaped by the pervasive influences of culture in western Christendom?

2. In what ways do we who call ourselves “Christians” in western culture give authentic witness as members of the true Church of Jesus Christ?

I think we all can benefit from this kind of self-examination, lest we too begin to look too much like the world and get too comfortable it to be aware of our own blind spots.

::athada:: said...

Now if we truly repent and are willing to be led into the new thing that God does among us, we need not fear.

I'm not the first ever to have this thought, but it seems that the current church infrastructure (hierarchy, denominations, whatever you will) will not be conducive for this "new thing" - tinkering, as Carter puts it, will not be transformation. It seems like we'd need new wineskins for this.

Perhaps not - there have been and will be reformations in the church. God could do His new thing however he wants... let us pray we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.