What difference should the visible church make in the broader culture? How significant should it be? How one answers this question tells us something about how one views the relations between Christ and culture and the evident death of Christendom.
What is Christendom? It is a somewhat nebulous word that has been used in a variety of ways for a very long time. The Oxford English Dictionary lists five distinct senses:
- Being a Christian (at least formally, by admission to the visible church). This sense goes back to the 13th century (Aelfric) and the most recent use cited is in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce (1945), which will not surprise anyone familiar with Lewis’ academic work.
- From the 13th century (Aelfric again) until as late as 2010 it has been used to refer to Christianity generally.
- From the 13th century (Aelfric) until as late as 2019 it has been used to refer to the body of Christians in the world or, with a qualifier, to a particular body or denomination of Christians. Under this head, the OED lists the reference to nations where Christianity is the dominant religion, to which it adds, “[n]ow chiefly in historical contexts.”
- Baptism as a sign of admission to the visible church to which is attached the sense of the giving of a name in connection with baptism. The OED tells us this use is “obsolete.”
- Finally, it has been used to signal the use of oil in the chrism or anointing. This use is “obsolete” and “rare.”
There is another sense not strangely unobserved in the OED, that of the state establishment of the visible church and/or the position of privilege enjoyed by the visible church and by professing Christians in the prevailing culture.
In this essay, I am thinking principally about this last sense, though senses 1 and 2 are also entailed. In these senses (1,2, and the last), it should be odd for an American to be especially attached to Christendom, but we are. Repeatedly, I have heard Americans lamenting the loss of Christendom. Increasingly, I am convinced that one of the great attractions of American evangelicals, the vast majority of whom are Baptistic in their theology, piety, and practice, to British Evangelicalism is the formal privilege that British Christians still enjoy as members of the state-church. The Archbishop of Canterbury will play a prominent role in the coronation of King Charles III. Christianity, at least formally, has the approval of the state. Christianity has a formal place in the UK.
I understand the sense of loss that American Christians feel. I remember when it was a regarded as a given, as an incontrovertible fact that the USA was a “Christian nation.” That was never entirely true. Nathan Hatch argues that the USA was a “Christian nation” for about 70 years in the 19th century. Nevertheless, it was commonplace that America was, in some sense, a “Christian nation” and politicians regularly said it without controversy. Today, however, were a politician to say it he would be met with a hailstorm of public criticism. It might end his career. The historic fact is, however, even though many of our founders were Deists, even the Deists (e.g., Benjamin Franklin) were what D. G. Hart calls “cultural Protestants.” On this, see his new religious biography of Benajamin Franklin.
Those born after 1980 probably have no memory of the the so-called “Blue Laws,” i.e., those laws specifically aimed at regulating behavior on the Christian Sabbath (Sunday), the consumption of liquor, and other aspects of personal morality. Such laws were in effect (and may still be on the books in some states and cities) until the 1970s. They were contested in the 19th century and the U. S. Supreme Court ruled in 1961 that local and state governments could retain the Blue Laws, but through the 1970s most of them were overturned. For the record, however, the 1964 Civil Rights Act still requires employers to make “reasonable accommodations” for Christians who observe the Christian Sabbath.
With the end of the Blue Laws came a significant shift in American life as a public expression of the old Christian consensus about public life and personal morality crumbled. Today, with public authorities (e.g., libraries and school boards) pushing transgender strippers on children—had one claimed in the 1950s or 60s that we would soon see abortion through the ninth month of pregnancy, same-sex marriage, and transgender strippers performing for children, one would have been dismissed as a raving lunatic, yet here we are—we seem to have come light years from the days when everything was closed on Sundays and where the church and the nuclear family were said to be the cornerstone of American life.
The question is less where we Christians are, in post-Christendom, and more where we should go.
One possible response is to try to recapture our lost place in America. That this is only right seems self-evident to many American Christians. Looking back, we can see that this is what animated the Moral Majority movement and others like it. In the 1970s and 80s, one regularly heard talk of “taking America back for Christ.”
The first question is whether such a program is biblical. There is no doubt that one can pick a few verses from the New Testament, add them together in a chain, and draw the inference that it is the magistrate’s duty to enforce Christian morality and even, perhaps, establish the church, but do those passages so applied teach that in context? No, they do not.
There is not a single place in the New Testament, read in context to which one may appeal, to support such an agenda for the visible church. Reading Scripture in context is the key here. Conservative Christians chafe at the social liberal abuse of Scripture (e.g., neighbor love requires one to take the Covid vaccine or Old Testament jubilee laws require one to support the Biden Administration’s open borders policy) but they do it too. How often have conservative Christians invoked 2 Chronicles 7:14 and applied it to the USA as if the USA is God’s covenanted national people?
Part of the problem is a general lack of awareness among American Christians about the nature of life under the Roman Empire in the first century. Sin was rife. Open sexual immorality was widespread. This is why Paul is so pointed in his repudiation of homosexuality in Romans 1, 2, and 1 Corinthians 6. Chemically induced abortion was practiced. The Caesars were pagans. Some were more restrained (e.g., Claudius) and some less restrained (e.g., Nero) in their personal and public immorality. Infanticide was practiced. The status of females, in particular, was marginal. Slavery was practiced. The Romans suppressed any dissent brutally. They tortured and abused prisoners and, of course, practiced a most cruel form of capital punishment—which comment should not be taken as a repudiation of capital punishment. On this, see the resources below.
In other words, many, if not all, of the sorts of things that trouble Christians today about the state of the liquid Modern world (so Zygmunt Bauman) were present in the first-century, pre-Christian world. Where do we see the authors of the Gospels, Acts, or epistles, or even the Revelation unequivocally addressing the pagans about their immorality? Where is the Christian program for gaining control of the Roman Empire or exercising influence on the broader culture?
Let us start with our Savior. From the context of the Roman Empire, he was a marginal figure, an obscure rabbi in an obscure corner governed by a mediocre, otherwise forgettable figure, Pontius Pilate. Had Pilate not ordered the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, he would have been utterly forgotten as just another cog in the Roman military machine.
Jesus himself actively discouraged his disciples from trying to exercise political-cultural influence. He rebuked Peter (again) and told him to put away his sword (John 18:11). He even restored Malchus’ ear (Luke 22:51; “Malchus’ Ear” would be great name for a CCM band). Before Pilate, Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). Were it of this world, he would have called down legions of angels to wipe out the Romans, but it is not,s so he did not.
The Apostles pursued Jesus’ agenda. They never sought to exercise social-political authority or even influence. They preached the law and the gospel and suffered the consequences. They established congregations for the ministry of the Word, the use of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. They laid out no cultural-political agenda for the church or the empire.
The early post-apostolic church was faithful to that mission. They promised obedience to Roman law, insofar as it does not contradict God’s moral law (Acts 5:29) and they asked to be allowed, like the Jews, to be excused from the requirement that they honor Caesar as a god and to renounce Christ. The Jews were granted legal status but Christians would not be granted legal status for another two centuries, during which time they suffered grievously under Roman persecution. The Christians were trying to carve out a secular space in which to be good citizens of the empire without observing the state religion.
This is not say that the Christians did not criticize Greco-Roman paganism. They certainly did. Justin Martyr and Tertullian did so, as did the author to the Roman official Diognetus, who criticized paganism as incoherent and stupid. Still, like Paul in the 1st century, the author to Diognetus a century later, made no plea to the magistrate to institute Christianity as the state religion nor did he comment on Roman social policy (e.g., slavery, colonialism, etc).
Those who would “take back America for Jesus” must answer this question: on what basis? The source of the impulse to reconquer America, as were, is the status we enjoyed under Christendom after Theodosius (AD 381). The sense of regret and the desire to recover that lost privilege and position is as understandable as it is misguided.
Here again, should American Christians (and Reformed Christians especially) recover the ancient and historic Reformed distinction between nature and grace. Civil life belongs to nature and the church belongs to grace. We Christians have a twofold relation to our pagan neighbors. Insofar as we are members of Christ, citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven (Phil 3:20), we seek to enroll them as citizens, by grace alone, through faith alone, into that kingdom. Insofar as, however, the civil realm belongs to nature and operates under natural law, we relate to our neighbors in the common, secular sphere, as those also under natural law. Put theologically, the church is the sole minister of the covenant of grace and the state is a creature and a minister of the (social) covenant of works.
As citizens of both spheres, we have distinct responsibilities to Christ (who is Lord of both spheres) and our neighbors under each sphere. We pray to the Lord of the church and the Lord of the harvest to call all of his elect to new life and true faith. We pray that he brings all of his elect into his church and that the visible church flourishes, that Christ’s people, saved by grace alone, through faith alone, will be increasingly conformed the image of Christ.
As citizens of the secular sphere, we seek to cooperate with our pagan neighbors as we can and to persuade them to order their lives according to nature and to allow us to live according to God’s natural and moral law. The appeal to nature will become ever more important as we face attempts not only to require acceptance of same-same marriage but other unnatural relationships (e.g., pedophilia, polyamory, bestiality are all on the agenda of the sexual revolutionaries). We have a responsibility to be involved in our communities, to speak up calmly before school boards, city councils, and state legislatures about what nature, as God has ordered it, requires. We have a responsibility to assert what we Americans regard as our natural liberties, which the American constitution is supposed to protect.
If we accept the historic Reformed distinction between nature and grace, we need not seek to reconquer America for Christ politically or culturally. It is enough for us to ask our pagan neighbors and our secular governors to abide by the laws of nature. Yes, with all hearts we pray that Christ, by his Spirit, conquers the hearts of all his elect and that has some effect on our communities, but that is not Christendom. Our agenda should not be conquest but fidelity. The outcome of our fidelity belongs to Christ. He channels the heart of the king (Proverbs 21:1).
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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