Christ flanked by emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and empress Zoe: Eleventh Century; Mosaic, Hagia Sophia
In my corner of the Evangelical Bible Belt, a few things take concern above all else. Opposing gay marriage, decrying taking God out of the schools, mourning the loss of the privileged position of the church in the United States. We fear that the church is losing ground and we fight against it in every way possible.
The root of all this, though, is the loss of greater societal privilege for the Church. It is a symptom of the disintegration of Christendom, and I welcome it.
The history of the People of God was never that of a great empire which conquered the world, instead, it was a relatively small people, whose ancestors were nomads, who were conquered by foreign powers again and again. The great part of the story, though, is that the People of God have endured, by divine providence, against all odds and against the might of foreign powers.
The early church found themselves pressed by all sides, and yet against all odds, they grew not only in numbers but also in strength and depth.
Things changed, however, with Constantine when Christianity ceased to be a pressed minority and became state-approved. From this point on, the story of the majority of the Western world is centered around the unholy union between Christianity and the principalities and powers.
This signaled a significant reversal of the history of Christianity. Rather than facing the end of the sword, Christians were the ones holding the sword in the name of “God and country”. The Crusades were one example of the fruit of this union as was the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. Rather than being pressed themselves, Christians were the one doing the pressing, rather than facing the powers, the Christianity was in league with the powers.
Rather than denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23), we, in the West, have become accustomed to standing proud with official backing, taking up our sword and following the state.
The problems with a “Christian nation” are myriad. At some point, one has to question, whom do we worship…God or the state? God or the emperor, king, or president? Further, when the Church and state are wed, the rulers of the state carry undue influence in the church and the church simply becomes a pawn in national affairs or for political gain.
We see this in the United States when political candidates at all levels work to appear more religious and pious than one another (usually always in the form of Christianity), speaking of God solely for political gain. In the United States, too, the Church has become a pawn in the game of politics. One has to wonder if this is the spirit of the commandment not to misuse the name of God (Ex 20:7).
We must ask the question, is the role of the church simply to baptize the actions of the state, or is the role of the Church to speak truth to power and call the state to faithfulness and righteousness?
While many (especially among the Bible Belts) may see the increasing pluralization of the religious landscape of the United States and the increasing separation between church and state as the church losing ground, I think that this will be a renewal for the church to actually be the church rather than simply playing on the chessboard of the state.
The decline of Christendom brings several distinct benefits.
First, it helps the church speak truth to power in a more faithful way. When the church wed itself to the state it gave up its role to speak to the principalities and powers. Beginning with Constantine, the church became captive to the state and the fall of Christendom actually functions as liberation from an unfaithful relationship which binds the church and its witness. After all, the church must stand outside of the powers in order to honestly and faithfully speak truth to the powers.
Second, the separation of church and state protects the church from the undue influence of the state. I certainly do not want the church to be used in the game of politics. I do not want the president or members of congress to direct church assemblies, the teaching of doctrine, or the further conscription of clergy or other office-bearers of the church into the service of the state.
Third, the decline of Christendom returns the church to the historic narrative of the People of God, and the experience of being “afflicted in every way, but not crushed” (2 Cor 4:8, NRSV). What does it mean to take up one’s cross? How does the church live out its calling “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1b, NRSV) when the Church has bound itself to the powers which created these situations in the first place?
We must ask ourselves, do we require the validation of the state or the greater culture in order to live out our faith? Do we require that our faith be in a privileged position in order to follow it? If we do, the problem is not in the greater social environment, the problem is within us. There is nothing at all in all of Scripture which would lead us to believe that the People of God are supposed to be the ones in power, the ones in high esteem, the ones who do the pressing. The Jews in the first century were largely expecting a messiah who would rebuild the fortunes of the Kingdom of Israel and throw off the Roman Empire, but instead they received an outsider who turned over tables of money changers in the temple, spoke truth to power, and eventually died for it.
So I welcome the fall of Christendom, because this holds the great potential to signal a renaissance in the church. Rather than seeking to control the society, we can begin to discover what it means to live faithfully. Rather than trusting in the providence of the state, we can begin to trust in the providence of God. Rather than wielding a sword, we can learn what it means to carry a cross.
We find ourselves at the end of Christendom. We can either live into our calling to be a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, or we can abandon our calling and fight to regain power and prestige and control and esteem.
We follow a guy who died naked on a cross. Why should we expect social privilege and worldly power and esteem?
Christ as Good Shepherd: Third Century, Fresco, Catacomb of Callixtus