Church in Mission: Post-Christendom, Effectiveness and Reshaping Ethics Pt4

Series contents | Introduction | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

According to John Howard Yoder, one aspect that distinguishes this bi-cultural faith community we call the Christian church from the world is it’s insistence upon being non-coercive. This point of view has major implications not only for the mission of the church in our culture as well as in others, but it also brings up some important points about how we read our history.

A Quick History of Christendom

Since the start of Christendom, when the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian and Christianity became the state (re:enforced) religion, the church has struggled to take the teachings of Christ seriously on matters of violence. This is why we call the marriage between Christianity and the state is called Constantinianism. This theological, and political shift for the church, which was a move from the margins of society to the center of power, had profound effects upon the way it understood itself.

Yoder says:

The deeper shift behind it all was the loss of the identity of the Christianity community, as visible over against the world, replaced by the effort to “Christianize?? (thinly) the entire society. Once the premise that Europe is “Christendom?? has been granted, the rest follows. The church-state tie and even the Crusades can make sense (as they still do in our day, in modern forms, to a host of Americans) once the first assumption, namely, that everyone is “in,?? is made?? (104).

For Yoder, Constantinianism not only formed the way the church interacted with evangelizing those outside the church, it also re-shaped the church’s ethics. In this period the church becomes the creator and dispenser not only of holy doctrine, but politics and the force entailed in the political world. It moves from a priority of surviving amidst a host culture, to ensuring the survival and the imperialism of the host culture. From this admittedly negative standpoint we see not only the good (the church is able to thrive – of course only in certain respects – in this new role) but the bad that comes with the church’s acceptance of political power.

From Christendom to Post-Christendom

It is in this Christendom context then that we arrive to our “modern?? times, where it was the Enlightenment, fueled by humanity’s drive to replace God with the all-knowing autonomous individual, that took a major first crack at tearing down the coercive power of the church. But, so I don’t mislead anyone, it was the Anabaptists, and then their later more charismatic cousins the Quakers, who took it upon themselves to overturn Christendom from the inside. So when we in the 21st century talk about a post-Christendom society, what we mean takes this into account. The cracking and final crumbling of Christendom’s walls moves us beyond a place where the church is in power, as it was during medieval times, and leaves us again in a similar position of the church relating to the larger society as a contrast society (see part two for more).

The way I understand “Post-Christendom?? is that it is both a historical period, as well as a mindset for mission.   It is when the church is no longer allowed to be the ruling power, it has, through various other “powerful practices?? such as science, sociology, and philosophy been dethroned in the eyes of the world. While it may be busy evangelizing or control culture in other countries, or in its own subcultures, the “world?? at large is more inclined to pass on what the church has to say about this or that. This calls for a reordering of the way we relate to the world and practice our faith.

And I have to be honest, there is a big part of me that welcomes the post-Christendom world. It was in persecution and difficulty that the church thrived during the writing and gathering of the New Testament Scriptures, and it was the suffering of the saints not their strength or might that has given us so rich a history. I do not lament the church losing its power-driven role in the world, such as being the wielder of the sword (as you will see I prefer a greater, more powerful role for the church in history – but one that is far less “glamorous”). It turns out that we Christians are no better with power then those who profess other faiths or no faith. I think this exemplifies Jesus’ point that “all who take the sword shall perish by the sword?? (Matt. 26:52). The church, as the people of God, are called to bring peace and forgiveness to the world, this is often hard to do behind the confines of a fortress, or the comfort of an arming sword.

Mission: From Effectiveness to Love Enemies

So where does this leave us when it comes to mission, and reaching out to those people who live 5 blocks south of us, or in our neighborhood projects, or the skid rows of the world? What about when it comes to Christians in TV, politics, on the radio, or even the web? Does it in fact have anything to do with this at all?

Yes on at least three accounts:

First, the church (and its mission) needs to distance itself from the desire to be “effective.?? Effectiveness, is a temptation of modernity, it is the desire to control output and input, homogenize, and suppress. Instead effectiveness for the church is to be professing and proclaiming Christ and his kingdom come – effectiveness for the church will look very different than for the world.

As Yoder says:

The standard by which we measure our obedience is therefore Jesus Christ himself; from him we learn that brokenness, not success, is the normal path of faithfulness to the servanthood of God. This is not to glorify failure or some sort of heroic uselessness, but to claim, as a confession that can be only made in faith, that true “success?? in Christian obedience is not to be measured by changing the world in a given direction within a given length of time, but by the congruence between our path and the triumph of Christ (109).

Second, and more to the point, it is not up to the church to make sure history comes out all right in the end. It is up to Christ, and the work of God’s Spirt in the world, and yes the church is included in this. This view of course is no excuse to have bad ethics, in fact, it turns out to be quite the opposite. It is a call for better ethics, embodied ethics that don’t try to distort and control others or ethics that are intended to only deal with spiritual or issues of the mind. It is a call for a Christian ethic that work endlessly to bring forth the kingdom of God, and the Light of Christ in the world without the church setting itself up to be the answer to the world’s problems (As it did in Christendom).

Third, the church is to reject all coercion. If we are to love our enemies, quite possibly the very core virtue of Christianity and one of the most unique features of Christianity among the world religions, we will either actually set out to love our enemies, which will re-shape the way we interact with the world, or we will spend countless hours trying to explain away “what this really means.?? The reason this view doesn’t fold into a coercive binary of peace vs. violence (which is how I read Milbank’s own account) is because for Anabaptists and Quakers recognize that the world is in a state of conflict, but through the practices of our communities set out to refuse to resort to violence, even unto death.  We refuse to give into the world’s state of affairs, not through argument, but through life giving peace and sacrifice. This move is rooted in the way we understand our communities as shaped by practices, just as much as we are shaped by theology.  We love others because we’ve been given this love as a gift from Christ, who in turn expects we give the gift away (“You will do what I command”). Mission that is founded upon giving the gift of love to the enemy, and refuses to give into modern efficiency and coercion, is going to have quite a different starting point than the mission of Christendom.

My next (and most likely last) post will expound upon this last point by looking at one of Yoder’s favorite examples of practices the church ought to engage in.  I will also look at one of his examples, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, as a prototype for the church seeking the peace of the city, even unto death.