We’re Not a Post-Christian Culture

by Jeff Saferite on March 11, 2015

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Lee Beach, in his fantastic book The Church in Exile, references the distinct difference between the centennial birthday celebration of Canada as a country and the day of mourning to commemorate the lives lost after 9/11. In 1967, at the centennial celebration, 25,000 people gathered along with state officials, eight clergy and Queen Elizabeth to celebrate a service that included Bible readings, Christian Hymns, a prayer of confession for the sins of the nation, and the Lord’s Prayer. Fast forward 34 years to September 2001 where 100,000 people gathered to mourn the tragedy of 9/11. State officials led the memorial while no Christian or other religious leader participated. Additionally, no Scripture or other religious material was read, no prayers were offered, and no hymns were sung.

Loss of Influence
For the first time since Constantine the Church in the West is no longer sitting at the table of power and influence. The reality has not been lost on many Church leaders and thinkers over the past few years. Many are calling this new era a post-Christian culture but I want to suggest here that title is a misnomer. Suggesting we now live in a post-Christian culture ignores the large minority of Christians and Christian culture that still exists. It also presumes that persons who ignore or reject the Church no longer have a Christian memory or familiarity with the Christian narrative. But most importantly it gives a false perspective of what a Christian culture is and is not.

This latter issue is what I want to focus on here (the other two will come in follow up posts). To call a culture in which the Church is no longer the center of power (or central influence of power) post-Christian is to suggest that what it means to be Christian is to be in power. American Christians have a deeply embedded belief that it is their divine right to rule. And for this reason, many in the Church are fighting hard to reclaim their seat at the table. To  call this post-influential or post-authority era of the church post-Christian is to give validity to the neo-zealots attempting to reclaim the dominance of the political realm. The role of the Christian is to follow the Way of Jesus and it is his life and teaching that should give us direction.

The Way of Jesus
The New Testament gives a clear vision into Jesus’ thoughts on ruling in this world. At one point, the mother of two disciples asked Jesus to give her sons the highest seats of honor in his Kingdom. In response Jesus warns his disciple not to be like the Gentiles who seek high ranking positions and lord their authority over others (Matt 20:24-28). In another instance, Jesus sensed the people wanted to make him King so he retreated and took refuge (John 6:15). And in the final hours of his life, while standing before Pilate on his way to the cross he tells Pilate that his Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:33-38). Jesus IS a King and is meant to lead BUT his Kingdom is not of this world and will not rule this world until his second coming. He explained to Pilate that his servants would have fought to keep him from being arrested and killed if he were meant to be a King in this world.

Instead, Paul tells the Church at Philippi that Jesus, being “in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-8). This is the ultimate picture of kenotic cruciformity, and it is the attitude or mindset that Paul says we are to carry (2:5). 

There is no evidence in the New Testament teaching that the church should be in a position of governmental power. What is constantly expressed by Jesus and his disciples is that Christians are to lay down their life, pick up their cross and follow him. To be a Christian is not defined by being in power but rather by giving up our right to power and choosing to serve at all cost.  

The Early Church  
The early church was steadfast in their unwillingness to participate in Roman politics. Celsus, a Platonist, came hard against the Church for its unwillingness to take public office or participate in Roman politics in the third century. He criticized the Church by suggesting that if everyone were to follow in the footsteps of Christians the country would be left to barbarians. Origen responded by suggesting that if everyone were to follow him then all would be law-abiding and mild because they would have submitted to the word of God. He goes on to suggest that anyone competent enough to lead should focus on ruling God’s country (the Church) rather than Rome. And then he stated, “We do not accept those who love power. But we put pressure on those who on account of their great humility are reluctant hastily to take upon themselves the common responsibility of the church of God” (Contra Celsum 8.75). I.e. persons who want to lead are ignored while those not willing to lead are pressured to lead. No power for those who want power! Origen concludes that Christians are better served by ignoring public office and discourse in favor of focusing their attention on building the Church.

A few years later, writing in reference to a plague, Dyonysius reveals the servant nature of the Church.

The most, at all events, of our brethren in their exceeding love and affection for the brotherhood were unsparing of themselves and clave to one another, visiting the sick without a thought as to the danger, assiduously ministering to them, tending them in Christ., and so most gladly departed from his life along with them; being infected with the disease from others, drawing upon themselves the sickness from their neighbors, and willingly taking over their pains. … In this manner the best at any rate of our brethren departed this life, certain presbyters and deacons and some of the laity. (Ecclesiastical History 7.22, emphasis mine.)

Origen is arguing that the Church has more influence by focusing their attention on being Jesus, or being the Church, than pressuring Roman politics. I.e. he argues that the Church will gain the hearts and adherence of the people if they choose to empty themselves of rights and honor to serve those inside and outside the Church. Dyonysius shows us this in action. He says the Church didn’t just lose it’s own poor and marginalized people in the plague but the best of their brethren. Presbyters, deacons, and lay persons were lost.

Julian the Apostate, a Roman Emperor, a century later affirms such influence by revealing why so many pagans were joining the Church, “These impious [Christians] not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes…” The Pre-Constantine Church ignored public office and political matters because they were busy building an alternative social reality. Come check out the Church if you do not like the way the world was going. Is the Roman government failing you? Check out the body of Christ!

Post-Christendom 
If what one means by being post-Christian is that we no longer live in a culture that chooses to follow in the footsteps of Jesus by emptying ourselves of privilege and choosing to serve our neighbor, even to the point of death, then let’s keep calling it post-Christian. But if we mean that the Church is no longer at the center of power and influence, let’s correctly refer to our culture as post-Christendom. Christendom marks the period of the Church from the fourth century until recent times when the Church and state were either one and the same or served as close allies. As the aftermath of 9/11 showed in Canada, this is no longer the case. We truly live in a post-Christendom culture.

 

*The quotes from Origen, Dyonysius, and Julian came from Jesus and Community by Gerhard Lohfink. Part IV of this book is some of the best chapters I have read on the Church.

**Photo cred: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_Fathers

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Tim Hallman March 12, 2015 at 10:49 am

Your distinction between post-Christian and post-Christendom is helpful. I think it helps capture the ongoing secularization of our communities and nation. The state can do for people what the church used to be able to do or want to do. H.R. Niebuhr in his book The Kingdom of God in America gives a brief, big pic overview of how essentially post-Christendom took root. I like how you point out the way of Jesus as a way forward for American churches. It’s not about reclaiming lost power, or a neo-Christendom that’s been chastened. But the church ought to rethink what it’s authority and power are in a community and how to wield it for the kingdom of God.

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