The documents of the New Testament provided a specific eschatological framework for the formation of the early communities of Christ followers. They taught them, first, how to see themselves as a people of God reconstituted beyond the geographical, historical and theological boundaries of Judaism; and secondly, how fundamentally to overcome - from a position of weakness and dishonour - the opposition of Greek-Roman paganism, manifested supremely in the form of the cult of the emperor.
The early church, therefore, was taught how to walk the long and difficult path that led from the Sermon on the Mount (‘Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account’: Matt. 5:11) to the eventual legalization of the Christian movement in AD 313. That, I think, is the inevitable conclusion of a historically realistic narrative theology. In a nutshell it is the story of the Son of man - of the faithful community in Christ that suffers and is vindicated. But the church was not taught - certainly not directly or by the documents of the New Testament - how to deal with the unexpected gifts of wealth and power and status, which is why Christendom proved such a mixed blessing for the world.
The Chinese church and the end of persecution
To judge from a fascinating article in The Times last Saturday (‘One Billion Souls to Save’), the illegal church in China finds itself in a position very similar to that of the pre-Constantinian church. Persecution is by no means a thing of the past; and the fast growing church is still seen in many quarters as a threat to the hegemony or ‘lordship’ of the Communist Party; but increasingly it is being regarded as a force for social good.
On the one hand, just as the selfless response of the early church to the plagues that devastated the Roman world was a major factor in the victory of Christianity over a morally bankrupt paganism, so it appears that Christians made up a large proportion of the volunteers who offered help in the aftermath of the earthquake in southwest China last year. ‘Many are still there, helping the survivors and, sometimes, preaching.’
On the other hand, recent meetings between government officials and leaders of the underground churches suggest that the Protestant church at least (the Vatican is still regarded with considerable suspicion) may function as a ‘force for harmony’ in modern Chinese society. President Hu told a Politburo seminar on religion in 2007 that ‘the knowledge of religious people must be harnessed to build a prosperous society’, which neatly parallels the pragmatism behind Rome’s adoption of Christianity as a unifying force for the empire following the decline of classical paganism.
If this is correct, then the underground church in China faces the same dilemma that the early church stumbled over when the empire converted to Christianity. A movement that is ideologically equipped for the struggle for survival on the margins of legitimacy is likely to find that it is not well equipped to provide a coherent and honest witness when it is offered a platform at the party congress. Some missiologists in the West will argue that the underground church should refuse to co-operate - not least because they fear that legitimacy will puncture a rapidly inflating church-planting movement whose success must to some extent be the direct result of persecution. To quote Jane Macartney’s Times article: ‘Underground Christians say that as soon as one house church is closed, its members split up and found their own small congregations, further multiplying numbers.’
I fully understand the concern. But the further argument, which is usually the whole point of the analysis, that the explosive growth of the underground church in China offers a model for the reinvigoration of the post-Christendom church in the West is not a good one. The post-Christendom church has been marginalized not because it is seen as a threat to state power but because it is held by our culture to be irrelevant, a thing of the past. What is causing churches to close in most cases is not the heavy hand of an anti-religious political system but simple demographic decline. The last congregant to die must remember to turn out the lights.
The church before global meltdown
That is not to say, however, that there are no lessons to be learnt from these stories. Both the early church and the modern Chinese church are prophetic movements. By their praxis, by their worship, by their testimony - by their very existence - they assert not merely that Jesus Christ is Lord (and conversely that neither Caesar nor the Party is Lord) but that the God who gave Jesus the name which is above every name will triumph in history over all self-aggrandizing, oppressive and blasphemous ideological systems. The New Testament takes history very seriously. The New Testament expects the church to win out over Caesar.
Until we grasp the distinctive nature of our own prophetic vocation, in all its difficult historical contingency, I doubt that the post-Christendom church will feel confident that it has really found a way forward. The emerging church in the first centuries needed to be taught how to leave the crumbling fortress of Judaism and set out across the unfamiliar terrain of classical paganism on a dangerous journey to overcome Rome. We likewise need to leave the ruins of the Christendom mindset and set out across the difficult, broken terrain of post-modernity… but to what end? What will be our suffering - our ‘tribulation’? What will be our parousia? What will be our vindication? How will the church in the decades or centuries to come show up the bankruptcy of Western culture? What would it mean for the church again to be invited to the table - to be consulted and seduced?
That is too big a question to answer here. But I think that Len Sweet is right to include the prospect of a coming environmental catastrophe in his ‘perfect storm’ analysis of the challenge facing the church (see ‘Global warming, storm warnings, and the future of the church’). I have just read an article in New Scientist magazine by Fred Pearce. He discusses the likely accelerating impact of the melting of arctic ice and the thawing of northern permafrost on global warming. The social consequences of runaway climate change are terrifying - Pearce focuses on the failure of the Asian monsoon as a result of a slowdown in the ‘ocean conveyor current’, on which 1-2 billion people are directly dependent for food and water.
I think it is time the church started to get seriously frightened by this sort of warning - not for the sake of idiotic, I-told-you-so doom-mongering, but so that we might learn to fear the Creator God - because I think that is where we will begin to discover our prophetic vocation. He has made us new creation in Christ; and out of that self-understanding, I suggest, we need to shape a global prophetic movement that by its life and work - by its very existence - bears witness to the reality of the Creator God and to the hope that he will make all things new.