The mission of the church after Christendom

In a paper on ‘The Nicene Marks in a Post-Christendom Church’ (2006) Darrell Guder discusses the challenges facing mainline Protestant churches such as the PCUSA now that ‘Christendom is over’. He thinks that there is a consensus among ‘schooled observers’ that a fundamental paradigm shift is underway but doubts that this is a perception shared by the general church-going public. The decline of Christendom has given rise to considerable confusion and uncertainty regarding the identity and purpose of the church: ‘Ultimately, this massive paradigm shift confronts us with the most basic of questions: Why is there a church at all?’ But he thinks that the crisis presents us with an opportunity to ‘reassess the western theological tradition from the liberating perspective of the actual and unquestioned end of Christendom’.

Guder is wary of contributing to a reckless and unthinking ‘Christendom-bashing’, but he argues, nevertheless, that Christendom has left us with a legacy of ‘pervasive reductionism’, particularly with respect to our understanding of salvation:

…it seems to me that the most profound issues arise out of salvation reductionism and its sweeping implications for the theology of the church. To concentrate a complex analysis in a brief summary, the reduction of the gospel of cosmic salvation to the focus upon the savedness of the individual is directly linked to an understanding of the church that centers on the administration of that salvation to the individual believer.

What he then advocates is an ecclesiology, an understanding of the church, that foregrounds mission – he considers, for example, the implications of reversing the ‘Nicene marks’ of the church, so that it is first apostolic (ie. missional), then catholic, then holy, and finally one. It’s an interesting proposal and worth considering, though it may no longer sound very ‘revolutionary’.

I would question, however, whether this now conventional recovery of the missional priority of the church adequately addresses the theological significance of the end of Christendom. It is true that post-Christendom churches must learn a new fidelity to an apostolic vocation. But we surely need to ask the glaring question: Why did the apostolic mission of the early churches culminate in Constantinianism, in the conversion of an empire, in the concrete, social and political displacement of the powers of the pagan world by the Lord Jesus Christ? And what does it now mean that Christendom has come to an end?

The ‘cosmic’ gospel of the early church was not least the proclamation that God would before long judge the pagan world through a man whom he had appointed (Acts 17:31), that Jesus has been given the name which is above every name (Phil. 2:10), that he would receive the nations as his inheritance. That, I think, in the broadest terms, was the ‘mission’ that shaped the life and values of the early churches. In our own post-Christendom context the large scale mission may not be quite the same.

The best that can be said for Christendom is that it embodied the prophetic notion that the God of Israel now laid claim to the whole world and all thought; it represented the fulfilment of Isaiah 45:20-23 through the resurrection of Jesus:

Assemble yourselves and come; draw near together, you survivors of the nations! They have no knowledge who carry about their wooden idols, and keep on praying to a god that cannot save…. And there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’

The danger is that even in going back to the model of the New Testament church we merely superimpose on its historically distinctive agenda the generalized assumptions of modern evangelicalism, the persistent reductionist habits of late Christendom. Before we set about replicating a missional programme that resulted – quite possibly for good reasons – in the massive fact of Christendom, we need to consider very carefully what the communal existence of the church now stands for, as we make our way from its ruins into an unfamiliar and inhospitable world.

My sense is that the core prophetic – and therefore missional – identity of the post-Christendom church will be found not in the dangerous confrontation with other gods and other lords but in the articulation of ‘new creation’. The early suffering church confessed Jesus as ‘firstborn from the dead’ (Col. 1:18), the first of many brothers to suffer and be vindicated (cf. Rom. 8:29-30); the emerging church today will confess him as firstborn of all creation (Col. 1:15).