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Why I agree with the atheists: 9 reasons I’m pleased that Christendom is crumbling

Posted by Anne Witton on Thursday, March 22, 2018 Under: Reflections


You may have seen a recent Guardian article with the headline “'Christianity as default is gone': the rise of a non-Christian Europe.”

Lots of vocal atheists are hailing this as good news, and there are 9 reasons why I agree with them.

But first, a (very short) history of Christendom. Christendom can be defined as simply the global community of Christians, but that’s not how I’m using the term here. Bishop Curry in ‘Farewell to Christendom: The Future of Church and State in America’ defines Christendom as “the system dating from the fourth century by which governments upheld and promoted Christianity.” and this is the definition I’m using.

Christianity went from a rag-tag collection of persecuted outsiders in AD33 to the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine in the fourth century AD. The church’s power grew as the Roman Empire spread and the church held sway in Western Europe pretty much unchallenged until the Enlightenment in the 18th Century. The Protestant Reformation from 1517 ushered in a much-needed challenge to discover salvation by grace alone and elevate the Bible above church tradition, but it didn’t shake up the fundamental structures of Christendom itself. It wasn’t until the 19th century that Western Europe started to see increasing atheism and secularism that ultimately led to today’s largely secular humanist culture.

This intertwining of church and state hasn’t been all bad. There are many who have used the structures of Christendom to bring about life-giving societal change (for instance William Wilberforce and the abolition of slavery), and it leaves a lasting legacy in much of our culture, particularly our legal system and education.

But there are significant problems with a ‘state-sponsored church’ which is why I, like my atheist friends, am glad that we’re now living in a post-Christendom world.

  1. Christendom led to nominal Christianity where many who called themselves Christians (by virtue of being born in a ‘Christian’ country), were not actually followers of Jesus. In a secular society, people are no-longer having a religious identity imposed on them by virtue of their cultural identity, and increasingly those who call themselves Christians are actually Christians. I think this is a good thing. 

  2. Jesus makes it clear that his kingdom is not of this world. He didn’t come to overthrow the Roman oppressors but to give his life to serve the poor, outcast and marginalised, and ultimately to die at the hands of hypocritical religious leaders and state oppressors. The church joining forces with the power of the state flies in the face of Jesus’ kingdom values.

  3. The established church has historically been responsible for some appalling atrocities. We must acknowledge that fact and grieve with those who grieve at the horrors inflicted by the established church, whether they be historically distant, like the Crusades, or much more recent, like the sexual abuse scandals.

  4. Christendom gives those who haven’t experienced a taste of the Jesus life a very skewed view of what following Jesus is all about. When I look at the incomprehensible right-wing evangelical support of Trump, it’s easy to see why many people think that Christianity is a disgrace.

  5. Christendom has led to violence. The way to grow and defend an empire is with violence and the Christendom church has shamefully colluded in this so as to hold onto and extend its power.

  6. Related to the point above, often the language of mission has been the language of conquest. It has been ‘us vs them’ - the defenders of the truth against the worldly heathens. Yet Christ did not come to conquer people, he came to love them, to understand them and invite them into fullness of life. The fall of Christendom enables us to throw off the shackles of privilege and share our lives openly and honestly with our beloved non-Christian friends.

  7. Christendom perpetuated cultural imperialism in mission. In the age of the British Empire, many missionaries exported not just the tenets of the Christian faith, but a whole load of cultural baggage as well with the expectation that ‘Christianising’ people meant ‘Westernising’ them into the bargain. Christianity is a truly global faith and can be expressed in creative ways within indigenous cultures. The collapse of Christendom in the West and the growth of the church in the majority world is leading to a much more culturally rich global faith.

  8. When the church is hand-in-hand with the state, it looses its prophetic edge because it suddenly has lots to lose. There’s the incentive to keep the status quo and collude in oppression rather than fight against it. A church on the margins is able to rediscover its calling to hold governments to account, to speak up for the oppressed and to live radically and counter-culturally.

  9. In a pluralist and multi-cultural society, we have a better opportunity to communicate the good news of the gospel without the religious baggage that many have carried in the past.
My prayer is that as Christianity is once again becoming separated from state power and pushed to the margins, followers of Jesus will adopt a new spirit of humility, love and service. May we challenge state oppression and abuse of power, may we stand with the marginalised, poor and broken-hearted. May many be drawn to see Jesus through fresh eyes as the distortions of Christendom are stripped away. And may we demonstrate the wonderful love of the Lord Jesus in all we think, say and do.

For further reflection

This post owes much to Stuart Murray’s excellent article: Christendom and Post-Christendom  

Nomad podcast often had thoughtful interviews with contemporary thinkers navigating the post-Christendom waters 

David Blower's thoughts on Kingdom and Empire are well worth reading.

A Christian Country? by Nick Park (Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland) is also helpful.

3 books worth reading:

In : Reflections 


Tags: christendom post-christendom mission "church history" atheism evangelism culture 
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