Evangelical Engagement 8: Christendom vs. Christianity

My thinking re. the problems faced by evangelicals in Europe is shaped by the conflict I see between Christianity and Christendom. My thinking on this conflict is itself shaped by Soren Kierkegaard (hereafter SK) (Attack on Christendom) and Malcolm Muggeridge (The End of Christendom). In this post I will summarize SK’s contribution.

SK was a Danish Christian philosopher who died in 1855. The last published project of his life was a series of articles that are called his Attack. In them, he prophetically critiques the state church of Denmark–the Danish Lutheran church–for being empty & powerless.

It was empty & powerless for the following reasons:

  • FIRST, its preaching consisted of platitudes & observations designed to pacify rather than prophetically engage; check out Tony Campolo’s paraphrase of SK’s “goose church” parable to get this flavor of this critique. There was no “God says to you” in the preaching.
  • SECOND, the state-sponsored church was the official church. It was established & supported by the government, and virtually all citizens of the state were members of the state church.
  • This made religion not a matter of personal faith & commitment but of passive acquiescence to belonging (just don’t officially reject it & you’re still in.)
  • Thus, “We are what is called a ‘Christian’ nation—but in such a sense that not a single one of us is in the character of the Christianity of the New Testament.”
  • THIRD, it conflated Christianity (the community of those who follow Jesus) with Christendom (the institutions, organizations, buildings, &authorities that manifest official Christianity.)
  • Christianity began in the New Testament. Christendom truly began when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. By SK’s day, it was concentrated in the official state churches of Europe.
  • Owen Thomas summarizes SK’s position here:
    Christendom is a “forged copy” of Christianity, which is “just the opposite of what it is in the New Testament.”
    “In Christendom Christianity did not conquer the world but rather the opposite: the world conquered Christianity and Christianity became acculturated” [i.e., thoroughly taken over].

Implications for evangelicals in Europe today:

  • • When we say “church,” Europeans today INCLUDING MANY EVANGELICALS think we’re talking about Christendom (buildings, organizations, treasures) instead of Christianity (the people who belong to God through faith in Jesus.)

In a previous post, I suggested that church plants might avoid the word “church” when in conversation with outsiders, so as to avoid confusion. INTERNALLY, however, the refrain needs to be constant: “The Church IS the people.” “The Church IS the people.” “The Church IS the people.” And “We are part of the Church.”

Plenty of teaching from 1 Corinthians 12 (e.g., 1 Cor 12.27, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.”) and Ephesians 4.

• We must understand that, at least in the religious parts of Europe–Southern and Eastern Europe–almost everyone thinks they are Christians because of their membership (by citizenship) in the state church.

Don’t talk to them about “becoming a Christian”; they already are, as far as they know. Instead, argue for a deeper definition. Talk about God’s purpose for their lives, and how the most satisfying life possible is one spent pursuing that purpose.

In some countries (Croatia among them), people respect and are interested in the Bible even though they do not know the Bible. So talk to them about the Bible as wisdom for living, to help them find peace, or be a better spouse, or be a better parent, etc.

• The ubiquitous influence of the state church is, I think, the main reason Europe remains so implacably closed. It has given people just enough of Jesus to make them “gospel-resistant” (like an antibiotic-resistant infection), but not enough of Jesus to make them truly & deeply & personally Christian. It suffocates the Holy Spirit by counterfeiting his voice.

One thought on “Evangelical Engagement 8: Christendom vs. Christianity

  1. Pingback: A Christian Croatia: Should You Care? | Circleslide

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