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The Rise and Fall of Christendom

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series

"Missional Worship"

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Understanding this missionary imperative for the church leads missional writers to ask the question, “Is the 21st-century North American church fulfilling its place in the mission of God?” Guder answers bluntly, “Neither the structures nor the theology of our established Western traditional churches is missional.”1 Rather, the church today is locked in the mode of what missional authors call “Christendom,” pre-Enlightenment Western civilization.

The Rise of Christendom. The rise of so-called “Christendom” began with the Edict of Milan in 313 in which Roman Emperor Constantine I declared religious toleration in the empire. The formerly persecuted Christian church now began to enjoy new-found freedom, reaching its climax in 380 when Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the Roman Empire’s official religion. In 392 he outlawed any form of pagan worship, and the church thus became the controlling influence in the entirety of the empire.

Stuart Murray lists several important shifts that took place as a result of this new socio-political situation:

  • The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of a city, state or empire
  • The movement of the church from the margins of society to its center
  • The creation and progressive development of a Christian culture or civilization
  • The assumption that all citizens (except for Jews) were Christian by birth
  • The development of the corpus Christianum, where there was no freedom of religion and where political power was regarded as divinely authenticated
  • Infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into this Christian society
  • Sunday as an official day of rest and obligatory church attendance, with penalties for noncompliance
  • The definition of “orthodoxy” as the common belief shared by all, which was determined by powerful church leaders supported by the state
  • The imposition of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (although normally Old Testament moral standards were applied)
  • A hierarchical ecclesiastical system, based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, which was analogous to the state hierarchy and was buttressed by the state
  • The construction of massive and ornate church buildings and the formation of huge congregations
  • A generic distinction between clergy and laity, and the relegation of the laity to a largely passive role
  • The increased wealth of the church and the imposition of obligatory tithes to fund this system
  • The defense of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality, and schism
  • The division of the globe into Christendom and heathendom and the waging of war in the name of Christ and the church
  • The use of political and military force to impose the Christian faith
  • The use of the Old Testament, rather than the New, to support and justify many of these changes2

Although the church developed some serious theological and philosophical errors during this period, it nevertheless exerted a positive spiritual influence on western culture. Hirsch explains:

For all its failings, the church, up till the time of the Enlightenment, played the overwhelmingly dominant role in the mediation of identity, meaning, purpose, and community for at least the preceding eleven centuries in the West.3

This had certain cultural and social benefits for the West, but with western civilization governed to a significant extent by Christianity, the church lost its missionary impulse. Church buildings became the central focus of church life; people came to the church, and therefore there was no need for the church to go to the people.

The Fall of Christendom. The church enjoyed its seat of power in the West for almost 1,200 years until it was dethroned by Enlightenment philosophers. The Enlightenment “sought to establish reason over revelation through philosophy and science, eventually forcing a separation of the power of the church from that of the state.”4 Through philosophers such as Descarte and Hume, human autonomy, individualism, and reason won the day, and this had earth-shattering impact upon Christianity in the public sphere. “Christianity has become a mere matter of private preference rather than that of public truth.”5 Because reason replaced faith as the controlling impulse of western culture, the church “lost its position of privilege.”6 Instead of the church being at the center of Western culture, the culture became secularized, which Hirsch describes as “that process whereby the church was taken from the center of culture (as in the Christendom period) and increasingly pushed to the margins.”7

The fall of Christendom created a situation that was entirely foreign to a church steeped in a way of operating that had continued for eleven centuries, and according to missional writers, the effects remain to this day, and results of the dethroning of Christianity include the following:

  • The church is no longer considered the guardian of absolute ethical values.
  • The church’s message, structures, and ritual have become culture-bound.
  • The church is seen as another institution that purveys goods and services in a competitive market.
  • Attendance in church is seen as one leisure activity among many others.
  • Christian identity is no longer a matter of birth and geography.8

What the death of Christendom means for the church today is that, just as Lesslie Newbigin noticed when he returned from India to Great Britian, the West is as much a pluralistic, “heathen” mission field as any foreign nation. As Stetzer notes,

The end of Christendom allows the church to recognize that the gospel is distinct from Western culture. So the gospel must be addressed in fresh ways to the ever-changing population that’s disassociated itself from “pseudo-Christian” roots. In other words, being missional is not just the task of taking the gospel to the “primitives” outside our borders. The new challenge is to bring the gospel to Western culture, including right here in North America, since it’s become so resistant to the gospel.9

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Guder, Missional Church, 5. []
  2. Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004), 76–78. Emphasis original. []
  3. Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 108. []
  4. Ibid., 60. []
  5. Ibid., 108. []
  6. Bosch, Transforming Mission, 364. []
  7. Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 108. []
  8. Thomas F. Foust, ed., A Scandalous Prophet: the Way of Mission after Newbigin (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002), 124–26. []
  9. Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches, 19. []