Our Christian Identity Crisis

Our Christian Identity Crisis May 14, 2012

I am reading a book I am interested in using for a class in the Fall:  Mission After Christendom:  Emergent Themes in Contemporary Mission, edited by Ogbu Kalu, Peter Vethanayagamony, and Edmund Kee-Fook Chia (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).  It is common to  take shots today at the notion of  Christendom brought about by Constantine’s “conversion” in 312. “Christendom” tends to denote a politico-social alliance between church and state, and Christianity and nation, producing what we often refer to as a civil religion that provides religious legitimation for national identity (and hence of policies and practices).  “Christendom” then shapes our ecclesiology, so the argument goes,  assuming the mission and methods of the Church and the state can co-exist quite happily and without conflict. “Christendom”  assumes that for the Church to be effective, it needs to be in power.  It also collapses Christian identity into a national one.  We no longer are forced to choose between the two. I’m in agreement with many of the overall critiques of this non-Scriptural and untheological notion called “Christendom.”

But here is what gives me pause:  I was raised in “Christendom.”  I grew up going to church and being immersed in the teachings of the Church.  I did hear the Gospel and I realized, thankfully, that this Gospel of Christ makes a claim on me.  I can’t say that the reason for going to Church was motivated by parental concern for the salvation of my soul.  But this is just what white, middle-class Americans did, so this is what we did.  And because this is what we did, it’s fair to assume, is one of the main reasons why I claim a  Christian identity today.

I do think the concept of “Christendom” has created an identity crisis for Christians in the United States that has undermined and subverted our primary identity as followers of Jesus Christ.  Ogbu Kalu writes in his chapter, “Globalization and Mission in the Twenty-First Century:” “As cultures are pressed together, the problem of identity looms large.  Religion is manipulated as a marker of identity and ultimacy, invested with the symbol of prideful heritage, deployed as a tool for boundary maintenance, and promoted as the mooring for scapegoating the Other” (pp. 26-27).    Christian civil religion is used in this way:  it creates an identity crisis in the Church as it attempts to construct an identity for us based on “prideful heritage.” Civil Christian religion is used as a weapon against “those” different from us.  And many of “those” against whom we use our civil religion in the form of flags, gold crosses, material wealth, economic expansion, and military coercion, are those whose primary identities may actually be as followers of Jesus Christ.

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  • mike h

    Darn! It looks like I’m gonna have to but ANOTHER book!
    A couple things…
    Were you raised in “Christendom” as it is understood historically? Did the church you went to exist as a state-sanctioned entity?
    Perhaps more importantly, do you think that you would have chosen to follow Christ apart from this church apparatus?

    • Wyndy Corbin Reuschling

      Hi, Mike! Thanks for weighing in here. Great question. I think the concept of Christendom creates a civil religion. So, while the US does not technically fall into the category of Christendom, there is a strong, active and functional civil religion that mirrors many of the assumptions in Christendom: that in order to be effective, the church must be in power; that Christians ought to have some privileged voice in political and social policy; and the veneer of Christian faith can justify all sorts of morally problematic ideologies, policies, and practices. I grew up in a mainline church (United Methodist), but was deeply formed in evangelical movements, and have migrated back to my Wesleyan roots which are deeply evangelical. I think both mainline and evangelical churches operate under similar assumptions in this regard that in order to be effective (very different than faithfulness in my view), they need to be in power and have a privileged voice. And I have often wondered about your last question. If I were raised in a context where Buddhism was the primary religion would I be Buddhist? There certainly is a strong link between culture and religion, isn’t there?

  • Bryan O.

    “Christian civil religion is used in this way: it creates an identity crisis in the Church as it attempts to construct an identity for us based on ‘prideful heritage.'”
    This comment is so true. Many Evangelicals, which I think I still am :-), adhere to many beliefs, that if they are really honest, are hollow at the center. What I mean by this is that they affirm certain beliefs but those beliefs mean very little to them in actuality. In this way, Evangelical affirm notions such as, American is a Christian nation, of the inerrant Word (certainly there are others), but they have become more of a political ideology rather than faith statements. This has led many to believe to be Evangelical means that they have to have a specific position, on a specific political issue, in order to be labeled Evangelical. Because of this dynamic we find ourselves simply affirming our “prideful heritage” through many of these affirmations. In so doing, we have turned our beliefs into political ideology (David Fitch’s new book “The End of Evangelicalism?” was helpful for me to see this dynamic). This of course has significant implications for the way that Evangelical’s, as well as other Christian groups, approach the debates about Amendment 1? Any thoughts on this dynamic? Maybe we can talk in class…:-)