The Shift into Post-Christendom

The Shift into Post-Christendom October 5, 2012

Earlier this year, Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and, thereby, formerly the tutelary head of the Anglican communion world-wide, shocked me. Then, I was further shocked by the discovery that I should have not been shocked in the first place…that I was, in fact, one of a fairly limited number of folk who were even surprised by what Lord Carey did.

What Lord Carey did, acting from his position as former Archbishop, was to file a written statement to the European Court of Human Rights charging that British courts had begun to persecute Christians and “drive them underground” by failing to protect Christians who were excluded or removed from some forms of employment because of their beliefs and/or were being “vilified by state bodies” and/or “were left in fear of arrest for expressing their views.” *

All of that triggered first in me that lovely reaction known as chauvinistic denial. That is, I immediately thought, “Well, the UK is not the USA,” which was about as uninformed and unattractive a reaction as I could have come up with, even if I had taken time to think about it. Obviously, no two countries are ever the same. More than that, Christianity is hardly the province of any given political state or social culture. It is a sui generis…a thing unto itself; and we who are Christian always belong to any temporal structures by a remove of at least one.

But after I recovered from the mental gymnastics involved in such self-correction, I realized that actually what I had just experienced was my first, up-front, in-my-face encounter with the very real truth that we in latinized Christianity now live both in a post-Christendom world and as confessing parts of a post-Constantinian Christianity. That perception led me back to a very fine book that I had pondered over some several weeks ago.

Of all the books that have been published in religion this year, one of the ones I have admired most is Lloyd Pietersen’s Reading the Bible After Christendom. Not least among its many virtues is the fact that it enjoys a very muscular foreword by Walter Brueggemann. That alone would be worth the price of admission. But what I also had been struck by…and am now even more informed and persuaded by…is Pietersen’s inclusion and explication of two lists.** The first is a list of the presentations of Constantinian Christianity and culture, and the second is a much shorter list of the presentations of the shifts away from it. Those two, respectively, are:


        • The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of city, state, or empire.
        • Movement of the church from the margins to the center of society.
        • The creation and progressive development of a Christian culture or civilization.
        • The assumption that all citizens (except Jews) were Christian by birth.
        • The development of a “sacral society,” corpus Christianum, where there was no freedom of religion and political power was divinely authenticated.
        • The definition of “orthodoxy” as the belief all shared, determined by powerful church leaders with state support.
        • Imposition, by legislation and custom, of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (though normally Old Testament morality was applied).
        • Infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into Christian society.
        • The defense of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality, and schism.
        • A hierarchical ecclesiastical system based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, analogous to the state hierarchy and buttressed by state support.
        • A generic distinction between clergy and laity, and relegation of laity to a largely passive role.
        • Two-tier ethics, with higher standards of discipleship (“evangelical counsels”) expected of clergy and those in religious orders.
        • Sunday as an official holiday and obligatory church attendance, with penalties for non-compliance.
        • The requirement of oaths of allegiance and oaths in law court to encourage truth telling.
        • The construction of massive and ornate church buildings and the formation of huge congregations.
        • Increased wealth of the church and obligatory tithes to fund the system.
        • Division of the globe in “Christendom” and “heathendom” and wars waged in the name of Christ and the church.
        • Use of political and military force to impose Christianity, regardless of personal conviction.
        • Reliance on the Old Testament, rather than the New, to justify these changes.


      • The Christian story and churches have moved from the center to the margins.
      • Christians are now a minority.
      • Christians therefore no longer feel at home in the dominant culture.
      • Christians no longer enjoy automatic privileges but find themselves as one community among many in a plural society.
      • The church no longer exercises control over society but instead Christians can exercise influence only through faithful witness to the Christian story and its implications.
      • The emphasis is now no longer on maintaining the status quo but on mission in an contested environment.
      • Churches can no longer operate mainly in institutional mode, but must learn to operate once again as part of a movement.

The reason I mention all of this just now is, of course, that 28 October 2012 will be the 1700th anniversary of Constantine’s victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. I can not, for the life and soul of me, think of a better way to observe that anniversary than to spend some time pondering  carefully and prayerfully the implications of those two Murray/Pietersen lists and, in particular, of our place on the latter one.


*  As reported in The Guardian, 13 April 2012. Full coverage is available on the net at

**  Taken from Stuart Murray’s  Post-Christendom: Church and Missions in a Strange New World [Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004, pp 83-84] as reproduced by Lloyd Pietersen in Reading the Bible After Christendom [Herald Press, 2012]

***  Pietersen, pp 23-25

**** Pietersen, pp 25-26


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • We will have to draw upon the Spirit to live our faith in an authentic way that is not propped up by popularity, institutional protection, and social conformity. Phyllis, this is truly visionary. God bless you and your mind. And God have mercy upon us all as we move into post-Christendom with courage and fortitude.

  • The question before us is how will we react to this shift. Will it be a reaction motivated by fear? Wanting to flee into an apocalyptic oblivion (flight)? Championing political causes in hopes of returning to our previous glory (fight)? Or will we react in faith, believing that we can move into an uncertain future with hope and grace by God’s Spirit? I pray for faith.

  • simon nash

    People in the uk might like to know Pietersen is doing a one day conf next month in london on this

  • Kevin Fusher

    My perception in the U.K is for the most part church congregations are aware of the major changes towards post Christendom and see this as a threat and are fearful of the consequences for ‘Our Christian Country’ The response in many quarters seems to be to find security in the more revivalist circles with their message of faith which seems connected to old testament principles plus the Holy Spirit. and for some to seek to find more culturally relevant settings such as caf’e church/ messy church. there are also many Christians who are already on the margins and like it!

    I also have discussions with people relating to the growth of Islam in the U.K and gay marriage both subjects are creating fear in some Christians. The gay issue seems to be the one that most people think will lead to God’s judgement on Britain, and I have recieved many emails from Evangelicals asking me to petition my M.P (which I did asking her not to support the evangelical position). The Islam fears could be seen as just racist/ill-informed, I think it is more to do with the profile of a faith which naturally has no sacred/secular divide and is comfortable in ‘the public square’ and which is also the new boggie man for U.S/U.K foreign policy to demonise.

    For the U.K we will at some point get a new Monarch who as a younger man said He wished to be Defender of Faiths this will provoke a constitutional crisis and lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England. I hope He sticks to his guns!

    For me the challenge is to not become sectarian, narrow divisive or fearful. We live in the best possible age to see Christ’s Kingdom arise without the taint of Christendom. So thanks Phyllis for the post and I shall be buying the book!

    • Karen

      Good points. What I have trouble understanding is how this postmodern christianity especially in regards to the emerging church will end up being any different from Christendom as described above. The big push for post modern christians to be proponents of social justice and peace within their communities, the insistence of embracing individual experiences within other religions as “truths” in the absence of embracing absolute biblical truth and the view that traditional interpretation of christianity is erroneous and should be rejected or completely revamped could potentially lend itself (eventually) toward the rise of a new group of spiritual elitists who will attempt to inform, reshape and control culture again. This is all very confusing for me especially in regards to politics. Do I vote Republican to express support for my strong belief that it is in the best interest of the public at large to embrace traditional family values and reject practices that I feel will only bring destruction and pain to children and societies at large or do I vote democrat to express my support in the belief that we should care for the widow and the orphan, and not forget the poor? Post-modern christianity seems to swing left (primarily) and I understand the argument to some extent. We are called to live out christianity, not impose it on our culture. However, if we are called to institute social justice then how can we do that without becoming political activists of some sort and how do we even do that when we feel we must choose sides between one tenent of the gospel over another? To insist that everyone within a nation should care for and financially support the poor, the widow and the orphan seems just as much a pushing of christianity onto government as banning same-sex marriage or outlawing abortion. I also do not understand the marginalized role that scripture plays in post modern christianity. I observe a lot of discussion about spirituality and musing over the appropriate way to live out christianity in a post-modern world and I heartily agree that it certainly is puzzling but I see a lack of focus on the gospel – the good news. Jesus said, “Go ye into all the world and preach the good news.” How can we preach the good news of we are uncertain of it’s validity or of the divinity of Christ? What is the value of christianity without a cross or of salvation without acknowledgement of sin? How can we follow the one who called himself the way, THE TRUTH, and the life if we consider his word to be relative? I just don’t get it. I think maybe we’re making it harder than it is. Jesus came to reveal the father. The Father said, “This is my son.” The son said, “I only do what my father tells me to do.” and when he prayed over us at the last supper it was over the christians, not believers and unbelievers alike. We are not all God’s children. According to Romans (as I understand it), only those who have received a spirit of adoption by repenting of sin and confessing faith in Christ are in His family. Proverbs says to not walk among the council of the unGodly. Yet some of the post-modern churches who profess christianity also embrace all types of mysticism and take cues from other faiths as the seek to further develop their spirituality. How has pentecostalism and the rise of the Charismatic Movement with their focus on sensual experiences and various ecstacies and reported supernatural experiences contributed towards this development in the evangelical community, I’m not sure but with so much uncertainty swirling around me in both the secular world and the church in regards to ideaology and theology, the only thing I know to do is to cling to the gospel and remember the cross. That said, does it really matter who I vote for or if I vote at all? With so much confusion, all I can think to say is, “Some may trust in horses. Some may trust in chariots but we will trust in the name of our God.” Christianity is definitely being marginalized. It is not going to happen. It has already happened. I predict that the majority of denominations will crumble with the next fifty years. Does it have the potential to be very good for the church? Absolutely – so long as we remember who the church is and allow ourselves to be made glorious, without spot or wrinkle “by the washing of the word” as the scriptures say. We cannot create a city of God by washing our community with good works. That’s just moralizing (I think that’s the word). We have to continue to point them towards the Savior. It is true that faith without works is dead but good works without faith is still just good works.. I think I may be reasoning myself toward a bottom line here – If the church is to maintain any influence to draw others towards the hope of Christ in a post-modern world, I think we must allow ourselves to be washed continually by the water of the word and remember that it is Christ who does the washing. Jesus told Peter that if he did not wash him, Peter would not ever be clean. We can’t forget that.