Both Old and New Testaments, writes David Martin (Pentecostalism, 12) include principles that “by persistent extension and deepening . . . can divest systems of authority of their justification and turn law into a matter of inward judgement and sincerity rather than external observance.” “Rend your heart and not your garments,” for instance, or Paul’s contrast of inner and outer circumcision.
More generally, “to make human solidarity as such the criterion of sympathy, caritas, and right action, in accordance with the New Testament model, is to corrode all the compulsory solidarities of particular local societies. To suppose that the universal spirit of power and wisdom can fall on hedge preachers merely because they attend to a all from within or above subverts every principle of social honor, inherent status, and necessary mediation. So, too, does the idea that ‘all’ are priests and kings ‘unto God,’ and that anyone can understand the clear sense of Holy Scripture.”
Christendom has been a constant negotiation between the needs of power and these biblical themes: “The mere setting forth of such principles in the sphere of faith by implication secularizes the state, and one can see how a prolonged crisis of legitimation has been written into the foundation documents of Christian civilization. It is then only a matter of time and circumstance before such corrosions trick through initially tiny conduits to undermine every structure at base. That is why the official carriers of Christianity, ensconced in seats of power, will simultaneously propagate its doctrines and restrict their implications, partly to safeguard their own position, and partly because authority, hierarchy, power, mediation, and hypocrisy of some sort are necessary ingredients of any kind of civilization.
There is more than a little individualistic liberalism at work in Martin’s assessment. It’s not obvious that the Bible is as opposed to certain notions of mediation, hierarchy or the exercise of power as he suggests. Yet there’s undeniable truth in what he says too; there’s a constant pressure within Christendom to protest the hypocrisies that Christendom inevitably produces. That’s not an argument against Christendom; it’s a reminder that Christendom – defined here as the infusion of the gospel into the cultural life of a people – is always a work in progress, never a finished state.
Or we could put it this way: A faithful Christendom is a Christendom open to the possibility of Protestantism.