Over my time at Dunbar UMC, I have gotten into multiple conversations with multiple people about the state of our nation and the observation that we no longer seem to live in a Christian nation. This may be one of the loudest and most frequent laments that I hear. On one hand, while the state of our culture is something worth lamenting as Christians, on the other hand, I want to offer a word of hope and challenge: I believe that the Church is uniquely positioned at this point in history to be able to work as a more powerful witness to Christ than it has been able to for the past 1700 years.
In 313 AD, a major shift in history took place: Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan. In the years to come, he would make it the official, sanctioned religion of the Roman Empire. From then until the very recently in Western culture (i.e. Europe, the Americas), Christianity has been integrally tied to the state. Today, we are experiencing a transition away from those dynamics towards a posture that is much closer to the posture of the early Church as it existed in the first three centuries.
For hundreds of years since Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, to be a good Christian has meant to be a good citizen and to be a good citizen has meant to be a good Christian. It was your civic duty to go to church on Sundays. It was your cultural expectation. It was your moral obligation. On the surface, these don’t sound like such bad things, but being a Christian isn’t a civic duty, and if we see it as such, then we will always miss the mark. This age, however, is coming to an end if it hasn’t ended already.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas (who was my professor at Duke) makes a particularly strong assertion of this idea regarding the place that Christianity has held in our own culture: “Christianity is defended not so much because it is true, but because it reinforces the ‘American way of life.’ Such movements are thus unable to contemplate that there might be irresolvable tensions between being Christian and being ‘a good American.” While Hauerwas tends to speak in extremes in order to provoke engagement, he points to the way that Christianity functions for many: people appeal to it because it underwrites and validates the way things are, not so much because they see it as true and life-changing. (For the record, Hauerwas does believe that the claims of Christianity are true and life-changing).
We often think of the word “Christendom” as a positive word demonstrating the Christianization of the world through this tie between the state and Christianity. And yet, for hundreds of years, Christianity has been the servant of the dominant culture, and through it, the heart of Christianity has, in countless instances, been perverted. We witness this in the Crusades. We witness this in age of imperialism. We witness this in the slave trade. We witness this in our own political landscape. We witness this in our congregations.
In the time and place in which we live, Christianity is no longer a part of the political hierarchy. It is no longer culturally prominent. Christianity does not dominate as an institutional system.
So how can this be good news?
It is good news because Christianity can no longer be legislated from the top-down. It means that faith is something that must be grasped by the individual. No more cultural Christianity. Christianity can now only exist by conversion of heart and life. There can be no more inauthentic Christianity or masquerading on Sundays.
It is good news because the powerful no longer hold the keys to the Kingdom of God, and the Church can be a community where the poor and the marginalized can exert powerful influence. The church is being de-centered from political power so it can be centered solely on Jesus Christ.
It is good news because we are now free to seek after the Kingdom of God, rather than the kingdom of America without confusing them.
It is good news because it requires us to become disciples and not just members of a Sunday society. It requires the church to become a body of radical disciples living out the mission of God that stands out from the world. The Church must be counter-cultural in the truest sense as the lines between Church and state/culture become less and less blurred.
We are more like the early church in Acts than we have ever been in the last 1700 years. This is good news for the mission, even if it is tough for us, as Christians in the 21st century, to understand. The Church as we know it in our country is being stripped, pruned, de-centered, and readied to embody the mission of God in new (or perhaps very old) ways.
In the coming weeks, I will be working on a blog series on these new ways of embodying the mission of God by focusing on the marks of the early church as found in the Acts of the Apostles. Stay tuned for more on the hope and the challenge that is before us!