Unity not Uniformity in Post-Christendom

Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine (centre) and the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325) holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.

Icon depicting the Emperor Constantine (center) and the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325) holding the Niceno–Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.

For a while now I have been reflecting on the difference between unity and uniformity in the church. Last week’s post about “Playing at Presbyterianism” helped me frame this reflection in terms of the shift from Christendom to post-Christendom. As it has become clear that I need to do a better job of articulating what we mean by these terms and this shift, let me take this opportunity to dig a little deeper. (What follows is surely an oversimplification of Christian history, but for the purpose of this blog post I think it will suffice.)

In the apostolic era (roughly the 1st century of the Common Era), Christianity was developing from it’s Jewish roots and the increasing influence from Greco-Roman thought. In the post-apostolic era (the 2nd and 3rd centuries), there was significant theological diversity in Christianity. While there was some coalescence toward what would eventually be considered orthodoxy, certain bishops and theological schools maintained different beliefs and practices. When Constantine converted to Christianity in the early part of the 4th century, paving the way for it to become the official religion of the Roman Empire by the end of the 4th century, he determined that this diversity was unacceptable and wanted to create theological consensus across the churches of his time.

We might rightly call this the beginning of Christendom. The idea was to have a unified with a uniform creed across the Empire. Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea in 325 to solve some of the theological debates between various schools of Christian thought, most notably debates about the Trinity and christology. This was the first of seven ecumenical councils over the course of the next four centuries aimed at creating a Christian orthodoxy. (Take note that it took three centuries for the church to make a definitive statement of orthodox belief.)

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire it became another tool of imperial control. Orthodoxy and uniformity were essential elements of this control. (There is a whole lot more that can be said about the imperial nature of Christendom, but that is beyond the scope of this post.)

In the Western Church (the Eastern Church split away in the 11th century), the control of orthodoxy persisted until the Reformation of the 16th century. The Western Church was splintered as a variety of new Protestant Churches distanced themselves from the Roman Catholic Church.

What’s interesting, I think, is that each of the Protestant Churches carried on the same Christendom mentality of articulating and enforcing a particular orthodoxy. Uniformity was understood as an important way of forming these new Christian communities, differentiating them from others, and maintaining them as institutions. Christendom was fragmented, but each fragment continued to operate with the same Christendom DNA.

In the United States, this Protestant fragmenting of Christendom increased exponentially as more and more denominations were created by splitting off from others. But each enforced some sense of uniformity and orthodoxy. If a group could not abide by this orthodoxy, they left and created a new one. But the Christendom insistence on uniformity persisted.

It stands to reason that this fragmentation, among other factors, would eventually weaken the cultural influence of Christianity in the United States. This is part of the shift from Christendom to post-Christendom. It is also a major reason why all US denominations are declining in numbers.

When considered from this historical perspective and the big picture of Christianity in the world, what is really to be gained for a denomination like the Presbyterian Church (USA), now with less than 2 million members, to fight over theology and polity in an effort to impose uniformity across it’s churches? (Make no mistake, Presbyterian polity is set up in a winner-takes-all constitutional system with uniformity as it’s ultimate goal.)

In response, we could jettison the concept of denominations altogether. There is merit to this notion, but it’s unlikely to happen by choice. Yet at the current rate of denominational decline, it will likely happen eventually on its own.

Or, a denomination like the PC(USA) could reinvent itself as a post-Christendom denomination by abandoning its insistence on uniformity. We could develop a polity that allowed conservative and progressive churches to coexist with different beliefs and practices. We could discover and articulate what unites us without having to impose uniformity. This would be a post-Christendom move.

The end of Christendom means the end of global, national, or regional institutions that define and impose uniformity across the Christian world. A post-Christendom attitude embraces the theological diversity that is natural in human communities of faith and considers this diversity to be a blessing instead of a problem to overcome. Post-Christendom Christianity will find ways to celebrate unity without expecting uniformity. Post-Christendom Christianity will more resemble the diversity of the first three centuries of Christianity than the efforts to impose uniformity that dominated Christendom from the 4th century until the present day.

To me, this is exciting and inspiring. It brings us back to the urgency and vitality of the early church and abandons the mistakes of the Christendom blend of church and empire. Christianity can be free to once again be a movement aimed at changing the world rather than an institution (or a constellation of similar yet ultimately unrelated institutions.)

This is scary because Christendom Christianity is all that most of us have known. But God is leading us in new directions and we are not on our own.

Comments

  1. Larry McCracken says:

    John, thanks for this historical summary of how we Christians got to where we are today. I appreciate your efforts to explain post-Christendom to the lay church-goer. I had never thought about uniformity and orthodoxy, but it is so true. We have moved 14 times in our married life and have always joined a church where we feel most comfortable: one that has a traditional service; great, thoughtful preaching; strong outreach programs and personal growth opportunities. After after such a wonderful 12-year experience at your church (Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian), we are having a difficult time finding a home church here in Southern California. We have never been concerned too much with denominational polity. Both raised in a Community Congregational Church (later UCC), we have been Methodists, Congregationalists, military non-denominational and Presbyterians.

    I don’t believe theological consensus and uniformity is needed. Theological diversity is good. And, as you predict, if the Presbyterian Church (USA) doesn’t adapt to this new reality, it will die. Though there are some positive aspects of not having denominations, some of the downsides are the growth of churches that call themselves Christian but who really aren’t in their practices and teachings. Bbut I guess we may always have that (for example: Westboro Baptist Church and slick, money-making TV evangelists). I will continue to read your blog with great interest.

  2. I think that there are many paths to Christ. That being said, there are core principles of what it means to be Christian. Those don’t change. I believe the Presbyterian and other mainstream churches have abandoned many of those core principles.

    What the church should do is follow the principles of the Chicago School of Economics. They push the responsibility for action out to the individuals-and leave core principles to guide everyone. Trusting the individual is why the Presbyterian church started. But, the church has become a centralized bureaucratic knot.

    Because we have ways to communicate via Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, LinkedIn, PInterest, and other social media platforms, we can individualize Christianity. We can put the power back into the hands of the people, and one individual can lead, and the crowd can follow. Anyone can be a leader at any time.

    Call it crowdsourced Christianity if you will.

    The hard thing will be to come up with unifying principles. There is a lot of division in Christianity today.

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