In the broad field of church history one of the many debates that will likely never be settled is the legitimacy of the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine who made Christianity the religion of the empire and ushered in the western “Church Age” that gave rise to the Christendom model that still exists in fewer and fewer places today. Constantine’s conversion allowed the church to solidify its doctrine, specifically the trinity and two natures of Christ, but the tie between the Church and Government that came out of it was nearly immediately problematic. Not to mention that once the Roman Empire fell and the emperor dethroned by the Goths a void existed that meant the other institution of power, the Church, was there to fill and take power leading the practice of the Pope crowning and ordaining the rule of the head of the Holy Roman Empire (800-1802)
I grant you this is a crude history that glosses over much of the details of Constantine’s conversion. Needless to say, the conversion set in motion the creation what today we call Christendom which Merriam-Webster defines as: “The worldwide body or society of Christians.” Of course, in the west we might add to this definition: “Holding power and influence over the state through political action.” Constantine’s conversion took a small, persecuted, but growing group of Middle-Eastern, Greek and African believers and set their teachings and leaders in places of power and allowed it to become a global faith. Hence the creation of Christendom.
And if we had left it at that, simply gaining freedom from persecution, even had we not had people placed in positions of influence, we would likely have been fine, but once we defined our doctrines, we found ourselves in power with little to do. As the years went on we returned to the place of our roots, waging wars against Islam and later against ourselves called Crusades. We responded to violence with violence and even committed violence of our own. The church became so powerful it could determine the eternity of the most faithful souls and condemn kings and emperors, wage wars and condemn heretics, exacting taxes and selling salvation. The Gospel became cheap and Christendom became politicized.
Then in the 16th century a monk named Martin Luther stood up to the correction of the Catholic Church and nailed the Ninety-Five Thesis to the chapel door at Whittenberg. By his own account he never intended to split, but reform, the Catholic Church, but a split occurred nonetheless and the Church in the West, which had already split many times and suffered from Schisms, split again into Catholics and Protestants.
Along the way we forgot we came from Middle Eastern, Greek and North African roots and began writing those things out of our history. By the time of Luther, Europe had already gone to Africa, The Caribbean The East Indies, Latin America and South America and with it began the ruthless and barbaric Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade which would last until the mid to late 1800’s. We called Africans, who had been Christians long before we had, barbaric, animals. We dehumanized and sought justification for our supremacy based on skin color, even falsifying scientific data to claim that these human beings were somehow less or “other” than us. We raped and murdered and sometimes completely killed off indigenous peoples and held men in bondage and rewrote scripture to justify it and make sure they did not rebel or gain an understanding of their personhood. Christendom had become the twin of colonization, often times showing up with the colonists to help them “Subdue” the natives. All of this was justified by the Discovery Doctrine which stated that if native persons did not bow and become believers they could be killed off.
The Discovery Doctrine, issued by Papal Bull in 1493: The Bull stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be “discovered,” claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers and declared that “the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.” This “Doctrine of Discovery” became the basis of all European claims in the Americas as well as the foundation for the United States’ western expansion. In the US Supreme Court in the 1823 case Johnson v. McIntosh, Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion in the unanimous decision held “that the principle of discovery gave European nations an absolute right to New World lands.” In essence, American Indians had only a right of occupancy, which could be abolished.”
In America, Christendom fought for power and prestige all throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries culminating in the rise of the Christian Right and, as its death nears, an angry, renewed surge of Christian Nationalism. It apposed civil rights, continued the sins of the discovery doctrine, drove natives from their land, lynched innocent black men, stripped men and women of their dignity because of their skin color. It conflated the flag with the cross, making them synonymous. Many became cultural Christians, or Christians in name only and feeling their power wane they turned to violent nationalism, bringing with them some in the Church who had been leaders and who had grown up with the Christendom model with them. We panicked over the loss of our power and turned to a man whom we didn’t understand and could not control. Not all of us, some of us voted on one issue, the economy or whatever, some voted because they had seemingly been forgotten by the coasts and were angry because they felt they were not being heard. Racism, Hate Speech and other atrocities began running rampant. Christendom was dying, and we were confused.
The sins of a political, colonial Christendom have been exposed, there is no one to blame but ourselves, the church has lost its power and all this writer can say is “Praise the Lord.”
I know this is a bleak picture, but it is an important one, we must acknowledge our sins, some of which we are still committing. We must be willing to acknowledge our ignorance of the Church outside of our borders, a Church that is thriving beyond anything we can really imagine. A Church that is made up of every tribe, nation and tongue, that bounds across ethnic boundaries, a church that we are a part of, but have denied ourselves the benefit of fellowship with. We need to acknowledge this, we need to admit where arrogance and pride have spurned prejudice and hate in the name of power. We need to acknowledge where we have individuals have contributed to these things and seek forgiveness, while balancing a corporate acknowledgement that we, as the Western, yes, white, Church, has committed violence and dehumanized and engaged in supremacist ideas. Be humble enough to seek reconciliation that may involve some corporate and individual repentance. We have abused out power, historically.
If you are a long-time reader, and have made it this far in the article, you know I usually have a positive outlook on the church, and I do. Many are realizing that Christendom has run its course, biblical literacy is on the rise, as is the amount of churches involved in meeting the needs, spiritual and physical, in their communities. Christians in the pews are, in mass, abandoning the old model and politicized definition and acknowledging their place as part of a global, multi-ethnic and catholic church. But we must be careful not to make these changes without recognizing the ways we have failed in the past. We have to be humble enough to ask forgiveness where it is necessary and not assume the need to apologize means we are under some attack by leftist ideals. We need to recover the true Gospel that, as Paul tells us, has “Torn down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14) which we have re-erected using race and ethnocentrism as justification.
And as we go back to living Gospel centered lives, perhaps we will see a change in the world. I have no doubt that God is calling and drawing His people back to Himself. It is evident in the research of both Christian and Secular Sociologists. That calling means we need to repent of that which has driven us from Him and from one another. Because in this time of cultural crisis, the Church needs to be the vessel of peace and reconciliation that it is meant to be, a true continuation of the presence of Christ.
Jim Singleton has said, and I agree: “There has never been a time when the culture has been closer to the first century as it is today and the same goes for the Church.” That means that sect, schism and segregation are the privileges of a church in power. We must abandon these, re-integrate and renew our mandate to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. So that the world may know that there is a God, the God of the bible, who created us as one body, globally placed, crossing every ethnic line, not favoring one over the other. As politicized Christendom dies, the real Christendom can rise and we can enter the age of the Global Church.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary working on Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel in the North Shore of Boston and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church.