Monday, November 27, 2006

Christendom Shift

We generally are unaware of our own culture as culture. It’s not that we are not conscious of our cultural norms. It’s just that we usually see them as elements of something else, such as common courtesy, moral behavior, or even the truth.

Culture generally changes with time and place. If I travel to Europe, I quickly can tell that I am in a different culture. When we watch a period movie, we consciously experience a culture from the past.

But there is a particular culture that has been so widespread and longstanding that it is often hard to see.

When Constantine legitimized Christianity in a.d. 313, culture began to be transformed into what has come to be known as Christendom.
Alan Kreider writes in the April 2005 issue of International Bulletin of Missionary Research that this shift involved eight factors:

  1. Christianity moved from the margins of society to its center.
  2. Christianity originally attracted new people by its appealing community and spiritual power; after the shift, the attraction was access to prestige and power.
  3. Christianity moved from a reliance on spiritual power to a reliance on human power.
  4. The Christendom shift changed Christianity from a voluntary movement to a compulsory institution.
  5. After the shift Christianity became at home in society so that it no longer was able to make a distinctive contribution to society.
  6. The role of Jesus shifted from the Good Shepherd, who was the teacher for all Christians, to the exalted Lord, whose teaching applied only to elite Christians.
  7. Worship changed from a humble gathering for the believers to grand assemblies intended to evangelize outsiders.
  8. The focus of the church changed from mission to maintenance.
While some bemoan the passing of Christendom, others see it as a blessing.

Living at the end of Christendom, we have been given the opportunity to distinguish between Christianity and a particular cultural expression known as Christendom.

If we are serious about being missional (that is serious about following Christ and taking his words seriously), then we must become experts in culture. We must understand our own culture and the culture of those around us.

This skill is not just for the elite.

Pastor Rod

“Helping You Become the Person God Created You to Be”


Steve Sensenig said...

Well said, Rod. It is good to see Christianity being brought back to what it originally was. I wonder how much will have to end up crumbling, though, and what effect that will have. Especially here in America. I pray that whatever is not of God (in the practice of Christianity here in America) will crumble, and that a strong, mature church will emerge. (And I'm using that last word primarily just as a simple English word, and not as a loaded reference to the "Emerging Church" specifically.)

steve :)

Pastor Rod said...

Thanks, Steve.

I would say this a little differently. I think what is important is that we are aware what parts of our expression of Christianity are cultural and what parts transcend culture.

I don't think it is really possible to "go back" to the state of the early church. But I do think that we need to distinguish between what was part of the early church and what was added later.

Christianity can only be lived in a particular culture. It is not a system of "timeless principles."

It is important that we understand, however, what are cultural exoressions of the gospel and what are essential elements of the gospel.


Anonymous said...

For not being a 'system of timeless principles' the early church fought preety hard to keep heresies out. So in this 'post christiandom world', do we forget Irenaeus's "Against Heresies"? But that would make timeless principles important....

The Hungarian Luddite said...

Unfortunately, here in the Rural, Midwest we are bound and determined NOT to change. Culture is changing all around us but we shall not be moved. We did it this way in 1940......hey what's 66 years? :)

Churches are dying and don't know it. Every year more and more small rural Churches in our area close their doors. There are 3 empty Church buildings within 10 miles of where I live.

I have pastored a couple of such no more than a mile from my house. It seems there is an attitude that says "we want to change, but we can't"

Sometimes, it is simple things. Like our insane service times, all going back to our farming roots. Early services. One Church started a contemporary service at 8:00 A.M. I bet that went well :) I try and share with pastors/people that we live in a different culture. People aren't milking the cows at daylight and then coming to Church. They want to SLEEP in on Sunday. The later a service time the better. Sounds unspiritual I know, but it is simply a cultural observation.

I fear, over the next 20 years, we are going to see wholesale Church closures in the rural ,Midwest if we do not wake up.

Now having said that........I am not advocating that we swing all the way to the other side. That, also, is a denial of culture. We must find a common point where all can worship freely AND we can effectively reach people with the gospel.

Pastor Rod said...


Thanks for stopping by. My point was that Christianity cannot be reduced to a system of timeless principles.

I am not suggesting that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Nor do I believe that just anything can be labeled as Christianity.

But Christianity is far more than a system of timeless principles.

Christianity is not any kind of a system. It is rooted in a relationship with the God of the universe. It is organic and personal.

Christianity is not "timeless." It is rooted in specific events that happened to specific people at specific places at specific times. Christianity transcends culture and geography. But it is not some thing that resides outside time and human history.

Christianity is not "principles." It is the good news of what God has done in the person of Jesus Christ.

I hope this explains a little more clearly what I meant by that phrase.


Pastor Rod said...


Welcome. It's good to see that you're back to blogging.

I pastored a church like that in rural Indiana some time ago. That's one of the reasons I moved to the Chicago area.

Maybe God is calling you to plant a missional congregation in one of those empty buildings.

God Bless,


Anonymous said...

I think your forcing a polarization. Christianity is rooted in the timeless immutable God, who works in history to establish relationships with his people. And might I just mention that this above sentence actually is a kind of system.
You are right that the essence of faith is not mere principles or systems, yet we do not operate without them, and we cannot pretend that we can reject them.

Pastor Rod said...


You bring up some good points.

However, I stick by my original point that Christianity cannot be reduced to a system of timeless principles.

You said, "Christianity is rooted in the timeless immutable God, who works in history to establish relationships with his people."

The words "timeless" and "immutable" come from Greek philosophy, not from the Bible. The Bible says that God does not change: his essential nature does not change.

Yet, the Bible also talks about God changing his mind and reacting to choices that people make.

Timelessness is also a concept that grows out of Greek philosophy. It also depends upon our current understanding of space-time. We must be careful not to read too much into the revelation contained in the Bible.

The interesting thing is that when we talk of "timeless principles" we are usually expressing them in a very specific cultural context. And any system we devise will be loaded with cultural assumptions.

I'm not saying that we can or should live without any cultural baggage or "system."

The point I want to make is that all systems bring cultural baggage and are artificial to the degree that they are "systematized." We must work to develop a consciousness of these pitfalls.

Otherwise, we tend to canonize a short slice of history and measure everything else against the thought of one or two centuries.


Anonymous said...

Timelessness is found in the saying "I am the Alpha and the Omega" not just Greek Mythology.

Anonymous said...

I ment philosophy (freudian slip), But I did want to ask, Because God's character is unchangeble, do we not have unchangeble principles to hold onto? Some of these might be Holyness, Love, Mercy, Justice...

Pastor Rod said...


You make my point for me. The phrase "Alpha and Omega" is not rigidly defined. I would argue that when you read it as communicating "timelessness" it is a result of your cultural perspective. There are many ways to understand this phrase.

I would also argue that holiness, love, mercy and justice are values, not principles.

Holiness is a value that transcends culture. The problem is that we tend to define it in cultural terms. (In fact, it is not possible to define it any other way.)

It is a mistake to try to define a value without a cultural context. It is also a mistake to think that our definition must apply to all cultures.

I am not suggesting some kind of relativism. I'm actually arguing for greater objectivity.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that Alpha and Omega is not rigidly difined but one of the things that parcipitates out of being the beginning and the end is Timelessness, (This holds true for other phrases as well, such as One day is as a 1000 years).
Also, I would like you to define principle and value.
One thing you have said is that you are arguing for a greater objectivity, but if we can't define a value with out cultural context, then isn't it a subjective value?

Pastor Rod said...


I would define values as "ideals of being and behavior." Principles I see as statements about how things "work," about the relationship between input and output.

I don't know if these definitions are very helpful. But it's difficult to define such basic concepts.

There seems to be a rather common confusion between the objectivity of the truth and the objectivity of our understanding of the truth.

I agree completely that the truth exists independent of what people think it is, that it is objective.

The irony is that the very people who want to defend the objectivity of the truth tend to create their own subjective version of the truth and to confuse that with the real truth.

Becoming more aware of our own cultural biases does not obscure the truth. It does the opposite.

There was a time not so long ago that the church thought that an essential part of the truth was belief in a geocentric universe. One authority even stated that it was as essential as belief in the virgin birth.

Because we now live in a different culture, we can see that such a statement is nonsense. Unfortunately, our own theologies are filled with similar kinds of statements.


Anonymous said...

Just to beat a dead horse and try to have the last word (no not really but here I go anyway)...
You have a vailid point, our understanding of Truth is not objective, or exaustive for that matter. You have defined an interesting difference between principle and value, and I would like to think you for causing me to think more deeply about some things.
One of the most important ways to understand the Truth of Christianity outside of our cultural biasis is studing Church History. I think our main disagreements [that is about cultural contexts] are semantics and emphasis.
Thanks for answering my questions.

Pastor Rod said...


You've asked some good questions and forced me to think more deeply as well.

Church history has value in helping us to see more objectively. But it has its own limitations.

I think that what I'm talking about is something much deeper than semantics.

What I'm saying is that we tend to be blind to our own culture. We easily confuse elements of our culture with the truth. It is not easy or simple to separate the two. And the job cannot be done once for all, because the culture keeps changing.

You're welcome to ask tough quesitons anytime you want. It's been enjoyable.