I am looking at some of the core convictions of the Anabaptists, not because I am an Anabaptist, but because I think we learn from them. Today: the relationship of the church and the world.
“Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom ere, when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. …. Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalised Jesus, and has left the churches ill equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture.”
“The frequent association of the church with status, wealth, and force is inappropriate for followers of Jesus and damages our witness. We are committed to exploring ways of being good news to the poor, powerless and persecuted …..”
It is generally accepted that the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to christianity changed many things for the christians. They were recognised instead of persecuted, given influence, buildings to meet in and financial support, and christianity was adopted as the official religion.
But many commentators believe this new power and freedom came at a terrible cost. Collusion and identification with the state, compromise on many issues such as war and colonial conquest, and corruption via wealth and power, all led to the church becoming comfortable and cut off from its mission to the poor and marginalised, and even being seen as the oppressor.
The end of Christendom
Much of this began to come to an end in the twentieth century in Europe and other western countries, as societies became more pluralist, fewer people ‘went to church’, and church became more practically separated from the state. And so the church lost most of its power and influence. Some vestiges remain, for example, the involvement of the church in royal occasions such as coronations, and the attempts by some churches to force christian values on non-believers (e.g. over gay marriage), but it is generally considered that Christendom is over.
Good or bad?
Some christians and churches lament the loss of influence and of christian culture in society generally. But the Anabaptists, much more accustomed to being on the outside of any cosy church-state alliances, welcome the change. They say a minority, powerless church (in a secular sense) has increased opportunity to do mission, especially to the poor and powerless, have a prophetic rather than collusive role with state and culture, be servants rather than privileged, and be more pluralistic.
Making the most of every opportunity
Whether we like this change or not, it seems certain that we’ll have to get used to it anyway. But if we understand the Anabaptist emphasis on following Jesus in serving and identifying with the poor and powerless, we may be able to embrace the new situation rather than try to fight a futile rearguard action. Perhaps the US church is the one that will struggle the most, because it may have most power and privilege to lose, and may be more likely to try to hold back the tide.
If I had to guess, I’d say that some churches will embrace the new world, some will have to be dragged into it and some will fight on futilely to retain some semblance of Christendom.
In Habakuk 1, the prophet watches aghast as he sees God using unbelievers to teach his people a lesson. I believe this is a constant theme in the life of the church, and suggest this is another such time. The sooner we listen and take notice, the easier it will be.
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons