During a mission trip to Senegal, I had an opportunity to teach church history to some future West African pastors. At one point in the class, we were discussing about how Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Raised on Jacques Ellul and Stanley Hauerwas, I began to decry the heresies of Christendom. I argued that the political recognition of Christianity was a negative mark on the history of the church. The students were confused. Many of these students had come from countries where Islam was the dominant religion with either cultural or political sanction. They could not imagine that a Christianity without persecution could be a bad thing.
I thought of those students recently when I heard a lecturer condemning the evils of Christendom. What was once an important and novel critique has unfortunately become cliché. Church history before Constantine, good. Church history after Constantine, bad. To be fair, the sins of Christendom still haunt us. The largest is the church’s abdication of it’s witness to the kingdom of God. Instead, the church has often been a chaplain for the existing cultural and political order.
I taught my African students that the official recognition and protection of Christianity opened the door to heresy and laziness. They taught me that being a persecuted minority isn’t much fun. Although flawed, Christendom deserves one cheer if not three.
We must not forget that Christendom Christianity witnessed to the gospel in its own imperfect way. Christendom produced Martin Luther, John Calvin, Karl Barth and even Stanley Hauerwas. Along with its sins, the Christendom church has done a multitude of good works. The church is always a mix of wheat and tares. To emphasize the tares to the exclusion of the wheat is patently unfair.
The real danger of making a caricature of Christendom lies not in the past, but the future. Christendom is by most accounts dead. The post-modern church will not be susceptible to the sins of past. However, she will be tempted in many new ways. Being anxious to condemn Christendom, we make ourselves blind to our own temptations. Again, the church is always a mix of wheat and tares. Every age demands sober reflection on the nature of the church.