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4/24/2004

Christendom vs. Christianity  

WARNING: This is REALLY long. I'm trying to figure out how to shorten my posts, with a link to click that gives you the full text, but I'm not that good yet. If I figure it out, I'm hoping that it will make the page look neater.

I wanted to address this issue because of some things that are usually said about Christianity. People bring up things like the Crusades, the Inquisitions, etc. as evidence that Christianity is a bad thing, or corrupt, and should be abandoned. It has always been my contention that Christianity is not responsible for these things -- Christendom, or the attempt to establish Christendom, is the cause. Christians are capable of doing bad things -- NOT because they are Christian, but because they are human.

What is Christendom? If we are going to contrast Christianity and Christendom, that is the first thing we need to clear up. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines it this way:

In its wider sense this term is used to describe the part of the world which is inhabited by Christians, as Germany in the Middle Ages was the country inhabited by Germans. The word will be taken in this quantitative sense in the article RELIGIONS in comparing the extent of Christendom with that of Paganism or of Islam. But there is a narrower sense in which Christendom stands for a polity as well as a religion, for a nation as well as for a people. Christendom in this sense was an ideal which inspired and dignified many centuries of history and which has not yet altogether lost its power over the minds of men.

I think that, historically, the narrower definition is more correct. Christendom was an idea; the idea that government and religion should be the same thing, and that those to whom God has entrusted spiritual power should also be the final authority on matters of state. In other words, the very idea of Christendom is contrary to everything that Americans have been taught. And it hasn’t lost its power over the minds of men. Clearly, if you talk to many members of the Religious Right, they are striving for Christendom to take root right here in the United States.

To me, Christendom is characterized by forced conversions, inter-denominational fighting, political power-plays by church leaders, and heads of state trying to usurp the authority of the Church to cement their own positions. All you have to do is study the history of the Middle Ages to see this drama play out. If Rome didn’t like what your King was doing, they had the power of interdiction – they could deny you sacraments, effectively denying you access to the grace of God. The Pope supported insurgents in countries whose ruler opposed Rome and the Church, starting war in the process. The conflict between England and Spain was fueled in this way – Catholic Spain trying to put a Catholic ruler back on the throne in England, while Protestant England fought for its spiritual life. Of course, had Henry VIII not wanted a divorce, the Reformation might have taken a LOT longer to get to England. A big reason that Wycliffe’s attempt at reform in England didn’t work was that the political situation wasn’t right. The Spanish Inquisition was caused by this concept of Christendom. So were the Crusades (ALL of them, not just the ones against the Muslims). International disputes, fought in the name of Christianity, were the result of rulers striving for this ideal government. They failed to realize that man cannot bring the kingdom of God into existence – only God can do that.

A lot of people think that we in America can usher in the Kingdom of God by voting in good politicians (what an oxymoron THAT is). We forget that when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, the first attempt at creating Christendom, one of the first things he did was force all his troops to convert. This isn’t an option now. The world is vastly different now than it was in the fourth century, or the seventeenth. And the United States, for all our posturing, was not created to be a Christian nation. It was founded on basic Christian ideas, but it was founded to give comfort, refuge, and representation to all. Our government is not designed to create a Church-State. We should not want it to.

Now that we have established a definition of Christendom, we can compare that to Christianity. Christianity is a faith system. It is the system of belief of those people who follow the commandments of Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament, and who read and believe the things written by Christ’s apostles.

In the first chapter of Acts, we read a description of what Christ’s disciples asked Him, almost immediately after His resurrection. They wanted to know if NOW was the time to overthrow the Romans. After everything they had seen, and all He had taught them, they still had no clue. They didn’t grasp the fact that political power is secondary to spiritual victory. They only saw the immediate need. They wanted to establish Christendom.

Christ told them that that was in His Father’s hands. Then He told them what their job was – what our job is. “You will be my witnesses, to Jerusalem, and to Judea, and to Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the world.” In the Gospels, the commission is more detailed. They were commanded to go, preach, teach, disciple, baptize – nowhere does it say govern. The power that was given at Pentecost is the power to bear witness to Jesus Christ, the risen Saviour. That is the power that we have to change the world. If we do our job, God will take care of the Kingdom.

The problem is, we’re trying to do God’s job, and expect Him to do our job. That’s not the way it works.







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