Denominations, Congregations and Christendom

I feel like I have to explain that last one, Christendom. That is simply the word that described a time from roughly Constantine to circa 1965. What it meant was that anywhere you went in the west two things were roughly true: 1) Christianity even if of various shades or just nominal was a shared foundation which meant that biblical stories were a shared vocabulary and 2) The church had a teaching role to play in the larger society. Even if you didn’t accept the gospel, the church’s law was the curb or the minimum basis of civil law.

There were two articles stumbled across that have spurred the following reflection. Here is Sara Hinlicky, an ELCA pastor living the ex-pat life in France writing about church life in the reaches and how it can be very different. Here is another ELCA pastor mulling over that amorphous group know as “young clergy” and what they would tell you after three beers. (The Seminary limit is two, so if you see Pastor on his third its either that he’s put on enough weight to handle three, or something is eating him.) I think both of these articles are talking about the same thing.

It is only 10 AM – echoing St. Peter at Pentecost- and writing some of this is more likely to send me to drinking that third beer, but what the hey.

1) Christendom as described above is dead. In the USA, where freedom of religion is enshrined in the constitution, mayors are telling Chicken sandwich places they can’t build (Chick-fil-a) over the owner’s Christian beliefs, and national laws are being written that force Roman Catholic organizations to do what they think is anathema. The church’s teaching role is no longer acknowledged and that was the core of Christendom.
2) A corollary to the death of Christendom is the slower death of denominations.
3) The collapse of denominations is not the same thing as the collapse of the church.
4) The church is found where the gospel is preached and the sacraments are administered rightly. (AC7) That transcends our little law boxes known as denominations that we build to protect it, but most importantly the church is found fully in the local congregation.
4a) It is a confusion of law and gospel to find the church in the larger structures that we build de jure humano (by the law of man). That is not an excuse for anarchy. [The Confessions’ Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, especially starting at paragraph 60, is magnificent on this.]
5) The calling of this generation is to train and equip (Eph 4:12) – to restore to the first love(Rev 2:4) – many congregations that are actually wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (Rev 3:17). You find the church in the congregations; you also find the rot there.
6) That is the shared calling of every generation, just some are more deeply felt. Human structures fall faster when the foundation is rotten. In the final flowering of Christendom and its teaching of the law, we forgot to preach the gospel.
7) Christendom’s rules included a “career path” for ministers. A career path and calls were about location mobility. Which if we are being honest led to the abuse of the small and weak and a chasing after the winners when the gospel is rightly about the cross and identifying with the losers (Matt 25:31-46). Career paths are replaced by the more biblically relevant overseer or elder found in 1 Tim 3:1-13, which are fulfilled by someone from the local community.
8) Worldly success (i.e. numbers, budgets, is not guaranteed by being faithful to the gospel. If fact the opposite might be true (paradox of the cross). But, Jesus says to pray, and what you ask will be granted (Luke 11:9). We pray weekly (daily!) your kingdom come. If even we evil ones know how to give good gifts, what about our Father in heaven? (Luke 11:5-13) In His grace, through the means of prayer, God’s Kingdom certainly comes. And what Luther describes is that we pray it come to us. In whatever form it takes, may we recognize your Kingdom.

In summary, many of the concerns by the “young clergy” article, as much as it intellectually admits the death of one model, to me come across as a lament or a clinging to it. It is only when you are willing to die to what you’ve known (Bishops and Synods and Chairs and Budgets and Calls) that you find the Gospel power of resurrection. It is still the church, just a resurrection body, not that mortal one. We don’t force the change. God accomplishes that all on his own. You can cling to the vestiges of the life that is passing away, or in prayer grasp the already given resurrection. Hinlicky’s article strikes closer to the surprising truth of the Gospel.