A Christendom Question

This is a little noodling, no great answer, if you’ve got it please tell me…

I put Christendom in the title knowing that anyone my age or younger probably doesn’t know what that means. The last people who might have actually experienced it in a deeply meaningful way are my parents age. So why am I using an archaic term? Because I have a real question. Because we deal with the remains.

First a definition. This is my understanding of Christendom. A person, just by the fact of being born in a society, maintains the idea that they are a Christian regardless of actual beliefs, practices or worship. Once upon a time Christendom was strong enough that even without any observable worship or practices, everyone knew what the church’s professed beliefs were. Abraham Lincoln is the perfect example. Looking at his practice (especially as a boy and young man), there is no christian practice. But, reading any of his speeches, and calling out the 2nd inaugural or the House Divided Speech, you can’t but hear a product of Christian formation. As Christendom fractured or became weaker, that formation became less to the point where today you have self-professed life long Christians who not only haven’t been to service for over a decade, have probably skipped prayers or bible reading for most of that time, and couldn’t tell you what “a house divided” refers too in the life of Jesus. For many John 3:16, or a decent paraphrase, would be tough.

Now the pastoral practice question. In Christendom, things like baptisms, weddings, pastoral care (which is sharing the cross and the comfort of the resurrection) and funerals were assumed. Unless the person went out of their way to say “I don’t believe” or “I opt out” the church handled these things. In a post-Christendom society I think it is clear that such things will be “opt-in”. (Why are baptists faring better? Because the believer’s baptism and the testimony story are clear “opt-ins”. That is not a statement on the theology, but the pragmatics.) In the world of my kids (and I would say myself) one will have to say “I believe, teach and confess Christ” or “I opt in”. And this is made clear by one’s worship and practice. In Christendom the collective practice could carry the slacker. Not in post-Christendom. I say this because, does it make sense to marry someone saying “this marriage is picture of the communion between Christ and His Bride the Church” when the bride and groom don’t really believe that or know what it means? What kind of meaning or comfort is there in the cross and resurrection if one does not understand them or confess them? (It might take a death bead to move head knowledge to heart and kindle faith, but if there is no head knowledge to begin with?) I ask questions like those and largely think they are rhetorical. There would be no purpose in them. The death bed call would retain a purpose of that 11th hour call to the vineyard, but those are not as often as we do not have an art of dying anymore. What we have is a call from the mortician to see if the church would hold a service, because, well, because why? Pastors just a little older than I would still follow old advice on all these occasions. You do all that come as a chance to preach the gospel. And that is perfect Christendom thinking. It assumes that everyone who is present has enough understanding of the law and their place against it that the call to repentance and offer of grace is meaningful. These occasions allegorically represent the early, third and sixth hour calls to the vineyard. But what if you don’t know the way to the vineyard? Or if you’ve rejected the vineyard in favor of some other work or just loafing? Do such calls have any meaning other than witness against?

The pastoral question becomes, I think, how do you move from the automatic yes to something that offers the chance to believe and confess? And how do you do that when there are still many who maintain a Christendom understanding that everyone is a Christian by default?

As I said, just some noodling. Trying to get to good questions.

Father’s Day, Baseball, Status and Religion

worker-vineyard_bas_reliefThis is Fay Vincent, former Commissioner of Baseball, reflecting on some of his Father’s advice. Most of it is fine stuff. Advice to live a quiet honorable life. That and one line of his advice is what crosses into another column.

Here my father reflected the Great Depression and his experience of graduating from Yale with every athletic honor—only to discover the sole job available was digging post holes for the local electric utility

Reflect for a second on a generation and culture where digging post holes is where you started, even with a Yale degree. Also reflect for a second on that Yale sheepskin holder gladly doing that work. What does it suggest both about work and the cultural view of it?

This is David Brooks reflecting on a very similar move by another father.

About a century ago, Walter Judd was a 17-year-old boy hoping to go to college at the University of Nebraska. His father pulled him aside and told him that, though the family had happily paid for Judd’s two sisters to go to college, Judd himself would get no money for tuition or room and board.

His father explained that he thought his son might one day go on to become a fine doctor, but he had also seen loose tendencies. Some hard manual labor during college would straighten him out.

As Brooks goes on “Judd went on to become a doctor, a daring medical missionary and a prominent member of Congress between 1943 and 1963.”

That advice and actions of both of those Fathers would leave many aghast today is my bet. Brooks captures something true I think.

More important, that people then were more likely to assume that jobs at the bottom of the status ladder were ennobling and that jobs at the top were morally perilous. That is to say, the moral status system was likely to be the inverse of the worldly status system. The working classes were self-controlled, while the rich and the professionals could get away with things.

These mores, among other things, had biblical roots. In the Torah, God didn’t pick out the most powerful or notable or populous nation to be his chosen people. He chose a small, lowly band…In the New Testament, Jesus blesses the poor, “for yours is the kingdom of God.” But “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.”

Work in and of itself was ennobling and worthwhile. Even the rich and powerful had a moral check on them, and like the unjust judge (Luke 18:2-8), even if they thought it was bunk, they’d have to give justice to stop the outcry. With the rolling outright rejection of Christianity and more important Christendom (simply the understanding that the state is taught its ethics by the church), that check is gone. Like Paul says in Romans, if you won’t be instructed by the Word, God says fine and hands you over to your desires. And so we have naked lawless state that feels no shame in lying to us or listening in on whatever they want to. In fact they feel justified and get angry when countered because after all they are at the top of the only status hierarchy left. Who are you to complain? On what legitimate basis?

[Insert “repent, return to the Word, and God may yet be merciful” sermon.]

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, et.al.) 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.