Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Reflections on Forgotten Ways 3: Staving off institutionalization

At the heart of the Hirsch's book is the notion of overhauling our entire understanding of church and Jesus-followship from an institutional Christendom mentality to a dynamic movement that touches and transforms every community into which it flows. Right now, he argues, the church has an institutional ethos and we allow most of our activities to revolve around that ethos. He states, however: "I have come to the unnerving conclusion that God's people are more potent by far when they have little of what we would recognize as church institution in their life together." (Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 23) This is one of those statements that many people will quickly agree with but not see all of the implications of it. The reality of what Hirsch is saying is that we still have an institutional Christendom mentality. And for many Americans, Christendom and the American idea are confused. As I begin to unwrap this, I want to articulate more clearly about the notion of Christendom. I will not do justice to this subject, as it is a book-length subject. Although I have not read the book, Stuart Murray has a book on this topic, Church After Christendom. I really enjoyed another book by Murray called Church Planting: Laying Foundations.

The idea of Christendom is that of an established institution of the church that has a geopolitical involvement. Many would point to the conversion of the Emperor Constantine (313 CE) as marking the beginning of Christendom. It was during this time that the church began to build larger buildings, hierarchical power structure became more established and even worship had a resemblance to a Roman emperor processional. It also became a time when the church began to dabble more with the affairs of the state. This trend continued to the point that the church was intrinsically tied to the affairs of the state and relied on its powerful influence on the state. Michael Frost works out how this looked by the middle ages:

"Furthermore, by the end of the twelfth century, everyone in Christendom had been divided into parishes large enough to support a church and a priest but small enough to allow easy access to the parish chapel for services. Tithing became mandatory, so everyone was 'taxed' to support the parish church and its priests. It was a brilliant system for ensuring both ecclesiastical administration and pastoral care. The laity was expected to pay its tithe and attend Mass. The clergy were expected to perform sacramental rites such as baptism, marriage, funerals, and weekly Mass, as well as provide for the poor. The result of nearly two centuries of Christendom is that Christian have become used to the idea that their faith is primarily about attending meetings—worship meetings, weddings, funerals, prayer meetings, and so on. Even today, in our thoroughly post-Christendom world, when the essential work of the church in providing religious, liturgical services has become irrelevant, Christians (including many exiles) can't separate the idea of Christianity from the weekly Mass or worship service. Even those who have ceased attending church services have great difficulty imagining what it means for a group of believers to church together without picturing a liturgical meeting of some kind." (Frost, Exiles, 277)

Why does this matter? This Christendom mentality or ethos has carried forward through the Reformation until today. The late Lesslie Newbigin describes the force of Christendom (what he calls corpus Christianum) in shaping western culture and unequivocally posits that we cannot return to those days.

"…two facts are fundamental to an understanding of our present situation. One is that we are the heirs of the Christendom experiment. We who belong to the Western world live in societies that have been shaped by more than a thousand years during which the barbarous and savage tribes of Europe were brought, slowly and with many setbacks, into a community conceived as the corpus Christianum, a single society in which the whole of public and private life was to be controlled by the Christian revelation. Much of what we take for granted about normal human behavior is the fruit of that long schooling. However much we rebel against it, we are its products.

    The second fact is that the corpus Christianum is no more, and we cannot go back to it. The religious wars of the seventeenth century marked the final destruction of Christendom's synthesis of church and society. From the eighteenth century onward, Europe turned away from the Christian vision of man and his world, accepted a radically different vision for its public life, and relegated the Christian vision to the status of a permitted option for the private sector." (Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks, 101-2)

In essence, Newbigin, Hirsch, Murray, and many others argue that the era of Christendom is long gone and cannot be regained but that much of the established church has not yet recognized this unalterable fact. Even harkening back to the Reformation commenced by the bold actions Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and many others, much of theology underwent a radical renewal. A fresh reading of scripture inspired a fresh articulation of our salvation and Christ's work on the cross. Yet, in terms of ecclesiology, they continued a Christendom-type ecclesiology (only without the papal authority). Today, long after the church has been relegated to the private sphere of life, the church still carries with it a mentality of enormous influence and establishment.

Hirsch is calling for the church to undergo a kenotic movement (from the Gr word kenos, devoid, empty) described of Jesus in Phil. 2. This self-emptying process allowed Jesus to identify more fully with humanity. The church, in like manner, must be willing to enter communities humbly and incarnationally. Just as Jesus encouraged his followers to take up their cross on a daily basis, so must the community of Jesus followers, the church.

(more on institutionalism to follow)

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