Christendom, Rightly Understood

In Resident Aliens, a manifesto for a neo-Anabaptist vision for Christian witness published at the eclipse of the Reagan Administration, Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon triumphantly declared victory over the corpse of “Christendom.” What they meant by this was not the total annihilation of nominal Christianity but the ceremonial end of a Constantinian partnership between church and state. The divorce was finalized with the undoing of strict blue laws in America, represented for them by the opening of the Fox Theater on a Sunday night in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1963. Although they remarked that they weren’t arguing the situation for Christians themselves was improved by making the Sabbath a congregational and no longer a civil concern, Hauerwas and Willimon nevertheless claimed that the radical nature of the Christian community would now be more radical than it ever had been from 313 to 1963 AD. No longer acting as if it was still the spirit of the age, the Church could return to being against it.[1]

Such a sentiment seems prevalent among evangelicals who bemoan calling America, historically or presently, a Christian nation. I remember well how an established megachurch pastor lamented that ministry is most challenging in the southern United States because “everyone thinks they’re a Christian.” I’m sure he wasn’t the first to make this claim, and as long as the cottage industry of tilting at sociological windmills continues, he won’t be the last. Yet hidden in this statement is a presupposition that, in our present context, continues to lead us into greater and greater unfaithfulness in being active witnesses to the truth in the hopes that our blood will cry out more loudly from the ground. The reader might find my imagery unnecessarily grotesque; I have in mind here the mentality that bearing our crosses supersedes testifying to the cause of their grooves in the first place. In an age of a graceless gospel of cancellation, self-flagellation profits more than repentance and restoration. This contrition is displayed preeminently in cheering on the demise of supposed aims toward public Christianization in any form. Evangelicals, a people of the gospel through and through, should apparently rejoice in having it as their only banner, apart from any meddlesome cultural particularities.

Despite the greatly exaggerated reports of its death, the modern West in which evangelicalism lives and moves and has (most of) its being comes from the ruins of a Christendom many forget they still inhabit. Without restating Tom Holland’s analysis on this very subject to the point of mitigating the significance of his work, I will simply take up a postscript: the decline of Christendom, rather than bettering the conditions of conversion, is bringing down the very West in which much of evangelicalism freely ministers down with it. Whether they like it or not, Christendom remains the ghost at the feast for our historic institutions and, in fact, the same system of religious liberty which grants Christians the ability to carry forward the Church’s mission in peace.

Of course, definitions bedevil any sober discussion on the good of Christendom. If one takes it as a unitary project of bringing all things under a sectarian confessional order, then as a Baptist, I am the first to sympathize with the objectors. Yet for those of the persuasion such as Hauerwas and Willimon that it is any kind of civil recognition of the goods of faith, then we have a problem. That problem is a separatism that many take to be the only faithfully evangelical disposition, and it is far from new.

Reflecting on the state of the Church on the eve before the onset of Diocletian’s persecution in the early fourth century, Eusebius declared:

“How great, how unique were the honour, and liberty too, which before the persecution of my time were granted by all men, Greeks and non-Greeks alike, to the message given through Christ to the world, of true reverence for the God of the universe! It is beyond me to describe it as it deserves. Witness the goodwill so often shown by potentates to our people; they even put into their hands the government of the provinces, releasing them from the agonizing question of sacrificing, in view of the friendliness with which they regarded their teaching. What need I say about those in the imperial palaces and about the supreme rulers? Did they not permit the members of their households – consorts, children, and servants, to embrace boldly before their eyes the divine message and way of life, hardly minding even if they boasted of the liberty granted to the Faith? Did they not hold them in special esteem, and favour them more than their fellow servants?…And what approbation the rulers in every church unmistakably won from all procurators and governors! How could one describe those mass meetings, the enormous gatherings in every city, and the remarkable congregations in places of worship? No longer satisfied with the old buildings, they raised from the foundations in all the cities churches spacious in plan. These things went forward with the times and expanded at a daily increasing rate, so that no envy stopped them nor could any evil spirit bewitch them or check them by means of human schemes, as long as the divine and heavenly hand sheltered and protected its own people, as being worthy.”[2]

Contra Tertullian, Eusebius recognized that it was the gracious disposition of earthly rulers to the spread of the gospel that gave the Church much-needed prosperity. Even before Constantine nodded positively in its direction, Christianity flourished whenever magistrates ruled favorably toward Christians and their endeavors for the common good.

Opponents of Christendom’s very existence represent the extremes of a religious separatism that demands absolute purity of commitment without any potential worldly influences. As noted by Philip Hamburger, Protestant dissenters in late eighteenth-century America “were neither so indifferent to the religious and moral foundations of government nor so hostile to clergymen and church institutions as to seek a segregation of church and state. Ever conscious of the broad relevance of their beliefs, their congregations, and the Christian church to their lives in this world, [they] advocated conceptions of religious liberty more compatible with their hopes for themselves and their Christianity.”[3] In other words, the enemy was not the establishment of Christianity as normative for society but the state’s feigned establishment of the Church itself, a body organized by only one Lord alone. Christendom, rather than being taken as a hindrance to true conversion, was taken as a boon in keeping the affections of men in order for the good of all. While magistrates by no means were those set apart to proclaim the gospel, they did their work best when giving their full backing to ministers who were.

It is this Christendom–an assent to Christianity’s centrality to what makes the West a force for flourishing–to which we should worthily aspire to uphold. A Christendom that eventually planted its flag over the backwardness of chattel slavery it could no longer justify. A Christendom that refused to allow fallen men to define god and evil for themselves. A Christendom that ensured image-bearers would not die as those only aware of one kingdom alone. Most importantly, Christendom’s triumph was built upon the tenacity of its builders to see their faith established as the only fitting foundation for reality in the world they sought to refashion in the style of the new creation that now commanded their destinies.

That ecology, though, is something that can’t be taken for granted. It is with good reason that Alexis de Tocqueville considered the Christian religion America’s principal “political institution.” Without recourse to the faith that gave its exceptionalism its first breath, it should be expected that this exceptionalism’s strangulation by those with a zeal for another house in the United States makes the prospects of its experiment in democracy more than uncertain. As Holland himself acknowledged in an interview, the bestowal of “universal dignity” upon all of humanity finds its genealogy tracing back to the first chapter of the book of Genesis, not the writings of humanist philosophes.[4] Those clinging to Christianity’s secularized phantasm in the modern expression of rights language apart from standing upon its grounding doctrines find their sole consolation in the present generation’s willingness to keep the stories of the ancestors alive, even if they can’t remember why the verses were originally written down to begin with.

To stand athwart Christendom’s demise and call for the old landmarks to be removed so that the real disciples may stand up need not be the only recourse of the faithful. At best, I can imagine that one would do this out of fear for a civilly-recognized religion becoming too civilized, maturing into the off-handed universalism of Dwight D. Eisenhower who stated that the American “form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” Underlying this unease however is, in essence, the assumption that part of the state’s duty is doing all it can to keep the wheat and the chaff away from each other when it is properly the wielding of the kingdom’s keys within the body of Christ to do so. No one should expect the state to handle the distinctions of dogma, but neither are they guiltless in treating the citizens who look to them to promote the good and discourage evil as if they are, in the words of Richard Hooker, “like hogs and to see that they have their mash.”[5] To treat man as an irreligious creature does damage to the conscience a state is properly responsible for directing. Christendom cannot claim any true converts, but it has proven a more than reliable doorstop to the gates that seek to prevail against them.

Contesting where to lay the body of Christendom should only come after interrogating our options for what we’ll do without it. An uncritical eulogizing of its burial with reckless abandon facing a hostile world might very well remove some benign dross, but it will do nothing to the betterment of conditions for ourselves and our neighbors aiming to use as much of the day that’s left without hastening the onset of the night. Wanting harder soil apart from Christendom’s leavening manifests a distortion of where the true confidence of the church lies. While we are to never trust in princes, they shouldn’t be left off the hook in the desertion of their duties either. Two cheers for Christendom, then, and a third for those who refuse to see it left in an unmarked grave.

Flynn Evans (M.Div, ThM) currently lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife Claire. They are members of the Reformed Baptist Church of Louisville. He will begin graduate studies in history at the University of Mississippi this fall.

  1. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989).

  2. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 8.1.

  3. Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 20.

  4. Tom Holland, “Tom Holland On How Christianity Has Shaped Western Morality,” from History Hit. Published on December 20, 2021. Accessed on April 11, 2023.

  5. Richard Hooker, The Works of Richard Hooker, vol. 3 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1888), 364.


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