People outside the church are frustrated when people inside the church fail to see that there should be a clear division between the two. They feel that Christians are out of line when they treat the culture around them as if it were their church. Honestly, as a Bible-teaching pastor, I agree to some degree. Some Christians are wrong in how they understand the relationship between church and society.
Throughout the Bible a clear demarcation exists between God’s people and others. God repeatedly tells His followers that they cannot act like their neighbors—non-believers living among them and the culture around them. God has different expectations of His own. The Old Testament records recurring conversations between God and His people that sound like a dad whose children keep pestering him to get away with the same stuff as the neighbor kids. The dad tells them no, explaining that his family rules are different from the family rules next door. In the New Testament the words “church” and “world” mark this split between the two proverbial families. Sin means crossing that line of demarcation. Holiness means abiding by the rules on this side of the line.
Some Christians seem to miss this. Across history and particularly in America, they see their nation as one big church, resulting in a thing called “Christendom.” My book A Call to Resurgence details this problem. Let me sum up what I say there.
For starters, Christendom is not the same as Christianity. While Christianity has existed for a couple thousand years, Christendom popped into being around 500 years ago (the exact date varies depending on which historian you prefer). America was an experiment in Christendom. It was to be a nation established largely by Christian people with Christian principles pursuing Christian purposes. The line between church and the world soon became very blurry.
America wasn’t the only place where this thing called Christendom took hold. But it led the nations in basing moral values on biblical principles so that people more or less shared a common outlook on right and wrong even when they failed to live up to their ideals. Most everyone knew sex was reserved for marriage. Marriage was for a man and a woman. Pornography and casual sex were generally understood to be evil, even if many didn’t practice what they preached. And last but not least, children were viewed as a desirable part of life. All these basic mores and others were part of the common vision of the good life within a good nation that was as understood in Christendom.
At the center of cultural influence within Christendom were religious leaders and houses of worship. They were essential to upholding the moral framework of a good nation. Politicians were expected to believe in God and attend church, and political speeches were supposed to be littered with the language and imagery of Scripture. Places of worship were given benefits such as tax exemptions as a way of recognizing their value to the greater culture in promoting virtue, restraining vice, and helping the needy.
Despite the dividing line being blurred in the extreme, Christendom and Christianity are not the same thing. Christendom is far bigger and broader than Christianity, encompassing non-Christian beliefs like the deism of Thomas Jefferson, the Unitarianism of many high-level politicians, or the beliefs of outliers like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Under Christendom, America created a new national religion that took concepts and images from Old Testament Israel and reappropriated them. In A Call to Resurgence, I say it this way:
Think of American civil religion in biblical terms: America is Israel. The Revolution is our Exodus. The Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and Constitution compose our canon of sacred scripture. Abraham Lincoln is our Moses. Independence Day is our Easter. Our national enemies are our Satan. Benedict Arnold is our Judas. The Founding Fathers are our apostles. Taxes are our tithes. Patriotic songs are our hymnal. The Pledge of Allegiance is our sinner’s prayer. And the president is our preacher, which is why throughout the history of the office our leaders have referred to “God” without any definition or clarification, allowing people to privately import their own understanding of a higher power.1
In this blatant borrowing, the spiritual symbols were kept and the substance was lost. But it is no wonder people mistake Christendom for Christianity.
Throughout some 500 years of history, Christendom and Christianity have been mutually opportunistic, each using the other to advance the cause. Christendom wanted the social benefits of Christianity without the scriptural beliefs. President George Washington said in his farewell address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports… Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” A century and a half later, president-elect Dwight Eisenhower said, “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” 2
THE DEATH OF CHRISTENDOM
When people care little about the content of faith, it should be no surprise when that faith becomes irrelevant to real life. Christendom as an all- powerful system has died over the course of just a few decades. Nations that were part of Christendom are now over a 500-year infatuation and are largely post-Christendom. The Bible is no longer a highly regarded book, a pastor no longer a highly regarded person, and the church no longer a highly regarded place.
Mark Driscoll, A Call to Resurgence (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013), 11–12.
Patrick Henry, “‘And I Don’t Care What It Is’: The Tradition-History of a Civil Religion Proof-Text,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 49, issue 1 (March 1981): 41.