Back in 2002, I traveled to Freiburg, Germany with my wife and then six month old child to visit family members who were about to have a baby of their own. We were all together in a very small and cold walk-up apartment. I spent a lot of time during the days walking the streets of Freiburg just to deal with my claustrophobic feelings. It was winter and the downtown area was beautiful. The central section of the town was a large circle. Little shops ringed the circle. In the middle of the circle was an enormous cathedral several centuries old. It was a marvel. With the snow falling I could imagine standing in the same spot centuries ago around the time of Christmas. In my mind’s eye I could see crowds of people walking into the area on its cobblestone streets to worship on Christmas Eve. This was the church as the center of a culture.
In the time of European Christendom, the Christian religion served as the religion of the people and nations. Christian churches provided the official structure of worship and values in a community. For a period of centuries, the Christian faith operated in tandem with religion in the Durkheimian sense. The pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim viewed religion as something like society worshipping itself. At various points, devout Christians rebelled at the compromises required of being tied to the community cult and thus you had a Francis, a Tyndale, a Luther, or a Great Awakening. One might argue that we have been unraveling the interwoven fabric of Christianity and the community cult since that time, but faster in the last half century.
In America today, the antithesis between church and culture has become fairly clear. Christianity does not provide the “cult” in the culture. The American Durkheimian religion can be found in the earnest professions of movie stars, media personalities, ambitious politicians, and corporate executives. The new American religion, while shaped by Christian ideas about the dignity of human beings and Christian benevolence, is increasingly intolerant of Christian orthodoxy. We have seen a major corporation fire one of its founders who was the CEO for having donated to a traditional marriage referendum in California. The mere act of his previously unpublicized donation was enough to establish his unsuitability, his out-of-stepness with the new American faith. He had become, in fact, a type of heretic. Just this month, we have seen the mayor of Atlanta terminate his fire chief because of his expression of traditional Christian sexual morality in a book written for his Sunday school class. There is a sense in which holding ordinary Christian beliefs is now a form of heresy marking one as unfit for a position of authority.
Whether the issue is the HHS mandate regarding the provision of contraceptive products or new attitudes regarding same-sex romance and marriage, the group representing the theology of this new Durkheimian cult has demonstrated a willingness to push those who disagree into conforming. The Christian florist or baker with objections to working on a gay wedding must be brought to heel. There is forgiveness offered by the new faith. One may hope for a chance to attend sensitivity training so as to avoid a ruinous fine. When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a narrow decision in favor of Hobby Lobby despite its heretical view of biological ethics, the members of the new community cult howled as though some peasant had failed to remove his hat in the presence of the king. The dangerous Christian sect had been granted a stay.
The situation forces us to be honest about where we are as the church. Fortunately, we have antecedents to guide us. If you look at the history of the church in the west, it has really operated on two models: the comprehensive church and the regenerate church. If you think about the picture I painted of the church at the center of the city in Freiburg and my thoughts about what it might have been like at the height of European Christendom, then you have a sense of the comprehensive church. The comprehensive church was tightly interwoven with the political and legal structures. To be born into the community was effectively to be baptized as well. We still see little vestiges of the comprehensive church in Europe, but the lesson seems to be that legal establishment ultimately saps the church and leaves it subsidized and conforming.
In the United States, we had formal disestablishment early on in our history, but we continued on with an informal establishment for more than a hundred years after that. Even if we look back to the Eisenhower years of the 1950’s, you could find strong encouragement generally to “attend the church of your choice,” which really amounted to a strong nod in favor of the Judeo-Christian mix of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. President Eisenhower laid the cornerstone of the National Council of Churches building (sometimes called “the Godbox”) in New York City.
The Christian church of America today is not comprehensive in either the formal or informal senses. We, as evangelicals, have played a part in that development. We have made it clear that we desire no weak, watered-down, pink lemonade for blood sort of cultural religion. In this age, there is virtually no chance that we will again be Christians in the comprehensive mode. We will instead be like the early Christians in the sense that will be the regenerate church rather than the comprehensive church. The regenerate church has a membership based on conviction as opposed to one centered on assumed beliefs, geography, citizenship, and social power.
There will be many who will say, “Hallejujah! May it ever be so. The worst thing that ever happened for the church was Constantine’s conversion!” And I understand that sentiment, although I give it two cheers rather than three. My reservation has to do with the fact that Constantine’s conversion was a spectacular deliverance for the church of the time and arguably set the stage for the Christianization of Europe and the west.
The regenerate church has a sincerity and a spiritual power often lacking in the comprehensive version. But the regenerate church stands more at odds with the communities in which it exists. When the regenerate church criticizes “the world” and “worldliness,” there are many who recognize themselves in the critique and do not care to hear it. The result is that the church moves from the center of things to more of an outside, challenging kind of position. That is no cause for panic. A Bible reading people should not be rattled by it. We have some expectation of being on the outside if we are faithful.
Note: This essay was adapted from a talk given at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.