It is becoming undeniably clear that western civilization has entered a post-Christian age.
Whereas Christians once believed the world would eventually be brought within the expanding empire of Christendom, it is now obvious this will never happen. To the contrary, Christendom has been losing its influence on western culture for several hundred years.
Undoubtedly, a cultural vestige of the once mighty empire of Christendom will continue for some time in Europe and America, if only in the form of lingering innocuous elements of a Christian civic religion. But, for all intents and purposes, the “church militant and triumphant” has become an artifact of history. While many western Christians understandably are grieved and distressed over this loss, growing choruses of Jesus-followers are viewing it as something to celebrate. I include myself among this rising tribe, as does Stuart Murray, author of The Naked Anabaptist.
It’s not that we are in any sense pleased with the morally bankrupt form of secularism that has replaced Christendom’s reign in the West. It’s just that we believe the “church militant and triumphant” bore little resemblance to the church God established through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. And now, having left the Egypt of Christendom, we must prepare ourselves for a long and difficult journey in the wilderness.
There is an increasingly shared conviction that the kingdom of God we are called to is radically different from all versions of the kingdoms of the world. While the kingdoms of the world all manifest the character of Caesar as they seek to rule people and conquer enemies with the power of the sword, the kingdom of God always manifests the character of Jesus, seeking to serve people and love enemies as it manifests the power of the cross.
The movement Jesus inaugurated is, by its very nature, a countercultural, anti-empire movement. More and more followers of Jesus are coming to understand this distinction and to understand that our allegiance to God’s kingdom must subvert all other allegiances.
While the mainstream church has, to a significant degree, unwittingly absorbed the values of intense individualism, consumerism and materialism, more and more post-Christendom disciples in the West are becoming convinced that these values are at odds with everything Jesus was about. They are realizing that we are called to live in community with others, to live simply, humbly and justly, and to share our lives and our resources with one another and with all who are in need.
What many of those who are journeying in the wilderness of post-Christendom Christianity don’t yet realize is that their rejection of Christendom and their insights into the countercultural nature of God’s kingdom are hardly new.
In fact, the vision of the kingdom these tribes are espousing was the general understanding of the church for the first three centuries of its existence. It was quickly exchanged for the model of the “church militant and triumphant” in the fourth century, when Roman Emperor Constantine endowed the church with political power and the church tragically accepted it. Still, throughout the church’s history, there have been pockets of Jesus-followers who, despite fierce persecution from the institutional church, held fast to the vision of the kingdom that’s arising among post-Christendom Christians today.
The most significant historic expression of the anti-Christendom, Jesus-looking kingdom began during the Reformation among a group of radicals who came to be known as Anabaptists. Although they often had to pay for it with their lives, this group set itself apart from other reforming movements by espousing the very values the rising tribe of kingdom people is espousing today.
This group was passionate in its conviction that the kingdom of God is radically distinct from the kingdom of the world—and that these two must always be kept distinct. They quickly came to the conclusion that following Jesus requires us to love our enemies and to refuse to resort to violence. They believed that all followers of Jesus are called to live in committed communities with one another as we together cultivate a lifestyle characterized by simplicity, humility, generosity and a passion for justice. And they were convinced that salvation was not primarily about getting people to heaven when they die, but was about God’s transforming power affecting every area of life, society and creation.
Although Christendom’s leaders tortured and executed almost all leaders of the Anabaptist movement, by the grace of God the movement survived and has borne witness to God’s uniquely beautiful kingdom for the past 500 years.
Gregory A. Boyd is author of The Myth of a Christian Nation and The Myth of a Christian Religion. This article was adapted from his foreword to The Naked Anabaptist.