“Christendom” is the collective rhetorical tag for all who are now or have been associated with historical Christianity. To outside observers—whether Hindu, Buddhist, Islamist, or secularists—the links are loose and ill-informed. But the result is that Christendom – that is, the Western world – is a monolithic spiritual opponent.
And when outside observers are hardened against Christendom—as in some Islamic or Hindu circles—an ill-informed opposition to Jesus grows. It may be a hatred of Western entertainments, social conduct, or even clothing. For them all the “whats” of a Western lifestyle are tied to Christian beliefs. Call this the curse of Christendom—the illicit linkage of Christ to what-is-not-Christ.
Of course all Christian communities dismiss the label of Christendom as a fog that obscures our actual faith. Yet an uninformed Hindu or Buddhist is still unable to distinguish a Presbyterian from a Baptist or a Roman Catholic; or even from a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness. In such settings all Westerners are seen, generically, as Christians.
So it’s unfortunate when authentic Christians help produce that fog. When believers make it hard for nonbelievers to believe.
Consider the problem. An overstated devotion to creeds, for instance. Christians tend to subdivide around statements of faith. These claims of doctrinal purity then strike unaligned watchers with the impression that Christianity is a perpetual debating society. All of which is done in the name of Christ, but without actually reflecting Christ. That’s not how he did ministry.
A devotion to particular practices can also lead to fog.
Baptism, for instance, can be a contentious issue between infant-baptizers and adult-baptizers. The differences invite careful conversation, of course, but once it becomes too public the debate turns sour. Our convictions about practice, liturgy, or polity must remain secondary concerns and not dividers. To do otherwise is to embrace the fence-building efforts Christ’s opponents used to block his message and ministry.
What, then, is meant to be our focus?
Christ and Christ alone. And this answer properly moves us from talking about all the “whats” of faith to maintaining a concern with “Who.” Think of how Jesus challenged a question about “what good things” an inquirer needed to practice to get to heaven. Christ’s counter-premise was that goodness is only found in God: in the ultimate Who, and not in various whats.
When Jesus is our focus he reveals his Father to us. We then respond to Jesus and the Father by the Spirit’s witness in our hearts. As Paul pointed out in 2 Corinthians 2:15 we engage in the “Christ to God” relationship. And that produces a distinct relational “aroma” that draws some and repels others.
This is the stuff of Trinitarian Christians. We believe in one God—the Father-Son-and-Spirit God. But how do we best offer our relationship-sharing God to a spiritually disengaged world?
I hope, for one, we all agree that shouting out our points in debate isn’t the best invitation to faith. The only way for Christ to be kept distinct from Christendom is for Christians to keep our eyes on him and to reflect him in all we do. Our debates can remain in the classroom—and even there we always need the Spirit’s presence: his love, joy, peace, patience, and more.
But this is easier said than done. Years ago—in the mid 90s—I recall a fog-producing conversation on a secular radio station. An advocate for the Moral Majority was saying that abortion is inhumane. God, he insisted, is the author of life; and in the Bible we read that God himself knits infants together in the womb. So we’re opposing God whenever we kill a fetus.
I nodded in agreement. And then, almost without a pause, the same commentator went on: “And another evil we have to confront is President Carter’s 1977 treaty that gives the Panama Canal to the Panamanians! The Congress needs to stand up! They must reverse this treaty!”
Suddenly Christendom—not Christianity—had descended on the conversation: a thick, confusing fog! And the truth about God’s work of creating each human was lost in a blast of nationalistic rhetoric.
Another much more sophisticated fog-producer came in a book about the Trinity I read a few years back. It was brilliant: as clear and effective as anything I’ve read. It challenged the ways in which the truth about our Triune God have been lost or distorted in church history.
But then, halfway through, the author shifted to a second-tier theological issue. It was a debatable matter at best—nothing a Bible reader would spot unless he was wearing unique creedal eyeglasses. It became an instant fog-producer. So I’ve avoided mentioning his book to others: it did more to confuse than to clarify who Jesus is. How I wish he had written two books—one for the public, and another to be published by Brill or some other academic press!
Let me end with this: whenever we present Christ we are like the rotating airport lights of old, offering safe-haven to all flyers who could see it. Or, in Paul’s metaphor, may we be a fragrance of life-to-life to those the Father is drawing to himself.
Our Who is far more important than any whats that divide us.