In our class, Mission-Shaped Church with Dr. Fitch, the first book we read was Post-Christendom: Church in Mission in a Strange New World by Stuart Murray (Williams). Since our class focuses on culture, church practice, and mission this was a good first resource for many to begin to understand the conversation. Murray writes in an extremely accessible way, providing a good amount of information while not bogging the reader down with too much academic conversation.

Murray is surely at his best when he explains contemporary cultural trends he is experiencing in the cities of Britain. Americans tend to view Europe as ahead of the curve on issues of religious degradation and so treat such statements as near fortune telling about the coming American context. I tend to think this a perspective that should not be taken, but I can see the appeal of Murray to this mind set.

Related to his cultural exegesis is Murray’s questions and statements about what church life should be like within such a post-Christendom culture. Here is the fruit of Murray’s book. He believes churches must become more intentional in all parts of church life and practice. Particularly the areas of relationship between politics, money, other religions, care for the poor, and attempts at creating space for those who have been rejected by the majority of society and live as the marginalized in our Western contexts. Murray is spot on when it comes to the issues that must be addressed, but this less innovation and more identifying the same issues King Jesus addressed (which I think Murray would happily agree with).

Yet, most of what Murray writes in Post-Christendom is presented as a history lesson. The book becomes an evaluation of the changes that occurred in the Church when Constantine stopped the Great Persecution, funded the Council of Nicene, and the empire became Christianized. The development of Catholicism in relation to the empire is seen as highly scandalous to Murray and he seeks to show how there was always some true Christians who fought the system.

But it is precisely here in the arena of history that Murray goes astray so often. Murray presents a highly bias approach to historical events. While this is understandable to a certain degree, often his account of historical situations reaches into the intentions of the people rather than what can actually be known. I will give just two quick examples. The first example is Murray’s conversation about infant baptism.[1] Here he essentially devalues the theological conversation that took Augustine decades to work through to a simple rationalization for churches to provide a citizen ritual for the empire.

Augustine’s conclusions about infant baptism was born out of deep philosophical, exegetical, and pastoral work that convinced him that humans were passive recipients of both sin from parents and then saving grace from God. It was this passive human nature in relation to spiritual reality which led him to teach that infants could receive the sacrament of baptism because grace is never bargained for it is always received gratuitously. I have not been able to find any indication that Augustine was concerned about imperial citizen practices in this conversation, and there was no obvious collusion between Constantine’s desire for a unified Christian empire with Augustine’s theology of grace and baptism one hundred years later.

The second example is Murray’s praise of the Donatists as faithful Christians who didn’t want to collude with the empire and their new imperial civil religion (Catholicism).[2] But this was not the real issue at all with the Donatists. During the Great Persecution under Diocletian there were some bishops who denied the faith. There began to be an argument, particularly in Africa, that the sacraments became invalid if the bishop who presided over them denied the faith later. So then people would have to become re-baptized or re-married or confess sins again because their bishop left the faith. The majority of the bishops around the Roman world came to the conclusion that the sacraments are promises of King Jesus and are valid no matter the personal situation of the person presiding over them. They also forgave some of the bishops who had denied the faith and allowed them to teach again. This is when the Donatists left the majority of the church and claimed the Catholic church was wrong and sacraments had to be done by the right people.

The Donatist controversy is important because it helped us understand the objective reality of the sacraments as promises from God through King Jesus. They are not defendant on the purity or integrity of church leaders because King Jesus promises to be near to those seeking his presence. Being with God through the church is based on the purity and promises of King Jesus. This is important theological truth and the heart of the issue when remembering the Donatists.

Over a hundred years after the controversy began, Augustine forced the Donatists to return to the Catholic church by using force to shut down their churches. Yes, the Donatists didn’t like the empire because the historical issues were rooted in the Great Persecution, but the foundational opposition of the Donatists was not as an anti-empire movement. Rather the Donatists were a church division based on wrong theology of the sacraments and church authority. They should not be used to prove the point Murray is trying to make, in this case “anti-imperialism” by faithful protest movement, because the Donatists were most basically religious legalists. They were willing to separate from empire mainly because the empire wasn’t on their side of the theological and authoritarian argument.

My take away is that Murray brings up interesting points about contemporary culture and possible practices in local churches. The book felt over ten years old when I read it. There have been a lot of changes in European and American contexts since 2004 because of the Great Recession and the resurgence of nationalism throughout the West. Applying Post-Christendom to the American context is also problematic in that America is so large. There are many, many places were Christendom has not fallen and other places where the idea of post-Christendom is being rejected and a different form of progressive Christendom is being created. While not a bad read for those interested in the subject of post-Christendom mission, there are likely newer texts that evaluate our current cultural situation and how the church’s mission should address it.

[1] pp. 88-89, 91.

[2] pp. 97-99

Posted by Justin Gill

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