The first foundation of Christendom is that reality is grounded in God. Even if one locates the foundation of political order specifically in natural law, this law reveals the God who created nature and mankind in the first place. Second, the nature and history of mankind climax in the public personage of Jesus Christ, who at His ascension, claimed that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to Him (Matt. 28:18). All authority has always been subject to and grounded in God. Now, according to a providential and historical exercise of that authority, God Himself has identified the risen Prophet, Priest, and King of our world to be over all other authorities. He is the King of Kings. All things are His inheritance (Psalm 2).

That’s the basic picture. Another way of getting at this would be to ask whether or not all persons are obligated to acknowledge Christ as their Savior and King. It would seem that this is obvious in New Testament revelation (Acts 17:30). Are all persons obligated to do all that they do for the glory of God, which includes the glory of the risen Lord? It would seem that they are (1 Cor. 10:31). If so, it would seem to follow that in all of our exercises of power and in our vocation, we are to be motivated by and in submission to the greater authority of Christ the Lord. This cannot but include all civic representatives in whatever public office.

Cannot the public exercise of neighbor loving, nevertheless, be motivated by Christ without explicitly invoking His dominion in the public sphere? Perhaps. But consider, what governs whether or not this ought to be the case? If such an order were the case, who would establish a coherent ground for this limitation of the public sphere and of public power? From what I can tell, the only binding normative (rather than historically and pragmatically accidental) ground for this limitation would be precisely that God’s authority, and Jesus’ kingship actually requires or at least permits this sort of public reserve – perhaps because such is in accordance with the natural law which is affirmed rather than negated in the reign of Christ. Unhinged from this grounding, the historical record is relatively clear that other gods (even secular ones) do not exercise such restraint. In other words, such an arrangement would be an implicit Christendom.

But what if we concluded that it was fitting to explicitly recognize the risen Lord as authoritative over our nation, and to do so even as representatives of public office? On the one hand, it would seem that this is as simple as saying that everyone’s (in all vocations) loving of their neighbor ought to be empowered by love toward and subject to the authority of the risen Lord. But doesn’t this stand in tension with freedom of thought or religion? In addressing this, it is important to recognize that this is not a question which is distinctive of those who contend for some version of Christendom. In fact, all regimes must ascertain the extent to which they adjudicate the exercise of speech in the public square and the ultimate authority which governs a nation. If recent political discourse has taught us anything, it is that the so-called “neutral” public square is often governed by implicit religion and attendant limitations on speech.

But what of Christendom specifically? Of course, it needs to be recognized that there is a dubious historical record here. Much of what has gone by the name of “Christendom” has, in fact, violated many of the teachings of Christ and exercised its power in a way that does not reflect His teachings or His authority. Said differently, many have failed in the vocation of loving their neighbors through governance. The most prominent way in which this has been the case has been in the conflation of Christ’s reign with that of any historical commonwealth. In such a case, the distinction between vital faith and civic membership has tended to give way to coerced public faith and ignored private sin.

A Protestant doctrine of God’s “two kingdoms,” however, helps us to imagine a Christendom which can, and in fact did (in concrete history), ground and guide the development of freedom, such as freedom of religion and the freedom of speech. Precisely because union with Christ by faith is not possibly manipulated and controlled by political power, the latter has limits. Civil order is penultimate and has very specific ends. There is still the obligation of all civic order to honor the risen Christ, but this honor can only ultimate be achieved through the very persuasion which Paul attempts in the book of Acts (in which contexts He asserts the authority of Christ). That is to say, it is precisely because Christ exercises His authority truly and wisely that He will reign in the hearts of men through persuasion and vital faith. It is no accident, therefore, that a healthy public sphere (adjudicated by persuasion and allowing for extremely divergent opinion) developed in Protestant countries. The reign of Christ limits the reign of any commonwealth, and in accordance with that limitation, any “established” religion (which is not to say an established institutional church) must emerge organically from below rather than as an imposition from above.

But surely an established religion implies the imposition of all the Bible’s rules in a modern society? Not so. In fact, the content of a Protestant version of Christendom need not necessarily be different from the content of any society governed by simple natural law – as clarified in Scripture by the principle of “genuine equity” rather than as a deposit of eternally binding positive law. And as such, any concern about Protestant Christendom would only reflect concern with natural law jurisprudence more generally.

However, the concern actually ought to be in the other direction. If political authorities recognized that the Lord Jesus could only reign in the hearts of men by means of persuasion, and if they recognized that His kingdom was greater than that of any commonwealth, would they not recognize their own limitations – the transience of any political order (helping to prevent state idolatry and its consequences)? Would they not recognize that, precisely because Christ loves their neighbor and commands all persons to follow Him, they must defend the orphan and widow, and allow men to come to form their opinions honestly and with conviction?

One could be pardoned for being a bit suspicious of the notion of “Christendom.” Its historical pedigree leaves much to be desired – though also much to be admired (and which has shaped many of those elements of our civilization which we most value). Nevertheless, clarified in the direction of Protestant principles, and recognizing that its alternative is only its parody (with a far more unsavory pedigree), it can be seen that Christendom is both as much as aspiration as a foundation. And as an aspiration, it is a movement toward the very freedoms that Western civilization has most valued. Nevertheless, this is secondary. Coming full circle, the chief orienting point is the simple fact that Christ is the Lord of this world.

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Posted by Joseph Minich

Joseph Minich lives in Texas with his wife (Rebecca) and four children (Samuel, Truman, Felix, and Ruby). He recently graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary (D.C. Campus) and is pursuing a Ph.D in intellectual history at the University of Texas at Dallas.

  • Cal P

    “A Protestant doctrine of God’s “two kingdoms,” however, helps us to imagine a Christendom which can, and in fact did (in concrete history), ground and guide the development of freedom, such as freedom of religion and the freedom of speech.”

    There’s, on the contrary, little evidence that such is the case. I’d ask you to present cases of “concrete history”, because the best historical scholarship has actually proved the opposite, or that the boons acquired from such Protestant regimes was always accidental, unintentional, or grudgingly capitulated.

    I still have little idea why the public, and proclamatory, nature of the faith requires controlling the means of government, social conformity, and exercise of sovereign power. The universal sovereignty of Christ does not require Christendom. You people look at the pile of corpses in the past and still think it can be done right. Marx was right: history happens the first time as a tragedy, and the second time as a farce.

    • “I still have little idea why the public, and proclamatory, nature of the
      faith requires controlling the means of government, social conformity,
      and exercise of sovereign power.”

      You still have to reckon with the question of what Christians should do when they find themselves in such positions, and it seems the final alternative to something like Christendom is “pretend not to be Christians.”

      • Cal P

        This is a fantasy scenario. How does this happen in today’s world? The best model, and even there it is marked with failure and betrayal, is Roger Williams and Rhode Island. What he did was not Christendom, he intentionally excluded theological debate from public policy as a means to prevent bloodshed and violence and politicizing the faith, confusing English law and custom with the Kingdom and Law of God.

        Christians were able to survive and function under non-Christian regimes. Your basic orientation to this question is find the Apostles as not only defective, but fundamentally retarded. How can Paul pen Romans 13 under Nero, as well as council that Christians should be quiet and work with their hands? It doesn’t mean Christians can’t operate in the public sphere, but the functions of God’s sovereignty do not depend upon Christendom. For the purposes of this age, even pagans can figure out that public order is important. Can you comprehend why Syrian Christians have appreciated the Assad regime and the Baathists for as long as they have?

  • This article is an effort to become a bull in a china shop. Christendom is not rooted in Christianity because it is not rooted in the New Testament. To have everyone acknowledge that Christ is Lord is done through either preaching or the 2nd coming; it is not done politically. And having a religious state does impose the Bible, at least in part, on the laws of the nation. To use the natural law approach, as Minich does, fails to recognize the fact that Christians view natural law differently than non-Christians. The different natural law approaches to homosexuality provides a perfect example. While Christians will point to what Romans 1 says about homosexuality as being abnormal according to natural law, many unbelievers will point to science as it reports that animals from approximately 1,500 engage in homosexual relations with positive benefits for species. Which natural law should we follow?

    But perhaps what opposes the idea of Christendom are the NT passages on Church discipline. I Cor 5 tells us in two places that society is what Christians share with unbelievers and that Paul was not interested in the sexual morality of society; his only concern was the morality of the Church. Matthew 18 also tells us that to excommunicated from the Church means to be transferred from the set of believers to the set of unbelievers.

    The self-justification that we are imposing Christian rules on society is inconsistent if only the 2nd table of the law is applied. For it was argued by Christian heroes from the past that heresy can provides a greater threat to any becausen where the consequences are ermanent, rather than temporary as violations of the 2nd table bring. Both Calvin and Luther saw that as they sought to prosecute/persecute people for their beliefs. But even without imposing the 1st table of the law, the loss in religious liberty is evident because even professing Christians differ on moral issues.

    The self-justification that we are imposing Christian rules on society for the good of society only allows Christians to join the other vanguard movements that have sought to rule over others for their sake. Such movements initially try to install a paternalistic rule that, as history shows, becomes tyranical. We flatter ourselves when we believe that we can do better.

    Nowhere in the NT are we charged with making people acknowledge Christ as Lord. We are charged with preaching the Gospel to unbelievers and prohibited from lording it over them. This article has no biblical support for its basic points.

    • I think this represents basic misunderstandings of (1) the meaning of natural law, (2) the meaning of Christendom as argued in this article, and (3) New Testament eschatology. For example, “To have everyone acknowledge that Christ is Lord is done through
      either preaching or the 2nd coming; it is not done politically” is very confused, as preaching cannot be apolitical, nor can politics avoid being preaching. As well, “Which natural law should we follow?” reflects a rather total failure to grasp how natural law classically works. Your second paragraph simply ignores the very real possibility that Christians could ever be in the place of having governing authority in the wider society. Your third paragraph also completely disregards the Protestant Christendom means for providing a category of religious liberty which begins with the realization that faith is impossible to coerce.

      What I would like to ask is what a better alternative would be. A society ordered around anti-Christian, and thus very deadly, principles and values which hurt the society with a pretense of (the totally impossible notion) religious neutrality?

      • NN,
        Asking which natural law should be followed simply recognizes that different people recognize different natural laws.

        To say getting people to acknowledge that Christ is Lord is not done politically simply means that government is and should not be responsible for getting people to bow down to Christ.

        In addition, I believe that Christians should be in every place of government. But being in a place of government does not give one license to force their religious values on people through legislation.

        The third table simply refers to Church history and how notable past Christian leaders have publicly persecuted and/or prosecuted people for their religious beliefs and that includes both Luther and Calvin.

        Your final paragraph not only gives justification for Christian rule from paternalism to theonomy, it neglects Church history and the many times society was seriously harmed by Christian rule of the country. I am not arguing banning Christian influence in government, I am arguing against Christian rule over society.

  • andrewlohr

    Uh, did brothers Day and P read the article? Or see the world? Most people in Islam-o-dom, secular-dom and pagandom would like to move to Christendom, however sinful and watered down Christendom may be.

    And: (1) All authority is given to Jesus Christ in Heaven and on earth (Mt 28). He said this and then pushed off to Heaven and left us to teach every ethnic group (Greek ‘panta ta ethnay’) to obey all His orders.. So ’tis our duty to teach ’em. Paul aspired to make every thought obedient to Christ. Including political thoughts? Do y’all give due credit to Christ for His authority?

    (2) Christians can flourish without running the government (@ P), but if some of us find ourselves in positions of political authority or influence, not saying (with the hardnosed theonomists) we gotta impost Biblical law, but can we apply relevant Christian wisdom? Because crimes are not punished quickly, everyone commits them–Eccl 8:11. I think modern scholarship would get on Solomon’s bandwagon there.

    (3) Some “concrete history” for P? Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” Cromwell didn’t have to be dragged kicking and screaming toward liberty; he sought it all his life–read Barry Coward’s short bio. “The One and the Many” by R. J. Rushdoony–since in the Trinity unity and diversity balance perfectly, those who seek to reflect triune Jehovah’s glory run better societies than the idolaters of simply one or chaotic many.

    • Cal P

      1) Christ’s authority is exercised whether it’s Charlemagne, Pablo Escobar or Nero on the throne. It’s just varieties of the devil’s domain in This Age, I don’t have a post-mil Pollyanna optimism or some hyper preterist view of the Age to Come. Nor do I have a dominionist reading of Matt 28. So you’re question begging here.

      2) How are you ending up in those positions? I’m not dealing with airy-fairy renaissance fair-land, but the hard facts of realpolitik.

      3) LOL. The butcher of Ireland who mercilessly annihilated the Levellers and subjected England to the equivalent of Chinese commanderies? Yes, I’d prefer Cromwell to Charles I, but that’s not saying much.