Evangelism After Christendom (part next)

We last left Bryan Stone’s book discussing the first chapter of Part 2, where Stone engages in a long and theologically rigorous discussion of the narrative of Christianity, first beginning with the nation of Israel, then the ministry of Jesus, then the development and expansion of the church during apostolic times. Stone ends Part 2 with the following summary:

Christian salvation is distorted (along with the evangelistic practice that follows from it) when it is reduced to “getting right with Jesus” as a private spiritual affair with, at best, reign-of-God consequences. Because of the new order present in Jesus and because of the social, political, and subversive dimensions of that new order, “believing in Jesus” is not a private mental assent to a set of propositions about his nature, an individual experience of his person, or a legalistic performance of his teachings. Apostolic evangelism is an invitation to be formed socially by the Holy spirit into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus through incorporation into his body. Anything less can never be a full “offer” of Christ.

In Part 3, Stone seeks to demonstrate that Christianity (and Christian Evangelism) have been themselves subverted by two particular rival narratives: Constantinianism and liberal modernity. This is critical, Stone suggests, because a main thesis of the book is that the conversion offered by Christianity does not take place within either of these narratives, but rather calls us to a conversion from them to some totally separate narrative. In many ways, Stone is echoing Liberation Theology notions that the “sin” from which we must be saved lives not only (and perhaps not so much) in the hearts and minds of individuals, but also within social, political, economic, and religious structures as well.  Thus, salvation is not something that addresses only individual sin, but must address structural sin as well.

Within the ecclesial reimagining of evangelism I am attempting in this book, to be saved by God is to be saved not only from sin but also from powers that make us incapable of recognizing and resisting sin – powers that form and discipline us into the kind of peopld who are incapable of being the church. The demonic power of various institutions such as the nation-state, the military, the university, the market, and even the church derives from their having been co-opted by these powers.

Stone immediately addresses an important issue, however. Because the Church has existed and contributed to both the Constantinian and liberal modernist narratives, it is not so easy to extract ourselves from it. Our tendency is to disavow ourselves of any questionable actions undertaken in the name of Christ from early history, but the reality is that those actions are, in some sense, part of our story. Stone:

In one sense, then, it is not possible for the church to simply disown those stories by claiming they are “not ours.” The story the church has been given, the story it is called to remember and to which it is called to be faithful, is always bound up with the actual journey the church has undertaken in history, complete with its dead ends, detours, and derailments. Remembering the church’s story is not an exercise in primitivism by which we gleefully skip across two millennia of Christian history and baptize as infallible the practices and theological formulations of the past. But it is an exercise in confessing that in God’s calling of the people of Israel, in the life and message of Jesus, and in the witness of the apostles, we have been given a true story that, by forming our practical imagination, renders us capable of living truthfully before the world and of resisting powers such as the state and the market that would have us believe that our identity is patriots and consumers and that our duty is to kill and shop on their behalf.

Stone’s first turns his attention to what he calls a Constantinian narrative. In essence, this embodies a large range of situations where the relationship between church and state is fused in such a way that the church becomes an extension of the state, whether explicit or implicit. For instance, we often hear the United States referred to as a “Christian Nation”. This is precisely the type of sentiment Stone would have us reject. As Stone says, “The Constintanian story is the story of the church’s forgetting its journey and making itself at home in the world.” This is a constant tension for the people of Christ – “in the world, but not of the world”. Unfortunately, our tendency is all too often to attempt to use the power structures of the world (influence, laws, economics) to bend people toward Christianity, or aid in evangelism. It is important to point out that the Constantinian narrative does not *requre* explicit aid from the state – church doctrine being enforced in civil courts, for example. It also exists where the boundaries of church and state become confused, which in turn can make it all the more seductive and difficult to recognize.

Part of the difficulty that Stone notes is that when “world” and “church” become the same thing, there is no longer anything to call “world”. Borrowing from a similar critique by the Anabaptists, Constantianianism makes it “too easy” for the world to become “Christianized”, but in the process makes it much more difficult to properly render Jesus as Lord. By way of example, when what it means to be a “Good Christian” looks, more or less, like being a “Patriotic American”, there seems to be a real problem. Is Jesus Lord, or is it the Constitution? Stone quotes Craig Carter, who says “Here is the point of testing, because here the state makes itself into an absolute value. When the concrete lordship of Jesus is modified, qualified, contradicted, or otherwise set aside by the state, thenw e have Constantinianism.” Stone:

The “Constantinian temptation” is the temptation to confuse obedience to Jesus as Lord with obedience to the state because the state or the head of the state now bears the label “Christian”. Needless to say, this confusion, which is in effect a denial of Jesus as Lord, raises serious questions for evangelism – not the least of which is whether it is even possible to bear witness to the lordship of Jesus, much less offer that lordship to others, while simultaneously rejecting it in practice, whether by killing people on behalf of the empire or by mimicking and thereby glorifying the power, wealth, and rule of another lord. What inevitably takes place in the practice of evangelism within a Constantinian social imagination is that the question of following Jesus as Lord is abstracted from the concrete loyalties, habits, and patterns of conduct associated with Jesus and the apostolic life.  That question is instead transformed into a question of one’ nominal membership in a religious group. It may also be transformed into a question of one’s intellectual assent to propositions about who Jesus is or, as we see increasingly within the predominant consensus in modernity, into a private, inward, and dematerialized experience of Jesus’ lordship.  The common denominator in all these transformations is that the sovereignty of Constantine remains intact while Christian witness is disassociated from the intrinsically material and political dimensions of the lordship of Jesus. In other words, the “practice” of evangelism is wrenched from the comprehensive praxis in which it is rightly embedded.

There’s a lot in this paragraph, but I think Stone is right on, and we can see elements of this reflected in the way many Evangelical churches and Christians function, especially on the religious right. If Stone is right (and I think he is), we see a clear abstraction in many churches from the “loyalties, habits, and patterns of conduct associated with Jesus”. I think this dovetails closely with our preoccupation with justification over sanctification, but that’s for a different post. If most of us are honest, the way we functionally “do Christianity” has a lot in common with Stone’s paragraph – particularly in that we often consider the boundaries of the community to be defined by “nominal membership” in a particular church, or by a proclamation of a selected set of intellectual propositions. Whether this is the necessary result of a confusion of Church and State or simply the position we find ourselves in, I think his analysis of the implications for sharing Christ are spot on: trying to bear witness to the lordship of Jesus while simultaneously rejecting it in practice is doomed to failure.

The second criticism Stone offers of Constantinianism is that practitioners of evangelism often identify God’s victory with an ever expanding and growing church, which is fused with the world in the form of a “Christian Nation” or empire. Stone rejects this on eschatological grounds for a variety of reasons that we won’t get into. Further, he points out that to be people who are disciples formed in communities who follow a crucified and resurrected Lord and reject the world’s way of doing business almost implies that the church will often find itself operating as a minority, and from a position of weakness instead of power. Stone:

An evangelistic church is called to patience, obedience, and martyrdom rather than effectiveness, control or success. It will have to relinquish “winning” as a proper end, along with the logic of agency and causality that go with that end. It will have to relearn the truth that there is nothing we can do to bring about or extend God’s reign, so that we are left with the singular task of bearing embodied witness to that reign.

The mistake of Constantinian Christianity is that it substitutes the state for the church eschatologically, so that the present social order rather than God’s reign is seen as the most real and permanent. Peace, justice, and the good are then defined in terms of what can reasonably be accomplished through the functions of the state by adopting behavior calculated to be a “lesser evil.” The result is that “responsible” Christians are not only free to reject Christ’s instructions about turning the other cheek but obliged to do so when violent resistance to injustice would better contribute to the maintenance of the social order. The loss to the church’s evangelistic witness is enormous. What is secured in terms of a wider public acceptance of Christians by virtue of their social responsibility and civic duty is lost in terms of a faithful testimony to Jesus’ life and work, death and resurrection, present reign and future coming.

Finally, Stone notes that in the Constantinian story, Christianity is forever relegated to be only one aspect of the larger society, and as a result “Christian behavior becomes the question of what sort of behavior can be asked of everyone.” Instead of asking questions like “What would happen if everybody turned the other cheek?” as a way of ducking Christ’s message, Stone quotes Yoder, whose response was, “What if nobody else acted like a Christian, but we did?”

So where do we go from here?

Stone suggests first and foremost that in a post-Constantinian age, the church’s first task is to disengage from using “results” as the only measurement of effectiveness, and rediscover incarnation. Stone again:

Of course, the church that offers the gospel to the world always hopes for an acceptance of the invitation. But there is a sense in which while evangelization in a post-Constantinian world hopes for such an acceptance, it cannot really “seek” it.  What it does seek is to offer the invitation faithfully and in such a way that it can be understood clearly as good news and then either accepted or rejected responsibly. In our time, the churhc often feels that if it has not won, not convinced others, not secured Christianity’s status and position in society, it must have failed. The impulse to win or succeed is overwhelming. Christians will sometimes stop at nothing – including sacrificing the integrity of their own witness – in the service of winning, in the service of respectability, in the service of having our truth be recognized by everybody as “the” truth. Then, says Yoder, we fail to respect “the integrity of disbelief.”

This, more than anything, may be one of the most important points in the book. As with any relationship, there is an element of abuse if either party isn’t free to walk away. Ultimately, the presentation of the message of Jesus *must* be done in such a way that the hearer can reject it. This isn’t to say that we ever *want* the offer to be rejected, but that we must be ok with people walking away, rather than feeling it is our duty, whether by force of our intellect (apologetics) or politics (legislating morality) to coerce people to belief or assent. In the end, that is the temptation of Constantinainism: to bend the will of society toward our own aims. Unfortunately, as Stone argues, when we enter into this contract, the result is inevitably society bending the Church to its own aims – justifying wars, pacifying populations, and serving, in the words of Marx, as an opiate for the masses.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *