Why do Christians believe society should be Christian? Did Christ and the apostles entertain such a belief? Keeping Israel Mosaic certainly made sense for about 1500 years of redemptive history but that did not exactly go well. Think exile. And when Christ came, did he try to put Moses back in the Mosaic Covenant? Paul would have us believe otherwise.
But Christendom continues to haunt residents of the West who pine for the days of Christian influence. Oliver O’Donovan defines Christendom this way:
. . . the idea of a professedly Christian secular political order, and the history of that idea in practice. Christendom is an era in which the truth of Christianity was taken to be a truth of secular politics. . . . . Let us say that the era lies between AD 313, the date of the Edict of Milan, and 1791, the date of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. . . . it is the idea of a confessionally Christian government, at once ‘secular’ (in the proper sense of that word, confined to the present age) and obedient to Christ, a promise of the age of his unhindered rule.
When O’Donovan looks for biblical support he has to go more to Israel’s legacy and Christ’s claims about the kingdom of God than he does to anything that Peter and Paul wrote about what Christian rulers should do (as if they ever entertained the idea of a Christian emperor):
The core idea of Christendom is therefore intimately bound up with the church’s mission. But the relationship between mission and Christian political order should not be misconstrued. . . . The church’s one project is to witness to the Kingdom of God. Christendom is the response to mission, and as such a sign that God has blessed it. (The Desire of the Nations, 195)
Not to be a literalist or anything, but the trusty search engine at ESV indicates that Matthew used “kingdom” 53 times in his gospel, Luke 44. Paul in his entire corpus uses the word 14 times (17 if you throw in Hebrews as any Three Forms person should). If declaring the Kingdom of God was a big deal to the apostles, they lost Jesus’ memo.
For that reason, the support for Christian norms in social life are more likely to depend on nostalgia for Christendom (or the theory of it) than on exegesis. Consider the following response to the Marriage Pledge and why Roman Catholics shouldn’t support it:
It is part of the Church’s mission to seek out the State and be united with it; it is the duty of the State to be subject to the Church in matters religious, including those pertaining to the eternal law and the natural law. When the State attempts to create positive law that is contrary to the natural or eternal law, the law itself is invalid. But the Church betrays herself if in confronting evil laws she abandons the State to its own devices. The Church has a positive mission to create concord between the Church and State, not to sow dissension between them. . . .
Thus all marriage (not just Christian marriage!) rightly falls under the authority of the Church. So if, in our times, the State attempts to usurp the rightful authority of the Church by either depriving her ministers of their liberty or by attempting to create laws which are injurious to the natural and eternal law, the role of the Church is to teach, admonish, and ultimately dissolve the temporal authorities. That is what the Magisterium indicates.
If you want evidence of why some Roman Catholics think the magisterium should still be running things, that piece is one where to find a paleo-Roman Catholic construction of Vatican II. But are Presbyterians any less enamored of Christendom or the national (civic) church that gave them legitimacy? Here‘s a defense of the establishment principle from the recent debates among Free Church Scotlanders over Scottish independence (if only the South had used the i-word instead of secession):
Lord Mackay of Clashfearn defines the current status of Church/state relations: “the relationship of the State to the Church of Scotland is one of recognition with a degree of support. As Professor Frank Lyall has said, ‘All that establishment means is that the civil authority has recognised the Church’s self-imposed task to bring the ordi-nances of religion to all Scotland, and looks to the Church on suitable ceremonial oc-casions.’”
What are the duties of the Established Church? In 1877 these were described as: “the protection of the Sabbath, the promotion of scriptural education in the public schools, the conservation of the purity of the Scriptures, and the sacredness of the law of mar-riage.” Today, this scope is greatly diminished: legislation has broken the back of a national recognition of the Sabbath; the state has monopolised education; the free market has removed ecclesiastical oversight from Bible production; and the institution of marriage has succumbed to demands from the gay rights lobby.
And here’s one more for the Lord-of-the-Rings enthusiasts out there. In response, again to the Marriage Pledge, Jake Meador pulls out a quotation from J. R. R. Tolkien:
The last Christian marriage I attended was held under your system: the bridal pair were “married” twice. They married one another before the Church’s witness (a priest), using one set of formulas, and making a vow of lifelong fidelity (and the woman of obedience); they then married again before the State’s witness… using another set of formulas and making no vow of fidelity or obedience. I felt it was an abominable proceeding – and also ridiculous, since the first set of formulas and vows included the latter as the lesser. In fact it was only not ridiculous on the assumption that the State was in fact saying by implication: I do not recognize the existence of your church; you may have taken certain vows in your meeting place but they are just foolishness, private taboos, a burden you take on yourself: a limited and impermanent contract is all that is really necessary for citizens. In other words this “sharp division” is a piece of propaganda, a counter-homily delivered to young Christians fresh from the solemn words of the Christian minister.
Has Meador or Tolkien considered what it’s like to be a Muslim or Jew in a Christian society (think Christendom)? And if we don’t like idea of Sharia law determining civil codes, why should Roman Catholic or Protestant teaching on marriage determine U.S. law? Because more Christians live in the U.S. than non-Christians?
But more to the point, have these folks contemplated whether Jesus and the apostles favored an establishment principle or where the early Christians went to be married? I don’t know the answer to the latter. But I do sense that Christendom is alive and well and that lots of Christians still pine for it. If the church as a pilgrim people not responsible for public affairs was a good thing for the early church, why not for Christians today? I mean, could anyone possibly imagine the OPC as the established church of the United States being responsible for religious life across the nation? (Imagine how long General Assembly would be!) That thought experiment might well put any number of Christian warriors off the Christendom project.