What’s the difference between “Christianity” and “Christendom”?

Today, Australia is visibly a religiously plural society. Christianity is no longer the ‘normal’ religion. Religious diversity is the new normal. And we experience that diversity daily. There are enough Muslim women wearing their head coverings in public to cause a social issue. The media has focused a lot on Islam, but Islam is not the only religion that’s increasing in Australia. Hindu and Buddhist temples are being built in various parts of our cities.

Religious diversity is now a social fact. We can’t reverse it. These people are Australian citizens. They work, pay tax, and vote. We can’t just chase them out of country.

What we can do is think about how we respond to this diversity. And try to respond in a way that’s driven, not by fear and self-protection, but by love – love for God and a desire for his honour, and because of that, a love for people who believe these false religions.

Religious diversity in Australian society is relatively new. For most of Australia’s European history, Christianity was accepted as the ‘normal’ religion. Until recently, even if someone didn’t believe in God, it was taken for granted that the God they didn’t believe in was nevertheless the Biblical, Christian God. Even if they were not a Christian, their personal values of truth, goodness, and beauty, and their ethics – their sense of right and wrong – would have been heavily influenced, if not determined, by Christian values.

With the collapse of Western imperialism came a surge of both native nationalism and traditional religiosity.

This cultural Christianity has been termed ‘Christendom’. When European settlers arrived in Australia, they brought 1400 years of Christian social normality with them. Unsurprisingly, they created a country where Christian values were taken for granted. But notice: while Christendom is informed by Christianity, it’s not the same as Christianity. It’s merely secular culture. In itself, it’s from the world, not from God. Living by Christian morality doesn’t make you Christian; it just makes you morally conservative. Christians are people who have accepted that they are themselves sinners, under God’s condemnation.

Christendom began to crumble in the second half of the 20th century. The 20th century saw the ‘Christian’ West tear itself apart in three wars – World War I, World War II, and the Cold War.

In one generation, Christianity’s social status became exactly reversed: not merely ‘from hero to zero’, but from ‘hero’ to ’villain’!

The latter half of the 20th century also saw global ‘decolonisation’. In the 16th and 17th centuries, European nations explored the world and built vast international empires. After WWII, these colonies steadily threw off European rule and reasserted their national independence. This independent nationalism was frequently accompanied by a renewal of traditional religions. Christianity was associated with imperial oppression, whereas traditional religion was associated with ethnic identity and nationalism.

Christendom, which had existed for some 1600 years, appeared to crumble almost overnight. ‘Christian’ cultural morality was discredited in the West and had never really taken root in the ‘colonies’. With the collapse of Western imperialism came a surge of both native nationalism and traditional religiosity.

Australian society is now closer to what the Bible considers normal.

In one generation, Christianity’s social status became exactly reversed: not merely ‘from hero to zero’, but from ‘hero’ to ’villain’! In the past, everyone assumed that a decent, morally upright person was a Christian – or at least lived by Christian values. Now, no-one assumes that all ‘good’ people are Christians. In fact, Christianity has gone from apparently being the dominant world religion, to being the one religion which no-one, anywhere in the world, takes seriously.

This, then, is the social context for religious diversity in Australia today. Christianity is no longer the socially privileged religion. Other religions are accepted as being at least as valid as Christianity. In fact, in response to its perceived prior social dominance, Christianity seems now be actively socially marginalised in order to ‘make room’ for these new religions.

This new religious diversity, and associated marginalisation of Christianity, has one great advantage: Australian society is now closer to what the Bible considers normal.

The people of Israel worshiped the one true God, in the midst of idolatrous nations. The nations were to see how healthy and wholesome the nation of Israel was – especially in their care of the poor, oppressed, vulnerable and marginalised – and then themselves honour the God of Israel and his written word (Deut 4:5-9; Psalms 96-99; Isaiah 42:1-12; 49:6-7).

But for the nations to ‘see’ Israel’s righteousness, the nation of Israel had to do two things. First, they had to be righteous – they had to actually conform their lives to God’s revealed written word. Second, they had to do so in the sight of the nations.

Jesus fulfils this himself. He fully obeyed God, all the time, in his whole life – even to the extent of dying for his enemies (Rom 5:19; Heb 10:5-10).

As Jesus’ people, Christians should expect to be treated the same way he was – that is, we need to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; see also John 15:18-23). Jesus didn’t expect his people to be socially powerful and privileged. He blessed those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, and those who are falsely persecuted because of him. These, he said, are the true heirs of the Old Testament prophets (Matt 5:1-12). He did not gather people with social power, but those who were socially outcast and marginalised – sinners, tax collectors and women.

The New Testament church proclaimed the divinity of, and unique salvation wrought by, Jesus Christ, in the midst of Greco-Roman idolatry. New Testament churches were relatively small communities in the midst of a culture that despised them.

So the situation we face today is, according to the Bible, not unusual. The Bible does not expect God’s people to be powerful and influential in this world which rebels against God. We should not be surprised when we are misunderstood, mocked, and marginalised. It’s perfectly normal. The last 1600 years were an anomaly; we’re now returning to normal.

So, in light of all this: how should we respond to contemporary religious diversity, and the associated social marginalisation of Christianity? Here are some possibilities:

1. Isolation

We could complain about everyone else, reject them, and isolate ourselves from them. We could try to create ‘Christian’ ghettos, where we ‘Christian’ people do our ‘Christian’ thing.

That may be comfortable and safe for us in the short run. But this kind of isolationism rapidly erodes Christian identity, vitality, and genuine faith. Christianity is a ‘universal’ and ‘public’ religion. So to be Biblical Christians, we have to be ‘public’ about it: we have to live as if Jesus really is Lord over everyone, not just Christians. Further, this kind of isolationism denies any responsibility for reaching out to people who believe false religions.

2. “Tolerance”

We could accept that religious plurality is not just a social norm, but a genuine reality about God. This goes beyond the idea accepting that different people have different understandings of God, and different ways to worship God. It would mean accepting that God / the gods / the divine (it’s hard to even know what to call him / her / it…!) is, by their very nature, diverse. To take this position would be to align ourselves with the postmodern idea of ‘tolerance’.

3. Missional engagement

We could follow the model of the New Testament Church: tell people about Jesus, in ways that they comprehend; and persevere in the face of the consequent mockery and hatred.

  • Evangelical tolerance does not recognise the validity of different view of God, but respects the integrity of an individual’s decision whether or not to follow Jesus;
  • Interacting with people of different religions does not require a thorough knowledge of those religions;
  • It does, however, require a deep knowledge of the Biblical gospel, so that we can explain it clearly to them;
  • It also requires a genuine concern and respect for the people were are talking to, so that we listen attentively to them, and find out what they actually believe. That way, when we explain the gospel to them, we can do so in such a way that they understand. The act of dialogue does not compromise the uniqueness of the Biblical gospel. In fact, it clarifies it. If we listen carefully to the person we’re talking to, we can clearly explain how the gospel challenges their beliefs, prejudices and presuppositions.

An excerpt of a resource paper from the Gospel, Society and Culture Committee of the Presbyterian Church of NSW is published here, with permission.