“One does not run into God in the streets; one does not—now—run into Christ: but the Church is always there. There are so many who would be ready to admire her for some things at least, in spite of all the faults they find in her, so many who would willing to “cooperate” with her, as they say—if only she were not what she is. She is the permanent witness of Christ and the messenger of the living God; his urgent and importunate presence among us. Let us, within the Church, who speak of ourselves as being “of the Church”, manage to grasp the fact as sharply as it is sensed by those who afraid of her and those who run away from her.” 

 – Henri De Lubac, The Splendor of the Church. 

For more than a thousand years, from the 4th century AD to the Reformation in the 16th century, Western Europe was united under one Church – The Roman Catholic Church. This period in history was also known as the period of “Christendom” and can be defined as being:

[A] society where there were close ties between the leaders of the church and those in positions of secular power, where the laws  purported to be based on Christian principles, and where, apart from certain clearly defined outsider communities, every member of society was assumed to be a Christian.[1]

For the duration of that time – even past ‘the great divide’ of the 16th century Reformation – Catholics and then Protestants as well, were territorial Christians. Putting it simply, for nearly sixteen centuries the Church has identified itself with a geographical territory. So, if you belonged to a certain church you belonged to a certain area. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that if you lived in a particular region then you belonged to a particular Church. Once we might have said, Italians are Catholics, the British are Anglican, Germans are Lutherans and so on. We might even shrink the horizon and say that you and I live in a parish, which is quite literally a geographical area defined on a map and enshrined in Canon law. The Church, assuming the benefits of Roman law and Roman public administration as early as the 4th century, has not yet even today entirely abandoned this territorial model of Church (even if, as many would no doubt argue, it doesn’t fit anywhere near as well in the 21st century.)

 

This particular territorial worldview of the Church does have certain ramifications. “Mission” as we would understand it was more or less made redundant by the territorial world view of Christendom.  So, for example, if you lived in principality that governed by a Lutheran prince then all members of that principality were, by default, Lutheran. To opt for another religious affiliation would be to invite charges of disloyalty or even treason! Thus, the only real space for mission activity was when a territory had not yet adopted a particular form of Christianity – had not yet declared themselves for this Church or that Church. After such a decision was made then mission activity became dangerous and treasonous, and frankly, devoid of purpose, since all members now automatically had adopted the faith of their monarch – no questions asked! Furthermore, any work of a pastoral nature could be undertaken by locals and did not require cross-border mission or intervention.

 

The monopoly of this ‘faith by territory’ theology was finally upset by the arrival of the Anabaptists in the sixteenth century. This movement was born on the evening of January 21, 1525 when one Conrad Grebel, a member of a well-to-do Zurich family, baptized a former priest in a secret meeting. This was a protest, since he viewed that the Reformation in Switzerland simply had not gone far enough under Huldrych Zwingli – the great Swiss Reformer. Within a few years the Anabaptist movement had planted Churches all over Switzerland.

 

Now the Anabaptist movement should be explained. The word Ana-Baptist’ simply means: to re-baptize, and this was the name given to them by their opponents. (This movement is only very distantly related to the Baptist Church of today.) What drove this movement were three unshakeable convictions: firstly, that the Roman Catholic Church was a complete and irreversible corruption of the Church of the first century. Secondly, the Reformation had not been thoroughgoing enough, especially with regard to the practice of baptism: it should have rejected the notion of infant baptism completely and by failing to do so had rendered itself inadequate. Thirdly, and most importantly with regard to the points made so far: the world of so-called Christendom was not a Christian world at all, so the whole of Western Europe was therefore wide open to mission activity. The boundaries and territories of old, viz a viz the State and the Church were now null and void with regard to missionary activity. In short, through this revolt from the so-called ‘Mainline Churches’ Western Europe had become, once again, a wide-open Missionary field.

 

The significance of this third point is obvious – for the first time in the history of the Church, boundaries were meaningless because, in the view of the Anabaptists at least, after twelve centuries the original model of the Church had been so badly corrupted that the 16th century Church could be bypassed, must be bypassed. Needless to say, as fiery and aggressive as their mission was, there was always the risk of execution for those who preached this new message. Martyrdom was never far away at this time.

 

Now that the rigid boundaries of ‘ecclesiastical territorialism’ had been breached, the flood gates opened. After the Anabaptists, came the Pietists, the Moravians, the General Baptists, the Methodists, the Baptist, the Pentecostal movements to name but a few. All of which we might call the Free Churches (i.e. Free in the sense that they were not confined to ancient church boundaries – neither territorial nor canonical, nor to the established churches in their geographical proximity.) Essentially, the Anabaptists and all these post Reformation movements share four characteristics:[2]

Firstly, these movements wanted to primitivize the Church, i.e. it took the model of the first century Church (as seen to a limited degree in the Acts of the Apostles) and make that normative. In other words, the only proper Church is one that looks like the New Testament Church. Anything after that had become too corrupted to be relied upon.

Secondly, these powerful movements often relied a sense of moral crisis in the world. The urgency to reform this state of moral decay in Europe drove powerful evangelizing movements across Europe.

Thirdly, the laity were empowered. In order to meet the huge challenges of their age all men and women – the laity – had to be mobilized. The role of the Clergy was reviewed and often downplayed as a result of this emancipation of lay people.

Fourthly, there was real missionary zeal in these Free Church movements. Evangelism was the singular thrust of their mission work. The common assumption at the root of this was: “[T]hat of a gap between the formal, cultural, or nominal Christianity of the majority of Europeans, and the serious, biblical Christianity that was demonstrated in a life of holiness and obedience.”[3]

Finally, the fifth characteristic of the so-called Free Church movement was that of Innovative Practices.  The early leaders of these Churches were often highly entrepreneurial, and they brought a degree of managerial skill that had long been absent in the Church. Full of initiative, their impact would be to enliven and challenge the imagination of an all-too-soporific mainline Church of the day.

 

Historically this analysis is interesting, but more pertinent for our discussion would be the implications of this. What is at stake here is our view of the Church (our Ecclesiology) and our view of Mission (our Missiology). Recalling the assumption of the Christendom era, i.e. that if you are in our geographical territory you are one of us (a Christian of a particular mainline Church) has this fact undermined our sense of ‘mission’ in the world?

 

Today, if we look around our own region, we see a proliferation of City, Metro or Hillsong Churches that place themselves very strategically in high profile positions (often along the Motorway, for example, so as to be easily seen.) There are no ties to the mainline Church notion of parish – there are no borders or boundaries being observed. Furthermore, the world around is viewed theologically as being entirely in need of redemption. At best the work of the so-called mainline Churches is viewed with a sort of benign collegiality, and at worst benign indifference. These Churches stand very much in the Free Church tradition, embodying and sharing all of the five characteristics outlined above.

 

But the characteristic that has seeped most successfully into our theology and our thinking as that of ‘us and them,’ the saved and the unsaved. The legacy of much Free church theology (if I might use such a description) is that we don’t trust the church, that must all work very diligently to be saved and that this is a very serious business indeed. Faith, Redemption and Salvation are all serious matters, certainly, but must they cause us to see the world as “us against them?” The Anabaptist hatred of the Church of its day has begun a long tradition of not trusting or even respecting the ancient church. And I do wonder if the divide between Church and society, or secular versus religious, might not be so great it 500 years of theology had not created this divide in the first place.

Today we learn from the Gospel of Matthew that “you are the salt of the earth.” I want to swim against the tide of the last 500 years and propose that being ‘salt of the earth’ does not make us superior to our fellow human beings, it doesn’t make us ‘saved’ and them ‘not saved.’ Rather, being salty means that wherever we are our influence should be Christlike, that we don’t need to divide ourselves off from the evil world in order to exert this influence. Being salty means, healing the divide of a theological worldview that insists upon an ‘us and them’ stance. It means reimagining how the Church and the World might share the same space again.AMEN       

[1] Hugh McLeod and Werner Ustorf, The Decline of Christendom in Western Europe, 1750 -2000 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 1.

[2] I am grateful to Paas for his analysis here. See: Richard Paas, Church Planting in the Secular West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 84-5.

[3] Paas, Church Planting, 85.