Amidst Decline, Western Christians Need to Remember Who Our Eternal Neighbors Are
Recently, the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans met for its fourth conference. This meeting boasted representatives of around 40 million Anglicans, including archbishops from three of the four largest provinces in the Anglican Communion. Those top three (other than England) were all from Africa. They didn’t meet in London, Paris, or New York City. Instead, they gathered in Kigali, Rwanda.
For well over a thousand years, the West has been the center of Christianity. It boasted the greatest share of Christians as well as the preponderance of public and private resources supporting the Church.
But the number of self-identified believers has dropped across the West, and church attendance has fallen to even lower levels, especially in Europe. Even the United States, often seen as a holdout on religious affiliation, has endured sharp declines. Moreover, many denominations centered in the West have adopted heterodox, if not outright heretical, doctrines regarding Scripture and human sexuality.
Christianity, however, is not shrinking — nor is it abandoning “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” Instead, Christianity’s center is quickly shifting. Committedly orthodox churches continue to grow at a great pace in Africa and Asia. There are now estimated to be more Christians on those two continents than in Europe (including Russia) and North America. If current trends continue, that gap will grow resoundingly over the next quarter century.
Christianity’s decline in the West, both in numbers and fidelity, presents challenges for the remaining faithful not experienced since the conversion of Emperor Constantine in 312. Since then, many believers in the West have experienced a broad overlap between their earthly and heavenly citizenship. Many of their geographical and political neighbors have also self-identified as Christians (whether practicing or merely culturally so).
Yet an increasing gap has opened up between those with whom we share citizenship politically and those we do spiritually. With that gap, a society that was generally supportive of — or at least respectful toward — Christians for more than a thousand years has now turned increasingly hostile. Our Christian brothers and sisters increasingly live across oceans, not streets, and their primary language is not English.
Thus, Western Christians must consider anew the relationship between our earthly membership in political communities and our spiritual family in the Church. To begin this consideration, we must rediscover how Christianity differed from most of the religions that preceded it in world history.
In ancient Greece, cities were linked to particular gods. Ares and Artemis were the patron gods of Sparta as was Athena for Athens. The early Roman Empire accepted a plethora of deities interwoven into a pluralistic civil religion. Though monotheistic, Judaism, too, linked the Hebrew people to the LORD as a specific, chosen political community. One could join this people group — like Ruth the Moabite and Uriah the Hittite — but religious and civil citizenship were essentially the same.
Christianity is different.
Unlike Greek or Roman religion, Christianity claims one God who rules over all the world. Unlike Judaism, the Christian Church is not centered on one ethnic group or within one nation. Rather, the Church exists across ethnicities and borders.
Now, the distinction between church and country does not mean Christians should discard political life — for both the Old and New Testaments speak of government as the ordained servant of God for the purposes of pursuing justice and inculcating virtue. But, as Jesus told Pilate, His kingdom was not of this world. The Church and the State are two distinct institutions, and as such, might make competing claims of loyalty if one neglects its Divine purpose. With such a split, not all citizens of one will be citizens of the other. The West’s post-Constantinian history mostly obscured this point — until now.
In handling this split, we must realize the difference in magnitude regarding our bonds between fellow citizens and members of the Church. We may share much in common with our next-door neighbor: language, customs, voting preferences, and sports teams. We may hold a common history and look similar. To varying degrees, these commonalities do matter. Living near each other provides a special opportunity to get to know, help, and enjoy each other. Language further cements the possibility of community. Political principles, sports, and history all give content for our words and manifestations of our neighborly bonds.
Ultimately, however, such things pale in comparison to what we share with our Christian brothers and sisters, no matter where they’re located or what language they speak. With fellow believers, we’re better served to start with whom we share, not what. The answer is that all Christians share in the same redeeming savior, the Lord Jesus Christ — all are redeemed by Him and united to Him as His bride, the Church. It is through that union with Christ, including the giving of the Holy Spirit, that we are united to each other, adopted heirs of a glorious kingdom.
As the Church, we model and experience a foretaste of that kingdom here and now. In every way, this kingdom is more fundamental, beautiful, and just than earthly kingdoms. Its only ruler is the holy God, whose reign is perfect righteousness and justice. It is one of peace. It is a kingdom without end — one that reigns not just over our bodies and actions, but in our hearts and minds. Thus, our citizenship in this kingdom is deeper, longer, and better than any citizenship in an earthly polity. Our bonds, then, with brothers and sisters in Christ, even across cultures and oceans, are deeper, longer, and better than those with any non-Christian neighbor.
Because of these truths, we can’t equate any nation or political party to the Church or to the eternal reign of God. This does not mean politics loses all beneficial purposes. We must avoid the opposite mistake of overly denigrating political life and undermining earthly citizenship with a heaven-centered Christianity that ends up neglecting both Christ and His instructions for treating the least among us. God ordained government authorities for our good, and as we can love our families and neighbors, there is a love of country and a desire for God’s intended human flourishing on earth that Christians can rightly feel.
Rich Mullins once sang about America, “I’ll call you my country, but I’ll be lonely for my home. I wish that I could take you there with me.” This is almost right. We can certainly give thanks to God for our citizenship here in the United States. But with the new heaven and new Earth, we won’t long for any kingdom other than God’s perfect reign or any other citizens than our brothers and sisters in Jesus.
Finally, we must be willing to partner with and gladly accept the leadership of the churches and leaders of these new burgeoning centers of Christianity. Since they formed under the care of mostly African bishops, those in ACNA (the newer Anglican branch that broke off from the Episcopal Church in America) know something of doing so already. We should rejoice in God as He continues to plant and preserve His Church in the purity of the Gospel. And regardless of our own status in it, we should rejoice in the Church faithfully continuing its mission.
The picture of the Church and of the future we saw in Rwanda should be a source of authentic joy to all believers. We must be faithful to God as citizens of the city in which He has placed us. But we should recognize the primacy of our bonds with fellow citizens of God’s eternal kingdom. This is not a story of decline. It is one of God renewing His Church as citizens of a better, everlasting kingdom.