First Peter is a letter written to exiles. For first-century Christians in Asia Minor, the lessons Peter’s letter teaches on suffering, persecution, and life on the margins of society were timely. Are they just as suitable for Christians living in America in the 21st century?
There is a growing awareness within the Christian church in America that our place in society has changed. Secularism is maintaining its ascent in the main-stream, and as this occurs the Church’s place in our culture becomes increasingly marginalized. While the American Church still holds quite a bit of institutional clout, it is apparent on street-level, particularly on the coasts, that America is not heading back to the idealized days where true Christians hold the majority. From the recognition of so-called gay marriage to the legalization of marijuana, to the increasing availability of on-demand abortions, it is clear that those who hold to the authority of the Bible are in the minority. This is perhaps more true now than at any other time in American history.
The term “Christendom” has been used to describe the “formal or informal alliance of church and state that was the dominant model in Europe from the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century AD onward.” To get your mind around what is meant by “Christendom” in our context, just think about those people you know who bemoan the fact that America is supposed to be a “Christian nation,” and really needs to “get back to the Christian principles we were founded upon.” Those longing for the idealized-Christian-days-gone-by in our nation are searching for Christendom to be born (or reborn) in America.
Good or bad (whatever your opinion) the reality we are currently living in as Americans is that Christendom as we know it (or want to know it) is dead in our culture. We are living in a post-Christendom society, as the second paragraph of this blog reveals.
In his book After Christendom Stuart Murray identifies seven transitions that mark the shift we now see in our country, from Christendom to post-Christendom. Christians are increasingly being moved:
1) From the center to the margins.
- In Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.
2) From majority to minority.
- In Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Christendom we are a minority.
3) From settlers to sojourners.
- In Christendom Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, exiles, and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.
4) From privilege to plurality.
- In Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.
5) From control to witness.
- In Christendom churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.
6) From maintenance to mission.
- In Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.
7) From institution to movement.
- In Christendom churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must become again a Christian movement.
There is perhaps no greater text in the New Testament to address how we handle these shifts as Christians in a post-Christendom culture than 1 Peter. He speaks to Christians who are on the margins of their society. He identifies our true identity and calls us to live in it, in the midst of a world which grows increasingly hostile to our beliefs. Check in at LifePoint over the next 4 months as we make our way through 1 Peter in our series “Letter to an Exile.”