Conservativism and Christendom

Posted on September 12, 2013 at 11:20 am,

A couple of recent posts I’ve read have made me think about how our ecclesiology (that’s our theology about the church) affects the way we think about politics.

The first is over at Think Theology, which talks about the differences between Zwingli (one of the leaders of the Reformation) and the Anabaptists (the radical reformers) boiled down to their view of the church. This is how Andy Johnston describes the differences:

If, as Zwingli believed, the Church embraces the whole of society (the medieval view of corpus christianum), then it seems only reasonable that the magistrates, as God’s representatives, inputted on spiritual decision-making.


The “magisterial” reformers – Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Bullnger, Oecolampadius etc etc – all defended this view of baptism. Society was, they believed, essentially Christian, albeit a somewhat doctrinally confused and sub-standard version of the faith. The Anabaptist view was altogether different. Their ecclesiology was one of a “gathered Church”, a Church into which individuals consciously opted via believers’ baptism and membership was maintained and the Church kept pure through discipline. Such a Church was very definitely, in the view of the radicals, outside the control of the magistrates. Authority lay with the congregation and with elders appointed from within the congregation.

Then, there’s a guest post from Alexander Boot on the “Archbishop” Cramner blog, which asks the question of what conservatism should be about.

To narrow this to just one party, what is it that the Conservative party is for? What would it like to conserve?

I’d suggest that a Western conservative – regardless of his faith – can only answer this question one way without losing intellectual credibility. His desideratum has to be the preservation of whatever is left of the religious, cultural and political heritage of Christendom.


The starting point of deliberation for any Christian thinker is that the key institutions of Christendom, which is to say of the West, must somehow reflect the teaching of Christ and, on a deeper level, his person.

If you’re not familiar with the term, Christendom is basically the view that Zwingi took – that the church and the government are both explicitly Christian institutions, existing within an essentially Christian society. Even a casual glance at Western society would tell you that we are no longer living under Christendom. Boot is arguing that we should make every effort to preserve what’s left of Christendom, and work towards restoring the rest.

Boot’s post has made me realise two major reasons why I am not a Conservative. Firstly, I believe that Christendom is pretty much dead and gone. We live in a society that is no longer Christian in any meaningful sense. Our culture knows little, if anything, of Christ and has no desire to be shaped by explicitly Christian values. Trying to squeeze society into the Christendom mould is only going to be possible if we see large numbers of people being saved and added to the church.

Secondly, I think that the Anabaptist view of the church is far closer to what is taught in Scripture than the Christendom model. In the New Testament, the church had no connection to the institutions of government, or to society in general. They got on with preaching the gospel, serving the poor, and generally expanding God’s Kingdom without expecting or anything anybody outside the church to look outwardly Christian.

In short, my ecclesiology rules out Boot’s general approach to politics.

As for what this means in practice, let’s look at the current controversy over same-sex marriage. Both me and Boot would presumably agree that the Bible’s teaching about the nature of marriage does not allow for marriage between two people of the same gender. We differ, however, about the political implications. Boot believes that it is important to try and prevent the government from changing the legal definition to allow same-sex marriage. My view is that society has not had a remotely Christian view of marriage for a very long time. So, whilst I would prefer the legal definition of marriage to stay as it was, it does not worry me that it has changed. As long as Christians are still free to believe, teach, and live out a Biblical understanding of marriage the church is in no real danger from such legislation.

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