The final collapse of Christendom and the last vestiges of the state enforcing the Christian religion ended in 2015, a church historian argued last month at a Lancaster County church.
W. Robert Godfrey, chairman of Ligonier Ministries and resident of California, presented two lectures at a mini-conference entitled “The End of Christendom” held at Zeltenreich Reformed Church in New Holland, Pennsylvania, on October 28, 2023. (Godfrey’s son, also named Robert Godfrey, serves as the pastor at Zeltenreich.)
Godfrey’s first lecture provided an overview of the spread of Christianity in the West and Godfrey’s conclusion that “Christians became used to being the dominant point of view, the dominant power, [and] having strong support from the state.”
For over 1,000 years of history the civil government in the West used its coercive power to enforce aspects of the Christian religion, Godfrey argued, but now that run has come to an end.
When did it end? Godfrey posited the year 2015 as the end of Christendom. In that year, Godfrey argued, it was not a legal decision that marked the end, but rather the popular reaction to the pro-homosexual Supreme Court ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges, that revealed there were “no longer Christian moral values that unite us.” The collapse of Christendom has left us “confused” and “uncertain,” with “no great cultural consensus anymore,” Godfrey said.
Godfrey ended his first lecture by declaring that the current “divide [in America] really is between those who don’t see that Christendom has collapsed and still think as if it were in place and those who not only are glad Christendom has collapsed but they’re celebrating and they’re pushing it.”
Godfrey said he believes there is “something liberating about the end of Christendom,” noting that Christians can now “seek to be persuasive,” rather than coercive. Godfrey believes this is more in-line with Christianity, noting that in his reading of the Gospel accounts, he does not “see a coercive bone in Jesus’ body.”
However, in Mark chapter 11, Jesus is presented as entering the temple, driving out those who were doing business, and overturning the tables of the money-changers.
Later Godfrey praised coercion when he described an experience he had as a junior high student seeing the vice principal use physical force against a student looking “cross eyed” at the vice principal.
“He picked the student up and jammed him against the wall,” Godfrey said. “I’m so old and so bad, I think that’s a thing of beauty. It’s a different world, isn’t it – that vice principal would go to prison today.”
In his second lecture, Godfrey presented several potential responses to the “end of Christendom.” He referenced Amish and Mennonite communities as examples of the extreme “withdraw” response. Godfrey then described Christian nationalism as another “extreme” position made up of those who “want – maybe even violently – to restore Christendom.” He described Christian nationalists as often angry people “perfectly willing to be coercive.”
Godfrey posited his recommended response by referencing Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch Calvinist who called for the application of Christ’s kingship to every sphere of life.
Kuyper, who served as the Prime Minister of the Netherlands from 1901 to 1905, called for a distinction between the institutions of the family, church, and civil government. Each sphere is separate, but still responsible to God. Such a view is sometimes referred to as “sphere sovereignty.”
However, Kuyperian sphere sovereignty is a position championed by many who would, perhaps with qualifications, accept the Christian nationalist moniker. The central thesis is that each sphere is still responsible to obey and honor Jesus Christ. For example, the late Greg Bahnsen, wrote that “church and state can be separated with respect to function, instrument, and scope and yet both be responsible to God. The Lord rules not only His church but also His world.”
Near the end of his final lecture, Godfrey asked his audience an important question: “Where do we make a distinction between what we call sin and what we want to see labelled as crime?”
“We know what we want in the church,” Godfrey said, “but do we know what we want as a matter of public policy? What are we willing to ask the state to be coercive about?”
Commenting on the issue of laws against divorce, and what sort of laws we ought to have, Godfrey said he did not know what the answer is.
“I think we as Christians have to think about these things in ways we never had to think about them before,” Godfrey said, “because a hundred years ago we just sort of thought what the church says is what we ought to have in civil law.”
Godfrey did not take a position on legal “gay marriage,” but rather said we “have to think this through.”
However, for generations Christians have been thinking through the distinction between sins and crimes. The scholarship of men like R.J. Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen, and Gary North, among others, is full of analysis of the question Godfrey says “we never had to think about” before. And Godfrey is aware of those works, as he helped to edit Theonomy: A Reformed Critique, a response to the position advocated by Bahnsen, published in 1990. (Bahnsen and others responded in 1991 with Theonomy: An Informed Response.)
Godfrey’s lectures at times conflated the influence of Christianity on culture and the state’s use of coercion in the name of Christianity – a conflation that made his presentation ambiguous at several points.
Responding to Godfrey’s lectures, Joel Saint, pastor of Independence Reformed Bible Church, publicly invited Godfrey to clarify his points by participating in a moderated debate at next year’s Future of Christendom Conference.