Against Catacomb Christianity

Published October 18, 2021

American Reformer

American evangelicals find themselves wrestling with two realities: they make up a sizeable portion of the American population, but it is a share of the population in overall decline (if polling is accurate).

As this reality settles in, there will be a temptation to adopt what Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan once coined as “catacomb consciousness.” For reference, catacombs were tunneled burial grounds deep in the earth where many in the early church sought refuge to protect themselves from Roman persecution.

In O’Donovan’s framing, however, adopting a “catacomb consciousness” is synonymous with the ecclesiology of individuals like Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. Both are titanic figures who saw attempts by Christians to marshal cultural and political power as a compromising pollutant to authentic Christianity, called “Constantinianism,” after the much-ballyhooed hero-villain, Emperor Constantine. To Yoder and Hauerwas, the universal morality established by Christian truth claims and espoused by the Christian natural law tradition, was eschewed, portrayed as cheapening and diluting the radicality of the Kingdom of God under the mistaken assumption that Christian morality can be relatable to the operations of fallen social orders.

Authentic faith meant, in contrast, rediscovering the radical nature of the Kingdom of God as an essentially non-violent and counter-imperial narrative. So, to the margins of society Christians must go, for it is there on the outskirts of society amid the crucible of dispossession where true faith is summoned. Stripped of power, the virtue of minority status is seen as an opportunity for refinement, where one is no longer tempted to adopt the Christian faith because of a herd mentality. Catacomb Christianity thus represents the sort of separatist Christianity that understands authentic faith as that which can only be practiced by a cultural minority, dispossessed of all worldly power, and driven to the margins of society.

This sentiment can be found throughout contemporary evangelicalism in various expressions—especially on social media. There, a veritable cottage industry of self-loathing Christianity can be found. Its presence seems more animated by an anxious watchfulness that exists to accuse any Christian political manifestation that does not instinctually empathize with Leftism, as indulging in the shibboleth of Christian Nationalism. The allure of catacomb Christianity is that it finds opportunity for Christian renewal amid decline. There is without doubt some truth in that: one test of a person’s faithfulness to Christ is the self-examination that results when Christianity no longer accrues to the Christian any social benefit. Catacomb Christianity thus militates against the thirst for power and legitimization as an essential component of Christianity. If that is where the sentiment stopped, my critiques might stop as well. However, this approach goes further by suggesting that any and all exercising of political power is at odds with orthodox Christianity. There might be a body of history which would vindicate the concern of power-for-power’s sake, but that critique cannot be made without recognizing the civilizational fruits of Christianity’s cultural influence, ideas such as human rights, dignity, and the introduction of such things as the university and the hospital.

The naivete of this mindset, however, is that it romanticizes persecution as the sine qua nonof Christian faith, which is true insofar as Christians are promised persecution (2 Tim. 3:12), even though they are nowhere told to look eagerly for its presence. The untenableness of catacomb Christianity, however, is that it abandons social responsibility for the doldrums of monastic withdrawal. In that sense, it is a form of pious withdrawal detached from real-world affairs.

O’Donovan’s criticism lands squarely in today’s evangelical firmament among those who insist that all political action is corrupting and compromising or those who insist that any assertion of “rights” is a self-seeking capitulation to American individualism.

What O’Donovan goes on to say, however, is that those early Christians “didn’t huddle down there and say, ‘how nice. We at least know who we are while we’re down here.” O’Donovan’s statement chastises those who think banishment constitutes purity on its own grounds. It can be refining, for sure. That Christianity enters into, interprets, and redeems suffering does not mean we invite suffering or downplay the real political consequences of regimes who see Christianity as a threat. 

We must wrestle with two tensions: The message of the New Testament was not meant to topple political regimes directly. But as the consequences of Christianity bore fruit, however, there were direct political implications. As Carl Henry wrote:

The New Testament does not, however, ignore the socio-political question, even if it does not begin with it. The discussion of redemption and reconciliation is put in a profounder context, however. It tolerates no total depoliticizing of the Gospel.

Henry argues similarly in the same essay that:

Although the New Testament places a temporary ‘hold’ on the forced messianic overthrow of world-powers during the Church age, it places no ‘hold’ whatever on the divine demand for justice in the public order. Christ’s followers are to exemplify the standards of God’s kingdom, and they are to be ‘light’ and ‘salt’ in a dark and rotting society where God intends civil government to promote justice and restrain disorder.

This cannot be done from the margins or in the catacombs. 

But the sort of paradigm that sees removal from society as the grounds of faithfulness or romanticizes persecution as a welcomed reality, forfeits entry into a public arena that allows for maximizing the assertion of Christian truth claims, which is what we ought to do if we believe that from divine order comes truth and that without truth there is no order. As Carl F. H. Henry once poignantly remarked, it is the responsibility of the church to “declare the criteria by which nations will ultimately be judged, and the divine standards to which man and society must conform if civilization is to endure.” 

It is hard to make such a declaration while valorizing the church’s foreignness to society. The early church began as a foreign imperium, but the proclamation that Jesus is Lord was the grounds of its foray into political responsibility. Because the revelation of Jesus Christ is a public truth, it demands a public response. There is no going back into the catacombs under a false, but pious, consciousness.

The irony, of course, is that the varieties of Christian expression that see political power as a form of theological debasement are often the loudest in the pursuit of social justice. What this reveals, at root, is a lack of coherence concerning public theology. There is no virtue from the margins that cannot also be found when exercising statecraft responsibly. One cannot hope for the reclamation of injustice while rejecting the means of reclamation. Eschewing statecraft while desiring justice is political Gnosticism. It is akin to exercising judgment without there being criteria upon which to judge.

Moreover, the sort of Christianity that extols the “margins” as the inherent center of Christianity does so with little awareness of Christian history and from a position of relative privilege. A political ethic not intelligible to Christians suffering on the margins is empty piety. A Chinese pastor, for example, under the threat of execution, would probably like the religious liberty that some who espouse such empty maxims in America take for granted. This is not a hypothetical for me. I have students I teach who tell me about the real-life consequences of religious liberty’s presence or absence in their home countries. Moreover, as Christian history bears out, the blood of the martyrs is not necessarily the seed of the church. That famed phrase was not given to us from Holy Scripture, but from Tertullian. As history reveals, regimes can have tremendous success at stamping out Christian belief. On this, just look at Japan’s history with Christianity.

The other problem, however, is that proximity to power, or smallness-for-smallness’s sake, is no measure of faithfulness in Christian thought, let alone Scripture. The Kingdom begins with tiny mustard seeds and eventually overtakes the garden, suggesting that growth and expansiveness are not pollutants to Christian identity (Matt. 13:31-32). Instead, the growth of the kingdom means responsible management of those public truth claims. Expansiveness is not an inherent obstacle to faithfulness nor is smallness a model of virtue.

There is also a great irony to catacomb Christianity: It cannot decide what to do with the Great Commission. Commenting on the work of Stanley Hauerwas, theologian Theo Hobson writes with remarkable sobriety about the confused ecclesiology of catacomb ecclesiology:

But surely this ecclesial position is fundamentally confused. It wants the church to be an alternative society, whose practices constitute a counter-politics, and it locates salvation in incorporation in this other society. It also claims to be opposed to any accommodation between this other society and political power. It is a fantasy. In reality, this politically distinctive church will be an institution within the general body politic, and if it is numerous it will be established, whether officially or not. He cannot have it both ways: if the church is an actual political society, it cannot hope to be politically innocent.

Catacomb Christianity cannot have it both ways. It cannot hope for a pure church, discovering its purity on the margins, without the prospect of a pure church’s success taking on society-wide dimensions. The church’s faithfulness cannot be an impediment to its own growth. What then? What would happen to a society if its population became predominantly Christian? Would we not expect an outworking of the gospel to inhabit the political community’s mores? Would not ideals of human rights, human dignity, equality, and monogamy surface? If the canopy of a marginalized church widens in influence, is it then compromised? This incoherence is why, ultimately, catacomb Christianity lacks the plausibility for offering a missiology to fit the age of the church. It is an over-realized eschatology trafficking in self-abasement but reveling in naivete.

Withdrawal-as-piety as a Christian political strategy is a form of political Gnosticism. It assumes a platonic political ideal that does not engage the kingdoms of the world for what they actually are: fallen and temporal, yes, but also creational ordinances designed for proximate justice.

T.S. Eliot wrote that:

The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the World from suicide.

If Eliot is right (and I think he is), then catacomb Christianity is not only a disavowal of Christian public ethics, it is a betrayal of Christian love.

Christians do not have a license to get into the mudslinging of politics and act as charlatans, bullies, or hypocrites. Political orders, as such, do not care about or recognize our primary heavenly citizenship and can therefore lead us astray in many ways. We must be vigilant to make sure that politics on the world’s terms does not induce worldliness in the church.

Our heavenly citizenship, in fact, is the truest reality that reconfigures our orientation to statecraft. Still, it does not absolve us of the responsibilities of statecraft. A Christian politics is one of subordinating the powers, not repudiating their temporal rule in this age.

A Christian politics that pursues justice refuses to ascribe to the political orders a power that is not theirs. Even still, the City of God acts amid the City of Man, wherein​​, despite the ultimate divergences of worship, a temporal and penultimate convergence of justice is still to be sought.

If Christian truth claims are true, we must not cordon off those truth claims in the catacombs, but instead take them to city gates and capitol buildings of our world.

Andrew T. Walker is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

EPPC Fellow Andrew T. Walker, Ph.D., researches and writes about the intersection of Christian ethics, public theology, and the moral principles that support civil society and sound government. A sought-after speaker and cultural commentator, Dr. Walker’s academic research interests and areas of expertise include natural law, human dignity, family stability, social conservatism, and church-state studies. The author or editor of more than ten books, he is passionate about helping Christians understand the moral demands of the gospel and their contributions to human flourishing and the common good. His most recent book, out in May 2021 from Brazos Press, is titled Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Secular Age.

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