Alan Kreider was a special man. When I knew him he was a relatively tall skinny man with grey hair, a near perfect match to his wife Eleanor. Alan was many things over the course of his life, but was primarily a professor and a missionary. He was an excellent scholar of church history, focusing primarily on the time period from the time of Jesus to about 400ce, a period known as the Early Church. He taught at numerous schools here in the U.S. and in England, most recently at AMBS, which is where I came to know him. In London, England he and his wife spent about 25 years as Mennonite missionaries. Now while it might seem hard to connect these two parts of Alan’s life, they are in fact intimately woven together in a profound way.
After Jesus lived and died, the movement that grew after him was one that lived on the margins of both Jewish and Roman society. It was often shunned, if not outright illegal. It was this loose network of house churches that collected a wide range of people from society. Between 300ce and 400ce this changed. In a period of about 60-70 years, Christianity went from being illegal to being the official religion of the Roman Empire. This shift marks the beginning of something called Christendom.
Over the next 1700 years or so, Christendom spread in many forms throughout Western Europe and around the world. Christendom can be seen in many ways. Sometimes it is a geographical region (think of Robin Hood saying, “in all of Christendom…”). It’s also an all-encompassing religious institution that exerts control over every aspect of life. It determines the social norms for all of society. Also, for the majority of that time, Christendom was the merger of the church and the government. This meant that, among other things, your taxes supported the church and church doctrine was enforceable by local law enforcement. It should also be said, however, that even though Christendom uses the language of Jesus and the Bible, in reality Christendom may or may not look anything like the Jesus of the Bible or the first followers in the Early Church. And in fact, our Anabaptist ancestors said that Christendom looked so little like Jesus that we needed to break away from it. More on that in a bit.
England is one of the places in the Western world that was dominated by Christendom for 1500 years. While there are certain vestiges of it still around, England is also clearly one of the places where Christendom has completely fallen apart and no longer holds the power and control over society that it used to. As missionaries in that landscape, Alan and Eleanor were confronted with trying to answer the question of what it means to be the church in a world where the church is no longer the center of society and must figure out how to live on the margins again. Fortunately, Alan knew a thing or two about another period in time when Christians and Christianity was not the center of society or the world.
Alan had a deep and scholarly knowledge about the Early Church, but the pursuit of that knowledge was not merely academic. He had a conviction that Christendom is falling apart. This system of dominance of Western societies (and many other societies for that matter) is crumbling, and do-ing so quickly. For Alan, the question was not how can we prop up this crumbling system, but rather how can we faith-fully be the church of Jesus Christ on the margins? When answering that question, he applied what he knew about the first Christians who were very good at doing just that.
What’s more, Alan drew wisdom from our Anabaptist tradition as well. Yes, the Early Church knew how to live on the margins of society. However, for about 500 years or so now, our Anabaptist ancestors have rather boldly claimed that Christendom, in reality, did not match up very well with the Jesus we find in scripture. It is our tradition, and was one of the first in the modern era to say that this all-encompassing merger of church and state and society is actually a distortion of Jesus and his Gospel and not a fulfillment of it. All of this put together means that we might not only welcome the downfall of Christendom, but that we have very good reasons to think that our tradition in particular has something very meaningful to contribute to the new landscape of Christianity that is being ushered in.
Alan was a man who knew history well, but who also understood how it can inspire us and energize us to be agents of the amazingly good news of Jesus Christ right in our own neighborhoods and workplaces and coffee shops and schools. He was a man who was infectiously hopeful about the world that we inhabit and supremely grateful for every minute that God gives us to take another breath.
As I’ve been remembering him in the last several weeks, I’ve been going back to watch some videos of him speaking, reading through some old notes from classes, and even beginning to read his last published book. As I’ve done this I have been shown just how much his worldview has shaped mine. I have also been inspired once again for the work of being the church. I have been reminded of just how exciting and life-giving the calling is, that every sin-gle one of us as disciples has to go out into this world, build relationships and invite people into another way of living.
If you want a taste of Alan, you can follow this youtube link to an excerpt from one of his presentations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2T7yb3WQ3G8
Each month for our newsletter Pastor Alan writes a short article on a variety of topics. At times he will also create a video version of the article.