Christian Boundaries, Christian Identities and the Local Church

John M. Hull

International Journal of Practical Theology, Vol. 1 (1999) pp. 1-13

Abstract: Following a brief review of the history and character of the boundaries around and between religious traditions, the distinctions suggested by Raimundo Panikkar between Christendom, Christianity and Christian-ness are interpreted as indicating changes in Christian boundaries, and thus as representing three varieties of Christian identity. These options for Christian identity not only describe historical epochs in Christian history, but are available to Christians today. The implications of these three identities and their boundaries are considered in relationship to local church life.

The study of the history of religions has stimulated a new interest in the boundaries between religious traditions (Davies 1982, Dunn 1991, Ellwood 1988, Gillman 1986, Kuschel 1995, Oberoi 1994). The very idea that religion is to be thought of mainly as a series of religions is itself an idea with a history (Nock 1933, Smith 1978). Not only has each religion passed through a process of self-understanding but this process has been quickened by contact with other religious traditions. Moreover, the very process of describing and classifying religions, without which boundaries between them could hardly be conceptualised, is to some extent the product of western observation. Not until the early nineteenth century did Western scholars accept the self-understanding of Muslims, and begin to describe the faith of the Qur’an as Islam. Until then, Western scholars had imposed such descriptions as Mohomadanism or Mussulmanism or Islamism (Smith 1978, p 83). Similarly, it was Western scholars trying to organise and integrate the wide range of religious belief and behaviour which had been encountered in the Indian subcontinent who coined the expression ‘Hinduism’. Before the emergence of this description, some Muslims had been content to describe themselves as Hindus, in the geographical sense that they lived within the Indus Valley, and similarly there were Hindu Christians (Jackson and Nesbitt, 1994 p2). Christianity, as a name for the traditions inspired by Jesus Christ, is not a New Testament expression, and its meaning has varied across the centuries (Smith, 1978 p 23).

It is the application of ethnography to the study of religion which has revealed the disparity between the generalisations of the scholars and the actual religious lives of the people. Jackson and Nesbitt (1994, p162f) describe the way in which the self-understanding of Hindu and Sikh children can be affected by the imposition of Western conceptions. This is similar to the situation encountered by the British administrators in the Punjab in 1881. In a

census, the people were asked to indicate their religion, i.e. whether they were Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian or some other (Oberoi 1994 p9f). Many of the people were unable to reply to this question, not because of any secularisation which had led to a falling away from religious practice or belief, but because the categories were unfamiliar to them. Harjot Oberoi, in his study of the formation of Sikh identity has shown that for two centuries after the passing away of Guru Nanak his disciples found little or no problem in taking part in what we would call Hindu pilgrimage, or in visiting the shrines of deities now generally regarded as Hindu. The same was true of the relationship between the disciples of Guru Nanak and the shrines of the Muslim saints. Not until late in the nineteenth century did orthodox Sikh identity with its full paraphernalia of symbols emerge as a separate religious self-consciousness (Oberoi, 1994 p 26 et passim).

The situation with respect to Christianity and other religions is not much different. The Buddha passed the boundaries, such as they were, between Buddhism and Christianity, and became a Christian saint commemorated in the Roman Martyrology on 27 November (ODCC 1974 art. Josephat, St,. Cf Smith 1980 pp 6ff). Jew and Christian have mutually influenced each other down the centuries. Michael Hilton (1994) has shown that it would be as true to claim that Christianity is the mother of Judaism as it would be to claim the reverse, which is more usually the case. The truth seems to be that neither religion emerged from the previous one, but that what we came to call Christianity and what became generally known as Judaism were strands of religious life in Palestine before the destruction of the second temple. Of the many new interpretations of Torah and Israel which were emerging at that time, two survived, and became numbered amongst the religions of the world: Christianity and Judaism (Dunn 1991 p 230ff). The process of separation, however, took at least a century. There was no single break between these two traditions but many points of tension and contrast, leading at last to a parting of the ways which was conditioned by political and financial concerns of the Roman state as well as by the internal self-understanding of the two traditions (Dunn 1991 p 242).

No doubt the emergence of boundaries, more or less clearly defined, met various needs (Mol 1971, Davies 1982). Primal religions seemed to have been concerned mainly with the security of society and were, on the whole, conservative in their outlook (Hick,1989 p22f, Ellwood 1988 p49). With the emergence of what is sometimes called the axial period, from about 1000 BCE, a whole series of spiritual leaders introduced the religions of transformation and salvation. Each offered a distinctive spiritual discipline, an integration of the belief and conduct which by its nature required choice and commitment. Conversion from one religion to another made its first appearance (Nock 1933), and it is no accident that the emergence of writing, inaugurating what we may call the scripturalisation period of religious history (Smith 1993), occurred at a similar time. The inscription of the liturgical requirements, the ethical demands and the cognitive structures made clear definition and commitment possible. If each of these new spiritual disciplines was to maintain its integrity in competition with others, it was necessary that criteria should be formulated to distinguish the harmony inside the system from the noise of the irrelevant information outside (Bowker 1987 p9ff).

However, as groups of believers or adherents clustered together to meet the requirements of the discipline, an inevitable consolidation of territory and economic resources took place. Religions became features of community life, and the long process of communalisation began (Arokiasamy 1991). It was with the assumption of an identity between religion and community that the British administrators of the late nineteenth century tried to carry out their religious census of the Punjab (Oberoi 1994 p9). As questions of territory and resources emerged, religious communities came into conflict with each other (Smith 1946). As the conflicts were managed and intensified, boundaries became more clearly defined, and as the boundaries were threatened, more and more energy had to be expended in their stabilisation and maintenance (Gillman 1986). We may think of the struggle over the physical boundaries of Christian Europe as demonstrated in the crusades, or we may think about the creation of cognitive boundaries, as expressed in the anathemas attached to many of the early Christian creeds (Lieu 1994, pp 203ff)

The spiritual creators of the axial period had been able to convey a real sense of emancipation to their followers, but these experiences were not always interpreted in an inclusive manner, for reasons which we have already mentioned. The result was that the boundaries between the traditions were soon expressed in salvific terms. "The one who believes and is baptised will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned". (Mk 16:16). This kind of boundary was more characteristic of Western religion than of Eastern, where the wide diversity of traditions, more or less religious, which Western scholars describe as Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian and Shinto, co-existed for centuries without any particular insistence upon exclusive affiliation. In the Middle East the melting pots of tribes and languages in touch with various interpretations of the Hebrew Bible generated a whole range of interlocking and generally exclusive traditions. The Abrahamic tradition produced the synagogue, the church and the mosque. In the nineteenth century, Baha’ullah, seeking to break down the boundaries once again, formed yet a further spiritual movement: the Baha’i world faith. The sequence also includes religions such as the Manichaeans, who once seemed destined to become a great world faith in their own right, but today are lost from the scene of history almost without a trace.

The role of Europe in the creation and the heightening of the boundaries between religions has been considerable. This must be attributed not only to the scholarly generalisations of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, leading to a sort of reification of religious traditions, but supremely to the emergence of the world wide European commercial enterprise, beginning in the early fifteenth century. There is no doubt that the distinctions between consumption and production, between the buyer and the seller on the market place and especially the contrast between the trading and manufacturing nations on the one hand, and the colonial peoples on the other, encouraged such religious distinctions (Comaroff & Comaroff 1991, Tinker 1993). From this point onwards, the sharp boundaries between Christian faith and other religions are the reflection of the psychological and political needs of empire.

A vivid example of this may be seen in the theology of John William Colenso, the Bishop of Natal who was removed from his office in 1863. One of the charges laid against him, which horrified some of his theological contemporaries, was that he taught that in the sight of God all people were equal (Morris, 1973 p326). Another manifestation of the same impulse may be found in the rise of the British Israel movement, which interpreted British imperialism as the fulfilment of biblical prophesy (Barkun 1994). This movement reached its climax in the Christian identity movement in the United States of America since the Second World War, in which such churches as the Church of Jesus Christ (Christian) deny the Jewishness of Jesus. Jews themselves are regarded as the seed of Satan, having been conceived through intercourse between the Devil and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Barkun 1994 p83). The political aspirations of the movement include the creation of a separate, pure, white, Christian state, usually to be located in the North Western area of the United States (Barkun 1994 p241).

Another example of the close link between sharp religious boundary-maintenance and the political and economic needs of an invading people may be found in the history of the Christian missions to the Australian Aborigines (Swain and Bird, 1988 cf Sepulveda, 1997). Generally speaking, those missionary enterprises which insisted upon cognitive purity, and refused to regard the aboriginal spirituality as having anything to contribute to salvation, were unsuccessful, but those missionaries who did not set sharp boundaries but recognised the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the original peoples of Australia tended to create movements of renewal. The religious boundaries, however, even when expressing the requirements of political and economic hegemony, were seldom as ruthless as the political and economic boundaries themselves. Without the humanitarian instincts of religion, the colonial mentality degenerated into a mere exploitative racism. On the question of boundary-maintenance, religion manifests its character as a double-edged phenomenon: it is a principal justification for boundaries, and at the same time its universalising intentions soften these very boundaries. It excludes and unites simultaneously.

The rise of modernity creates new crises for the maintenance of religious boundaries. While on the one hand these become hardened through the geopolitical and economic demands of empire, they are at the same time blurred through the massive migration of peoples, the emergence of hybrid types of religions, the contact between peoples due to modern transportation and information technology, and the new understanding of the unity of the human species in its spiritual experience, which is one of the gifts of the study of religion to human reconciliation.

The three-stage theory of Christian development suggested by Raimundo Panikkar may be looked upon as a study in the changing character of the boundaries between the Christian faith and other religious traditions (Panikkar, 1987). Panikkar distinguishes between Christendom, Christianity and Christian-ness. The boundaries around Christendom created by its character as a geopolitical and social unity on the West Asian peninsular (Europe) were fixed between the unknown wastes of the Atlantic ocean on the West, the mysterious horror and fascination of the great continent to the South, and the threat of Islam to the East and South. To be Christian was, in some significant sense, to be European.

During the period of Christianity, when the Christian tradition emerged as a universal system of belief in competition with other similarly perceived systems, to justify and validate the world-wide European conquests, the boundaries around the Christian tradition became emphatically cognitive. To be Christian meant to be someone who believed certain things (Smith 1977). The Christian mission became the propagation and spread of these beliefs, which cancelled out other beliefs. These were looked upon as necessarily false if the Christian beliefs were to be necessarily true. The light must overcome the darkness.

The period of Christianness is marked by an attempt to deconstruct the territorial borders of the Christian state and the cognitive borders of Christianity in the light of the new situation confronting humanity today. A revival of discipleship to Jesus is the central spiritual feature of this development, together with a fresh insistence upon the Holy Trinity as the basis of the Christian world understanding. This new understanding has been led by the theology of mission (Lande and Ustorf 1996), but the theory and practice of Christian education is now beginning to follow this lead (Religious Traditions 1996). Jesus, as the crucified and risen Lord, does not call men and women to a pointless and exhausting competition with other religions, but calls his followers to engage in the mission of God, which is to work for the coming of the Kingdom of God. The aim of this is not a triumphant ecclesiasticism but a renewed humanity (Hull 1997 a,b). This is not a return to the liberal, ethical Jesus of the bourgeois nineteenth century in Europe, but an advance made possible by a new understanding of Christian faith, new insights into its origins and new visions of its destiny, and made necessary by the emergence of huge forces which threaten to dehumanise the species and to reverse the transformational impact of all the great religions.

Christian Identity

The identity of the individual is bound up with the identity of the tradition. My own self-understanding is part of the self-understanding of the Christian mission in the world. This sense of Christian identity will vary as the understanding of the boundaries develops. Christian identity under Christendom will not be the same as that under Christianity, and the identity which Christianness will encourage will be different yet again.

The identity of Christendom is primarily territorial. This identity is associated with the psychological and social needs of nationalism. In so far as nationalism is associated with various kinds of ethnicity, Christian religion (or any other religion) plays a part in establishing identity (Eriksen, 1993). This makes a contribution to the struggle for survival in a world where natural resources are seen to be limited. To put it more correctly, in a situation where the unequal distribution of world resources threatens democratic institutions, a Christian territorialism can be used to defend the status quo and to justify the maintenance of national and economic boundaries (Barkun 1994). In such an understanding of identity, Christian faith becomes the servant of a particularised form of identity rather than an ecumenical identity (Moore, 1995). For this reason, such a particularised, Christendom identity must be regarded as inappropriate for the needs of global solidarity today.

The identity which Christianity encourages (I am referring to Christianity as the cultural artefact of European intellectualism between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries), has different interests and serves different purposes. In contrast to the Christendom identity of nationhood and ethnicity, the identity fostered by Christianity is individualised and interiorised. In order to serve the interests of global exploitation, Christian faith is forced up out of the world of practice, out of the world of social relations, first into belief, then of language about belief, and finally into the fetish-like numinosity of the isolated word. These words become the focus of an intense, inner spirituality which is subjectively realised as religious experience. The relationship with God is no longer mediated but is reified in a theology of mystical or eschatological salvation. This may take sacramental, ecclesial or cognitive forms depending upon whether it is expressed through such movements as the high church tradition within nineteenth century Anglicanism or the revival of a shrewd and argumentative doctrinal fundamentalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Hull, 1996 a).

An interesting example of this type of Christian faith is to be found in an interview with the Canadian Minister of Finance, Mr Paul Martin, as reported in the Ottawa Citizen on 10 January 1997. The Minister was commenting on the rise of poverty amongst Canadian children, pointing out that now one Canadian child in five is regarded as coming from a poor family. In expressing his view, Mr Martin used a number of religious expletives, saying such things as "Well, Jesus Christ, that’s staggering. Holy God, it’s awful. There’s Third World Poverty in this country. It is beyond belief..... The market better begin to show it’s human side pretty damn soon". The following morning the newspaper carried a single letter of protest from a Christian minister. The clergyman said that "the article..... is laced with...... words that are revered as holy by Christians..... It grieves and offends us" No mention was made of the economic policy of the minister or of his demand that the market should take account of the growing poverty amongst children.

What has happened to this type of Christianity? Which is of greater offence to God, the fact that a minister of state uses God’s name to reinforce a horrific reality, or the horrific reality itself? Is God not offended by one million poor children more than by the use of his name on the lips of an unbelieving man to draw attention to the poor children? One wonders whether such a clergyman has ever read or understood the general tenor of the Bible. Has he never read Jeremiah’s criticism of those who put their faith in continually repeating the name of the temple (Jer 7:24), or the words of Jesus about those who said to him "Lord, Lord" (Mt 7:22f) but did not do what he said? Christian piety has moved away from the mission of God to be fixed upon the fascinating verbalism of the name of God. The name glows with power and draws out its own veneration (Hull, 1996 b). The mission is ignored, unnoticed. This is the point at which Christianity must pass into Christianness.

Are we to regard the boundaries defining the religious traditions as important or not? My own belief is that they are important but not very important. They are important because without some reference to boundaries, the salavific coherence of the Christian imagery and symbolism becomes dissipated. Although I take no offence when readings from the sacred scriptures of other religions are included in Christian services of worship, and I think that sometimes this is most appropriate and helpful, on the whole I believe that the concentrated intensity of whatever the Christian tradition can do to change people’s lives is best realised when it draws mainly upon Jesus and the Holy Trinity as the centres of inspiration. This is to say that the Christian experience of salvation is sufficient, even although we can no longer maintain that it is necessary (Hull, 1997 a,b). God has many saving projects, and the distinctiveness of the projects is as much a feature of them as their plurality. God has given many because God creates many and rejoices in many. The Holy Trinity is the exfoliation of the divine variety and the acceptance in openness and suffering of the diversity of the world (Hull, 1995). The boundaries of the Christian faith are thus a matter for practical theology. However, the practical theology which affirms the coherence of the powerful centre also affirms the necessity for a generous openness towards other manifestations of God’s grace. This is why the boundaries are important but not very important.

Let me use a biological image. Christian faith is to have a strongly beating heart but its skin should become somewhat more tender and sensitive. Indeed, there is an inverse relationship between the strength of the beating heart and the strength of the outer covering. At this stage of human development, we do not know what the proportions should be, but it seems that the stronger beating of the heart contributes to a weakening of the skin. In other words, Christian faith opens people up to the suffering of the world; it should not close them off from it. At a time when enormous problems confront the human species, it would be folly and contrary to the mission of God to concentrate Christian energies upon the maintenance of the boundaries between its own traditions and other spiritual traditions. The beating heart is the heart of God’s love for the world through Jesus Christ; that love is not to be found in the skin of separation or the boundary of exclusiveness.

Christian Boundaries, Christian Identities and the Local Church

It is possible to analyse Christian identity in the local church from a number of different theoretical standpoints. The authors of the Christian Aid Report (1994) distinguished six models of Christian allegiance: the personal-literal, institutional questioning, corporate analytical and so on (Christian Aid 1994 pp 7-10). Each of these suggests a different emphasis in Christian self-understanding and thus in identity. However, the distinctions between Christendom, Christianity and Christianness which we have been discussing lend themselves particularly well to an understanding of identity because they deal with boundaries. This helps us to reflect upon the different ways in which participation in local church life offers boundaries for the self, each type of which encloses and nourishes a different Christian identity.


It seems probable that for many church people, Christendom is the best description of their identity-formation. The church represents a building and a group of friends whom they have known all their lives. In this company, they have met their husbands and wives. They have grown up within its various clubs and societies and their children have been nurtured within it and possibly passed beyond it. They have belonged to this single, local church most of their lives, although there may have been a break due to job relocation. Many of these people do not discover a new affiliation in their new place of residence, but come back to the old church whenever they can. Others survive the break, but the move from one congregation to another sometimes seems to lead to a weakening of the Christendom identity, and the development of a more Christianity-based outlook. This is because of the generalisation of the church which experience of more than one congregation invites. The experience of the long-attached adherence of the single local congregation may be punctuated by other events, such as the opening of a new church building or the creation of an ecumenical congregation, when several local churches amalgamated.

Such events will enrich the story of the church, which is the account of its identity. Affiliation to the church will be primarily habitual and territorial. The church will be venerated as a sanctuary, as a place of worship and such people may devote years of loving care to its maintenance. Attitudes towards church problems will be similar to those which might arise in a club or a society. If the church is short of money, for instance, the Christendom identity will react as it would towards a financial problem in a club. It will be necessary to have a summer fair or some other fund-raising activity. The church will essentially function in the interests of its own members. Visitors will be welcomed, but use of the building by other groups, especially non-attached young people, will be granted only with hesitation. There will be little attention paid to society outside the church, and the plurality of the ideological and religious world will be ignored.


The local church may be thought of as having Christianity-type identity when affiliation is no longer to the building or to the group of people considered as a more or less autonomous club, but to the belief-structure of the Christian tradition. Faith will now be ideologised, and consciousness will become competitive towards those with no religious faith at all and to those who belong to other religions. There will be a strong sense of inner adhesion to the faith, which will be expressed in a religious experience which may take mystical, sacramental or ecstatic forms.

Because identity is focused around the belief structure itself, the main locus of affiliation will be the language in which the beliefs are expressed. In situations where this kind of Christian ideology acts as the super structure of economic and other social/political interests (and this is almost always the case at the present time), the language will be further removed from the social and political reality which it legitimates. This will lead to a falsification of personality and consciousness, together with a growing self-deception in the spiritual life. The isolation of language will lead to a greater concentration of the sacred upon the words themselves, which will then begin to glow with a numinous power. The words themselves will be the fetish-like objects of faith, as we saw in the case of the letter of protest from the clergyman in Ottawa. Religious experience will be internally generated through meditation upon the words.

In more educated, middle class and professional congregations, these factors will be mitigated to some extent by an intelligent approach to the language which will be related to various other languages and spheres of life. The central problem of faith will, however, continue to be its meaning, this being elaborated in relationship to the meanings of others in an exploratory fashion. In congregations which are generally less well educated, or where the fascination of the language has taken a stronger grip, relationships with non-Christians will represent a boundary requiring considerable maintenance.


In this type of identity, the focus becomes the mission of God as expressed through Jesus Christ. There will be a revival of practical discipleship to Jesus moulded by a Trinitarian theology although this may not be very sophisticated. The impact of the Trinitarian approach is to counteract a fetish-like adherence to Jesus, and to contextualise the person and work of Jesus Christ within the mission of God as Father and as Lord of all life. The Bible will be read in new and contemporary ways under the impact of theologies coming more or less directly from the non-European world. A global perspective and an interest in the church’s participation in the issues of peace, justice and the integrity of creation will inspire church planning. Other characteristics could be listed but this will be sufficient.


It is clear from anthropological and philosophical studies that identity should not be regarded as an essence or a substance intrinsic to the self, but must be regarded as the product of culture (Eriksen 1993, Meijer 1995). Identity is a cultural artefact, made available to consciousness through narrative. This means that one interprets the self, or narrates it in the light of cultural stories and semantic expectations. Neither Christian faith nor Christian identity are unchanging, but are in a mutual relationship with culture and history. The principal task of Christian education today is to enable Christian men and women, boys and girls, to grow into this dynamic mutuality through processes of faith development and critical exploration, so that the mission of God in Jesus may reach its fulfilment for the good of all humanity.


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