Church and State: Principles and Imagination
Please note, the following is an edited version of the complete work that can be found in the EMC published booklet, Going Deeper: Guidance on Six Key Themes in Anabaptism, ed. Terry Smith (Steinbach, MB: EMC, 2010). For a copy of the booklet, please contact email@example.com.
In the 21st century, politics have invaded everyday life in a way unprecedented. For previous generations, politicking was for the elite - the movement termed 'modernism' held the ideal that knowledge was not only certain but it was also strictly for the intellectual. The rise of the post-modern movement brought the notion of relative truth along with decentralisation - the moving of power and knowledge from the upper classes to the general community. Post-modernism placed ultimate authority into the general population, thereby emphasising the importance of human relations. Thus, as democracy ideologically became increasingly popular and information became globally accessible, more and more of the lower tiers of society were able to put their hand into what used to be strictly for the elite. In this way, it has become common for each average citizen to have their own political point of view - often times a strong one. Because of post-modernism's strong recognition of communal influence, a current major issue is that of ethical conduct - which includes the focus on environmental ethics which has increasingly become more prevalent. Political issues have now become household topics and the ever-present question of the relationship of the civilian toward the government has taken on a renewed vigour.
For the Christian, the question of participation in the government has always been prominent and in our current circumstances takes on even more significance: How does one represent God's Love through political participation? Better said, Can one represent God's Love through political participation? Such a question is increasingly relevant among Christians as more and more issues are brought to their immediate and individual attentions. Such a question, furthermore, for the Evangelical Anabaptist is more dramatically relevant since historically Anabaptists have continually debated over the issue of the relationship between church and state.
How much should a Christian support its government? Should Christians be permitted to hold political office? How intimately should Christians be involved with governments and their affairs? These are all questions with which our spiritual forefathers have struggled with and debated over. To them, the world was more-or-less clearly divided into two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of the World. The Kingdom of Christ was comprised of non-violence and forgiveness, of love and service - as Menno Simons wrote, it is a kingdom of 'righteousness, peace, and joy.'1 The Kingdom of the World was just the opposite, involving violence and vengeance, anger and pride - it is distinct from Christ's for His is a kingdom not of this world (John 18:32). Most notably, the Kingdom of the World utilised 'the sword,' which was an instrument of destruction and death - not of creation and life as would characterise Christ's Kingdom. Where Anabaptists wielded a sword, it was the 'sharp sword of the Spirit, God's Word' whereas the 'civil sword' was believed to be appointed to those in power.2 The Schleitheim Articles, written on 24 February 1527, stated in Article 6 that the sword is outside the perfection of Christ, leaving no room for doubt as to its place.3
While many Anabaptists believed, for the most part, governments were institutions instigated and blessed by God, they were strongly viewed to be a part of this world's kingdom, and therefore contradictory to what Christ represents. Certainly, it was believed, in accordance with Romans 13:1-7, that government was set by God, and the ruler in power was the authority; however, the exhortation in verse 5 to submit to the authorities was only taken as far as the authority's methods and decrees did not conflict with those of God's. Once a conflict did arise, it was in God whom the ultimate loyalty was to lay - and here lies the heart of the issue for the Christian. If the government is to be followed in as far as it is in sync with God's will, what is the Christian's relationship to the government supposed to look like, knowing - especially now in this age of un-restricted information - that a large percentage of political affairs are questionable as far as Christian ethics are concerned?
Historically, Anabaptists have had widely differing views on the relationship between Christians and the government. Balthasar Hubmaier, for instance, had no objection to Christians fully participating in the government: 'Christians may very well and with good conscience sit in court and council.'4 Furthermore, he had no issue with Christians and the sword, stating that if 'a Christian, by power of the divine Word, may and should be a judge with the mouth, he may also be a protector with the hand,' to which he adds that 'a Christian may also, according to God's order, carry the sword in God's place over the evildoer and punish him.'5 Of course, he qualifies this later in his letter by noting that the Christian is, although in political authority, to continue acting out of Christ's love; thus through a holy mentality of discipline the Christian wields the sword so that 'he punishes evil persons . . . not out of envy or hate, but out of righteousness' for he is (that is, should be) 'wholeheartedly sorry that such culpable people have not watched themselves.'6 Hubmaier maintains that the Christian in office remains and functions as a servant of God.
- Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, ed. J C Wenger, trans Leonard Verduin (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956, 1984), 200.
- C Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 1997), 115.
- Balthasar Hubmaier, Balthasar Hubmaier: Theologian of Anabaptism, trans. and ed. H Wayne Pipkin and John H Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1989), 503.