Church and State

The early Anabaptists struggled with how they should relate to the government. Although they did not all hold the same opinions, there was general agreement that this was a very important issue.

Separation of Church and State

Grossmunster (7 Kb): Canadian Mennonite photo
Grossmunster, the Main Church in Zurich
Castle in Ghent where Anabaptists were Imprisoned and Executed during the 16th Century (43 Kb): Canadian Mennonite photo
Ghent Castle

On one hand the Anabaptists believed that joining a church should be a voluntary, adult decision. On the other, they knew that people have no control over where or into which country they were born. They saw that sometimes the commitments to country and church pulled them in different directions. Some things demanded by the government did not seem right for a Christian member of the church, and the other way around. The Anabaptists agreed that their commitment to the church was more important than that to their country or ruler.

"Two Kingdoms"

"The Scriptures teach that there are two opposing princes and two opposing kingdoms: the one is the Prince of peace; the other the prince of strife. Each of these princes has his particular kingdom and as the prince is so is also the kingdom."

Menno Simons (1552) in Klaassen, p. 280

Early Anabaptists explained this by speaking about "two kingdoms." They saw the world as divided into the kingdom of the "world" and the kingdom of God ("heaven," or Christ). All agreed that Christians should be loyal to the kingdom of God, even if this meant disagreeing with those in power.

The question was, how should these two "kingdoms" relate to each other in the lives of a Christian. Again, there was a spectrum of belief on this issue. To explore these perspectives let's look at Luther's views and compare them to three key early Anabaptists.

Can a Christian Participate in Government?

Martin Luther

Luther_Diagram.gif (1028 bytes)Martin Luther also understood a Christian as living in two "kingdoms." For him, Christians had the duty to uphold responsibilities in both areas. In their private lives, Christians were expected to follow the example of Christ. However, Christians were also expected to perform their job or "office" as members of society. Luther believed it was a Christian obligation to "obey" their rulers.

Hangman Example

Luther believed that a Christian could be a hangman. Such a person would not be acting as an individual Christian, but would fulfill his "office" in society under the power and authority of the government.

Michael Sattler

Sattler_Diagram.gif (1124 bytes)Probably the most famous Anabaptist position was that of Michael Sattler. Sattler thought that these two kingdoms should be kept totally separate. Once someone decided to become a Believer and receive adult baptism, his loyalty shifted away from his country or ruler to Christ and the church. Christians were required to be utterly obedient to God by following the example of Jesus.

"No Christian is a ruler and no ruler is a Christian, for the child of blessing cannot be the servant of wrath."

Peter Riedemann in Snyder, p. 278

Thus, in Sattler's view, Christians could not hold public office or participate in war - they could not be a judge, ruler, or soldier. As the principal writer of the Schleitheim Confession, Sattler had an enormous influence on the Swiss/South German Anabaptist tradition.

Hangman Example

For Sattler, a Christian could not be a hangman because the job was evil; it meant being employed by the state. After all, the state was part of the "world." After Adult baptism a Christian no longer belonged in this "kingdom" but in the "kingdom of God." Sattler refused to separate individuals into private Christians and public citizens - one had to choose his or her loyalties.

Pilgram Marpeck

Marpeck_Diagram.gif (1341 bytes)Marpeck believed that there was some overlap between these two kingdoms. He did not believe that the jobs themselves were the problem. If, however, a job required a Christian to act contrary to the "law of love" and the example of Christ, a Christian should not do so. Where there was disagreement, Marpeck believed that one should act according to the "kingdom of God."

Marpeck developed his beliefs as he struggled with these issues in his own life. As a civil engineer, Marpeck worked for various city governments. At one point, as an engineer in Strasbourg, he was required to take an oath to defend the city. He refused, believing that this went against his Christian convictions. As a result he lost his job and was kicked out of the city.

Hangman example   

Marpeck would have questioned if a Christian could act as a hangman. The job would require a Christian to perform acts which go against the "law of love" shown in Christ's teachings and life. Since Christians must be loyal to God above all else, they could not carry out orders of execution.

Balthasar Hubmaier

Luther_Diagram.gif (1028 bytes)Of all early Anabaptists, Hubmaier was the closest to Luther on this issue. He also used "two kingdoms" language, but believed that the two could exist in harmony.

"Just as Christ wanted to do justice to his office on earth [as Saviour], likewise we should fulfill our office and calling, be it in government or in obedience."

Balthasar Hubmaier in Snyder, p. 274

Hubmaier believed that there are many "offices" or "callings" in society which needed to be filled. Although some were unpleasant, they were necessary and should be performed. Nonetheless, he remained a little skeptical, and left the window open for protest in some cases. He did not stress "obedience" as much as did Luther. Hubmaier's position was unique among early Anabaptist thinkers, and represented a small minority.

Hangman Example

Thus, Hubmaier might have believed that a Christian could be a hangman. Although not acceptable in personal life, by executing prisoners a hangman would be fulfilling his social "office" or role.

The Ongoing Legacy

Government Staff and Mayors of the Chortitza Colony, Russia, 1913 (9 Kb): "The Chortitza Colony," slide 18
Mayors and Government Representatives of the Chortitza Colony, Russia (1913)

By the end of the 16th century, Hubmaier's view had died out within the Anabaptist movement. Sattler's separation of Christians from the state became the ideal for the Swiss and South German branch of Anabaptists. The Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite groups, both from this branch, represent the most strict application of this tradition today.

North German, and later Russian, Mennonite groups were a little less strict, and edged towards the Marpeck position. Although they did not participate in national government, they did make arrangements for and exercise self-government. This is especially true of the period in Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Current example: Being a Police Officer

These same perspectives can be seen in our own day. Although we do not have the death penalty in Canada, one could ask the question: Can a Christian be a police officer?

Some Mennonites would respond with an emphatic "No!" Since police are connected to a system of government, it is inappropriate for a Christian to be involved. (Sattler)   This view can be especially observed among the Old Order Mennonite churches.

Others would say: "What would happen if the officer had to shoot someone?" Would Jesus have done this? They would conclude that this action falls outside of the scope of what is acceptable for a Christian, and so either a Christian should not be a police officer, or he/she might need to refuse to do certain parts of the job. (Marpeck)   This approach would probably represent the majority of Mennonites in Canada.

Still others would say that police fulfill a necessary role in our society. After all, isn't it better for a Christian to have a gun than someone else? They might be less likely to use it, and only when it is really necessary.  (Hubmaier)  This view probably represents a minority view, but one that may be gaining strength in the Canadian Mennonite church.

What do you think?

Created 1998 by Derek Suderman