What’s An Anabaptist? Part 2 – Church & State

Posted: March 30, 2011 in Bible, church, history, ministry, politics, theology

Once you see how an Anabaptist approaches baptism, it becomes easier to understand why and how s/he makes determinations about other issues. At the heart of much of anabaptism is choice, more accurately, at the heart of anabaptism is the lack of coercion.  For many Anabaptists, Jesus is the one who humbled Himself unto death. He forced no one to embrace Him, to follow Him, to worship Him. This is more than a type of libertarian freedom, but a commitment that Jesus does not force His very self on anyone, even knowing that the curtailing of such freedom is in the individual’s best interest.

One of the places this is evident is in Anabaptists’ approaches to church/state issues. Since both the Catholic and Protestant churches continued to baptize infants, which made citizens of the baptized, when Anabaptists refused baptism to children they were also making a statement about empire, kingdom and state. The early Anabaptists (and I’m compiling three separate groups in the 16th Century Radical Reformation) saw the state as antithetical to the kingdom of God. In response, the church was to remain distinct from the state (we’ll talk about The Schleitheim Confession next time). The early Anabaptists witnessed how devastating the entanglements of church and state had become and they wanted no parts of it. At all!

Clearly, some Anabaptist groups have taken this impulse to separation to an extreme; the Amish for instance. Behind the Amish itch to create a separate world is a deeply held belief that intermingling with “the world” would corrupt the church. History, including the Reformation itself, has given us much evidence that they were and are right. However, the limitations of separatist movements is nearly self-evident.

The way this instinct in Anabaptism gets played out among mainstream Anabaptist like myself is predominately in the political realm. Caricatures of evangelicals are what they are, but I have never been a congregant of a church where American Flags adorned the walls; though you would see flags from  countries where the church supported missionaries. In Anabaptist churches you will be hard pressed to find church leaders advocating a particular political agenda, or suggesting to congregants who they should vote for. As a matter of fact, in most of the churches I have been a part of, if someone were to do so, many people would be offended, even if they agreed with the politics themselves. In Anabaptists churches You will not typically find big to-dos on Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, and the 4th of July. We find ways to both honor the service of our members who have sacrificed for America and acknowledges that all humankind are our brothers and sisters. 

Our instinct is that church and state don’t mix. What’s more, for many Anabaptists, open political discussions in church would be considered coercive. Politics change, Jesus does not! We make our camp on Jesus, everything else is too transitory. Anabaptists see the church as a kingdom within a country, and while you are free to advocate in whatever way you like outside church life, Anabaptists are suspicious and uncomfortable with political advocacy inside it. As a matter of fact, early leaders in my tribe, like David Lipscomb, abstained from participation in civil government and, believe it or not, some of our current thought-leaders do so as well.

This approach to church and state is strange to many evangelical and Catholic believers.  But Anabaptists have never minded being thought of as strange.

More to come…

  1. Becky B Scott says:

    Sean, interesting thoughts. I am enjoying reading them. As you know, we are part of a Mennonite fellowship. I would describe our group as highly involved in what many other people might label as “politics”….we are a protesting, voting, newspaper editorial writing, marching bunch. I agree politics change but human rights (and God) do not. We act on the belief that Jesus asks us to respond radically to human injustice and this requires, in my opinion, more civic engagment than what was modeled in my childhood church experience.

    • Sean says:

      Becky, I did not know you all were a part of a Mennonite fellowship. As for your civiv engagement, I think you may be more the exception than the rule, though I have no way of proving that. As I said in the first post, what remains of 16th Century Anabaptism are fragments and shreds. And levels of civic engagement have always been a point of departure in and around Anabaptist communities. I’m speaking of 3 different groups that came together and the Schleitheim Confession left out parts about civic engagement because there was not broad spread agreement about it.

      As you know, our particular stream abandoned civic engagement in terms of the political world, but not civic engagement altogether. That’s an important distinction.

      Jesus does ask us to respond to injustice, and God doesn’t change. I think few Anabaptists would argue differently. Rather, it’s a philosophical difference about how to respond.

      Just saying injustice is bad isn’t enough. Communities have to discern HOW they think will bring about the best and most lasting justice.

      What Anabaptists have said is that the best answers aren’t going to be the legislative ones (though as MLK said, it’s a good place to start). They’ve also said that entanglments with politics (especially of the partisan variety) leave them open to be a church that baptizes a political agenda, rather than one that holds ALL sides accountable to gospled living. It’s not an abdication of responsibility, it’s a difference of where to find the means for an answer.

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