The Radical Reformation was a formative era of church history, having implications for much of the modern world. Prior to the work of the Anabaptist reformers, much of the Western World was under an alliance of the Church and State. This manifested itself in different ways throughout the multiple centuries following the Edict of Milan of Emperor Constantine. During the time of the Protestant Reformation, the Holy Roman Empire was trying to evoke the namesake of its inspiration: the Roman Empire. I have often heard it said that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor was it an empire. While this statement is often made in jest, it bears a great deal of truth. The statement points us to the problem—can the Church and the State coexist in a helpful manner?
History of the Separation of Church and State
The early Protestant Reformers would have indicated “yes”—while Martin Luther would have held a more moderate perspective on this issue, others like John Calvin and even Thomas Cranmer would have seen a much greater reason for the Church and State to collaborate. Early Anabaptist leaders saw a fundamental challenge with this paradigm, particularly as it pertains to one’s choice in following Jesus. They became convicted that baptism was a rite of initiation into the kingdom of God, being a decision that one makes at an appropriate age of understanding. As the students of Protestant Reformer Ülrich Zwingli began to embrace this position, they faced opposition by Zwingli and the canton council in Zürich. Their radical commitment to baptism being a choice put them at odds with the State, leading to persecution.
The nonviolent and separatist approach of the Anabaptists inspired other groups throughout Europe. Although there had been prior separatist groups—Waldensians, Hussites, etc.—none had accomplished as great of success as the Anabaptists. It is believed that the Anabaptists inspired early Puritans in the Church of England. The Anabaptists and other groups that espoused similar ideas would help build a new world in North America where the separation of Church and State would be a fundamental value of the formation of a later United States of America.
The Puritans would attempt to establish utopian societies in North America throughout New England. Interestingly, their model was still a form of cooperation between Church and State. The difference with their model was that members were all members of the Church and State by volition—at least until a new generation of children was born. The Puritans embraced a congregational and town-led approach to decision-making. This would develop a culture of democratic government involvement throughout North America during the unification of the States.
Another unique colony that developed was that of English Quaker, William Penn. The Quakers being an offshoot group of the Puritans, faced persecution in England and sought opportunities to seek freedom in the new world. The Province of Pennsylvania was an experiment where people could worship as they please without the state interfering. As persecution continued for Anabaptists in Continental Europe, Pennsylvania became a viable option for many people. Quickly, Pennsylvania attracted Mennonites, Amish, and other Brethren groups. As time went on, Pennsylvania faced the challenge of trying to discern how it balanced being a government. Particularly regarding issues of military and policing, early residents sought pacifism, but new residents in the western part of the province did not espouse this same philosophy.
The denomination of which I am a member, the Brethren in Christ would develop in the core of this Pennsylvania experiment. Beginning as the River Brethren (Brethren in Christ hereafter), they sought to remove themselves from the politics of the province and later the commonwealth, much like their other Anabaptist brothers and sisters. The Quakers led the colony, but new settlers felt excluded from the government. It was becoming clear that even a government devoted to religious freedom faced juxtaposition in trying to uphold religious values while still not enforcing values on others. Generally, the Quakers valued nonresistance and the new Pennsylvanian residents did not. The Brethren in Christ adopted a position that allowed them to not get involved in the middle. During the development of its foundational doctrines in 1790, the BIC concluded that a member could not hold an authoritative office.1 This meant that the BIC largely did not get involved with any government action until after World War II. They did not vote and they did not run for political office, however they did pay taxes.
They held a very literal interpretation of Scripture and thought it to be ungodly to embrace the state. But they missed out on significant opportunities to be people of peace in a broken world. While some Anabaptists played a role in the abolition of slavery, many Anabaptists chose not become involved in the conversation. While Wesleyan groups were working to end slavery, Anabaptists remained, as a whole, silent. This is a sad chapter for Anabaptists and one that political engagement might have been helpful. There might be a healthy balance to interaction with Church and State.
I believe that there are three paradigms to how we understand the coexistence of two distinct kingdoms: isolation, interaction, and infiltration.
Isolation is an idea held by Anabaptists largely as a result of the necessity. The Anabaptists were some of the earliest evangelicals—to use the term rather literally. While Roman Catholics and Reformed Protestants were not planting churches throughout other government realms, the Anabaptists saw a need to reach those who did not know the hope of the gospel. As a result of their persecution they were forced into isolation. Sadly, this became a mode of operation for many Anabaptist groups. Growth was a result of family expansion as opposed to evangelism. New growth through evangelism would not become a reality until they were able to embrace religious freedom in North America.
Infiltration is the idea of the Church and the State being interconnected. I believe it can result in two possibilities: a theocratic state or a state-governed church. We see the former model exercised in fundamental Islamist nations and the latter in places like China where the state has significant control over the church. While the idea of a theocracy seems like a noble idea, it poses many challenges if one does not fit into the religious values of that state. The secular state that controls the church, results in a scenario where the gospel is greatly weakened.
Interaction is the Goldilocks paradigm, if there was such a thing. Christians and the state should not have a coercive role on each other, but there is an opportunity for the Church to interact with the state and for the state to at least be respected by the citizens who are members of the Church. First and foremost, our allegiance is to God and his kingdom, but this does not negate the idea of being a citizen of a kingdom of this world. Historically, this approach was not an option—it was either isolation or infiltration. This concept of interaction is somewhat of a third way approach that helps Anabaptists (and all Christians) find a balance of healthy engagement with civic opportunities.
If we are called to be people not interconnected with the force of the state, how do we interact helpfully? The answer is found in asking the question: “Is this something that interferes with my values as a citizen of the kingdom of God?” If the answer is “yes”, then we should not engage in it, but if the answer is “no” I believe we can be the light of Christ. We have a responsibility to distance ourselves from the civil religion.2 But interacting with the state does not mean we subscribe to the civil religion. Here are a few ways we can be involved without compromising values:
- Vote—Unlike the governments that existed during the Radical Reformation, the U.S., Canada, and many European nations operate as some form of democracy. This means that these nations’ citizens have a significant opportunity to impact the direction of the government through voting. Sadly, many Americans neglect this powerful right by either not voting or not being educated about the issues when they vote. We have no place for complaining about the issues if we do not take seriously the right to vote. While many early Anabaptists did not see the value of voting in the United States, I believe this might have been a missed opportunity to interact with the state in a helpful way.
- Write to government officials—I have on occasion, written letters to various politicians encouraging them to vote a certain way on legislation. One issue that I have addressed is the U.S.’s involvement with military conflicts. I believe that legislators need to be aware of their constituents’ concerns with military action. This is a starting point, but this does not solve everything.
- Serving in the community without politics—One area that Christians too often forget about is the value of simply taking action to make a difference. Do you want to help alleviate hunger and homelessness? Befriend a homeless person, donate to a local food bank, or volunteer with an employment skills center that helps people get jobs. We cannot wait around for the government to make all of this change. As the Church, we have a responsibility to make change happen in the community.
- Serve in an official office—This is a difficult idea for some people to embrace. This comes back to the question of whether or not the office violates one’s kingdom of God values. An Anabaptist Christian might not want to serve with the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the U.S. military, but the Department of the Interior does not pose the same problems. Serving a local school board or municipal council provide opportunities for dialogue without compromising kingdom of God values.
- A few words of caution—As we try to find a healthy balance of interaction between Church and State, we must consider a few admonitions. As pastors, the pulpit is not a platform to endorse political values on either spectrum. With this said, there are kingdom of God issues that become political, but it is not a place to promote fiscal values or the like. Politics can alienate people and we need to be cautious to not let politics get in the way of the gospel.
As citizens of two kingdoms, we are not called to be isolated or to be infiltrated by the kingdom of the world. We are called to interact in ways that are healthy. The Church and State can coexist in a helpful manner so long as the Church realizes its first and primary goal is the kingdom of God and the core of the gospel. When we confuse these two ideas, we come to an unhelpful and even problematic place.
- Winger, D., Torn Between Two Kingdoms, In Part (Grantham, Pa.: BIC NA, 2008).
- Boyd, Gregory A., The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power Is Destroying the Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005).