Separation from State In “The Transition Zone”

Anabaptism developed at a time when a synthesis had developed between the state and the church.  As we noted in earlier blogs, support for this synthesis was evident not only in Roman Catholic theology, but also in the theology of the Protestant reformers.  The Anabaptists, however, rejected this synthesis and sought to separate themselves from what they called “the world.”  This is not to say that the Anabaptists did not see the need for government.  They, in fact, affirmed that government was essential for the ordering of society.  What the Anabaptists said, however, was that they had little to do with society.  The Anabaptists believed that society was essentially secular and sinful. [i]  In his book Neither Protestant Nor Catholic, Walter Klassen writes:

Anabaptists took a radical position in that they refused to participate in the exercise of governmental power.  They appealed to Jesus’ words when he said: ‘You know that in the world the recognized rulers lord it over their subjects, and their great persons make them feel the weight of authority.  That is not the way with you; among you, whoever wants to be great must be your servant . . .” (Mark 10:42-43, NEB).  Rather than putting their energies into the existing order which was built on violence and coercion they set about to actualize in the midst of the old system a new order in which the old rules of coercive power no longer applied.  This took the form of a caring, loving, forgiving, disciplined community in which each member…made his uniquely individual contribution to the strength and vitality of the whole.[ii]

The burden of the Christian was not the reconstruction of secular society, but rather the building of a new society totally responsive to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  For this reason, the Anabaptists did not seek to be unified with secular society.  Instead they sought to be separated, unique, and distinct.

At first glance, the assertion that society is essentially secular does not appear to be that radical a declaration—at least not in our society.  Many Christian writers assert that we are living in a post-Constantinian era, a time when the synthesis between the church and state has been broken.  Is this true? 

  • Consider, for a moment, that the rise of the Nazis took place primarily due to the unity between the German state and the Lutheran church. 
  • Think about the fact that predominately Roman Catholic Latin America, which has produced some of the most vicious and repressive dictatorships of this century, has usually experienced the  mutual support of church and state.[iii] 
  • Even in the United States there are powerful movements at work seeking to unify the church and the state.   Efforts by famed televangelists like Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, come to mind.  Robertson has advocated a religious test (only Christians can be elected to public office) despite the constitution’s clear instruction that religious tests are prohibited. 

It may be accurate to say that the Constantinian synthesis between church and state has been broken, but there are many folks trying to reassemble the shattered pieces. 

The Anabaptists remind us that as Christian disciples we are citizens of Christ’s kingdom and do not need the sanction of the state to practice our faith.  In fact, the first step toward church apostasy takes place when Christians seek the authorization and support of the state.  The Anabaptists believed that disciples of Jesus have been set at liberty from the powers and principalities of this world.  They believed that no state could wield power or authority over their conscience.  It was possible, however, for the church to sacrifice its freedom by becoming wed to the state.  That’s what had happened to the church following the days of Constantine—and that also is what the Anabaptist identified as the major flaw of the Protestant Reformation.  The Anabaptists rejected the synthesis of the church and the state and separated themselves from the values, morals, methods, and principles of secular society to keep them from making the same mistake made by the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. 

In “the transition zone,” this time of cultural upheaval, there is a move afoot to reestablish the church as the primary power broken in society.  If history shows us anything, however, it is that when the church is the power broker, the church is the entity that ends up broken.  Today’s church would benefit by recovering the Anabaptist notion of separation from society.  This is better for the church and allows it the opportunity to fulfill its calling as a prophetic community of justice.

[i] Burkholder, “The Anabaptist Vision of Discipleship,” 142.

[ii] Klaassen, Neither Protestant Nor Catholic, 81-82.

[iii]Ibid., 73.

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