Government, Theory and Theology of
Menno Simons and the other 16th-century radical reformers said relatively little about government. Since they lived in an absolutist autocratic society, as did Christians of the 1st century, they did not distinguish between the general state structure and the office-holders of the day. Their concerns did not focus on the origin of government nor did they stress its potential for good, although that aspect received some attention. Rather, accepting a biblical conception of two opposing kingdoms, the one characterized by peace and the other by strife, they saw the political order as a lower order, the old order. They acknowledged that the state had a God-ordained responsibility to restrain evil, protect the good, punish transgressors, and do justice to the widows, the orphans, the poor, the despised stranger, and the pilgrim. Mainly, they saw the state as the restraining order in a society which had not accepted the lordship of Christ. Though they saw the political order as legitimate, they argued that, because it necessarily employed violence, which presumably included the shedding of blood, they could address political administrators and make policy recommendations but they could not personally participate. In fact, if chosen to serve as a magistrate, an Anabaptist should flee even as Christ did when his followers and admirers tried to make him king.
The early Anabaptists never adequately explained the apparent contradiction between their view that government was a God-ordained structure to keep order, and, if possible, peace, "outside the perfection of Christ," and their insistence that it was basically wrong for true Christians to participate in this God-ordained order. Since they lived in a society where the distinction between government and those who are governed was clearly marked, the inadequacy of their narrow, situation-determined, view of government was largely unnoticed. They emphasized living as model citizens, being supportive of government as much as possible, praying for the authorities, and insisting on religious freedom which they were the first to champion.
For centuries this Mennonite view of politics and government changed very little. Even in later generations, when Mennonites in several countries not only developed extensive interaction with governments as they negotiated privileges and exemptions but also began participating in government administration, the official stance was hardly altered. Eventually, however, as Mennonites settled in free societies, a rethinking of the theory and theology of government became an urgent necessity. While a minority of Mennonites still tried to avoid any political involvement--and some still do--most realized that in a complex modern society political irrelevance is an impossibility. Given the blurring of the clear distinction between government and those who govern, the massive role and awesome pervasiveness of government, the fact that many governments now routinely do much of that which the faithful church pioneered, and the increasing participation by Mennonites in both elective and non-elective political offices, something needed to be done. In recent decades the problem has become even more urgent as Mennonites in various countries have tended to identify their Christian convictions with political ideologies ranging across the spectrum from socialism and "liberation theology" to capitalist-conservatism and Christian-Americanism. A simplistic emphasis on withdrawal and avoidance has become obsolete.
At present several Mennonite theologians and social scientists are formulating revised interpretations concerning government. One significant analysis proceeds as follows. God's love has always extended even to people who reject him. Thus, after the fall, God did not abandon those who had abandoned him. When Cain killed Abel and feared anarchic retribution, God intervened. The evil of killing was to be restrained. That is how it came about that with the marking of Cain, Genesis 4:15, God established civil authority, civil government.
At various times, in both the Old Testament era and during the initiation of the church age, God reaffirmed the role of government and clarified its role. Romans 13, which must be read against the backdrop of Romans 12, constitutes the fullest prescription. Government serves as an agent of God, has specific duties, and deserves conditional support. Importantly, as Jesus noted in Luke 3:14, government has no authorization to indulge in unrestrained violence.
Mennonites in the late 20th century generally believe that God established and ordained civil authority because he knew that without some sort of overarching constraint, fallen mankind would sink into anarchy and lawlessness. Given his love even for disobedient and rebellious people, he would not permit that to happen. Besides, in God's great design society should remain sufficiently civil and orderly so that the church could go about its business. For it is the church, not government, which is the bearer of the meaning of history. However, as when Jehovah directed the people of Israel to crown Saul (1 Samuel 8-10) even though the establishment of a monarchy was not God's preference, so also today God grants authority to sub-Christian governments to rule among the masses of people who have exercised their free will and have chosen not to be ruled by him directly.
In the late 20th century, partly because governments and church share an extensive common agenda, and partly because it is increasingly understood that opportunity plus ability creates accountability even in relation to governments, Mennonites became increasingly involved in politics. More than their ancestors, they saw political involvement, especially in some countries, as having considerable potential for good. Presumably politically active Mennonites applied to governmental activity that ethical axiom which Anabaptists ought to apply to all other pursuits in life: no one becomes involved more than faithful servanthood permits. Participation in governmental affairs now ranged from mere voting to senior office-holding. A minority of Mennonites continued to abstain from voting.
In an Anabaptist theory of government several basic questions must be answered. First, are there guidelines for government? The following seem particularly noteworthy. Governments must resist the constant temptation to initiate policies and procedures which enhance the well-being of the ruling group or of some powerful pressure group at the expense of the general public. Further, the long-term interest takes precedence over the short-term. When governments consider only short-term popularity or the next election, future generations are loaded with a mountain of public debt, the physical world is polluted, proper planning is ignored, pressing crises may be shunted aside, and necessary but politically unpopular decisions postponed. Additional values should include procedural integrity, reasonable public disclosure, toleration of opposition, the development of a climate of freedom and proper decorum--dignity has always reinforced legitimacy and credibility.
Second, what public policy commitments should Christians be expecting from government? Governments have a major role in the responsible restraint of evil. Accordingly, they should be commended for establishing sensible agencies to restrain evil. Governments should specifically ensure freedom of religion and of unpopular minorities as much as possible. Governments have a God-given responsibility to rule, and ruling involves leading, assisting, educating, informing, regulating, persuading, enforcing, and, up to a point, providing. Given their ultimate control over society, governments, even though functioning at a sub-Christian level, have a broad mandate to ensure that society is made increasingly fair and humanitarian, that peace is promoted, that elemental needs are met for everyone, and that human dignity is protected and enhanced. In this mandate the church can cooperate extensively with government. Additionally, governments should themselves be subject to the laws they make and should address pressing issues such as racism organized crime, appalling prison conditions, injustice, exploitation, bureaucratic bungling, waste, and the threat of nuclear disaster. Also, governments should actively seek counsel and criticisms from responsible societal groups, including the church.
Third, what should governments expect from Christians? They should expect Christians to be law-abiding, model citizens in all situations where laws do not conflict with God's requirements. Governments should expect Christian citizens to be informed, to be their most perceptive and reliable critics, and to be supportive in all morally sound undertakings. Christians should remember to be thankful and particularly to commend when they can so that they will be heard if they criticize when they must. Finally, governments should occasionally be reminded that they too, are accountable to God and should know that, following biblical instruction, Christians are constantly praying for them.
Yoder, John Howard. The Christian Witness to the State. Newton, KS, 1964.
Redekop, John H. "Mennonites and Politics in Canada and the United States." Journal of Mennonite Studies 1 (1983): 79-105.
Redekop, John H. "The State and the Free Church." in Kingdom, Cross and Community. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976: 141-95.
Neufeld, Elmer. "Christian Responsibility in the Political Situation." Mennonite Quarterly Review 32 (1958): 141-62.
Redekop, John H. Two Sides: the Best of Personal Opinion, 1964-1984. Winnipeg: Kindred Press, 1984: 179-296.
Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972: 135-214.
Redekop, John H. Making Political Decisions: a Christian Perspective, Focal Pamphlet, 23. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972.
Lapp, John A. A Dream for America: Christian Reflections for Bicentennial Reading. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976.
Kraybill, Donald B. Our Star-Spangled Faith. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976.
Wood, James E., Jr. The Problem of Nationalism in Church-State Relationships, Focal Pamphlet, 18. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1968.
Keeney, William. "Mennonite Cooperation With Government Agencies and Programs." Paper read at the 15th Conference on Mennonite Educational and Cultural Problems (June, 1965): 62-74.
Correll, Ed. "The Mennonite Loan in the Canadian Parliament, 1875." Mennonite Quarterly Review 20 (1946): 255-75.
Epp, Frank H. "Mennonites and the Civil Service." Mennonite Life 23 (October 1968): 179-82.
Ens, Adolf. "Mennonite Relations with Governments: Western Canada 1870-1925." Ph.D. diss., U. of Ottawa, 1979.
Mennonite Central Committee (search for Ottawa and Washington offices on MCC's search page)
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 349-351. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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