Christians, the Church, the State, and Living In The Hard Space Between the Two

Kim Davis has been in the news a lot.  Her situation has caused a lot of discussion about how much Christians should abide by the laws of the land and how much they should reject those laws in their daily lives when they conflict with faith.

There’s nothing new under the sun- not even Christians working for the State and the inevitable conflicts which that guarantees. The Anabaptists in particular struggled with this issue. Allow me to cite material from Anabaptist history:

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. 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.

Sounds like the view of many Christians today, doesn’t it?

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.

How did some Christians resolve this question?

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. 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.

The Schleitheim Confession states

Finally it will be observed that it is not appropriate for a Christian to serve as a magistrate because of these points: The government magistracy is according to the flesh, but the Christian’s is according to the Spirit; their houses and dwelling remain in this world, but the Christian’s are in heaven; their citizenship is in this world, but the Christian’s citizenship is in heaven; the weapons of their conflict and war are carnal and against the flesh only, but the Christian’s weapons are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldlings are armed with steel and iron, but the Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. In brief, as in the mind of God toward us, so shall the mind of the members of the body of Christ be through Him in all things, that there may be no schism in the body through which it would be destroyed. For every kingdom divided against itself will be destroyed. Now since Christ is as it is written of Him, His members must also be the same, that His body may remain complete and united to its own advancement and upbuilding.

It is the notion that a house divided against itself cannot stand that becomes the overarching theological principle. Can Christians, then, be divided in loyalties between the Church and the State? The answer given will depend on the person giving it. For many Christians, it is no. Each has to answer, however, according to their own conscience.

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About Jim

I am a Pastor, and Lecturer in Church History and Biblical Studies at Ming Hua Theological College.
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