restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


The Anabaptists and State Religion

 David Alan Black 

I believe it is extremely important to recover an understanding of the Anabaptist movement. After all, Anabaptist views were once considered a heresy, even a civil offense punishable by death. Curiously, most Americans today espouse Anabaptist convictions about religious liberty while rejecting their overall view of the state. Was the Anabaptist theology of church-state relations correct?

In essence, the Anabaptists conceived of the church as free and voluntary. They espoused a Believers’ Church and religious liberty. Their attitude toward worldly power, specifically the state, was critical and at times condemnatory. Where do I stand vis-à-vis these Anabaptist distinctives?

Anyone who knows my love for the Ethiopians will know that I certainly concur with the Anabaptists’ emphasis upon mission as the primary focus of the church. I also share their suspicion of the state in general and of militarism in particular. I agree with the Anabaptists that Constantinianism – the alliance of church and state – while claiming to advance the kingdom of God, actually obstructs its fulfillment. For the Anabaptists, the church’s primary duty is to be the church and, by example, to be a source of renewal for the state and society. With this I wholeheartedly agree.

In addition, I find the Anabaptist emphasis on a Believers’ Church indispensable. Today one sometimes hears that the final authority for Christians is the clergy, but for Anabaptists it is always the Scriptures. The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers demolishes the concept of “clergy” and “laity” – an unbiblical dichotomy if ever there was one.

Rejection of coercion in religion is yet another salutary hallmark of Anabaptist theology. While the doctrine of freedom of conscience is found in Luther and Calvin, it does not seem to have been developed by them. In Anabaptist theology, faith comes from inner conviction, not external compunction. In the early church this meant that Christians could not acknowledge Caesar as Lord. All this changed with the accession of the “thirteenth apostle” – a title accorded to Constantine by the Council of Nicaea. Translating the emperor cult into Christian terms, Constantine presided over a church that was becoming more and more non-Christian. Whereas the pre-Constantinian church had been counter-cultural, under Constantine it developed into a hierarchical and institutionalized Behemoth replete with priests, liturgies, and sacraments. After Constantine, Christians were obligated to support the emperor’s policies. Moreover, whereas the pre-Constantinian church was consistently non-violent, imperial claims required Christians to take up arms in obedience to their Warrior-King. Loyalty was transferred from the crucified Christ to the emperor.

This Constantinian ideology – what some have called the “Constantinian Compromise” – transformed the church in numberless ways. The church began to replicate the imperial hierarchy. Power, privilege, and patronage replaced Christ’s example of humility. The church lost its edge as a distinctive community and its character as a confessing body. It surrendered its prophetic responsibility toward the state. In short, it ceased being the church.

The Anabaptists rejected all of this. They opposed the sacralized state. At the heart of the Free Church movement was a social order welded together by faith and mission, rather than by one uniform State Church. My Anabaptist forefathers believed that the assimilation of the church to the state was worse than the corruption of Christianity; it was a denial of the very essence of the church.

Traditionally, the Anabaptists have been considered radical Protestants – more consistent (and perhaps more courageous) than Luther and Zwingli in applying Reformation principles. I do not question the appropriateness of that description. My own Baptist tradition, in a similar fashion to that of the Anabaptists’, espouses a regenerate (or believers’) church signified by water baptism, soul competency, responsible witness for Christ, and a humble acceptance of the authority of Scripture over all human councils. Generally speaking, Anabaptists were not anarchists. They viewed the state as necessary and legitimate, protecting the good and punishing evildoers. But because they saw the state as “outside the perfection of Christ,” they rejected the use of force in dealing with false teaching.

You ask, “What does all of this have to do with today’s church?” Much in every way.

The tendency of American evangelicalism is to exalt the nation-state over Christ. And the tragic result is that Leviathan, intended to tame human nature, has itself become a predator. This is not to say that disciples of Jesus may not participate in government or in government-sanctioned lethal violence. I have never argued that governments lack legitimate authority to police internally or defend externally. Yet a primary Anabaptist concern is the disavowal of Constantinianism and the recovery of a biblical critique of the state. I confess that I find it extremely distressing that so many Christians give the state their blind, unqualified allegiance. That is nothing less than idolatry. Anabaptist history reminds us that the maintenance of religious liberty is a duty of the state. It also reminds us that Christianity can never be advanced by means of an alliance with the state. This means that the church, as a transcendent institution, should reject any alignment with political power and should seek to ensure that the state remains properly secular.

To those evangelicals who cheer the war in Iraq as a means of democratizing a nation so that the Gospel might be spread there, I offer the words of a great Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (“Independence of Christianity,” Aug. 31, 1857, Music Hall, Royal Surrey Gardens):

The church, we affirm, can neither be preserved nor can its interests be promoted by human armies. We have all thought otherwise in our time, and have foolishly said when a fresh territory was annexed to our empire, “Ah! what a providence that England has annexed Oude,” – or taken to itself some other territory – “Now a door is opened for the Gospel. A Christian power will necessarily encourage Christianity, and seeing that a Christian power is at the head of the Government, it will be likely that the natives will be induced to search into the authenticity of our revelation, and so great results will follow. Who can tell but that, at the point of the British bayonet, the Gospel will be carried, and that, by the edge of the true sword of valiant men, Christ’s Gospel will be proclaimed?” I have said so myself; and now I know I am a fool for my pains, and that Christ’s church hath been also miserably befooled; for this I will assert, and prove too, that the progress of the arms of a Christian nation is not the progress of Christianity, and that the spread of our empire, so far from being advantageous to the Gospel, I will hold, and this day proclaim, hath been hostile to it.

Today, in a church that has yielded to Mars, Venus, and Mammon, the Anabaptists’ call to radical obedience to Jesus is needed more than ever. They taught that church and state relate to Christ differently, though He is Lord over both. Christians may therefore worship neither Caesar nor the state. If they do, Romans 13 will inevitably degenerate into Revelation 13.

November 10, 2005

David Alan Black is the editor of

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