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July 1981 · Vol. 10 No. 3 · pp. 30–47 

Church and State: Developments Among Mennonite Brethren in Canada Since World War II

Abe J. Dueck

One of the recognized distinctives of the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith has been its attitude toward the state. However, there have been various interpretations of the precise nature of the conceptions of the state held by sixteenth century Anabaptists; and there continue to be divergent opinions about a proper Mennonite theology of the state, both between various Mennonite groups and within them.

The Mennonite Brethren Church (MB) has experienced considerable change and inner conflict in this regard, especially since World War II. A study of these MB developments, as distinct from developments among other Mennonites, appears to have merit. Although MBs are heirs of Anabaptism, other influences such as Pietism and fundamentalism affected them more than other groups such as the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC). It is also desirable to begin such a study by treating Canada separately from the United States since the political environments, immigration patterns, and other factors are quite different.

The sources for this study were primarily official and semi-official publications of the MB Conference and material written about the MBs. Special attention was paid to letters to editors because these reflect personal opinions which might not always be reflected in the other material.

The traditional Mennonite attitude toward the state and toward governments has been regarded as strongly separationist or apolitical. This is expressed most clearly in the Schleitheim Confession (1527) which speaks of two orders, one inside the perfection of Christ and the other outside the perfection of Christ. 1 According to this conception, the state exists for the world. There it keeps evil in check by means of coercion and violence. Christians can not be involved in such action {31} and so they are to cooperate within the state only to the extent that such obedience to authorities does not conflict with their commitment to God; otherwise they should suffer quietly or seek to escape.

Scholars have frequently noted, however, that Menno Simons’ attitude toward the ruling authorities seemed to diverge somewhat from that of the Swiss Anabaptists. 2 Menno called on rulers to act justly and to live up to their Christian responsibilities. 3 Thus he may have posited the possibility of Christian participation in government. Some suggest, however, that Menno was simply calling rulers to live in conformity with their claim to be Christians without intending to speak to the fundamental question of Christian participation in government. 4

Mennonite history has shown some interesting developments since the sixteenth century. In Russia Mennonites developed closed colonies with self-government and little interaction with the central government. A similar practice was carried over to Canada and South America. Since it was assumed that church and society were one, the structure of self-government was not seen as a threat to the traditional separation of church and state. As Calvin Redekop and others have shown, the Mennonites were deluded. The world began to appear from within, but theological appraisal of what was happening was never seriously attempted. 5 According to John A. Toews, the MBs were not significantly involved even in local government in Russia, much less in the Duma, to which other Mennonites were elected. 6

In the late nineteenth century in North America the MBs resolved not to become too involved in political institutions. The topic was not discussed again on the General Conference floor until 1966. In Canada in particular the MBs were involved with the federal government only on an inter-Mennonite basis and on such issues as immigration and nonresistance. There was involvement at the local level on town councils and school boards. However, since this was non-partisan politics, it was seen as a civic responsibility analogous to self-government in Russia. MBs, as other Mennonites, were appreciative of their government and were basically concerned about religious freedom and opportunity for economic advancement.

In the period since World War II, however, there have been rapid changes in the attitudes and practices of MBs regarding politics. This period of about 35 years can be divided into two phases. During the first phase (ca. 1945-57), the “traditional” Mennonite position generally prevailed. During the second phase, there has been a serious breakdown of the traditional position and MBs have moved in a number of different directions. Our purpose will be to analyze these phases and to draw some conclusions from them. {32}


This first phase in the post-war era was marked by the continuation of the Liberal government in Ottawa, first under William Lyon Mackenzie King until 1948 and then under Louis Stephen St. Laurent until 1957. National elections took place in 1945, 1949, and 1953. Mennonite Brethren during this period did not seriously contemplate political involvement, especially at the federal level.

The Liberals had, of course, been in power throughout the war period and had provided exemption from military service for the Mennonites. Although difficulties were encountered from time to time, things had gone well enough that Mennonites were truly grateful to their government. Furthermore, the Liberal government had been in power when the majority of MBs came to Canada in the 1920s and that action continued to reap benefits for the Liberals among the Mennonites.

The Mennonitische Rundschau, which is the main source of information regarding MBs during this period, gives ample evidence of the mutually good relations between the Liberal government and the Mennonite people. Advertisements by the Liberal Party during election periods abound. Indeed, during the 1945 campaign only the Liberal Party inserted advertisements in the Rundschau. 7 In 1949 an advertisement soliciting members for the Progressive Conservative Party appeared several times, but again the only campaign advertisements were placed by the Liberal Party. 8 In 1953 this began to change significantly when the number of Progressive Conservative advertisements and the number of Liberal advertisements were about equal. On 5 June 1957 a Social Credit advertisement appeared for the first time (p. 16).

The content of a number of the advertisements is quite revealing. An advertisement placed by the German-Canadian Committee in North Winnipeg on 6 June 1945 (p. 8) was specifically addressed to German readers. It reminded the readers that despite the war the German Canadians had enjoyed freedom, whereas during World War I, while the Conservative Party was in office, the right to vote had been withdrawn and the Germans became, in effect, second-class citizens. It referred to the religious freedom they enjoyed as well as the freedom to promote the German language by means of newspapers, etc. On that basis the advertisement appealed to German citizens to vote for the Liberal Party.

A somewhat similar appeal was addressed to German Canadians during the 1949 election campaign (22 June, p. 4). During the 1953 and 1957 elections the advertising changed. A more general appeal to vote for the Liberal Party because of its generous orientation toward the Mennonites in matters of immigration and nonresistance was made. 9 {33}

Other political comment and information was relatively scarce in the Rundschau during this period. One fairly significant article, titled “Unser Premier Minister,” appeared on the editorial page (p. 2) on 6 June 1945 and was written by C.F. Klassen. In this article Klassen stated that he respected the stance of many of his brethren who did not participate in elections for religious reasons. Presumably he was referring to Mennonites other than MBs. He also described recent Canadian political history and the Prime Minister himself: “There (as Prime Minister) he still stands today and hopefully he will still be there after June 11.” Klassen lauded King’s policies toward the Mennonites and referred to him as menschenfreundlich. He concluded: “We can be assured that Canada’s citizens can confidently entrust him with the reigns of government for the post-war years.” Several issues later the Rundschau prominently displayed a picture of the victorious King after his last election campaign (20 June 1945, p. 4).

The love-relationship with the Liberal Party undoubtedly focussed on its leader to a large extent. Nevertheless, Prime Minister St. Laurent was also viewed with considerable favor. On 27 April 1949 the Rundschau carried a picture of the Prime Minister on the front page and made a few comments lauding his character. His strong opposition to the Communists, his attitude of cooperation with the United States, and his policy favoring a strong Atlantic pact were specifically mentioned as praiseworthy. During the 1957 campaign the editor of the Rundschau stated his desire to have rulers who ruled in a godly or pious (fromm) manner, but he did not wish to recommend any particular political party. 10 Nevertheless, he warned against supporting any party of the radical left or the radical right. Otherwise, the Rundschau restricted itself to brief informational reports concerning elections and political developments. Readers of the Rundschau did not comment on the political issues within the country.

The Konferenz-Jugendblatt remained even more aloof from political issues, although it carried pictures of King and St. Laurent in the February-April issue of 1949 (p. 62). The Mennonite Observer, which was the first English language periodical primarily for MBs published nothing pertaining to politics except a brief report on election results on 14 June 1957 (p. 9). Evidently, politics had not yet become a serious issue within the church—or at least not to be discussed publicly.

There were a few indications that traditional attitudes were being questioned, although the first expressions of this change came through more open channels such as the Canadian Mennonite, which in many ways was an avant-garde paper of inter-Mennonite dialogue. John Redekop, who later became the most prolific contributor to discussions relating to politics in the MB constituency, was one of the first to vent {34} questions concerning political participation in the Canadian Mennonite, although the approach was still very cautious.

In reviewing this first phase it is evident that Mennonite Brethren, along with most other Mennonites, simply took for granted a moderate form of separation of church and state. Although they voted, they did not contemplate directly participating in government, especially at the federal level. Government was evaluated on the basis of the privileges which Mennonites were able to enjoy, especially religious freedom and nonresistance. The specifically Christian character of government or of persons within government was not as much an issue as the repudiation of a Communist ideology. This, it can be assumed, reflected their experience in Russia. Government was necessary for non-Christian society, but it was not the responsibility of Christians (certainly not MBs) to become involved in it. Obviously, given the fact that MBs were so new to the Canadian environment and given the tension of the war years, it would have been unrealistic to aspire to such responsibility in any event.

There was, of course, no real theological articulation of this traditional stance at any point in this period because there was no perceived threat. MB educators never addressed themselves to the issue. The theological articulation by the Mennonite scholar Guy F. Hershberger in books such as War, Peace, and Non-resistance would probably have been quite acceptable, although at points perhaps too strongly separationist. 11 To what extent MBs were familiar with Hershberger’s writings is hard to judge, but undoubtedly MB educators like J. A. Toews relied considerably on such materials in the shaping and articulation of their position. 12


The second phase, which I have referred to as the breakdown of the “traditional” Mennonite position, comes into focus as a new group of leaders and opinion setters emerged out of a new generation of Canadian MBs who were educated in North America, spoke a fluent English, and were well acquainted with the Canadian culture and Canadian institutions. The transition took place almost at the same time that English was beginning to dominate in the churches and young people were aspiring to various new professions such as the legal profession.

Except for the period form 1958 to 1963 and a brief period in 1979, the Liberal Party dominated Canadian federal politics. The Progressive Conservatives under John G. Diefenbaker won the first two elections, the first with a landslide victory while the second resulted in a minority government which lasted only a brief period. Following that, {35} the Liberals won under the leadership of Lester B. Pearson in 1963 and 1965, but it was not until 1968 that the Liberals again emerged with a strong majority under Pierre Elliot Trudeau. During the last decade there has been a gradual polarization in Canada. The West, where most MBs reside, has usually voted strongly in favor of the Progressive Conservatives, whereas a seemingly unbreakable bond has been forged between the Liberal Party and the French Canadian voters in Quebec. The above factors and the perceived orientation of leaders like Diefenbaker and Trudeau must be seen as significant factors influencing MB attitudes.

Articulation of a Theology of Church and State

Unlike the earlier period, a number of attempts to articulate a theology of church and state were made during this second phase. Either the earlier position could no longer be taken for granted or there was no such position—only a practice which had evolved for non-theological reasons or had continued long after the theological reasons were forgotten. An editorial comment titled “Worldview” in the Mennonite Brethren Herald in its first year of publication (9 February 1962, p. 2) stated: “An MB philosophy towards politics has been strangely lacking, although our ministers urge us to vote and we traditionally support a ‘Christian’ candidate.” It concluded with the comment, “Or, why not campaign yourself?” Perhaps the suggestion to become a political candidate would still have been considered too radical for most of the constituency. Perhaps, like Mennonites in Pennsylvania who voted for pacifist Quakers while refusing to hold office themselves, MBs were simply being encouraged to support misguided Christians who would nevertheless do a better job of running government.

The articulation of the traditional Mennonite position regarding church-state relationships came primarily from John A. Toews, who for several decades was regarded as the major spokesman for the Mennonite heritage among MBs. In an article which appeared in the Voice in 1958, Toews asked, “Does not the basic antithesis between Church and World also extend to the State as a very important part of that World?” He then continued by analyzing the biblical position and concluded that “from the records of the Early Church as given in the Book of Acts it would appear that the apostles did not conceive of the government of their day as a neutral agency which merely administered justice but rather as a hostile force, which was part of a sinful world-system and which was arrayed against Christ and his Kingdom.” The New Testament seemed to “portray a fundamental incompatibility between church and state, and Christians would have considered participation in government as an ‘equal yoke’ with unbelievers.” The Christian method must therefore be to create “islands of holiness in the {36} sea of despair.” The state, while it existed by divine providence, was basically viewed as belonging to the order of sin with little capacity for positive good. 13 Toews never departed significantly from this conception of the state, as is evidenced by a variety of articles and lectures which he gave, although some modifications undoubtedly took place.

Toews, at least in his earlier statements, made virtually no allowance for distinctions between earlier forms of the state and the modern democratic state. Toews challenged such a distinction and argued that essentially the state is the same. “Is not even the ‘Welfare State’ dominated by a materialistic and selfish philosophy, where the ‘natural’ life of man with its physical, social, and intellectual needs is a matter of chief concern, but where the spiritual needs of man are as much a matter of indifference as in a so-called pagan state?” 14

Later Toews seemed more willing to recognize distinctions. In an article in 1965 he admitted that “the government in our ‘welfare society’ has assumed many functions which formerly belonged exclusively to the domain of the church.” 15 Such areas (essentially civil service areas) were therefore legitimate areas of involvement. He also distinguished between lower and higher levels of participation in government. At higher levels (federal government) he felt it would be nearly impossible to remain true to biblical convictions. In admitting to possible exceptions, however, Toews probably unwittingly compromised his earlier distinction between the two kingdoms. The new criterion was no longer the fact that the state belonged to the order of sin in principle but rather the pressures for moral compromise in such offices. Areas of meaningful involvement must be discerned; the church was no longer simply an “island of holiness,” as he had referred to it earlier. Nevertheless, Toews’ thinking remained basically determined by a radical two-kingdom concept.

The only other major attempt to articulate a theology of church and state to appear in MB periodicals was by John H. Redekop, particularly in two articles, one in 1966 and the other in 1977. In the first, Redekop distinguished two approaches by MBs in the previous two decades. One approach viewed the two orders of church and state as basically in opposition to each other and therefore called on Christians to be separate and non-involved. The other, which Redekop labeled the minority view, believed that God’s cause had much in common with democracy and capitalism and therefore presumed that God could be served well by serving one’s country. Redekop proposed a third alternative which recognized that “government still rests ultimately on coercion and violence” but that many functions such as education and social welfare were of a positive nature and therefore could be supported by Christians. Then, in a somewhat Niebuhrian manner, Redekop used {37} the oft-repeated argument that we are part of society and determine policy public whether we like it or not. He therefore called for a qualified cooperation with government and a Christian witness which would call government to the highest ethic possible. 16

The second article, commissioned by the Board of Reference and Counsel of the General Conference of MB Churches, was addressed principally to the question of the Christian in politics. Redekop sought first to clarify his view of the relationship between church and state. God did not create the civil order, he claimed, but permitted it to evolve. The state is a mixture of good and evil and one of its major functions “is to restrain evil so that life in the sub-Christian society is at least tolerable and, more importantly, so that the church can carry out its divine function and mandate.” Redekop rejected both Lutheran “two regimentism” and Calvinist theocracy as methods of relevant participation and repeated that non-involvement was not a real option. Therefore “selective involvement” based on cooperation with non-Christians “in order to serve fellowman provided that in doing so we do not violate our overriding Christian commitment.” The possibility of selective involvement was based on what Redekop referred to as a “qualified two-kingdom thesis,” which did not see the two realms as mutually exclusive. 17 All of these assumptions were elaborated on elsewhere. 18 Some years later, in an essay in Kingdom, Cross and Community, Redekop elaborated particularly on his view that the modern state has been transformed and therefore the nature of the Christian’s involvement needs to be reassessed. 19 In 1978, writing on the fourteenth article of the revised Confession of Faith, Redekop reiterated that because of sin the state was permitted to evolve to maintain law and order. The state also exists “to promote public welfare.” Thus it is a mixture of good and evil and the Christian duty is to cooperate with the good wherever possible. He warned against identifying Christianity with any one state or political ideology, against asking governments “to transform into law all our notions of morality” and against the claims of a civil religious state. 20 Redekop’s analysis represents a significant attempt to reconcile elements of John Howard Yoder’s position with a positive conception of the nature of modern government.

The above represent the major attempts to articulate a theology of church-state relationships in the MB constituency, particularly in Canada. Other views were obviously expressed, less systematically and often by implication rather than explicitly. The discussion below will reveal some of these explicit assumptions. Brief references should be made, however, to the Kauffman-Harder study and its findings on MB attitudes toward the state (Note: the responses include MBs in U.S.A. and Canada). The study revealed that 86% of MBs disagreed with the {38} statement that “the state . . . is basically an evil force in the world, an opponent or enemy of the church and its program.” 21 This percentage was the highest of all the Mennonite groups and would seem to suggest that the MBs have a totally different conception of government than the one commonly attributed to sixteenth century Anabaptists.

Political Participation

Political participation at higher levels of government seems first to have become a serious practical concern for MBs in the middle 60s and peaked as an issue by the middle 70s. Although MBs took part in serious discussion prior to this time (see, e.g. the extensive dialogue in the Canadian Mennonite) and a number undoubtedly ran unsuccessfully as candidates for political parties, the first MB to be elected either provincially or federally was apparently Ray Ratzlaff of Linden, Alberta, in 1968. However, in 1962 (27 April, p. 5) the Herald already carried an article by Bert Huebner entitled, “Why Should a Christian be Interested in Politics?” in which he lamented Mennonite political inaction. Huebner, who was President of the Elmwood Progressive Conservative Association in Winnipeg, contested the nomination for the party in one of the provincial constituencies, but was unsuccessful.

By 1966 the General Conference of MB Churches had put forth the first statement regarding political involvement since 1890. After a brief historical preamble, a set of basic principles for Christian political involvement was given and then some specific practical guidelines were suggested. The statement contrasted the state as a “sword-bearing authority” with the church as a “Cross-bearing community,” but nevertheless allowed for a “middle ground” with significant opportunity for involvement. Such involvement must be “selective,” “redemptive,” and “prophetic.” Specifically, members were called on to pray for government and to focus on the priority of the Kingdom of Christ. The church was not to ally itself with any specific political ideology or seek to defend a particular political system. “Super-patriotism” and “militant nationalism” were to be avoided and Christians were to be “constructively critical of the political order.” Lastly, it stated:

We believe that it is proper for Christians to vote, to exert influence on government officials (provided that neither means nor ends are unchristian), and also under special conditions to stand for political office if neither the attempt to gain the position or the exercise of its functions requires a compromise of Christian ethics (Colossians 3:17). 22

This carefully qualified statement undoubtedly reflected the considerable {39} unease about such political participation felt by many Conference leaders and others.

An article in the 18 April 1969 issue of the Herald, which focused on the election of Ray Ratzlaff to the Alberta Legislature, was the first to deal with the issue as a fait accompli rather than as a merely theoretical question. 23 Ratzlaff gave his reasons for entering politics, stressing the importance of human relationships and the necessity of exerting Christian influence in society. He was critical of traditional Mennonite tendencies either to migrate when faced with an unfavorable political situation or to engage in civil disobedience. The latter was obviously a reference to developments of the 1960s.

The 1972 federal election may be regarded as the real watershed of MB involvement in politics. In that year the first MB was elected as a Member of Parliament. Whatever claims, implicit or explicit, there may have been that local and provincial government did not impinge on fundamental Mennonite concerns regarding involvement in the state (such as the issue of coercion), such claims could not apply to federal government. Mennonite Brethren were now in top places of authority and had to face the church-state issue head-on.

An editorial by Peter Klassen aptly showed the transformation that had taken place in the MB community from a hesitant exercise of the franchise to direct participation in government. Klassen endorsed such participation on the basis of a growing awareness of the social implications of the gospel. Canada afforded a unique opportunity for Christians to put Christian principles into action, he stated. Therefore he called for Christians “to support Christian [MB?] candidates who feel called of God to enter the political realm.” 24

Significantly, it was 1972 that the Kauffman-Harder study was carried out. According to the survey, 98% of MBs agreed that Christians should vote and 84% favored political participation (holding government office at various levels). 25 These figures were not significantly different from the General Conference Mennonite Church but were significantly different from the Mennonite Church.

When Jake Epp was elected as the MP for the Provencher riding in Manitoba, the Herald gave considerable publicity to the event. It referred to the fact that Epp’s home congregation gave its enthusiastic support for his endeavor. Philosophically, Epp was characterized as “very much a free enterprise politician” who believed strongly in the work ethic and believed that political discussions “must finally be related to fundamental principles of right and wrong which have their root in a divine order.” 26 {40}

By the time of the 1974 election the trend toward increasing political participation had clearly been established, despite the lack of consensus on the theological issues involved. According to the Herald a total of 17 Mennonites were candidates in the election, although only 6 were elected. Both MB candidates (both PCs) were elected. 27 The trend was established clearly enough so that an article in 1975 could be entitled “Canadian Mennonites Leave 400-year Tradition.” 28

In response to questions concerning the basis for his involvement, Jake Epp stated, “If a Christian feels that it is God’s will that he enter politics, where he can give a moral dimension to the public life and specifically his service, then the scruples about Mennonite tradition disappear.” 29 Dean Whiteway (Selkirk), whose background was non-Mennonite, asserted that he had entered politics without scruples, “I believe God leads men into politics and government offices as he leads them into other ministries,” he stated. “My ‘special’ mandate from God is to serve as an MP.” 30

Such developments called for a response by the Mennonite Brethren constituency as a whole. Although the major concern undoubtedly related to the Canadian situation, action to define the Church’s position was taken by the Board of Reference and Council of the General Conference. The paper which was commissioned by the Board has already been referred to earlier, and the specifics will not be rehearsed here except as they relate to participation in government had changed, that the distinction between those governing and those governed was becoming increasingly blurred, and that total noninvolvement was not a real option. Nevertheless, he voiced serious concerns about involvement at higher levels of government, citing such issues as party platforms which might create a quandary for Christians and the rigid party control which existed particularly in Canada. He summarized the problems by stating, “I am hard-pressed to cite instances in which elected Christians have consistently brought Anabaptist principles to bear on political issues.” 31

Having warned about the dangers, Redekop still allowed for the possibility that God would call some to involvement. Again, the primary appeal was to the Old Testament, and Redekop admitted to the difficulty of finding a New Testament basis. He argued that we must not limit God, however, and modern leaders like Robert Thompson and Ernest C. Manning attested to the possibility of maintaining a Christian witness in such a situation. The challenge was to retain a stance of Christian criticism and avoid a mere chaplaincy role.

Redekop’s position, as qualified as it was, nevertheless marked a significant shift from a position he had defended earlier in an article in {41} the Canadian Mennonite. There Redekop had argued (as a former party member) that usually Christians don’t christianize a party; rather the party tends to secularize the Christian. All parties, he said, had elements that were incompatible with Christianity and it would be dishonest to join without subscribing to them. In an unqualified manner he had concluded at that time that a “born-again believer can serve only in local government or as an independent member of the opposition.” 32

The 1979 and 1980 elections brought more MB candidates into politics and further discussions about the nature and reasons for such involvements. In an interview with the Herald, Jake Epp repeated his conviction that God had placed him in Ottawa. He admitted that the issue of party loyalty could be a problem but stated that it was not as crucial while a member of the opposition party. That escape was soon to disappear for Epp. Not only was his party elected into office but Epp himself became a member of the Cabinet, the first Mennonite to hold such a position in Canada. In tracing his own development, Epp referred to the influence of his father (an MB minister), Edmund Burke, the Clapham group, and Old Testament biblical heroes who had public roles. He then continued:

Solomon was described as possibly one of the wisest men who ever lived, and yet he was a follower-servant of God. Whenever the people of Israel flourished, economically and politically, why did they flourish? They were following Jehovah and his teachings. When they strayed from that, destruction came upon them. The best formula for a nation is still found in 2 Chronicles 7:14 . . . It’s an individual thing, first of all, but the faithfulness of the individual has impact on the nation. Then God makes a covenant: I will hear from heaven. I will forgive their sin—again, first of all personal. And then what? I will heal their land. I haven’t found a better blueprint yet, than that. And that basically has been the guideline I have been trying to follow. 33

By the end of the decade of the 70s, MB involvement in politics could more or less be taken for granted. An editorial in April 1979 summarized what was probably the conviction of most. Although Mennonites had traditionally had “a strong feeling against involvement in politics,” this was fortunately changing, the editor remarked. There was finally a recognition that MBs were part of the political order whether they wanted to be or not and therefore they might as well make their impact in the most effective way. The greater the difficulty the greater the challenge for the Christian! 34 {42}

Political Ideologies and Issues

In the period following 1957 particular party ideologies and issues came much more clearly into focus than previously. Whereas in the earlier period the predominant issues were the policies regarding Mennonite immigration, nonresistance, and religious freedom (i.e., very inward-looking), the latter period reflects a much broader and more sophisticated approach to political questions.

One issue which surfaced quite a number of times was simply whether a candidate was a Christian or not, regardless of his political allegiance and ideology. A letter to the Rundschau in 1962 deplored the fact that Robert Thompson had been omitted in a news feature regarding the other three party leaders, especially in view of the fact that Thompson was a Christian. The editor responded by publishing an excerpt of an article in which Thompson’s role as a missionary and church leader was described. 35 An advertisement in the same issue referred to Thompson as a man with a firm trust in God. An editorial in the Herald in 1965 (29 October, p. 3) called on readers to support men “who honour God, recognize the presence and authority of divine law, and who seek divine direction.” A letter to the editor in the Rundschau in 1968 referred to Canada as a Christian land and called on Christians to support the party and candidates which support and defend Christian principles. 36 In 1972, J.H. Redekop wrote that he heartily supported “Christians who try sincerely to apply Christ’s teachings in the realm of public life” and added, “Indeed . . . I support them even if normally I would not support the party.” 37 Despite such statements, Redekop in another article warned against voting only on the basis of the religious views of the candidate. What if all voters functioned that way, he asked. Government should not be used as a means to achieve Christian purity in a country. 38

Another frequently recurring issue was that of an individual’s or a party’s orientation toward Communism. Inevitably, this related particularly to the CCF or NDP. The most heated debate concerning the issue is reflected in the Rundschau in 1963. The debate was touched off by an NDP advertisement carried in the 19 December 1962 issue (p. 13). The advertisement, sponsored by Erhard Regier, greeted readers and expressed the hope “that the message of the carpenter of Nazareth would be heeded.” One reader found it imponderable (himmelschreiend) “how our people have deteriorated since they came from Russia.” 39 The reader claimed that his own father had been murdered by the Communists in Russia; now such people were supported by Mennonites. In response the editor wondered whether the reader was implying that Regier was a Communist. Somewhat caustically he added, {43} “Regrettably we didn’t realize that but we are grateful for the information.”

A series of letters and editorial responses followed. The NDP Party was referred to as anti-American, pro-Castro, anti-religious and as Communists under another guise. In response the editor referred to the positive experience of Saskatchewan under a CCF government and refused to concede that NDP candidates were Communists. Nevertheless, he warned that “moderate socialists often forget that if Communists take over by force the NDP will also be liquidated, often first.” 40 Despite repeated calls by the editor to end the debate, readers continued to vent their feelings about the issue and the Rundschau discontinued carrying NDP advertisements. In fact, all political advertising seems to have ceased in the Rundschau at about this time, probably because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The issue of Communism surfaced for a second time as a major issue in 1968 in connection with Prime Minister Trudeau and his alleged sympathies with Communism. A smear campaign apparently penetrated many MB churches, and pamphlets alleging that Trudeau was a Communist were widely circulated. An editorial lamented these developments and cited specific evidence against the allegations. 41 One reader deplored the compromise of the traditional separation of the church and state by means of such a smear campaign. 42

Despite the evidence to the contrary, there was a lingering suspicion that Trudeau was sympathetic to the Communists. Both the Liberal Party and the NDP Party probably failed to win significant support from MBs because of this issue. 43

The question of party ideology in a general sense received significant attention during this period. Particularly John H. Redekop wrote numerous articles from 1962-79. Redekop described conservatism as placing high value on hierarchical authority, order and stability, equality of opportunity, individualism, patriotism, etc. Liberalism was described as pragmatic and optimistic about human nature. 44 Each was only compatible with Christianity in some aspects. Therefore, Redekop warned against a close identification with any political party.

However, readers of both the Herald and the Rundschau did closely identify with a political party or saw Canada as a Christian nation which upheld economic and religious freedoms. The latter point was seen as best supported by conservatism, and so there was a strong orientation toward political conservatism among MBs—as is also shown by the Kaufmann-Harder Study (1972). 45 The combined percentage of MBs favouring the PC and SC parties was 71%. This contrasted with the GCMC whose figure was 55%. {44}


1. Fragmentation among MBs Today. There are several discernible positions on the church-state issue among MBs. The traditional withdrawal position still exists, particularly among the older generation. Another position which might be termed “revisionist” exists particularly with younger Anabaptists.

There are basically two types of “revisionists.” One group seeks to influence society from the outside and create new models as witnesses to society. A second group seeks to influence society from within by political involvement and to expose the wrongs of society. This is a minority position among MBs.

2. “Withdrawal” vs. “Involvement.” The withdrawal option has often been falsely perceived. Redekop states that this option is not what it claims to be since non-voting is also a form of political action. 46 If the nature of the debate is changed from the “withdrawal-involvement” model to focus on involvement, perhaps the impasse can be broken. The problem is not whether one should be involved but rather how. Then the discussion is not limited to listing activities one can participate in but how that participation can demonstrate the servant role. Yoder’s discussion of the “politics of Jesus” is one such attempt. 47 There is then more concern about method than about ends, more concern about doing the right thing than about making it come out right. At the same time doing the right thing is the best guarantee that the right ends will be accomplished.

3. Modern Government. There can be no question that the nature of modern democratic government such as the one in Canada is significantly different from the nature of government in New Testament times, in sixteenth century Europe, or in nineteenth century Russia. The degree of involvement in social welfare and education, the extent of government spending of our tax moneys, etc., are all factors. The nature and the extent to which such issues impinge on a “two-kingdom” thesis, however, requires further analysis. How much change is necessary before active participation in government is desirable? Or does the modern situation lead us to reinterpret the biblical texts bearing on this issue?

4. The Place of the Old Testament. Anabaptists have generally derived their major ethical principles from the New Testament, whereas evangelicals have derived ethical guidelines from both Testaments and their political ethics primarily from the Old Testament. MBs have followed the evangelicals as it concerned their political involvement, stressing such models as Joseph and Daniel. Without rejecting the relevance of {45} the Old Testament for political action, a clearer analysis of our hermeneutical method is needed.

5. Christian Witness in Society. There is a strong concern evident among MBs for a positive witness in society at all levels. This concern focuses especially on personal moral issues such as abortion and pornography and perhaps less frequently on social issues such as prison reform and native rights. There is also considerable concern for a public acknowledgement of Christianity as basic for our society and its values. The sentiment that Canada is a “Christian” country was frequently expressed or implied. The problem of avoiding the idolatry implicit in such a statement is a difficult one. How can we make this country more Christian without falling prey to the belief that a country can ever be Christian? How can we raise the moral level of people in our society without imposing our morals upon them in a way which does violence to the gospel?

6. Vocational Decision-Making. There has been considerable emphasis on personal guidance by God into partisan political involvement and a corresponding lack of emphasis on seeking guidance from the brotherhood. Such emphasis seemed to be used to avoid answering fundamental issues. It should be noted that several candidates sought and received strong support from their own local churches and that in several instances the references to personal guidance were made by non-candidates. Those who questioned the legitimacy of political involvement were presuming to challenge the guidance of the Spirit of God. It is troubling to see this emphasis on personal guidance used to override other considerations and to provide immunity from brotherly advice or admonition.

7. Evangelicalism and Conservative Political Ideology. Officially the MB Conference has always warned against identifying with a particular party’s ideology. In practice, however, MBs have increasingly identified themselves with a conservative political ideology. 48 In this they seem to have followed the pattern of large segments of American evangelicalism, a tendency which is not as evident among the GCMC. Why is this so? Is a shift in our theology involved and, if so, is it to be viewed positively or negatively? Or is it that MBs are just now beginning to think in terms of ideology rather than in terms of self-interest (privileges such as immigration and exemption from military service)? Under what kind of political ideology are Christian values best preserved? If either a conservative or a socialist ideology best preserves Christian values, is it not the Church’s duty to formally promote it? Why should church and state be separate? Should we not organize the way many churches in the United States did in support of Moral Majority?

The dilemma of not being able to opt out of society on the one {46} hand (the apolitical option) and not wishing to fall prey to a new Constantinianism on the other hand, is a very serious one facing MBs today. It touches not only the issues discussed above but a range of other issues, including the recent concern about the role of the Mennonite Central Committee. Unless we come to a clearer consensus as a Church, our witness will be increasingly fragmented.


Abreviations: Mennonitische Rundschau = MR
Mennonite Brethren Herald = MBH
  1. The Schleitheim Confession, trans. and ed. John Howard Yoder (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1973), p. 14.
  2. See, e.g., James M. Stayer, Anabaptists and the Sword, 2d ed. (Lawrence, KS: Lawrence Press, 1976), pp. 309ff.
  3. John C. Wenger, ed., The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1956), p. 193.
  4. Thomas G. Sanders, Protestant Concepts of Church and State (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), p. 88.
  5. Calvin Redekop, “Religion and Society: A State Within a Church,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 47 (October 1973): 339-57.
  6. John A. Toews, A History of the Mennonite Brethren Church: Pilgrims and Pioneers (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, General Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, 1975), p. 344.
  7. See, e.g., MR, 23 May 1945, p. 5 and 30 May 1945, p. 5.
  8. MR, 11 May 1949, p. 8 and 18 May 1949, p. 8.
  9. “Rt. Hon. Louis St. Laurent, Z.C., Kanadas Premierminister,” MR, 8 May 1957, p. 16.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Guy F. Hershberger, War, Peace and Nonresistance (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1968). Hershberger virtually rules out any major executive, legislative or judicial position. Cf. pp. 162 ff.
  12. See John A. Toews, True Nonresistance Through Christ (Winnipeg: Board of General Welfare and Public Relations, 1955), pp. 18f, 45f.
  13. John A. Toews, “Can the Christian Participate in Government?” Voice 7 (January-February 1958): 4-7.
  14. Ibid., p. 4.
  15. John A. Toews, “Only Partial Participation,” MBH, 2 July 1965, p. 8.
  16. “Church and State: A Fresh Look,” MBH, 21 January 1966, pp. 7, 19.
  17. “How to be a Christian in Politics,” MBH, 28 October 1977, pp. 6-8.
  18. Making Political Decisions: A Christian Perspective, Focal Pamphlet No. 23 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1972).
  19. “The State and the Free Church” in Kingdom, Cross and Community; Essays on Mennonite Themes in Honor of Guy F. Hershberger, ed John R. Burkholder and Calvin Redekop (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1976), pp. 179-195. {47}
  20. “The Church and the State,” MBH, 6 January 1978, pp. 18, 19.
  21. J. Howard Kauffmann and Leland Harder, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later: A Profile of Five Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Denominations (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1975), p. 157.
  22. We Recommend . . .: Recommendations and Resolutions of the General Conference of the Mennonite Brethren Churches, compiled by A.E. Janzen and Herbert Giesbrecht (Fresno, CA: Board of Christian Literature, 1978), pp. 314-316.
  23. “Political Life: We Took it as of the Lord,” MBH, 8 April 1969, p. 18.
  24. “A Time for Decision,” MBH, 20 October 1972, p. 11.
  25. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later, p. 161.
  26. “First MB in Parliament,” MBH, 29 December 1972, p. 24.
  27. “More Mennonites in Ottawa,” MBH, 9 August 1974, p. 15.
  28. John Dueck, “Canadian Mennonites Leave 400-Year Tradition,” MBH, 28 November 1975, pp. 15-17.
  29. Ibid., p. 15.
  30. Ibid., p. 16.
  31. “How to be a Christian in Politics,” MBH, 28 October 1977, p. 8.
  32. “Should a Christian Join a Political Party?” The Canadian Mennonite, 22 November 1957, p. 7.
  33. “Christian Witness Growing in Ottawa,” MBH, 27 April 1979, pp. 6, 8.
  34. “A Case for Political Action,” MBH, 27 April 1979, p. 13.
  35. Letter to the editor by Frieda Penner, MR, 6 June 1962, p. 11.
  36. Anna Willms, “Gedanken ueber die Wahlen,” MR, 19 June 1968, p. 15.
  37. “Election 72,” MBH, 20 October 1972, p. 10.
  38. “Pierre and Patriotism” MBH, 12 July 1968, p. 2.
  39. Letter by J. P. Dyck, MR, 20 February 1963, p. 11.
  40. Editorial response by H.F. Klassen, MR, 13 March 1963, p. 3.
  41. “Participation in a Smear Campaign,” MBH, 28 June 1968, p. 3.
  42. Letter to the editor by Peter Andres, MBH, 28 June 1968, p. 2.
  43. See John H. Redekop, “Political Essays,” MBH, 24 March 1972, p. 10.
  44. “Which Political Party?” MBH, 8 June 1962, pp. 4-7.
  45. Anabaptists Four Centuries Later, p. 164.
  46. “The Christian’s Participation in Politics,” p. 3.
  47. John Howard Yoder, Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1972).
  48. In a recent article John Howard Yoder argues that there is a serious problem of definition with respect to terms such as “conservative” and “radical,” that “the present order” is never clearly one or the other, and that Christians can never answer with a simple “yes” or “no” to a given system. See “Mennonite Political Conservatism: Paradox or Contradiction,” in Mennonite Images: Historical, Cultural, and Literary Essays Dealing with Mennonite Issues, ed. Harry Loewen (Winnipeg, MB: Hyperion Press, 1980), pp. 7-16.
Abe Dueck is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at the Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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