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Spring 1985 · Vol. 14 No. 1 · pp. 27–33 

Anabaptist and Reformed Attitudes Toward Civil Government: A Factor in Political Involvement

Richard Kyle

A “true” Christian cannot occupy a governmental office. No responsible Christian can be without concern for civil government. These two apparently contradictory statements illustrate a tension between the Anabaptist and Reformed traditions. These two traditions represent two important trends in church-state relationships: the withdrawal or non-participation type and the transformationist or conversionist model.

Mennonite Brethren . . . between the Anabaptist withdrawers and the Calvinist transformers.

H. Richard Niebuhr’s typologies do not exactly parallel the models set forth in this study, but they can be helpful guideposts. The withdrawal or non-participation type approximates Niebuhr’s “Christ Against Culture” model and the transformationist or conversionist pattern resembles his “Christ the Transformer of Culture” model. The withdrawal type generally takes a negative view toward culture and the state. While accentuating the Lordship of Christ over believing communities, this model refuses to compromise with the world by participating in the political order. On the other hand, the transformationist approach, with its principal origins in the Reformed tradition, bears a similarity to Catholicism in that both positions recognize that the church has a responsibility for society and the state and thus must express its ethical concerns in the political arena. 1

Another church-state model is the separationist type. The withdrawal and separationist approaches to civil government have similar origins and much in common, but they are not identical and should not be confused. Both tendencies are indebted to the {28} Anabaptists. The withdrawal model is best illustrated by the Anabaptists and Mennonites, who spent most of their history in central and eastern European countries where religious freedom came not from sectarian pressure but from the benevolence of governments. The Puritan separatists, especially the Baptists, lived in the Anglo-Saxon world where religious freedom owes much to the prudent yielding of government to sectarian demands for religious liberty. The Anabaptists lived quietly and hoped for the best. The separatists, influenced by Calvinist thought and the opportunity for success, seized the initiative and struggled for their political rights. Though both the withdrawal and separationist models have a primary concern for religious liberty, the second approach has been more active in civic and political life than the former. 2

Although John Calvin opposed medieval Catholicism in most areas of his religious thought, in his political theory the first enemy was Anabaptism. 3 By now, however, the Mennonite and Reformed traditions are in transition, with the forces of North American culture pushing both views closer together. Most importantly, the state itself has changed since the sixteenth century. The fact that the citizens themselves are part of the political process in a western democracy makes the withdrawal approach problematic at best. In fact, non-participation is in itself a form of political involvement, if only by default.

Historically, the primary function of the state had been the maintenance of law and order, which requires the use of force. This task is still important, but modern democracies also provide humanitarian, educational, and social services. 4 These non-coercive functions help to reduce one of the major objections given by the withdrawal groups for participation in government.

The push bringing the withdrawal and transformationist models together also comes from the other direction. Though the church-state pattern in the United States (the disestablishment of religion) is due to historical circumstances rather than to influence by the left wing of the Reformation, the Anabaptist insistence on the voluntary principle of church organization lies at the heart of the American church-state structure. 5

More specifically, the Mennonite Brethren have moved in the years since World War II from a withdrawal model toward a moderate transformationist position, adopting a position of “selective participation” in politics. 6 This new stance certainly has not opened the door to wholesale political participation, but civic attitudes and practices indicate that Mennonite Brethren are accepting many political positions that are normally associated with the Reformed tradition.

The basis of Mennonite Brethren separation from the world, namely Anabaptist dualism and cultural isolation, is now greatly weakened. 7 Recent studies indicate strong support in Mennonite Brethren congregations for voting, for Christians holding political office on all levels, for the church influencing the government in regard to ethical issues, and for church institutions accepting government money for support. More revealing are Mennonite Brethren attitudes toward the state: the government is no longer {29} regarded as evil or as an opponent of the church. 8

The Reformed tradition has, indeed, significantly influenced political developments in North America, particularly in the United States. 9 The Mennonite Brethren have experienced a general acculturation in North America and as part of this process they have encountered Reformed political ideas. It would appear that the Mennonite Brethren in North America, along with most other political groups, are taking advantage of the democratic process and are moving toward a transformationist model. If this observation is correct, it would be profitable to compare the Anabaptist and Reformed attitudes toward civil government in greater detail. That would help us better to understand where the Mennonite Brethren have come from and where perhaps they are headed with regard to political participation. Any comparison must be very general because there is diversity within both traditions.

In regards to the origin of government, both the Anabaptist and Reformed traditions affirm that the state is ordained by God. Although the Anabaptist attitude is not totally negative toward the state, it is less positive than that of the Reformed tradition. According to Anabaptist thinking, the origin of the state is directly related to the Flood and thereby to human sin. Because sin would make orderly living impossible, the essence of government is its function of maintaining order. This task of punishing evildoers and protecting the weak requires force and coercion. 10 For this reason the Anabaptists regarded the state sub-Christian. In contrast, it was the church which represented the Kingdom of God. A radical dualism, distinguishing the church from the world, helped to determine the Anabaptist view of the state. The world is essentially evil and diametrically opposed to the Kingdom of Christ. The true Christian, therefore, does not have anything to do with the world except through missionary effort, as required by the Great Commission. 11

Such a dualism establishes two distinct realities which are incompatible with each other. While the church belongs to one Kingdom, the state belongs to another. Both the church and state are equally valid within their respective realms and both have their principles and standards, but these two entities remain separate. As a result, the Anabaptists rejected the medieval vision of a single Christian society with its concept of a government-established church. Because the church consists of committed disciples, it must be separate from the state and have freedom within the political and social order. As advocates of liberty for the church, which laid the basis for the future disestablishment of religion, the Anabaptists were essentially calling for a government of limited powers, with no authority to dictate religious beliefs or practices. 12

The Anabaptists, with largely a negative view toward the world and the state, held little hope for the betterment of society. This negative attitude, when combined with the coercive nature of the state in the sixteenth century, prompted the Anabaptists to believe that a Christian could not occupy a government office. 13 There did exist a small stream of Anabaptist thinking that accepted, in varying degrees, the possibility of a Christian holding the {30} office of magistrate. Menno Simons made some vacillating statements in this respect, but Balthasar Hubmaier must be regarded as the most notable proponent of this position. 14

In addition to believing that Christ’s words and example spoke against political participation, the early Anabaptists recognized fully the compromises in which governmental positions would have involved them, namely the use of force and the oath to maintain order and stability in a sinful society. This rejection of political participation notwithstanding, the Anabaptists affirmed that the Christian must obey the state except when the government operates in an area where it has no jurisdiction, that is, the spiritual realm. Because the Anabaptist view of the state made no qualitative distinction between a good or bad government, their willingness to obey temporal authority was independent of the moral character of the state. Consequently the notion of revolution was also foreign to the mainstream of Anabaptist thought. 15

Many religious groups in North America, including the Mennonite Brethren, are inching toward a transformationist church-state model. This should not conceal the fact that deep differences exist between the Anabaptist and Reformed attitudes toward civil government. Though the Reformed tradition has produced many articulate political theorists, John Calvin’s ideas remain most representative. Few religious leaders have taken as positive an attitude toward culture in general and government in particular as Calvin. In Calvinism there is no dichotomy, no dualism between Christianity and culture. Because of its penetrating insight into the doctrine of creation, the universality of divine revelation, and the place of law, it is impossible for Calvinism to think in terms of a simple, unqualified distinction between the divine and human spheres of activities. 16 Calvin emphasized that Christ is not only head of his church, but also Lord of this world. By eliminating the distinction between the natural and supernatural orders, the Genevan intensified the Christian significance of the state.

Herein lies the fundamental difference between the church-state theologies of Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Anabaptism. Luther saw the state as an expression of God’s creation but accorded the church alone historical responsibility for humanity’s redemption. The state was to the church as law was to the gospel; it remained a different order. The Anabaptists were even more severe in their limitation of the state, which at best expressed the wrathful benevolence of God, while Christ ruled in Christian communities separated from political life. Calvin certainly separated the functions of church and state, but unlike Luther and the Anabaptists he felt that the state could exercise a godly, Christological, and salvific purpose. In this respect, Calvin upheld the vision of a Protestant corpus Christianum, the body of a “christened” society. 17

Calvin’s primary interest lay in establishing and safeguarding the freedom of the church. Only secondarily did he concern himself about the interest of the state. Yet he did not withdraw from political life as the Anabaptists had. Rather, Calvin sought a working relationship between the church and the {31} state without one controlling the other. He held that the church should determine freely, without interference from the political order, the aspects of life directly concerned with religion. The civil government, on the other hand, should contribute to the salvation of its citizens while providing an orderly and beneficial temporal setting for their daily life. 18 As a consequence, Calvin assigned to church and state mutual obligations designed to enhance the religious and civic life of the entire Christian commonwealth. The tasks assigned to the church included praying for the political authorities, encouraging the state to defend the poor and weak against the rich and powerful, calling on the political authorities for help in promoting true religion and even in enforcing church discipline, and warning the civil authorities when they were at fault. Calvin opposed placing the church under the state. Rather, the church’s task is always an active one toward the state. Though he insisted on obedience to “good” and “bad” governments alike and did not advocate rebellion, the seeds of revolution can be derived from his writings. In fact, many of his followers did advocate armed resistance in the face of tyranny. 19 Calvin also assigned duties to the state, particularly in regard to the “external worship” of God, that is, suppressing idolatry, maintaining the honor of God, and preserving public worship. The magistrate would also be obligated to protect the church and preserve public law and order, while always remembering his accountability to God. 20

Both the withdrawal and transformationist patterns existed before the sixteenth century, but they received their clearest articulation during that period by the Anabaptist and Reformed traditions. Since then, forces such as secularization, modernization, and democratization have contributed to change drastically the nature and functions of the state. Western democracy, which allows for political pressure by religious groups, has pushed church-state patterns toward the transformationist model. This pattern works well in a culturally and religiously pluralistic democratic state. In such a situation, the only real question is how and to what extent Christians will be involved in the political process. For those true to the heritage of John Calvin, such political participation can be regarded as a high calling. Those, however, who wish to remain true to the principles of the Anabaptist tradition must be selective and restrict themselves to certain areas of involvement.

Despite the convergence between Anabaptist and Reformed patterns, important differences must remain because the former type has its roots in the New Testament while the latter turns to the Old Testament for Biblical support. {32}


  1. Thomas G. Sanders, Protestant Concepts of Church and State (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964), pp. 20,21; H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), pp. 40-1, 45-82, 191-229.
  2. Sanders, Protestant Concepts, pp. 166, 224-5.
  3. John T. McNeill, “The Democratic Element in Calvin’s Thought; Church History 18 (1949): 155-6.
  4. John H. Redekop, “Church and State: A Fresh Look,” Mennonite Brethren Herald 5/3 (January 21,1966): 7; Sanders, Protestant Concepts, pp. 96-7; Harold S. Bender, “Church and State in Mennonite History, The Mennonite Quarterly Review 13/2 (1939): 84.
  5. Sidney E. Mead, The Lively Experiment (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), pp. 19-25.
  6. J. Howard Kauffman and Leland Harder, Anabaptists Four Centuries Later (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1975), pp. 154-5; Abe Dueck, “Church and State: Developments Among Mennonite Brethren in Canada since World War II,” Direction 10 (1981): 44.
  7. Richard Kyle, “The Concept and Practice of Separation from the World in Mennonite Brethren History,” Direction 13/1,2 (1984): 40; James C. Juhnke, A People of Two Kingdoms: The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites (Newton: Faith and Life Press, 1975), pp. 21, 154-6.
  8. Kauffman, Four Centuries Later; pp. 157, 159, 161; Dueck, “Church and State,” pp. 36-41,44.
  9. John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), pp. 331-350; George M. Marsden, “America’s Christian Origins: Puritan New England as a Case Study” in John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World, ed., W. Stanford Reid (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), pp. 24954.
  10. Hans J. Hillerbrand, “The Anabaptist View of the State, The Mennonite Quarterly Review 33 (1958): 84-5, 87.
  11. Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1973), pp. 36-46; Hillerbrand, “Anabaptist View,” p. 97.
  12. Robert Kreider, “The Anabaptists and the State” in The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, ed., Guy F. Hershberger (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1957), p. 191; Sanders, Protestant Concepts, pp. 81-2, 93.
  13. Hans J. Hillerbrand, “An Early Anabaptist Treatise on the Christian and State,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 32 (1958): 30-32; Kreider, “Anabaptists and the State,” pp. 190-1.
  14. Torsten Bergsten, Balthasar Hubmaier (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1978), pp. 423; Sanders, Protestant Concepts, p. 87.
  15. George H. Williams, “Sectarian Ecumenicity: Reflections on a Little Noticed Aspect of the Radical Reformation,” Review and Expositor 64 (1967): 146; Hillerbrand, “Anabaptist View,” pp. 91-3. {33}
  16. Robert D. Knudsen, “Calvinism as a Cultural Force,” in John Calvin, p. 14.
  17. Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1956), pp. 230-1; Sanders, Protestant Concepts, pp. 225-6.
  18. John T. McNeill, “John Calvin on Civil Government” in Calvinism and the Political Order, ed., George L. Hunt (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1965), pp. 41-4.
  19. W. Fred Graham, The Constructive Revolutionary: John Calvin and His Socio-Economic Impact (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1978), pp. 61-4; McNeill, “Calvin on Government” in Political Order, pp. 38-40; Richard Kyle, The Mind of John Knox (Lawrence, KS: Coronado Press, 1984), pp. 244ff.
  20. Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, pp. 323-8.
Richard Kyle teaches history at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

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