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The Radical Reformers’ Approach to Culture

This entry is part 5 of 20 in the series

"Christ the Sanctifier of Behavior"

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Following Luther’s lead, each Protestant group reacted against the Christendom approach to culture in some way. The most radical rejection of the Christ above culture model of the Roman Church was that of the Anabaptists. Niebuhr categorized them as Christ against culture, and in many ways he was right if by that categorization he meant that they abjectly repudiated any attempt to fuse the ecclesiastical and civic realms.

The Anabaptist emerged as a small group of dissidents from within the Swiss reformation led by Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli fostered many significant reformations in areas of justification and the Lord’s Table, but his perspective on church/state relationship was essentially the same as the Church of Rome. He sought to establish his reforms on the civic level and enforce them through the state, including one significant area he did not reform, namely, infant baptism. When a group of his followers under the leadership of Conrad Grebel (1498-1526), Felix Manz (1498-1527), and Menno Simons (1496-1561) developed convictions regarding believer’s baptism, they demanded, “You have no authority to place the decision in the hands of My Lords [the city council], for the decision is already made; the Spirit of God decides.”1 They believed that the church had no right to enforce laws in areas that belonged to the church.

This view was very similar to the view of Luther discussed above. In fact, this view could be characterized as a modified two-kingdom position, as does Perry Bush, who also notes what likely influenced its essential difference:

Established or state churches, enjoying a cooperative relationship with the reigning government, have often seen these two realms, each with its own limitations, as two equal spheres of God’s activity. . . . For groups having a more hostile relationship with the state, however, two-kingdom theology was modified to emphasize separation, not church-state cooperation. Not surprisingly, the theology of nonresistance that Anabaptists reformers passed on to their Mennonite descendants stressed the latter course. Given that the governments of their day had vilified, hunted, drowned, and burned them at the stake, Anabaptists bequeathed a negative view of the state, a state from which Christians could expect great evil.2

Where the Anabaptists differed from Luther was with the individual Christian’s relationship to the civic realm. While Luther maintained a distinction between church and state, he nevertheless taught that Christians were members of both institutions and thus must submit to both in the matters under their jurisdiction. The Anabaptists disagreed. They agreed that the state was necessary in an evil world and were even willing to submit to the government in civic matters,3 but unlike Luther, they rejected political involvement, including holding office, taking oaths, and especially violence, even when the state was simply exercising its civic responsibility.4 Likely the earliest expression of this sentiment was made by Anabaptists in the 1538 Bern Disputation:

We grant that in the non-Christian world state authorities have a legitimate place, to keep order, to punish evil, and to protect the good. But we as Christians live according to the Gospel and our only authority and Lord is Jesus Christ. Christians consequently do not use the sword, which is worldly.5

Although they recognized the need for the state to govern the affairs of unbelievers, Christians must not involve themselves in such matters.6 They even rejected using “worldly” means to protect themselves. Grebel insisted:

Moreover, the gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor are they thus to protect themselves . . . True Christian believers are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter; they must be baptized in anguish and affliction . . . tried with fire and must reach the fatherland of eternal rest, not by killing their bodily, but by mortifying their spiritual enemies. Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them.7

The Anabaptist believed that the church had entered a period of compromise and even apostasy during the medieval period, and they included the so-called Magisterial Reformers in this group.8 Yet the Anabaptists weren’t against Christendom per se; rather, what they rejected was an impure Christendom that resulted from a mix of the two kingdoms in the form of a church/state union. Indeed, the Anabaptists wanted to create a kingdom on earth, comprised only of believers who would perfectly follow God’s laws. Balke explains:

They wanted to restore original Christendom, which, they felt, had been derailed by various forms of worldliness and Constantinism. They were committed to live in accordance with the spirit and the teachings of Jesus and the apostles. They aspired to seeing the kingdom and its righteousness become visible.9

The Anabaptists so strongly emphasized the distinction between the two kingdoms and promoted separation from the worldly kingdom that they sought to establish their own Christian society where everyone had all things in common and where God’s law ruled supreme.

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About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. Cited in Cornelius J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History: A Popular History of the Anabaptists and the Mennonites (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1981), 29. []
  2. Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 6–7. []
  3. “Our will and mind are not, however, to do away with worldly government nor not to be obedient to it in goods and sanctions. For a government shall and must be in the world among men just as the daily bread and just as the schoolmaster must have the rods among the children” (Cited in Franklin H. Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church, 2nd Revised and Enlarged. [Paris, AK: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 2001], 106). []
  4. There were exceptions to this, of course, the most infamous being the violent revolutionary Anabaptist kingdom at Muenster. However, this pacifist and apolitical position characterized the mainstream of Anabaptists. []
  5. Jan P. Matthijssen, “The Bern Disputation of 1538,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 22 (January 1948): 32. []
  6. “Both the state and the state churches belonged to the evil kingdom; the new community of regenerated believers was part of the kingdom of Christ. The state, although it was ordained of God to maintain order in an evil world and therefore deserved obedience, had no authority over Christ’s kingdom or the church. The kingdom of Christ in itself had no need for the state, and Christians who chose to accept the discipline of Christ in the new kingdom must renounce the sword, the taking of oaths, and the holding of political office. The Anabaptists knew from bitter experience that the kingdom of this world was hostile to true Christianity; their doctrine regarding the state reflected their experience of two alien kingdoms whose proper relationship was decisive and thorough separation” (James C. Juhnke, A People of Two Kingdoms: The Political Acculturation of the Kansas Mennonites [Newton, KS: Faith & Life Press, 1975], 10). See also Robert Friedman, “The Doctrine of the Two Worlds,” in The Recover of the Anabaptist Vision, ed. Guy F. Hershberger (Scottdale: Herald, 1957), 105–118; Hans J. Hillerbrand, “The Anabaptist View of the State,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 32 (April 1958): 83–110. []
  7. George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal, eds., Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1957), 80. Cf. Harold S. Bender, “Thomas Muntzer, the Zwickau Prophets, and the Anabaptists,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 27 (January 1953): 3–16. []
  8. “The church in her fallen estate seemed to the Anabaptists far different from the community of true believers, the brotherhood of spiritual athletes. We must remember that they counted the fallen condition of the church from the days of Constantine until the beginning of their own movement. The Reformers also belonged to the period of the Fall. The Anabaptists said that the revival began with Luther and Zwingli, but when the Reformers clung to the old idea of Christendom the radicals counted them out. The criticisms directed against the imperial Roman religion are the criticisms directed against the Reformers: church and state were amalgamated, empty formalism and spiritual slackness prevailed, infants were baptized into Christianity before their understanding could give the membership any content. The Anabaptists wanted a thoroughgoing Restitution of the church as she had been before the Fall, and they criticized the nominal Christianity of the middle period in suggestive terms” (Franklin H. Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church, 2nd Revised and Enlarged. [Paris, AK: The Baptist Standard Bearer, 2001], 64–65. Emphasis original). []
  9. Willem Balke, Calvin and the Anabaptist Radicals (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2000), 265–66. []