by J. C. Wenger
Part of the vision which captured the hearts and minds of the original Anabaptists of Zurich, Switzerland, some four centuries ago was the separation of church and state.
This meant among other things that the founders of our brotherhood held that the church ought to be wholly detached from the state. The Gospel should be preached "freely," not under the control or even protection of the state, for the state ought not to take a position of favoring one faith and sup pressing or persecuting the adherents of other views. Church and state were to be utterly separate in personnel, means of entrance, function, means, and end. The church was to be made up of the converted and committed disciples of the Lord Jesus, while the state served all men by maintaining law and order. The state is entered by the natural birth, but the church by the new birth. The state employs law and the threat of force, while the church relies on the power of the Word of God and the Spirit of God.
It is the function of the church to proclaim the Word of God, to win the lost to Christ, and to nurture those who turn to Him. It is the function of the state to restrain evildoers and to assume some responsibility for what might be called the "natural life" of its citizens. The only sanction of the church beyond brotherly rebuke is the excommunication of the impenitent, while the state has weapons to curb the criminal, and may deprive him of his liberty. The head of the state is a mere man, while the Head of the church is none other than Jesus Christ. One corollary of this doctrine of separation of church and state is that the state as state has no voice in the control and direction of the church. The church must heed its own Head, Christ, and obey His Word, the sacred Scriptures.
The other corollary is a twofold one: (1) the church can not ask the state to turn aside from its role of promoting public order by demanding that it follow the ethic of the church; and (2) the church is nevertheless responsible to uphold before all men the will of God that men should live by love, and that justice should be administered in all human relationships. This first half of the second corollary means that for nonresistant Christians, any office in the state which involves the use of violence and the possibility of taking human life (constabulary, military, and magistracy-for the death penalty is sometimes imposed by judges) is not a possible option. Mennonites, have therefore historically felt unable to serve in those three areas, as police officers, as soldiers, and as judges who must administer the laws of the land, and who must even send criminals to the gallows.
The second half of the second corollary is the difficult one to apply in a modern democracy. Surely the church needs more than ever to give its witness against every form of injustice, whether it be against the maltreatment of the poor by the rich or the maltreatment of minorities by the majority. It is in proper order for individual Christians, for congregations, and for conferences to speak out in favor of justice and against all unrighteousness. This obligation is clear, and increasingly in recent decades our brotherhood has sought to be faithful in this area, especially through the General Conference.
Something else needs to be said at present, however, and it needs to be said clearly and emphatically. The central function of the church of Christ is not merely to try to abolish all forms of evil and injustice. The most basic function of the church is to proclaim the everlasting Gospel to the salvation of men and their gathering into the blessed fold of the redeemed. Our supreme guide here is the teaching and example of our Lord and His apostles. First-century Christianity was dynamic; it began an amazing transformation of human society-a transformation which turned the world right side up: but it did so not by political methods but by the faithful proclamation of the Word of God.
Many citizens cannot do any more than employ political methods, but the people of God can. They can use the radio and the pulpit; they can establish Sunday schools and mission stations; they can and must fulfill the function which only the church can fulfill. That function is to make Christ known. And as men come to know Christ, they will in turn be trans formed.
Society surely needs to be regenerated. But the regeneration it most needs can never be achieved by passing laws and taking political action. The only regeneration which will ever truly change men is individual regeneration. Christ's primary message today is therefore, LET THE CHURCH BE THE CHURCH!--J. C. Wenger.
From the GOSPEL HERALD, MARCH 15, 1966
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May God's grace and peace be with you as you study His Word.November 10, 2001