A Christian Declaration on Capital Punishment (General Conference Mennonite Church, 1965)

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Christian Declaration on Capital Punishment, A (General Conference Mennonite Church, 1965)

Adopted by the General Conference Mennonite Church July 16, 1965, Estes Park, Colorado.

In view of our Christian responsibility to give witness to the righteousness which God requires of all men, we are constrained at this time to set forth our convictions concerning capital punishment.

Our Position

Since Christ through His redemptive work has fulfilled the requirement of the death penalty, and has given the church a ministry of reconciliation, and in view of the injustice and ineffectiveness of capital punishment as a means for the achievement of the purpose of government, we express our conviction that its use should be discontinued. In view of the prophetic commission given to the church, therefore, we appeal to the Parliament of the Dominion of Canada and to the federal and state governments of the United States, to discontinue the use of the death penalty and to set rehabilitation as the ultimate goal in the treatment of the criminal, expressing a positive attitude to the offender, thus further encouraging the peace and order which under the lordship of Christ the state is commissioned to provide.

Witness of Anabaptist Mennonite History

From the sixteenth century to the present, many Mennonites have witnessed against capital punishment. One of the charges against Felix Manz, the first Anabaptist martyr, was that he had rejected capital punishment. Menno Simons argued that "if the transgressor should truly repent . . . for such an one to be hanged . . . would look . . . strange and unbecoming . . . . If he remained impenitent, and his life be taken, one would unmercifully rob him of the time of repentance."

In 1910 Daniel Kauffman, Mennonite leader, said: "The taking of human life, whether upon the field of battle, on the gallows or in the electric chair, or in a conflict between individuals, belongs to uncivilized nations." C. Henry Smith, Mennonite historian, said in 1932: "Human life to the Mennonites is sacred, and not to be snuffed out for any reason whatsoever, individually or collectively . . . to appease the demand for public justice . . . . 'Thou shalt not kill,' was a divine command which knew no exceptions. Mennonites consequently never [officially] sanctioned either capital punishment or war."

In 1957, when Cleo Eugene Peters was sentenced to die for his murder of Paul Coblenz, an Amish Mennonite farmer in Ohio, the friends and neighbors of the murdered man signed petitions requesting a commutation of the sentence. The commutation was granted. In the meantime they carried on a ministry of reconciliation, through visitation of the condemned man in prison and manifestations of friendship to his family, and with at least some resulting evidence of personal rehabilitation.

Basis for our Position

The Christian mission. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Today this ministry of reconciliation is entrusted to the disciples of Christ, God making His appeal through them. Christians as co-laborers with Christ, and as His representatives in this world, are commissioned to make disciples of all peoples, teaching them to observe all that He has commanded, in order that the purpose of God may be fulfilled. (See Matthew 28:19, 20; 2 Corinthians 5: 18-20. )

The state and the maintenance of peace and order. A basic function of the state is the maintenance of peace and order in human society and providing for the welfare of its people. In so doing the state acts as a minister of God for good, enabling the church more effectively to perform its mission in this world (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1, 2).

The Christian obligation to the state. In view of their mission in this world, Christians have a fourfold obligation to the state:

  1. Subjection to the authority of the state and cooperation with it whenever possible in the performance of its God-given assignment.
  2. Prayer to God that all rulers and officials of state may be divinely influenced to fulfill their assignment according to God's plan.
  3. A prophetic witness to the state: a) concern ing the lordship of Christ over church and world, under whose judgment the state must act and before whom every knee shall bow; b) concerning the nature of the state's God-given task for the maintenance of peace, equity, justice, and human welfare; c) concerning the righteousness which God requires of all men, even in government.
  4. Recognition of the law of Christ as superior to all others, and readiness, when a choice must be made, to "obey God rather than men." (See Acts 5:29; Acts 24:25; 26; Philippians 2:10, 11; 1 Timothy 2:1, 2; Titus 3:1.)

The death penalty and peace and order. New Testament teaching recognizes the use of force by the state for the deterrence of evil and the maintenance of peace and order in human society (1 Peter 2:13-17).

This teaching clearly implies, however, that there are responsible and irresponsible, useful and useless, ways in which this power may be used. The state is responsible for using its power in ways that promote peace and order.

This raises a critical question. Does the use of the death penalty actually further the state's effort to maintain peace and order, or does it interfere with this effort? Is the use of the death penalty consistent with the biblical teaching that the state is responsible for using the sword only in the promotion of order?

Obviously it is impossible to know how persons are deterred from committing murder by the presence of the death penalty on the statute books--or on the other hand, how many are incited to crime by the state's own example of violence.

In the past five years the average annual number of murders in the United States has been slightly more than 8500; and the average number of executions for murder, twenty-nine. Counting all executions, whatever the crime, the average total was slightly more than thirty-six. In view of these statistics it is difficult to believe that the executions had much influence as a deterrent. Murder is frequently committed by persons of mental instability, or under such emotional stress that the possibility of capital punishment hardly enters into their thinking.

Comparison of criminal statistics of states with the death penalty with those that have abolished capital punishment lends no evidence to support the deterrence argument. Rhode Island, Michigan, and Wisconsin, for example, states without capital punishment, have lower murder rates in proportion to their total population than do the states immediately adjoining them which have the death penalty. If all the states are compared, the murder rate is from two to three times greater in states which have and enforce the death penalty than in those which do not.

It is recognized that the state may appropriately employ force for the restraint of criminal offenders. Since it is evident, however, that the death penalty, as one application of the use of force, does not reduce the rate of crime, that it does not contribute to the maintenance of peace and order, the church has an added reason to witness against it. The state may use force, but not when it contributes to dis order more than order. Let not the state bear the sword in vain (Romans 13:4).

The death penalty, rehabilitation, and the redemptive mission of the church. In maintaining peace and order the state has a responsibility not only for the deterrence of crime and the restraint of the criminal. It has a responsibility as well for the rehabilitation of the offender, enabling him to find a useful place in an orderly, peaceful society.

This function of the state constitutes a positive counterpart to the church's redemptive mission. In their common concern for the rehabilitation of the offender church and state should labor cooperatively, each performing the task peculiar to its own genius and calling.

The use of the death penalty, however, is a repudiation of the rehabilitative aspect of the state's own task and function. In deliberately taking the life of the offender the state declares him beyond rehabilitation, and removes him forever from the realm of the church's redemptive ministry. This, we believe, is an unjustified assumption of final judgment, a role which belongs to God alone.

Justice and the administration of the death penalty. In carrying out its mission under God to maintain peace and order in human society, the state is enjoined to punish bad conduct and to praise the good (Romans 13:3) . The state is to deal justly with all men. Unfortunately, grave injustices have accompanied the use of the death penalty.

  1. The great majority of executions are of persons, who because of ignorance, poverty, or other reasons are unable to secure adequate legal counsel for themselves, while criminals of a higher economic or social status find legal means for evading execution.
  2. The possibility of the death penalty can influence juries to acquit persons actually guilty of murder, thus contributing to the miscarriage of justice.
  3. As long as they are administered by fallible hu man beings, courts will be subject to error. All other judicial errors upon discovery can in some measure be corrected and repaired; a judicial error consummating in an execution, however, is totally irreparable.

Love and the fulfillment of the law. In the Old Testament one important purpose of the death penalty was expiation. Since man was made in the image of God, his life, his blood, was sacred. Taking his life, therefore, required atonement through a sacred expiatory rite.

It is the clear witness of the New Testament, however, especially of the Epistle to the Hebrews, that the requirement of the Old Testament is fulfilled in the high-priestly sacrifice of Christ. "Once for all" is the triumphant proclamation of the epistle. Henceforth no more blood is needed to testify to the sacredness of life, and no more sacrifices are called for to expiate for man's usurping of the power to kill. The cross of Christ abolishes the Old Testament basis of capital punishment.

Moreover, in view of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man, not the murderer only, but every man, merits the expiatory death. For this reason Jesus, when confronted with a sinful woman, did not deny her guilt. Instead He found her accusers guilty also. When He proposed that any who were without sin should cast the first stone, no stones were cast.

No one can measure up to the standard of Jesus. No one is sinless. Rehabilitation of the offender is the major concern. Vengeance should give way to forgiveness and reconciliation. This is not to deny the penal function of the state, but to limit its penal authority. When the state employs the death penalty it exceeds its divine authority. (See Genesis 9:5, 6; Numbers 35:30; Matthew 5:17, 22; John 8:1-11; Hebrews 2:17, 18; Hebrews 7:27.)

Our Confession and our Prayer

In view of our responsibility as ministers of reconciliation we confess that we have not adequately fulfilled our obligation to work for the abolition of capital punishment or for the reduction of crime in our society. We need to be more faithful in serving persons in prison and in laboring for the reform of prison procedures, for the rehabilitation of the released prisoners and for the improvement of the economic, social, and religious conditions which contribute to the making of juvenile offenders and to the spread of crime.

We pray that in our brotherhood the Spirit may deepen each member's conviction and understanding of his obligation to individual criminal offenders, to the government under which he lives, and to Christ. And we pray that God may grant us wisdom, vision, and courage that as a brotherhood we may engage in this ministry as the Holy Spirit gives us direction.

Context of the Statement

The resolution came at a time when capital punishment had fallen out of favor in North America. Indeed 1967 was the last year for an execution in the United States for almost 10 years. In the mid-1960s less than 50% of U.S. citizens favored the death penalty. In the United States the Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that capital punishment was "cruel and unusual" in the way it was administered. By 1976 a number of U.S. states had written their laws to address these concerns and in 1977 executions resumed with an execution by firing squad in Utah.

In Canada, Parliament banned capital punishment in 1976, though there had been no executions in Canada after 1962.

This capital punishment resolution was jointly drafted by the Committee on Peace and Social Concerns of the General Conference Mennonite Church as well as the Peace Problems Committee of the Mennonite Church.

The General Conference delegate convention approved the resolution with slight modification by a vote of 1463-102 in July 1965. In August 1965 The Mennonite Church delegates could not agree on the resolution and did not vote on it. Instead they approved a briefer alternate statement hastily drafted overnight and presented by Guy F. Hershberger. Although the minutes do not outline the points of disagreement, likely some delegates on the basis of a "two-kingdom" theology would have defended the state's right to exercise capital punishment.


Minutes 1965: General Conference Mennonite Church. Newton, Kan. : The Conference, 1965: 10, 24-26.

"Should the General Conference adopt this declaration?" The Mennonite 80 (April 27, 1965): 283-284.

"The portable General Conference." The Mennonite 80 (August 17, 1965): 518.

Thirty-fourth Mennonite General Conference, Kidron, Ohio, August 24-27, 1965. Scottdale, Pa.? : The Conference, 1965: 10-12, 38-43.