The Christian Witness to the State (Mennonite Church, 1961)

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The Christian Witness to the State (Mennonite Church, 1961)

The Christian Witness to the State

A Statement Adopted by Mennonite General Conference, August 25, 1961.

  1. Introduction
    1. Reaffirmation
    2. The obligation to witness
  2. Biblical Foundations
    1. The Church accepts the Lordship of Christ
    2. The World denies the Lordship of Christ
    3. The Ministry of Reconciliation and the witness to the State
  3. The Twofold Character of the State
    1. The State as a minister of God for good
    2. The State as an agent of the powers
    3. The twofold character of the ancient state
    4. The twofold character of the modern state
  4. The Christian witness to the State
    1. Evangel and witness
    2. Concern for the State
    3. The example of the Apostles and the Fathers
    4. The task for today
    5. The means of witness
  5. [[|Our Commitment

    ]]Context of this Statement



We, the representatives of the Mennonite Church, assembled as the Mennonite General Conference at Johnstown, Pennsylvania, August 22-25, 1961, herewith reaffirm "A Declaration of Christian Faith and Commitment with Respect to Peace, War and Nonresistance," as adopted by this body at Goshen, Indiana, in 1951.

We believe this statement of a decade ago to be in harmony with the Anabaptist-Mennonite vision which speaks of civil government as ordained of God, and of resistance by the sword as forbidden to the disciple of Christ. It is our conviction that this declaration and this vision are a true expression of the teaching of the New Testament. the whole tenor of which is epitomized in the statement that "Christ ... suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps ... who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not" (1 Peter 2:21-23).

The Obligation to Witness

At this time we would give special attention and further expression to that portion of section C-8 of the 1951 Declaration in which "we acknowledge our obligation to witness to the powers-that-be of the righteousness which God requires of all men, even in government, and beyond this to continue in earnest intercession to God on their behalf."

The decade since these words were spoken has been given to search for a fuller understanding of the meaning of this obligation. What is the basis of the Christian witness to the state? What is the character of that witness? And in what manner is it to be given? In addition to its reaffirmation of our historic nonresistant faith, therefore, the present statement seeks to find helpful answers to these questions and to set forth certain positive convictions concerning the Christian obligation to witness to the state.

Biblical Foundations

This obligation we believe to be rooted both in the nature of the church itself and in the nature of the world to which the church is called to witness.

The Church Accepts the Lordship of Christ

The church is the body of Christ, the community of believers, the gathered company, identified with the stream of forces issuing from the redemptive work of Christ, whom she acknowledges as the Lord of history and as her own supreme head, and under whose lordship she walks in obedient commitment and discipleship. The believers accept the new life in Christ as a binding imperative, as a glorious possibility, and as a blessed reality in which they live. They are laborers together with God for the redemption of the world which knows Him not. The meaning of history is to be found in the redemptive work of Christ and of His redemptive community which is the church.

Romans 8:18-23; 1 Corinthians 15:24; 2 Corinthians 5:17-20; Ephesians 1:20-23; Philippians 2:9-11; Colossians 1:11-20; Colossians 2:10; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3; Revelation 21:1-6 .

The World Denies the Lordship of Christ

Outside the body of Christ are those who reject Christ and who stand in rebellion against God. The Scriptures speak of this non-Christian company as "the world," which is under the rule of principalities, of powers, of thrones, and of dominions. These terms suggest not only a degree of structure within the fallen social order, but also a degree of conflict among the units of the structure, and a certain rebellion against the will of God.

This world does not recognize the lordship of Christ. In His death the powers even sought to destroy Him. His victory over the powers, however, is a demonstration of that lordship to which every knee shall bow and which every tongue shall confess. Thus Christ is Lord both over the church which recognizes His lordship, and over the world which denies it.

Psalms 110; Matthew 22:44; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42, 43; Acts 2:34, 35; Acts 13:27; Romans 13:1; 1 Corinthians 2:8; 1 Corinthians 15:25; Galatians 4:3, 9; Ephesians 3:10; Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:15; Hebrews 1:3; Hebrews 2:8; Hebrews 10:13; 1 Peter 3:22; Revelation 3:21.

The Ministry of Reconciliation and the Witness to the State

The love of Christ constrains us to a ministry of reconciliation which extends to all men, including those in government. This ministry includes a fourfold witness: (1) concerning saving faith in Him, that whosoever will may come; (2) concerning the meaning of true discipleship which even the nominal Christian may have failed to grasp; (3) concerning the love of God for all men, even for those who resist His will; and (4) in the case of those who continue to reject the Great Invitation, a witness which reasons with them "of righteousness, of temperance, and of judgment" to which all men, whether saint or sinner, must answer before Him who is Lord over church and world.

Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; Acts 24:25; Acts 26; 1 Timothy 2:1, 2.

The Twofold Character of the State

The State as a Minister of God for Good

The Scriptural view of the state is a twofold one. On the one hand it is a minister of God for good, whose function is the maintenance of order in this present world. Its ultimate source of power is the God of history Himself. As such, the Christian owes the state respect, obedience, and cooperation, with prayers for its rulers to the end that the people of God may "lead a quiet and peaceable life in a godliness and honesty." The primary function of the state is the maintenance of a stable society enabling the church to pursue her divine ministry of reconciliation and of prophetic witness under the lordship of Christ.

Romans 13:1-7; Titus 3:1; 1 Peter 2:13-17.

The State as an Agent of the Powers

It is clear, on the other hand, that the state is also an institution of this present evil world, and that as such it is at times an agent of the forces arrayed against the Lord of history. For this reason the Christian cannot always submit to the demands of the state. On the contrary, he must needs on occasion be in opposition to the state, as individual rulers or their acts come under the domination of the principalities, the powers, and the spiritual hosts of wickedness who are in rebellion against the lordship of Christ.

1 Corinthians 2:8; 1 Corinthians 6:1-3; 1 Corinthians 8:5; 1 Corinthians 15:24, 25; Ephesians 6:12; Revelation 13.

The Twofold Character of the Ancient State

When the Scriptures speak of the state as a minister of God, and of the world rulers of this present darkness, they do not speak of democratic as opposed to totalitarian states, even though democracy is preferable to totalitarianism. Every state, even the most evil, is some sense a minister of God for good. And every state; even the best, is at the same time also in some sense an agent of the rebellious powers. Because of the ambiguous and conflicting workings of these powers, and of its alignment with them, the state at its best can achieve only a partial and fragmentary order in the society of this world. In the final analysis no state is committed to Christ and His lordship, not even those states who profess a support of the Christian religion.

The demonic state of Revelation 13, making war on the saints, which calls for endurance, faith, and obedience on the part of every Christian, is the same as that of Romans 13, which merits respect and submission because it is being used of God for providing a social structure in which the church can freely work, and for the achievement in history of the purpose of the state's unaccepted Lord.

The Twofold Character of the Modern State

The influence of Christendom upon modern society has been great. This is true even of the state, which is often characterized by relative toleration and even by encouragement of the Christian faith, by outstanding morality on the part of many statesmen, by programs of human welfare, and by democracy which recognizes the worth of the individual citizen. These values, however, are only relative, a given state being in a real sense, nevertheless, at times consciously or unconsciously an agent of the principalities and the powers of darkness, as well as a minister of God for good. The friendly state protecting the church today can tomorrow be the beast of the Revelation seeking to destroy the church.

The Christian Witness to the State

Evangel and Witness

In its labors together with God for the redemption of the world, the church is at the same time a messenger of God's grace for the salvation of men for Christian discipleship and life eternal, a witness to God's love and concern for the well-being of all men (even for those who resist His will), and a prophet proclaiming the impending doom of a world in rebellion against the Lord to whom it must bow, if not in this day of grace, then surely in the day of judgment.

Concern for the State

Although the church is not responsible for policies of state and ought not assume to dictate the same, Christians do have a concern for the good of the state and for the welfare of all who are affected by its policies. Therefore, they pray that the state may be wisely administered and used of God for His purposes in history. They pray for the salvation of all leaders of states and for the blessing of God upon them. Their witness to the state is motivated by the same love that motivates their prayer. Finding their frame of reference in the holiness, the righteousness, the peace, and the justice of God, they speak in their message to men of the state, concerning both of the need for faith in Christ, and the obligation to follow righteousness in policies and acts.

The Example of the Apostles and the Fathers

According to the Scriptures the Apostle Paul proclaimed his faith in Jesus Christ, and the hope of the resurrection, before Roman officials; and witnessed prophetically concerning righteousness and temperance and the judgment which is to come. Menno Simons, moreover, gave witness to rulers of his time, both of repentance and of righteousness and justice, admonishing them to "take heed wisely, rightly to execute your responsible and dangerous office according to the will of God."

Christians in our day must also witness to the state. The invitation to faith, including its full meaning in true discipleship, must he extended to all men, including government officials. On the other hand, ever mindful that God abandons neither the state nor its rulers, even in their rebellion against Him, the Christian must, when the response is something less than Christian faith and discipleship, hold forth the claims of Christ's lordship, even upon the sub-Christian and the pagan state.

Acts 1:8; Acts 4:23; Acts 24:25; Acts 26; 2 Corinthians 5:17-20; Ephesians 3:8-10; 1 Timothy 2:14.

The Task for Today

No list of specific claims which we might formulate could be adequately complete or final. Even if it were such for today, the needs of tomorrow and the changing priorities of time and talent would require a continuous revision of the list. As illustrations of what is meant, however, we would mention the following as particularly significant for the day in which we live and worthy of being undertaken to the extent that priorities permit.

1. Statesmen must continually be challenged to seek the highest meanings of such values and concepts as justice, equality, freedom, and peace.

2. Even though they may reject the highest good in favor of relative and lesser values, statesmen must nevertheless be challenged to find the highest possible values within their own relative frames of reference. In so doing, the Christian may and can rightfully speak to decisions which the Christian ethic will not permit him to assist in carrying out.

3. The evils of war, particularly in this nuclear age, must ever be pressed upon the consciences of statesmen. Our previous declarations to this end need continually to be renewed.

4. Social attitudes, conditions, and practices out of harmony with the righteousness of God, and which contribute to injustice, to suffering, to weakening of mind, of body, and of character, or to the growth of crime, need ever to be witnessed against. Likewise, Christians may avail themselves of opportunities to suggest positive ways in which the state can assist in meeting social needs, as well as to warn of limits to its rightful sphere of action.

5. The church's primary task is to be the church. This itself has implications for the state. In the course of her own work, the church creates institutions, procedural patterns, and value judgments which the state can and does imitate to a degree. In emphasizing the importance of the church, Christians may rightly regard the creation of these precedents as a significant contribution of the church to the state and to the welfare of the world which is served by the state.

The Means of the Witness

The witness herein described may be carried on by word of mouth, through oral or written conversation with officials of state, whether national or local; by means of the printed page; through works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked; by a ministry of reconciliation in areas of tension, whether these be racial or social tensions in our own land, or colonial, nationalistic, or political tensions abroad; or by other means consistent with New Testament teaching and the historic Anabaptist-Mennonite vision.

Deeply conscious of the inadequacy of our own past efforts, and confessing our failure to give witness in the measure of our obligation, we nevertheless have faith to believe that Christian missions and Voluntary Service at home and abroad, and other similar ministries, have been used of God for such a witness; and that through them the church has functioned as a challenge to the conscience of the state, inspiring it to useful service of its own as a minister of God for good.

Our Commitment

Inasmuch as we have been reconciled unto God through Christ, and a ministry of reconciliation has been given unto us as a charge to keep, we would renew our commitment as ambassadors for Christ, that we may truly be used as a means for bringing the divine appeal to the hearts of men, including officials of state.

Strengthened by the firm conviction that more than ever before the world stands in need of the Gospel which we preach and that witness of peace which the Gospel enjoins, we would give ourselves anew to the task of a more effective witness to the nations of the holiness, the righteousness, and the justice of God, and of the way of peace which has been given by Christ, who in His resurrection has triumphed over all powers and principalities and whom we acknowledge as Lord of the church and of the world.

Finally, we would appeal to all Christians, particularly to those of our own congregations, that each examine his own life in view of the command, "Ye shall be [my] witnesses," and that each give himself to prayer and thought to the end that the opportunity which lies before us may be grasped with effectiveness, and that this great responsibility may be discharged as by true soldiers of Jesus Christ.

Context of this Statement

This statement, approved by the delegates to the Mennonite Church's General Conference in 1961, responded to increasing pressure within the Mennonite Church, especially in the United States, for a stronger witness to government on matters of race relations and U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia. The same 1961 conference sessions that approved the "Christian Witness" statement also approved statements on civil defense in the context of the Cold War, a resolution on relief aid for China, a resolution on communism and anti-communism, and formulated a letter to U.S. President John F. Kennedy on these issues after earlier responding with thanks to a congratulatory telegram received from Kennedy at the beginning of the sessions. The moderator for the 1961 conference sessions was Jesse B. Martin of Waterloo, Ontario.

This statement was considered to be "Part II" of the earlier statement, "A Declaration of Christian Faith and Commitment with Respect to Peace, War and Nonresistance," approved in 1951, and an expansion of that statement's reference to the Christian's witness to the state.

The Peace Problems Committee was a standing committee of the Mennonite Church from 1919 until 1965 when it was merged with the Committee on Economic and Social Relations to form the Committee on Peace and Social Concerns. During the time this statement was prepared, the committee was composed of seven members -- six from the United States and one from Canada. The Canadian member was Jesse B. Martin from Ontario. Martin remained from the committee that composed the 1951 statement. There was several "co-opted" members on the committee, including Edgar Metzler who served as pastor at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Ontario during the years this statement was drafted. Harold S. Bender chaired the committee and Guy F. Hershberger served as its staff person.

Unlike the 1937 "Statement of Position--Peace, War, and Military Service," and the 1951 peace statement, the 1961 statement responded particularly to the environment in the United States. The much-reduced Canadian influence on the committee likely contributed to this shift.

Context written 1999 by Sam Steiner


Thirty-second Mennonite General Conference, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, August 22-25, 1961. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1961: 43-60.