Church and State

1989 Church of the Brethren Statement

Because the issues related to Christian living in a secular society are ever before us; and

Because the matter of separation of church and state needs fresh definition and application in every age; and

Because at the present time our opposition to war is not being tested by a military draft; and

Because many of our public statements about government leaders do not reflect an attitude of general honor and respect;

The Brethren Revival Fellowship, assembled at its annual gathering at the Pleasant View Church of the Brethren in the Southern Pennsylvania district on September 13, 1986, petitions Annual Conference meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, through Standing Committee, to research how the Church of the Brethren can strengthen its Biblical base for a better understanding of church/state issues, and how a greater degree of unity in belief, practice, and public pronouncement on these issues can be attained.

Donald E. Miller, BRF Chair
Samuel M. Cassel, BRF Secretary

Action of Standing Committee meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio, June 28-30, 1987

Passed the query to the 1987 Annual Conference.

Guy E. Wampler, Moderator
William A. Hayes, Moderator-elect
Phyllis Kingery Ruff, Secretary

Action of the 1987 Annual Conference

This item was presented from Standing Committee by Robert D. Kettering, a Standing Committee delegate from the Atlantic Northeast district. The delegates of the 1987 Annual Conference voted to adopt the query and to elect a committee of three (3) members to study the matter called for in the query and to report to the 1989 Annual Conference.

The following persons were elected to serve on the committee: Dale H. Aukerman, Donald F. Durnbaugh, and Vernard M. Eller.

1988 Report of the Study Committee on Church and State

The 1987 Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren accepted the recommendation of Standing Committee that a study committee be formed to “research how the Church of the Brethren can strengthen its Biblical base for a better understanding of church/state issues, and how a greater degree of unity in belief, practice, and public pronouncement on these issues can be attained.” A committee of three was elected (composed of Dale Aukerman, Donald F. Durnbaugh, and Vernard Eller) with the mandate to report back to the 1989 Annual Conference.

These three met at Elgin, Illinois, on September 16-17, 1987, to plan an approach to this difficult complex of questions. The task was analyzed and the members accepted assignments to prepare background positional studies to further the joint work of the committee. In late September, Vernard Eller found it necessary to resign from the committee for personal reasons. The officers of the Annual Conference then proceeded to find a replacement. They approached Harold S. Martin, who had been on the final ballot to elect members of the study committee, but he had to decline serving because of a health condition. The officers then appointed Louise Bowman as the third member of the committee. The reconstituted committee met on April 8-9, 1988, in New Windsor, Maryland, to refocus the work of the committee.

In the September, 1987 meeting, the committee decided to seek the counsel of a rather broad and representative number of members of the denomination. This was solicited by means of a letter containing twelve questions seeking guidance on scriptural, theological, and historical foundations of an appropriate church/state position for the Brethren. Particular attention was paid to concern for the search for greater unity in approaching the sweep of church/state issues. Many thoughtful responses were received which will facilitate the work of the committee.

Donald F. Durnbaugh, Chairman
Dale Aukerman
Louise Bowman

Committee’s expenses related to travel, lodging, and meals from 1987 to March 15, 1988 total, $874

Estimated additional expenses, $2,000

Action of the 1988 Annual Conference: The progress report of the Annual Conference STUDY COMMITTEE ON CHURCH AND STATE was presented by Donald F. Durnbaugh. The committee will bring their report to the 1989 Annual Conference.

1989 Church And State Committee Report


The 1987 Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren accepted the recommendation of the Standing Committee that a study committee be formed to “research how the Church of the Brethren can strengthen its biblical base for a better understanding of church/state issues, and how a greater degree of unity in belief, practice, and public pronouncement on these issues can be attained.” It elected a committee of three, with a mandate to report back to the 1989 Conference. One member of the committee found it necessary to resign; he was replaced through appointment by the officers of the Annual Conference.

The procedure followed by the committee was to hold meetings in 1987 and 1988 to address its task. It sought the views of a representative group of church members who were known to have interest in the issues involved. They were invited to answer a number of questions derived from the query and supplied the committee with many thoughtful responses. The same Brethren were asked to evaluate successive drafts of the committee’s response. The committee also held a hearing on June 30, 1988, at the St. Louis, Missouri, Annual Conference to learn of the concerns of a cross-section of members.

“The Faithful Church and its Relationship to the Dominant State”

This statement contains the following elements: a review of the guidance of the scriptures on church/state issues; a look at typical ways in which churches have related historically to states; a study of church/state relations from the perspective of Brethren heritage; and a statement of the implications of these understandings for the church, in light of the concerns of this query. It does not contain a comprehensive listing or a codification of the scores of Brethren pronouncements related in some way to church/state issues. Its intent is to deepen the understanding of the church about them and serve to create greater unity in dealing with these difficult questions.

The Biblical Basis of Church/State Relationships

For this as for any other issue. Brethren look to the Bible, centered in Jesus and the New Testament witness, as the determining basis for thought and action.

The early Israelites had no king and no centralized government. Gideon rejected an offer of kingship: “I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you; the Lord will rule over you” (Judg. 8:23). The intention was that God reign directly over Israel. Any charismatic leader, rather than being the focus of authority, was simply to be agent within God’s sovereign rule. Later the Israelite elders came to Samuel, who was such an agent, and said: “We will have a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8:19-20). They wanted to be “like all the nations” in form of government. Kingship, beginning with Saul, was then given as concession. There is, however, in the Old Testament also a more positive view of kingship, especially that of David and his dynasty (2 Sam. 7 and passages alluding to it). But God’s promises through Nathan to David—promises of security, peace, and a never-ending kingdom—remained within Old Testament history, sadly unfulfilled.

In the witness of the Old Testament, culminating in the prophets, Israel/Judah was not to look to the king or the state for security and the right ordering of its life but rather to the God of the Torah (the Law), which was the whole of the revelation of God’s saving will in dealings with Israel. To live in harmony with this revelation brought well-being (shalom) as God’s gift; to go against it brought disaster. A central emphasis was that those with power must come to the aid of those without power—the poor, the widows, the orphans. The king and the central government were to give the lead in living by the Torah, but generally veered from adherence to God’s way with and for God’s people.

In Israel/Judah the national community and the religious community were regarded as coinciding. This was God’s intention. But much of the population remained far from the professed faith in Yahweh. Yet since popular thinking held the two communities to be identical, church and state were not clearly differentiated entities.

A dictionary definition of the state is “the body politic as organized for supreme civil rule and government.” The contemporary problem of church and state has to do with the relations between a community of faith centered in Jesus Christ and the governing structures of a much wider population without that commitment. The most notable analogies to this problem are to be found early and late in Old Testament history. The Hebrews, persecuted by the Egyptians, cried out to God. Moses and Aaron confronted Pharaoh with God’s word of command and warning. God led the people out from under oppressive rule, to worship and serve God.

Seven hundred years later, God’s call through Jeremiah was that the people of Judah submit to Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. In a letter to the Jewish exiles already in Babylon, Jeremiah wrote: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel . . . seek the welfare (shalom) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:4,7). But in dramatic tension with this side of Jeremiah’s message, Babylon was pictured as the preeminent rebel nation, soon to be destroyed because of its arrogance and the horrors it had inflicted on other countries (Jer. 50-51). God’s people were told: “Flee from the midst of Babylon” (Jer. 50:8; 51:6). Throughout the prophetic writings, the Gentile nations too are seen as coming under judgment when they go against what God requires of them.

“In the latter days” all the nations are to come to “the mountain of the Lord” to learn, instead of war, the Torah and the word of the Lord (Isa. 2:2-4). The vision of the psalmist will be fulfilled: “All the nations thou hast made shall come / and bow down before thee, O Lord, / and shall glorify thy name” (Psa. 86:9). God’s people will not be a part but the whole, and God will rule directly over all.

Jesus lived and ministered in a politically charged social context. The Jews in Palestine were living under Roman occupation, which was generally hated as oppressive and ruthless. The Jewish power structure, centered in Jerusalem, was not simply religious but administered internal affairs under the Roman overlordship. Roman rule evoked various responses: collaboration (the Sadducees), pious quietism (the Pharisees), communal withdrawal (the Essenes), insurrection (the Zealots).

Jesus came to reveal in himself and his teaching who God is and what God does. A main part of God’s work to be taken up by the Son was described by Mary: “He has shown strength with his arm, / he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, / he has put down the mighty from their thrones, / and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:51-52). Jesus came to complete the revelation given in the Torah and the prophets (Matt. 5:17-18). His mission and his call were not just to individuals but to all Israel. He asked the entire Jewish community to turn to him as God’s representative and let their total common life be reshaped by his revelation of God’s will. He hoped that the people as a whole would give themselves to his Lordship and become for all the world what Israel in the Old Testament period was meant to be but never was. Jesus was tempted to seize political power in order to set things right in the world (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). Throughout his ministry a great many looked expectantly to him to become king in that fashion. But he rejected that possibility and the other current Jewish responses to the Roman occupation. His way was to found a new social reality, a community gathered and shaped under his Lordship.

Jesus made clear that his followers could not resort to violence and insurrection. They were to love their enemies, which in the context of that time meant especially the Roman enemies. He lived out and asked of his disciples a servant leadership, in stark contrast to the way those with political power lord it over others (Mark 10:42-45 and parallels). He could even speak harshly of unjust rulers, calling Herod “that fox” (Luke 13:32).

When a clever trap was set for Jesus about paying a tax imposed by the Romans, he answered, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17 and parallels). The first part of the saying must not be taken as something to be understood by itself or interpreted in terms of an autonomous sphere alongside that of God. Jesus was expressing the central imperative of the Torah: You, made by God in God’s image, are to give yourselves fully to God and, in your doing that, you will be enabled to discern what you can properly give to the state.

The Jewish populace as a whole did not turn to Jesus. He cried over Jerusalem: “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing, and you would not!” (Matt. 23:37). Those within the Jewish religious-political power structure rightly saw Jesus and his movement as a momentous threat to the status quo. “The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people sought to destroy him” (Luke 19:47). He was brought before Pilate and condemned to death on the political charge of seeking to become “king of the Jews” (Mark 15:26 and parallels) over against Caesar.

Jesus had come to be king, but not in the world’s pattern; he came to exercise God’s rule over all who yield to God’s truth made known in him (John 18:36-37). The first Jews who before and soon after Jesus’ death became disciples were for Israel choosing Jesus’ way and rule. This choice had political content and implications. Those disciples remained a small minority. Their choice could not set the direction for Israel. But as a fellowship within the wider unconverted society, they sought to live out the way into which God through Jesus had called all the people. And only by the power of Jesus Christ present to them through the Holy Spirit could they do that (Acts 2:37-47).

The Jewish and Roman authorities had acted to remove the threat posed by Jesus and his movement. With Jesus resurrected and alive in the midst of that new community, the threat to their power and the status quo very much continued. The response was persecution. For the early church the most striking relation to the governing authorities, first in Jerusalem and then across the Roman Empire, was that of being persecuted. When forbidden to teach about Jesus. “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). Paul spent much time in prison and was probably martyred by the Romans (2 Tim. 4:6), like so many other believers. The gospel spread partly because Christians were willing to go against the law and the state and to risk death in doing so. They gave their testimony before magistrates and kings. Paul bore such ardent witness to Jesus Christ before the provincial rulers, Felix, Festus, and Agrippa, that Agrippa said to him, “In a short time you think to make me a Christian!” (Acts 24-26).

But the relation of the early Christians to the pagan Roman authorities had also a more positive side. Paul, in seeking to avoid unjust treatment, appealed on the basis of his Roman citizenship to guarantees provided by Roman law (Acts 16:37-39; 22:25-29; 25:11). He taught that God’s intention for governing authorities is that they be “not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.” and thus “God’s servant” for people’s good. Christians, rather than entering into violent revolt against the governing authorities, are to submit to them as structures under God’s rule, to give rulers due respect, and to pray for them (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Tim. 2:1-4; cf. 1 Pet. 2:13-17).

Romans 13:1-7 should not be focused upon in isolation from its immediate context and the rest of the New Testament (as has been done through much of church history with disastrous consequences). The teaching about submission to the governing authorities comes in a context dealing with transformation away from conformity to this world, love of enemies and persecutors, the overcoming of evil with good, doing harm to no one, and the approaching end of this present age. Paul teaches that in a largely unredeemed world the state has a role conceded by God (comparable to that of Assyria and Babylon in the Old Testament), but gives no indication that disciples of Jesus can rightly take part in the wielding of violence characteristic of the state (cf. Rom. 12:19-21; 13:8-10). There is in the New Testament no command to love the nation. For the early Christians the church in mission was what loomed large as the breaking in of God’s rule on earth. Governmental structures, better or worse, were marginal to that.

Paul wrote: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God” (Eph. 6:12-13). The principalities and powers (structures and forms that shape human life, with the unseen dynamisms that energize them) were part of God’s original good intention for humanity (Col. 1:16). But as all humanity has fallen away from God, so have these structures and forms, such as religious institutions and governments. Through his death on the cross, Jesus Christ “disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (Col. 2:15). Structures that had claimed full control over all within their sway and ultimacy for themselves were exposed as misdirected, deceptive, and transient compared to the death and rising of Jesus Christ as the all-determining center of history. For those turning to this Lord, the dominating grip of those structures was broken.

In the gospels, Acts, and the epistles, meant as they were for public reading in fellowships often threatened by persecution, there is understandable caution with regard to statements about Roman authorities and the Empire. The veiled language of Revelation gives a darker view. John sees “a beast rising out of the sea . . . uttering haughty and blasphemous words,” persecuting the church, and deceiving the world’s population into worshipping it (Rev. 13). The image depicts imperial Rome, every power structure in the likeness of Rome, and the culminating manifestation of such power at the close of history. Those who in faith look to the risen Lord are to stand firm in persecution and resist the idolatrous deceptions of the beast. The rebel power structures of this world are to be finally overthrown when the One who is truly King of kings and Lord of lords comes to reign over all (Rev. 18-19). Into the resplendent new holy city “the kings of the earth shall bring their glory,” and the leaves of the tree of life within it shall be “for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 21:10).

So it is that Christians are “citizens of heaven” (Phil. 3:20). They are “strangers and exiles on the earth . . . seeking a homeland” (Heb. 11:13,14). In the midst of the world’s divisions and confusion, they are embassy and colony, representing and giving tangible intimation of God’s kingdom that is coming. They know that the central meaning of history lies, not with the imposing might, wealth, and spectacle of nations, but in “Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth” (Rev. 1:5).

Types of Church/State Relationships in Historical Perspective

Since the emergence of Christianity as an organized movement, the question of its relationship to the secular power has been both complex and controversial. As the preceding discussion of the scriptural evidence has demonstrated, the Bible itself contains a record of varied responses to a variety of governmental forms, although certain general directions can be identified. Given these variations in the biblical witness and given the varying fortunes of Christianity over the nearly two millennia since its birth—from persecution to predominant power to present-day pluralism—it is not surprising that a number of relationships between “church and state” can be identified.

Because such issues go to the heart of the self-understanding of the church and, therefore, cause passionate debate, thousands of sermons, books, articles, and essays have been devoted to them. It is impossible to do justice to all of the nuances of these issues. What is possible is to sketch some of the ways in which the church has related to the “principalities and powers” over the centuries, recognizing that drastic oversimplification is necessary because of space constraints.

General Types of Church/State Relationships

In the simplest terms, the relations between church and state can be outlined as taking one of three forms:

1) the church dominates the state (theocracy);

2) the state dominates the church (caesaro-papism);

3) the church and the state are separate and in some ways equivalent (dualism).

The following will briefly describe each of these three types and provide some historical illustrations.

The first type in which the church dominates the state is often called a theocracy. This implies that God rules through an agent or agency. The best illustration for this approach is found in the High Middle Ages when the papacy not only reigned over the Christian Church in Western Europe but also controlled political events throughout it. There were two bases for its authority: one was the large amount of land directly in the hands of the Church as a temporal ruler, land secured by bequest, donation, or conquest. Even more important was the second and theological base. Both spiritual and secular powers were derived from God and were given to the Church to control; the Church left the exercise of the secular power to the princes but still maintained control over it.

The second type in which the state dominates the church is often called caesaro-papism (the ruler is identical with the pope). A good historical illustration of this form is found in the Anglican Church of the early 16th century. The English church was coerced into submission for personal reasons by a high-handed monarch, Henry VIII, who took the title “Supreme Head of the Church of England.” Under his direction, the structure of the church was radically changed, many of the monastic institutions suppressed (with their wealth going to his courtiers), and the theology and liturgy basically transformed. The overarching authority of the papacy was rejected, with the English government becoming the final arbiter of policy and patronage. After many modifications, the system was codified as the Anglican establishment.

The third type in which the church and the state are in some ways equivalent has often been called dualism. In the Eastern Church, this approach has been described as a “harmony,” to express the understanding that both civil and church authorities were instituted by God and intended to work together in mutual support. Orthodox theology upholds this view to this day, although the heartlands of Orthodoxy lie under the domination of Islam (Northern Africa and the Near East) and Communism (Eastern Europe). Some Protestant theologians deny that there should be a distinction between the church and the state, seeing the difference merely in a different form of social organization. What is good for one ethically, is equally good for the other. Most theologians, however, hold tenaciously to the important difference between the church and the world, or, stated differently, the church and the state.

In the West since the Reformation of the 16th century, this dualism is more commonly interpreted by the doctrine of the separation of church and state. There are at least four phrases used to explain how the separation can best be expressed theologically: 1) two kingdoms or realms; 2) transformation; 3) modified separation; and 4) strict separation.

The two kingdoms or realms analogy is derived from the teachings of Martin Luther. He taught that each person lives simultaneously in two realms—the family and near neighbors on the one side, the broader society on the other. Both are under God’s order of creation. There is an appropriate ethic for each realm: agape love should be practiced in the family and with the near neighbors; an ethic of natural law, of justice and responsibility, should be practiced in the broader society, under the leadership of the prince. As a subject, each individual owes complete allegiance to the powers that be, whose sword is wielded in the service of the Lord. This theory has made for an essentially passive relationship toward the state, by the church and by members of the church.

The transformationist approach derives from the teachings of John Calvin, a later contemporary of Luther. Calvin taught that the church and the state should cooperate closely, although the two should be carefully distinguished. The church guides the state, and the state protects the church. Magistrates are considered to have God-given ministries and to be coworkers with the church’s ministers for the greater glory of God. All members of the church, as concurrently citizens of the state, are urged to seek continually to reform the state. This arrangement, however, is constantly corrupted, because of the innate tendency of all humans to sin; it needs to be transformed to a devout and just position. If the state falls under the control of a tyrant, then those Christians holding subordinate political positions have the duty to rebel and institute a new government which will fear God. This meant that Calvinists were often to be found in crusading wars, understood by them to be Holy Wars to vindicate God. This theory has made for an aggressive and active citizenry and is often related to the rise of democracy.

This approach is followed by much of mainstream Protestantism, which favors a cooperative relationship with government. It holds an interactive attitude, encouraging church members to participate in government at all levels, from voting to organized political activity to serving in public office. At the same time, it recognizes the temptations of states to become authoritarian, and therefore is alert to the church’s prophetic role.

The modified separationist theory has been put forward recently by theologians standing in the Anabaptist tradition. They point to Anabaptist leaders, such as Menno Simons and Balthasar Hubmaier, who held the view that believers could occupy certain positions of governmental service. According to this approach, the greatest contribution believers can make to the state is by practicing a kingdom ethic in the church—that is, living as if Christ had already come again. This view understands the state as instituted by God, but outside of the “perfection of Christ.” A kingdom ethic is not appropriate for the state, for it is obvious that not all citizens have pledged to live according to Christ’s high ethic and many are not Christians at all. However, most states claim to stand for justice and equality; democratic states emphasize individual freedoms and the rights of citizens before the law. Christians, using these general principles, can appropriately call the state to the state’s own ethical standards.

Beyond this, members of the church can cooperate with the state in programs that benefit people, within the borders of the state and beyond. Indeed, it is possible for Christians to serve in government for humanitarian purposes, though they recognize that the time may well come when their conscience could require them to resign if the official task requires actions repugnant to the Christian, such as the use of violence, deceit, or the denial of civil liberties.

The strict separationist approach sees church and state as entirely separate. Sociologists describe the church in this setting as sectarian, set apart from the world, in the world but definitely not of the world. Although the state is ordained by God to punish the evil and protect the good, Christians cannot participate in government because of the coercion it entails. Christians should protect their witness by not voting or involving themselves in governmental programs, even if they would benefit from them. In case of tyranny, the nonresistant Christian can only suffer, or possibly migrate to a place promising religious freedom. The Amish are a good example of this approach.

Other views of church/state relations exist. For example, some Christians believe that faith has to do only with the individual as a matter of personal salvation. Social concerns are not the business of the church; it is only at the end of the age that God’s kingdom will be implemented. On the other end of the spectrum are those who so identify the church with the society that there is no sense of tension between the values of one and those of the other. Most Protestant denominations, however, maintain some form of dualism, many locating themselves within the four options briefly described above.

Brethren Attitudes Toward Church/State Issues

The attitude of Brethren toward the state has shifted over the years. Emerging as a sectarian movement in central Germany in the early 1700s, Brethren migrated to North America in search of religious freedom and economic opportunity. For many decades Brethren were a largely rural people, cautious about involvement in the world about them. By the early 1900s Brethren had become rather fully integrated into American society and developed a more positive attitude toward civic affairs (R. E. Sappington. “Church/State Relations,” Brethren Encyclopedia, 303-313).

The first Brethren minister, Alexander Mack, Sr., in an early treatise cited Romans 13 as teaching that “the faithful . . . should be subject to the human regulations made by the authorities for the sake of the Lord, who instituted them. They should give the government taxes, imposts, honor, and respect, for all authorities are ordained of God to punish the evil, and to help to protect the good.” Yet Mack cautioned that the authorities are only to be honored “provided that they desire to carry out their offices in accordance to the will of God.” In Mack’s only extant letter, he wrote respectfully to the count of Marienborn, who had expelled a woman baptized by the Brethren. While asserting that Jesus Christ desired the baptism, Mack offered to be instructed otherwise from the scriptures. If that were impossible, and yet the Brethren were persecuted, they “would gladly suffer and bear it for the sake of the teachings of Jesus Christ.” He warned the count that he also had an immortal soul and would one day have to give an account of his stewardship “before Jesus, the supreme liege Lord, by whom he was placed in authority in his territory.” The first baptisms of the Brethren were, in fact, acts of civil disobedience because they violated the imperial laws against rebaptism (D.F. Durnbaugh, European Origins of the Brethren, 163-164, 376).

In Pennsylvania, Brethren lived for a time in a Quaker-founded colony that favored religious liberty. There is some evidence that Brethren were active in voting to maintain the Quaker dominance in the Pennsylvania legislature; it is clear that Elder Christopher Sauer II urged the German settlers in the colony to support those legislators who would preserve their liberties.

During the stresses of the American Revolution, Brethren and Mennonites directed an appeal to the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1775 which clearly articulated their view of the relation of church and state. They expressed their indebtedness to God and to the assembly for providing freedom of conscience for those who wished to “love their enemies and not to resist evil.” They agreed with the advice that they should help those in need and distressed circumstances, “it being our principle to feed the hungry and give the thirsty drink;” they had dedicated themselves “to serve all men in every thing that can be helpful to the preservation of men’s lives.” They stated their willingness to pay taxes (according to Christ’s command to Peter) and to be subject to the higher powers (according to Paul’s letter to the Romans). Still, they respectfully but firmly concluded that they were “not at liberty in conscience to take up arms to conquer our enemies, but rather to pray to God, who has power in heaven and on earth, for us and for them” (D. F. Durnbaugh, Brethren in Colonial America, 363-365).

The most direct statement in Annual Meeting minutes on the issue came in 1785, again referring to the nonresistant position. Brethren maintained that they could not “find any liberty to use any (carnal) sword, but only the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” They granted that the authorities should “bear the sword of justice, punishing the evil and protecting the good” as ministers of God. “But the sword belongeth to the kingdoms of the world, and Christ says to his disciples: ‘I have chosen you from the world.’” They concluded that “we are to submit ourselves in all things that are not contrary to the will or command of God, and no further.” This is a clear expression of a separationist form of dualism.

Several times in the 19th century Brethren were cautioned by Annual Meeting not to vote because, as was expressed in 1813, those chosen “would afterward oppress us with war.” Later, this mandate was softened to permit quiet voting, if Brethren avoided the raucous and sometimes violent electioneering (1852); members should “not betray their profession ‘of Christ’ in helping to make and serve the civil government.” Similarly, earlier Annual Meeting mandates against members serving in any governmental position were changed by 1852; members were charged to “hold no office under the civil government that would cause them to betray their faith.” This approach, discouraging political activity but not positively forbidding it “when so doing will not compromise any Gospel principles,” was reaffirmed in 1891.

It was in 1849 that John Kline expressed his understanding of true patriotism: “My highest conception of patriotism is found in the man who loves the Lord his God with all his heart and his neighbor as himself. Out of these affections spring the subordinate love for one’s country; love truly virtuous for one’s companion and children, relatives and friends; and in its most comprehensive sense takes in the whole human family. Were this love universal, the word patriotism, in its specific senses, meaning such a love for one’s country as makes its possessors ready and willing to take up arms in its defense, might be appropriately expunged from every national vocabulary.” Kline paid the price for this high concept of citizenship with his assassination in 1864 for placing service to the church before sectional loyalty.

The Annual Meeting of 1912 returned to the question of Brethren involvement in politics. While the action asserted that the citizenship of Christians as “aliens and exiles” on this earth (1 Peter 2:11) was to be in heaven, it did permissively allow voting and acceptance of public office if members were convinced “that by so doing they can more completely fill their mission in the world relative to themselves, to their fellow-men, and to God.” This sounded a more positive note about government than previously displayed. Thus, when Martin G. Brumbaugh, a Brethren minister and educator, was elected two years later as governor of Pennsylvania, the next Annual Conference praised his political role: “We pray that God may guide him in his responsible office to the end that he may be an instrument in the hands of the Master in giving to the people of this great state a clean, capable, and righteous administration of its public affairs.” This step marks the notable shift of Brethren from a separatist, sectarian position to a stance of transformation.

When the church was confronted with military conscription shortly thereafter as the United States entered World War I in 1917, Brethren reacted to the demand with a changed statement on citizenship: “Averring our loyalty to the civil authorities, and desiring to serve our country in the peaceable arts and productive industries, we commit ourselves to a constructive patriotism and loyal citizenship of real service . . . We believe in constructive patriotism; therefore, we dedicate ourselves anew, and more earnestly than before, to promotion of the great and fundamental interests of the church and state.” This revised attitude was not shared by all Brethren leaders, many of whom stood with the older separatist stance. The resulting confusion was made evident by the range of responses of Brethren men to the draft—from complete noncooperation to full military participation.

Some of the young men caught in this dilemma became the peace leaders of the denomination between the world wars. They led the church to a strong statement against war in 1934: “All war is sin. We, therefore, cannot encourage, engage in, or willingly profit from armed conflict at home or abroad. We cannot, in the event of war, accept military service or support the military machine in any capacity.” They were eager for the church to train its membership in positive efforts for peace to balance its strong opposition to war.

A classic statement of the majority Brethren posture on church/state relationship at this time was penned by church leader Paul H. Bowman. His testimony before a Congressional committee in 1940 was circulated widely under the title “Creative Citizenship.” Brethren give their first loyalty to God, he wrote, but accept constructive and creative citizenship in the state, including the exercise of suffrage and public office when “the principles of love and nonviolence are not violated.” Brethren recognize the will of the majority in determining public policy but deny that the majority should suppress the conscience of the minority. Brethren are not obstructionists but rather obedient and loyal citizens and taxpayers. Their stable families helped to shape a strong nation. In time of war Brethren are eager to sacrifice for peace in ways amenable to their conscientious principles: They would serve only in a manner that maintains social welfare. In short, they would wage peace, not war.

Bowman was the first Brethren administrator of a striking program of cooperation between church and state—the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program of World War II, designed to provide work of “national importance” for conscientious objectors. The Historic Peace Churches (Friends, Mennonites, and Brethren) administered large numbers of camps under the Selective Service umbrella, occasioning heavy financial burdens, often with work projects directed by government officials. Although many problems developed over the years of CPS operation (1941-1947), most in the churches accepted the compromise as an improvement over the conditions obtaining in 1917-1918. A statement of the Church of the Brethren on CPS in 1945 reaffirmed the position that “Christian citizenship implies full support of the state only insofar as it represents good government and the righteous will of God. We realize that the total rejection of government on the one hand means anarchy and that the unquestioned acceptance of the authority of the state on the other hand means tyranny and totalitarianism. The Christian citizen must take his position somewhere between these extremes. The Brethren accept the will of God as the supreme authority for the individual and deny to the state the right to violate personality or restrain religious faith and practice.”

This position was reaffirmed in 1948 (reiterated in 1957, 1968, and 1970) in an updating of the conference statement on war: “As Christian citizens we consider it our duty to obey all civil laws which do not violate these higher laws ‘of God.’ We seek, however, to go beyond the demands of law, giving time, effort, life, and property in a ministry to human needs without regard to race, creed, or nationality. We attempt to reconcile conflicting persons and groups, leading them toward fuller human brotherhood under a common divine allegiance.”

During the Korean War, the alternative service program featured independent church administration of men recognized by the government as conscientious objectors who chose to work through the Brethren. This avoided many of the CPS dilemmas, but was likely possible only because of the earlier arrangement. The 1960s brought the Vietnam war, and more sweeping criticisms by some members of the extent of church collaboration with the government. Turmoil in the nation was reflected in sharp disagreements within the church on the limits of cooperation with the government’s war aims.

A fundamental statement on “The Church, the State, and Christian Citizenship” was approved by Annual Conference in 1967. Calling for a separation between church and state not of concerns but of institutions, the text read in part: “The state should guarantee religious liberty, protect freedom of conscience, permit dissent, and avoid all favoritism among sects or creeds. The church ministers to the state when it teaches responsible citizenship, encourages qualified members to enter public life, reminds the government of its accountability to God as sovereign, fosters public support for policies consistent with Christian humanitarian concerns, and rallies opposition to policies inconsistent with such concerns. It is important that church and state each observe its own proper role as they find points of cooperation in the service of mankind.”

The church, moreover, is to be concerned about the fate of the world and its inhabitants because of two convictions about God: God is sovereign and God is loving. The church affirms the purposes of the state as a necessary instrument “for maintaining order, securing justice and freedom, and promoting the general welfare,” but also holds that the state is limited by the prior and greater sovereignty of God. “While the state may demand reasonable obedience, it may not demand absolute obedience, which belongs to God.” At times church members will find themselves in conflict with the claims of the state.

In addition, the church ministers to the state in two ways, corporately and through its individual members. Corporately, the church should address public issues, ordinarily by formulating general policy statements, recognizing as it does so the complexity of such issues. The church also speaks through its programs, policies, and ministry to human suffering. Individual church members should be informed and active citizens, voting wisely and serving in public office as a “significant channel for witnessing to Christian values.” Members should ordinarily support the state but be alert to those occasions when principled and open disobedience to the state’s demands are required in faithfulness.

This question received detailed treatment in a controversial statement on civil disobedience, accepted by the Annual Conference of 1969 with a two-thirds majority. Adopting language of the 1967 paper on competing levels of expected loyalty, the statement asserted that for Christians “obedience to God comes as their first and highest responsibility, their supreme loyalty, their positive beginning point, their plumb-line for decision making.” When the state defers to this prior allegiance by not demanding absolute loyalty, “obedience to civil authority can be consonant then with Christian faithfulness.”

Civil disobedience may be “reactive” or “initiatory,” that is, coming in response to government demands (occurring most often in Brethren history) or introduced to serve human need caused by unjust laws and policies (seen most commonly in civil rights cases). The statement went into detail on balancing order and freedom in the church, on effecting placement of responsibility, and on establishing guidelines for open and nonviolent civil disobedience. This should take place with an attitude of basic support for the state in its legitimate functions, only as a last resort, and with acceptance of ensuing consequences.

A test case of this position paper came soon in the 1970 revision of the church’s statement on war, which added a pledge of support for draft-age members who choose not to cooperate with conscription. Numerous complaints about that section led to a study committee on noncooperation, whose report of interpretation and clarification was accepted by Annual Conference in 1973. The report upheld the language and intent of the 1970 action, and emphasized the importance that disobedience be open, nonviolent, and within a framework of support for government.

Several Conference actions of the 1970s reflected positions of the denomination consonant with the 1967 statement on church/state cooperation, often calling on the US government to take specific actions: These included farm issues, criminal justice reform, public school problems, taxation, use of firearms, and refugees. A similar range of issues was addressed by Annual Conferences of the 1980s, covering such issues as nuclear disarmament, conscription, war taxes, sanctuary for refugees from Latin America, genetic engineering, conditions of childhood, gambling, the death penalty, covert war, and election year responsibilities.

The acceptance of these issues on the agendas of the Church of the Brethren conferences may indicate that most Brethren accept a view of church/state relations based on cooperation and mutual respect. Yet, there are also many indications that Brethren are not united in their views of the correct relationships between the two. In the late 1980s Brethren hold mixed attitudes; the two-kingdom, the transformationist, the modified separationist, and the strict separationist theories can all be identified among the membership. A judgment based only on Annual Conference statements in the 20th century would incline to the view that the majority of Brethren support a transformationist view on church/state relations. However, those statements do not always represent the totality of Brethren viewpoints. The concern of the present query itself is evidence of the pluralism of belief on this crucial question.

Implications for the Life of the Church

Although considerable diversity about the correct relation of church and state has been identified in the history of Christianity in general and of the Brethren in particular, there are many biblically based principles upon which agreement can be found. As we focus our attention on the basic principles upon which Brethren agree, we will be brought closer together and will attain greater unity on future decisions.

The following affirmations are directly relevant to the church’s understanding of its proper relationship to the state.

1. God is sovereign over the entire world, thus, is ruler over both church and state. The state is under God and is to be “God’s servant” to order the interrelationships of human beings, to restrain evil, and to promote good (Rom. 13:3-4). Even when there is little or no recognition of God’s sovereignty, the state in all that it does is still accountable to God and what God requires. The church should see itself and the nation under the judgment of God.

2. God has given Jesus Christ as Lord of all. The church lives in recognition of this Lordship (Acts 10:36; Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:2; Phil. 2:11)—or dies apart from that. Jesus Christ came as the Light for all the world (John 1:9, 8:12). Christians together as the body of Christ in the world are called to reflect that Light. So it is that Jesus’ declaration, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14), is central to the Sermon on the Mount. In Jesus Christ “all things were created in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16). The New Testament record is clear that when this Lordship was challenged, Christ’s followers chose to suffer rather than to deny his authority.

Therefore, while Christians are subject to the governing authorities (Rom. 13:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:13-14), they are not unquestioningly obedient and supportive (Acts 5:29-32). The church must decisively resist the drive by the nation-state to draw primary loyalty to itself, to claim for itself uncritical support, and to co-opt the church into being the servile sanctifier of the nation. Christians together in the church are to strive to let their views on political and social issues be shaped and determined by the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5-8; 1 Cor. 2:16; Rom. 12:1-2) rather than by dominant societal attitudes.

3. The church is the primary earthly agent of God’s continuing activity in history. To the church the risen Lord gave the supremely important task: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). For Christians, the life and mission of the church under the Lordship of Jesus Christ is what counts most, not the survival, direction, and dealings of the nation-state (Eph. 1). In the New Testament view, the state has the secondary role of maintaining a social structure within which the ministry and witness of the church can freely proceed. The church should not suppose that the deepest human problems can be solved by programs and policies of the state or that trying to influence the governing authorities is the main route toward a better world.

4. The church is called to be the one united body of Christ throughout the world. Christians and the churches in any particular country must see that for them the crucial larger unity is not the nation-state but the worldwide church of Jesus Christ, which represents the oneness of all humanity intended by God (John 17:20-23; Psa. 102:15; Rev. 7:9-12). They are not to accept the dividing walls of hostility (Eph. 2:15) erected by the nations but are to live out and manifest the oneness of God’s people around the world. With that global vision the church intercedes for all the human family and for the leaders of all the nations that there may be peace rather than repression, violence, and war (1 Tim. 2:1-2).

5. The purpose of the church is to witness to others that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and that Christians are in turn agents of this reconciliation. The call to turn to Jesus Christ as Savior and live under his Lordship is the church’s message to all (2 Cor. 5:19), including those in government (Acts 24-26). Within the wider, unconverted society Christians together in the church should seek to live the life into which God through Jesus calls all people. Because God’s love in the church reaches out to all, the church is necessarily concerned about the state, those in its structure, and those whose lives it affects. All witness to the state and persons in government should be in a spirit of respect and love, especially when there is strong criticism of what the state is doing (Rom. 13:7; 1 Pet. 2:17).

6. The witness of the church will be credible to the extent that it is consistent in proclamation and practice. The evangelistic outreach of the church will be appealing to others to the degree that its message and life are in agreement (Matt. 23:1-3, James 2:14-17). In the same way, the testimony of the church to the state will more likely have the desired impact when it derives directly from the basic tenets of the church and the predominant practice of its members. Thus, the witness of the church must be representative of the church’s clear conviction.

7. Political involvement of Christians stands under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Sincere Christians may disagree as to how far this involvement should go. Some will limit it to voting or to testifying about their beliefs before government officials; others will advocate full participation in the political process, including the holding of public office. At whatever level this involvement takes place, it should be based on careful weighing of its effect on the prior allegiance of the Christian to Jesus Christ and to his church. The shared discernment of other Christians in the church’s fellowship is needed in making these decisions.

8. Christians and the church are called at times to speak a prophetic word to the state. When the state is doing things that negate and deny God’s will as revealed in Jesus Christ and the Bible, Christians must speak out, doing so in love and respect for those engaged in wrongdoing and for those being wronged (Eph. 4:15). When the state is doing things which move in the general direction of God’s will and way (human well-being, justice, and peace), Christians can give support and commendation. Most decisively they are to step back from alignment with and participation in the violence of the state, violence that could now destroy God’s earthly creation. “Public policy statements of the Church of the Brethren should reflect a sensitivity toward the various viewpoints held by Brethren so that these statements can have a unifying effect.”

9. Governments should adhere to the principles of separation of church and state, religious freedom, and protection of individual conscience. The civil government has neither right nor authority to prescribe religious belief or mandate religious observance. Also, no church can expect to use the coercive power of the state to impose its particular system of beliefs and values upon those who have not freely accepted that church’s discipline. This does not mean that there should be neither cooperation nor contact between the church and the state. The state should follow a stance of “benevolent neutrality,” which recognizes the contribution religious bodies make, without unfairly favoring one religious group over others; the church, for its part, should maintain a posture of support for all rightful exercise of governmental functions. Of particular importance in this connection is the state’s willingness to recognize the rights of conscientious objectors to war.

Those Christians living in the United States of America gladly support the civil rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, acknowledging at the same time that basic human rights are not simply granted by the state but rather derive from a prior legitimation by God. Where such basic rights are not recognized and enjoyed, Christians should call for their establishment in law and practice, supporting the efforts of those seeking by nonviolent means to secure them. The church should give thanks when not repressed or persecuted and stand with those who are.


Actions such as the following will be helpful in creating greater unity and understanding within the church about the concerns of this statement. As the church and its members implement these suggestions, it will be especially important to bear in mind the attitudes and skills outlined in the recommendation adopted by the 1988 Annual Conference for handling controversial business items. This recognizes the fact that most problems encountered in dealing with church/state issues can cause polarization in the church. As the church becomes more successful in resolving serious conflicts within its own body, it will become more persuasive in its witness to the broader society.

The Annual Conference recommends the following actions:

1. Study of this statement by congregations and individual members.

2. Preaching of sermons on the biblical foundations of the church’s stance in regard to the state.

3. Research and instruction by teachers in church and public school and professors in church-related and other institutions on basic issues of church/state relationships.

4. Preparation and distribution by the General Board of a study guide or packet on church/state issues for use by congregations and individual members.

5. Inclusion of units devoted to discussion of church/state issues in curriculum materials.

6. Holding retreats in which representatives from Brethren groups with differing views on church/state issues come together for study, discussion, and prayer.

7. Publication by the General Board of a guide to recent Annual Conference statements and General Board resolutions on church/state issues, to facilitate their study and use.

8. Study of helpful literature on the subject of church and state, such as provided in the accompanying list.

9. Encouragement of church members to inform themselves about the workings of government and the issues confronting it.

10. Participation by individual Brethren in a variety of programs and actions that put into practice the principles articulated above under “Implications.”

Donald F. Durnbaugh, Chair
Dale H. Aukerman
Louise D. Bowman


Dale Aukerman, Darkening Valley: A Biblical Perspective on Nuclear War. New York: The Seabury Press, 1981.

John C. Bennett, Christians and the State. New York: Scribner’s, 1956.

Hendrik Berkhof, Christ and the Powers. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1962.

Dale Brown, Biblical Pacifism: A Peace Church Perspective. Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Press, 1986.

Oscar Cullmann, The State in the New Testament. London: SCM Press, 1957.

D. F. Durnbaugh, ed., On Earth Peace: Discussions on War/Peace Issues Between Friends, Mennonites, Brethren, and European Churches 1935-1975. Elgin, Ill.: The Brethren Press, 1978.

Vernard Eller, Christian Anarchy: Jesus’ Primacy Over the Powers. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.

Duane Friesen, Mennonite Witness on Peace and Social Concerns: 1900-1980. Akron, Pa.: Mennonite Central Committee, 1982.

Donald F. Kraybill, Our Star-Spangled Faith. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1976.

Thomas G. Sanders, Protestant Concepts of Church and State. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964.

John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.

John Howard Yoder, Christian Witness to the State. Newton, Kansas: Faith and Life Press, 1964.

List of Related Annual Conference and General Board Statements/Resolutions

1967 Statement on the Church, the State, and Christian Citizenship

1967 Statement on the Renewal of Peace Witness

1967 GB Statement on Taxes for War Purposes

1968 Statement of the Church of the Brethren on War

1968 Statement to Leaders of the United States Government

1968 GB Statement on Food for Peace

1969 Statement on Obedience to God and Civil Disobedience

1970 Statement of the Church of the Brethren on War

1971 Statement on Health and Welfare Program

1973 Statement on Noncooperation

1973 Statement on the Christian’s Response to Taxation for War

1973 GB Resolution on Welfare Reform

1974 Statement on the Church and Farm Issues

1975 Statement on Criminal Justice Reform

1976 Statement on Alcohol

1977 Statement on Christian Ethics, Law, and Order

1977 Statement on the Church’s Responsibility for Justice and Nonviolence

1977 Statement on Ethical Teachings of Jesus in Public Schools

1978 Statement on Violence and the Use of Firearms

1979 Resolution to Action in the Refugee Crisis of Southeast Asia

1980 Resolution on the Time So Urgent: Threats to Peace

1980 GB Statement on the Use of Peace in Foreign Policy

1981 GB Resolution on Justice for Japanese-American World War II Internees

1982 Statement on a Call to Halt the Nuclear Arms Race

1982 Statement of Reaffirmation of Opposition to War and Conscription for Military Training

1983 Statement on Alternative Service Registration

1983 Statement on War Tax Consultation

1983 Resolution on Providing Sanctuary for Latin American and Haitian Refugees

1984 Statement on General Board Property as Nuclear Free Zones

1985 Statement on Guidance in Relation to Genetic Engineering

1985 Statement on the Rural Community in Crisis

1986 Resolution on Making the Connection

1987 Resolution on A Quest for Order

1987 Statement on the Position on Gambling

1987 Statement on the Death Penalty

1988 Statement on Covert Operations and Covert War

1988 Resolution on Responsible Citizenship in an Election Year

Committee’s expenses related to travel, lodging, and meals from 1987 to March 15, 1989 total, $1,700.

Estimated additional expenses, $700.

Action of the 1989 Annual Conference

The report of the Annual Conference study committee, Church and State was made by Donald F. Durnbaugh. The report was adopted with three additions by the committee and one amendment from the delegate body, all of which have been incorporated in the wording of the preceding text.