Saturday, January 03, 2015

Why the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession Is An Important Document For The Church Today

The Anabaptists were known for many things but one thing that they were not known for is the writing of voluminous tomes on theology and extensive confessions of faith. Apparently it is hard to do that when you are on the run, in hiding and being murdered by your fellow "Christians" with such regularity. One rare exception to this rule occured in 1527 with the adoption of the Schleitheim Confession. It is worth noting that one of the primary figures involved in this was Michael Sattler who was subsequently arrested shortly after the Confession was adopted and murdered by Roman Catholic authorities in a most gruesome manner....

 ". . . Michael Sattler ... shall be committed to the executioner. The latter shall take him to the square and there first cut out his tongue, then forge him fast to a wagon and there with glowing iron tongs twice tear pieces from his body, then on the way to the site of the execution five times more as above and then burn his body to powder as an arch-heretic."

Remember that those who condemned him and tortured him to death in this way were allegedly Christians.

While Sattler died for the faith, he did providentially leave behind his work on the Schleitheim Confession. One area I want to look at briefly is the section concerning the use of the sword and the reasoning therein as to why Christians should not serve as "magistrates", roughly analogous to serving as elected officials in our system of government.

Finally it will be observed that it is not appropriate for a Christian to serve as a magistrate because of these points: The government magistracy is according to the flesh, but the Christian's is according to the Spirit; their houses and dwelling remain in this world, but the Christian's are in heaven; their citizenship is in this world, but the Christian's citizenship is in heaven; the weapons of their conflict and war are carnal and against the flesh only, but the Christian's weapons are spiritual, against the fortification of the devil. The worldlings are armed with steel and iron, but the Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God. In brief, as in the mind of God toward us, so shall the mind of the members of the body of Christ be through Him in all things, that there may be no schism in the body through which it would be destroyed. For every kingdom divided against itself will be destroyed. Now since Christ is as it is written of Him, His members must also be the same, that His body may remain complete and united to its own advancement and upbuilding.

The essence of the argument, a sound one I believe, is that the means and methods of the world are of the flesh while the means and method of the Kingdom is of the Spirit and incompatible. As such it is impossible for a Christian to faithfully serve a magistrate as it requires us to employ the methods of the flesh when we are to walk in the Spirit. In our culture this seems an awfully strange teaching to be sure. We love the halls of power, the uniform and the gun, the American flag waving next to the "Christian flag" on the dais of our church. The Anabaptists recognized, correctly, that our calling as followers of the Prince of Peace, the sheep of the Good Shepherd, makes it incompatible for us to seek to serve Caesar and the King at the same time, an unequal yoking that has always been disastrous for the church, from Constantine to the perverse state-church in Europe for a millennium to the wars of religion between states all the way to the ill-advised quasi-religious war waged by President George W. Bush on Iraq.

This came to mind for me recently when reading about the latest GOP politician seeking to invoke religious language in support of a secular political campaign, Jindal for POTUS (Preacher of the US). The author Rod Dreher quotes the announcement of a "group meditation", whatever that is, hosted by Louisina Governor Bobby Jindal, a man with well know Presidential aspirations:

Gov. Bobby Jindal will host a mass prayer rally on the LSU campus in January called “The Response,” sponsored by the American Family Association, a conservative Christian group based out of Mississippi.

American Family is covering the cost of the event, scheduled for 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. on Jan. 24 at the Maravich Assembly Center. The mass meeting is billed as a group meditation — a response, if you will — to the multiple crises facing the country.

“What we really need in these United States is a spiritual revival. … It is time to turn back to God,” said Jindal in a video invitation to The Response. “It’s time to light the spark that starts the spiritual revival that will put these United States of America back on the right path.”

It is worth noting here, as Dreher does, that Jindal is a Roman Catholic but the language he uses seems specifically designed to appeal to an evangelical audience. I am sure that is just coincidental.

Perhaps as some have suggested Jindal is sincere in his hope for revival. I am skeptical and not just for his motivations but also because revival implies that there is something to revive and the mythical "Christian nation" of days of yore is just that, a myth. You can't turn a nation that consists of, and has always consisted of, a mix of believers and unbelievers (in a ratio that I suspect is heavily skewed toward the unbelieving column) back to something it never was in the first place. I am going to quote Dreher at length because what he writes echoes what I have long suspected and have been saying (emphasis mine):

Here’s the thing. I bet there’s not much distance between Bobby Jindal and me about the need for a spiritual revival in America. I bet we share the same moral views about most things. But I find it exasperating that once again, a Republican politician is conflating his own political ambitions with the Gospel, and once again, a prominent Religious Right organization is conflating the Gospel with the ambitions of a Republican politician.

Jindal’s people are saying that this will not be a political rally, but one that focuses solely on matters of the spirit. Nonsense. Anything involving the governor of a state, especially one who is widely believed to be planning a run for the White House, is political. And we have the Rick Perry precedent. It seems that Jindal is trying to become the standard-bearer of the Evangelical-fundamentalist wing of the GOP. I don’t think Jindal has, well, a prayer of being the GOP nominee, but he’s angling for the No. 2 slot on the ticket. If he can deliver the Religious Right bloc, that’s something.

I am not an Evangelical, nor am I a fundamentalist, but I am a religious and social conservative who certainly would like to have a president who shared my beliefs and concerns. But one of the biggest mistakes we Christian conservatives make is thinking that electing politicians who share our views is going to straighten the country out. How many times do we have to learn this lesson? It doesn’t work, and only serves to make the world think that the Body of Christ is the Republican Party at prayer. I’m not all that worried about religion corrupting politics (and any liberals who are ought to first pluck the log of liberal religious political activism out of their own eyes), because religious believers, progressive and conservative alike, have a right to bring their faith to the public square.

I’m worried about politics corrupting religion, which has been a particular problem on the Right. I’m worried about politics corrupting the way American society sees the Christian faith, but I’m more worried about politics corrupting the way American Christians see our faith. Bobby Jindal is not helping. Ronald Reagan didn’t die for our sins, and though we should hope and pray for righteous leaders, no president of the United States can take away the sin of the world.

The crux of the matter is this: it is impossible for someone to be simultaneously calling for revival while at the same time holding secular political office without seeming to be using the faithful to advance his own personal agenda. In fact the cynic in me assumes that this is less a serious call for revival and more a crass political move designed to sucker the faithful, or at least the religious, into voting for him. This cynical manipulation is quite apparent to the world and whether we admit it or not it negatively impacts our witness as the church in the same way that our opulent buildings and shyster televangelists do. I would dare say that our overly politicized religious system is one of the great impediments to the Gospel proclamation in this society. Even when we are "right" on a political or economic issue, our insistence on trying to "baptize" that issue makes both our secular argument and our sacred witness weaker to the intended audience.

Well that isn't our problem, that is the pagans problem! This is America, we have rights! Actually it is our problem and it is a problem that we have been dealing with for quite some time. We want to have worldly power and influence and reach people for the Gospel but the reality is that when we make our politics and our faith indistinguishable we destroy our credibility. We cannot serve two masters and we must not be unequally yoked. The calling of the Kingdom is all-compassing and has no room for split loyalties. Anything that is a stumbling block to the Gospel is a hindrance to be avoided.

We are heading for a major political clash in 2016 and the game is afoot. Politicians are already jockeying for position on both sides, with Hillary Clinton the presumptive nominee for the Democrats with far left candidates like Elizabeth Warren testing the waters as well and on the GOP side a cast of thousands trying to find that niche that will get them the nomination, if not the Presidency (Jeb Bush? Mitt Romney 2.0? Seriously?). You can be sure that the next six months are going to see an unprecedented push to get the "evangelical vote", with many a political figure invoking language designed to convey that they are "one of us", even when they are (like Mitt Romney) most definitely not "one of us" if by "us" we mean Christians. This is a time for healthy cynicism and a time to remember that our calling is not to seize the reins of power but to preach from the margins in a position of weakness. It is also a time to look back and remember our brethren who recognized and rejected the seductive pull of earthly power and chose instead the way of the cross, choosing the towel and basin over the sword.


Aussie John said...


Excellent thoughts and very applicable to Australia's political scene, both Federal and State!

Anonymous said...

This is quite thought provoking. Definitely explains the commitment that many Mennonites share in not dividing themselves by voting today.