The Need for an Anabaptist Political Theology

After reading this piece in Christianity today, a few things stuck out to me.

One is that I have a serious and deep suspicion that many fellow disciples are lacking a coherent set of principles guiding their decisions about how to engage with society. That is, if I were a betting man, I would place an inordinate sum of money on the wager that I could predict a Christian’s political views without knowing anything about their particular beliefs about Scripture. Why? Because we do a sloppy job of thinking through this issue in general, and because, as the article above shows, only 1% of theologically conservative Protestant Pastors have preached at least one sermon on a public policy issue in 2016. I don’t know if I would fall into that class if I were a pastor, but I certainly know plenty of pastors who would. How is that statistic possible when, at this particular juncture, almost all American Christians are going to be getting hammered with political opinion on issues that are not simply about “elections”, but about the intimate details of their daily lives from their workplace, schools, family, and culture at large? The answer, I think, is the lack of a political theology.

Kenneth Collins in his book “Power, Politics, and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism” expresses this lack of a deeply integrated worldview for Christians in the present when compared with Christians in prior eras:

…traditional societies, medieval Christendom in Europe for example, were held together by the common ties of a carefully articulated political theology, with its robust belief in God, as well as by a philosophy of history that went back at least to the time of Augustine in his City of God….

Now, I strongly side with the Anabaptists of the 16th century, so I would unquestionably reject the medieval synthesis (as well as Collins’ own positions on this matter, though his book and analysis are excellent in many respects!), but what is to replace this? Catholicism has maintained its’ theological heritage on a synthesis of church, sword, and state (and has, to my knowledge, never taken an outrightly pacifist ethic) that, in my opinion, makes it untenable for the needs of the 21st century. Its’ ecclesiology is also still a far cry from the reforms called for from the dawn of Protestantism. Still, at least they have an idea of what they’re going for! What options do Protestant Christians, let’s say particularly in America today, have before them?

One option I see frequently expressed and say strongly “Not enough!”, is that Christians in a democratic state are free to engage with the political process, but they should not think that any particular way of ordering the society is better than any other. I might think we should help the poor by a just redistribution of taxes and government programs to alleviate fallen conditions of our society, and you think that our current structures of governance make it impossible to address the root causes of poverty and think that a laissez-faire market (one that is truly free, not the modern capitalist accommodation) would more quickly alleviate such issues. But, neither option is more “Christian”, because Christ never gave us a way of making these decisions. Yet, are we really supposed to think that Scripture-at-large has nothing to say about this question?

If there is no answer to this question, what makes it “unanswerable”? Take for example the more general question: “How can we best serve the poor?” Does scripture give us no ability to answer that? The two opinions I expressed above are possible answers to that question for any Christian. So, if scripture gives us any light on this, then it offers answers to questions which all the world would give”political” answers to, and so it is that scripture inevitably inserts itself into the social dimensions of earthly life, the “political” dimensions.

All of this is to say that the glib pronouncement of an “agreement to disagree” between Christians of all political persuasions will not move the Church further into its’ God-given kingdom mission. It will not stop laymen and laywomen from engaging, or not engaging, and it will not help them live more faithfully. What is needed is a deeper, consistent, radical call to a political theology informed by the New Testament. I have found this nowhere better expressed than by the Radical Reformers, and it is why I consider the writings of many 16th century Anabaptists to be a treasure trove for our modern predicament. In the next few months I hope to write more specifically on issues that are pressing in my particular, American, context, but thought that this general beginning is necessary to understand what kind of questions I’m thinking about.

…as Christ our Head is minded, so also must be minded the members of the body of Christ through Him, so that there be no division in the body, through which it would be destroyed. Since then Christ is as is written of Him, so must His members also be the same, so that His body may remain whole and unified for its own advancement and upbuilding. For any kingdom which is divided within itself will be destroyed.
Schleitheim Confession, 1527

Reflection: Politics in the Kingdom

As a young adult inspired by the Radical Reformation, I’m still in-process of establishing certain compasses in my life. One that seems pressing however, is my engagement with this country’s political process. From the school board to the White House, the question seems like an important one where not taking a position is the same as a position. Unfortunately, it would be foolish, misunderstood, and a big waste of time, to simply say “what I’m for”, without clearing the deck. So, before I state the few fixed points that reflecting on that question as a follower of Jesus has lead me to, here are a few alternative postures towards politics that I have ruled-out:

1. Headlong: This is to believe that (whether you have a dispensational-apocolyptic eschatology or a mainline progressive one) until that end arrives, the Christian way  is to strenuously spend yourself in creating law structures in order for them to be conducive to human flourishing, or, if you’d like, justice.

2. Hands-off: To believe that we should quite simply obey the law of any land we find ourselves in, never engage political systems, and focus exclusively on witnessing to Christ’s love and salvation.

3. Halfway Here, Halfway There: This, to be honest, is the posture I’m trying to abandon. At its’ heart, it is to not have any comprehensive principles or guiding rules that dictate under what circumstance and in what ways a follower of Jesus should engage in social construction. It is a “nominal” approach, and will more than likely just result in the particular Christian reflecting the views that you would expect them to given their age, upbringing, and particular theological tradition.

For example, I’d expect a second generation Latin-American like myself, given my upbringing in a Spanish-speaking charismatic church, loose familiarity with Guatemala’s political history, and large parts of my education occurring in private evangelical schools, to track with what we call “political conservatives” on issues of personal morality, and to track with “progressives” on issues of economic and foreign policy. But it is almost a sure-fire sign of unfaithfulness when Christians largely fit the mold that any political statistician would predict for them. If the salt has lost its’ saltiness, how can it be made useful again? I invite you to be reflective on this point. A good indicator of whether this is true for you is simply to look around and see how many of your acquaintances largely say and believe the same things you do.

Now, why are these un-Christian postures towards politics anyway?

What I mean by un-Christian is simply that Christ would not live like that. If you’re a Christian (and I do believe this means more than just “act like Christ”, but that’s another post), then, according to the sense in which that word was first used, you should live like Jesus.

The first posture is un-Christian because, if we understand the nature of laws, Jesus gave it a de-construction: “my kingdom is not of this world [note that He did not say ‘is not in this world’], if it were, my servants would fight to prevent me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders”. If there was ever an injustice, it was Christ’s crucifixion, and if Christ bases the lack of his servants fighting against that injustice on the very source and nature of His kingdom, then no injustice can retrieve that kind of fight and justify it as kingdom-work. That fight, which in first-century Palestine was a fight that necessarily would have involved physical combat, is at the very basis of law. Put simply, the only way to enforce a government’s law, is with a gun at the hip. The most beautiful, just, rational law exists with the implicit clause “and if you disobey, you will be forced to comply or to endure the prescribed punishment”. Thus, to fight for a law as a Christian (which, if you’re a follower of Jesus, everything you do is as a Christian) is to fight in a way that Christ tied to the kingdoms “of this world”.

The second posture allows me to nuance the sense of “political”. While it is impossible for humans to live in community without any agreed-upon norms, systems of production, and mutual love (part of this is what politics is engaged in), it is not impossible for humans to live together without any designated individual or group of individuals having the authority of force to keep everyone in-line with the agreed-upon norm. This second posture assumes that the first rejection of “politics”, in the sense of attempting to rule-over, entails rejection of the pursuit of community. How we could do the latter without the former is what I hope to hint at. As a side note, this is also why an explicit commitment to pacifism in the church is important to me. The church is a community with an authority structure, one that could grow to the point that we use the same reasoning that sanctions state-force, in the church, or that only keeps the distinction in theory (as has happened many times in history).

The third posture would be exemplified by me in 2012. I was passionate about speaking against American military aggression and economic manipulation, and found these two passions reflected in the campaign of presidential candidate Ron Paul. Were there other aspects of his policies that may have conflicted with my understanding of Jesus’ teaching? Yes! Didn’t I think that Christian stances toward foreigners should be hospitality and not closed borders? Yes! But if those two issues were as important as I believed (and still believe) they were, then details aside, the point is I acted on the basis of pragmatics. “In an ideal world, maybe followers of Jesus would do such-and-such, but it’s not an ideal world, so there goes that”, so I thought. This third posture is perhaps the most frequent one I encounter.

What is the alternative here? I do not have a pat-answer, but here are a few things I have thought about for a long time now, and will live by them until convinced otherwise.

1) The Kingdom of God is not “of this world” but it is tangibly “in this world”, and this means that Christians should be wholly invested in their faith-family’s missions. Those missions should be wholly invested, in all-encompassing way, in creating a flourishing community via conversion, education, health, economics,, without lobbying for the institution of any particular law. That is, just do the Great Commission remembering that Jesus said “teaching them to obey all I have commanded you”.

2) A tangible and effective way of engaging issues of justice is to undo, resist, and scale-back unjust and oppressive laws. There is a clear and definite distinction between creating and imposing a law, and abolishing a law. The abolishment of a law requires no “enforcement”, for obvious reasons. This would, perhaps, also justify reducing the severity of a laws demands.

While what I’ve said above runs very strongly against the grain of a large portion of “social justice” activism, and may even seem absurd when applied to certain problems. But it stands on actual ethical norms set by Christ, and the considerations I mentioned above seem clear as day to me. Still, they leave a huge arena of social-action open to the church, while preventing the church from taking the power of the state into its’ own hands. All this being said, I find great hope in the low-rumblings of Christians taking Anabaptist conceptions of the church, discipleship, and peace more seriously. This is a moment of opportunity that I pray the Spirit turns into a great movement in Christ’s church.

Christian Engagement in Elections: Interview with Ethicist Dr. David Gill

There are innumerable voices chiming-in on what/how/who to vote for, and on this “big” day in the election cycle it’s appropriate to take a few minutes to think deeply and critially bout what we’re doing if/when we engage in politics, especially if you claim to be a follower of Jesus. To this end, I interviewed Dr. David Gill, the Director of the Mockler Center and Mockler-Phillips Professor of Workplace Theology and Business Ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He is an expert in organizational ethics, helping businesses as an ethics consultant and trainer through EthixBiz, and is President of the International Jacques Ellul Society. Dr. Gill is the author of seven books, and you can find out more about all of his work at his website, I started with asking about Gill’s scholarly work on Sociologist Jacques Ellul, especially since Ellul held some radical views which, I think, should have more of an ear for Christians who take their faith seriously.

You’re the foremost scholar on Jacques Ellul’s work, and his writings on anarchy have been really interesting to me. For the sake of any reader’s not familiar with how that word could mean anything positive, how does Ellul define anarchy?

Ellul believes that the nation-state has become an idol, a false god to which people look for just about everything.  He believes that in the east and west, no matter what the ideology (Communist, Capitalist, Muslim, etc.) this is the case.  Thus “anarchism” — meaning resistance to the growth of the state (any state) — is the only serious position.   Most political activity is an “illusion” because it is all heat and no light, all propaganda but no real change in direction or daily life.   He is not an anarchist of the type wo believes in unshackling naturally “good” human beings.  No, people are sinful so there can be no naïve anarchist “Eden.”  He is a “realist”, not a utopian.  It is a strategic position, not an ideological one.   I think he has some good points but is too pessimistic.  The growth of the state is required by the growth of corporate economic and political power; a big state is needed to stand up to predatory capitalism.  But the big state is corrupted as well.

What connection does this idea have to Christian scripture?

Ellul thinks that the Bible counsels resistance to the authority of the earthly state in calling for absolute loyalty to the kingdom of God.

Does this idea inform your own perspective on politics? If so, how?

Yes.  I especially like to see local communities empowered to manage their own affairs.  Community policing, rejection of national educational standards etc. Most of what I consider my political life is in my neighborhood and local organization.  Still, unlike Ellul, I do vote.  I don’t expect much to change as a result but I am a voter sent by God into the world as it is, not as I would like it to be.  I try to vote for candidates and laws that care for my fellow citizens.  I do not have a politics of illusion, or fear, or violence.

As this presidential election cycle heats up, the typical perspectives among Christians on politics inevitably surface. Some think that we should launch ourselves headlong into the foray, others simply disengage, how do you think Christians should engage with elections in particular?

Jacques Ellul thought that it was inevitable and even in some ways desirable that Christians would be in all political movements and parties — but that we should always be there not as their “Amen corner” but as representatives of the Kingdom of God.  I agree.

I came across an essay you wrote in 2008 on “Political Illusions and Realities“, where you said “the actual directions of our society and world are set by…deeper forces of technique, bureaucratization, the globalizing-technological-corporate economic order, the desperate search for survival, social order, and meaning by Islamic societies, and so on.” Which of these forces do you see most at the forefront in America today? 

I think American politics are almost entirely captured by big money expressed in campaign contributions and propaganda playing on people’s fear and ignorance.

How does that play into the way Christians engage with elections (if at all)?

Resist candidates who want to keep the status quo on campaign finance and gerrymandered districts. Read widely and deeply, not just the propaganda machines of particular candidates.

Besides elections, how can, or should, Christians engage with the political process?

(By) Local initiatives and organization for economic development, education, etc.  Also we should constantly teach the value system of the Bible.

That idea that we should “teach the value system of the Bible”, could be taken to endorse wildly different candidates and values. What do you see as essential values that should inform Christian engagement?

I mean to teach the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12-13 — three very comprehensive frameworks.  I discuss the ethics of the Decalogue in my book Doing Right. Of course we also learn from the didactic teaching, the wisdom literature the prophets, etc the parables.  My concern is that it is not just a different CONTENT that comes in Scripture but a different process and framework than that coming from the European Enlightenment.

As we engage in this way, what is your perspective on the ultimate end of human society, what theologians might call “Eschatology”? Are Christians trying to preserve society from self-destruction until Christ’s return? Are we hoping to “usher-in” an actual society under God’s rule before that, or something else?

I believe in the literal, imminent return of Christ.  I am agnostic about most of the other details.   I believe our ethics should be eschatological in the sense that we live “as in the day” as much as possible (Rom 13:11-14).

Many of the Christian circles I’m acquainted with, what I would broadly call “Neo-Evangelicals”, have abandoned the idea of “endorsing” candidates from the pulpit. What role does the church have to play in elections?  

I am appalled at the way so many white evangelicals have come out for the neo-Fascist Trump, the political ignorant Carson, and the obstructionist Cruz.  Carson and Cruz are Christians though I do not admire or share much of there political position.  Trump is a sleezy, self-centered, pagan oaf whose business career is not a success story.  But no, I do not like it when Black churches welcome candidates into their pulpits and endorse them.  The church should stick to biblically expressed values and prayer — and challenge the congregation to study, discuss, and pray to decide on their votes and actions.


The Church, Pt. 3: Lessons & Hopes

After the Diocletian persecutions, the prominent North African bishop Felix consecrated a man named Caecilian to be bishop of Carthage in the year A.D. 313; however, both Felix and Caecilian were suspected of lapsing during the persecution, and this move set off another schism in the church. (31) Most of the North African bishops rejected Caecilian, and chose their own bishop from amongst themselves: first Majorinus, who died shortly after, and then Donatus. Sure that the Bishop of Rome and Emperor Constantine would side with them, they appealed to have Donatus recognized as the rightful bishop. Instead, both ruled against the “Donatists”, as they came to be called, and in the following year, at the Synod of Arles, they also condemned Cyprian’s use of re-baptism, a practice that the Donatists followed. Still, the Donatist church thrived on account of its’ ties to Cyprian’s teachings and populist sentiments against the increasing state-church alliances in Rome. By the end of the 4th century they outnumbered members of the Latin church in North Africa. (32) It was in the subsequent moves of the Latin church that we see the saddest results of these divisions.

In 411, after a decade of division, an arbitration in Carthage between the Latin church and the Donatists was called for by Roman Emperor Honorius, with his secretary of state Marcellinus rendering the judgment (33). Bishop Augustine of Hippo had already written persuasively against the Donatists, with a three-pronged argument. Augustine argued that the hierarchy of authority for a Christian is first the Bible, then church councils, then individual church fathers; thus the Donatists should submit to the ruling of the Synod of Arles against Cyprian’s belief in re-baptistm. Secondly, schism is a worst mistake than one of re-baptism or other questions of purity, even according to Cyprian, whose teaching the Donatists claimed to follow. Thirdly, baptism is only profitable for salvation if one is in communion with the church, and since there is only “one true episcopate”, no one baptized outside of the Latin church is truly saved (34). Marcellinus judged against the Donatists and, unlike the aftermath of the Synod of Arles, severe punishments were carried out by the now-“Christian” Roman government in an effort to end the schism.

A  3rd century mosaic depicting a donatist punishment (click image for source)
A 3rd century mosaic depicting a donatist punishment (click image for source)

In an extraordinarily twisted move of exegesis, Augustine cited Luke 14:23 as justification in using force to “compel” the Donatists to rejoin the Latin church (35).  Not so coincidently, Aquinas would cite this very same scripture in a later century to justify the Inquisition (36). Donatist clergy were banished, a punishment which in the ancient world served as an alternative to the death penalty (37). Laypeople were fined, church buildings were forcibly confiscated, and in A.D. 415 services were forbidden. None of the persecutions of the Donatists ultimately succeeded, and Donatist communities continued until the Arab invasion of the 7th century virtually wiped out Christianity in all of North Africa (38).  In my assessment, there are three lessons which we can take from this controversy, applicable in varying degrees to the debates in the Mennonite Church, as well as in the broader evangelical church.

Bishop Augustine was a brilliant thinker, but endorsed the use of violence to bring people into the "one true church" (click image for source)
Bishop Augustine was a brilliant thinker, but endorsed the use of violence to bring people into the “one true church”
(click image for source)

First, the use of force as a systematic-method of Church governance is fundamentally opposed to the Kingdom of God. There had been sporadic violence inspired by the Donatists against the Latin church in North Africa, and this is often cited as part of Augustine’s rationale for endorsing the use of force against them, but it is an entirely different thing for the Church to give theological justification for using worldly power (39). This very rationale gives us a glimpse at the cyclical nature of violence. The downward spiral should serve as a warning to the Church’s relations-to and use-of secular governance, in practice or in theory. In the United States, there is open hostility and often vindictive language judging the conscience and motives of people who disagree on the morality of same-sex relationships. The “debate” is seldom one of actual engagement with different perspectives, but rather one of suspicion and fear that the other is going to impose their will by force. This fear is well-justified because it actually is the aim of both groups to have the sword of this country enforce, or defend, their practice. In the Church however, both sides of this issue must, for the sake of Christ, reject any use of government coercion. The distinctive witness of the Mennonite church as a community of peace is at stake with this boundary, and it must not give in to these temptations.

Second, while the church is a singular reality, its’ unity is not a corollary of how centralized and uniform its’ governance appears. This reality should calm us. Menno Simons walked away from the largest body of Christianity in the world. To him, Augustine and Cyprian would have both unrestrainedly said “You are not part of the body of Christ”. But Christ is our head, and He should be directing our movements. In a body, the nervous system is connected intricately with each part, and, while they are interdependent, the head does not need the hand to move the foot. The head can do that well enough on its’ own. While the temptation to use government coercion is far from the historic practices of the Mennonite church, the temptation to use institutional coercion is more easily succumbed to. The Mennonite church’s historically “congregational form of church governance” is an act of trusting the Holy Spirit and renouncing the world’s temptations to “rule it over” each-other (40). We must remember that, historically, those most loudly concerned with preserving a unity of governance in the church, like Augustine and the Roman Catholic church, have been most susceptible to using force in achieving it. It is integrally important for the Mennonite church to continue the conversation over what level of inclusion, or exclusion, the Church should practice with regards to homosexual individuals and couples; embodying the redemption of our sexuality is part of our mission in the Kingdom of God. But, neither those who separate-from, or those who remain in communion-with, a long standing ecclesial structure are suddenly exempt from the law of love. It was by our love for each other that Christ said the world would know we are his disciples, not by our centralized form of governance. May we not be like our ancestors, spitting judgments against each other!

To end this discussion, I would like to quote some words of Cyprian. Cyprian was a pre-Constantinian bishop, and thus, whatever his flaws, the use of the sword was never an option for his efforts to maintain unity. He also lived before the Latin church’s governance moved towards a centralization in Rome, and was not granted an “authoritative” council to govern the unity of his fellow North African bishops. At the Seventh Council of 
Carthage in A.D. 256, when all the Bishops of North Africa lent him their support in the practice of re-baptism, Cyprian wrote:

It remains, that upon this same matter each of us should bring forward what we think, judging no man, nor rejecting any one from the right of communion, if he should think differently from us. For neither does any of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience…But let us all wait for the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one that has the power both of preferring us in the government of His Church, and of judging us in our conduct there (41).

Paul stated that the unity of the Church in Christ was a great mystery, and it remains so to me. There is a tension running in current ecumenical dialogues, especially for Mennonites, one between displaying a more unified Kingdom to the world, and discerning what demands the King has made on us, demands required of us as His ambassadors. This is not a new tension; Cyprian, Novation, Donatus, Augustine, Menno Simmons, was there any unity behind their conflicting ideas of how this Kingdom was to be ruled? Or, were some of them correct in condemning each other as not being united to Christ? As I stated earlier, I start with the belief that we have one Lord, and that there truly is only one body. After recounting some troubling events of our past, re-affirming that statement brings me close to tears when I think of the immense love of God, “since he wants all people to be saved” (42). If this is true, then I am hopeful, and can rest despite the unknown. Christ will bring what He has started in us to its’ completion, His Kingdom will fill the whole earth. My prayer is that this part of the body, and myself within it, would be a faithful representatives of this Kingdom, working with our King to bring peace on earth.
31 Fairbairn, The Donatist Schism. Felix allegedly cooperated with the actual confiscation of the scriptures to save himself. Caecilian allegedly prevented Christians from visiting their relatives who were in jail for refusing to hand over, or reveal the location of, the scriptures. 

32 ibid.
33 ibid.
34 ibid.
35 Wilken, 189

36 Fairbairn, The Donatist Schism
37 Abbott, Geoffrey. Exile and Banishment. Encyclopedia Brittanica Online. banishment. Last updated Aug 08, 2007. Accessed January 26, 2015
38 ibid.
39 Wilken, 188
40 Roth, John D. Beliefs, pg. 152. Harrisonburg: Herald Press. 2005.
41 Interestingly, this text shows that at the time, Cyril did not consider there to be a “bishop of bishops”, refuting the Roman Catholic claim that there had always been a supremacy in authority with the Roman Bishop. Cyril of Carthage, The Seventh Council of Carthage under Cyprian, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, pp. 565. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company. 1888. 
42 1 Ti. 2:4

The Church, Pt. 2: Early Christians, Early Controversies

This is the second portion of an essay I recently wrote on “The Church” for graduate school application. I slightly edited it but have kept the footnotes as italicized numbers. This part of the essay explores some of the earliest Church practices, as well as a major persecution that, I believe, we can learn from:

So, if the Church is this society-forming reality, and the shape of this society is given by the New Testament teachings on the Kingdom of God, then what do these teachings say? I believe that Kingdom of God must be conceived of as a political reality in the broadest sense: “relating to government” (14) While this is an increasingly emphasized truth in evangelical Christianity, particularly those concerned with “social justice”, what is not yet thoroughly discussed is that God’s government is unlike and fundamentally opposed to every worldly government today. It is unlike worldly governments in that its’ rule is exercised through service and love (15), whereas their rule is necessarily maintained through the constant threat of coercion (16). It is opposed to worldly governments both because their violent power is wielded by the enemies of God (17), and because the Kingdom of God’s culmination will be their end (18). The earliest writings of the Church demonstrate an understanding of these same principles.

In the “Apostolic Tradition” and “Didache”, two of the the earliest extant Christian writings outside of the canon, we see a new, society-forming ethic being spelled out for the nascent Church, drawing on the teachings of Jesus and the apostles (19). Christians were to cease gaining their income from immoral entertainments like gladiator fights, converted soldiers were not to kill or swear public oaths, military commanders and civic magistrates in the Roman empire were to give up their vocation, and burial for the poor was to be provided by the bishop (20). Rhythms of regularly shared meals were outlined, and economic inter-dependence is assumed by the guidelines which prevented outside guests from taking advantage of the community (21). With regards to being a “visible church”, the earliest Christian communities are exemplary. At the same time, we see in the earliest controversies of the Church, and ensuing history, how challenging it is to visibly reflect our identity as the singular body of Christ. I would like describe two interrelated controversies in depth, but not as a rote exercise! After evaluating them, there will be lessons applicable to the contemporary Church’s pressing challenges of maintaining unity in the face of political, theological, and moral disagreements.

Emperor Decius on a Roman Silver Coin. Click image for source

From the years A.D. 249 until 313 the church under the Roman Empire was torn apart as a result of two sets of intense persecutions, particularly under emperor Decius from 249-25122 and under Diocletian from 303-313 (until 324 in the east) (23). Decius required all citizens to offer a sacrifice to the gods of Rome and partake of the sacrifice. At the threat of an exceedingly cruel death, most Christians complied (24). According to historian Robert Wilken:

Some even brought their own wine or other offerings. In one city a bishop showed up with a lamb under his arms for sacrifice! …This is not surprising. As the number of Christians increased, the boundaries between the Christian community and the larger society were becoming porous (25).

After the Decian persecutions ended, the church was faced with the question of how, or even if, to re-admit people who wanted to return to the Church though they had denied their faith. The Church’s differing responses to this crisis is extremely relevant, especially because these responses set a trajectory leading to the ugliest features of both Roman Catholicism and the Magisterial Reformation; features which the Mennonite tradition has historically stood in prophetic witness against.

There were three sets of responses to Christians who had lapsed during the Decian persecutions. The Bishops of Rome advocated re-admission to the Church simply if someone expressed the desire to do so. Novation, a Christian leader in Rome, and his followers believed that there should be no re-admission whatsoever, eventually breaking off from the majority church and setting up Novation as an alternate bishop in Rome. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, arbitrated a mediating position in which significant penance, overseen by a bishop in communion with the majority church, was required to be re-admitted. For some, this penance was severe and would last their entire lives. Cyprian was similar to Novation in upholding “the Church’s holiness as a unique community set apart from the society at large” (27). Yet, Cyprian argued intensely against Novation’s separation from the main church, saying

he can be no Christian who is not inside the Church of Christ…there is but one Church founded by Christ…likewise, there is but one episcopate, but it is spread amongst the harmonious host of all the numerous bishops (28).

Cyprian thus denounced groups like the Novations as not truly being in the body of Christ because they were not united to the Roman church’s network of bishops. He even required re-baptism by anyone who wanted to come into the Roman church but had been baptized in an outside group (29). Of course, this was because of the authority of the “one episcopate” and not because of any Anabaptist-like considerations. While this practice drew serious ire from the Bishop of Rome, who called Cyprian a “false Christ and false apostle”, Cyprian’s position was adopted across all of North Africa and he was a revered teacher in North African Christianity long after his death (30). Cyprian’s positions were important in the aftermath of the Diocletian persecutions, seventy years later.

14 Accessed January 17th 2014
15 Matt. 20:25-28, 1 Pet. 5:3
16 In my estimation, a result of this fact is that enforcing this rule is incompatible with faithfulness to Christ’s teachings of peace. The most difficult teachings to reconcile with the enforcement of worldly government by Christ-followers being primarily found in Matthew 5:33-48
17 Luke 4:5-7, I have never found alternative explanations of this passage to be convincing
18 1 Cor. 15:24
19I list these not as models to be replicated, but as examples, though there are certainly timeless principles being reflected here that should be embodied by the Church at all times The Apostolic Tradition was written by Hippolytus, who separated himself from the established church in Rome as it became, in his opinion, too lax towards its’ members. Thus, the practices he cites are probably closer to the earliest church’s methods; schism is a topic I will address below.
20 Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition in Readings in World Christian History, Volume I. pp. 17-20. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Orbis Books. Maryknoll, New York. 2004
21 Didache in Readings in World Christian History, Volume I. pp. 20
22 Fairbairn, Donald. (2014). The Novation Schism in Rome [flash video file]. Retrieved from personal lecture notes.
23 Fairbairn, Donald. (2014). The Donatist Schism in North Africa [flash video file]. Retrieved from personal lecture notes. portal/
24 Wilken, Robert Louis, The First Thousand Years: A global history of Christianity. pp 67. New Haven: Yale University Press. Early church father Origen was killed on the rack during the Decian persecutions, as well as Bishops Fabian, Alexander, and Dionysius. The persecution was short, but it was devastating.
25 ibid. 68
26 ibid. 77
27 Wilken, 71
28 Cyprian of Carthage, Letter 55, in Reading in World Christian History, Vol. I. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk. 2004. New York: Orbis Books.
29 Fairbairn, The Novation Schism
30 Wilken, 74