We are excited to share two videos from Anabaptist Perspectives on the subject of missions, imperialism, and colonialism involving Pastor Kai Steinman, Dr Marlin Sommers, and myself.

Continuing the discussion generated by these podcast episodes, this second installment of the Kingdom Outpost Study Series will begin to explore the history of Christendom.

We could begin with a very simple question, “Does Anabaptism have anything to say about the question of Empire?”. Three years ago, when a conservative Anabaptist friend asked me to do some research on the subject for a podcast interview, I had been researching Kingdom theology as well. Imagine a stack of open books about Kingdom theology on one hand, and books about colonialism, empire, and Christian history on the other. Between these (digital) books and papers, I began to notice a symmetry between these writings. A pattern began to emerge. As a result, this study was hopeful and constructive. Rather than being devastated, bewildered, and disillusioned by the uncomfortable facets of Christendom which can easily become overwhelming, I experienced a deepening and growing of faith.

Christians today, especially in America, feel as if the whole world is moving against them. Higher education and university culture can feel threatening to one’s faith. Politics feels like a constant battle not to lose more ground. This puts Christians on the defensive, but with a poor understanding of that which they are trying to defend. Thus, I think the key for Christians in higher education is to know the rock upon which we stand. Unlike sinking stand, it will not shift. It is not easily displaced; we do not need to fear. If there is darkness, it will not swallow our light. For example, in taking graduate classes in decolonization, orientalism, and more, I have felt not only respected and affirmed but have had productive and meaningful conversations.

If the sand upon which we plant ourselves is “Christendom” (see definition on page 198 of the article shared below), we will fall. This is a fall from which individuals and churches are likely to not recover.

The church of God and of Christ has been obedient to the Teacher’s word and has never had the power of government within it; nor has it called upon this power to place the hangman beside them, but always suffered persecution until the reign of Constantine.

Let him who reads this heed it. The reason why I am writing this is that now men want to introduce and mix the vengeful, bloodthirsty sword of secular government with its regime into the peaceable kingdom of Christ after the manner of the ancient serpent, as the devil in the beginning mixed lies with God’s word. The supposed Christians who want to introduce the vengeance of the law into the kingdom of Christ cannot accomplish anything thereby. For Christ is the end of the law. We become dead to the law through the body of Christ, so that we have another law. There it is no longer a matter of body for body but only love and mercy, repentance and forgiveness of sins, loving the foe and praying for him.

Hans Schnell (Early Anabaptist), “The Two Kingdoms”, translated by Gross and Bender (1985)

As expressed in the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, stäbler (staff-bearing, as opposed to sword-bearing) Anabaptists believed that Christians should have nothing to do with the “power of government” and “vengeance of the law” if they truly obeyed the teachings of Christ. To them, a “Constantinian” church allied with imperial rulers and armies was in violation of everything Christ taught and what His Kingdom meant. Yet, this was the “Christendom” model.

Christendom took a new form after the Protestant Reformation where the new concept of the nation-state rose in conjunction with Magisterial Protestant theology (Philpott, 2011).

Purveying sovereignty from quite a different perspective was Martin Luther. His theology of the Reformation advocated stripping the Catholic Church of its many powers, not only its ecclesiastical powers, but powers that are, by any modern definition, temporal. Luther held that the Church should no longer be thought of as a visible, hierarchical institution, but was rather the invisibly united aggregate of local churches that adhered to right doctrine. Thus, the Catholic Church no longer legitimately held vast tracts of land that it taxed and defended, and whose justice it administered; it was no longer legitimate for its bishops to hold temporal offices under princes and kings; nor would the Pope be able to depose secular rulers through his power of excommunication; most importantly, the Holy Roman Emperor would no longer legitimately enforce Catholic uniformity. No longer would the Church and those who acted in its name exercise political or economic authority. Who, then, would take up such relinquished powers? Territorial princes. “By the destruction of the independence of the Church and its hold on an extra-territorial public opinion, the last obstacle to unity within the State was removed,” writes political philosopher J.N. Figgis (72). It was this vision that triumphed at Westphalia.

Luther’s political theology explained all of this. He taught that under God’s authority, two orders with two forms of government existed. “The realm of the spirit” was the order in which Christ was related to the soul of the believer. The realm of the world was the order of secular society, where civil authorities ran governmental institutions through law and coercion. Both realms furthered the good of believers, but in different senses; they were to be separately organized. Leaders of the church would perform spiritual duties; princes, kings and magistrates would perform temporal ones. Freed from the power of the pope and the Catholic Church, having appropriated temporal powers within their realm, princes were now effectively sovereign. In that era, princes even exercised considerable control over Protestant churches, often appointing their regional leaders, as described by the doctrine of “Erastianism.” Though neither Luther nor other Protestant reformers discussed the doctrine of sovereignty in any detail, they prescribed for princes all of its substance. Again, Figgis:

“The unity and universality and essential rightness of the sovereign territorial State, and the denial of every extra-territorial or independent communal form of life, are Luther’s lasting contribution to politics.” (91)

It was precisely this new “nation-state” that became the impetus behind a new wave of colonisation of the New World and the Near and Far East. Young (2015) argues that the Westphalian nation-state was somewhat paradoxical: empire and colonisation was essential to the formation of Europe and its nation-states, such as the case of the Netherlands.

By the time of formal independence at the Treaty of Westphalia, the Netherlands was already a colonial power, largely through the operations of the Dutch India Company (Vereenigde
Oost‐indische Compagnie, VOC), a vast multinational corporation that, like the British East India Company founded two years earlier, replicated many of the powers of a conventional state, such as possessing an army and navy. By means of the VOC, the Dutch set up, or seized from the
Portuguese, trading posts in India, Ceylon, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Taiwan, Mauritius, and Japan (for two hundred and fifteen years the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to trade in Japan). Four years after Westphalia in 1652, the first Dutch fort was built at what became
Cape Town to service the sea route to the Indies. In order to maintain food supplies, nine VOC men were released from their contracts to become free burghers, “boers,” in order to start farming, and with them began the Dutch colonization of South Africa.

The development of the first European nation‐state was therefore fundamentally linked both to its own achievement of independence and to its acquisition of a colonial empire even before formal independence. The history of the Netherlands illustrates the way in which, despite the
idea of the nation as a coherent single people, one typical feature of the nation was that once created, it sought to absorb or acquire more territory beyond its boundaries. Many nation‐states, from the Netherlands in the seventeenth century, to the United States in the eighteenth, to Italy in the
nineteenth, developed their prosperity in this way…

Historically, therefore, although this is not part of its mythology, colonialism was central to the development of the nation‐state. That the first modern state had itself been a colony, in other words, was no aberration; it also points to the long‐term logic of maritime colonization that was already apparent by the eighteenth century: that in time, colonies would want to become nations themselves. The nation as a political institution was historically inseparable from decolonization from empire and at the same time the advance of European global colonization. The eventual decolonization of the European maritime empires only reflects the evolution of this paradoxical logic by which nation‐states emerged from empires only promptly to create new ones for themselves.

Young (2018, pp.58-59), emphasis added

The ideologies of nationalism and national expansion through empire (imperialism) are thus very much intertwined. A “Christianity allied with empire” appropriates the language of Scripture. Indeed, many proof-texts were used to justify the very thing Satan offered Christ: the kingdoms of this world. To seek to sit on the thrones of power and wield their sword is an immense temptation, one that subtly made its way into the early church, and that continues in the magisterial, imperial, and nationalist traditions that emerged from the Constantinian empire: the world of Christendom where Christianity was predominant in the culture but not in its true form, but in a form convenient and conducive to the values of society as a whole.

Anabaptists and all who believe in the separation of Kingdoms absolutely reject as heretical the Christianized doctrines of national supremacy, that somehow the combination of any nation’s political and economic structures partnered supposedly with “Christian” beliefs and values enabled America, Britain, the Netherlands, Russia, or any other nation to rise to become a global superpower. Early Anabaptists helped us articulate the complete depravity of the compromised ideologies of “Christian” nationhood. Thus, we know the following to be perversions of the true gospel, even if the language of Scripture is used: “Christian” lawmaking, “Christian” values, “Christian” politics and politicians, “Christian” lobbying and “Biblical” worldviews and values.

To paraphase Hans Schnell, “Therefore they took the name of Christ falsely.”

Here are some questions to consider from the reading below, by Dr. Stuart Murray (2009):

  • Page 198 presents a definition of “Christendom”. How did historical “Christendom” relate to the teachings of Christ, such as nonviolence? How should Christians who believe in nonviolence/nonresistance view Christendom’s “Christian heritage”?
  • On page 199, Murray (2009) describes the church as going through seven transitions: center to margins, majority to minority, settlers to sojourners, privilege to plurality, control to witness, etc.. How does this relate to the political orientation and beliefs of Christians today, whether influential teachers and writers or those within your own community? How have Christians around you responded to this shift from “Christendom” to one in which Christianity is a less dominant force? How should Christians respond?
  • On a personal level, what have your experiences been with “marginalization of Christianity”, particularly in the Western public sphere?
  • How does the “emphasis… on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo” (page 199) relate to the Anabaptist doctrine of the separation of Kingdoms? What are the main points of difference?
  • You may hear an objection to the rejection of Constantinian Christianity (Christianity historically allied with the political power of empire and the state) in the form of the statement, “But this form of Christianity also did a lot of good in the world”. Taking this objection to be true or to have merit, how should the church reckon with a history of both good and evil, i.e. in the adoption of Christianity by Constantine? How does this mixed legacy measure up to the example of Christ?
  • “We are in a radically new situation and cannot dream either of a Constantinian authority or of a pre-Constantinian innocence.” This quote from Leslie Newbiggin on page 204 suggests that we are in a wholly different context from the pre-Constantinian early church and from the church embedded in Constantinianism. In your opinion, does this necessitate a difference or shift in belief, approach, or strategy regarding how the church relates to power structures and to society at large?”
  • Dr. Murray states on page 206, “the end of Christendom might open up space for the recovery of authentic forms of Christian faith”. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why? What does a post-Christendom vision for the church look like? What should the 21st century church’s mission be?

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