What we believe
What do Mennonite Brethren believe? Does our theology have any emphases that are different from the theology of other Christian denominations? We continue our series looking at our new Mennonite Brethren Confession of Faith, approved at the last North American MB Conference convention in 1999, and what it means for the average church member. Writer for the series is Reuben Pauls, pastor of River of Life Community Church in Sorrento, B.C., and former Canadian MB Conference executive minister.
Article 12: Society and State
MB Confession of Faith
In much Mennonite Brethren literature about 50 years ago, the phrase “in the world, but not of the world” (based on John 15:19 and John 17:11-16) was prevalent. It is this idea which is expressed in our new Confession Article 12. How do we as believers relate to the world and the culture in which we have been raised? Should we embrace the surrounding culture, or should we withdraw from culture, as some Christians and churches have done?
At the heart of this Article is the understanding that Mennonite Brethren see two kingdoms present in the world. The Kingdom of God is one of those kingdoms. In this Article, state and society are seen as being at least connected in some way to the other kingdom, but our Confession does not make very clear what this other kingdom is. We say the “primary allegiance of all Christians is to Christ’s kingdom, not the state or society”, but we do not identify to what extent society and the state represent the second kingdom.
Article 5 (on Redemption) addressed the need for all structures to be renewed. Included in these structures are society and the state. Government has responsibility for promoting social well-being, administering justice and caring for the poor.
At the beginning (Genesis 1-2), all these activities were the domain of humanity (often within the realm of family), created in God’s image. After the fall, which resulted in a breakdown in all relationships, structures were allowed to develop whose purpose was to deal with the reality of these broken relationships. Government was allowed and empowered by God to carry out certain tasks.
However, a serious question needs to be asked: Has the church, as part of God’s Kingdom, taken too much of a hands-off approach to many social issues, and should we again take on more responsibility? For example, for many years health care and education have been left to government. Should the church be more involved in these areas? Where does government action overstep what the church should be doing?
Article 12 states that it is the duty of the believer to “obey all laws that do not conflict with the Word of God.”
Christians have limits as to how closely they are to be tied to society and the state, and these limits are set by Scripture. Historically this has been a point of serious contention in the lives of many of our ancestors. Do we stop sharing the faith when a totalitarian state forbids evangelism? When there is war, do we abandon our understanding that Christians are commanded to be peacemakers?
In the past, many of our ancestors have chosen migration and flight when government placed unacceptable demands on them. Where there is a conflict, God’s Word is the final authority; we must obey God. When the state or society threatens to kill or punish us for our stand, we may “flee, but we must not knuckle under to pressure; we should obey God, not the state or society. It is here where the “community hermeneutic” we spoke of in discussing Article 2 (MB Herald, Oct. 26, 2001) is crucial.
If we hold to a personal interpretation, a “God told me” approach, we may have trouble knowing and following God’s law because over time all people have a tendency to reflect the culture which surrounds them. We need the help of the community of faith. Such a community, holding to a two-kingdom understanding of Scripture, allows the believer to challenge cultural drift. It provides a safe place in which to discuss and discern whether society and the state are right in their laws and expectations relating to human behaviour.
The main point of this article is that where the two kingdoms clash, our allegiance is to the heavenly Kingdom, not to the earthly kingdom, although both are allowed by God.
As a Mennonite Brethren church leader stated years ago, “A church that ceases to be in conflict with the surrounding culture has failed in its calling to be the church.”
As we began, so we must conclude: We are in this world, but (we must constantly remind ourselves) we are not of this world.
Article 12: Society and State
The State as Instituted by God
We believe that God instituted t e state to promote the well-being of all people. Christians cooperate with others in society to defend the weak, care for the poor, and promote justice, righteousness and truth. Believers witness against corruption, discrimination and injustice, exercise social responsibility, pay taxes, and obey all laws that do not conflict with the Word of God. God has given governments authority to maintain law and order and to punish wrongdoers. Followers of Christ respect and pray for those in authority so that peaceful order may prevail. We deplore the loss of life in the exercise of state-sanctioned violence. Christian Allegiance in Society The primary allegiance of all Christians is to Christ’s kingdom, not the state or society. Because their citizenship is in heaven, Christians are called to resist the idolatrous temptation to give to the state the devotion that is owed to God. As ambassadors for Christ, Christians act as agents of reconciliation, and seek the well-being of all peoples. Because Christ forbids the swearing of oaths, we simply affirm the truth in legal transactions. Believers do not participate in secret societies which demand the swearing of oaths or which otherwise conflict with a Christian’s allegiance to Christ and the church. At all times believers are called to live as faithful witnesses in the world, rejecting pressures which threaten to com-promise Christian integrity. Exodus 20:13, 16; Leviticus 19:11; Psalm 82:3-4; Jeremiah 29:7; Daniel 2:21; Daniel 3:17-18; Daniel 4:17; Matthew 5:13-16, 33-37; Matthew 6:33; Matthew 17:24-27; Matthew 22:17-21; John 15:19; John 17:14-18; Acts 5:29; Romans 13:1-7; I Corinthians 5:9-13; II Corinthians 6:14-18; Ephesians 5:6-13; Philippians 1:27; Philippians 3:20; I Timothy 2: 1-4; Titus 3:1-2; James 5:12; I Peter 2:13-17