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    engraving of city rooftops

    Ministers and Magistrates

    Readers Respond to Issue 24: Faith & Politics

    August 3, 2020
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    On John D. Roth’s “The Anabaptist Vision of Politics,” Spring 2020: In Romans 13, after he has enumerated our temporal duties – “Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due…” – Saint Paul unexpectedly reveals that all these obligations, and not just the law written upon our hearts, are fulfilled by the precept of charity. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Love is enough. The coercive power of the temporal ruler should have no business with the Christian.

    And when it comes to the infliction of such force it seems the Lord leaves little room to the spiritual power. As he told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would certainly strive that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now my kingdom is not from hence.” And to the mob he says, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”

    Thus far, the vision of Anabaptist political theology is quite correct. And the force of this vision should not be watered down. But what of those who obstinately place themselves outside the bond of charity? What of he who “will not hear the church” who is to “be to thee as the heathen and publican”? And what if this occurs in a manner “that is not tolerated even among pagans”? What provision has God made in this case?

    Saint Paul has a severe mercy in their regard. While he forbids the Christians of Corinth to “go to law before the unrighteous” with each other, he has no such scruple in regard to the excommunicate (1 Cor. 5): “I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan [that is, excommunicate him, so that he could then be given up to the Roman authorities without violating the prohibition on doing such a thing to a brother] for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Salvation is still the goal, but the obstinate one is surrendered to temporal coercion.

    Thus, Constantine called himself “a bishop, ordained by God to oversee those outside the church.” But delivery to Satan and the emperor’s destruction of the flesh are not synonymous. Those forces were allied – have often been allied – but the connection is not necessary. If it were necessary, it would not be culpable; Caesar need not be the quasi-Satanic figure he is in some of the New Testament; the government need not be as compromised with evil as Rome was.

    We pray for rulers so that we may have a peaceful life – and also because God desires all to be saved, including kings. Was not Saint Paul God’s vessel of election to bear his name before “the Gentiles and their kings”? This is, certainly, to announce that the one who is King of Kings, emperor over these subordinate rulers, has come, and to command their allegiance; it is also to invite their reconciliation with him as men, even as they remain in their positions of authority, giving him homage as their high king.

    When we stray outside the bond of charity in some respect injurious to the temporal peace – when we steal, or commit murder – we fail to render to God what belongs to him, and we are rightly handed over to Caesar: Caesar has been given power from above (John 19:11), in wielding which he is God’s minister (Isa. 60:10), and so we are his debtors too. To be a governor – to be a king – can be, therefore, simply to be obedient to the role to which God has assigned you; to fail in the duty of governing would be to fail in the task which has been entrusted to you.

    Alan Fimister, Denver, Colorado

    On John Huleatt’s “The Bruderhof and the State,” Spring 2020: If you know where to look, you’ll find magisterial Protestants who admire the radical Anabaptists in a line stretching back to the earliest days of our shared history. The Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer knew many of the early radicals, routinely engaging them in public debate. After Michael Sattler’s martyrdom at the hands of Austrian authorities, Bucer called him a “martyr of Christ.”

    Indeed, there is much in Bucer’s vision of magisterial Protestantism that echoes aspects of radicalism – not least the demand that all followers of Jesus take up the yoke of Christ, living sacrificially for the good of the neighbor.

    Yet Bucer remained committed to the magisterial tradition. For Bucer, the call to love one’s neighbor was inextricably tied to the work of promoting and advocating for a Christian society more generally, including a Christian state. Advocacy for a Christian social order is one means of promoting the common good in this vision.

    This had to be the case, according to Bucer, for the simple reason that we do not pass the entirety of our lives within our local church. The claim that Christ makes on a believer’s life extends to all domains. The claims of the visible church, however, do not. And so there was a need to account for the shape Christian discipleship would take in the memberships that we are part of other than our local church.

    Defining what this would be was the task the magisterial Protestants set themselves. At our best, as in the model of Bucer, who personally hosted religious refugees from France for the entirety of his marriage and ministry in Strasbourg, this discipleship very much includes the disruptive witness of the radical tradition. But unlike the radicals and unlike the Roman tradition, the magisterial tradition seeks not to draw all the world into the life of the visible church, but rather to see all of life offered up directly to Christ himself.

    Jake Meador, Lincoln, Nebraska


    We welcome letters to the editor. Letters and web comments may be edited for length and clarity, and may be published in any medium. Letters should be sent with the writer’s name and address to letters@plough.com.

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