I’m fascinated and thrilled by John Howard Yoder’s position re: the relationship between Christian discipleship and the state as articulated in Discipleship as Political Responsibility. Discipleship is, of course, a major conviction - if not [T]he distinguishing characteristic - of the Anabaptist expression of faith.
Christianity (and Anabaptism) is an invitation to authentic personal liberation and spiritual discipline. In other words, we are simultaneously transformed by Christ’s work (Atonement) and we are called and equipped to follow him daily. The historic influence upon this discipleship wielded by Emperor Constantine and Augustine of Hippo is contemporarily obvious, but many are beginning to question (once again) the historicity of these influences and pre-Constantinian and Augustinian connections - if any - to the New Testament and/or early expressions of followership by the Christian Church. It is good to question these things. The Constantinian shift did not occur without great affect. It changed much. It’s also good to hold up the New Testament as the authority (especially if one is Christian!). Christians should be asking, “What does the Bible teach?” But we should not stop there! We should go one important step further and ask, “How do we apply the teachings of Scripture in our day?”
Yoder naturally assumes the above posture in “Discipleship as Political Responsibility.” He begins by differentiating State and Church roles, according to New Testament perspectives. The differentiation is important, especially in our own day wherein Christianity and politics are recklessly fused, without a whole lot of Biblical or critical thought.
The State is a pagan institution, according to the New Testament. It was the source of many of Jesus of Nazareth’s temptations; he chose the cross over kingship, repeatedly, and without compromise. The State is an evil entity ruled by unholy principalities and powers reigned in by the work of Christ (Atonement). It is now an entity under divine mandate, though it rages as if it were still totally free to roam at will, according to unholy power, and in complete disobedience to God. Yoder, however, advances the following: “The divine mandate of the state consists in using evil means to keep evil from getting out of hand” (18). Participants in this evil can be redeemed, through Christ, as God continuously establishes a superior way of being through Christ’s New Covenant Community, which exists totally apart from the State.
This New Covenant Community (Church) is under a divine mandate too: “The divine mandate of the church consists in overcoming evil through the cross” (21). Jesus epitomizes this mandate; he lived it. Jesus put this program on the ground in a very, very tangible way, while simultaneously crushing the head of the great evil with his heal. His Messiahship involved suffering and death, rather than political ascent fueled by supernatural support. Jesus could have taken the later route; he was tempted to do so on more than several occasions. Victory was achieved, however, in the unexpected. The great evil was defeated in the contrasts. Jesus walked the road of non-violent resistance and consequently imploded that which thrives on violence, death, and destruction. The victory is God’s; the way is Jesus’s. We - Christians - are transformed by and called toward this way of being in the world.
Yoder goes deeper, examining and answering objections to the above and pointing out differences between the New Testament version of State and that of our own time. Yes, the State has changed over time and not all aspects of the State are dedicated to the violence and destruction railed against by the New Testament. The State is still, however, very, very distinguishable from Jesus’s way as seen in the New Testament and the early church. I really can not argue honestly for intentional and/or active Christian participation in State affairs, at least not from the New Testament. Too, a Christian will have a very difficult time with the operations of the State in times of war and other social affairs that contradict Biblical perspectives. In other words, it’s virtually impossible to participate in State leadership and remain a Christian. So, what do we do? Our responsibility is prophetic. We are not to stand by and let the world go to hell. We are to proclaim to all the high, mighty, and irreplaceable assignment of Christ’s Church, while we tow our own crosses, in the very footsteps of Jesus.
Authentic Christian discipleship is prefaced upon an extremely high, honored, and esteemed view of Christ’s Church and her role in this world. It’s all about Jesus, his work (Atonment), and the New Covenant Community (Church). Authentic discipleship is also founded upon a daily dedication to continuously walk the way of Jesus (the cross). This discipleship is rooted in the New Testament (without which there is no context for authentic Christianity), and the earliest expressions of the Christian Church. The footsteps of Jesus are present in the above; following him actually requires following.
One major question remains: “If Christians today, instead of considering the basic viewpoint of the New Testament (and of Anabaptism) out of date, would take it seriously and put it into practice, what would that look like?” (43). Good question.