What is a Peace Church?

This article originally appeared in the January 2002 edition of Christian Leader magazine.

Last Sunday I preached in a nearby MB congregation. My text was the story of Cain and Abel. The sermon was part of a stewardship series, but I noted the connection of playing “brother’s keeper” with America’s threat to invade Iraq. I heard two responses to the message. One, from a career military man, appreciated “the clear, positive, helpful articulation of Christian nonresistance.” The other was indirect, overheard while stirring the big tub at the MCC meat canner. The reported comment came as a friendly jab. “I hear you solved the problem of Iraq in yesterday’s sermon.” From the sound of it, I don’t really believe the speaker thought I’d helped, let alone solved, anything in Iraq.

How do we as Mennonite Brethren think about peace? Sixteen months later, how should we as followers of Jesus respond to 9-11?

War – Not All Christians Agree
First, let’s be clear that Christians disagree. Not all Christians think in unison about war and peace. Early Christians seemed united. Killing in war was inconsistent with serving the Prince of Peace.

After 312 C.E. and the conversion of the emperor Constantine, the issue got cloudy. St. Augustine, the father of Roman Catholic theology, tried to limit Christian endorsement of war. Augustine articulated the “just war” criteria. The “just war” perspective is followed by many mainline Christians today. “Just war” seeks to limit war to “last resort” and offer “noncombatant immunity.” Most concede that “just war” principles are rarely followed, perhaps are impossible in modern warfare. One proponent, Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, admits that “just war” teaching has given “permission to far more violence than has really been morally necessary.”

Peace – the Core of the Good News
Second, let’s recognize that most of us agree that peace is central to the Gospel. Paul says that Jesus “proclaimed the good news: peace to you who were far off, and peace to those who were near by” (Eph 2:17).

Duane Shank, an editor at Sojourner magazine, calls Christians “back to basics.” Shank outlines five steps to peace—and all Christians will agree on at least the first four.
1. Be at peace with God. All else follows from that.
2. Be at peace with yourself – not acting out of anger and bitterness.
3. Be at peace in the church – the body of Christ.
4. Be at peace with your neighbors and community.
5. Using these four foundations, engage the world and the government.

Two Kingdoms – "Jesus is Lord"
Third, and finally, let’s analyze why Christians generally and MBs specifically disagree about how the Gospel of Peace affects “the State,” that is, government policy.

The earliest confession of faith was simply “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor 12:3). The phrase sounds simple enough, quite innocent really. In the early church, however, this confession was a courageous declaration of loyalty to Jesus alone. Confessing “Jesus is Lord” contradicted the required political confession “[Emperor] Caesar is Lord.” To pledge allegiance to Jesus raised questions about one’s loyalty to the State.

Theologians tried to work out a compromise. The issue, they said, was that Christians are citizens of two kingdoms. We belong to the Kingdom of God, but we are also connected to the kingdom of this world.

The Catholic solution was to develop a two-tiered approach. Priests, monks, and nuns will practice loyalty to the Kingdom of God exclusively. The first group must be faithful in prayer and mission. The rest, the laity, will take care of obligations to the world, including military service. Service to the two kingdoms can be accommodated by understanding one’s vocation.

The Protestant Reformers introduced the “priesthood of all believers,” and with a notion of two kingdoms that are distinct, yet partially overlap. Luther taught that individuals, especially government officials, were personally responsible to the Kingdom of God but officially loyal to the kingdom of this world. The Protestant theory was different than the Catholic, but the practice turned out to be the same—practical loyalty to the kingdom of the world.

The so-called “Radical” Reformers, the Anabaptists, taught that Christians have exclusive loyalty to the Kingdom of God. As citizens of heaven, we must practice the way of Jesus in all our actions. The nations may war; faithful disciples, however, not only proclaim but also practice obedience to Jesus as Prince of Peace. Christians must reject the kingdom of this world when they commit themselves to the rule of Jesus. Allegiance to the two kingdoms is mutually exclusive.

Mennonites and Two-Kingdom Peacemaking
The “two-kingdom” theory outlined in the sixteenth century was helpful, but Mennonites today are divided about how we should live in twenty-first-century democracies. “Is our government really aligned with the kingdom of this world?” we may ask. Three general positions regarding two-kingdom involvement can be outlined. The positions are progressively less optimistic that Christian cooperation with military policy will produce godly results.

One decision has been to join the Protestant mainstream. For them, peace is personal, but this-worldly citizenship obligations demand military participation. Some hold to “just war” limits to military action. Others are ready to follow to war a U.S. president who (1) is personally moral and (2) claims his policy is guided by God.

Those who hold to this two-kingdom perspective interpret Romans 13 in a way that supports their view. They understand Paul’s teaching about government, “God’s servant” that “bears the sword,” as an endorsement of state-sanctioned violence. (See Dalton Reimer’s article in this Leader—ED). One can have loyalty to the kingdom of this world politically and be loyal to the kingdom of God personally, according to the first position.

A second position has involved a two-kingdom approach that upholds personal nonresistance but allows moral support of national war. According to this view, personal commitment to Jesus demands that individuals not take life in war. The church as an “apolitical” community, focused on personal faith, without responsibility for a corporate witness regarding national issues.

This position does not fit one of the traditional two-kingdom models. It seeks to be committed to the kingdom of Christ while encouraging others to do what is expedient in the kingdom of the world. When these folks vote, they believe that they are giving consent to the kingdom of this world to exercise its God-given role. Individuals are free to support political candidates and officeholders who favor military action. This group finds support for its position in the biblical call to “honor” those in authority. Traditionally, many Mennonite Brethren have taken this position. These “conscientious objectors” have either served in the military without carrying a weapon or found alternative service assignments.

The third position sees the two kingdoms in sharpest tension with each other. According to this view, Christ’s rule opposes the kingdom of the world. Institutions, including governments, were designed by God to serve Christ’s kingdom. “Sin,” however (to quote the MB Confession of Faith Article 4), “opens . . . political systems . . . to the bondage of demonic principalities and powers.” Because of the rebellion of the Fall, government is in league with the kingdom of the world when it relies on military violence. Christians' loyalty to Jesus puts them in tension with the values of the world and the State. Christians reject participation in this rebellious world order. This view holds that Jesus' rule will overcome the rebellious world.

Over the years this “Third Way” has been lived out in a variety of approaches, according to J. R. Burkholder (Mennonite Peace Theology: A Panorama of Types). "Historic nonresistance" (common among "Old Mennonites") holds (1) that the State is outside the perfection of Christ and (2) that the church is an alternate community to which believers give full allegiance. Because this view is pessimistic that a Christian witness to the state will be effective, it does not encourage overt political activity. This group might do personal evangelism through local disaster relief work.

"Resident aliens" (including John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas) agree that the church is to be a countercultural community but emphasize that the witness to Christ will invite the world to join Jesus in the way of peace. They see membership in the church as a “political” commitment in the sense that it affects our basic allegiance. Rather than change the government system, they try to witness for peace through such alternative actions as shipping MCC meat to North Korea.

"Radical pacifists" (notably Ron Sider) seek to apply the teaching of Jesus to government policy. Sider argues that, since Jesus is Lord of both the church and the world, the world will benefit by submission to Jesus' rule. This position calls for political policy consistent with Jesus' teachings. Radical pacifists might try to convince the government itself to join the church in social relief for North Korea.

Evaluation and Conclusion
Which of the three views of the “two kingdoms” is most helpful? Which is most consistent with our understanding of Scripture as expressed in our confession of faith?

The first view presents the difficulty of separate private/public morality—can we live as Christians personally but adapt to the world’s way for public responsibilities? As Christians, we must follow Jesus all the time. The second view may also present an inconsistency: How is it possible for a Christian to refuse military service but endorse political solutions that put others in the line of fire?

The two-kingdom view which sees the church as a countercultural community seems to fit the MB confessional statements best. Individually, we are not strong enough to give a consistent witness to peacemaking. We recognize that we need to join the movement of Jesus' disciples to grow in peacemaking at all levels. We also grow in our capacity to witness to the power of the Gospel of Peace by giving a living witness to peacemaking within the church. Our tension with the world is not a tension with the people Christ came to save. Our peace witness invites others to experience with us peace with God, within, within the community of faith, with their neighbors, and, ultimately, in the world.

May we “go in peace.”