I’ve been wanting to post a series on this book for years — but could never quite get to it. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony is a great book. It was first published in 1989 and continues to have a dramatic influence on evangelical Christianity. It’s not long, only 172 pages, but those pages pack a wallop.
I working from my third copy. I keep lending copies, meaning I keep giving copies away.
Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon are both Methodists, but they are part of a cross-denominational movement called Neo-Anabaptist. Hauerwas and Mennonite John Howard Yoder helped build a system of thought that is outside the normal Protestant Calvinist/Arminian schools of thought. Indeed, their work is one major reason we see American evangelical Christianity moving away from Constantinian Christianity and toward Neo-Anabaptist thought.
Let me explain. From the time of Constantine until a few years ago, Christianity and Western culture have been pretty much the same thing. Christianity enjoyed the blessings and support of the state, and in turn, Christianity blessed and supported the state.
From Constantine until the Enlightenment, this took the form of state religions, so that only one form of Christianity was practiced in each nation, and citizens of each nation were baptized into their brand of Christianity shortly after birth. Thus, when Luther introduced the Reformation to Germany, the disputes with the Catholics were ultimately concluded by deciding that each nation within Germany (at that time, Germany was divided into dozens of kingdoms) would worship as its king worshiped, and those citizens unwilling to convert would be required to move to another state.
The English Enlightenment brought the separation of church and state, realized most fully in the United States after the First Amendment was adopted. Even though US citizenship was independent of one’s religion, the fact is that for 200 years, America was deeply, culturally Christian. Thus, church and state continued to operate hand-in-hand, with “God and country” being seen as utterly without contradiction.
Inevitably, I suppose, church and state began to separate from each other, and we now have a much more secularized national government and a church struggling to decide how to cope in a nation where the government no longer blesses and supports the church. Do we push to return to the old ways? Is that even possible? Would that even be good?
We are now forced to wrestle with how to “do church” in a world where the government is not our ally and is sometimes even our enemy. Some argue that the Constitution — which never mentions God — intended for the state to support the church. Some argue that the church should see the government as our enemy. Some want the church to get organized to elect presidents and representatives who will give the church political power. Some want to flee power.
About 500 years ago, when the Reformation was just getting going, a group of Christians approached Ulrich Zwingli (who helped found the Reformed Church and Calvinism). They argued that the scriptures teach baptism of believers and separate citizenship from membership in the church. Zwingli — the great Reformer — excommunicated them and had several executed!
You see, Anabaptists threatened the social order by making Christianity a choice — and kings claimed their thrones by virtue of God’s sovereign will. Disconnecting church from state threatened the “divine right” of kings to rule. Many were pacifists and so refused to serve in the king’s armies. After all, the king’s armies often fought for very unjust causes — even taking the lives of fellow Christians.
Anabaptist theology may be summarized by saying that it was an attempt by radical Protestant Reformers to complete the Protestant Reformation by recovering the Christianity of the apostolic era. It was radically anti-Constantinian in its view of the church and its relations with secular rulers. It was radically anti-Augustinian in its view of salvation and the Christian life. The Anabaptists emphasized personal, conscious decision of repentance and faith and holy living as disciples of Christ to the exclusion of any idea of salvation as a gift imparted sacramentally. They extended Zwingli’s symbolic interpretation of the Lord’s Supper to baptism and insisted that since infants cannot repent or believe the gospel, baptism should be given only to those who repent after reaching the age of accountability.
Yep, they sound a lot like us and like the Baptists, and we both claim Anabaptist roots. However, the Anabaptists were highly autonomous and so went off in all sorts of directions. Many of their best leaders were quickly killed, meaning they often failed to form a consistent theology.
The modern heirs of the Anabaptists are the Mennonites and Amish, who are far more famous for their rejection of modern culture.
Given how much the Churches of Christ have in common with the Anabaptists, even claiming them as brothers in Christ at times, you’d think we’d be a natural fit for Neo-Anabaptist thought. And we are. Indeed, David Lipscomb, in his book Civil Government, sounded very much like an Anabaptist in rejecting all ties to civil government — even voting and jury duty.
You see, the Anabaptists were persecuted by the Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed Churches and so had little reason to place much confidence in government! The government was their enemy, quite literally.
And during the Civil War, Lipscomb came to conclude that the government was God’s enemy, because it was government that fought wars that killed Christians on both side of the war and which brought unspeakable poverty and suffering to the South.
Of course, today we live in more prosperous times, and we tend to credit government with our blessings — with our freedom. As a result, we don’t take nearly as negative a view toward government as Lipscomb did. In fact, we rarely question the American assumption of “God and country” — that is, we assume that there is no contradiction between nationalism and Christianity. But Jesus said,
(Luk 16:13a ESV) 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.”
Hence, the question arises in a world where the government isn’t always the friend of Christianity, how do we live? It’s not just the question of pacifism, but rather who we are. What is our identity in the American church? How do deal with being subjects of both the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of the USA. Are we citizens of both? Are we loyal to both? Can we be loyal to both? How does it all fit together?