A Divinely Pagan State? (part 8)

In this post I will tackle objections and applications  Discipleship as Political Responsibility.  [click here for part 1 , part 2part 3,  part 4part 5part 6 or part 7 of the series]

In the last post we turned to the question of change, or progress, over time and how that impacts the application of the New Testament.  Yoder raises three questions on the nature of progress.  We dealt with question one in the last post, in this post we’ll look at the second question.

“Secondly, we must look more closely at the various aspects of the changes themselves and ask whether they are sufficient to dismiss the New Testament teaching.” (pg.35)

What, exactly, has changed since the time of the New Testament?  Here is Yoder’s analysis.

1.) “Instead of being persecuted, the church is recognized and favored by the world.”    Yoder considers this to be an undeniable fact that has no impact on the basic issue.  Just because the church experiences times of peace, or even favor, that doesn’t change the divine mandates of the church and state, which are incompatible.  Some people may argue  against the notion that the church is “favored by the world” today.  Christendom was still robust at the time Yoder gave this lecture.  How long, and to what degree, that is true for today is a legitimate question beyond Yoder’s work here.

2.) “The number of Christians has increased to the extent that a large portion, often the majority or the totality, of the population is Christian.”   People argue that in a place like America, where 85% of people claim the label “Christian”, it would be impossible for the state to operate without Christian participation.   On this point, Yoder calls attention to what we mean by Christian.

Let us first be clear that we are playing games with words here.  The designation “Christian” does not have the same meaning in the two situations.  When we say that in the early church the Christians were a minority, we are referring to convinced believers, who, however deep or shallow their faith might have been, at least had a willingness to suffer for their convictions.  When we speak of the Middle Ages or of the Reformation and say that Christians were in the majority, we are no longer referring to the convinced, but rather to those who were baptized as infants, whether they took a personal faith stance toward their baptism or not. (pg. 39)

We could extend this argument into America today.  When we say that 85% of Americans are Christian do we mean that they are convinced believers, who take a personal faith stance, and are willing to suffer for their convictions?  In reality, the number of practicing Christians in America may not be a majority at all.

3.) “Political leaders have themselves become Christian.” This only carries weight if we keep the definition of Christian unclear.

If a “prince” has become Christian in the sense that he is ready to leave all for Christ’s sake and follow him, then the situation of the New Testament still applies.  If he has become a Christian in the sense that, while belonging to the visible church he retains the freedom to act as a non-Christian in the way he lives out his official position in the state, then the New Testament position concerning the state still applies, only in this case the church as become unfaithful. (pg. 39)

4.) “Since Napoleon it has become commonplace to require military service of everyone.”    That may be true, but that does not make such  requirement  a “Christian” responsibility.  It is a demand from the state on its citizenry, to which Christians can resist and suffer the consequences.  In the Roman Empire it was required to say “Caesar is Lord” also, but Christians resisted this requirement.   During the reformation, it was required that infants be baptized into citizenship in the state and membership in the church.  Yet, Anabaptists refused and paid with their lives in many instances.  Since the Viet Nam war in America, conscription (or forced military participation) has been viewed negatively by the citizenry and has not been in practice.    None of that, however, changes the mandates of church and state or the New Testament understanding of how church and state relate to one another.

5.) “Today we make a distinction between a totalitarian and a welfare state.”   This is a change that “really is a change from New Testament times.”(pg. 40)   Today, the state does much more than simply exercise the sword in protection of the citizens, it also provides many social welfare programs, infrastructure, fire protection and so on.

Many of the actives of the modern state are only remotely connected, or not connected at all with the exercise of violence to protect what is right.  …The word ‘state’ has acquired a broader meaning today and now refers not only to the ‘sword-function’ itself, but also to the whole administrative structure that carries out this function, and then also to other functions of the same structure.  Not everything we mean by the modern word ‘state’ can be termed ‘pagan’ in the way the ‘violence of the sword’ can.  So we cannot exclude Christians today from actively working within the ‘state’ understood in this broader sense. (pg. 41)

Yet, Yoder goes on to point out that this change may not be for the better.

…For the things that are socially beneficial become jeopardized to the extent that they are bound up with the violence carried out by the state.  The welfare program can, especially in times of war, be forced to support the population policy of a totalitarian state; the school system can become a propaganda machine, and the registry office can become a means of persecuting Jews.  Even public services in which Christians might well find an appropriate place can become poisoned in this sense. (pg. 41)

6.)  “It is offensive to moderns not to measure everyone by the same standard.”  

Representative of this viewpoint is the philosopher Immanuel Kant whose basic principle is: One can call an action good only if one can claim all people should act similarly. (pg. 41)

Therefore, to say that Christians have one standard by which to live, but pagans have another is a double standard and cannot be considered “good.”  Yoder responds;

Christians are able to follow Jesus only because they have experienced forgiveness and can depend on the power of the Holy Spirit.  People for whom these preconditions are not met cannot possibly be disciples of Jesus on their own account.  It would be utopian to expect a Christian life from them, and unloving and legalistic to demand it. And yet a Christian is both expected and required to live a Christian life.  If one wants to call that a “double standard,” so be it. (pg. 42)

Here, Yoder does not back down from the reality that Christians and non-Christians are held to different standards. Faith is a necessary precursor to the Christian life that not all people exercise.

7.) “The last supposed change in situation for the church we know today concerns the general right to vote and democracy itself as a form of statehood.”

In a direct democracy (and in a representative republic, but to a lesser degree) the citizens are the state by virtue of their right to vote and participate in the political process.  This means that participation in the state is not just a right, it is unavoidable because we are the state – even if we act irresponsibly in regards to our role.   Yoder’s response here is worth noting;

There is no absolute difference, only a relative difference, between a democracy and other forms of statehood.  It is not clear that in places where there is no general right to vote, the people have no way at all of influencing the state leaders.  Nor can it be proven that citizens who have the right to vote can always truly influence state leaders. (pg. 42)

In a time when voters, many times by large majorities, want their representatives to vote one way and those same representatives vote another, Yoder’s point is important.  If we are the ‘state’ by the nature of our vote, that implies that our ‘vote’ has actual power to shape the course of things such that we can be held responsible for the actions of the government as if they are our own.  I don’t know anyone who would agree that such is the state of things today.  More from Yoder on this point.

According to this theory the voter is the state; but if so, the voter is the state in quite a different way than the state official, the jailor, and the soldier are.  Citizens have a (very weak) influence on how violence is regulated, but they are not among those that carry it out.  This difference is not to be ignored. (pg. 42)

Another point;

According to this theory, the apostle Paul was the Roman state, and odd inference, showing that this way of thinking is not all that convincing.  But even if it were convincing, it would only apply to those voters who do in fact vote along with the majority.  Those who have explicitly voted against the decision of the majority can hardly be said to be responsible for the decisions made on the basis of their right to vote. (pg. 42)


Those are the 7 changes that Yoder tackles in Discipleship as Political Responsibility.  You can begin to get a feel for how Yoder thinks and argues on these points.  In my next post I’ll tackle Yoder’s third question, which is; “How should we think about our relationship to the state today, if the Scriptures are indeed to be a valid guide?”


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