Lipscomb on the Mennonites

In 1909 David Lipscomb received a note from Nankin, Ohio, describing how Allen county voted “wet” by 36 votes when 800 “dry” Mennonites refused to vote. The angry author laid the “responsibility of the result” at the feet of the Mennonites. The writer noted that since the “supreme power in our government is lodged with the people,” everyone must participate or else responsibility for negative results lies with them (the non-voters).

Lipscomb responded in a classic article entitled “Mennonites” (Gospel Advocate. February 18, 1909, pp. 204-205).  He defends Mennonite practice and says the idea of non-participation “did not originate with” Menno Simons.  When “Jesus refused [Satan’s]  offer” of the kingdoms of his world, he set an example for his disciples.

Others followed that example. Lipscomb cites Justin Martyr, Tertullian and Origen. He depends on Edward Gibbon, Johan Lorenz Mosheim and George Herbert Orchard for his history.  “Nothing in history is surer,” he writes, “than that the churches for the first three centuries held firmly to the doctrine that Christians should not take part in civil institutions. After the conversion of Constantine they were encouraged to engage in political affairs, and many fell from their steadfastness in the faith.” But not all, including the “Waldenses, the Wickliffites, and the Husstites” (quoting Mosheim).  And the Mennonites.

Lipscomb then offers his own theological comment on the practice of the Mennonites. He concludes his brief article with the following three paragraphs. They are a succinct statement of his convictions.

     These are only a few extracts showing the ancient and divine origin of the doctrine held on tis subject by the Mennonites. I believe this the teaching of the Bible, and the true end of the reign of God on earth will never be realized until the children of God work in God’s church. The kingdoms of this world are nowhere recognized as the kingdoms of God, but as the kingdoms of the evil one. They are to be borne and treated with as necessitated by the sinfulness of man, to be overruled by God for the punishment of evil doers, and essential to the well-being and government of the world until the rule of Christ is established. We are to pay our taxes and submit in all things that do not lead away from God into fellowship with these. We should always gratefully accept all favors and laws promoting morality and virtue. But we cannot take part in the human governments.

     I think no greater evil can befall the churches of Jesus Christ than for them to enter the field of politics, drink into the spirit of the civil powers, and look to them for help in enforcing morality and in carrying out the law and the righteousness of the Bible. The more widely the church and the State can be kept apart in their operations, the better for both. The reason of this is, they are diverse in  nature and character, and must be run on different and antagonistic principles. For a man, as a Christian, to enforce a principle of morality or righteousness on his fellow-man by civil law is persecution. The church of God is the embodiment of spiritual influences that conquer through love and self-sacrifice; the civil government is the embodiment of material influence and forces that conquer by physical power. The two cannot be moved by the same spirit or work harmoniously in the same hands. The civil ruler that would be moved by the spirit of Christ, that would die to save a victim from death, would not be a successful civil ruler. While the church and the civil government cannot work harmoniously in the same hands and in the same channel, and while some men are wicked and corrupt and all are weak and short-sighted, under the laws of God they may both be in the world, and yet his people be not of the world, and they may be helpful to each other. The church doing its duty must keep a moral sentiment alive that will help the world and afford a standard of right on which the civil government will rest, and the government can afford protection and help to the Christian. For this latter protection the Christian should pay his taxes and submit to all laws of the government not conflicting with the laws of God.

     I am always sorry to see Christians engage in politics.I am sorry to see them become interested in working to put others in office. I ams sorry to see them seek office; sorry to see them given office, for it demoralizes them and leads others wrong. I am glad to see Christians stand for God and his truth even when the opposite course seems to bring good. Much good of an earthly character, moral and temporal, is offered to lead away from God. Men must learn to stand like these Mennonites for the truth against temporal good.

“Thus, endeth the lesson. “

13 Responses to “Lipscomb on the Mennonites”

  1.   John Says:

    Hi John Mark

    “For a man, as a Christian, to enforce a principle of morality or righteousness on his fellow-man by civil law is persecution.”

    Lipscomb has lost it here. I guess this would make a law against murder “persecution.”

    ” I am sorry to see them seek office; sorry to see them given office, for it demoralizes them and leads others wrong.”

    Could Lipscomb’s argument here be used against a Christian entering business: that it would lead them into materialism? It seems to be the same line of thought, to me. Yet, he was a business man farmer, was he not?

    His thoughts on Satan’s offer of the kingdoms of the world and Jesus’ rejection of them is interesting though.


    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      Probably Lipscomb is thinking primarily about the “wet/dry” issue, John. But at another level he may be thinking that Christians don’t enforce government at all because to do so is to participate in coercion and violence, including the punishment of murder. God will use governments to do such, but we are not called to participate in them. That is how I think Lipscomb might respond to your point

      Lipscomb would make draw a distinction between civil government (which is erected by humans for the use of power) and buisnesses (farming, etc.) which are part of the vocation of creation itself. The latter belongs to creation but the former is assertion of royal perjoratives that belong only to God.

      Thanks for the response.

  2.   rich constant Says:

    john mark
    Richard Beck
    has some interesting thoughts along this train of thought.
    i found them pretty neat.
    all be it 100 years later

    ” … According to the Bible, the principalities are legion in species, number, variety and name. They are designated by such multifarious titles as powers, virtues, thrones, authorities, dominions, demons, princes, strongholds, lords, angels, gods, elements, spirits…

    And if some of these seem quaint, transposed into contemporary language they lose quaintness and the principalities become recognizable and all too familiar: they include all institutions, all ideologies, all images, all movements, all causes, all corporations, all bureaucracies, all traditions, all methods and routines, all conglomerates, all races, all nations, all idols. Thus, the Pentagon or the Ford Motor Company or Harvard University or the Hudson Institute or Consolidated Edison or the Diners Club or the Olympics or the Methodist Church or the Teamsters Union are principalities. So are capitalism, Maoism, humanism, Mormonism, astrology, the Puritan work ethic, science and scientism, white supremacy, patriotism, plus many, many more—sports, sex, any profession or discipline, technology, money, the family—beyond any prospect of full enumeration. The principalities and powers are legion.

    The important part of this description for our purposes is that life is saturated with the powers. Anything that influences us, anything that dominates our thoughts, feelings or behavior is implicated in the powers:…”

  3.   Adam Gonnerman Says:

    THAT WAS GREAT! Thanks for sharing it.

  4.   V. Lee Says:

    “When ‘Jesus refused [Satan’s] offer’ of the kingdoms of his world, he set an example for his disciples.”

    Excellent point. Thanks for sharing this.

    Grace and peace,

  5.   Clark Coleman Says:

    A few thoughts on Lipscomb’s comments. First, the offer of the kingdoms of this world to Jesus by Satan is a somewhat problematic passage. What exactly does it mean? In Romans, we read that God instituted civil authorities to maintain order, and Lipscomb acknowledges this in several places. So, are civil authorities carrying out a secular role that God approves, or do we take one sentence from Satan to interpret civil authorities as being entirely in the grasp of Satan? And what would it mean for Jesus (hypothetically) to accept Satan’s offer? What, specifically, is offered? Read the commentaries on this passage from the last 1900 years and you don’t find a clear consensus. I would not build a doctrine on one possible interpretation of a mysterious passage.

    Second, if Christians benefit from civil order and should pay taxes for this benefit, what should our attitude be when the civil order threatens to become chaos? Are we indifferent? Do we always take for granted that civil order will be maintained?

    Finally, I tend to distrust the extreme dualistic dichotomies that Christians often establish in their doctrines and interpretations. A more holistic approach almost always proves more satisfactory. Lipscomb’s dualism of spiritual vs. secular is rather extreme here.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:


      Thanks for the response. God ordained governments in the sense that he uses governments for his own purposes (e.g., using Babylon to punish Judah). But that does not, according to Lipscomb, mean that those governments are themselves good (as Habakkuk noted).

      The temptation of Jesus is, I think, a fascinating point. Is not this temptation fundamentally about us as well and about what we seek and in what we participate? Of course, Lipscomb would not say it simply this text that tells the story as he would appeal to multiple texts.

      I think Lipscomb would suggest that God takes care of civil order/disorder rather than Christians participating. God ordains and uses but calls his people not to participate. Leave it to God, I think would be his response.

      Lipscomb’s view is not a metaphysical dualism, but is the dynmaic of a spiritual conflict between good and evil. To that extent a dualism exists which Paul named as the principalities and powers. That is the only kind of dualism Lipscomb buys into and even at that God is wholly sovereign over that conflict so that there is no ultimate dualism. The reign of God will come to earth, and the will of God will be done on earth as it is heaven.


  6.   Ralph Williams Says:

    While at Harding, I became familiar with Brother Andy T. Richie. His wife had been my Math teacher for a year at the academy, and for some reason, they took me under their wing. Brother Richie had a number of papers and pamphlets that he had written, arguing that Christians were commanded to Pay (taxes), Pray (for those in power), and Obey (the law, as long is it did not conflict with Christian duty). I had come from a school that taught that Christians must be Socialists, and on Harding’s campus was taught the opposite, so Bro. Richie’s view had some appeal.

  7.   Tom Atkinson Says:

    Thanks for the article John! I know (and have known) many Christians who take Lipscomb’s view on government. However, I’ve often believed that his views were more shaped by what he experienced during the civil war, than even he would have admitted.

    It also seems difficult to me to apply, across the board, the principles that Christians of the 1st century had to work with, given the type of government they lived under, as opposed to the type of government we in America have. For instance, we do not have a Cesar! Our form of government is a Constitutional republic wherein our Constitution places limits on what government can a cannot do! Ideally, we the people are the government. Thus, I would argue, contrary to Lipscomb, that we need Christian’s in all levels of government and the private sector (lawyers, Congressmen, doctors, teachers, etc.,). Especially when they are truly principled men and women who will remain consistent to their faith while in the various positions they hold.

    It still find Lipscomb’s position to hold sway with many sections of Church of Christ people, especially in the south.

    Thanks for posting this. Have a happy, safe and blessed New Year!

  8.   John Mark Hicks Says:


    One might say that the current nationalism and patriotism within Churches of Christ has been shaped by WWII and economic prosperity.

    Lipscomb was well aware that we are a government of the people, but governmental institutions fundamentally corrupt (in his opinion) and they exist as an alternative allegiance to the kingdom of God.

    I would say his position is a decided minority in Churches of Christ these days. Few defend him though there may be lingering effects in the sense of distaste for politics (but there are other reasons for that as well).


    John Mark

  9.   rodney burke Says:

    One thing here is clear, the Mennonites thought the wet issue was wrong and failed to let their voices be heard. After all, they DO live there too. Their failure to vote, simply validated the wet and didn’t do anything to voice their opposition to the Wet issue. The votes they kept out could have changed the outcome? Possibly. They are forced to have something as law among them they oppose. We as christian believers have issues all the time that are not right and we need to oppose them when we can. Government is not going to change unless “we the people” change it.

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      The Mennonites thought was clear that they should obey God rather than human governments. They had other options to bear witness. According to Lipscomb, we ought always to oppose the wrong, but not by participating in the kingdoms of this world


  1. this went thru my mind, too |

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