About Jesus    Steve Sweetman

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Church, State, And Conrad Grebel


Conrad Grebel lived as a Christian for about 4 years out of his 28 year life.  He was born in 1498 and died in 1526.  He was born into a wealthy family in Zurich Switzerland where his father was a businessman and politician.  Conrad had the best education money could buy.  He attended university in Vienna and Paris and was influenced by the new philosophies of humanism of his day.  While in Paris he became disillusioned with life and got involved in all sorts of  bad behaviour.


Huldrych Zwingli was a Swiss theologian.  Like Martin Luther, he was a reformer in the early 1500's.  Conrad Grebel met up with Zwingli, resulting in his salvation in 1522.  Grebel and Zwingli grew close but were split apart in 1524 over church state issues, which became a divisive issue in Reformation theology.  Many reformers like Zwingli were not comfortable with Catholicism, but they were comfortable with a state run church.  Grebel felt such intrusion into the church by the state was an abomination.


Zwingli saw no need to change the status-quo.  The state was the head of the church, and people became part of the church through infant baptism.  This issue came to a head in 1525 when Zwingli and the city council of Zurich debated the matter.  Grebel and his followers lost the debate.  They became outcasts and were subsequently imprisoned for their beliefs.  They managed to escape prison, but most of them were recaptured and executed.  Grebel, however, eluded the authorities and kept preaching for a few more months across the Swiss countryside.  


Grebel did not view the state run church as being legitimate.  He taught that one had to have personal faith in Jesus in order to be a part of the church.  He also opposed infant baptism, especially as a means to becoming part of the church.  Grebel was highly criticized for not having his two month old daughter baptized.  It has been said that the Anabaptist movement began when Grebel baptized his first adult convert.  Many see Conrad Grebel as the founder of the Anabaptist movement which later broke into various streams of what is now known as the Mennonite movement.    


Grebel taught a clear distinction between state and church.  He thought a state run or state sponsored church was anathema and unbiblical, something that many of the early reformers had no problem with.  It's amazing to me that as I write these words, this same issue is beginning to face the western church today.  The results will be the same.  Some people will have no problem with government dictating to the church.  Others, like me, will have a big problem with this.   Whatever side of the fence you fall on, I believe this is the church's future in the west.  Those who follow in the footsteps of Conrad Grebel will come to the same fate.  We will face opposition from both the state and the traditional church.          


Grebel and his followers were imprisoned and killed, not for faith in Jesus, but for their beliefs concerning the church.  They refused to respond to their persecutors in a violent manner.  Like the first disciples, they felt it a privilege to suffer and die for Jesus.  They took Jesus' words seriously when He told Pilate that His Kingdom was not of this world, and that is why He and His followers would not resist the Roman soldiers with force. (John 18:36)  Some suggest that Conrad Grebel was the founder of modern day passivism.   


Conrad Grebel also taught that the church should be a vibrant community of true disciples of Jesus.  So-called nominal Christians had no place in the church, as was the case in the state run church.  He understood that  church was a community, a brotherhood, where everyone cared for one another and followed the mandates of Scripture.  Grebel's followers were a  community of networked believers scattered across the countryside.  You might say they were a counter-cultural church in Switzerland.  Or, you might say they were an expression of the Body of Christ in action.     


It's ironic that a few decades later some Anabaptists took Grebel's teaching of community to an extreme and taught a form of  "Christian Communism".  One particular group actually took a city by force and attempted to turn the city into the Kingdom of God.  Those who refused to join were executed.  So, here was a group founded on nonviolence and separation of church and state, reverting back to violence and a church run state.  Once again, the distinction between church and state was lost.  


We have two sides of one issue here.  One side is that the state wants to dictate to the church, and the other is that the church wants to dictate to the state by establishing a Christian state.  Grebel rightly believed that the Kingdom of God, which includes the church, was a distinct and separate identity from the kingdoms of men, and the two are incompatible.  


Jesus often said "the Kingdom of God is among you" because, He, the King of the Kingdom, was among His followers.  Once Jesus returned to His Father and gave the Holy Spirit to the believers, the Kingdom of God came to earth in the disciples of Jesus, the church.  Right now, the Kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom, and will be until Jesus returns to earth and sets up a physical kingdom at the end of this age. Only then will the kingdoms of men become the Kingdom of God. (Revelation 12:5, 15:14, 19:15, 21:24 and 26 ) 


Any attempt to make the Kingdom of God a physical nation now is unbiblical.  Any attempt to blur the lines between church and state, or the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of men, is unbiblical.  Any attempt to include people into the church who aren't real disciples of Jesus is unbiblical. 


The head of the church is Jesus. The church belongs to Him alone.  No state or nonbeliever should lead the church.  Grebel was right.  The church is a visible expression of the invisible Kingdom of God.  Only those who have entered the church through the Scriptural mandate of repenting, believing, and receiving the Holy Spirit, are a part of the true church of Jesus Christ.  We should oppose any attempt to make the church anything else than what Scripture teaches.    


Conrad Grebel died at the early age of 28 due to an illness, but his legacy lives on.  Many of his followers were killed by the religious and civil establishment of the day.  In Grebel's day, the civil was the religious, and the religious was the civil.  This unbiblical blurring of two kingdoms brought the true church of Jesus, a counter-cultural church, into sharp dispute and conflict with the state and the traditional church of the day.  We should think seriously about these things because this same issue that faced Conrad Grebel is beginning to face the western church today, resulting in similar conflict.  If we don't think about this now, we will not be prepared when we see the future staring us down in stark reality. 



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