Did Early Anabaptists Support the Death Penalty?

Did Early Anabaptists Support the Death Penalty? May 19, 2023

As an Anabaptist, I note with interest when Anabaptism appears as a topic in religious and political discourse. I was therefore interested to read Daryl Charles’s citation of the Anabaptist Schleitheim Confession in his recent argument for the death penalty. Charles writes,

Even the so-called “left wing” of the Protestant reform movement—from which much modern religious opposition to capital punishment is thought to derive—recognized the death penalty. The Schleitheim Confession of 1527, an exemplary document adopted by the Swiss Brethren (the progenitors of earliest Anabaptism), reads: “The sword is an ordinance of God. … Princes and Rulers are ordained for the punishment of evildoers and putting them to death.” This Anabaptist declaration concurs with the 1580 Lutheran Formula of Concord, which prescribes for “wild and intractable men” a commensurate “external punishment.”

Sometimes the content of an ellipsis doesn’t matter. In this case, it does. Far from prescribing a death penalty, the Schleitheim Confession, in accordance with the early church and the Anabaptist movement, see capital punishment as an imperfect measure. This article is an attempt to set the record straight and to suggest why an Anabaptist ellipsis should reframe the discussion of the death penalty among Christians and other members of Western civilization.

Here is the full quotation from the Schleitheim Confession, including the ellipsis:

The sword is ordained of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and puts to death the wicked, and guards and protects the good. In the Law the sword was ordained for the punishment of the wicked and for their death, and the same (sword) is (now) ordained to be used by the worldly magistrates.

The key phrase missing in Charles’s quotation is “outside the perfection of Christ.” This phrasing is based on the Anabaptist doctrines of nonresistance and two kingdom theology. In short, the Schleitheim Confession, and other statements from Anabaptists, hold that violence is proper to the government, which can use violence to maintain some measure of peace in the secular realm. However, they believed that the justice derived from violence is unsatisfactory. In this, they agree with Irenaeus’s exposition of Romans 13:

For since man, by departing from God, reached such a pitch of fury as even to look upon his brother as his enemy, and engaged without fear in every kind of restless conduct, and murder, and avarice; God imposed upon mankind the fear of man, as they did not acknowledge the fear of God, in order that, being subjected to the authority of men, and kept under restraint by their laws, they might attain to some degree of justice, and exercise mutual forbearance through dread of the sword suspended full in their view (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5.24.2)

God grants the use of the sword to secular government in order to keep secular society from devolving into utter chaos, so that “some degree of justice” can be maintained. Capital punishment is not Christianity’s prescription for evildoers, but a reality that Christians recognize must exist in a society made up of those who do not strive for “the perfection of Christ.”

So far, the Anabaptists would seem not to be in radical disagreement with Charles’s thesis, although it is clear that they did not actually concur with the Lutheran Formula on this point. However, the Anabaptist dissatisfaction with capital punishment runs deeper. The classic Anabaptist doctrine of nonresistance teaches that, unlike the secular government, Christians cannot employ violence—instead, they love their enemies, do not resist evil people (Matthew 5:39, 44), and never repay evil with evil (Romans 12:17). This difference between the government’s methods and those of Christianity have historically caused the Anabaptists to refrain from holding public office. In this, there is also precedent in the earliest Christians, who also had an uneasy relationship with public office. Writers like Tertullian (On Idolatry 17) and Origen (Against Celsus 8.75) saw public office as a compromising position for reasons that included the inherent violence of many public roles.

This indicates that, to suggest that Anabaptists or the early church supported the death penalty is a bit misleading. They recognized its necessity for secular society but would not do it themselves. However, correcting this mischaracterization could seem to be a purely academic issue. A more pertinent question is why the Anabaptist position should inform a discussion on the death penalty. That’s the question I’ll discuss in my next post.

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