Christian Anarchy
Jesus' Primacy Over the Powers
by Vernard Eller

This publication was originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI: 1987).

Bible selections are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989 (NRSV) by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This work may be freely reproduced and distributed provided that that no changes are made, no revenues are collected beyond the nominal cost of media, and credit is given to the author and House Church Central. Any other use requires the written permission of the author. Citing this material on other Internet sites is encouraged, but is to be done only by providing a hypertext reference to this file on this server.

In appreciation of
who has led me not only into Christian Anarchy
but into much more of God's truth as well.
Merci, mon ami!

Table of Contents

  1. Christian Anarchy--The Very Idea!
  2. In This Corner Arky Faith
  3. Churchly Arkydom It's Unreal!
  4. On Selective Sin and Righteousness
  5. Karl Barth A Theology of Christian Anarchy
  6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Almost Persuaded
  7. Anarchic Theology and Arky Politics
  8. Christian Anarchy and Civil Disobedience
  9. The Modus Operandi of History
  10. On Ways More than One of Skinning Cats
  11. Justice, Freedom, and Grace The Fruits of Anarchy


I hope you find this book "important." But whether you do or not, it is very important to me. More than thirty years into my writing career, I finally have my answer to the question "Who am I?" From the outset, of course, I have been aware that my thought has been formed by the Anabaptist/Brethren tradition of my own church background--and that, it must be said, much more by its classic, historical manifestation than by any contemporary version. I knew then, too, who were the modern thinkers leading me further and further along this line of development. My doctoral dissertation had me exploring the convergence between the thought of Kierkegaard and that of early Brethrenism. Later, I discovered the Blumhardts and published a volume of excerpts from their work. I quickly caught on that Jacques Ellul was of this company and consequently have done studies of and had correspondence with him. More recently, I have had a growing appreciation of Karl Barth as being another representative of the school. My problem has never been that of floundering around. I have always known where I was--even if not quite sure who.

I even got this tradition identified (and I think accurately enough) as "Radical Christian Discipleship." However, although it worked for a time, that label didn't begin to explain the full distinction between this and other Christian traditions. And I regularly found myself at odds with other individuals and groups also claiming to represent Radical Christian Discipleship. This tradition, clearly, had made me a "pacifist"; yet I was entirely unhappy with the "pacifism" of contemporary Brethrenism. Why, I asked myself, did I always wind up on the wrong side of each of the Christian Left's enthusiasms--peace, justice, equality, liberation, feminism? After all, I was supposed to be part of that gang, not an outsider. Yet no matter what was said or implied about me, I knew I was not a "conservative" over against their "liberalism." I was every bit as unhappy with the positions of conservatism as with those of liberalism. So, being neither a radical, a liberal, nor a conservative, what under the sun was I? What other option could there be?

The chapters here following will recount my discovery of the rather easily identifiable but almost entirely subconscious and submerged tradition of "Christian Anarchy." And with that tradition I had found my home and am at peace. All of my battles of the past thirty years now fall into place and make sense. Now I can see a consistency throughout; I knew what I was doing but didn't have name for it.

I really do believe the key was in coming up with the requisite terminology: "anarchy," with the derivatives "arky" and "arky faith." All along, of course, Scripture itself provided the terms that should have led us to this understanding but had not. Its talk of "the powers" would have done it--except that we automatically identified those only as the evil powers we were eager to combat and not at all including the good powers we embraced. Likewise, both with Jesus' "being not of the world" and Paul's "not being conformed to the world," we read them as counsels to separate ourselves only from the world's bad powers and certainly not from its good ones. Consequently, lacking an explicit terminology, even the greatest Christian anarchists--from Jesus on down--have not had themselves or their condition identified in a way that would make possible explicit consideration, analysis, and debate.

Yet the material is there. In fact, even before I made my discovery of Christian Anarchy, several of the chapters of this book had been written as independent pieces. I now found that all I had to do was a bit of recasting into arky terminology in order to make them fit--and not only fit but also come alive with a clarity and relevance they had not had before. Indeed, I could now read any number of my earlier efforts and say, "Of course! If I had only had the concept 'anarchy,' I would have known what I was talking about." Actually, at one point I was right on the verge. In my book The Promise (New York: Doubleday, 1970), there was an untimely born, now-I-see-what-this-book-is-all-about chapter entitled "The Grand Irrelevancy of the Gospel," in which I spoke particularly of the grand irrelevancy of Jesus. That chapter can now be seen to be pure Christian Anarchy. But I didn't have the word for it and so had to wait another fifteen years to get the answer to "Who am I?" Sorry about that. Nevertheless, whether you find this book important or not, it is a most important one to me.

When it comes to acknowledging those who have aided in the creation of this book, I am in an impossible situation. In bits and pieces, the manuscript has circulated ever so widely. Some of the ideas and materials have been used in public presentation and discussion. I can't begin to recall who all contributed what helpful suggestions and criticisms. Therefore, I have decided here to list by name only those recognized scholars who have done the equivalent professional critique from their field of expertise. Most of these get mentioned within the book itself. And it must be emphasized that the appearance of a name here does not necessarily connote that person's approval of the book's thesis; in a couple of cases that is definitely not so.

But I here want to recognize my debt and express my gratitude to the following distinguished professors (all in the fields of theology and the Bible except Jacques Ellul, who is distinguished in any number of fields, and James Stayer, who is a historian): Bernard Ramm (American Baptist Seminary of the West, Berkeley); Jacques Ellul (retired in Bordeaux, France); George Hunsinger (Bangor Theological Seminary); Warren Groff (Bethany Theological Seminary, Oak Brook, Illinois); Markus Barth (University of Basel, Switzerland); Martin Rumscheidt (Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, Nova Scotia); James Stayer (Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario); Howard Clark Kee (Boston University).

The best I can do for all the other people who feel they have contributed to the book is this: I hereby want to express my heartfelt gratitude to all the other people who feel they have contributed to the book.

I do also want to give special thanks to the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company--in particular to Publisher Eerdmans and editors Gary Lee and Sandy Zeles. My relationship there has always been much more personal and precious than simply a business one.

As ever, I am deeply obligated to the members of my own family--some of whom made a direct contribution to this particular book; all of whom hold me up and keep me going through the labor of book-birthing.

Finally, regarding the typing and manuscript preparation, I gratitude for my faithful TRS-80 Model I computer and its Allwrite word-processing program. It gets the job done right--and cheap.

La Verne, California
New Year, 1986

Before We Start

Enough of the manuscript already has been around enough that I can know for a surety what the major criticism of this book will be. It makes sense, then, for me to enter my rejoinder here--even before we start. This way, the readers can immediately be cognizant of the issue and thus prepared to weigh its pros and cons in the very process reading.

It already has been and will continue to be said that the position presented here has me essentially "apolitical"--and thus quietistic, unconcerned about the state of the world, irresponsible, and altogether deplorable.

For one thing, I would respond that the book is not exactly an arguing of "my position." Before it is that it is an effort to discover: (1) the position of Scripture (particularly Jesus and Paul); (2) in a major way, the positions of Jacques Ellul and Karl Barth; (3) in a lesser way, those of Søren Kierkegaard, J. C. and Christoph Blumhardt, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and (4) in a still lesser way, of several contemporary New Testament scholars.

It is only out of these sources, then, I derive what might be called "my position." Accordingly, before denouncing Vernard Eller's "apoliticism" out of hand, any critic ought really to decide whether he means also to include Scripture and these other human authorities in that denunciation--or whether he is prepared to show that my interpretation of them is wrongheaded. I am ready to face the music either way; but I do think the critic needs to decide which is to be his tune.

However, regarding the issue itself; I would say that whether or not our position fairly can be charged as "apolitical" depends entirely upon how one defines "political." If political" be taken in the narrow sense, as signifying those means and methods the world regularly accepts as normative for its doing of politics, then the position of me and mine clearly and is that of apoliticism. If, however, "political" be understood in the broad, etymological sense, as identifying whatever actions have public effect upon the life of the "city" (polis), then there are no grounds for accusing either "me" or any of "mine" of advocating apoliticism.

No, Our position is meant precisely to challenge the assumption that the worldly way is the only way to be of ameliorative political effect. Consequently, we urge Christians to be as political as all get out, in their own peculiarly Christian way. Otherwise, if the gospel must simply accept and buy into the world's definition of politics, then as much as that gospel can hope to offer is counsel and instruction on how to play worldly power-politics effectively and well. And I can't see that as being much of a gospel at all. Anything expecting to be called "good news" just has to be better than that.

I propose, therefore, that the basic distinction between worldly politics and Christian politics lies in two assumptions that are fundamental to the worldly practice but absolutely rejected by the gospel.

In the first place, the exercise of worldly politics rests upon a quite unfounded confidence in the moral competency of human beings--and more particularly, upon a quite arrogant error in attributing categorical moral superiority to partisans of the one "true" ideology over against those of anybody else. This proud claim extends not only to moral wisdom ("We know what is right as no one else does") but also to moral authority ("Because we are right, that justifies our use of propaganda, demonstration, boycott, and all such power tactics in imposing our 'right' upon those people we know to be wrong"). Worldly politics is built upon pretentious claims of moral superiority--of which the Christian gospel recognizes nary a one.

Second, it follows that a prime characteristic of worldly politics is its invariable forming of itself as "adversarial contest." There has to be a battle. One party, ideology, cause group, lobby, or power bloc which has designated itself as "The Good, the True, and the Beautiful" sets out to overbear, overwhelm, overcome, overpower, or otherwise impose itself on whatever opposing parties think they deserve the title. And if this power contest among the morally pretentious is what is meant by being "political," then Eller and company are indeed happy to be called "apolitical."

We claim, however, that there is another form of politics--another form of action affecting the polis--that the gospel can fully approve. In this form, rather than one worldly party setting itself in moral judgment over all others, our political action would be submission to God's moral judgment upon everything and everyone human (which judgement, it is clear, falls firstly and foremostly upon God's very own partisans). Rather than taking sides, this politics would be nonpartisanly critical of all adversary contest and power play. It would be a politics intent on mediation and the reconciling of adversaries instead of supporting the triumph of one over another. It would be a political theology of liberation intent to liberate humanity from nothing so much as its enslavement to worldly politics.

Nobody anywhere in this book says anything remotely suggesting that Christians need have no concern regarding the grave social problems of our world. I don't think anyone cited would have difficulty with Karl Barth's "not of this world" politics--which we undertake merely to suggest with a few quotations out of the chapter dealing exclusively with him.

He [Barth] thought that the church could neither prescribe a political decision nor leave it open (as though it were merely "a matter of discretion"); [the church's] task was to make the issues quite clear. [This "clarifying of the issues" I take to mean an open and objective presentation of all interpretations and points of view rather than the pushing of the one ideological line the pastor (or some other partisan) has already decided is the Christian one.]
The [church's] proclamation [of justice to the world] is good when it presents the specific commandment of God, and is not good when it puts forward the abstract truth of a political ideology.
[The church should exercise] an active and responsible participation in the state. [But] of course, the church's decisive service to the state was, in Barth's view, its preaching: "By proclaiming the divine justification, it performs the best service to the establishment and maintenance of human justice."
The church best performs its service in the midst of political change when its attitude is so independent and ... so sympathetic that it is able to summon the representatives of the old and new order alike [i.e., rightist supporters of the establishment and leftist supporters of the revolution] ... to humility, to the praise of God, and to humanity; and can invite them all to trust in the great change (in the death and resurrection of Christ) and to hope in his revelation.

Obviously, there is a sense (the partisan power-contest sense) which Barth's position very accurately could be called "apolitical"--especially when he starts inviting secular bureaucracies to accept Jesus and trust in his coming again (that's politics?). Yet, just as obviously, if "apolitical" has to mean "socially unconcerned," "hopeless about any possibility of change," "helpless that either God or the church might publicly act"--if "apolitical" has to carry these overtones, then it is the last word in the world that will apply to Karl Barth.

Consider that the "coming of Jesus" (even now underway) involves the greatest political change the world will ever see, namely, the disappearance of worldly politics with all its moral pretension and adversarial contest. And if this is what the coming of Jesus portends, then the first place this disappearance should be observable is among the members of Christ's body. Thus, God's indication is that the church should be moving away from hard-ball politics rather than (as we are doing) baptizing such politics--and this in complete disregard of what the hymnist knew almost a century ago: "For not with swords' loud clashing, / Nor roll of stirring drums, / But deeds of love and mercy, / The heavenly kingdom comes."

Copyright (c) 1987