In the early church there was widespread agreement that it was inappropriate for Christians to seek political power. These early Christians believed that their separation from the state was an important part of following the example of Jesus. By “early church” I mean the church prior to the year 313, the year Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of Christianity. When Christianity transitioned from a persecuted religion to a government-endorsed religion, this led to a rapid change of perspective and practice on many issues.
Why Care What the Early Church Did?
The early Christians were fallible human beings. They wrote uninspired words. They were just as capable of error as men in any other generation. Although the early church’s practices and teachings did correspond to the New Testament in many ways, they made errors as well. We shouldn’t just agree with everything the early church said or did. The Bible is our authority, and where the early church departed from Scripture, we are always to go with Scripture.
These early Christian writers were not inspired, and they are not authoritative. But they were dedicated disciples of Jesus, and they were knowledgeable students of Scripture with very strong convictions (convictions they were often willing to die for). They also lived in a time and culture not far removed from the New Testament itself.
Their opinions aren’t authoritative, but we should still pay attention to what they had to say, and carefully consider their words. This is especially true in those areas where we find all of the early Christians speaking on a subject unified in agreement with one another.
Polycarp (69-155, Smyrna)
Perhaps the earliest post-New Testament indication of the church’s relationship to government from The Martyrdom of Polycarp (read chapters 9 and 10 here). Polycarp was personally taught by the Apostle John, and was an elder at the church in Smyrna. As he faced martyrdom, he was given a simple request,
Swear by the fortune of Caesar… Swear, and I will set thee at liberty!
Polycarp responded to this request in the following words:
Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: How then can I blaspheme by King and Savior?
According to John’s disciple, Polycarp, to swear an oath of allegiance to the fortune of Caesar was to blaspheme against King Jesus. Yet even while facing death, Polycarp went on to respond further:
To thee have I thought it right to offer and account [of my faith]; for we are taught to give all due honor (which entails no injury to ourselves) to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God.
Even though Polycarp refused to swear his allegiance to Caesar, he was committed to continually showing honor to governing powers and authorities.
Justin Martyr (100-165, Rome)
Justin Martyr wrote a defense of Christianity to the emperor , explaining that while Christians do not encourage open rebellion against the emperor, there are limitations to what services they can offer. (Read “First Apology” chapter 17 here)
And everywhere, we more readily than all men, endeavor to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him… Whence to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you…
But if you pay no regard to our prayers and frank explanations, we shall suffer no loss, since we believe (or rather, indeed, are persuaded) that every man will suffer punishment in eternal fire according to the merit of his deed.
From Justin Martyr’s apology, we observe:
- When Christians are unhappy with the unsound judgments of their rulers, they are not to rebel against them. Rather they are to continue to gladly serve them.
- If Christians want to positively influence their rulers towards sound judgment, they may offer prayers and “frank explanations”
- If these prayers and explanations are not sufficient to bring about positive change, they are to have confidence that God will hold their rulers accountable with the punishment of eternal fire.
Tertullian (160-220, Carthage)
Tertullian was one of the most prolific and well respected early Christian writers. In His treatise “On Idolatry” (Read chapter 18 here) Tertullian wrote:
He [Jesus] exercised no right of power even over His own followers, to whom He discharged menial ministry; if, in short, though conscious of His own kingdom, He shrank back from being made a king. He in the fullest manner gave His own an example for turning coldly from all the pride and garb, as well of dignity as of power. For if they were to be used, who would rather have used them than the Son of God? What kind and what number of fasces would escort Him? What kind of purple would bloom from His shoulders? What kind of gold would beam from His head, had He not judged the glory of the world to be alien both to Himself and to His disciples.
According to Tertullian:
- If Jesus had wanted to hold earthly political office, He would have achieved the greatest honors any king has ever known.
- Yet Jesus rejected the opportunity to become an earthly king.
- In so doing, Jesus set an example that all Christians should follow.
Tertullian went on in the same chapter to describe political power as an enemy of God.
Therefore what He was unwilling to accept, He has rejected; what He rejected, He has condemned; what He condemned, He has counted as part of the devil’s pomp. For He would not have condemned things, except such as were not His; but things which are not God’s, can be no other’s but the devil’s. If you have forsworn the devil’s pomp, know that whatever you touch is idolatry. Let even this fact help to remind you that all the powers and dignities of this world are not only alien to, but enemies of God.
In another place, as Tertullian was writing a defense of Christianity, Tertullian observed that the testimony of Jesus was so convincing that even the Caesar’s themselves would have believed. The Caesars, however, were prevented from accepting Christianity because they understood that Christians cannot be Caesars. (Read Apology, chapter 21 here)
The Caesars too would have believed on Christ, if either the Caesars had not been necessary for the world, or if Christians could have been Caesars.
Origen (184-253, Alexandria)
The most complete discussion of Christianity and politics in the early church can be found in the discussion between Celsus and Origen”. Celsus was a pagan philosopher who wrote a serious attack against Christianity in his book “True Doctrine”. Although his book has not been preserved in its entirety, a good portion of it is preserved through Origen’s response, “Against Celsus”. Origen was one of the greatest scholars and most prolific writers in the early church.
One of Celsus’ primary attacks against Christianity was the way they separated themselves from the state. He viewed Christianity as a “new state of things” that was caused by “rebellion against the state” (3.5). Celsus believed that each nation’s form of government had been preserved for the public advantage. Therefore, “it would be an act of impiety to get rid of the institutions established from the beginning in various places” (5.25).
At the heart of Celsus’ concern was his understanding that when one becomes a Christian, they withdrew themselves from participating in political powers.
If everyone should do the same as you, nothing would prevent the emperor from being left alone and deserted, and the affairs of the earth would come into the hands of the most lawless and the wildest barbarians; and then there would no longer remain among men any of the glory of your religion or of the true wisdom. (8.68)
Celsus was certainly prejudiced against the Christians, but he was well informed of their way of life. And it is apparent that Celsus did not know of any Christians who had become involved politics, and viewed the rejection of political powers as a matter of principle among them.
Origien’s Response to Celsus
It is interesting to note that Origen did not respond to Celsus’ attack by saying “You are wrong. Look, here are lots of Christians who have sought to reform, strengthen, and support the Roman Empire.” Rather Origen accepted the accuracy of Celsus’ claim, and sought to justify Christians in their separation from the state. Origen pointed out that as a matter of principle, the talent of the church should be devoted to the service of building up the church, rather than to be involved in politics.
“Celsus also urges us to take office in the government of the county, if that is required for the maintenance of the laws and the support of religion. But we recognize that in each state the existence of another national organization, founded by the Word of God, and we exhort those who are mighty in word and of blameless life to rule over Churches… And it is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a diviner and more necessary service in the Church of God – for the salvation of men. (8.75)
Origen encouraged Celsus to think through his accusation to its logical conclusion. What would really happen if everyone became a Christian, and thus withdrew themselves from the political powers?
For if, as Celsus says, “everyone should do the same” as I, it is evident that even the barbarians, having come to the word of God, will be most law abiding and civilized, and every religion will be destroyed except that of the Christians, which will prevail. (8.68)
According to Origen it was a “religious act” of Christians to turn people away from the customs of the Romans and to turn them to the better laws enacted by Jesus (5.32). Origin’s understanding of the Christian’s relationship with the state in the early church could be summed up in these words:
We are to despise integrating ourselves with kings or any other men. (8.65)
What Can We Take Away From These Early Christians?
From the preserved writings of early Christian authors, it appears that the early church believed that there were two kingdoms: the kingdom of Rome and the kingdom of God. Since Christians are committed to imitating the example of Jesus, it would be inappropriate for Christians to seek political power.
And the church grew. Without any Christians in positions of political power, the church increased. Without any “religious freedom” or “Christian principles” in government, the church triumphed.
These early Christians aren’t authoritative. Only the Bible is. Perhaps these Christians were wrong, but their convictions should cause us to think about, and perhaps question, why we believe it is so important for Christians to get involved in politics.
An early Christian named Speratus wrote:
The empire of this world I know not; but rather I serve God… Because I know my Lord, the King of kings and Emperor of all nations.
Speratus refused to give his allegiance to Rome. Speratus went on to defeat the Roman Empire. He was martyred in 180 for his faith. (Read “The Passion of Sciliitian Martyrs” here)