What’s the Big Deal About Inerrancy?

Today as I was scrolling through Aggos.com, a new social media site for members of the church of Christ (check it out!), I noticed a post by Shane Himes sharing his article “Israel’s Journey to Know God: Biblical Inspiration” (find it here). In short, I disagree with his conclusions about biblical inerrancy and want to share why.

In the past authors within churches of Christ who disagreed with each other often wrote to their opponents in journals, blogs, or brotherhood publications to encourage a written debate and sort out the issues at hand. Sometimes, their correspondence was published for the readership of those journals. Unfortunately, and more often than not, these authors resorted to the vilification of those who disagreed with them through twisting the words of an author who would respond and setting up “straw-man” arguments against those who didn’t. These things don’t make for the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). While we may disagree, I have a responsibility in my response to show “humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2). In order to do this, and remind myself that I am writing to a brother, not an enemy, I’ve decided to write directly to Shane.

Hi Shane,
I know we’ve never met, but if you’re ever in the Henderson, TN, area in the next year or so, let me know and let’s grab some lunch. I’ve read your article about inerrancy and appreciate some aspects of it. I agree that adages and oversimplified viewpoints of the Scripture can cause more harm than good. The Bible is sometimes confusing and often difficult to understand. Even Biblical authors have acknowledged that. Acknowledging that fact, the question then is, “Where do we go from here?”

As I read, I noticed that you are a young guy, like myself, who obviously loves Jesus and His people. The topic of your writing, however, was troubling and in my opinion, inconsistent with what the Bible teaches. Though the Bible is difficult to understand in some places, I sincerely disagree that the best way to deal with these issues is to give up on inerrancy, deny the unity of the biblical writings, or overemphasize the human involvement in the word of the Bible to the point of neglecting the divine. This seems to be what your article is attempting to do.

For the sake of some readers of this, inerrancy as defined by the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy that Shane mentions is probably taken from article XI:

We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

It is important to remember that this “statement” that Shane and I are referring to is not a denominational creed, but a definition of what many believe to be a summation of biblical principles on God’s authority and man’s involvement in the writing of the Christian Scriptures.

I think that your definition of inerrancy is a bit misleading. Article VI, that you’ve mentioned reads: “We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.” Without reading more of the statement, however, it might seem that they mean that God miraculously took control of the biblical author’s writing hand and mechanically dictated each stroke of the stylus. For clarification, Article VIII reads: “We affirm that God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.” The Bible is full of the original authors’ personalities: John’s Greek is easier to read than Luke’s, Paul doesn’t necessarily remember who all he baptized in Corinth, and Matthew’s gospel seems inherently “more Jewish” than Mark’s. These marks of authenticity don’t negate God’s inspiration, they actually emphasize God’s power in providing a consistent message through numerous human authors over long periods of human history.

Many have suggested that the Bible is inspired as far as it speaks to spiritual truths, but not necessarily in regard to what you phrase, “science, sociology, theology, morality, or anything else.” CSOI Article XII reads: “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science.” In your upcoming articles, could you please inform us how we can trust the spiritual positions expounded in Scripture that come from a God unable (or unwilling) to correctly communicate the physical aspects of history or geography? Are the human authors involved in the process somehow limiting God’s accuracy of inspiration?

I appreciate your unique view of the growing understanding of the Hebrew people throughout the ages, but I believe you’ve created a false dichotomy between inerrancy and progressive revelation as the Israelites experienced it. In fact Article V of the CSOI states: “We affirm that God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive.” It is completely reasonable to assume that God’s purposes and personality were more clear to those who had more of His revelation available to them. Hebrews 1:1-2 make that evident. While those who only had access to the Torah may have been more aware of God’s judgment and less of his grace, it’s an unsubstantiated leap to assume that their writings would contradict what would later be revealed. Is it not possible that the people of Israel were emphasizing different aspects about God as more of His revelation became known through prophecy? Do the supposed discrepancies force us to leap to the conclusion that they often changed their thoughts about God, contradicting themselves previously?

Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that your viewpoint must concede that our ultimate authority as Christians is not Scripture, itself, but our subjective deliberations as to what within the Bible is correct by our own definition of proper morality, history, or science. You make some very concrete assertions about your faith, which is laudable. Let’s look at a few of them and apply your hermeneutic.

“I’m not always the follower of Jesus that I should be, but his grace is enough in the absence of my perfection. ”

Amen, brother. Me too. But if we can’t know with certainty which aspects of Scripture are truly God’s Word and which are just human reflections on God’s revelation (which are prone to error), how can you know that Paul’s description of Christ’s grace was what was intended by God?

“It is in Christ that we find the answer all of humanity, including ancient Israel, has searched for.”

I agree, but once again, I feel like my foundation of scriptural inerrancy upholds this. From your position how can you say this, without allowing for the possibility that the apostles misunderstood certain aspects of God’s revelation in Christ?

“Jesus is the perfect revelation from God and all previous revelation must bow to him.”

Amen again. But, if previous revelation and the human tendency to misrepresent God are any indication of how fallible men have represented Jesus in the books of the New Testament, how can I trust Jesus when I don’t actually know for certain who he is and what he is about? It sounds subjective at best.

If I can venture to guess what strategy you’ll take in regard to the concepts introduced in your upcoming article series, I would say that the “points of error” in the Bible (in your opinion) are actually “according to standards of truth and error that are alien to [the Bible’s] usage or purpose” (CSOI Article XIII). If you are planning to focus on “biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations,” (CSOI Article XIII) these can be explained without throwing out inerrancy in what you’ve termed as the “examining of Scripture on its own terms and in its own context.”

…We… deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and to the Church.

Chicago Statement of Inerrancy- Article XIX

This point is vital. Shane, if your view is correct, what are the rest of us missing out on by holding on to the doctrine of inerrancy? Acceptability in scholarly communities? Relevance in the modern world? An easy “out” when difficult questions (like the “violent depictions of God in the Torah”) arise? Is there actually something significant to our faith and knowledge of Christ that we can gain by letting go of inerrancy?

In my understanding, I don’t think those things are worth the price of cutting off the branch we are sitting on. The trustworthiness of God’s inspired word is a pillar that undergirds our faith. When we become the moral, scientific, historical, and theological authorities instead of trusting in God’s Word for all truth, our faith will eventually become a skeleton of what it once was, after we’ve picked it clean of what society deems as inappropriate or distasteful. We certainly won’t look like the church that Jesus built and our witness for Him will be limited to whatever is palatable to the majority.

Shane, as your series of articles appear, I will attempt to show that God’s Word as we have it, the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, is without error in anything that it asserts. The New Testament and Old Testament are in complete agreement with one another and the difficult questions that arise in this discussion can be answered without denying the ability of God to produce an authoritative message to mankind that is free from mistakes.

Will We Have “Physical” Bodies In The Resurrection?

The Body Will Be Incorruptible

Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on the immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up” in victory. -1 Corinthians 15.50-54

As I pointed out in my preceding article, when we speak of the resurrection, we must be careful to emphasize that we will not have the same old corruptible bodies we have now. This is a continual emphasis of Paul’s, especially in the context of 1 Corinthians 15.  This parallels what Paul said in Philippians 3:20-21.

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has given to subject all things to Himself.

But when it comes to “flesh and blood” not inheriting the kingdom of God, this cannot mean that we won’t have bodies. This verse is in a section where Paul is specifically answering the question of “what kind of bodies” we will have.

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come? – 1 Corinthians 15.35

Once again, we need to let Paul define his own terms. Paul has already described what he means by “fleshly” people.

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are still not able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealously and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men? – 1 Corinthians 3.1-3

Here Paul uses the word “fleshly” to describe the same people he described as “natural” in 2.14-16 (referenced in the preceding article). The “natural” and “fleshly” people are those who walk as “mere men”, as opposed to the “spiritual” people who live in harmony with the Spirit. For Paul, the primary meaning of “flesh” is not “made out of matter” or “material” or “skin” or bodily”.  For Paul, “flesh” primarily referred to people who live in sinful rebellion (Rom. 7.5, 14, 18; 8.3-13; Gal. 5.16-19) and for our current bodies which are destined for decay, destruction and death (see also 1 Cor. 5.5; Rom. 7.5; 8.6, 13; 2 Cor. 4.11; Col. 1.22).

Therefore, when Paul says that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”, he is not claiming that material “bodies” cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Rather, as he explains himself in the 2nd half of verse 50, “nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” Unless the nature of our bodies are changed from “corruptible”, “merely human” bodies, into “incorruptible” “spiritual bodies”, we cannot inherit the kingdom of God. Or as he says in verse 53, “this perishable must put on the imperishable”.

Is Jesus Still In A Body?

One further note should be made here. I have on multiple occasions heard preachers claim that when Jesus was raised, he had not yet received his transformed, spiritual body. Since “flesh and blood” cannot inherit the kingdom of God, and since Jesus was clearly raised with a material, tangible body, they conclude that he must have undergone yet another transformation upon his ascension into heaven.

First of all, there is nothing in Scripture that would indicate that Jesus underwent further transformation upon his ascension. Such a conclusion is drawn as an effort to reconcile what appears to be a contradiction between 1 Corinthians 15.50 with what we know about the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body. If, however, we simply accept Paul’s own definition of “flesh and blood” instead of assuming a different definition, the apparent contradiction resolves itself easily.

Secondly, it should be noted that Scripture is clear that Jesus is still in bodily form, even after his ascension. We get a glimpse of this in Acts 1.9-11

And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”

Jesus went up in His resurrected body. And He will return “in just the same way” – in his resurrected body.

Also, notice in Philippians 3.20-21, where Paul writes,

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.

Jesus didn’t shed his human skin. He still has a body – a glorious body, a perfected body, a transformed body, a body like we haven’t experienced yet but will one day experience when He returns and transforms us.

Will We Be Raised with Physical Bodies?

Occasionally debates over the nature of the resurrection body revolve around whether or not we will be raised with “physical” bodies. Rarely do I contribute to such discussions without great hesitation. In fact, you may have noticed that I have described the resurrection body as “material” and “tangible” (since it will be made out of the same “stuff” that was once in our graves, and since Jesus was clearly visible and touchable, unlike bodiless spirits (Lk. 24.39)) , but I have avoided describing the resurrection body as “physical”.

This is not because I wish to be evasive, but rather because a simple “yes” or “no” would almost certainly leave the wrong impression. The difficulty revolves around the meaning of the word “physical”. The word “physical” seems to mean different things to different people, and unless we understand the word alike, we are almost certain to misunderstand one another.

For some, the word “physical” simply means “having material existence” or things which can be perceived through bodily senses. For them, “physical” is virtually synonymous with words like “bodily”, “tangible”, or “material”.

For others, the word “physical” refers to things which are defined by and subject to the physical laws of nature. This would include the tendency for matter and energy to deteriorate over time. Thus for them, the word “physical” includes the idea of “corruptibility”. To describe a body as “physical” is to say that the body is subject to the physical laws of the universe, and therefore is mortal. For them, the word “physical” is very similar to what Paul meant by the word “fleshly”.

So will we be raised with physical bodies? If by “physical”, we simply mean “bodily”, then yes, we will be raised with material, “physical” bodies. But if by “physical” we mean “corruptible” or “mortal”, no, our bodies will not be physical.

For most, I believe the word “physical” includes a little bit of both definitions. This makes sense. In our current world, we don’t have a category for a material “body” that is not subject to decay. The idea of an “incorruptible, physical body” stretches the bounds of our imaginations and language. For this reason, I generally avoid describing the resurrection body as “physical.” Our bodies will be transformed, and I don’t want anybody to miss that point due confusion about terminology.

We must not make the mistake of assuming that all types of material bodies are necessarily corruptible. And likewise, we must not make the mistake of assuming that if we are going to be incorruptible this necessitates a non-bodily “spiritual” existence. Paul wants us to recognize that there are different types of bodies (1 Cor. 15.39-42). When we are raised, we will be raised with bodies. We will be raised with spiritual, incorruptible, material, tangible bodies.

Both Continuity and Discontinuity

In one sense, our resurrection bodies will be the “same” bodies we have now. But in another very important sense, they will be transformed into something radically different. Earlier in the same chapter (1 Cor. 15.37-38) Paul uses the illustration of a seed compared with a full grown plant. There is “continuity” (both are the same organism), and they there is “discontinuity” (the full grown plant is radically different from what was first planted in the ground.)

Yes, we will be raised with bodies, but we must not neglect the great transformation, lest we reduce the resurrection into little more than a “resuscitation” of the same old corruptible body.

Yes, our bodies will be radically different “spiritual”, “incorruptible” bodies, but we will not be bodiless spirits. The dead will actually be raised.

For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. – 1 Corinthians 15.16-17

You can read more on the resurrection here:

We Will Have “Spiritual Bodies”

It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body… Now I say this, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God; nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. – 1 Corinthians 15.44, 50

Those who are in Christ will be raised with spiritual bodies. Read again slowly. Think about both words. “Spiritual”. “Bodies”. The Christian hope is not to be “bodiless spirits” floating around in a non-material existence. Neither is the Christian hope to have our same old corruptible “natural”, “fleshly” bodies. The Christian hope is to be resurrected with “spiritual” “ bodies”.

In recent years, I’ve occasionally witnessed Christians sharply disagree with one another about the nature of the resurrection body. One side will emphasize the continuity between our resurrection bodies and our current bodies (that is, we will be raised with the “same” bodies we have now). The other side will emphasize the discontinuity between our resurrection bodies and our current bodies (that is, our current bodies will be “transformed” into something very different).

We must be careful to avoid unbiblical extremes in either direction. Those who emphasize the sameness of our resurrection body must be careful never to deny the spiritual nature of our future bodies. Those who emphasize the spiritual nature our future selves must be careful never to deny the bodily nature of the resurrection. Instead we should strive for biblical balance by embracing both the continuity and the discontinuity of the resurrection.

We will not be bodiless spirits, and we will not have fleshly bodies. Scripture teaches that we will have spiritual bodies, bodies which in many ways have continuity with our current bodies, but in other very important ways will be very different from our current bodies.

This article is the first part of a two part series examining the nature of the resurrection body. This first article will primarily focus on 1 Corinthians 15.42-44, while the second article will primarily focus on 1 Corinthians 15:50-55. This series is in some ways a follow up to a two part series I wrote a few years ago. You can read those articles here:

The Body Will Be Spiritual

So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. – 1 Cor. 15.42-44

Our resurrection bodies will be very different from our current bodies. In this passage, Paul makes an obvious contrast between our present bodies and our future bodies.

  • Our current bodies are perishable. Our future bodies will be imperishable.
  • Our current bodies are dishonorable. Our future bodies will be glorious.
  • Our current bodies are weak. Our future bodies will be raised in power.
  • Our current bodies are natural. Our future bodies will be spiritual.

Yes, there is a sense in which we can say that our future bodies are the “same” as our current bodies. For example, when Jesus rose from the dead, Thomas could reach out and touch Jesus’s wounds (Jn 20.27-29). Jesus was able to do things that real, material, bodily people are able to do, like cooking fish and eating breakfast (Jn. 21.9-14). When Jesus rose from the dead, He left behind an empty grave. His resurrected body used up the same material that was once in the grave. In this sense, Jesus was raised with the “same” material body that once hung on the cross.

For everything we don’t understand about the nature of the resurrection, we do know that His resurrection body is a model for our own resurrection bodies (Phil. 3.20-21; 1 Jn. 3.1-2). On the resurrection day, “all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth” (Jn. 5.27-29). Just as Jesus’ resurrection left behind an empty grave, so also our graves will be emptied. The same “stuff” that goes into the grave will come out. That’s what the word “resurrection” means.

But (and this is important), Paul’s major point in 1 Corinthians 15.42-44 is that our bodies will not be the “same”. This discontinuity also follows the model of Jesus. For example, in the passage mentioned above, where Thomas reached out and touched Jesus’ wounds, we also read that “Jesus came, the door having been shut, and stood in their midst” (Jn. 20.26). Jesus appeared in a room with locked doors! We can’t do that in our current bodies! He was the same Jesus with the same tangible, touchable, visible material body, but He was different!

In Revelation 1.12-16, the resurrected Jesus is described with white hair, with a face like the sun and eyes like a flame of fire. This was clearly not the same old body that went into the grave! It was the “same body”, but it was obviously not the same body.

When Christians write articles and blog posts that argue that we will be raised with the same physical bodies we have now without likewise emphasizing the radical transformation we will undergo, is it any surprise that they are so frequently met with resistance? If it was important for Paul to emphasize the discontinuity between our current and our future bodies, it should be important for us to emphasize the same. Yes, we will be raised with bodies. Spiritual bodies.

What is a “Spiritual Body” Anyway?

A very important point must be made about the words “natural” and “spiritual”. For some, when they read about the “spiritual” body, they assume Paul is referring to a new, resurrection body that is “spiritual” in in the sense of being “non-material”. In other words, they assume that Paul’s “spiritual body” is the same thing as a “bodiless spirit” – something you could not touch, could not see, and something which would not leave an empty grave behind it. This is especially true when we see the “spiritual” body held in contrast with the “natural” body. For many, it appears that Paul is very clearly drawing a distinction between our current “material” bodies with our future “non-material” existence.

We must stop here and remember that we must allow Paul to define his own terms. Earlier in the same letter, Paul has already told his readers what he means (and what he doesn’t mean) when he uses the terms “natural” and “spiritual”.

But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For ‘who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him?’ But we have the mind of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 2.14-16

Here Paul speaks of fully-embodied, tangible, material Christians as being “spiritual.” These Christians were not ghosts! Rather they were living in harmony with the Holy Spirit. This is the meaning of the word “spiritual” throughout the entire book of 1 Corinthians (3.1; 6.19; 14.37). For Paul, the word “spiritual” almost never means non-material (Rom. 1.11; 7.14; 15.27; Gal. 6.1; Eph. 1.3; 5.19; Col. 1.9; 3.16). Rather the word “spiritual” refers to men whose character is consistent with the character and inspired scriptures of the Holy Spirit.

Throughout the writings of Paul, the words “natural” and “spiritual” do not describe a contrast between material and non-material. Rather they draw a distinction between ordinary human life and life given by the Spirit.

This helps make sense of verses like Romans 8.11.

But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.

It should also be noted that in 1 Corinthians 15.36-54 Paul is answering the question raised in verse 35: “But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” Paul is describing the nature of our future bodies. Yes, we will be resurrected with bodies; spiritual bodies; bodies which are animated by and guided by the Spirit of God. These bodies will be quite different from our current, corruptible, fleshly, natural bodies. There will be no wheelchairs, no arthritis, no diabetes, and no cancer once we are transformed. But, we must never adopt the belief that we will be non-material, bodiless spirits. To deny that dead bodies will actually come to life is to deny the resurrection.

Alexander Campbell’s Eight Reasons for Opposing War

Shortly after the close of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Alexander Campbell delivered his “Address on War” (you can read it in its entirety here). At the conclusion of his address, Campbell summarized eight reasons why he believed that Christians should be opposed to warfare.

  1. The Innocent Suffer

The right to take away the life of the murderer does not of itself warrant war, inasmuch as in that case none but the guilty suffer, whereas in war the innocent suffer not only with, but often without, the guilty. The guilty generally make the war and the innocent suffer from its consequences.

Campbell believed the Bible authorized taking away the life of murderers. “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed” (Gen. 9.6). He did not, however, believe that capital punishment authorized Christians to go to war. In fact, Campbell believed that the “most convincing argument against a Christian becoming a soldier may be drawn from the fact that he fights against an innocent person.”

“Politicians, merchants, knaves, and princes” are usually the ones who make war, but “the soldiers on either side have no enmity against the soldiers on the other side, because with them they have no quarrel.” Campbell observed that opposing soldiers were to meet each other “in any other field, in their citizen dress, other than in battle array, they would probably have not only inquired about the welfare of each other, but would have tendered to each other their assistance if called for.”

These reflections led Campbell to ask,

How could a Christian man thus volunteer his services, or hire himself out for so paltry a sum, or for any sum, to kill his brother man who never offended him in word or deed?

  1. Old Testament Wars Do Not Authorize Christians to Go To War

The right given to the Jews to wage war is not vouchsafed to any other nations, for they were under a theocracy, and were God’s sheriff to punish nations; consequently no Christian can argue from the wars of the Jews in justification or in extenuation of the wars of Christendom. The Jews had a Divine precept and authority; no existing nation can produce such a warrant.

Campbell recognized that the Old Testament “certainly commended and authorized war among the Jews”, yet he believed it was important to observe that “He gave authority, however, to one family or nation, whose God and King he assumed to be.” In other words, the Jews were “under His own special direction and authority.” Therefore,

What the God of Abraham did by Abraham, by Jacob, or by any of his sons, as the moral Governor of the world, before He gave up the scepter and the crown to His Son Jesus Christ, is of no binding authority now.

Christianity is based upon the observation that “Jesus Christ is now the Lord and King of both earth and heaven.” We are now under “the new administration of the universe.” Therefore, when it comes to the question of war, we must look to the teachings of Jesus for authority to go to war.

  1. The Messiah’s Kingdom Was Prophesied As Peaceful

The prophecies clearly indicate that the Messiah himself would be “the Prince of Peace” and that under his reign “wars should cease” and “nations study it no more.

Campbell wrote, “His kingdom neither came nor stands by the sword.” He believed the the “native influence and tendency of the Christian institution” could be seen by reading the words of the prophets when they first announced the coming of the kingdom. He reflected on passages such as Isaiah 2.4:

And He will judge between the nations,
And will render decisions for many peoples;
And they will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not lift up sword against nations,
And never again will they learn war.

The prophet Micah used almost the same words as Isaiah when he wrote:

For from Zion will go forth the law,
Every word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
And He will judge between many peoples
And render decisions for the mighty, distant nations.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
And their spears into pruning hoocks;
Nation will not lift up sword against nation,
And never again will they train for war.
Each of them will sit under his vine
And under his fig tree,
With no one to make them afraid,
For the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.
– Micah 4:2-4

Upon reading such prophecies, Campbell concluded that “the spirit of Christianity, then, is essentially pacific.”

  1. The Gospel Produces “Peace on Earth”

Reflecting on Luke 2.14, when the heavenly hosts sang in praise after the Savior’s birth, Campbell observed:

The gospel, as first announced by the angels, is a message which results in producing “peace on earth and good will among men.”

  1. The Precepts of Christianity Positively Inhibit War

The precepts of Christianity positively inhibit war – by showing that “wars and fightings come from men’s lusts” and evil passions, and by commanding Christians to “follow peace with all men.

Not only is the spirit of Christianity peaceful, but so is the actual letter of it. Campbell makes his point by raising an interesting question. Suppose that the chaplain of an army were to address the soldiers on the eve of a great battle, and suppose he were to address them from the following passages:

But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous an the unrighteous. – Matthew 5.44-45

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone… If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12.17-21

Campbell then asks:

Would anyone suppose that he had selected a text suitable to the occasion? How would the commander in chief have listened to him? With what spirit would his audience have immediately entered upon an engagement?

Reflecting upon these questions, Campbell concludes, “A Christian man cannot conscientiously enter upon any business, nor lend his energies to any cause, which he does not approve.

  1. The Beatitudes Pronounce Blessings on Peacemakers

The beatitudes of Christ are not pronounced on patriots, heroes, and conquerors, but on peacemakers, on whom is conferred the highest rank and title in the universe: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God.

As much as Campbell disliked the horrors, death, and grief brought on by wars, he felt that the moral desolation brought on by war were far worse. “Behold its influence on mothers, sisters, and relatives; note its contagion, its corruption of public taste.” During times of war, people become “fascinated by the halo of false glory thrown around these worshiped heroes.”

He observed that as a result of war, even churches “are ornamented with the sculptured representations of more military heroes than of saints – generals, admirals, and captains who “gallantly fought” and “gloriously fell” in the service of their country.

This worshipful attitude towards soldiers stands in stark contrast to the teachings of Christ, which pronounce blessings on peacemakers rather than on war heroes.

  1. War is Ineffective in Resolving Conflict

The folly of war is manifest in the following particulars: First. It can never be the criterion of justice of a proof of right. Second. It can never be a satisfactory end of the controversy. Third. Peace is always the result of negotiation, and treaties are its guaranty and pledge.

In Matthew 26.52, Jesus warned, “All those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Campbell observed that this has continually been proved true. Throughout history, all nations that were created by the sword have eventually fallen by it. Therefore Campbell had “no doubt” that it would continue to be proved true in the future.

Wars don’t end wars. They produce greater controversy.

  1. War Constrains Soldiers to Kill Their Brethren For No Personal Cause

The wickedness of war is demonstrated in the following particulars:

First. Those who are engaged in killing their brethren, for the most part, have no personal cause of provocation whatever.

Second. They seldom, or never, comprehend the right or the wrong of the war. They, therefore, act without the approbation of conscience.

Third. In all wars the innocent are punished with the guilty.

Fourth. They constrain the soldier to do for the state that which, were he to do it for himself, would, by the law of the state, involved forfeiture of his life.

Fifth. They are the pioneers of all other evils to society, both moral and physical.

Campbell believed it would be morally wrong for an individual to do that in obedience to his government which he could not do in his own case. He asks the reader to consider a scenario where two neighbors were involved in a property line dispute. If one neighbor were to command his servant to burn the other neighbor’s fields and to kill several of his neighbor’s servants, would any judge or jury excuse the servant’s actions simply because the servant was following the orders of his master?

Campbell thus concluded,

We cannot of right as Christian men obey the powers that be in anything not in itself justifyable by written law… A Christian man can never be compelled to do that for the state, in defense of state rights, which he cannot of right do for himself in defense of his personal rights. No Christian man is commanded to love or serve his neighbor, his king, or sovereign more than he loves or serves himself. If this is conceded, unless a Christian man can go to war for himself, he cannot for the state.

Conclusion

For these reasons, Campbell believed “no Christian man who fears God and desires to be loyal to the Messiah, the Prince of Peace, shall be found in the ranks so unholy a warfare.

Campbell’s views on war were grounded in both logic and scripture. Since Jesus’s kingdom is not of this world, the cause of Christ should not be defended militarily. If the cause of Christ is insufficient for taking up arms, surely no lesser cause would be sufficient for taking up arms.

Does God Expect Governments to Love Their Enemies?

Must governments love their enemies? Are militaries required “turn the other cheek”? Does “do not resist an evil person” apply to police forces? In light of all that the Bible teaches about how to treat enemies, should nations have militaries at all?

Was The New Testament Written to Reform Governments?

The New Testament was not written as a moral code to reform all the disorders and evils of the political powers. The New Testament was not written to fill the world with so-called “Christian nations.”

Matthew 4.17 identifies the theme of Jesus’ teaching as “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus’ hearers knew what the word “kingdom” meant. They were familiar with the Egypitians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and now the Romans. But the Kingdom preached by Jesus was to be distinguished from any of these earthly kingdoms. The kingdom preached by Jesus was the “kingdom of heaven.” That is, it was a kingdom from heaven. In other places it is described as the “kingdom of God.” In John 18.36, Jesus made the nature of his kingdom clear. “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this world.” Yes, Jesus came to establish His kingdom in the world, but his kingdom is not of this world.

There is an important distinction made between the kingdoms of this earth and the kingdoms of this world. Earthly kingdoms are under the authority of earthly rulers. The heavenly kingdom is under the authority of the heavenly Father. Earthly kingdoms fight. Those in Jesus’ kingdom do not fight.

The teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount (and throughout the whole New Testament) are the teachings of the kingdom of heaven, not the teachings of any earthly kingdom. Their purpose is not to reform the world by making earthly kingdoms moral, but rather to set apart the disciples of Jesus as “salt” and “light” to be distinguished from the rest of the world.

Paul understood that “loving your enemies” is an essential requirement for those who follow Jesus (Rom. 12.14-13.2). But Paul also understood that we cannot please God unless we have the Spirit of God (Rom. 8.5-16). We cannot love our enemies unless we first present our bodies as living sacrifices and are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12.1-2).

Paul recognized that those who are outside of Christ are in darkness (Eph. 2.1-3). Therefore Paul appealed to Christians not to judge those who are outside the church, but rather to leave their judgment to God (1 Cor. 5.11-12).

The New Testament Is Silent on How Earthly Rulers Should Govern

God’s divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Pet. 1.2-3), but the New Testament is silent when it comes to how earthly rulers are to govern others. Christians are commanded to submit to earthly rulers (Rom. 13.1-4, 2 Pet. 2.13-18), pray for earthly rulers (1 Tim. 2.1-2), and pay taxes to them (Mt. 22.15-22; Rom 13.7), but nowhere are we given instructions to seek to reform or rule over the nations of this world.

In fact, Jesus taught nearly the opposite.

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many. – Matthew 28.25-28

When Jesus was approached with political questions, he used these as opportunities to advance the Kingdom of God (Mt. 22.15-22; Lk. 12.13-15). The point of His teaching was never to rule over others with more godly principles than other men. The point of his teaching was to establish a separate kingdom, founded on entirely different principles.

Paul encouraged Christians not to yoke themselves with unbelievers (2 Cor. 6.14-18), not to fight with earthly weapons (2 Cor. 10.3-4), and not to fight against flesh and blood (Eph. 6.12). He encouraged Christians to remember that earthly rulers and authorities have been disarmed (Col. 2.15). Therefore, Christians should not feel compelled to rule over earthly authorities, but rather they should submit to them (Rom 13.1-4).

The mission of the early church was not to solve the problems of the world by making Rome great, but rather to proclaim the Kingdom of God as the place where those problems will be solved. When disciples of Jesus display the peaceful principles of God’s kingdom, they will draw men out of the kingdoms of darkness into the kingdom of light.

Should Governments Turn the Other Cheek?

Sure, it would be great if every nation on earth followed the golden rule. It would be great if every military on earth acted with love towards their enemies. If every nation on earth were to turn the other cheek, there would probably be a lot less evil and war.

Yet for Christians, this is asking the wrong question. Governments don’t spread the kingdom of God. No military, no violence, and no sword can ever spread the gospel of the Prince of Peace. Neither do governments stop the spread of the kingdom of God. The New Testament is not concerned with reforming the Roman Empire into a Christian nation.

The New Testament never commands Rome, America, or any other nation to have a military. Neither does the New Testament command nations to get rid of their militaries.

The Bible does continually teach that nations will be held accountable for the wicked things they do. But when Paul wrote to the church in Rome, where wicked Nero reigned on the throne, Paul did not charge the church with disarming Nero and his forces. Rather Paul encouraged the church to remember that God can use even those who bear the sword for wicked Nero to accomplish good. Therefore, rather than seeking to disarm Nero, Christians should submit to him, recognizing that God uses earthly governments for the necessary work of executing wrath on evildoers (Rom. 13.1-4).

Rather than resisting the desires of evil earthly rulers, the duty of the Christian is to refuse to take vengeance against their enemies (Rom. 12.14-21). When Christians love their enemies and convert them from their evil, they reform society by removing the necessary reason for the existence of earthly governments and their militaries.

Does This Imply a Double Standard?

Some will object that this implies a double standard. That is, some will argue that if something is a sin for one person, it must be a sin for all people. And if something is right for one person, it must be right for all people. Interestingly, this same objection is raised by two different groups, each raising the objection with very different intentions.

On one hand, sometimes pacifists will argue since it would be wrong for Christians to violently resist evil, it would be wrong for anyone to resist evil. Therefore, Christians should actively call their governments to account whenever their government fails to love their enemies.

On the other hand, others will argue that since governments “do not bear the sword in vain”, and since God must be consistent, Christians must not be sinning when they bear the sword against their enemies. This objection argues that since God allows the world to use violence for a necessary purpose of executing wrath on evildoers, God must also be pleased when Christians when they use violence for the same purpose.

In response to this objection it should be noted that God has always held His people to a higher standard. For example, in the Old Testament, God always held priests to higher standards of holiness than other Israelites. When God commanded the Israelites to go to war, the priests were not to be numbered among those who would fight (Num. 1.47-54). This doesn’t make God inconsistent. Rather, because we know that God does not change (Mal. 3.6), we should come to the New Testament, expecting that God would hold the church, His holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2.5) to a higher standard.

The entire Sermon on the Mount is founded upon the idea that Christians are to be salt and light. Paul’s commands about loving enemies in Romans 12 are founded upon the idea that Christians are not to be conformed to this world (Rom. 12.1-2). Yes, God may use those in the world to bear the sword, but it is not be problematic to think that God holds Christians to a higher standard. It should be expected!

Hope for the world doesn’t like in simply reforming the governments and militaries of this world with Christian ethics.  The command, “love your enemies”, is directly connected to the work and teaching of Jesus, who turned the other cheek when he was crucified by the Roman government.

If we were to succeed in infusing every earthly kingdom with godly principles, but we failed to spread the gospel of the kingdom of God, we will have failed. We cannot expect the world to conform to Jesus’s teachings without first being transformed by the work of Jesus. The answer to wars and violence does not lie in political reform of earthly kingdoms. The answer is found in following the Prince of Peace and inviting the world into His kingdom.

Overturning the Tables on Violence

Jesus taught His disciples to love their enemies (Lk 6.27, 35; Mt. 5.44) do good to them (Lk. 6.27, 34-35), bless them instead of curse them (Lk. 6.37), give to them without expecting anything in return (Mt. 5.44; Lk. 6.30, 34), never resist them with force (Mt. 5.38-39), treat them the way we wish they would treat us (Lk. 6.31), turn the other cheek when struck (Mt. 5.39; Lk. 6.29), and pray for them rather than seeking to injure them (Mt. 26.51-53).

Many, however, will argue that since Jesus acted violently when He cleansed the temple, this proves that Jesus did not intend to his teachings about loving enemies to be taken as absolutes or intend to teach total non-violence. The much discussed passage can be found in Mark 11.15-18, with parallels in Matthew 21.12-17, Luke 19.45-48, and John 2.13-17.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to drive out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves; and He would not permit anyone to carry merchandise through the temple. And He began to teach and say to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a robbers’ den.” The chief priests and the scribes heard this, and began seeking to destroy Him; for they were afraid of Him, for the whole crowd was astonished at His teaching.

In order to understand what Jesus was doing in the temple, we must begin by examining the context. Examined in context it becomes clear that the temple cleansing is not an example of random, uncontrolled wrath.  There are key observations that can be made from the texts which indicate that Jesus’s actions were premeditated, intentional, and loaded with meaning. Jesus was acting purposefully to make a point. Only after understanding the point Jesus was making will we be in a position to wrestle with the implications of this text upon our lives.

The Context: Jesus’ Warnings of Judgment Against the Temple

The temple cleaning scene is presented to us in close connection with (and perhaps as the climax of) the rest of Jesus’ work. Jesus often warned of judgment that would come upon those who refused His call to repentance. Even more specifically, Jesus frequently warned that the temple itself would be judged and destroyed for rejecting his message (Mt. 24; 26.61; 27.39-40; Mk. 13; 14.58; 15.29-30; Jn. 2.19; Acts 6.14).

These warnings create a context where the actions of Jesus in the temple would not have been viewed as those of a random Jew whose religious zeal led him to misbehave. These were the actions of the man who had continually warned that the temple would be destroyed as a result of rejecting His message.

Matthew (21.18-22) and Mark (11.12-14; 20-26) both present the temple cleansing in close connection with Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit. Mark actually splits Jesus’ judgment of the fig tree into two parts, with the temple cleansing sandwiched in the middle. The cleaning of the temple explains and is explained by the cursing of the fig tree for failing to bear fruit.

Luke (19.41-44) places the cleaning of the temple immediately after Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem because they had not accepted “the things which make for peace”, and as a result would suffer destruction.

John (2.18-22) connects the temple cleansing with Jesus’s prophetic warning that the temple would be destroyed. This makes it clear that Jesus was acting symbolically to demonstrate that God was displeased with the corrupt religious practices of the temple. In response to the temple cleansing, everyone who witnessed the event understood that the temple cleansing was anything but a spontaneous tantrum of the part of Jesus. The people understood the deep significance of Jesus’ actions.

In all four accounts the cleansing of the temple must be read in close connection with Jesus’ warnings of judgment and the destruction of the temple. Given this context, it is clear that when Jesus overturned the tables and drove out the animals with a whip, He was making a point, and everyone knew it.

What Point Was Jesus Making?

After Jesus cleansed the temple, He quoted form Jeremiah 7.11 to make his point immediately and explicitly clear (Mark 11.17 and parallels). Jeremiah 7 is part of an important sermon of Jeremiah in which he denounced the temple and offered warning for those who unthinkingly trusted in it. Although lengthy, it is worthwhile to read the entire context from which Jesus selected this quote.

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place. Do not trust deceptive words, saying, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.’ For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, nor walk after other gods to your own ruin, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.

Behold, you are trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, and commit adultery and swear falsely, and offer sacrifices to Baal and walk after other gods that you have not known, then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, ‘We are delivered!’ – that you may do all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your sight? Behold, I, even I, have seen it,” declares the LORD….

Therefore thus says the Lord GOD, “Behold, My anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place.”

Jeremiah 7.3-11, 20

The main thrust of Jeremiah’s warning is abundantly clear. Jeremiah offers a serious critique of the Jews of his day, who had placed their confidence in the temple, while simultaneously using the temple as the rallying point for all kinds of wickedness and violence. As a result, the temple would be destroyed.

To refer to this scene as the “temple cleansing” is a bit of a misnomer. Jesus was not simply cleansing the temple of a little bit of corruption. He was warning that the temple would be destroyed because once again, as in Jeremiah’s day, the temple had become a den of robbers.

The word translated “robbers” is not the word used to describe swindlers and thieves. It is the word used to describe those who would use violence to take what they wanted. It is the word that was used for what we would describe as “bandits” or “thugs”. Josephus frequently used this word to refer to violent revolutionaries who were willing kill to bring about their political aspirations (Antiquities Book 13, 16.5; Book 15, 10.1; War Book 1, 16.2-4). The same word is used in John to describe Barabbas, who had “committed murder in the insurrection” (Mk. 15.7; Jn. 18.40).

Jesus was not simply critiquing greedy businessmen in the temple who had inflated their prices. Jesus was warning that the temple would be destroyed because it had become the dwelling place of violent political revolutionaries.

This gives understanding as to why the “cleansing” of the temple is so closely connected with Jesus’ lamentation over Jerusalem for rejecting his message of peace. What Jesus was doing in the temple is parallel with what Jesus had done to the fig tree. Because those in the temple had failed to bear fruits of repentance, because they had failed to embrace Jesus’ enemy-loving message of peace, they would be destroyed.

Violence Brings God’s Judgment

Rather than demonstrating that violence is sometimes acceptable for the followers of Jesus, when Jesus cleansed the temple he was dramatically demonstrating that violence brings God’s judgment. What we read is not a random outburst of wrath, but rather a premeditated and symbolic condemnation of violence.

But still, the question remains, did Jesus act violently in the temple? Did Jesus use the whip violently against his enemies to make his point? And if so, can the disciples of Jesus use violence for similar purposes?

Jesus most certainly acted aggressively, but the text is not entirely clear that Jesus acted violently. For example, Preston Sprinkle argues that John 2.15 should be translated “And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, that is, the sheep and the oxen”, thus indicating that the whip was only used against the animals, and not against people. Others, such as Greg Boyd, have observed that generally speaking, whips were not used to harm animals, but rather to drive them by making a loud cracking sound.

I do not consider myself qualified to comment on the strengths or weaknesses of these suggestions, but I do find it significant that Jesus was not immediately arrested on the spot, as would be expected if Jesus was actually whipping people.

But suppose for a moment that Jesus did use the whip violently against his enemies. If this is the case, we still must not ignore the main point of the scene. Yes, this might indicate that Jesus did not intend an absolute prohibition against all violence in all circumstances. And yes, this might indicate that there could be exceptions to Jesus’s other “love your enemy” commands, whereby we might be allowed us use violence in limited circumstances. But, even so, we must not look for the exception to the rule to replace the rule itself.

It is a common mistake to look to the temple cleansing to prove that violence is sometimes acceptable, and then starting with the exception, work backwards into Jesus’ commands about loving enemies. This approach reduces “love your enemy” into little more than “be nice to your grumpy neighbors.” Instead, we must start by grasping the main point of the temple scene and of the rest of Jesus’ teachings. If there are exceptions to this main point, they must be treated as exceptions, and not the rule itself.

The main point of the temple cleansing is not to show that it is acceptable to use violence against enemies. The point is nearly the opposite. The temple was to be judged because they had rejected Jesus’s enemy-loving message of peace.

How the Early Church Approached Politics

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.

Celsus’ Attack

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)