Early Christianity and the State
A FEW hours before his death, Jesus told his disciples: “You are no part of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, on this account the world hates you.” (John 15:19) Does this mean, though, that Christians would adopt a hostile attitude toward the authorities of this world?
Not Worldly but Not Hostile
The apostle Paul told Christians living in Rome: “Let every soul be in subjection to the superior authorities.” (Romans 13:1) Similarly, the apostle Peter wrote: “For the Lord’s sake subject yourselves to every human creation: whether to a king as being superior or to governors as being sent by him to inflict punishment on evildoers but to praise doers of good.” (1 Peter 2:13, 14) Subjection to the State and its duly appointed representatives was clearly an accepted principle among the early Christians. They endeavored to be law-abiding citizens and to live peaceably with all men.—Romans 12:18.
Under the topic “Church and State,” The Encyclopedia of Religion declares: “In the first three centuries AD the Christian church was largely isolated from official Roman society . . . Nevertheless, Christian leaders . . . taught obedience to Roman law and loyalty to the emperor, within the limits set by the Christian faith.”
Honor, Not Worship
Christians were not hostile to the Roman emperor. They respected his authority and paid him the honor that was due his rank. During the rule of Emperor Nero, the apostle Peter wrote to Christians living in various parts of the Roman Empire: “Honor men of all sorts, . . . have honor for the king.” (1 Peter 2:17) The word “king” was used in the Greek-speaking world not only for local kings but also for the Roman emperor. The apostle Paul counseled Christians living in the capital of the Roman Empire: “Render to all their dues, . . . to him who calls for honor, such honor.” (Romans 13:7) The Roman emperor most certainly called for honor. In time, he even called for worship. Here, though, the early Christians drew the line.
At his trial before a Roman proconsul in the second century C.E., Polycarp reportedly declared: “I am a Christian. . . . We are taught to give all due honour . . . to the powers and authorities which are ordained of God.” Polycarp chose, however, to die rather than worship the emperor. Second-century apologist Theophilus of Antioch wrote: “I will rather honor the emperor, not indeed worshipping him, but praying for him. But God, the living and true God I worship.”
Appropriate prayers concerning the emperor were in no way connected with emperor worship or with nationalism. The apostle Paul explained their purpose: “I therefore exhort, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, offerings of thanks, be made concerning all sorts of men, concerning kings and all those who are in high station; in order that we may go on leading a calm and quiet life with full godly devotion and seriousness.”—1 Timothy 2:1, 2.
“On the Edge of Society”
This respectful conduct on the part of the early Christians did not bring them the friendship of the world in which they lived. French historian A. Hamman relates that the early Christians “lived on the edge of society.” They actually lived on the edge of two societies, the Jewish and the Roman, encountering much prejudice and misunderstanding from both.
For example, when he was falsely accused by Jewish leaders, the apostle Paul stated in his defense before the Roman governor: “Neither against the Law of the Jews nor against the temple nor against Caesar have I committed any sin. . . . I appeal to Caesar!” (Acts 25:8, 11) Conscious that the Jews were plotting to kill him, Paul appealed to Nero, thus recognizing the Roman emperor’s authority. Subsequently, at his first trial in Rome, it appears that Paul was acquitted. But he was later imprisoned again, and tradition has it that he was executed at Nero’s orders.
Concerning the difficult position of the early Christians in Roman society, sociologist and theologian Ernst Troeltsch wrote: “All offices and callings were barred which had any connection with idol-worship, or with the worship of the Emperor, or those which had anything to do with bloodshed or with capital punishment, or those which would bring Christians into contact with pagan immorality.” Did this stance leave no place for a peaceful and mutually respectful relationship between Christians and the State?
Paying Caesar His “Dues”
Jesus provided a formula that would govern Christian conduct toward the Roman State or, for that matter, any other government, when he declared: “Pay back . . . Caesar’s things to Caesar, but God’s things to God.” (Matthew 22:21) This counsel to Jesus’ followers was in stark contrast with the attitude of many nationalistic Jews who resented Roman domination and contested the lawfulness of paying taxes to a foreign power.
Later, Paul told Christians living in Rome: “There is therefore compelling reason for you people to be in subjection, not only on account of that wrath but also on account of your conscience. For that is why you are also paying taxes; for they [governmental “superior authorities”] are God’s public servants constantly serving this very purpose. Render to all their dues, to him who calls for the tax, the tax; to him who calls for the tribute, the tribute.” (Romans 13:5-7) While Christians were no part of the world, they were duty-bound to be honest, tax-paying citizens, paying the State for services rendered.—John 17:16.
But are Jesus’ words limited to paying taxes? Since Jesus did not define exactly what is Caesar’s and what is God’s, there are borderline cases that must be decided according to the context or according to our understanding of the entire Bible. In other words, deciding what things a Christian can pay Caesar would sometimes involve the Christian’s conscience, as enlightened by Bible principles.
A Careful Balance Between Two Competing Claims
Many people tend to forget that after stating that Caesar’s things should be paid back to him, Jesus added: “But [pay back] God’s things to God.” The apostle Peter showed where the priority lies for Christians. Immediately after counseling submission to the “king,” or emperor, and his “governors,” Peter wrote: “Be as free people, and yet holding your freedom, not as a blind for badness, but as slaves of God. Honor men of all sorts, have love for the whole association of brothers, be in fear of God, have honor for the king.” (1 Peter 2:16, 17) The apostle showed that Christians are slaves of God, not of a human ruler. While they should show proper honor and respect for representatives of the State, they are to do so in the fear of God, whose laws are supreme.
Years earlier Peter had left no doubt as to the preeminence of God’s law over man’s. The Jewish Sanhedrin was an administrative body to which the Romans had granted both civil and religious authority. When it ordered Jesus’ followers to stop teaching in Christ’s name, Peter and the other apostles replied respectfully but firmly: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.” (Acts 5:29) Clearly, the early Christians had to maintain a careful balance between obedience to God and proper submission to human authorities. Tertullian put it this way early in the third century C.E.: “If all is Caesar’s, what will remain for God?”
Compromise With the State
As time went by, the position adopted by the first-century Christians in relation to the State gradually weakened. The apostasy foretold by Jesus and the apostles blossomed in the second and third centuries C.E. (Matthew 13:37, 38; Acts 20:29, 30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; 2 Peter 2:1-3) Apostate Christianity made compromises with the Roman world, adopted its pagan festivals and its philosophy, and accepted not only civil service but also military service.
Professor Troeltsch wrote: “From the third century onwards the situation grew more difficult, for the Christians became more numerous in the higher ranks of Society and in the more eminent professions, in the army and in official circles. In several passages in the [non-Biblical] Christian writings there are indignant protests against participation in these things; on the other hand, we also find attempts to compromise—arguments designed to quiet uneasy consciences . . . From the time of Constantine these difficulties disappeared; friction between Christians and pagans ceased, and all offices in the State were thrown open.”
Toward the end of the fourth century C.E., this adulterated, compromising form of Christianity became the State religion of the Roman Empire.
Throughout its history, Christendom—represented by the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Churches—has continued to compromise with the State, getting deeply involved in its politics and supporting it in its wars. Many sincere church members who have been shocked by this would doubtless be pleased to know that there are Christians today who hold to the position of the first-century Christians in their relationship with the State. The following two articles will discuss the matter in more detail.
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Caesar Nero, of whom Peter wrote: “Have honor for the king”
Musei Capitolini, Roma
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Polycarp chose to die rather than worship the emperor
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Early Christians were peaceful, honest, taxpaying citizens