History and Relationship of Early Christians to Civil Government

This article was originally written by David Lipscomb for the Gospel Advocate in two parts in 1867 and 1868. While notable for its overview of early Church history, it is also worth noting that LCI is an ecumenical organization that does accept our Catholic brothers and sisters. It is appropriate to be critical of the RCC inasmuch as it is or was complicit with governments, just as we can be critical of any of our protestant denominations at any time for similar reasons, but we are not endorsing the particular language and view presented in the article. 

The History of the Early Christians in their Relationship to Civil Government

We are frequently told that the idea of Christians abstaining from all participation in civil governments, save by a passive submission to laws that require no violation of God’s law, is a new idea; when we reply that it was the practice of the early Christians, it is replied, “They stood aloof from civil government only because they were not permitted to take part in politics.” The least familiarity with the history of the early Christians is sufficient to negative these assumptions, but for the sake of those of our readers who have not the opportunity for reading the history of these early Christians, we give a few extracts of history. We first quote Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire, Vol. I., page 550. He says: “Their (the Christian’s) simplicity was offended by the use of oaths, by the pomp of magistracy, by the contention of public life; nor could their human ignorance be convinced that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow-creature either by sword of justice or by that of war, even though their criminal or hostile attempt should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community.” Again, on page 557, II. Vol.: “But while they inculcated the true maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the Empire.” Again, on same page: “It was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the duties of soldiers, of magistrates, of princes.”

On page 1, Vol. II., he says: “They yielded the most passive obedience, though they declined the active cares of war and governments.”

Vol. II., page 255, he says: “Faithful to the doctrine of the apostles, who, in the reign of Nero, had preached the duty of unconditional submission, the Christians of the three first centuries preserved their consciences pure and innocent of the guilt of secret conspiracy or open rebellion.” Page 255, Vol. II.: “The humble Christians were sent into the world as sheep among wolves, and since they were not permitted to employ force, even in defence of their own religion, they would be still more criminal if they were to shed the blood of their fellow-man in disputing the vain privileges or sordid possessions of this transitory life.”

Vol. II, page 256: “But the Christians, when they deprecated the wrath of Diocletian, or solicited the favor of Constantine, could allege with truth and confidence, that they held the principle of passive obedience, and for three centuries their conduct had been always conformable to their principles.”

Thus we see the testimony most clear and unequivocal, that for three centuries the Christians not only held aloof from civil affairs, but did it from the firm conviction that in engaging in them they forfeited their claims to be Christians and betrayed the cause of God and his Christ. But as the Christian religion became corrupted, this simplicity and purity of life was gradually departed from, and an adulterous intercourse is begun between Christians and human governments.

Julian, who was raised in the Christian faith, and was familiar with the teachings of Christians, apostatized to heathenism – became Emperor. The corrupted Christians were then seeking office: “He maliciously reminded them that it was unlawful for a Christian to use the sword, either of justice or war.” Gibbon, Vol. II.

Lardner, Vol. VI., page 617, reports Tertullian, about the year A. D. 200, as saying: “ The Caesars themselves would have believed in Jesus Christ, if they had not ben necessary to the world, or if Christians could have been Caesars.” In the estimation of Tertullian, one of the most learned of the fathers, a Christian could not be a Caesar, or a ruler, in a human government. Lardner, Vol. II., page 338, relates as something strange: “Minucias Felix, a pleader in the courts of justice in Rome, was converted to Christianity, and continued his calling as a pleader.” This was about the year 210, and was the first instance of a Christian continuing his calling as pleader in the human courts, up to this time, and was considered worthy of note by Lardner.

Paul, of Samosata, Bishop of Antioch, in the year A. D. 270, was tried for heresy and improper conduct. “It was charged that he accepted secular dignities and chose rather to be considered as a judge than a bishop.” Lardner, Vol. II., page 665. Hence, it was heretical and improper in the year 276, for a bishop or a Christian to accept secular dignities. We give these extracts out of a sufficient number we have to fill a volume, showing from the most unexceptional testimony that, for three centuries, the universal faith and practice of the Christians were: Submission to all; participation in and support of no human government or institution. We will give some additional extracts showing the faith of later Christians.

Relationship of the Early Christians to Civil Government, No, 2.

In a former article we gave incontestible evidence of the fact that for three centuries after the establishment of the Church of God on earth, no Christian was allowed by the Church to participate in the civil or military administration and operations of the government under which he lived.

We propose in this to give only a few extracts showing the practice of Christians of a later period. We give a few more extracts from Gibbon in reference to the state of their faith about the close of the third century. Vol. ii, page 255: “The humble Christians were sent into this world as sheep among wolves, and since they were not permitted to employ force even in defence of their own religion, they should be still more criminal if they should be tempted to shed the blood of their fellowman in disputing the vain privileges or sordid possessions of this transitory life.” Vol. ii, page 256: “But the Christians, when they deprecated the wrath of Diocletian or solicited the favor of Constantine, could allege with truth and confidence that they held the principle of passive obedience, and for three centuries their conduct had always been conformable to their principles.” Again, Vol. ii, page 275: “The Christians subjects of Armenia and Iberia formed a sacred and perpetual alliance with their Romish brethren. (This was in time of war between the countries.) The Christians of Persia in time of war were suspected of preferring their religion to their country.” In our late years of strife Christians acted differently – they preferred their country to their religion, and robbed, impoverished and murdered their brethren who happened to live under a hostile government. Vol. ii, page 273: “When Constantine embraced the faith of the Christians, he seemed to form a perpetual alliance with a distinct and independent society. “It was then not a society mixed up with the political governments. Constantine, by the invention of a falsehood, and its imposition upon their creation as a miracle from God, induced many of the ignorant and credulous to enter his army. Tertullian, in his apology to Severus in the beginning of the third century, to somewhat appease his wrath and modify his cruel persecutions says, “We are dead to all ideas of worldly honor and dignity. Nothing is more foreign to us than political concerns. The whole world is our republic.” Jones’ History, vol. I, page 219.

But about the end of the third century Christians became numerous, in the strifes and animosities of the civil commotions of the different parties – their favor was courted – they were flattered and offered places in the government. Corruptions crept into the Church – a portion of the professed Christians formed the alliance with world governments, and from one step to another in this new and illicit alliance, it grew into the Romish hierarchy – the scarlet-colored whore of Revelations. But from the beginning of this alliance quite a number of Christians stoutly resisted, opposed and denounced the alliance and participation as sinful and adulterous. These, without any ecclesiastical organization, save the simple congregations of the Lord, resisted the tendency of the popular party with varying success at different times and in various places. They called themselves Christians, Saints, Disciples of Christ, but were nicknamed by their enemies with various opprobrious epithets, sometimes from their locality, sometimes from prominent man among them, sometimes from poverty and suffering.

Donatus was one of the leading men of talent in opposition to those who participated in civil government in the beginning of the 4th century. From him they were called by their enemies Donatists. We quote from Orchard, page 86: “They (the Donatists) thought the Church ought to be kept separate from the world. They were very careful to remove from their places of worship everything that bore any resemblance to worldly communities.” Again, on page 88, Constantine interfering in their disputes with the Romish party, they ask: “What has the Emperor to do with the Church? What have Christians to do with kings? What have Bishops to do at court?” They rejecting the interference of Constantine, were persecuted by him. The Donatists remained a powerful body of Christians in Africa until the seventh century, but about the middle of the eighth century become extinct in that country. See Orchard, page 102.

The dissenter (from the Romish Church) is Asia, “Refused oaths, remonstrated against penal sanctions and denied authority of magistrates over conscience.” Page 117.

The dissenter of Italy were called Paterines, A.D. 300. “The two-edged sword is the only weapon this people used.” Page 141. They existed in numerous continuous churches, till. A.D. 750.

Our historian testifies, page 142: “The public religion of the Paterines consisted of nothing but social prayer, reading and expounding the Gospel, baptism once, and the Lord’s Supper as often as convenient. Italy was full of such Christians.” &c. Page 145, he testifies of them, in A.D. 1040, “The Paterines had become very numerous and conspicuous in Milan, &c. Nor had they any share in the State, for they took no oaths and bore no arms.”

Page 175 reads as follows: ‘Now it must appear plain that the Abbigensian churches in their original constitution did partake of the early puritan discipline, since those societies were, to some extent, made up of those who retained the stern views of Novatian.” Novation was the most strenuous opposer of the early tendency to compromise the rigid rule of the New Testament. Peter Waldo rose to prominence among the dissenters from Romish corruptions and assumptions about the year 1160. His prominence caused the Christians to be called from him, Waldenses. “He and his brethren took for their model to regulate their moral discipline, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, consequently prohibited war, law suits, all attempts toward the acquisition of wealth, the infliction of capital punishment, self-defence against unjust violence and oaths of all kinds.” Page 191. Up to the year 1267, the Waldenses of Picardy and Bohemia “executed no offices, and neither enmacted nor took oaths. They bore no arms, and rather chose to suffer than resist wrong. They professed their belief in Christianity by being baptized and their love to Christ and one another by receiving the Lord’s Supper. They aspired at neither wealth nor power, their plan was industry.” Page 234. In the year 1400 the Emperor invaded Bohemia to extirpate heresy. The Bohemians resisted the persecution of the peaceable Christians in their midst. “Ziska is chosen their general. But it would appear that the Vandois, Waldenses or Pleards did not enter Ziska’s army during the war. We knew their principles were opposed to war, and they do not seem to have borne arms at any time.” Page 247. Thus these Christians, only four centuries ago, when others determined to fight for their defence, would not violate their principles to aid them.

In the year 1451, “These brethren, near Prague, bound themselves to vigorous discipline in church affairs, and not to defend themselves with the sword, but to suffer the loss of all things for conscience sake.” Page 248.

The dissenters of Piedmont reached down from the earliest times to Luther. “They prohibited wars, law suits, acquisition of wealth, capital punishment, self-defence and oaths of all kind.” Page 261. Thus this people testified for fourteen hundred years against the usurpations, crimes, political alliances, wars, strifes and persecutions of the Romish Church as from the evil one – the man of sin – and then the following sad tale tells the end of a great number of these. Page 279. A.D. 1484, “Whether the haleyon days of these people had permitted them to subside into a Laodicean State, or whether they were terrified by the Pope’s threats, we cannot ascertain, but one thing is certain, their line of policy, subsequently adopted, of defending themselves with the sword, was a wide departure from their early creed, which suggest their degeneracy and their wavering faith in the promises of God.” Again, page 281: “The early Waldenses forbade war, and even prohibited self-defence, but their patience was worn out, and they departed from their ancestors’ creed.” This was the sad end of many – in other words they were corrupted by the parties that now come out of the Romish hierarchy with Luther, Calvin, and others, bringing with them many of the practices of the mother from which they sprang – among these the practice of permitting their members to participate in the affairs of civil governments. But even at this time there was as party who refused this alliance. Page 309, A.D. 1483, “A third party (differing from both the Romish and Protestants) called Waldenses, who interfered not in political affairs.” About the 1550 or ’60, Peter Menno rose into publicity among these faithful people who resisted both the persecutions of Rome and the blandishments of the Protestant sects. Page 367 of Orchard, or vol. iii, page 208, of Mosheim, “Menno drew up his plan of doctrine and practice entirely from the Scriptures. He retained all those doctrines commonly received among them (the Anabaptists, D.L.) in relation to the baptism of infants, the Millennium, the exclusion of magistrates from the Christian assemblies, the abolition of war, the prohibition of oaths,” &c. Page 309. “They are said to have lived as peaceable inhabitants, particularly in Flanders, Holland and Zealand, neither interfering with Church (the Romish) or State affairs.”

We give a few extracts from that prince of Paedo-Baptist historians, Mosheim, vol. iii, 212, he says: “All the opinions which are common to the whole body of Mennonites are founded on this one principle as their basis, namely: ‘The Kingdom which Jesus Christ established here on earth or the church is a visible society or company in which is no place for any but holy and pious persons, and therefore has none of those institutions and provisions which human sagacity has devised for the benefit of the ungodly.” On page 213, same volume, he testifies their teaching was, “1st. That they should receive none not their church by the sacrament of baptism, unless they are adults and have the full use of their reason.

2d. “That they should not admit of magistrates, nor suffer any of their members to perform the functions of magistrates.

3d. “That they should deny the justice of repelling force by force or of waging war.

4th. “That they should have strong aversion to all penalties and punishments, especially to capital punishment.

5th. “It forbids our confirming anything with an oath.”

On page 217, vol. iii, Mosheim testifies: “Those among the English who reject the baptism of infants are not called Anabaptists, but simply Baptists. It is probable that the Baptists originated from the German and Dutch, and that they all once held the same views.” Thus every body of believers, of which we have an account, who rejected infant baptism, practiced believers immersion, and refused to acknowledge the supremacy of the Pope and the authority of the Romish Church until after the days of Luther, utterly scouted the idea that Christians could engage in the political affairs of wars of the nations in which they lived. On page 200, vol. iii, Mosheim bears this testimony: “Prior to the age of Luther there lay concealed in almost every country of Europe, but especially Bohemia, Moravia, Switzerland and Germany, very many persons in whose minds was deeply rooted that principle which the Waldenses, the Wickliffites and the Hussites maintained, some more covertly, others more openly, namely, that the kingdom set up upon the earth, or the visible church, is an assembly of holy persons, and ought therefore, to be entirely free, not only from ungodly persons and sinners, but from all institutions of human devices against wickedness.” Thus the idea of Christians engaging in political affairs is as much a Romish dogma as is infant baptism, worship of the Virgin Mary, mass or transubstantiation. It found its way from Romanism to those practicing believers baptism, just to the same way that “Apostolic Succession,” “Direct Spiritual influence,” “justification without obedience, the right to make a creed, and wear a human name,” did. They, one and all, were brought by the Paedo-baptists sects that broke from Rome, and were borrowed from them by our Baptist friends, who have so long courted their favor and affiliated with them, and in doing this have obliterated so many of the apostolic land-marks. This one practice, with some of the others mentioned in a modified degree, have been in turn borrowed by Christians from Baptists, Before we claim to stand upon true apostolic ground, we must return with singleness of purpose and integrity of heart to our service in God’s appointments and institutions and to a constant eschewal of service in all others, for our God is a jealous God, and tolerates no divided service or doubtful fealty. The whoredom of the mother – the Romish church – consisted in her open and public alliances and associations with the institutions of man on earth. The harlotry of the daughters consisted in the more private participation of their members in the affairs of the kingdoms of the world. God says to his children now in these adulterous alliances, “Come out of her my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plague.”

Originally published in The Gospel Advocate, 1867, 1868