Christians and the state

What attitude did Christians take towards the state, especially towards the Roman Empire in which their faith arose and in which the large majority of them had their home? We have seen that they did not set out deliberately to supplant the Roman stare or to remake the structure of society of which it was an essential part. However, did they weaken or strengthen it?

The attitude of Jesus towards the state was not one either of unqualified disapproval or approval. He certainly did not head a movement of his people to throw off the Roman yoke, although there were some who wished him to do so and he was crucified on the charge of setting himself up as a king in opposition to the Emperor. He commanded obedience to the men in authority in the Jewish community and to the law of Moses which presumably governed that community, paid his taxes, in a somewhat cryptic saying enjoined rendering unto Cssar the things that were Cssar's, and as a part of what has been called his teaching of non-violence directed that no resistance was to be offered if by due process of law one's cloak were taken away, even unjustly. He refused for himself or his cause to employ political methods and never advocated rebellion. Indeed, although he declared that his followers would be haled before representatives of the state, he did not advocate denial of the jurisdiction or disobedience to the findings of the courts, but, rather, commanded those so arrested to state their case and trust God to suggest to them what to say. Yet Jesus had scorn for Herod as a person, and stood in no awe of rulers, not even of Solomon, so revered in Jewish history. Moreover, his teaching and example of refusing to rely upon the power represented by the state and his dependence upon a radically different kind of power, that seen in the apparent weakness of the cross and vindicated by the resurrection, if fully carried out would make unnecessary the sort of state represented by the Roman Empire.

The attitude of the Christians of the first three centuries towards the state seems contradictory. Paul declared that government derived its authority from God and instructed Christians to be obedient to its officers and to pay their taxes. The First Epistle of Peter commanded Christians to honour the Emperor. Yet The Revelation of John regarded the Roman Empire as evil and diametrically opposed to the Christian faith. Paul forbade Christians to take disputes among themselves to the Roman courts and characterized the Roman magistrates as "those least esteemed in the Church." While Christians bore the persecutions by the state passively and, so far as we know, without opposing them with violence, and although they offered prayers for the Emperor, they regarded as apostasy participation in the cult which gave divine honours to the Emperor, and at least some of them refused to lake oaths and looked upon government officials in general as evil and the state as hostile to God, Christians held that for them loyalty to God must be given priority over loyalty to the state and that on occasion the one might require disobedience to the other. Striking wholesale examples of this were seen in the thousands of Christians who refused, even at the cost of their lives, to comply with the imperial decrees to sacrifice to the gods. Although there were some Christians in public posts, there was a conviction widely held among Christians that none of their number should hold office under the state, for to do so might entail participation in pagan ceremonies or the taking of life through the infliction of the death sentence. As late as the beginning of the third century Hippolytus said that historic Christian custom required a civic magistrate to resign his office as a condition of joining the Church. As we have seen, usually Christians regarded service in the army as wrong for them. Yet where compliance with the laws of the state did not mean disloyalty to what they believed to be their allegiance to God, Christians endeavoured to be model citizens. They paid their taxes and in other ways complied with the demands of the government. Moreover, as Christians multiplied, as they did in the third century, increasing numbers of them were in public posts.

When, beginning with Constantine, the Emperors became professing Christians, and when, in the course of the next two centuries, the overwhelming majority of the population of the Empire were brought into the Church, the latter, as we have seen, entered into a kind of alliance with the state. Except for the brief interlude of Julian, the magistrates were predominantly Christians and even under Julian the majority in the legions regarded themselves as of that faith. It is probable that the state gained by that alliance, for, in spite of its internal divisions, the Catholic Church was, next to the government, the most comprehensive and well articulated body in the Roman Empire and served to reinforce a political regime which was already displaying symptoms of disintegration. Moreover, leading Christians hailed Constantine as appointed by God and by Christians the Emperor now was accorded peculiar honour and added authority as a bulwark against anarchy. Some generations later, the Emperors were crowned by representatives of the Church in a religious ceremony.

Yet the alliance of Church and state was by no means an unqualified advantage to the Roman imperial government. The internal dissensions of the Church threatened, as we have seen, to rend not only the Church but also the Empire. Indeed, in the next period they were to contribute to the break-up of the Empire. The rapid growth of monasticism in the fourth and fifth centuries withdrew thousands from ordinary society either to the solitary life of the anchorite or to communities which were virtually autonomous. Here may have been a source of weakness for the state.

Beginning with Constantine, Christianity seems to have had some influence upon the laws of the realm. Constantine appears to have endeavoured to rule as a Christian, to make the Empire safe for Christianity, and to create a world fit for Christians to live in. This is reflected in some of his modifications of the laws and additions to them. Constan-tine's legislation against gladiatorial combats seems to have been inspired by the Christian faith. So do his edicts in behalf of widows, orphans, and the poor, and against immorality, the separation by sale of a slave and his wife, infanticide, the selling of children into slavery, prostitution, immoral religious rites, and the ancient right of a father to kill his child. The profession of an actress normally entailed prostitution, and in the third century, by imperial decree, apparently at the instance of the Church, it was commanded that if an actress at the point of death asked for and was given the last sacraments, and then recovered, she was not to be forced to resume her former way of life

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