April 6, 2012

Early Christian Attitudes Towards Government and Public Service

The early Christian attitude towards government and politics was very much like that of the Old Testamanet prophets, who sought to remind the people of Israel that God is their true King Who will take care of all their essential needs. The refusal to accept this came with a price, as we read in 1 Samuel 8:

Now it came to pass when Samuel was old that he made his sons judges over Israel ... Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Look, you are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” ... But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” So Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Heed the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me, that I should not reign over them ... Now therefore, heed their voice. However, you shall solemnly forewarn them, and show them the behavior of the king who will reign over them.”

Samuel goes on to warn the people of Israel what it will be like to have a King like the other nations, and in the day they seek the Lord's help He will will not hear them because they have placed their hopes elsewhere. Despite the warning, the people insisted on a King.

Jesus also, in the tradition of the prophets, wanted His followers to remember that God is the King who will provide for their essential needs as long as we seek to acquire His uncreated glory. He spoke in His Sermon on the Mount:

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled" (Matt. 5:6).

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the reign of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Matt. 6:31-33).

Continuing along these lines, the early Church, knowing that Christians were called to learn from the mistakes of God's chosen people in the past and not repeat their errors, also held to the belief that the proper Christian attitude to this world was to be in it and above it at the same time, but not of it. Justin Martyr emphasized that the kingdom the Christians are seeking is not a human one, but rather, the reign of God both in this life and in the life to come. The anonymous Letter to Diognetus portrays the Christian Church as its own political society disseminated throughout other political societies. The Church is depicted as the “soul” of society. Bishop Theophilus of Antioch, in his To Autolycus, Book 1, depicts Christians as loyal citizens of the empire who are to honor the emperor “not by worshipping him but by praying for him”. Irenaeus of Lyons describes the divine nature of earthly rule, which has been “appointed by God for the benefit of the nations”. He goes on to say that the devil lied when he said that civil power was delivered to him, for in truth, all power belongs to God, who distributes it according to His will. Three kinds of rulers exercise civil authority: (i) mild, educative rulers; (ii) tyrannical, arbitrary rulers; and (iii) harsh, but not unjust rulers. Little was said by these however about a Christians involvement in politics and government public service. Below are a few samples of the attitude some Christians had on this in the early Church:

Origen wrote:

Celsus also urges us to “take office in the government of the country, if that is required for the maintenance of the laws and the support of religion.” But we recognize 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. Those who are ambitious of ruling we reject; but we constrain those who, through excess of modesty, are not easily induced to take a public charge in the Church of God. And those who rule over us well are under the constraining influence of the great King, whom we believe to be the Son of God, God the Word. And if those who govern in the Church, and are called rulers of the divine nation–that is, the Church–rule well, they rule in accordance with the divine commands, and never suffer themselves to be led astray by worldly policy. 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. And this service is at once necessary and right. They take charge of all–of those that are within, that they may day by day lead better lives, and of those that are without, that they may come to abound in holy words and in deeds of piety; and that, while thus worshipping God truly, and training up as many as they can in the same way, they may be filled with the word of God and the law of God, and thus be united with the Supreme God through His Son the Word, Wisdom, Truth, and Righteousness, who unites to God all who are resolved to conform their lives in all things to the law of God.

Tertullian wrote:

In us, all ardor in the pursuit of glory and honor is dead. So we have no pressing inducement to take part in your public meetings. Nor is there anything more entirely foreign to us than affairs of state.

Elsewhere Tertullian said:

I owe no duty to forum, campaign, or senate. I stay awake for no public function. I make no effort to occupy a platform. I am no office seeker. I have no desire to smell out political corruption. I shun the voter’s booth, the juryman’s bench. I break no laws and push no lawsuits; I will not serve as a magistrate or judge. I refuse to do military service. I desire to rule over no one – I have withdrawn from worldly politics! Now my only politics is spiritual – how that I might be anxious for nothing except to root out all worldly anxieties and care.

Lactantius warns:

God might have bestowed upon his people both riches and kingdoms, as he had given previously to the Jews, whose successors and posterity we are. However, he would have Christians live under the power and government of others, lest they should become corrupted by the happiness and prosperity, slide into luxury, and eventually despise the commandments of God. For this is what our ancestors did.

Eventually Christian governments arose, as was inevitable, but the Church Fathers of later centuries always kept focus on the fact that as long as a government calls itself Christian, it must work for the greater glory of God and support the Church in its mission to reach and sanctify the world. Above all, it was to be always maintained that Christ was the King of kings and Lord of lords and that "all good things come from above". This is how the Christians of the Roman Empire came to see their role. With the rise of secular and multi-cultural societies, Christians must more and more heed the warnings of the early Church and not rely on government to fulfill the mission of the Church, but to transform the world as a united Church that is truly in the world yet not of the world.