Church and State Part One: The Early Church

This is the first installation in a series of articles in which I present my view of church history with a focus on the relationship between church and state. Today I cover the history of the early church. In the next installation, I will cover Constantine and caesaropapism.

Struggles between state and religion, papacy and monarchy, have long captured the attention of historians. Whether examining the Torah’s laws for separation between holy and unholy, Roman persecution of the early church, the Inquisition, or Roger Williams’ fight for separation of church and state, it becomes apparent that only a thin line exists between cooperation and oppression. The almost flirtatious back-and-forth between the papacy and the monarchy often clouds out the story of the local parish, the peasant-priest who often stood against both papacy and monarchy. While the higher powers of the church eventually became part of the nobility, or played a counterpoint to it, the parish priests often played their own tune. The papacy and the local priesthood certainly affected each other and were often part of the same system, but the Catholic Church was by no means a coherent body of complete internal agreement. The traditional focus on the papacy over the parish should not surprise, as primary documents about bishops and popes are much more accessible than the more private ministries of local priests. Even so, by examining the broader movements in the Christian church—the split between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church and the rise of Protestantism—a more layered, non-binary understanding of the national monarchies and the church arises, one in which the papacy plays a significant role but is nonetheless only one player among several. The conflict between church and state was a multilayered, constantly changing struggle with numerous parties involved.

Perhaps the only time during which a largely binary relationship existed was that of the early church. In its earliest days, Christianity was a religion of—and for—the oppressed. It started in first-century Palestine, under Rome’s assimilating eye and the wealth-sapping economics of Syro-Phoenicia. Jesus was a peasant-artisan, one of the lower class who condemned the elite for their unwillingness to share with those in desperate need. Vertical generalized reciprocity became the focus of many of His parables, and He consistently required the most loyal of His followers to give up all material wealth and give it to the poor before following Him. As John McManners writes, “The church of the apostolic age sought to identify itself with the ‘poor’ whom Jesus had declared blessed (Luke 6:20); or had he meant the ‘poor in spirit’ (Matt. 5:3), the humble-hearted, who could hold their property without pride as means to support the destitute?” Although Christianity was a religion for the poor, the few well-to-do families held significant sway over their local communities and the choosing of new bishops. This is because, before Constantine, the state did not help fund the church, so all of its funds came from its own members. Since most of the members were very poor, a large amount of the funding came from the few wealthy Christian families. But this funding was used to provide for those in need in following Jesus’ teachings for vertical generalized reciprocity. The early church held charity to the poor—both Christians and non-Christians—as one of their major priorities. In the middle of the third century, the Roman church fed “more than 1,500 widows and distressed persons.” In the late fourth century, the church in Antioch in Syria had fed 3,000. Christians did occasionally use church funds to free the Christian slaves of unhealthy households, but, in general, “[t]he principle long continued to be agreed that Christian aid to the destitute should not discriminate in favour of church members, but had no criterion other than need.” The aid Bishop Cyprian gave Carthage when plague struck the city in 252 evoked emperor Julian’s complaint that the Christians cared for “not only their own beggars but ours as well.”

This focus on humility and meekness carried on into the ministry of the apostles and manifested itself largely in the form of persecution by Rome. It is true that Romans and other elites joined the church from its earliest days, but before Constantine Christianity appealed primarily to those seeking hope in a time of oppression, a religion of martyrs. Just as Jesus’ death was His ultimate act of love, the deaths of the martyrs for God were their way to witness to both Christians and non-Christians that they valued their faith over their life. Aside from some persecution of Christians by the post-70 AD Pharisees—in which Saul took part—the vast majority of persecution was performed by the Roman government. Nero set a precedent when he had the same Paul executed, and this imperial precedent trickled down to the provincial level. Yet, in all this, the hatred was for the beliefs held by Christianity and the threat the religion posed to the established elite. In spite of all the (false) accusations made of Christianity—the most famous, perhaps, being Nero’s accusation of the burning of Rome—what was being persecuted in the days of the early church was not so much the Christians themselves as the religion and beliefs of Christianity. McManners points out that “[T]he crime [of Christians] was paradoxical, namely, the mere profession of Christianity, the name itself, rather than any crimes that might be attributed to the name by association… the prime offence was a refusal to acknowledge respect to the gods, including the emperor, by whose favour the empire was preserved.” Christians, contrary to some modern polemicists, were not persecuted for not doing their jobs as government administrators. In fact, the second-century church had a controversy over whether or not Christians could be magistrates or bear public authority, as such activities could require idolatry or supporting execution (which went against early church “doctrine”). The question within the church was not about whether a Christian magistrate should do their government-imposed job requirements; it was over whether or not a Christian should become a magistrate at all. Indeed, Christians taken to court could be released simply by pledging their utmost loyalty to the emperor or to the pagan gods—and many did, becoming apostates, condemned by the church even more than non-believers.

In spite of (or, perhaps, because of) all this persecution, the social strata of the early church remained relatively united. Christians—both rich and poor—were treated the same way by the state. And because the wealthy members of the church were givers more than takers, animosity for these families from the less wealthy members was minimal. Indeed, the most radical church members often were the local poor. These were the Christians who faced persecution with complete surrender to God; after all, they had the least to lose. Although the wealthy and the oppressed took on differing dynamics within the church, they generally were united against the Roman government (or, rather, the Roman government united them against itself). The church before Constantine held a relationship of separate opposition in which the church as a heterogeneous entity struggled as a unified whole with the state. In his chapter “The Shared Life,” John Knox writes,

[I]f the picture of early Christianity is to be truly drawn, the reality of this unit must be stressed even more heavily than the variety—not to say disparity and division… The truth of the matter is, however, that the distinctiveness of the church as over against the world (both Jewish and pagan) was in the earliest period much more striking than were any diversities within the church itself. Christianity, wherever it was found, was a recognizable cultural phenomenon; and, moreover, every Christian group (with the possible exception of some of the more extreme Jewish congregations) was deeply aware of its own identity within a movement that included all the rest.

The early church and Rome only ever held a truly binary relationship before Constantine set the precedent of religious freedom for the church.

[1] See Mark 7:24-30 and Matthew 15:21-28 for an example that demonstrates the bitterness and prejudice between the Jewish peasantry and the Syrophoenician elite.

[2] John McManners, ed. The Oxford History of Christianity. (Oxford UP, 1993) 41-2.

[3] See Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers (Oxford UP, 1969) for an overview of some of these figures.

[4] The Oxford History of Christianity. 46-7.

[5] John Knox’s chapter “The Shared Life” from The Early Church and the Coming Great Church. (Abingdon, 1945) 42.


One response to “Church and State Part One: The Early Church”

  1. Daniel Sutkowski Avatar
    Daniel Sutkowski

    Very interesting piece! While I suspect I will disagree with you next piece a bit more I wanted to address some of the language you are using as it may be prevelant to your next article.

    1) The position of Bishop of Rome (for which Pope is still an unofficial title) existed before Constantine and so did its prominence. Many of the first Bishops of Rome where in fact martyrs to the Roman government. You don’t object to that in the article, but you also seem to only use language of the papacy as defined in times of its involvement with the various European States or Rome.

    2) Your article seems to suggest a cooperative attitude that existed between the Church and state post-Constantine. While in this post-Christian world, there was much less persecution of Christianity as before, I think it is important to remember that more often than not the various European Fifes and Kingdoms were at odds with the papacy. I would postulate that it was the era of religious wars post reformation that we see the clearest connection between Church and state in the west, where various nationalistic movements on both the Catholic and Protestant side would align their respective beliefs with their country.

    3) In fact the earliest very productive connections between the Church and the State occurred between the Bishop of Constantinople and the Emperor of Rome, rather than in the west.

    Just some notes for you to consider going into your next article 😉

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