Political Theory in the Early Church. The founder of Christianity had little interest in political doctrines. In appealing to the lowly and oppressed, the importance of the rich and the powerful was disparaged. In emphasizing the principle of the Golden Rule, the morality of the individual was appealed to, and the authority of government was there by minimized.
Jesus carefully distinguished the spiritual kingdom, which he aimed to establish, from the kingdoms of this world, and evaded every attempt to entangle him with the Roman authorities by insisting that he was not concerned with temporal affairs. This same spirit pervaded the writings of the Apostles.
Passive obedience to the powers that he was enjoined, government was conceived as a means of carrying out God’s will on earth, and meekness and humility were insisted upon. Only when the state interfered with the teachings of the church was disobedience permitted. Then the injunction to obey God rather than man led to the passive resistance of the martyrs.
At the same time there were certain elements of political theory which the early Christian writers drew from the ideas current in their times, and which increased in importance as Christianity spread to the upper classes and was more influenced by Stoic philosophy. The New Testament contains important statements concerning the doctrines of natural law, of human equality, and of the nature of government.
St. Paul, in referring to the Gentiles, who “do by nature the things of law,” implies a conception of natural law, written in men’s hearts and revealed by reason, distinct from the law of the state. This Stoic idea of the law of nature was taken up by the Church Fathers and became an important element in medieval political thought.
The Apostles also adopted the cosmopolitan ideas of the later Greek philosophers concerning the equality of men. The universal fatherhood of God, and the teaching that all classes and peoples are one in Christ Jesus, led to a conception of the identity of human nature in all parts of the world, and to a belief in human equality.
On the question of slavery however, the attitude of the early Christians, like that of the Stoic philosophers, was not altogether consistent. In the sight of God there was no distinction between bond and free. Slavery might control men’s bodies, but it could not control their spirits. St. Paul wrote that there can be neither bond nor free.
for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
Yet as a human institution, slavery was recognized and was not considered unlawful. Slaves were advised in fact to serve their masters faithfully and to obey them in all things.
Finally the New Testament taught a definite theory of the nature of government which was of the greatest importance in the later history of political thought. Civil government was viewed as a divine institution, deriving its authority from God. Obedience to the state was demanded as a religious obligation as well as a political necessity.
The state existed to maintain justice. It therefore had a sacred character, its ruler was God’s servant, and obedience was essential. These ideas were stated by the Apostles, not only because of the necessity of adjusting the relations of the early church to the Roman government, but also because of the desire to counteract the anarchically tendencies in the early Christian societies.
The Christian theory of the state was essentially based upon that of the later Stoics, that government is necessary to proper human development. The Christian writers, in adopting the Stoic rather than the Epicurean attitude toward the state, and in adding the Christian conception of the divine order in human society, laid the foundation for the political thought of the following thousand years.
The early Church Fathers, who followed the Apostles, furthered these ideas. They adopted the conception of natural law as worked out by Cicero and suggested by St. Paul, and they taught that men are by nature free and equal. This did not prevent them, however, from also recognizing slavery as a legal and even necessary institution. It was necessary, they suggested, as a punishment for sin, due to the fall of man from the state of nature when all men were equal.
At the same time the church held masters responsible for the treatment of their slaves and aimed to mitigate the worst evils of the system. The Fathers likewise accepted the state as a divine institution. They taught that ultimate authority for government must be sought in God as the creator of all things, and that the authority of the ruler was to be held sacred.
The Fathers added, however, that while government was divinely ordained, it, too, was the consequence of sin, resulting from the fall of man from original innocence to the depraved condition that made coercive authority necessary. It was, in short, a divine remedy for human wickedness. This change in attitude, considering coercion as a necessary evil, tended to diminish the importance of government and to increase the relative position of the church.
As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, gradually developed its semi-political organization, acquired property and power, and built up its system of theology, a new attitude began to appear in its political ideas. The church began to assume rights and dignities equal to those of the empire.
The Roman bishops began to exercise authority in spiritual and moral affairs over even the emperors, and the Church Fathers claimed that there were rights possessed by the church with which the imperial authority could not interfere.
While the civil ruler was considered the “vicar of God,” and a clear statement of the theory of the divine right of kings may be found in the writings of the Church Fathers, a line of separation began to be drawn between ecclesiastical and secular authority.
The church became more self-conscious and claimed greater independence within its own sphere; and the tendency developed to depreciate the importance of political authority and to exalt by comparison the spiritual authority of the church. The writings of Ambrose of Milan, of St. Augustine, and of Gregory the Great illustrate these lines of development.