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Christians and secular authority 1: overview and Celsus

This article begins a series on whether, to what extent, and by what means a Christian may seek secular authority, i.e. government office, according to Christian writings before the thoroughgoing persecution, mass apostasy, and upheaval of AD 249-251. There were and are two categories of such office: elected politicians, and civil servants that are usually employed on a permanent basis regardless of change of the persons in elected authority.

The only sources that deal with our topic in depth begin in the last third of the second century AD. They include prominent church fathers and also a pagan who criticized Christians for their refusal to accept government posts of any kind, even those required for “the maintenance of laws and the support of religion.” This first article of the series will consider the pagan Celsus’s criticisms. The next two articles document and observe corroboration of them.

Part 4 will deal with the independent arguments of Tertullian against Christian participation in public life. Part 5 considers material of more general purpose than the writings of a single author.

Part 6 takes schoolteachers as a case in point. The seventh will consider the differing extent and types of government involvement in daily life between ancient Roman and modern Canadian regimes, and puts authors and political conditions into perspective to invite discussion as to whether and to what extent the blanket prohibition of public office-holding might apply to Christians today. The concluding (eighth) article will outline public activities which all early authors considered open to Christians, and cautions against simplistic methods of interpreting and applying the Bible and other early Christian sources.

This series presents more of a discussion than a thesis, for it deals with all early points of view, and frequently asks questions as to whether and to what extent the ancient wisdom is applicable in today’s Canada.

In the last third of the second century AD, the pagan philosopher Celsus composed the earliest known systematic written attack on Christianity and its followers. He was well versed in Christian literature and practice, and directed his attack both against contents of the Bible and also against the day-to-day behaviour of ordinary Christians. His book was so incisive and influential that, towards the end of his own writing and preaching ministry, the church father Origen composed eight books in reply to it, collectively known as Against Celsus. Judging by Origen’s comments, and those of other early writers who never referred to Celsus, he was largely accurate in his depiction of Christians as refusing to accept service in secular government.

Celsus urges us “to help the king with all our might, and to labour with him in the maintenance of justice, to fight for him; and if he requires it, to fight under him, or lead an army along with him.” (Origen Against Celsus 8.73)

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.” (Origen Against Celsus 8.75)

Celsus goes on to say: “We must not disobey the ancient writer, who said long ago, ‘Let one be king, whom the son of crafty Saturn appointed;’” ( HomerIliad ii. 205) and adds: “If you set aside this maxim, you will deservedly suffer for it at the hands of the king. For if all were to do the same as you, there would be nothing to prevent his being left in utter solitude and desertion, and the affairs of the earth would fall into the hands of the wildest and most lawless barbarians; and then there would no longer remain among men any of the glory of your religion or of the true wisdom.” (Against Celsus 8.68)

The implication throughout is that Christians persistently refused to fill state offices.


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