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Christians and secular authority 3: early Tertullian

Tertullian opposed any Christian participation in government affairs whatever, mostly because he considered that such involvement enmeshes believers in idolatrous practices in an era when heathen religion was intertwined with all public offices.

Addressing the “rulers of the Roman Empire” in AD 197, his Apologeticum spoke of the churches and their members as monolithically abstaining from all aspects of public life, including voting, political meetings, and legislative gatherings. For the same reason, Christians abstained from “shows”, which included athletic events, gladiatorial combats, and other sports in public coliseums.

The peoples of the Roman Empirewere assiduous in forming fellowships, societies, and clubs for all manner of public and private purposes. The government was always suspicious of them, and often suppressed such associations for fear they might plot treason. Remember that the Romans built and maintained their Empire by force of arms against unwilling natives, including those of Tertullian’s home city of Carthage; they also enforced the tyranny of oppressive local rulers. The Apologeticum sought to assure Roman leaders that Christian churches were not subversive and therefore should not be illegal. In doing so, it revealed Christians’ attitude to relations between themselves and the state:

For, unless I mistake the matter, the prevention of such associations is based on a prudential regard to public order, that the state may not be divided into parties, which would naturally lead to disturbance in the electoral assemblies, the councils, the curiæ, the special conventions, even in the public shows by the hostile collisions of rival parties; especially when now, in pursuit of gain, men have begun to consider their violence an article to be bought and sold. But as those in whom all ardour in the pursuit of glory and honour is dead, we have no pressing inducement to take part in your public meetings; nor is there aught more entirely foreign to us than affairs of state.(Apol. 38)

Twenty-first century conditions present difficulties in applying this to our time and country. Although there is division into political parties, it does not result in riotous disturbances on election day. If federal and provincial politics are to be shunned on the ground that parties constitute an evil in themselves, does the same apply to municipal elections, where candidates run as independents and not under partisan banners?

Tertullian’s description of hostile collisions, violence, high emotions, disturbances, and violations of public peace pertain in our time more to football and hockey fans than to political supporters, with the possible exception of leadership conventions. If Christians are to abstain from government office, they should even more abstain from spectator sports.


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