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Christians and secular authority 4: Tertullian On Idolatry

Later in Tertullian’s time, there was a debate within the Christian community over whether servants of God should participate in the administration of secular public affairs. Early in the third century he expanded on reasons against any Christian involvement in them, largely because he saw it as intertwined with idolatry and thus denial of Christ’s divine lordship.

First, he cited the example of Jesus Himself:

He exercised no right of power even over His own followers, to whom He discharged menial ministry; if, in short, though conscious of His own kingdom, He shrank back from being made a king,He in the fullest manner gave His own an example for turning coldly from all the pride and garb, as well of dignity as of power. … Therefore what He was unwilling to accept, He has rejected; what He rejected, He has condemned; what He condemned, He has counted as part of the devil’s pomp. … all the powers and dignities of this world are not only alien to, but enemies of, God(On Idolatry 18)

In the preceding chapter, he did concede to his Christian opponents in the debate that a servant of God could serve the state also “if he be able, whether by some special grace, or by adroitness, to keep himself intact from every species of idolatry” but the extensive list of temptations inherent in public administration in Chapter 17, as well as the rest of the book, may indicate that Tertullian was speaking sarcastically, as he often did in his writings.

Probably rhetorically, Tertullian asked Christians who would participate in affairs of state whether any Christian could remain untainted by idolatry in that public life, as then organized, required of office-bearers:

- sacrificing to pagan deities

- lending authority of office to such sacrifices

- raising animals to be sacrificial victims

- assigning other people to care for temples

- looking after the revenues of temples

- giving gladiatorial and other “shows” at taxpayers’ expense

- giving gladiatorial and other “shows” at the office-holder’s private expense

- presiding over “shows”

- commanding that “shows” be held

- proclaiming pagan solemnities

- taking an oath

- sitting in judgment on anyone’s life

- sitting in judgment on anyone’s character

- judging about money

- imprisoning someone

- torturing someone, and/or

- ordering the death penalty.

If Tertullian meant this as sarcasm, he was, in fact, detailing that secular legislative, executive, and judicial office-holding entails risking far more idolatrous traps that anyone can possibly avoid.

Government officials, both elected and civil service, were expected to organize and lead community worship to pagan deities to secure their favour to the people and regime; while, per Tertullian, the Christian faith forbade judges to assess the credibility of witnesses, award judgment on the basis of a party’s merits, order torture of witnesses or defendants, imprison the guilty, or pronounce the death penalty on the worst of them.

Actually, we know from other sources that in practice it was fairly common for early Christians to avoid the hazards of idolatry and other sins Tertullian imputed to judicial officers. The earliest heirs of the apostles recorded that Christians in their day often served as judges. Usually these records are exhortations to “judge justly and righteously” (the Didascalia and four other ancient Christian sources, including ones in the late first or early second century), “judge well and rightly” (Origen) and, in particular, “judge widows and orphans justly” (three authors, including one in the second half of the first century). For example, in describing Christians and their traits around A.D. 125, Aristides noted “whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly.” See also “Judging Christians” in 16 August

Moreover, changes over centuries and in cultures between the Roman Empireat the turn of the third century and the Canadian democratic monarchy in the twenty-first cast further doubt on the applicability of Tertullian’s comments to us. First of all, by constitutional law the Queen must be a Christian. There have been no state-sponsored pagan sacrifices in almost fifteen centuries. In fact, no Canadian government official—be it politician or civil servant—is obliged to worship in any way, shape or form. Even prayers to the Christian God are being phased out of legislatures. Canadahas no death penalty, while torture has not been employed in judicial proceedings since the abolition of the infamous Court of Star Chamber in the seventeenth century.


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