Friday, July 1, 2022

The Early Church and the State

Romans 13: 1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.

Titus 3: 1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work

1 Peter 2: 13 Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people.

I have written several posts on this topic, that of the relationship Christians should hold to the state (most recently, perhaps, here, at the beginning of covidiocy).  I use the term “state” instead of “governing authorities” because the latter term suggests multiple spheres of governing authorities than merely a monopoly state – yet it is “state” that many Christians seem to believe is the only applicable concept.

In any case, my intention is not to rehash the theological point, but to consider the historical context.  Secondly, then, to consider how that context might shape our understanding of these passages.

The Maccabean Revolt was a Jewish rebellion led by the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire and against Hellenistic influence on Jewish life. The main phase of the revolt lasted from 167–160 BCE and ended with the Seleucids in control of Judea, but conflict between the Maccabees, Hellenized Jews, and the Seleucids continued until 134 BCE, with the Maccabees eventually attaining independence.

To varying degrees, some semblance of independence was achieved for about one hundred years, until 37 BC.  Herod the Great, with Roman support, defeated the last ruler and became a Roman client king.

It was in this environment that Jesus was born.  And it was in this environment that His disciples lived.  And this, almost undoubtedly, contributed to the confusion of the disciples: what, exactly, was Jesus’s mission?

How many times do we read in the Gospels of this confusion, of Jesus rebuking them for their lack of understanding?  I offer one of numerous examples:

Luke 18: 31 And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33 And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” 34 But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

We have the Apostle Peter, told he will deny Jesus three times before the morning – and Peter denying that he would do this.  In our memory, we immediately jump to the denials – but we skip what was in-between:

John 18: 10 Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant and cut off his right ear.

Only after Jesus told Peter to put away his sword and after Jesus was arrested did Peter deny Jesus.  Why would the man who was ready to fulfil his promise to Jesus, when he said “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death” cower when a servant girl later asked him if he knew Jesus?

Then there is Judas, who sold Jesus for some silver.  Why did he hang himself once he saw that Jesus was condemned?  If he wasn’t after the arrest and condemnation of Jesus, then what was he after?

Confusion over the mission of Jesus; the Apostle Peter ready to fight and die before cowering in front of a servant girl; Judas, apparently succeeding in his betrayal, hangs himself. 

None of this makes sense if we take Jesus to be that which He, in fact was – what we have come to know Him to be and what the disciples only came to learn after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  Immediately after Pentecost the cowering Peter boldly gave the most successful sermon in history.

Yet we still haven’t come to the passages cited at the beginning of this post.  The book of Romans was written by Paul sometime in the mid-50s AD; there apparently is some dispute about both the author of Titus and the time it was written, but if Paul, then it was shortly before his death; surprisingly, there is also disagreement about the authorship of 1 Peter…

For my purposes, I will assume that these letters were written by the commonly accepted authors, and, therefore, before their deaths sometime in the mid-60s AD and during the reign of Nero.  But, even if the letters were written after and by others, it doesn’t change my thoughts.

The First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE) …was the first of three major rebellions by the Jews against the Roman Empire, fought in Roman-controlled Judea, resulting in the destruction of Jewish towns, the displacement of its people and the appropriation of land for Roman military use, as well as the destruction of the Jewish Temple and polity.

The third of these, the Bar Kokhba revolt, occurred from 132-136 AD.  Hence, even if the authorship of the letters is by others after the death of Paul and Peter, the environment is the same: from the Maccabean Revolt to these three major rebellions after the death and resurrection of Christ, a period of three hundred years, revolution was in the air – and active on the ground.

And this was the Messiah, the one who would reclaim the throne of David, the one looked for by Jews of the time of Christ and the one, perhaps, that the disciples saw.  Certainly, this would explain their confusion and many of the claims and statements made by Jesus during three years; it would explain Peter ready to fight for the revolution, then cower when the revolutionary leader was arrested.

And what of Judas?  What better way to start the fight then to have the revolutionary leader arrested?  And when the leader stopped the fight and was arrested and condemned, Judas saw his cause was lost – as was his understanding.

And it was in this context that the passages above were written.  Revolution.


It seems possible that the reason for such passages was simply nothing more than telling the Christians of the time: the fight you see around you, this revolt that had been in the air for 200 years until that time, this revolt against Rome to restore the throne of David, this isn’t your fight.  Jesus’s kingdom is not that kind of kingdom.  The battle for His kingdom is not fought this way. 

At a time of extremely heightened tension over the rights to civil governance, this would certainly be an appropriate message.

Yet we are also told, and must always remember, that the prince of the power of the air is the spirit that is working in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived and who still live among us.  Further, these sons of disobedience are of their father the devil, wanting to do what he desires; when he speaks, he lies, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

So, our objective is not to take political power through revolution.  But we also must recognize that the sons of disobedience are working actively to crush the disciples of Christ, and they will lie and murder to achieve their desires.  Which means never trust those in authority (although we still pray for them). 

But we are often faced with much more meaningful challenges – and, certainly, worse to come.  When higher authorities attempt to usurp our authority in these intermediating institutions…well, they may need to be made to understand that this is in violation of Biblical teaching. 

Romans 13: 3 (a) For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. 4 (b) But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.

These verses cut both ways.  We are governing authorities in our families, our communities, our churches.  God appointed us in these roles just as much as he appointed those in the state.

Returning to the original thought: does this context matter – the revolutionary fever in the air at the time these letters were written?  Does it effect our understanding and applicability of these passages?


  1. I like how the 2 Peter passage says to submit BUT then communicates "if or whether" a king or governor who is actually bringing justice. This fits together nicely with Romans 13's governing authorities - ἐξουσίαις ὑπερεχούσαις. After further thought, from yet another person in a church saying Romans 13 demands we obey any and every edict of the US Federal government, I have defined those authorities as "those invested with power to bring justice."

    If they aren't brining justice in some way or in general then they aren't a true authority.

  2. I think you are very correct in your conclusions. The Churches responsibility wasn't to be a revolutionary force to overthrow Rome. It was meant as the vehicle to bring the gospel to the world. It had to be obvious that the Church wasn't another earthly kingdom with the goal of taking power over more and more land like a Caesar. But it is all complicated and overlapping in my mind.

    That doesn't rule out other organizations containing Christians rebelling and overthrowing unjust rulers. But it does mean Christians must be very careful in how they think through issues like this. We have to be certain of things before aligning ourselves with revolutions. How unjust is this authority? How will this reflect on the Church? Is there a legitimate authority that will replace the old one?

    You also bring up the excellent point of their being various layers of authority. We are also to use our authority as fathers, churches, city rulers, state rulers, community leaders, etc. Always to seek justice.

    1. Justice or mercy? Matthew 9:13? Mt:4:17, indeed the entire chapter. Jesus Crucifixion was justice.

  3. Sadly, I believe that these interpretations were self serving to to the conquering Romans and those (just like now) who have been both influenced and possibly compromised.
    Very intuitive of you to see this possibility.

  4. Lest the Apostle Paul should be misunderstood about obeying the government, let’s keep in mind that Paul was in prison during much of the time he was writing the New Testament. He wasn’t in prison because he was doing exactly what corrupt government officials told him to do. He even spoke words of rebuke to the high priest of the Sanhedrin and got slapped for it. Let’s also keep in mind that Paul said the purpose of government is to uphold those who do good and to punish those who do evil. The exact opposite of what our government is doing. So you have to ask yourself,”Am I really supporting government as the Bible commands if I uphold and cooperate with the criminals and enemies of my country who are trying to take over that government?”