What is an overview of early church father expressions of opposition against authorities? I'm looking for things like:

  • Protests against state-/government-sponsored injustice
  • Arguments against the legitimacy of a particular government or ruler
  • Support for actions that disrupt or circumvent a particular government or ruler

I don't expect to find any calls for violence, of course, given the typical understanding of Romans 13 and similar passages. Instead, example statements that interest me include:

  • "The Emperor is a cruel, illegitimate ruler, but we must still obey"
  • "Blessed are those who hide Christians from their persecutors"
  • "If you have the opportunity, flee from authorities who seek to capture you"
  • "Disabling a government chariot may not be sinful" (a la The Sound of Music)

I'm interested in an overview of statements that are contained in the extant writings of fathers from the 2nd century through Augustine.


2 Answers 2


To be clear, the Church Fathers were specifically against rebellion. This being said however, some Church Fathers have in fact rather bluntly suggested that the affairs of the state and the power struggle involved in such activity is often times contrary to the Christian faith.


I owe no duty to the forum, the election-ground, or the senate-house; I keep no obsequious vigil, preoccupy no platforms, hover about no praetorian residences; I am not odorant of the canals, am not adorant of the lattices, am no constant wearer out of benches, no wholesale router of laws, no barking pleader, no judge, no soldier, no king: I have withdrawn from the populace. My only business is with myself: except that other care I have none, save not to care.1

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.2

All the powers and dignities of this world are not only alien to, but enemies of, God; that through them, punishments have been determined against God’s servants; through them, too, penalties prepared for the impious are ignored.3


We are to despise ingratiating ourselves with kings or any other men, not only if their favour is to be won by murders, licentiousness, or deeds of cruelty, but even if it involves impiety towards God, or any servile expressions of flattery and obsequiousness.4

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.” But we recognise in each state the existence of another national organization founded by the Word of God, and we exhort those who are mighty in word and of blameless life to rule over Churches. Those who are ambitious of ruling we reject; but we constrain those who, through excess of modesty, are not easily induced to take a public charge in the Church of God. And those who rule over us well are under the constraining influence of the great King, whom we believe to be the Son of God, God the Word. And if those who govern in the Church, and are called rulers of the divine nation–that is, the Church–rule well, they rule in accordance with the divine commands, and never suffer themselves to be led astray by worldly policy. And it is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a diviner and more necessary service in the Church of God–for the salvation of men. And this service is at once necessary and right. They take charge of all–of those that are within, that they may day by day lead better lives, and of those that are without, that they may come to abound in holy words and in deeds of piety; and that, while thus worshiping God truly, and training up as many as they can in the same way, they may be filled with the word of God and the law of God, and thus be united with the Supreme God through His Son the Word, Wisdom, Truth, and Righteousness, who unites to God all who are resolved to conform their lives in all things to the law of God.5

Clement of Alexandria

Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence the delinquencies of sins. [...] For he that is made good by compulsion of another is not good; for he is not what he is by his own choice. For it is the freedom of each one that makes true goodness and reveals real wickedness.6

Criticisms of Tertullian

Obviously Tertullian was perhaps the most anti-state mainstream Church Father there was. His teachings also included an anti-military stance, as seen in the following quote:

Inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file [...]. But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? [...] The Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action.7

It is for this reason among others that, in the influence of St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Thomas Aquinas who both supported the idea of 'just war theory' and the idea that certain acts of violence and control are necessary in order to secure the greater good, Tertullian has not been made a saint by the Church to this day (it should be noted also that Origen as well has not been made a saint by the Church, for similar theologically-based reasons).

Martyrdom of the early Church

All of these examples so far are of sketchy theology alone, but we must also recall that many early Christians expressed an unwillingness to participate in government mandate through their martyrdom. The following are just two examples of the words spoken by certain Church fathers before their martyrdom.


Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? Bring forth what thou wilt.8

These words were spoken before Polycarp was burned at the stake for refusing to offer incense to the Roman emperor at the time, being Caesar.

Ignatius of Antioch

I write to the Churches, and impress on them all, that I shall willingly die for God, unless ye hinder me. I beseech of you not to show an unseasonable good-will towards me. Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.9

Here we see the Church fathers willing to die for God rather than live in order to please the mandates of man. So the nature of rejecting a government's authority (insofar as such means living rather for the Divine Authority) is not only present in several Church father's thoughts but also within the very deeds of the Church fathers.

Augustinian Minimalism

Besides the preceding examples of early Church fathers either stating radically 'anti-state' philosophies and/or directly behaving in contrast to the wishes of government through martyrdom, the more common sentimentality of St. Augustine has also indicated an underlying tension between church and state. St. Augustine proposed and lived according to a politically minimalist view of the government himself, bordering even on a criticism of certain actions of rulers in such indirect ways as the following anecdote:

When [Alexander the Great] asked [a captured pirate] what he meant by infesting the sea, he boldly replied: ‘What do you mean by warring on the whole world. I do my fighting on a ship, and they call me a pirate; you do yours on a large ship, and they call you Commander.10

Augustine's general dislike and distrust of the government stemmed from a theological understanding that is deeply held within Church teaching, namely that the striving for power is an essentially empty journey that leads only to sin and further self-empowerment.

God did not intend that man should have power over his fellow man.11

Augustine's famous book 'The City of God' distinguishes between two cities, namely the City of God and the City of Man. For Augustine, the City of God belongs to those who orient themselves firstly to the Highest Good. The City of Man belongs to those who orient themselves to lesser goods. Augustine firmly believed that often times government power was unjustly thought of and acted upon as the Highest Good. Unlike our system of life today, in which all things are in subjection to the individual's judgement, Augustine lived in a time when anti-theistic philosophers stressed the idea that man's workings in politics and rhetoric were for the common good, and thus for the Highest Good, and more drastically that such practices were nearly outside of the criticisms offered by religion and/or any individual. It is for this reason that St. Augustine, as a truly impassioned and devout Christian man took such a disliking of what we consider to be 'government'.

It is this Augustinian minimalism that has still managed to thrive within Christian politics throughout the long years, and although our roots of 'obedience to government without trust to government' sentiments have perhaps 'dummed down' since we have experienced the blessing of having our morality sanctioned within law itself, it is easy to see where so many of our Church fathers were coming from in their general and sometimes specific dislike of government. It is a dislike that is likely to resurface in the Church in the government-empowered years to come.


  1. Tertullian, On the Pallium, Chapter 5. Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, page 11.
  2. Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 38. Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, page 45.
  3. Tertullian, On Idolatry, Chapter 18. Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, page 73.
  4. Origen, Against Celsus, Book 8, Chapter 65. Translated by Frederick Crombie. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, page 664.
  5. Origen, Against Celsus, Book 8, Chapter 75. Translated by Frederick Crombie. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, page 668.
  6. Clement of Alexandria, Fragments. Translated by William Wilson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, page 581
  7. Tertullian, On Idolatry, Chapter 19. Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, page 73.
  8. The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Chapter 9. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, page 41.
  9. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Romans, Chapter 4 (Shorter version). Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, page 75.
  10. St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 4, Chapter 4 (alternate).
  11. St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 19, Chapter 15 (alternate).


  • Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1-4. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.)
  • St. Augustine, The City of God, trans. G. Walsh, D. Zema, G. Monahan, D. Honan, ed. Vernon J. Bourke (New York: Image Books, 1958), IV:4.

The church Father's seems to have less inclination to political protest or civil disobedience as compared to modern society while at the same time, where it really mattered, were more willing to die for the fundamentals of religion. The case seems similar to Daniel in the Lions den, or that of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel Chapter 3.

For example Justin Martyr taught civil obedience as does scripture:

chap. xvii.—christ taught civil obedience. And everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavour to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him; for at that time some came to Him and asked Him, if one ought to pay tribute to Cæsar; and He answered, “Tell Me, whose image does the coin bear?” And they said, “Cæsar’s.” And again He answered them, “Render therefore to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Whence to God alone we render worship, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as kings and rulers of men, and praying that with your kingly power you be found to possess also sound judgment. (Justinmartyr 1.17, THE ANTE-NICENE FATHERS,THE REV. ALEXANDER ROBERTS, p165)

However were submission to the state necessarily makes a person sin, as in idol worship or denial of Christ, the Church Father's disobeyed the government. For example Polycarp and others were put to death for not calling Cæsar Lord and refusing to deny their faith in Christ, as well as refusing to worship popular idols. Here is a description after his arrest while traveling to his trial:

Irenarch Herod, accompanied by his father Nicetes (both riding in a chariot), met him, and taking him up into the chariot, they seated themselves beside him, and endeavoured to persuade him, saying, “What harm is there in saying, Lord Cæsar, and in sacrificing, with the other ceremonies observed on such occasions, and so make sure of safety?” But he at first gave them no answer; and when they continued to urge him, he said, “I shall not do as you advise me.” So they, having no hope of persuading him, began to speak bitter words unto him, and cast him with violence out of the chariot, insomuch that, in getting down from the carriage, he dislocated his leg [by the fall] (Af 14.8, Chapter 10, THE ANTE-NICENE FATHERS,THE REV. ALEXANDER ROBERTS)

Tertullian explains why Christian's can't call Caesar God.

CHAP. XXXIII But why dwell longer on the reverence and sacred respect of Christians to the emperor, whom we cannot but look up to as called by our Lord to his office? So that on valid grounds I might say Cæsar is more ours than yours, for our God has appointed him. Therefore, as having this propriety in him, I do more than you for his welfare, not merely because I ask it of Him who can give it, or because I ask it as one who deserves to get it, but also because, in keeping the majesty of Cæsar within due limits, and putting it under the Most High, and making it less than divine, I commend him the more to the favour of Deity, to whom I make him alone inferior. But I place him in subjection to one I regard as more glorious than himself. Never will I call the emperor God, and that either because it is not in me to be guilty of falsehood; or that I dare not turn him into ridicule; or that not even himself will desire to have that high name applied to him. (Tertullian 1.33, THE ANTE-NICENE FATHERS,THE REV. ALEXANDER ROBERTS)

However there were some grey areas that caused controversy among believers. Where to draw the line on what is sin and what is just doing what others are doing externally? For example Tertullian defended the choice a soldier made in refusing to wear a laurel crown and who was consequently put into prison for his action. He felt it implied worship of Caesar. Some believers thought this was too zealous, therefore a controversy ensued and Tertullian sided with the soldier.

Very lately it happened thus: while the bounty of our most excellent emperors was dispensed in the camp, the soldiers, laurel-crowned, were approaching. One of them, more a soldier of God, more stedfast than the rest of his brethren, who had imagined that they could serve two masters, his head alone uncovered, the useless crown in his hand—already even by that peculiarity known to every one as a Christian—was nobly conspicuous. Accordingly, all began to mark him out, jeering him at a distance, gnashing on him near at hand. The murmur is wafted to the tribune, when the person had just left the ranks. The tribune at once puts the question to him, Why are you so different in your attire? He declared that he had no liberty to wear the crown with the rest. Being urgently asked for his reasons, he answered, I am a Christian. O soldier! boasting thyself in God. Then the case was considered and voted on; the matter was remitted to a higher tribunal; the offender was conducted to the prefects. At once he put away the heavy cloak, his disburdening commenced; he loosed from his foot the military shoe, beginning to stand upon holy ground; he gave up the sword, which was not necessary either for the protection of our Lord; from his hand likewise dropped the laurel crown; and now, purple-clad with the hope of his own blood, shod with the preparation of the gospel, girt with the sharper word of God, completely equipped in the apostles’ armour, and crowned more worthily with the white crown of martyrdom, he awaits in prison the largess of Christ. Thereafter adverse judgments began to be passed upon his conduct—whether on the part of Christians I do not know, for those of the heathen are not different—as if he were headstrong and rash, and too eager to die, because, in being taken to task about a mere matter of dress, he brought trouble on the bearers of the Name (Tertullian 4.1, THE ANTE-NICENE FATHERS,THE REV. ALEXANDER ROBERTS)

So the gist of the Father's was that in every way be submissive to Caesar, even a wicked one, but if that meant you were forced to sin, then one can no longer obey. In some cases not everyone drew the line at the same place but in general they did not seem to concern themselves in small matters as much as the fundamental ones.


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