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constant wearer out of benches, no wholesale router of laws, no barking pleader, no judge, no soldier, no king: I have withdrawn from the populace.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.
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.
- Tertullian, On the Pallium, Chapter 5. Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, page 11.
- Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 38. Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, page 45.
- Tertullian, On Idolatry, Chapter 18. Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, page 73.
- Origen, Against Celsus, Book 8, Chapter 65. Translated by Frederick Crombie. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, page 664.
- Origen, Against Celsus, Book 8, Chapter 75. Translated by Frederick Crombie. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, page 668.
- Clement of Alexandria, Fragments. Translated by William Wilson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, page 581
- Tertullian, On Idolatry, Chapter 19. Translated by S. Thelwall. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, page 73.
- The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Chapter 9. Translated by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1, page 41.
- 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.
- St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 4, Chapter 4 (alternate).
- 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.