Does Christianity Teach Servility Toward Tyrannical Authorities?
The Words of Jesus, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” are proof enough for the authors of The Atheist’s Handbook that he taught servility toward what we would call today a colonial ruler.
(Mark 12:17, see also Matthew 22:21 and Luke 20:25)
Now, first of all, Jesus never said these words to His disciples. He said them to His worst adversaries, the Pharisees. Their whole lives were a mockery of religion. So He told them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” He was sure that by striving to do so, His opponents would soon find out that if they were complacent toward mad rulers (many Roman Caesars were mad), there would be nothing left to give to God.
The disciples of Jesus must have understood well what He meant by these words, which have been so often misused.
If somebody has been dishonest and wishes to make things right with those he has defrauded, he first has to establish as best he can what he owes and then pay it back. Now, what did a Jew owe to Caesar? What does a Christian owe to a godless ruler? Nothing.
Even in Rome, nothing belonged rightfully to Caesar. Julius Caesar, a victorious Roman general, upon his return from a campaign in Gallia (Gaul) overthrew the Republic by military force. He was thus not a legitimate ruler. He was succeeded by tyrants, most of them more fit for an asylum than a throne. These tyrants robbed the population of the Roman Empire of its freedom. They gave nothing to it.
Even less did anything in Palestine belong to Caesar. Profiting from a division between Jewish factions, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) occupied by force this small country and imposed upon it a regime of terror and corruption.
Caesar never constructed a road in Palestine. The Jews did the work. He did not build a house. He did not plant a tree. “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” is a revolutionary, patriotic sentence, which in essence denies any right to the usurper.
If any honest-thinking citizen in the Soviet Union had been told during the Nazi invasion, “Give to Hitler what is Hitler’s and to God what is God’s,” he would have understood those words as meaning, “Give Hitler the boot and throw his troops out, because nothing belongs to him in the Soviet Union. He has no right even to be here.” The same would apply to past Soviet invasions in neighboring countries.
The Roman authorities, and the Jewish high priests who were their stooges, evidently gave to the words of Jesus my interpretation. The proof is that they did not consider him a loyal citizen of the empire but a rebel, and they crucified him.
Critics simply misrepresent the truth when they portray the authors of the New Testament as flatterers of the Roman authorities.
“It contains no accusation against the Roman governor,” they say. “All the guilt of the crucifixion is attributed to the Jews, while Pilate is described as a passive observer.”
It is easy to make such assertions in a country where Bibles are scarce. In Acts 4:27 we read: “For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together.” A Jewish mob, incited by priests, had asked for the crucifixion of Jesus. But Pilate on his own initiative added cruelty to cruelty. We know it from the words, “Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him” (John 19:1). The text implies the utter debasement of a Roman governor who finds pleasure in personally whipping a prisoner about whose innocence he is obviously convinced. Then the Gospel says very clearly that Pilate delivered Him to be crucified. John is not the only one to accuse the Roman governor. All the Evangelists reveal him as a henchman. Matthew writes, “When [Pilate] had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified” (Matthew 27:26). Mark writes, “[Pilate] delivered Jesus, after he had scourged Him, to be crucified” (Mark 15:15). Luke quotes Pilate explicitly as saying, “I have found no fault in this Man…I will therefore chastise Him” (Luke 23:14,16).
The authors of the New Testament never whitewashed the Romans for their part in the crucifixion of Jesus. They share in the guilt. Later church historians reported with fidelity how Roman authorities threw Christians to the wild beasts and subjected them to all kinds of atrocities.
Far from being servile, as accused, true Christians in all ages have never recognized tyrants as their legitimate rulers. Neither did they consider it a duty to be submissive to them. The first book against Christianity of which we have any knowledge is The True Word by Celsus. Its date is around A.D. 175. It reproaches Christians for not defending the emperor, fighting for him, participating in his military expeditions, or working. Christians should look upon evil leaders as oppressors. They will get no flattery from the disciples of Christ.
Skeptics and even ignorant Christians quote another Scripture to show that Christianity teaches blind submission to unjust rulers and is, therefore, a hindrance to the progress of humanity. The text is Romans 13:1–3: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.”
But this same chapter defines what a Christian means by the “authority” to whom he owes obedience. Only he deserves this name who, as the minister of God, gives praise to those who do good and executes wrath on him who does evil (vv. 3,4). If a ruler does the contrary, if he punishes good and rewards evil, we can no longer recognize his power as being from God.
Bible verses such as the foregoing made Christians resist tyranny.
In the Middle Ages, Savonarola was burned at the stake because he had said, “Nothing is more abhorrent to a tyrant than service to Christ and a virtuous Christian life. For these are diametrically opposed to his own habits.”
I quote from a discussion between Mary Queen of Scots and the Protestant Reformer John Knox:
Mary: “Ye have taught the people to receive another religion than their princes can allow. And how can that doctrine be of God, seeing that God commands subjects to obey their princes?”
Knox: “Madame, as right religion neither took original strength nor authority from worldly princes, but from the Eternal God alone, so are not subjects bound to frame their religion according to the appetites of their princes … If all the seed of Abraham should have been of the religion of Pharaoh … what religion would have been in the world? Or if all the men in the days of the apostles should have been of the religion of the Roman emperors, what religion could there have been on the face of the earth?”
Mary: “Yes, but none of these men raised the sword against their princes.”
Knox: “Yet, Madame, ye cannot deny, but that they resisted. For these that obey not … in some sort resist.”
Mary: “But yet they resisted not by the sword.”
Knox: “God, Madame, had not given them the power and the means.”
Mary: “Think ye that subjects having power may resist their princes?”
Knox: “If their princes exceed their bounds, Madame … it is no doubt but they may be resisted, even by power. For what if a father should go mad and try to kill his own children? Should they not seize him and take the sword or weapons from him by force? It is even so, Madame, with princes that would murder the children of God that are subject unto them. Their blind zeal is nothing but a very mad frenzy… and therefore to take the sword from them, to bind their hands and cast them in prison till that they be brought to a more sober mind is no disobedience against princes, but just obedience, because that it agreeth with the will of God.”
The Bible inspired Lincoln and Wilberforce to fight for the abolition of slavery. Marx in his Das Kapital acknowledges the role of the Christian Shaftesbury in introducing laws protecting labor in the United Kingdom. It was a Russian Christian, Count Leo Tolstoy, who denied any authority to the czar. Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States, wrote, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”; and “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience towards God.”
Emerson wrote: “If you put a chain around the neck of a slave, the other fastens itself around your own.”
Lincoln wrote: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” In his message to the Congress on December 1, 1862, he said, “In giving freedom to the slaves, we give freedom to the free.”
But all these arguments are not really necessary because, as usual, The Atheist’s Handbook contradicts itself. In order to explain the miraculous growth and victory of Christianity, the atheists, who cannot admit that God was working in the Church, claim that it proselyted mostly slaves “because slaves gained in Christian circles a position which they could not enjoy with others.”
In the Epistle to Philemon, Paul urges a slave-owner to receive back one of his servants who had fled, not only without punishment but “as a beloved brother.” This was the spirit of primitive Christianity.
Why then did the first Christians not abolish slavery? They were persecuted. They had no power in the state. Many of them were slaves themselves. Only a short time before, the great revolt of slaves led by Spartacus had been bloodily suppressed and many tens of thousands of slaves crucified. Only fools rebel when the sure outcome of rebellion is defeat.
God has appeared only once on Mount Sinai, giving the Ten Commandments. The preamble to them is: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” In introducing Himself to His people, He chooses to characterize Himself as the liberator of slaves, rather than as the Creator of heaven and earth. This is our God.
I was in jail under Stalin and under his successors. Would the underground church of Russia not have more right than the atheists to speak about opposing tyranny?
True Christians have been and are fighters for freedom. In this matter we have nothing to learn from our atheist friends. The United States, Great Britain, and Australia do not have slave labor camps, but the Soviet Union did and China, Vietnam, and other countries still do today.
To describe Christians as a bunch of sycophants to tyrants is only to caricature them. What atheists reject therefore is not Christianity, but a travesty of it.
- Richard Wurmbrand, The Answer to the Atheist’s Handbook, 1975. Wurmbrand was a Lutheran Romanian minister who was imprisoned and tortured for more than 14 years by that country's communist regime between 1948 and 1964. He was the author of Tortured for Christ, From Suffering to Triumph, Marx & Satan, Was Karl Marx a Satanist, Marx: Prophet of Darkness - Communism's Hidden Forces Revealed et al.. Wurmbrand dedicated his life to the cause of martyrs throughout the world and founded the international organization, Voice of the Martyrs. The Voice of the Martyrs is a non-profit Christian organization founded in United States. One of the purposes of the organization is to raise awareness of the many Christian believers that are killed, tortured and imprisoned annually for their beliefs. The organization is funded by churches and individual donations, which are used for providing Bibles and Christian literature, radio broadcasting, blankets, food, and other types of aid based on specific needs.