How did the early church interpret its relationship to Caesar and the Roman Empire, as it applied the teaching of Jesus? The church rejected the empire’s idolatry and many of its cultural values and it suffered greatly at the hands of the empire’s leaders, but in priniciple it respected the God-given place of the empire and its emperor. The idolatrous Roman empire martyred the saints – including some of the men who wrote the words below – but the church generally believed that the empire could be redeemed as its citizens came to know Christ.
Here is a selection of readings from the mid-second century to the early-third century.
(An earlier version of this post contained writings attributed to Ignatius of Antioch. I have subsequently discovered that so-called “long recension” of Ignatius’ letters probably originates in the fourth century, not the late first century. It does not reflect, then, the situation prior to Constantine’s rise to power.)
Justin Martyr (d. 165)
And everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavor 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 Caesar; and He answered, “Tell Me, whose image does the coin bear?” And they said, “Caesar’s.” And again He answered them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’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. But if you pay no regard to our prayers and frank explanations, we shall suffer no loss, since we believe (or rather, indeed, are persuaded) that every man will suffer punishment in eternal fire according to the merit of his deed, and will render account according to the power he has received from God, as Christ intimated when He said, “To whom God has given more, of him shall more be required.”
Tertullian (d. ca. 220)
As to the Emperor and the charge of high treason against us, Caesar’s safety lies not in hands soldered on. We invoke the true God for the Emperor. Even if he persecute us, we are bidden to pray for them that persecute us, as you can read in our books, which are not hidden, which you often get hold of. We pray for him because the Empire lies between us and the end of the world. We count the Caesars to be God’s vice-regents and swear by their safety (not by their genius, as required). As for loyalty, Caesar really is more ours than yours; for it was our God who set him up. It is for his own good, that we refuse to call the Emperor God; Father of his Country is a better title. No Christian has ever made a plot against a Caesar; the famous conspirators and assassins were heathen, one and all. Piety, religion, faith are our best offering of loyalty.
“The things which are Caesar’s are to be rendered to Caesar.” It is enough that He set in apposition thereto, “and to God the things which are God’s.” What things, then, are Caesar’s? Those, to wit, about which the consultation was then held, whether the poll-tax should be furnished to Caesar or no. Therefore, too, the Lord demanded that the money should be shown Him, and inquired about the image, whose it was; and when He had heard it was Caesar’s, said, “Render to Caesar what are Caesar’s, and what are God’s to God; “that is, the image of Caesar, which is on the coin, to Caesar, and the image of God, which is on man, to God; so as to render to Caesar indeed money, to God yourself.
“Render unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s.” What will be “the things which are God’s? “Such things as are like Caesar’s denarius—-that is to say, His image and similitude. That, therefore, which he commands to be “rendered unto God,” the Creator, is man, who has been stamped with His image, likeness, name, and substance.
Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215)
And of civil government: “Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things which are God’s.”