Edwin Judge says there were two sides to the church’s response to the power of the state.
If one thinks of the powerful public use, even of violence, by Constantine to promote the churches in the fourth century, one must distinguish from that the attitude of the believing churches, from the beginning, to public power and force.
And it’s quite clear from the New Testament that there are two different sides to this. One is that the Pauline letters and the letters of Peter and generally in the New Testament – the teaching of Jesus for example – endorses the public authority that is Caesar himself, as they say, and the sword he bears, as Paul says. Meaning the capital punishment by the state was accepted by the churches as part of the legitimate government of the world under God. And Paul – and, for that matter, Peter – both endorsed this in their letters even though they were themselves, from time to time, suffering under the tricky processes of Roman government. So that one side of it was that there is no assumption of the right of the church to use political power or force of any kind to back the gospel. That is rejected.
On the other hand, in the Revelation to St John, the last book in the New Testament, you see a furious condemnation of the Roman power itself, in my view. That’s my interpretation of what that book is attacking, it is attacking the power of the Roman government which was now in a phase, presumably late in the first century, using the control of the marketplace and the public square and so on to force believers in Christ to offer sacrifices to the cult of Caesar himself.
Now, Jesus had said to his disciples, “You should give back to God what belongs to him and to Caesar what belongs to him”. But what Jesus clearly did not mean was that worshipping Caesar as divine – the very opposite, he was distinguishing between God and Caesar in that statement. But what you see in the book of Revelation is that the Roman government itself was using the divinisation of Caesar as a kind of social control thing, imposing on believers in Christ the duty of sacrificing to Caesar as divine. And they refused that. And the book of Revelation is their furious denunciation of it, and of course whenever it was required of them in the courts across the next three centuries, very large numbers simply refused and lost their lives because of it.
But there was no Christian violence – notice carefully – in the first three centuries. There is no violent reaction against the Roman government by the Christians themselves. They did not throw a bomb or do anything like that. They even condemned military service. It was held by many of the early church fathers to be immoral to serve in the army, because it would cost somebody else their life if you were a soldier. So the early churches were extreme pacifists, even though they were suffering tremendous persecution. Their response to persecution was simply to take it, and witness to their faith. But even martyrdom was condemned if it was sought – you couldn’t seek martyrdom, that was a sin. And even suicide, you see, was wrong and condemned because that’s not what you can do with the life God gave you.