In the early 200s Christians were faced with state-mandated worship of gods they did not believe in. Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers, could have spoken Tertullian’s stirring words about the rights of man in response to this persecution:
However, it is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man. It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion — to which free-will and not force should lead us — the sacrificial victims even being required of a willing mind. You will render no real service to your gods by compelling us to sacrifice.1
Indeed, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes in its article about the Inquisition that religious liberty was orthodox Christian teaching for its first three centuries; the time closest to the pattern and example of the apostolic church:
The Christian teachers of the first three centuries insisted, as was natural for them, on complete religious liberty; furthermore, they ... urged the principle that religion could not be forced on others...2
Oh, that such had been the teaching of the Church for the following seventeen centuries! How much peace the world would have known instead of bloodshed, religious war, and strife. Most of all, the Inquisition would not have darkened the name of Christ and would not still inspire shock and shame in both non-Christians and Christians to this day.
More than a few historians have noted that the persecuted, when the tables are turned, often become the persecutors. It is objective evidence of the fallen human desire for revenge that burns within them while suffering persecution. The greatest and most unfortunate example of this, in terms of the suffering that came to others, is early Christianity. From the gracious soul liberty she spoke of while powerless, once in power she turned into a greater oppressor than Rome had ever been. Another example is the Puritans fleeing England, seeking liberty in New England. Once established there, they harshly imposed their own views of church and state on all within their reach.
Some of the most eloquent defenses of liberty then, have come from those not yet ascended to earthly power and its corrupting influence. Christianity had such a moment in the year AD 308. The Emperor’s persecutions of Christians had ended only three years before, when Lactantius, an apologist for the Christian faith, wrote this impassioned appeal for religious liberty:
For religion is to be defended, not by putting to death, but by dying; not by cruelty, but by patient endurance; not by guilt, but by good faith... it is necessary for that which is good to have place in religion, and not that which is evil. For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free-will as religion; in which, if the mind of the worshipper is disinclined to it, religion is at once taken away, and ceases to exist.3
If only the popes and inquisitors had learned this lesson by heart! But as it was, both the Church Fathers and Scripture itself were set aside in the urgent hunt for heresy that would dominate Europe for centuries, polluting and profaning everything it touched. For Lactantius echoed the famous words of the rabbi Gamaliel that were recorded in the New Testament, in Acts 5, when he admonished his fellow Jewish leaders to leave the disciples alone. For, he reasoned, if they were mere men, their movement would fail, and if they were of God, nothing could stop them.4 Time would tell; violence and persecution were unnecessary.
Even with the prospect of imperial support in the fourth century, many Christian leaders continued to oppose punishment for heresy. They argued that the mild and gentle laws of Christ annulled the severe degrees of the Old Testament. His penalty for heresy was exclusion from the social life of the faith: “treat them as a tax-collector.”5 But the fact that the church was now joined with the state, which was led by men like Constantine who viewed themselves as spiritual leaders, meant that the bishops would now take their lead not from Scripture, nor from the early church fathers, but from the Emperor himself.
This irrevocably changed the church. It would make possible the embrace by the Church of many other powerful leaders down through history. It was the cost the earthly power demanded for its protection of the spiritual power of the Church. When the Bishop of Seville in Spain was executed in AD 385 for heresy, Ambrose, one of the greatest of the Church Fathers, called it a crime. But this could not stem the tide. Soon, the torture and execution of heretics were being justified by appeals to the Old Testament, as though the Empire had become the Israel of God.6 It was as though, practically speaking, the New Testament had evaporated.
The first believers had taken the types of the Old Testament spiritually — as spiritual lessons — seeing, for instance, their warfare now as spiritual, and no longer against flesh and blood.7 The New Testament was profoundly ill-suited to be the religion of state or empire. Its moral demands were too many, its contempt for the motivating factors of wealth and power too great, its determination to obey God too high for mean, small-minded men to build their kingdoms with. It had to go.
His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him. I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:2-5)
Night fell — the Dark Ages came — and all those who sought to actually live by the words of the New Testament could not do so. They were forcibly stopped, driven from society, and killed. They were denied “the common air in which to breathe”8 by bishop, emperor, and inquisitor. And even when the Protestant Church broke away from the Roman Church, it was not the dawning of a new day. On the contrary, it continued with ill-will and violence to fulfill this prophecy, thinking all the while they, like their counterparts, the Catholics, were doing God a favor.9