Public Square

Christian Persecution and the Origins of Religious Freedom

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Editor’s note: As we observe the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church on Sunday, Nov. 3rd, please pray for persecuted believers around the world and for religious freedom for everyone. Read about the persecution of the early church and the beginnings of religious freedom in IFWE’s new book, Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All.  

Persecution in the Early Roman Empire

The principles taught by Jesus and the apostles provided clarity for early Chris­tians, who, at times, found themselves persecuted by the Roman state for refus­ing to engage in state-mandated emperor worship. Such persecution was sporadic in the beginning, became more systematic with the edict of Decius in AD 250, and reached its peak during the reign of Diocletian in 284–305. Chris­tians suffered confiscation of property, imprisonment, torture, and even execu­tion.

Although Roman persecution of Christianity was infrequent in the first two centuries, it was not because official policy required religious toleration. The word for “toleration” comes from the Latin verb tolerare, which means “to bear or endure” and indicates a “grudging and temporary acceptance of an unpleasant necessity.” Peter Garnsey, a leading historian of classical antiq­uity, explains that toleration is “disapproval or disagreement coupled with an unwillingness to take action against those who are viewed with disfavor in the interest of some moral or political principle.” Rome often appeared tolerant either because its polytheism absorbed other religions or because it lacked the will or resources to engage in systematic persecution.

Historian Perez Zagorin explains that

the Romans were willing to accept foreign cults and practices; this de facto religious pluralism is entirely attributable to the polytheistic char­acter of Roman religion and had nothing to do with principles or values sanc­tioning religious toleration, a concept unknown to Roman society or law and never debated by Roman philosophers or political writers.

Rome’s religious pluralism no longer extended to Christianity after the sec­ond century. The turning point was Caracalla’s edict issued in 212, which granted Roman citizenship to the empire’s free inhabitants and required them, as part of their obligations of citizenship, to pay homage to Roman deities. Caracalla’s edict had profound consequences for Christians. Loyalty to the Roman state was demonstrated not merely by denying the Christian faith but also by participating in the Roman imperial cult. Christians were considered treasonous because, following the teachings of Jesus, their first allegiance was to God, not Caesar. Christians suffered because they refused to recognize the supremacy of the state over their religious practices.

The appeal to Rome for toleration originated not with secular philosophers but with Christian thinkers. No arguments for religious toleration appear in the pagan literature of the first three centuries. Near the end of the second century, Christian advocates first urged that state-enforced religion was incompatible with basic assumptions about God and religious faith. Justin Martyr, for example, wrote that “nothing is more contrary to religion than constraint” and “compulsion is not an attribute of God.” The task of giving these ideas their theoretical underpinnings was taken up by Tertullian and Lactantius.

Tertullian’s Call for Religious Freedom

Tertullian, a rhetorician, lawyer, and leading Christian theologian of the late second and third centuries, broke new ground in the struggle against Roman persecution. He asserted that it is a “fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions.” He was the first to argue for religious toleration as a general principle and, in so doing, coined the phrase “freedom of religion” (libertas religionis).

Tertullian offered a theological rationale for religious freedom when he wrote that the basis for religious freedom is found in God’s own disposition toward the devotion he seeks:

Look to it, whether this may also form part of the accusation of irreligion—to do away with one’s freedom of religion [libertas reli­gionis], to forbid a man choice of deity . . . so that I may not worship whom I would, but am forced to worship whom I would not. No one, not even a man, will wish to receive reluctant worship.

It is assuredly no part of religion to compel religion—to which free-will and not force should lead us. . . . You will render no real service to your gods by compelling us to sacrifice. For they can have no desire of offerings from the unwilling, unless they are animated by a spirit of contention, which is a thing altogether undivine.

Tertullian went on to explain that genuine faith is freely held, not coerced. To be authentic, one’s devotion and duty to God must be voluntary:

[T]he injustice of forcing men of free will to offer sacrifice against their will is readily apparent, for . . . a willing mind is required for discharging one’s reli­gious obligations. It certainly would be considered absurd were one man compelled by another to honor gods whom he ought to honor of his own accord and for his own sake.

Tertullian thus opposed state coercion of religious faith not because it is ineffective but because it is contrary to the ways of God and the character of true religion. The state should not coerce because God does not coerce—it is not in God’s nature or will to force humans to believe in him.

Editor’s note: Continue reading Gregory Wallace’s chapter, “The Religious Origins of Religious Freedom in Western Thought” in Set Free: Restoring Religious Freedom for All (Abilene Christian University Press, Nov. 12, 2019).

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