How the first persecuted Christians defended religious tolerance for all
The belief that Christianity opposes tolerance prevails in many sectors of thought, culture and politics. But how does this orthodoxy square with reality? Tim Shah argues that persecuted Christians developed a robust concept of religious freedom early in Christian history as more than a tactical plea for tolerance in the face of Roman persecution. They formulated a principled, full-throated defence of an individual right of religious freedom for all people, not just Christians.
In the middle of the second century, the first arguments against persecution began to appear. The early Christians could not pull arguments against religious persecution off the shelf because there were none.
The writings of the early apostles offered pastoral advice to help the persecuted understand and face the experience of persecution in the light of fundamental Christian affirmations. The works of Justin Martyr were addressed to the persecutors. He argued that Roman officials should consider Christians innocent until proven guilty and not pass judgment on them without a thorough investigation. They should not operate by arbitrary standards but be governed by truth which is accessible to all rational beings. Justin made a powerful appeal for equity and transparency in political and judicial decisions.
Athenagoras of Athens (133-190 AD) built on Justin’s work and called on the Emperor Marcus Aurelius to bring his political practice more fully into line with his moral aspirations. He argued Christians shared his high ideals and had done no wrong.
He noted that while the emperor ensured that all citizens lived in possession of equal rights, Christians were violently excluded from this policy. Athenagoras goes on to argue that it is not criminal to believe what others may consider erroneous. What a magistrate must consider is not the view of the religious sceptic or the masses, but how to promote an upright citizenry which requires a fear of the divine. Such fear can be sincere only if everyone is free to worship the divinity they prefer and not forced to worship a god in whom they cannot believe. Athenagoras was the first to urge a policy of equal rights for all religious groups as an essential foundation of civic order, virtue and justice.
Tertullian argued that the Roman policy of religious coercion showed their lack of respect for religion and piety. Origen argued for free will so that the choice to accept God should be of moral worth. Tertullian further posited that for someone to worship whatever he intends is a human right: the religious practice of one person neither hurts or helps another.
These early Christian apologists did not respond to persecution by heaping condemnation on their persecutors as the precedent of apostolic teaching might have encouraged them to do; neither did they simply plead for mercy. They aggressively appealed to the consciences of the Roman magistrates to recognise universal principles of liberty and justice.
Further, because Christianity was centred on the church / assembly, the defence of Christianity involved the defence of their right to form a distinct community accountable ultimately to God alone. The freedom to which they bore witness was not just to a private freedom of worship, but the freedom of a new community to organise itself independently of political authority and to bear public witness to the Christian event. It was not just a private matter but required civic autonomy.
This ran counter to the ordering of ancient societies in which the ruler who controlled state coercion also held a sacral role as head of the people’s religion and occasionally allowed religious tolerance. The early church did not ask for forbearance but held out a principled doctrine of religious liberty grounded in a view of religion as voluntary and personal. Stated in terms of a person’s right to adhere to a religion of one’s own choice, religious freedom belonged to every human, not just to Christians. Such religious liberty had communal and public dimensions.
Tertullian was the first to argue that all humans possess a natural right to believe and practice a religion of their choice without coercive interference. Religion at its heart is personal rather than civic, a relationship between a person and God that bears on their ultimate well-being, rather than an impersonal transaction. It can therefore yield its benefits only if the worshipper freely offers their whole self rather than a material offering.
Christians experienced their own religious faith in a radically individualist and voluntarist way which as a universal supranational religion transcended the geographic and political boundaries of the Roman state.
Imperial edicts ending Christian persecution reflected these early Christian arguments for religious freedom. The church’s insistence on religious freedom set up a permanent tension between church and state, limited the powers of government, desacralised politics, and opened the way to a politics of consent in place of divine right or coercion. The early church’s principles contributed to religious liberty, limited government, and an independent civil society not subject to the authority of the state.
So when Thomas Jefferson trudged up the religious freedom mountain and at the top reached his conclusions about religious freedom as a universal natural right, regardless of creed, he found there a North African Christian who had been sitting there for sixteen hundred years.
Summary of a chapter by Timothy Samuel Shah in Christianity and Freedom, Volume 1: Historical Perpectives (Cambridge University Press, 2016.)