Written by Vladimir Moss



     The foundation of the Church’s political theology was laid by the Lord Himself, Who accepted the Roman political order as legitimate, and exhorted His disciples to obey it as long as it did not compel them to disobey the Law of God: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22.21). Although Christians, being in essence free-born sons of the Heavenly King, were inwardly not subject to the yoke of earthly kings, nevertheless this yoke was to be accepted voluntarily “lest we should offend them” (Matthew 17.27). For, as St. Theophan the Recluse writes, “The Lord paid the required temple tribute and kept all other practices, both temple-related and civic. He fulfilled this and taught the Apostles to do the same, and the Apostles in turn passed this same law on to all Christians. Only the spirit of life was made new; externally all remained as it had been, except what was clearly against the will of God – for instance, participating in sacrifices to idols, etc. Then Christianity gained the upper hand, displaced all the former practices, and established its own.”[1]

     Following in this tradition, St. Peter writes: "Be subject for the Lord's sake, to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and praise those who do right... Fear God. Honour the king." (I Peter 2.13, 17) And St. Paul commands Christians to give thanks for the emperor "and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and honesty" (I Timothy 2.1-2). For it is precisely the emperor's ability to maintain law and order, "a quiet and peaceful life", which makes him so important for the Church. And so “let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power that is not from God; the powers that be are ordained by God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God, and those who resist shall receive for themselves damnation” (Romans 13.1-2).[2]

     The question arises: is the apostle saying that all political authority is established by God, whatever its attitude to God Himself? Or are some authorities not established by God, but only allowed to exist by Him, so that they should not be obeyed as being in fact established by Satan? The patristic consensus is that the apostle was not saying that everything that calls itself an authority is blessed by God, but that authority is in principle good and God-established and therefore should be obeyed – because, as he goes on to say, political power is in general wielded in order to punish evil-doers and protect public order. Roman power, he says, is established by God, and therefore is a true political authority that must be obeyed in all its commands that do not directly contradict the commandments of God Himself. Hence the veneration and obedience that the early Christians displayed towards it.

     Thus St. Clement of Rome writes: “Give us, O Master, peace and concord, even as Thou didst give it to our forefathers when they called devoutly upon Thee in faith and truth. And make us obedient to Thine own almighty and all-holy name, and to all who have the rule and governance over us upon the earth. For it is Thou, O Lord, Who in Thy supreme and ineffable might hast given them their sovereign authority; to the intent that we, acknowledging the glory and honour Thou hast bestowed upon them, should show them all submission. Grant to them health and peace, that they may exercise without offence the sovereignty which Thou hast given them.”[3] Again, in the second century St. Justin the Martyr wrote: “We worship God only, but in other things we gladly serve you, acknowledging you as emperors and rulers of men and women, and praying that with your imperial power you may also be found to possess sound judgement…”[4] Similarly, the holy Martyr Apollonius (+c. 185) expressed the classic Christian attitude towards the emperor thus: “With all Christians I offer a pure and unbloody sacrifice to almighty God, the Lord of heaven and earth and of all that breathes, a sacrifice of prayer especially on behalf of the spiritual and rational images that have been disposed by God’s providence to rule over the earth. Wherefore obeying a just precept we pray daily to God, Who dwells in the heavens, on behalf of [the Emperor] Commodus who is our ruler in this world, for we are well aware that he rules over the earth by nothing else but the will of the invincible God Who comprehends all things.”[5] Again, Athenagoras of Athens in his Representation for the Christians to Marcus Aurelius wrote that Christians pray for the authorities, so that the son should inherit the kingdom from his father and that the power of the Caesars should be continually extended and confirmed, and that everyone should submit to it. And St. Theophilus of Antioch wrote: “Therefore I would rather venerate the king than your gods – venerate, not worship him, but pray for him… Praying in this way, you fulfil the will of God. For the law of God says: ‘My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not mix with rebels’ (Proverbs 24.21).”[6]

     Tertullian (+ c. 240) employed a similar argument. “Anticipating Eusebius, he insisted that Christians rendered ‘such reverential homage as is lawful for us and good for him; regarding him as the human being next to God who from God has received all his power, and is less than God alone.’ Christians, Tertullian argued, were even perfectly willing to offer sacrifice on behalf of the emperor, though it had to be a Christian sacrifice: ‘We therefore sacrifice for the emperor’s safety, but to our God and his, and after the manner God has enjoined, in simple prayer.’ Pagan sacrifices are useless, the ‘food of devils’. Christians appeal to God, praying ‘for the imperial well-being, as those who seek it at the hands of Him who is able to bestow it.’.. Christians do just what the imperial cult demands, though in his own way.”[7] In other words, the only legitimate sacrifice a Christian can make to the emperor is the sacrifice of prayer on his behalf; for he rules, not as a god, but “by the will of God”. So the Christians by no means refused to give to Caesar what was his. Indeed, the emperor was, in Tertullian’s words, “more truly ours (than yours) because he was put into power by our God”, which is why the Christians prayed that he should have “a long life, a safe empire, a quiet home, strong armies, a faithful senate, honest subjects, a world at peace”.[8]

     As for the pagan sacrifice to the emperor himself, Hieromartyr Hippolytus of Rome (+235) wrote: “Believers in God must not be hypocritical, nor fear people invested in authority, with the exception of those cases when some evil deed is committed [Romans 13.1-4]. On the contrary, if the leaders, having in mind their faith in God, force them to do something contrary to this faith, then it is better for them to die than to carry out the command of the leaders. After all, when the apostle teaches submission to ‘all the powers that be’ (Romans 13.1), he was not saying that we should renounce our faith and the Divine commandments, and indifferently carry out everything that people tell us to do; but that we, while fearing the authorities, should do nothing evil and that we should not deserve punishment from them as some evildoers (Romans 13.4). That is why he says: ‘The servant of God is an avenger of [those who do] evil’ (I Peter 2.14-20; Romans 13.4). And so? ‘Do you not want to fear the authorities? Do good and you will have praise from him; but if you do evil, fear, for he does not bear the sword without reason’ (Romans 13.4).”[9]

     This attitude was well exemplified by St. Maurice and his Christian legion in Agaunum. Like many martyrs before them, they did not refuse to fight in the armies of the pagan Roman emperors against the pagans. But they refused to destroy a village composed of fellow-Christians. For “we are your soldiers, yes,” said Maurice, “but we are also the soldiers of God. To you, we owe the dues of military service – but to Him the purity of our souls.”[10]

     So even the persecuting emperors were recognized as having legitimate authority: it was only when their commands contradicted the Law of God that they were defied. And even then, there is no hint of physical rebellion against the powers that be among pre-Constantinian Christians. Their attitude to Diocletian was like that of the Prophet Daniel to Nebuchadnezzar: his power is from God, even if he sometimes uses it against God.

     However, the mention of Daniel reminds us that there was a somewhat different and darker attitude to Rome among the Christian writers. Following Daniel’s prophecy of the four beasts (Daniel 7), Rome was seen as the last of four kingdoms – the others were Babylon, Persia and Macedon - that would finally be destroyed in the last days by the Kingdom of Christ. According to this tradition, the pagan absolutist kings who persecuted the people of God were not legitimate rulers but tyrants. Nebuchadnezzar, for example, is called “tyrant” in some liturgical texts: “Caught and held fast by love for the King of all, the Children despised the impious threats of the tyrant in his boundless fury” [11]

     Now the distinction between the true monarch, basileus, and the unlawful usurper, rebel or tyrant, tyrannis, was not new. Thus Aristotle wrote: “There is a third kind of tyranny, which is the most typical form and is the counterpart to the perfect monarchy. This tyranny is just that arbitrary power of an individual which is responsible to no-one and governs all alike, whether equals or betters, with a view to its own advantage, not to that of its subjects and therefore against their will.”[12] Again, King Solomon wrote: “My son, fear the Lord and the king, and do not mix with rebels” (Proverbs 24.21). After Solomon’s death, there was a rebellion against his legitimate successor, Rehoboam, by Jeroboam, the founder of the northern kingdom of Israel. And although the Prophets Elijah and Elisha lived and worked mainly in the northern kingdom, they always made clear their loyalty to the legitimate kings of Judah over the usurping kings of Israel. Thus when both kings, in a rare moment of alliance, approached the Prophet Elisha for his advice, he said to the king of Israel: “What have I to do with you? Go to the prophets of your father and the prophets of your mother… As the Lord of hosts lives, Whom I serve, were it not that I have regard for Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would neither look at you, nor see you.” (II Kings 3.13, 14)…

     If Rehoboam and Nebuchadnezzar were tyrants, then it was logical to see tyranny also in the Roman emperors who persecuted the Church. Thus some early interpreters saw in one or other of the evil symbolic figures of the Revelation of St. John the Theologian, which was written during the persecution of Domitian (c. 92), references to Roman power. 

     Indeed, what contemporary Christian could not fail to think of Rome when reading about that great city, symbolically called a whore and Babylon, who sits on seven hills (Rome is situated on seven hills), who is “the mother of harlots and abominations of the earth”, that is, the multitude of pagan cults that all found refuge in Rome, “a woman drunken with the blood of the saints, and with the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17.5, 6)? Thus Hieromartyr Victorinus of Petau wrote that the whore’s downfall was “the ruin of great Babylon, that is, of the city of Rome.”[13] In other words, Rome, according to this tradition, was seen, not as a lawful monarchy or the blueprint of a future Christian autocracy, but as a bloody and blasphemous despotism, in the tradition of the ancient despotisms that derived from Nimrod’s Babylon.[14 

     This tradition became more popular as the history of pagan Rome reached its bloody climax in the early fourth century. For the Church was now threatened, not with a merely local persecution by local madmen, but with a determined attempt to destroy it completely at the hands of men who considered themselves gods and whose personal lives were often extraordinarily corrupt. The empire concentrated in itself, and especially in its capital city, all the demons of all the pagan cults together with all the moral depravity and cruelty and rabid antichristianity which those cults encouraged. How could such a kingdom be established by God? Was it not that tyrannical beast of which Scripture said that it was established by the devil (Revelation 13.2)? And so the image of the Empire was ambiguous for the early Christians: it was both a true kingdom, an anti-type of God’s Kingdom, and a tyranny, a forerunner of the kingdom of the Antichrist that would be wiped out at the Second Coming of Christ Himself… Nevertheless, it was the more optimistic view of Rome as the true kingdom that prevailed. And the loyal attitude of the Christians to Rome is demonstrated by the fact that even during the persecution of Diocletian, when the Church was threatened with extinction, the Christians never rebelled against the empire, but only against the unlawful demands of the emperors. And in reward for this patience, the Lord finally broke the crust of ancient pagan despotism, bringing to birth a new creature designed specifically for the spreading of the Faith throughout the world – the Roman Christian Autocracy, or New Rome…[15]


     Since that time, as St. Seraphim of Sarov taught, the first duty of all Orthodox Christians, after faithfulness to Orthodoxy, is loyalty to the Orthodox Christian AutocraT – in his time, the Russian Tsar.

     “In explaining how good it was to serve the Tsar,” wrote the saint’s friend, Nicholas Motovilov, “and how much his life should be held dear, he gave as an example Abishai, David’s war-commander.

    “’Once,’ said Batyushka Seraphim, ‘to satisfy the thirst of David, he stole in to a spring in view of the enemy camp and got water, and, in spite of a cloud of arrows released at him from the enemy camp, returned to him completely unharmed, bringing the water in his helmet. He had been saved from the cloud of arrows only because of his zeal towards the King. But when David gave an order, Abishai replied: “Only command, O King, and everything will be done in accordance with your will.” But when the King expressed the desire to take part himself in some bloody deed to encourage his warriors, Abishai besought him to preserve his health and, stopping him from participating in the battle, said: “There are many of us, your Majesty, but you are one among us. Even if all of us were killed, as long as you were alive, Israel would be whole and unconquered. But if you are gone, then what will become of Israel?”…’

   “Batyushka Fr. Seraphim loved to explain himself at length, praising the zeal and ardour of faithful subjects to the Tsar, and desiring to explain more clearly how these two Christian virtues are pleasing to God, he said:

    “’After Orthodoxy, these are our first Russian duty and the chief foundation of true Christian piety.’

     “Often from David he changed the subject to our great Emperor [Nicholas I] and for hours at a time talked to me about him and about the Russian kingdom, bewailing those who plotted evil against his August Person. Clearly revealing to me what they wanted to do, he led me into a state of horror; while speaking about the punishment prepared for them from the Lord, and in confirmation of his words, he added:

    “’This will happen without fail: the Lord, seeing the impenitent spite of their hearts, will permit their undertakings to come to pass for a short period, but their illness will turn upon their heads, and the unrighteousness of their destructive plots will descend upon them. The Russian land will be reddened with streams of blood, and many noblemen will be killed for his great Majesty and the integrity of his Autocracy: but the Lord will not be wroth to the end, and will not allow the Russian land to be destroyed to the end, because in it alone will Orthodoxy and the remnants of Christian piety be especially preserved.

      “Once,” as Motovilov continued in his notes, “I was in great sorrow, thinking what would happen in the future with our Orthodox Church if the evil contemporary to us would be multiplied more and more. And being convinced that our Church was in an extremely pitiful state both from the great amount of carnal debauchery and… from the spiritual impiety of godless opinions sown everywhere by the most recent false teachers, I very much wanted to know what Batyushka Seraphim would tell me about this.

    “Discussing the holy Prophet Elijah in detail, he said in reply to my question, among other things, the following:

     “’Elijah the Thesbite complained to the Lord about Israel as if it had wholly bowed the knee to Baal, and said in prayer that only he, Elijah, had remained faithful to Lord, but now they were seeking his soul, too, to take it… So what, batyushka, did the Lord reply to this? “I have left seven thousand men in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So if in the kingdom of Israel, which had fallen away from the kingdom of Judah that was faithful to God, and had come to a state of complete corruption, there still remained seven thousand men faithful to the Lord, then what shall we say about Russia? I think that at that time there were no more than three million in the kingdom of Israel at that time. And how many do we have in Russia now, batyushka?’

     “I replied: ‘About sixty million.’

     “And he continued: ‘Twenty times more. Judge for yourself how many more of those faithful to God that brings!… So, batyushka, those whom He foreknew, He also predestined; and those whom He predestined, He also called; and those whom He called, He guards, and those He also glorifies… So what is there for us to be despondent about!… God is with us! He who hopes in the Lord is as Mount Sion, and the Lord is round about His people… The Lord will keep you, the Lord will protect you on your right hand, the Lord will preserve your coming in and your going out now and to the ages; the sun will not burn you by day, nor the moon by night.’

     “And when I asked him what this meant, and to what end he was talking to me about it:

    “’To the end,’ replied Batyushka Fr. Seraphim, ‘that you should know that in this way the Lord guards His people as the apple of His eye, that is, the Orthodox Christians, who love Him and with all their heart, and all their mind, in word and deed, day and night serve Him. And such are those who completely observe all the commandments, dogmas and traditions of our Eastern Universal Church, and confess the piety handed down by it with their lips, and really, in all the circumstances of life, act according to the holy commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ.’    

     “In confirmation of the fact that there were still many in the Russian land who remained faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, who lived in Orthodoxy and piety, batyushka Fr. Seraphim once said to one acquaintance of mine… that once, when he was in the Spirit, he saw the whole land of Russia, and it was filled and as it were covered with the smoke of the prayers of believers praying to the Lord…”[16]

     St. Seraphim prophesiedwhat would happen when the people fell away from loyalty to the Tsar: "More than half a century will pass. Then evildoers will raise their heads high. This will happen without fail: the Lord, seeing the impenitent evil of their hearts, will allow their enterprises for a short time. But their sickness will rebound upon their own heads, and the unrighteousness of their destructive plots will fall upon them. The Russian land will become red with rivers of blood... Before the birth of the Antichrist there will be a great, protracted war and a terrible revolution in Russia passing all bounds of human imagination, for the bloodletting will be most terrible: the rebellions of Ryazan, Pugachev and the French revolution will be nothing in comparison with what will take place in Russia. Many people who are faithful to the fatherland will perish, church property and the monasteries will be robbed; the Lord's churches will be desecrated; good rich people will be robbed and killed, rivers of Russian blood will flow…"[17]


July 19 / August 1, 2020.

Translation of the Relics of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

[1] St. Theophan, Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, Platina, Ca.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2010, p. 167.

[2] The Synod of Bishops of the Russian Church Outside Russia wrote that “the Apostles Peter and Paul required of the Christians of their time submission to the Roman authority, even though it later persecuted the followers of Christ. The Romans by nature were distinguished by their moral valor, for which, according to the words of Augustine in his book On the City of God, the Lord magnified and glorified them. To the genius of the Romans humanity owes the working out of a more perfect law, which was the foundation of its famous governmental structure, by which it subjected the world to itself to an even greater degree than by its renowned sword. Under the shadow of the Roman eagle many tribes and nations prospered, enjoying peace and free internal self-government. Respect and tolerance for all religion were so great in Rome that they were at first also extended to recently engendered Christianity. It is sufficient to remember that the Roman procurator Pilate tried to defend Christ the Savior from the malice of the Jews, pointing out His innocence and finding nothing blameworthy in the doctrine He preached. During his many evangelical travels, which brought him into contact with the inhabitants of foreign lands, the Apostle Paul, as a Roman citizen, appealed for the protection of Roman law for defense against both the Jews and the pagans. And, of course, he asked that his case be judged by Caesar, who, according to tradition, found him to be innocent of what he was accused of only later, after his return to Rome from Spain, did he undergo martyrdom there.

     “The persecution of Christians never permeated the Roman system, and was a matter of the personal initiative of individual emperors, who saw in the wide dissemination of the new Faith a danger for the state religion, and also for the order of the State, until one of them, St. Constantine, finally understood that they really did not know what they were doing, and laid his sword and sceptre at the footstool of the Cross of Christ…” (Encyclical Letter of the Council of Russian Bishops Abroad to the Russian Orthodox Flock, 23 March, 1933; Living Orthodoxy, #131, vol. XXII, N 5, September-October, 2001, pp. 13-14)

[3]St. Clement of Rome, To the Corinthians, 60.

[4] St. Justin the Martyr, First Apology, 17.

[5] The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972, p. 93.

[6] St. Theophilus, Three Books to Autolycus.

[7] Peter J. Leithart, Defending Constantine, Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2010, p. 281.

[8] Tertullian, Apologeticum 33.1.

[9] St. Hippolytus, in Fomin, S. & Fomina, T. Rossia pered Vtorym Prishestviem (Russia before the Second Coming), Moscow, 1994, vol. I, p. 56.

[10] Eucherius of Lyons, The Passion of the Martyrs.

[11] Festal Menaion, The Nativity of Christ, Mattins, Canon, Canticle Seven, second irmos.

[12] Aristotle, Politics, IV, 10.

[13] Hieromartyr Victorinus, Commentary on the Apocalypse.

[14] Some saw in I Peter 5.13 a similar identification of Rome with Babylon, but this is doubtful. The Babylon referred to there is probably Babylon in Egypt, from where St. Peter was writing his epistle. However, there can be no doubt that for John’s first readers the image of Babylon would have reminded them in the first place of Rome under Nero and Domitian.

[15] Fr. Michael Azkoul, The Teachings of the Orthodox Church, Buena Vista, Co.: Dormition Skete publications, 1986, part I, p. 110.

[16] Yu.K. Begunov, A.D. Stepanov, K.Yu. Dushenov (eds.), Tajna Bezzakonia (The Mystery of Iniquity), St. Petersburg, 2000, pp. 61-64.

[17] St. Seraphim, quoted by Protopriest Victor Potapov, "God is betrayed by silence". See also Literaturnaya Ucheba, January-February, 1991, pp. 131-134.

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