The following is part of the Anarchy in May series which examines Christian anarchism and quotes prominent Christian anarchist thinkers. For a more detailed introduction and a table of contents, please see Anarchy in May: Brief Introduction and Contents.
Born at the close of the fourteenth century, Petr Chelčický is the earliest Christian anarchist to be quoted in this series (excepting quotes from Scripture, of course). A proto-Reformation leader in Bohemia, his thought would go on to influence countless subsequent anarchist movements, even meriting praise from Tolstoy. While his works are replete with quotations that might make a profound impression, the below–from his most famous work, The Net of Faith–was selected as a preface to Sunday’s exposition of the infamous passage in Romans 13. Chelčický’s analysis by no means conforms to our modern notions of exegesis, but his comments on the passage and how he understands them as an anarchist provide an inspirational introduction to a more scientific re-interpretation of the biblical “archnemesis” of anarchism:
These words of Saint Paul make it clear that he is not speaking of authorities of the Christian faith but of pagans in Rome. He admonishes them to be subject not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.
First, concerning wrath, if the subjects disobey their lord, they shall be punished by the might of the lords through imprisonments, executions, and expropriations. Pilate punished the Jews for their rebellion, and therefore Paul admonishes the faithful not to incite the anger of Emperor Nero or other pagans who shed the blood of the Christians.
Second, concerning conscience, if the governing authorities do good, to resist them would mean to scorn the law of God. For God asks us to live peaceably with all, as far as it depends on us. As Christians, we live – a small minority – among pagans, and the restraining power of authority is for their good.
What does Paul mean by obedience to authority? Having once fallen away from the pure faith through the Donation of Constantine, the Christians now consider their state of fallenness as normal and as expressing the apostolic faith. The priests have adopted state authority and with it a pagan mode of living. Therefore, the words of Saint Paul, addressed as they were to the congregation of believers living in Rome under a pagan power, urges them to be obedient to the existing authority. But this obedience to authority must not go beyond the limits of passivity; a Christian must take no active part in the government.
Christ said, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you.”
Obey your lords and pay your taxes but arrange your conduct among yourselves according to the law of Christ.
It is the prerogative of sovereignty to collect taxes on bridges, highways, and at city gates. If a Christian minority lives in a pagan state, it must submit to this exercise of authority humbly. But it must not impose such pagan practices in its own ranks. Taxation cannot be imposed in a Christian society.
For, can you imagine Saint Paul preaching the gospel in the Roman Empire and converting two or three thousand of the subjects of Caesar, to appoint one of them an overlord with the [authority of the] sword who would lead in a war for the faith of Christ? How ridiculous! But the masters want to give their kings a firm Biblical foundation in the faith of Christ. They say that the words of Paul establish and sanction the authority of Christian princes.
It is not true that Paul tried to introduce the right of the kings into (the system of) the people of God. He knew that in the beginning the Jews had no royal sovereignty until they asked for it, and when they got their king he proved to be the punishment for their sins. And now our Christian lords think that they have the right to rule and to oppress!
But having obtained authority they seldom look to the Scriptures for the wisdom of how to rule. They are satisfied to know that authority is good, and they find their approbation and proof in their round belly, fattened at the expense and pain of the poor working class. They do not suspect for one moment that they might rule improperly over their Christians, without the sanction of faith.
…You do not impose a bridge-toll on your brother, for – as a Christian – you would willingly carry him across on your shoulder. True Christian faith has no need of sovereignty and authority.