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The Christian Persecutory Impulse 

by David Trim

Review & Critique

by Barbara Buzzard




This is a review of five articles published in Liberty Magazine[1], with additional material of my own. The subject is a fascinating one. Religious persecution has taken many forms and many faiths have been persecuted, but it is the focus of these articles to consider the persecution of Christians by Christians. The author makes the point that persecution was not first implemented by emperors, but that “it emerged out of the fervor of Christians to combat error and to spread truth…There are lessons to be learned about our own impulse to persecute in the twenty-first century.”[2]

David Trim references Roger Williams who argued “that it was under Constantine that the church first made the fatal misstep of trying to impose personal beliefs by the sword…Constantine, it is claimed, effectively ‘commandeer[ed] Christianity to bolster his ambitions for the empire,’ with the result that orthodoxy and heresy became ‘essentially a matter of power politics.’”[3] Interestingly, Trim does not agree with Williams and feels that he misunderstood the very nature of early persecution. He credits Constantine with the belief that truth could and should only be spread by persuasion, not persecution. This is a profoundly thought-provoking concept: force or persuasion – which is Jesus’ model? Did he ever compel or terrorize?

“It is stupid,” L’Hospital wrote “to think that this division of minds can be settled by the power of the sword and with gleaming armor.” How could beliefs which are internal and mental and spiritual be resolved by physical brute force?[4]

However, says Trim: “It is essential to recognize that for over a thousand years, Christians have often been eager persecutors. Certainty of truth and absolute love for God can lead believers into contempt for those who think differently. This tendency will become especially apparent…when we look at the medieval paradigm of persecution. But it is important to acknowledge that there has been a persecutory impulse in Christianity since at least the late fourth century, for it is only if we are aware of intolerant tendencies that we can resist them.”[5] I cannot agree with this author’s rationale that absolute love for God may lead one into contempt. Contempt would emanate from a different spirit than the spirit of God.

I think that the act of causing one to examine, reflect, and study this topic is so valuable to our Christian worldview, that though I certainly cannot endorse all the sentiments in these articles, they are well worth reading. After a fairly kindly approach to this subject, Trim concludes: “There seems to be implicit within Christianity as practiced over the past 2,000 years (even if not as taught by Christ) a persecutory impulse.”[6] There is something awfully wrong here. Jesus did not persecute, never taught persecution nor condoned it, and was a victim of it himself. And yet the established church has always practiced it. It is surely foreign to and totally outside the teachings of Jesus.

                        What were the origins of Christian intolerance?

 Augustine argued ingeniously that the Apostle Paul had been forcibly converted to Christianity and that therefore there was “a just persecution, that of love, which summons from error to the truth, in order to redeem its enemies from corruption.”[7] This perverted notion gave him cause to compel both pagans and heretics to ascribe to his version of truth.  Though Augustine countenanced violent persecution, he maintained it was an act of love. All logical readers and Bible students surely ought to question this.

“Heresy was generally seen as insidious and infectious — it was constantly characterized in sermons, commentaries, and polemic as pollution; as a highly contagious disease such as leprosy; as a cancer; as gangrene…Just as cutting out a cancer or amputating a gangrenous limb was painful for the area of the body involved but saved the body as a whole, so the Christian must steadfastly, unwaveringly cut the tumor and blight of heresy out of the body of Christ, hurting the individual heretic so that the community as a whole might be saved.”[8]

“When the fate of the nation was at stake, violence was a reasonable response — this was the origin of the just war. If religious diversity endangered the nation, then violence, in the form of persecution or of religious war, was, again, justified.”[9]

“Huldrych Zwingli attacked the Anabaptists ‘as seditious and treasonous, as murderers and poisoners,’ and, at his request, in 1526 Zurich made Anabaptism punishable by death. About the same time Luther roundly declared that anyone who asserted that ‘Christ is not God’ should be ‘stoned.’”[10] The crime of Anabaptists was that they did not believe in infant baptism; many asserted that they were loyal subjects in everything except religion. Not good enough, said Zwingli. “Off with their heads.” And so said Luther.

As for John Calvin, in treatises published in the late 1540s he wrote that heretics “‘infect souls with the poison of depraved dogma’…He warned against feelings of mercy, since Christian charity dictated that heretics could be neither tolerated, nor pardoned once apprehended.”[11] It is assumed that we think of these men as having possessed the spirit of God, when they violated time and time again the law of love. Since no murderer is to inherit the Kingdom of God – I must ask why their status is so highly respected?

Page | 1 | 2 |



[1] Liberty Magazine, 2011,
[2] “The Christian Persecutory Impulse,” Part One in a Series, p. 1
[3] Ibid.,
[4] Ibid., Part Four, p. 2
[5] Ibid., Part One, p. 4
[6] Ibid., Part Two, p. 1, emphasis added.
[7] Ibid., p. 2
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., p.3
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid., emphasis added.


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