Augustine Letter 185, 19-24

19. Those who object to just laws being instituted against their own impieties claim that the apostles never required such measures from the kings of the earth. But they fail to consider that that was a different age and that one must always act in accordance with the conditions of one’s own age. Then there was no emperor who was a believer in Christ and therefore in a position to serve him by bringing forward laws in support of piety and against impiety. That age was the one which fulfilled the prophetic saying: ‘Why did the nations rage and the peoples plot vain things? The kings of the earth stood up and the princes took counsel together against the Lord and against his Christ’ [Ps. 2: I‑2]. The time had not yet come to which the same psalm refers a little later: ‘And now, O kings, be wise; be instructed you who judge the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and exult in him with trembling’ [Ps. 2: 1-2]. How can kings serve the Lord with fear except by prohibiting and punishing with conscientious strictness actions that are contrary to the commands of the Lord? A king serves him in one way as a man and in another way as a king. He serves him as a man by living a faithful life; but he also serves him as a king by decreeing with appropriate vigour laws which enjoin just acts and prohibit the opposite. That was how Hezekiah served the Lord, by destroying the groves, the idols’ temples and the high places, which had been set up in contravention of the commands of God. That was how Josiah also served him, by acting in the same way. That was how the king of Nineveh served him, by compelling the whole city to appease the Lord. That was how Darius served him, by giving Daniel authority to smash the idol and by throwing his enemies to the lions. That was how Nebuchadnezzar (whom I referred to earlier) served him, by prohibiting with a fearsome law anyone holding office in his kingdom from blaspheming God. Therefore kings serve the Lord in their capacity as kings when they do things in his service which only kings are in a position to do.

20.  In the times of the apostles, then, kings did not yet serve the Lord; they were still plotting vain things against him and his Christ, so that the prophetic predictions might be completely fulfilled. At that time, therefore, there was no possibility of laws prohibiting impiety ‑ they were more likely to enforce it. The succession of ages was running its course with Jews killing Christian preachers (thinking  they were doing God service thereby, as Christ had foretold [see John 16:2], the nations raging against the Christians and the endurance of the martyrs vanquishing them all. It was after that that the saying began to be fulfilled: ‘All kings of the earth will worship him and all nations will serve him’ [Ps. 72:11].  So who in his right mind would say to a king: ‘Do not worry if anyone hinders or attacks the Church of your Lord within your kingdom; do not let it concern you whether anyone chooses to be religious or sacrilegious’? One would never dream of saying to him: ‘Do not let it concern you whether anyone in your kingdom chooses to be virtuous or not.’ Free‑will is God’s gift to mankind, so why should adultery be punished by law and sacrilege permitted? Is it of less importance that a soul keep faith with God than that a woman keep faith with her husband? Even if offences committed through ignorance rather than contempt for religion should be judged more lightly, that does not mean that they should be overlooked.

21. No one will doubt for a moment that it is better for men to be led to the worship of God by instruction than for them to be forced to it by the fear of punishment threatened or the pain of punishment inflicted. But because the former method is the better way, it does not follow that the second method (for those who are not in the first category) should be disregarded altogether. There are many people for whom it has been of value, as we have learned and are still learning by experience. At first they are compelled by fear or pain; later they can be taught or can live out in practice what they had earlier learnt only in words. The opinion of a secular author has been quoted against me oh this point: ‘I believe it is better to restrain children by their sense of decency and by kindness rather than by fear.’ [Terence, Adelphi  57-58] That is perfectly true. But if those whom love directs are the better, those whom fear corrects are the majority. To reply in the words of the same author, there is another quotation: ‘You do not know how to act rightly unless you are compelled by fear of harm.’

Holy Scripture says about the better group: ‘ There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear’ [1 John  4: 18]. And about the inferior and more numerous group: ‘An obstinate servant will not be corrected by words: for even if he should understand, he will not obey’ [Prov. 29: 19]. When it says that he is not going to be corrected by words, it does not direct that he should be abandoned. Rather it tacitly tells us how he is to be corrected. Otherwise it would not have said: ‘ Will not be corrected by words’, but simply ‘ Will not be corrected’. In another passage it speaks not only of a servant but of an undisciplined son as in need of correction with stripes ‑ and to great profit too, ‘If you beat him with the rod, you will save his soul from death’ [Prov. 23:14]. And elsewhere: ‘He who spares the rod, hates his son’ [Prov. 13:24]. Admittedly the man who with true faith and real understanding declares with all the strength at his command, ‘My soul is athirst for the living God; when shall I come and appear before the face of God?’ [Ps. 42:2], is in no need of the fear of hell, let alone of temporal punishments or imperial laws. For him it is so desirable a ‘good to hold closely to God’ [Ps. 73:28] that he is not merely terrified of separation from that felicity as a great punishment; he can hardly even bear its delay. Most men, before they come to the point of saying as good sons, ‘We have a longing to be gone and to be with Christ’ [Phil. 1: 23], have at some earlier stage been recalled to the Lord by the lash of temporal scourging like wicked servants or some kind of dishonest runaway.

22. Who can love us more than Christ, who laid down his life for his sheep? Peter and the other apostles, it is true, he called simply by a word. But in the case of Paul (formerly Saul), who was later to be a great builder of the Church but was first its terrifying devastator, he used more than just a voice to stop him in his path; he prostrated him with an act of power, and in order to impel him from the mad grip of the darkness of infidelity into desiring the inward light of the heart, he first struck him with the outward blinding of his physical sight. If he had not had that punishment, he could not subsequently have been healed of it; if his sight had remained intact, Scripture would not have narrated how he could see nothing when he opened his eyes and how something like scales, by which his eyes had been closed, fell from them at the imposition of Ananias’ hand for the restoration of his sight [see Acts 9:18]. What is the good of that refrain people are so used to declaiming: ‘There is freedom to believe or not to believe. On whom did Christ use force? Whom did he compel?’ In the case of the apostle Paul they must acknowledge that Christ first compelled and then taught, first struck down and then consoled. It is a remarkable fact that the one who first came to the gospel under the compulsion of a physical punishment in fact laboured in the gospel more abundantly than all the others who were called by word alone. Fear played the greater part in driving him to love, and yet his perfect love cast out fear.

23. Why should not the Church compel lost sons to return, when those lost sons have compelled others to perish? There are cases too of people who were not compelled but only seduced; if they are recalled to the bosom of the Church by fearsome but health‑giving laws, our holy mother will enfold them with special tenderness and will rejoice over them more than over those whom she had never lost. It is surely a duty of pastoral care to seek out those sheep too, who were not stolen away by force but who were smoothly and quietly seduced, who wandered away from the flock and gradually fell into the possession of aliens, and to call them back to the Lord’s sheepfold; and if they choose to resist, is it not right to use the threat or even the infliction of scourges to recall them? And if their numbers should increase by further births among those runaway and robber slaves, the Church has an even greater right, since she acknowledges the Lord’s imprint among them and treats it with respect when we receive them into membership without rebaptizing them. The sheep’s error must be put right, so that the mark of the redeemer upon it be not marred. Suppose someone is stamped with the king’s imprint by a deserter who had himself received that stamp and then both of them are pardoned; one of them returns to the army and the other begins to be in the army, in which he had never been before. In neither case is the imprint annulled; in both cases, surely, it is acknowledged and treated with appropriate respect because it is the king’s. So since they cannot show that the direction in which they are being compelled is bad, they claim that they ought not to be compelled even in the direction of the good. But we have shown that Paul was compelled by Christ. In those cases, therefore, which merit compulsion the Church is imitating her Lord; in earlier days when she did not use compulsion she was waiting for the fulfillment of the prophetic prediction about the faith of kings and nations [see Ps. 72: 11].

24. An appropriate sense along these lines can also be given to the apostolic opinion expressed by Paul: ‘Being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience has first been made complete’ [2 Cor. 10: 6]. The Lord himself orders the guests to the great supper first to be invited and only later to be compelled. When the servants replied: ‘Lord, what you commanded has been done and still there is room’, he said, ‘Go out to the highways and the hedges and whoever you find compel them to come in’ [Luke 14: 21-3]. In the case of those who were first politely invited, we have obedience being first completed; in the case of those who are compelled, we have disobedience being coerced. For what is the significance of the ‘Compel them to come in’, following after the initial ‘Invite them’ and the reply ‘What you commanded has been done’? If he had intended this to be understood of those who need to be compelled by awe of miracles, it would have been directed to those who were called first, for it was among them that many divine miracles were done. This was particularly true of the Jews, of whom it was said, ‘Jews seek after signs’ I Cor. 1:22],  though miracles of  that kind were also used to commend the gospel among the gentiles in apostolic times. So if it was compulsion of this kind that was being ordered, one would reasonably expect, as I have said, that it would be the first guests who would have been the ones to be compelled. So then it is the power which the Church has received as a gift from God at the appropriate time in virtue of the religion and the faith of kings which is compelling those who are in the highways and hedges (that is the heretics and the schismatics) to come in. They should not be complaining that they are being compelled but taking note of the goal towards which they are being compelled. The Lord’s banquet is the unity of the body of Christ, not only in the sacrament of the altar but also in the bond of peace. But of them we can say most emphatically that they never compel anybody to a good end; those whom they compel, they always compel to an evil goal.