About Heretics: Should They Be Persecuted?

, posted by Matthew Murphy

“Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” (Prov. 19:11; ESV)

“This is certain that the better a man knows the truth, the less is he inclined to condemn, as appears in the case of Christ and the apostles. But he who lightly condemns others shows thereby that he knows nothing precisely, because he cannot bear others, for to know is to know how to put into practice. He who does not know how to act mercifully and kindly does not know the nature of mercy and kindness, just as he who cannot blush does not know the nature of shame.” (Sebastian Castellio)


Sebastian Castellio (or Castellion), a Frenchman born in 1515, was a Protestant convert. Castellio’s early friendship with John Calvin ended over Calvin’s unwillingness to have Castellio ordained. After Calvin had the anti-Trinitarian Michael Servetus burned at the stake in 1553, Castellio published a plea for toleration – About Heretics: Should They Be Persecuted?

The dedication to Duke Christoph Württemberg is reproduced, along with a plea for religious liberty, by the Anabaptist David Joris.

[Taken from Hans J. Hillerbrand, The Protestant Reformation, Harper Perennial, 2009, p. 327-336]

Dedication to Duke Württemberg:

“There are two kinds of heretics or obstinate persons: the first are obstinate or stubborn as to conduct, such as the avaricious, scurrilous, voluptuous, drunkards, persecutors, and the like, who being admonished, do not correct their lives. Such are the Jews, Scribes, and Pharisees; wherefore the Savior avoided them when He said, ‘Your house is left unto you desolate.’ Such also were those of Jesus’ own country among whom He could do no mighty work because of the hardness of their hearts.

“The second are those who are obstinate in spiritual matters and in doctrine, to whom the term properly belongs, for the word heresy is Greek and means a sect or opinion. Wherefore those who adhere to some vicious sect or opinion are called heretics. Of this sort was Hananiah, the false prophet whom Jeremiah avoided when he could not recall him from his error. Jeremiah predicted to him his death in accord with the command of the Lord, not of the magistrate. This Hananiah was a pernicious heretic, who withdrew the people from their obedience. From this example alone we may readily see how heretics of this sort are to be treated.

“But to judge of doctrine is not so simple as to judge of conduct. In the matter of conduct, if you ask a Jew, Turk, Christian, or anyone else, what he thinks of a brigand or a traitor, all will reply with one accord that brigands and traitors are evil and should be put to death. Why do all agree in this? Because the matter is obvious. For that reason no controversies are raised and no books are written to prove that brigands, etc. should be put to death. This knowledge is engraved and written in the hearts of all men from the foundation of the world. This was what St. Paul meant that the Gentiles have the law written in their hearts, for infidels themselves may judge of these matters. Now let us take up religion and we shall find that it is not so evident and manifest. The heathen were formerly of the opinion that there are many gods. Christ, by His coming, removed this error, so that now neither the Turks nor any other nations entertain a doubt whether there is but one God. On this point all agree with the Christians. If anyone denies the Lord God, this one is an infidel and atheist and is deservedly to be abhorred in the eyes of all. The Turks go further and believe in that God of whom Moses wrote. In this they agree with the Jews and with the Christians without any controversy. The faith of the three peoples is common up to this point. But the Turks share with the Christians a higher regard for Christ than that of the Jews. The Christians go beyond all others in that they regard Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Savior and Judge of the world. And this belief is common to all Christians. And just as the Turks disagree with the Christians as to the person of Christ, and the Jews with both the Turks and the Christians, and the one condemns the other and holds him for a heretic, so Christians disagree with Christians on many points with regard to the teaching of Christ, and condemn one another and hold each other for heretics. Great controversies and debates occur as to baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the invocation of the saints, justification, free will, and other obscure questions, so that Catholics, Lutherans, Zwinglians, Anabaptists, monks, and others condemn and persecute one another more cruelly than the Turks do the Christians. These dissensions arise solely from ignorance of the truth, for if these matters were so obvious and evident as that there is but one God, all Christians would agree among themselves on these points as readily as all nations confess that God is one.

“What, then, is to be done in such great contentions? We should follow the counsel of Paul, ‘Let not him that eat despise him that eats not… To his own master he stands or falls.’ Let not the Jews or Turks condemn the Christians, nor let the Christians condemn the Jews or Turks, but rather teach and win them by true religion and justice, and let us, who are Christians, not condemn one another, but, if we are wiser than they, let us also be better and more merciful. This is certain that the better a man knows the truth, the less is he inclined to condemn, as appears in the case of Christ and the apostles. But he who lightly condemns others shows thereby that he knows nothing precisely, because he cannot bear others, for to know is to know how to put into practice. He who does not know how to act mercifully and kindly does not know the nature of mercy and kindness, just as he who cannot blush does not know the nature of shame.

“If we were to conduct ourselves in this fashion we should be able to dwell together in accord. Even though in some matters we disagreed, yet should we consent together and forebear one another in love, which is the bond of peace, until we arrive at the unity of the faith. But now, when we strive with hate and persecutions we go from bad to worse. Nor are we mindful of our office, since we are wholly taken up with condemnation, and the gospel because of us is made a reproach unto the heathen, for when they see us attacking one another with the fury of beasts, and the weak oppressed by the strong, these heathen feel horror and detestation for the gospel, as if it made men such, and they abominate even Christ Himself, as if He commanded men to do such things. We rather degenerate into Turks and Jews than to convert them into Christians. Who would wish to be a Christian, when he saw that those who confessed the name of Christ were destroyed by Christians themselves with fire, water, and the sword without mercy and more cruelly treated than brigands and murderers? Who would not think Christ a Moloch, or some such god, if he wished that men should be immolated to him and burned alive? Who would wish to serve Christ on condition that a difference of opinion on a controversial point with those in cruelly than in the bull of Phalaris, even though from the midst of the flames he should call with a loud voice upon Christ, and should cry out that he believed in Him? Imagine Christ, the judge of all, present. Imagine Him pronouncing the sentence and applying the torch. Who would not hold Christ for Satan? What more could Satan do than burn those who call upon the name of Christ?

“O Creator and King of the world, dost Thou see these things? Art Thou become so changed, so cruel, so contrary to Yourself? When You were on earth none was more mild, more clement, more patient of injustice. As a sheep before the Shearer You were dumb. When scourged, spat upon, mocked, crowned with thorns, and crucified shamefully among thieves, Thou didst pray for them who did flee this wrong. Art Thou now so changed? I beg Thee in the name of Thy Father, dost Thou now command that those who do not understand Thy precepts as the mighty demand, be drowned in water, cut with lashes to the entrails, sprinkled with salt, dismembered by the sword, burned at a slow fire, and otherwise tortured in every manner and as long as possible? Dost Thou, O Christ, command and approve of these things? Are they Thy vicars who make these sacrifices? Art Thou present when they summon Thee and dost Thou eat human flesh? If You, Christ, do these things or if You command that they be done, what have You left for the devil? Do You the very same thing as Satan? O blasphemies and shameful audacity of men, who dare to attribute to Christ that which they do by the command and at the Phalaris was a tyrant of classical antiquity for whom was constructed a bronze bull in which a man could be burned. The cries of the victim would seem to issue from the nostrils of the bull.

“But I will restrain myself. I think, Prince, you already sufficiently understand how far such deeds are contrary to the teaching and practice of Christ. Let us, then, now hear the opinions of others. You will find them speaking, however, as if it were already clergy who are the true heretics… Chap. 43. Would that today there were not such violence. I see some who impose opinions, often false, like oracles upon their disciples. New articles of faith are forged and thrown like a snare about the Conscience of posterity, sowing thereby the seeds of persecution. The disciples without doubt if they become powerful will think that heretics are to be persecuted and will persecute those whom they hold as heretics, that is, those who reject their interpretations. O God, the Father of light, avert this sequel. Be appeased by the punishments visited upon our fathers and ourselves and enlighten posterity. And thou, Posterity, beware of this outcome. Be warned by our example and do not so adhere to the interpretations of men as not to put them to the test of reason, sense, and Scripture. And you, scholars, avoid this course. Do not arrogate so much to yourselves that you bring the souls and bodies of many into peril by your authority.”

The Plea of David Joris for Servetus:

“Most noble, just, worthy, gracious, dear Lords, now that I, your friend and brother in the Lord Jesus Christ, have heard what has happened to the good, worthy Servetus, how that he was delivered into your hands and power by no friendliness and love but through envy and hate, as will be made manifest in the Day of Judgment to those whose eyes are now blinded by cunning so that they cannot understand the ground of the truth. God give them to understand. The report has gone everywhere abroad, and even to my ears, that the learned preachers or shepherds of souls have taken counsel and written to certain cities who have resolved to pass sentence to put him to death. This news has so stirred me that I can have no peace on behalf of our religion and the holy churches far and near, which stand fast in the love and unity of Christ, until I have raised my voice as a member of the body of Christ, until I have opened my heart humbly before your highnesses and freed my conscience. I trust that the learned, perverted, carnal, and bloodthirsty may have no weight and make no impression upon you, and if they should ingratiate themselves with you as did the Scribes and Pharisees with Pilate in the case of our Lord Jesus, they will displease the King of Kings and the teacher of all, namely, Christ, who taught not only in the Scripture according to the letter, but also in divine fashion, that no on should be crucified or put to death for his teaching. He Himself was rather crucified and put to death. Yes, not only that, but He has severely forbidden persecution. Will it not then be a great perversion, blindness, evil, and darkness to indulge in impudent disobedience through hate and envy? They must first themselves have been deranged before they could bring a life to death, damn a soul forever, and hasten it to hell. Is that a Christian procedure or a true spirit? I say eternally no, however plausible it may appear. If the preachers are not of this mind and wish to avoid the sin against the Holy Ghost, let them be wary of seizing and killing men for their good intentions and belief according to their understanding, especially when these ministers stand so badly in other people’s books that they dare not go out of their own city and land. Let them remember that they are called, sent, and anointed of God to save souls, to bring men to right and truth – that is, to make alive the dead, and not to destroy, offend, and corrupt, let alone to take life. This belongs to Him alone to whom it is given, who was crucified, who died, and who suffered.

“The government is ordained of God to inflict bodily punishment upon those who sin in the body against the love of the truth and the law of God’s Christ. The magistrate is to punish the bad and protect the good, lest they be dispossessed and killed by the evil. But, as Dr. Martin Luther says, the servants of the temple have incited the magistrates to dispossess and kill good, upright folk who were not subservient to the clergy. Yet Christ, our Lord, neither did nor taught this, but endured and suffered to the end. Wherefore He declared, ‘They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever kills you will think that he doeth God a service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me.’ Does this apply to those who inflict or to those who endure suffering? … The persecutors have not made man and should not destroy him apart from the true law of our Lord Christ. Let those who thirst for blood kill their own sons and daughters, if they be in error. Yet no godly father will do that, but rather the devil who is a murderer and a liar from the beginning.

“Noble, wise, and prudent Lords, consider what would happen if free rein were given to our opponents to kill heretics. How many men would be left on earth if each had this power over the other, inasmuch as each considers the other a heretic? The Jews so regard the Christians, so do the Saracens and the Turks, and the Christians reciprocate. The Papists and the Lutherans, The Zwinglians and the Anabaptists, the Calvinists and the Adiaphorists, mutually ban each other. Because of these differences of opinion should men hate and kill each other? … ‘Whoso sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed,’ as Scripture says. Let us, then, not take the sword, and if anyone is of an erroneous and evil mind and understanding, let us pray for him and awaken him to love, peace, and unity. And if the previously mentioned Servetus is a heretic or a sectarian before God? … We should inflict on him no harm in any of his members, but admonish him in a friendly way and at most banish him from the city, if he will not give up his obstinacy and stop disturbing the peace by his teaching, that he may come to a better mind and no longer molest your territory. No one should go beyond this…

“The Lord Himself will judge of soul and spirit and will separate the good from the bad. He will speedily come, according to the Scripture, against the rebellious, bad, hidden evildoers, such as hypocrites, liars, enviers, haters, deceivers, betrayers, persecutors of the truth, and Antichrist himself (what does that signify?), to slay them with the ‘spirit of his mouth’ and ‘the breath of his lips,’ that is, with no worldly sword, for He ‘makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good’ and wills that we should imitate Him in His long-suffering, graciousness, and mercy. He instructed the servants, who wished to anticipate the harvest as the apostles wished to call down fire from heaven, to leave the tares with the wheat. At the harvest He will send His angels who have knowledge and understanding to separate the good from the bad, the lies from the truth, the pure from the impure, the new from the old, light from darkness, righteousness from sin, and flesh from spirit, and to give each his place in spirit and truth, for God’s judgments are true and eternal and cannot fail … But great insufficiency shall be found in men when the day of light and the spirit of perfection shall appear…

“Those who have an evil spirit should be instructed, not put to death in the time of their ignorance and blindness similar to Paul’s. That no one should assume judgment, the Lord has given us a new commandment in love that we do unto others as we would that they should do unto us. So be merciful, kind, and good, doing as it has been done to your Honors, and as the Lord wishes, ‘Judge not that ye be not judged.’ Condemn no person that ye be not condemned. Shed no blood and do no violence, my dear Lords. Understand whose disciples you are, for nothing has the Lord punished more and forgiven less than the shedding of innocent blood and idolatry. Follow no one and believe in no one above God or Christ, who is Lord in spirit and truth. That you may look to this I have trusted to your good intentions and have not been able to refrain from writing to you according to my knowledge. Although I have withheld my name, you should not give this communication less consideration. In these days one cannot write everything because the pen is not to be trusted.”