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Christian anarchism

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Christian anarchism is the belief that there is only one source of authority to which Christians are ultimately answerable, the authority of God as embodied in the teachings of Jesus. Christian anarchists therefore feel that earthly authority such as government, or indeed the established church do not and should not have power over them. Many Christian anarchists are pacifists and oppose the use of all physical force, both proactive and reactive. They believe individuals seeking a path to freedom will only be guided by the grace of God if they display compassion for others and turn the other cheek when confronted by violence.

Its adherents believe this quest for freedom is justified spiritually and quote the teachings of Jesus, some of whom are critical of the existing establishment and church. They believe all individuals can directly communicate with God and will eventually unify in peace under this one God.

Many regard Leo Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You [1] (1894), read alongside the Bible, to be the founding text for Christian anarchism. Tolstoy called for a society based on compassion, nonviolent principles and freedom. Leo Tolstoy's work inspired Mohandas K. Gandhi's nonviolent resistance movement in the 1930's.

Christian anarchists have opposed war and other statist aggression through nonviolent tax resistance. Ammon Hennacy endorsed this principle. Some Christian anarchists oppose profiting from economic transactions and state capitalism. Many Christian anarchists, such as Tolstoy and Hennacy, were vegetarian or vegan.

The Fall of Rome[edit]

There are anarchical traces in much of the history of Christianity. For example, Edward Gibbon felt that Christianity contributed, perhaps passively, to the fall of the Roman Empire:

"As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal that the introduction... of Christianity, had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire." [2]

He goes on to suggest that military expansionism gave way to devotion and piety, and religious conflict replaced military conquest. Gibbon, a Tory member of the British Parlaiment, regarded the early Christians' refusal to participate in the alleged duties of Roman citizens with a tone of contempt because of this.

A Washington State University paper states that the Roman Emperor codified, and accommodated to the radical teachings of Jesus:

...the foundational Christian texts are not only anti-Roman ... but consistently dismissive of human, worldly authority. If Christianity were going to work as a religion in a state ruled by a monarch that demanded worship and absolute authority, it would have to be changed. To this end, Constantine convened a group of Christian bishops at Nicea in 325; there, the basic orthodoxy of Christianity was instantiated in what came to be called the Nicene creed [3], the basic statement of belief for orthodox Christianity. [4]

Christianity became the official religion of the Empire in c390. Within a century Rome was overrun by the barbarians, and the Empire began its end.

The Church[edit]

The Bible illustrates that the original Christians, shortly after His death, were living an anarchist-like way of life, with "no poor", and "total equality". The second chapter of Acts refers to a church of members holding all things in common and giving to those as they had need. The early Christians were persecuted by the ruling Roman authorities but the religion continued to grow, and was viewed by the State as a threat to their authority. Contrary to the popular belief today among fumdamentalist/evangelical Christians that the Book of Revelation refers to a coming "end time", the early church interpreted Revelation as an allegory of God's judgment on the Roman Empire, and the "Beast" of Revelation as the Emperor. All early church writings held that Christians should not take up arms in service to the State. According to On the Road to Civilization, A World History (Albert Heckel and James Sigman, 1937): "Perhaps the chief reason for state opposition to the new religion was its hostility to the Empire. Christians refused to share certain duties of Roman citizens. The Christians were regarded as anarchists hoping to destroy the state; as pacifists who felt it a violation of their faith to enter military service. They would not hold political office. They would not worship the emperor. This conflict of allegience could not be tolerated by the state if the state hoped to survive."

Persecution continued for three centuries until an alleged conversion of the Emperor Constantine in 312 C.E., who had a vision of a cross with the words "In This Sign Conquer". He and his soldiers painted crosses on their shields and experienced a military victory, after which Constantine declared he had converted to Christianity and that henceforth Christianity was tolerated in the Roman Empire. However, even before Constantine's "conversion", the church at Rome had already begun assuming a dominant role among the various churches and a bureaucracy had already developed. After 390 this became official and the Papacy and the Roman Catholic Church evolved out of this church-state relationship.

Many underground movements of Christians existed who did not submit to the authority of the Roman church, such as the Waldenses and Albigenses. However anyone who was not part of the official state church was persecuted by the State. This continued even after the split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and Roman Catholic Church, and the Protestant Reformation. The Orthodox and most Protestant churches were really also official state churches just like the Catholic. The split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox church had much to do with the rejection of the authority of the pope as a central figure. The Eastern Orthodox Churches remained conciliar or authority was formed in councils that had to be accepted by the church at large. "Christendom" was seen as the reach of official state churchianity, all subjects were expected to be members of whatever denomination the ruling monarch adhered to, and mandatory infant baptism into the state church was used to ensure this. Monasteries sprang up as reaction to the new condition of the "accepted" church and often found it self at odds with the state leaders. It is still the tradition in many autonomous Eastern churches for the bishops to live in such monasteries and be chosen from the monastery. Nonconformists, often pacifist, communal, and anarchistic, were called nonconformists for refusing to conform to the official state churches. They rejected infant baptism in part due to its statist implications.

Other trends towards Anarchism[edit]


The Anabaptist Protestant sect was seen as anarchic in 15th Century Germany, at the time of the Reformation. Some of its adherents lived in communal settlements and vowed to overthrow the established government. There was extensive military conflict at the time in Europe between monarchies espousing competing Protestant state churches, which Anabaptists in keeping with their pacifism refused to participate in. This led to persecution of Anabaptists by the State. Most Anabaptists, however, did not vow to overthrow the government, but rather practiced separatism from the State and nonresistance: obeying God rather than men, but not actively resisting government, and disobeying laws only if and when they conflicted with their beliefs. Mennonites and Amish were two Anabaptist sects who were persecuted. The German Baptist Brethren (Tunkers or Dunkers, today the Church of the Brethren) began from a Pietist revival movement in Schwarzenau, Germany and also adopted Anabaptist beliefs due to their being persecuted by the official state (Lutheran) church. Many adherents of these three groups later migrated to North America, especially Pennsylvania under the invitation of Quaker William Penn who envisioned Pennsylvania as a haven for religious freedom. The Amish, in particular, continued to have frequent conflict with the United States government, over their local communitarian and communal practices in schooling and mutual aid while refusing to participate in government-run programs like Social Security and public schools. Most Anabaptists however do not consider themselves anarchists and believe the State has a place, just that it is not for Christians to participate in; hence they do not vote, serve in juries or in the military, swear oaths, or engage in lawsuits.


The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) are another group following pacifist and somewhat anarchistic beliefs. Of note is the Quaker practice of seeking consensus in decision making rather than majority rule. The early colony of Pennsylvania (1681-1690) settled largely by Quakers had essentially no government at the time, with such government as it had existing mainly on paper and largely ignored by the people who instead followed Quaker practices of living in peace, local communitarianism, and seeking consensus. Another early Christian anarchist community was in Albemarle Sound (now part of North Carolina), settled by Presbyterians and Quakers seeking refuge from persecution by the Church of England.

Quakers are typically more active in resistance to civil government than the nonresistance of the Anabaptists. William Penn was prosecuted in England for preaching a Quaker sermon in public, but the jury refused to convict him even after the jurors were held in contempt of court and imprisoned for several months. The jurors held their ground and were finally released several months later through a writ of habeus corpus. Quakers were also early and fervent activists opposing slavery in the United States.

Quakers as a whole hold a wide variety of political opinions, though the long tradition of Quaker involvement in social-justice work and similar outlooks on how power should be structured as well as how decisions should be reached has led to a significant percentage of the International Society of Friends to identify along anarchist lines. The Quaker influence was pronounced in the church's participation in Anti-Nuclear Movement of the 1980s and in the North American anti/alter-globalization movement, both of which included dozens of thousands of Anarchists who self-consciously adopted the Quaker's consensus-based decision making process.

Latter Day Saints[edit]

Of particular note are two Latter Day Saint sects with Restorationism affinities, the Community of Christ and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, both of which have attempted to live what is known as the "Law of Consecration and Stewardship" and "United Order of Enoch" on several occasions. Communitarian in nature and sharing some aspects of anarchism, the "Law of Consecration" was administered both on a local and church wide basis.

In the early 20th century the Community of Christ (then known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), under the leadership of Frederick Madison Smith, grandson of Latter Day Saint movement founder Joseph Smith Jr., laid the basis for research and development efforts toward gathering members of the Community of Christ to the Kansas City Missouri region ("the Centerplace") to build a cooperative commonwealth ("Zion") networking the cooperative economies of its federated local jurisdictions organised as "stakes". Raymond Zinser and Wilford Winholtz are notable Latter Day Saint advocates of the Cause of Zion.

Although Joseph Smith, Jr. could by no means be said to be an anarchist, he envisioned a cooperative church practicing mutual aid without the State. Some remnants of this practice remain in Mormon storage of food and other goods for members in time of need. It is interesting to note that in Smith's Inspired Version rewrite of the King James Bible, he revised Romans 13 (the chapter most often cited by statist Christians as demanding submission to civil authorities) so it referred to submission to church authorites rather than to the State.

Stone-Campbell Movement[edit]

The Stone-Campbell movement was a Restorationist movement rejecting traditional church demoninational titles and attempting to restore primitive early Christianity. Groups today with Stone-Campbell origins include the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the fundamentalist 'churches of Christ', neither of whom retain much if at all of anarchist influence. However Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the movement, espoused pacifist beliefs, and of more note later on was David Lipscomb who espoused both pacifism and complete separation of Christians from the State, holding essentially anarchist beliefs although he did not use the term to describe himself. David Lipscomb's writings and his anarcho-pacifist views have recently been rediscovered by some Christian anarchists.


Unitarians and Universalists were originally two separate movements. Unitarians believe in one god and although they may or may not believe in the divinity of Jesus, they reject the doctrine of the trinity. Universalists reject notions of Hell and eternal damnation, believing that salvation is for all. Both groups were liberal and tended toward freethought, with members encouraged to think for themselves and find their own conception of God. They eventually merged. Unitarian-Universalism is open to many different beliefs and so one may find anarchists, socialists, liberals, freethinkers, social justice activists, libertarians, Deists, and others attracted to Unitarian-Universalism. It does not promote any one particular belief (not even those of the earlier Unitarian and Univeralist movement from which it emerged) but encourages open inquiry.

Eastern Orthodox Church[edit]

The Eastern Churches split with the Roman Catholic primarily over the Roman Bishop asserting power over all the others and excersizing a universal power in changing the creed. The Eastern Orthodox Church is organized in local jurisdictions with a hierarchy of organization between the local churches (i.e. Russian Green Serbian, Antiochian[arabic]). These churches can act independently and often are different in the way they function and in theological nuances. The Eastern Church at least in principle , is to be governed by a conciliar method. That is to say by local and ecumenical councils of bishops and laity that must be accepted by the church at large. The Orthodox Church sees the people or Christ's body as a whole as the originators of authority thus a consensus , not a majority, is required for councils. In the Eastern Church most activities, even down to the concecration of the Eucharist , requires the clergy and the people. (this is not so in the Roman Church) There is no central figure that acts as the Pope. Even the Ecumenical Patriarch is more administrative and an honorific title.

The Eastern Church in some jurisdictions has held a synergistic view of itself with the state. Currently most are not state churches. Monasticism multiplied against the state at the influx of people into the church after acceptance by the state. There is a long history of the Eastern monastic communities being at odds with the state leaders and their influence over the church. Monastics saw themselves as living the heavenly communal life outside the state and produced anarchistic thinkers. The major monastic theologians such as St. John Crysostom and St. Basil The Great held ideas that are seen an anarchistic, such as views on property and the poor. Such writers as Leo Tolstoy were Eastern Orthodox, although Tolstoy turned against the state Russian Orthodox Church when he became a Christian anarcho-pacifist.


Although not specifically Christian, Deism was influential within Christianity during the 18th and 19th centuries. Deism holds that God exists but does not accept revealed religion and favors science over supernatural conceptions of God actively working in the world today. Well known Deists included Thomas Paine, Mark Twain, and Lysander Spooner. Except for Spooner these were not anarchists, although their philosophies gravitated more towards libertarianism. Deism was influential on the American Revolution, again, not anarchist as it resulted in the creation of a new state, but notable as a break from European monarchy and theocracy.

The Doukhobors[edit]

The Doukhobors ("Spirit Wrestlers") are a radical Christian sect that maintain a belief in pacifism and a communal lifestyle, while rejecting secular government, the Bible, and the divinity of Jesus. The Doukabors fled repression in Tsarist Russia and migrated to Canada, mostly in the provinces of Saskatchewan and British Columbia, the funds for the trip were paid for by Quakers and the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. As an interesting historical sidenote, Canada was suggested to Leo Tolstoy as a safe-haven for the Doukhobors by anarchist Peter Kropotkin who, while on a speaking tour across the country, observed the religious tolerance experienced by the Mennonites.

Catholic Worker Movement[edit]

The Catholic Worker Movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin on May 1, 1933, is a Christian movement dedicated to nonviolence and voluntary poverty. Over 130 Catholic Worker communities exist in the United States where "houses of hospitality" care for the homeless. The Joe Hill House of hospitality (which closed in 1968) in Salt Lake City, Utah featured an enormous twelve feet by fifteen foot mural of Jesus Christ and Joe Hill, and it was at the Joe Hill House where Utah Phillips, then disillusioned and riding freight trains after the Korean War, became an anarcho-syndicalist.

The Catholic Worker Movement has consistently protested against war and violence for over seven decades. Many of the leading figures in the movement have been both anarchists and pacifists. Catholic Worker Ammon Hennacy defined Christian anarchism as:

"...being based upon the answer of Jesus to the Pharisees when Jesus said that he without sin should be the first to cast the stone, and upon the Sermon on the Mount which advises the return of good for evil and the turning of the other cheek. Therefore, when we take any part in government by voting for legislative, judicial, and executive officials, we make these men our arm by which we cast a stone and deny the Sermon on the Mount.
The dictionary definition of a Christian is one who follows Christ; kind, kindly, Christ-like. Anarchism is voluntary cooperation for good, with the right of secession. A Christian anarchist is therefore one who turns the other cheek, overturns the tables of the moneychangers, and does not need a cop to tell him how to behave. A Christian anarchist does not depend upon bullets or ballots to achieve his ideal; he achieves that ideal daily by the One-Man Revolution with which he faces a decadent, confused, and dying world".

Anarchist Biblical Views and Principles[edit]

Many Christian anarchists hold a less literal view of the Bible and therefore do not feel obliged to follow the complete text as law, as some fundamentalist sects do. They base their beliefs on what they think are the simple principles and historic messages of Jesus, rather than obediently following every passage in the Christian Bible, unlike many Protestant churches. Leo Tolstoy and Ammon Hennacy also subscribed to this philosophy.

One of the key historic messages Christian anarchists, as well as some Christians, practice is the principle of nonviolence, nonresistance and turning the other cheek, which is illustrated in many passages of the New Testament but perhaps most clearly described in the sixth commandment, Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17, "Thou shall not kill".

Some Biblical literalists suggest there is complete compatibility between the Christian Bible and anarchism. They regard groups like the Amish and Mennonites, who even though they may not see themselves as such, as anarchists by their complete dedication to pacifism and opposition to participate in the state.

More recently, the anarchist wing of the libertarian movement has gained some followers from Christian fundamentalists, influencing them to study writings of historical anarchists like Tolstoy, Lysander Spooner and even Peter Kropotkin, as well as finding inspiration in the Quaker tradition (especially the anarchist society of early Pennsylvania, 1681-1690) and David Lipscomb's writings. This new group, who take the name Christian anarchists, also include anarcho-capitalists who are outside the historical anarchist movement. Unlike traditional Christian anarchists, many of these people are not strict pacifists. They believe the right to self defense exists for individuals, but do not believe the state should organise a military force for mutual self defense, as statists advocate. They argue war is essentially about power and domination in which the opposition is dehumanized through propaganda and nationalistic patriotism. Although a seemingly recent development, this confluence of Christianity and the anarchist wing of the libertarian movement is not new, see for example the 1940s writings of Rose Wilder Lane and her anti-statist take on the teachings of Jesus (as well as Abraham and Mohammed).

One challenge to the legitimacy of states and state control is found in Luke 4:5-8, during the Temptation of Christ, where the Bible quotes Satan as claiming dominion over all the nations of the earth and Jesus replies that not only will he not worship before Satan, but that God is the only authority to be "served". This passage does not directly refer to human rulers. However sometimes it may be necessary to disobey human rulers in order to obey God (Acts 4:19).

The most common challenge for the Biblical literalists is integrating the passage in Romans 13:1-7 where Paul defends obedience to "governing authorities." Christian anarchists argue that this chapter is particularly worded to make it clear that organizations like the Roman Empire cannot qualify as governing authorities. If it could, then, according to Paul, "they [Christians] would have praise from the authorities" for doing good. Instead the early Christians were martyred by the Roman government for doing good. Further, the "governing authorities" that are legitimate in the passage were never given the authority to make laws, merely to enforce the natural laws against "doing harm to a neighbor" in verses 8-10. This interpretation makes all statute laws of states illegitimate. It should also probably be remembered that Paul was himself a career criminal, whose belief that the self-sacrificing Christ was the only true emperor forced him to live from jail to jail, and beating to beating. He was, in fact, on his way to Rome in order to stand trial for sedition. While Paul's vision of resistance to human government is itself totalizing, then, and thus open to anarchist critique, his words in his letter to the Romans about the real good that human government can do despite itself should not be taken at face value and exaggerated as statist.

Various Biblical Passages Cited by Anarchists[edit]

  • Christ is our only king (Luke 23:1-4)
  • Thou shall not kill (Exodus 20:13).
  • Evil men plan wars (Psalm 140:1-2).
  • Do unto others as you would have others do unto you (Matthew 7:12).
  • Love your neighbour as yourself (Mark 12:31).
  • Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you (Luke 6:27).
  • Soldiers are told by John the Baptist to "do violence to no person" (Luke 3:14) (this verse would imply they can no longer be soldiers. However many modern evangelical translations change the wording to mean either "don't bully" or "don't extort money", possibly a mistranslation due to statist bias by the translators.)
  • If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:39-40).
  • My kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).
  • We are to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).
  • To seek rule by man is to reject the rule of God (1 Samuel 8).
  • Christians struggle against governments, rulers, and spiritual wickedness (Ephesians 6:12).
  • Honest people are too busy making an honest living to accept political power, so only the corruptible will accept political power (Judges 9:7-15 The Parable of the Trees).
  • The devil controls man-made governments (Matthew 4:8-10).
  • The gentiles have rulers over them, but it shall not be so among Christians (Mark 10:42-45). (Notice that the word for rulers here in the Greek is archos. Therefore some say Christians are by simple deduction an-archos or in English anarchists).
  • Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. (1 Corinthians 15:24) - Much of the Bible's eschatological content says or implies that at the full inauguration of the Kingdom of God, authority will be destroyed, even if it is not a present possibility.


  • All violence consists in some people forcing others, under threat of suffering or death, to do what they do not want to do - Leo Tolstoy.
  • In all history there is no war which was not hatched by the governments, the governments alone, independent of the interests of the people, to whom war is always pernicious even when successful - Leo Tolstoy.
  • The only people on earth who do not see Christ and His teachings as nonviolent are Christians - Mahatma Gandhi.
  • Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself - Leo Tolstoy.
  • In the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you - Leo Tolstoy.
  • Oh, judge, your damn laws: the good people don't need them and the bad people don't follow them, so what good are they? - Ammon Hennacy.
  • An anarchist is anyone who doesn't need a cop to tell him what to do - Ammon Hennacy.
  • Being a pacifist between wars is as easy as being a vegetarian between meals - Ammon Hennacy.


Søren Kierkegaard[edit]

Søren Kierkegaard (1813 - 1855), a Danish philosopher and theologian who some consider to be the archetypal Christian anarchist for his theory that the claims culture and state make on an individual lie in opposition to the claim God makes on all people. Kierkegaard advocated perfect obedience to God even if that conflicted with the secular law and government. He has been compared to Max Stirner, the great individualist anarchist. Kierkagaard is regarded as the father of Christian existentialism.

Henry David Thoreau[edit]

Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862) was an American author, pacifist, nature lover, tax resister and individualist anarchist. He was an advocate of civil disobedience and a lifelong abolitionist, who dreamt of earth becoming a utopia. Though not commonly regarded as a Christian anarchist, his essay Civil Disobedience (available at wikisource) is accredited with influencing some of Leo Tolstoy's ideas.

Leo Tolstoy[edit]

Leo Tolstoy (1828 - 1910) is notable for having written extensively on his anarchist principles, at which he arrived via his Christian faith (n the Russian wing of the Eastern Orthodox Church). Notably his books The Kingdom of God is Within You [5], The Gospel in Brief and Christianity and Patriotism which critised government and the church in general. He called for a society based on compassion, nonviolent principles and freedom. Tolstoy was a pacifist and a vegetarian. His vision for an equitable society was an anarchist version of Georgism, to which he mentions specifically in his novel Resurrection.

Nikolai Berdyaev[edit]

Nikolai Berdyaev (1874 - 1948), the orthodox Christian philosopher has been called the philosopher of freedom and is known as a Christian existentialist. He does not advocate anarchic chaos but is a supporter of anarchism, even though he wrote that "the Kingdom of God is based on anarchy". He believed that freedom ultimately comes from God, in opposition to other anarchists such as Mikhail Bakunin who have suggested that freedom comes from nature.

Ammon Hennacy[edit]

Ammon Hennacy (1893 - 1970) is notable for writing extensively on his work with the Catholic Workers and at the Joe Hill House of Hospitality. He was a practicing anarchist, draft dodger, vegetarian and tax resister. His autobiography The Book of Ammon describes his work in nonviolent, anarchist, social action, and provides insight into the lives of Christian anarchists in the United States of the 20th century. His other books are One Man Revolution in America and The Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist. Ammon Hennacy is also noted for several famous quotations dealing with force, law, and state powers which continue to inspire nonviolent anarchist action today.

Jacques Ellul[edit]

Jacques Ellul (1912 - 1994) was a French thinker, sociologist, theologian and Christian anarchist. He wrote several books against the "technological society", and some about Christianity and politics, like Anarchy and Christianity (1991) explaining that anarchism and Christianity are socially following the same goal.

Thomas J Haggerty[edit]

Thomas J Haggerty was a Catholic priest from New Mexico, USA, and one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Haggerty is credited with authoring the IWW Preamble, assisting in writing the Industrial Union Manifesto and drawing up the first chart of industrial organization. Haggerty was converted to Marxism before his ordination in 1892 and was later influenced by anarcho-syndicalism. His formal association with the church ended when he was suspended by his archbishop for urging miners in Colorado to revolt during his tour of mining camps in 1903.

Other Christian Anarchists[edit]

  • Alonzo Trevier Jones, an Adventist writer whose 1900 book Christian Patriotism, or Religion and the State held that Christians' citizenship was a heavenly citizenship only and "to form any connection with the State is to reject God."


Some say passages such as Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17 and Mark 12:13-17 show that it is appropriate to submit to human governments, and that these have roles in restraining evil.

Although some would claim that these verses were only intended to shield Christians from going to prison. [6]

Titus 2:9 ("slaves, obey your masters") also presents a problem for Biblical literalists, although taking this verse literally presupposes the morality of slavery, something rejected by almost all Christians today. In addition, Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt in the book of Exodus points to a Biblical model for resistance to slavery.

Many anarchists hold that organized religion is inherently authoritarian and heirarchical. This would not preclude individual religious beliefs from being compatible with anarchism, but beliefs and practices tending toward separatism from the State and mutual aid within church organizations according to this view could not be considered truly anarchist because they merely seek to replace subservience to one authoritarian institution, the State, with another, the Church. See anarchism and religion for more discussion of this. Jesusism is a neologism used by some who believe in and seek to follow the teachings of Jesus without the trappings of organized religion.


See also[edit]


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