WAR AND THE EARLY CHURCH
A STUDY OF THE ANTE-NICENE FATHERS’ UNDERSTANDING OF THE TEACHINGS OF JESUS AND THEIR IMPLICATIONS CONCERNING WAR AND KILLING
JEDEDIAH J. MCCOLLOUGH
It was a beautiful summer morning. As warm beams of light cascaded from that mighty luminary (the sun) while birds were chirping and the nearby creek flowed lazily by in the downtown section of the city, a deep clanging from an old bell sang through the clear morning air signaling for the worship service to begin. There, in an ancient steeple-topped church building with its white paint chipping away, up the cracked concrete steps and through the heavy wooden doors, the sounds and sights of a small a cappella church of Christ congregation come to the senses.
This Sunday morning, the church service began like any other. In that well lit room with its two rows of hard, dark brown pews on either side, announcements were monotonously made and a reverent prayer dutifully offered up, the song leader led the congregation in the reserved singing of time-tested hymns, the Lord Supper was served and taken with solemnity, the plate was passed, an elder of the congregation stood up behind the thick, solid pulpit and delivered a dry message from the scriptures, and the service was concluded with a short prayer and song.
As the congregation started to leave and some began engaging in casual talk of restaurants, gardens, the weather, and other mundane topics, suddenly, without warning, the doors were pulled shut, the blinds were closed, and the lights were turned off, leaving the room almost pitch black. Some of the older women came to the front of the church and drew open the baptistery curtains which were situated behind and above the pulpit, revealing there in the middle of the baptistery the American flag, raised up high and enshrouded by light. The women enthusiastically exhorted the congregation to remember the dead American soldiers who gave their lives for “us” so that “we” might have life and freedom. They then proceeded to sing patriotic and nationalistic songs more loudly and with more religious zeal and fervor than with any hymn sung to Jesus. The month was May. It was Memorial Day.
This strange and perplexing incident is sadly not an isolated event. In churches all across the United States, when national holidays like the 4th of July, Veterans Day and Memorial Day roll around, a person will witness the most intense and emotional devotion ever displayed inside the doors of most churches. Flags are paraded down the aisles; those who “served” wear their uniforms to church; attendees decorate themselves in red, white, and blue; veterans and soldiers are honored and idolized; passionate speeches are made; and thunderous songs are sung. And sometimes it even happens that real footage of the violence from various wars is streamed from church projectors, and that many people present who are overcome by this dramatic, religion-infused, patriotic atmosphere, are driven to open weeping.
The ancient cult of the martyrs (with all of its abuses) was one of the many things rejected by Protestants during the Reformation, but it seems that a new cult has risen to take its place. The new martyrs and confessors are those who died and were injured on the battlefield in the name of democracy and freedom. In the hearts of most American churchgoers, it seems that military members have taken the place of the ancient saints. The heroes of the churches in the U.S.A. are not the evangelist, elder and missionary, but rather they are the rifleman, the general and the bomber. Carnal war is thought of as glorious and righteous and worthy of all praise—by those who profess to follow the Prince of Peace. For a person to “serve” in the Armed Forces is regarded as taking on the highest of “Christian” occupations.
Christian youth are often told that is it stupid and irresponsible to go to the Middle East to carry the gospel of the kingdom of God to people. And why would such a missionary endeavor be deemed as foolish? The answer usually given is that these missionaries might be killed! Yet, churches show no hesitation to strongly encourage their Christian youth to “do their Christian duty” in going to the Middle East carrying a rifle for “their country”—it is thought of as honorable and noble! A soldier in uniform is incessantly thanked for his service upon visiting a congregation, while a visiting missionary receives a much cooler reception.
Are such attitudes good when held by people who claim to be Christian? Is military service virtually synonymous with Christian service as so many churches seem to think? Is war and Christianity truly compatible? To even raise such questions seems a bit crazy & radical to the modern Christian’s ears because Christians have been engaging in war for well over a thousand years. Besides that, reasonable & fine sounding arguments have been made for the necessity of the Christian being involved in war and soldiering. A long tradition of “just war” has been taught by many intelligent Christian leaders. For these reasons, most Christians have never even thought ask the question, “Should the Christian be engaging in warfare at all?” or “Is this even right?” And if they are aware of the fact that Jesus said to pray, bless and love one’s enemies, turn the other cheek when struck, and other similar teachings, then the question of how Jesus’ teachings relate to killing and warfare is still usually not even entertained or else it is shrugged off.
This article will seek to aid in answering those questions. But to prevent this article from turning into a book, the focus of discussion will seek to answer the question, “Has the Church always thought that it is permissible for the disciple of Jesus to engage in carnal warfare?” and more specifically, “What was the early Christians’ interpretation of Jesus’ command to love one’s enemy?” This article’s thesis is that the universal position in the extant writings of the Ante-Nicene Church is that the Christian cannot participate in wartime killing because of their interpretation of the teachings of Jesus. This is a huge statement, therefore, in an effort to persuade the reader of the truth of the thesis, various scholars and other writers will be cited, quotations and an examination of the Ante-Nicene writers themselves will be offered, and then also, common objections that are often raised will be considered and answered throughout the paper to provide a complete case.
Is the author of this article the only one to have ever make such a bold and sweeping statement? The answer is no. Many scholars and writers who research the topic come to the same conclusion. For example, as can be seen by the following quote, both historian Roland Bainton and James Childress, who quotes him, understand that all of the Ante-Nicene writers teach against Christians killing in war.
Nevertheless, Christian writers tended to oppose Christian participation in war even when they accepted the institution of war. Roland Bainton’s comment is apt: “The age of persecution down to the time of Constantine was the age of pacifism to the degree that during this period no Christian author to our knowledge approved of Christians participation in battle.”
Professor George Kalantizis (an Evangelical author and Director of The Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies at Wheaton College), after having thoroughly studied all of the pertinent texts, comes to the conclusion that there is no ambivalence in any of the pre-Nicene writers on this issue. He concludes that ALL the Ante-Nicene Fathers who speak on the topic consistently oppose killing because of the teachings of Jesus. For example, he says:
Only then are we able to evaluate the oppositions of the earliest Christians to war, and killing, and of serving in the armies of Caesar from within their own social location and ask questions of theology and practice. When we do that, we see that there is no polyglossia among the Christian writers. With remarkable univocity they speak of participation in the Christian mysteries as antithetical to killing, and the practices of the army, whether in wartime or peacetime. The dominical command to love one’s enemies and pray for one’s persecutors is a common thread woven throughout these documents. Greek and Latin writers alike speak of this uniqueness of the Christian communities.
Dr. Everett Ferguson, the Professor of Church History (Emeritus) at Abilene Christian University, comes to this conclusion about the early Christian attitude toward participation in military operations: “The opposition of the theologians was to killing. The sayings of Jesus and the whole of his teaching were felt to be contrary to active participation in warfare.” And in his discussion on Tertullian (c. 160-230 A.D.), who wrote very plainly against Christians killing in the military and against Christians entering the army after conversion, Ferguson says that, “Tertullian’s views were often highly individual, but on the question of a Christian serving in the army his thought appears to have been in harmony with that of the other leading thinkers and spokesmen of Christianity at his time.”
Dr. Lee C. Camp, professor of ethics and theology at Lipscomb University says, “All extant Christian writings prior to the fourth century reject the practice of Christians killing in warfare… They rejected killing in warfare, in short, because it violated the way and teaching of Christ.” Camp’s evaluation of the ancient Christian faith on this matter is in perfect harmony with the understanding of the founder of Lipscomb University, David Lipscomb (b. Jan 21, 1831 – d. Nov 11, 1917). In David Lipscomb’s discussion on civil government and the kingdom of God, he argues that the teaching of separation from civil government including the Christian abstaining from killing for the government is apostolic and says that this was the position of the early Church. Lipscomb says,
We have noted these things from the days of the apostles down to one hundred years ago, to show that the idea of separation from the state and from all participation in civil affairs, was universal among Christians for the first two or three hundred years.
David W. Bercot, the editor of A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, who has read all the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers available, reports in his audio CD entitled What the Early Christians Believed about War, that…
Every single writer who discusses the subject of war or violence or anything like that, they all present the same view, that we are to love our enemies, that war is wrong, that a Christian cannot take up the sword no matter what the evil is on the other side. We do not combat evil using the means of evil. And this went against everything that the world at that time knew, against Roman culture, against Jewish culture because it was revolutionary. It was from the teachings of Jesus Christ. And you will not find as I said even a single writer who takes a contrary view.
John Driver states in his book, How Christians Made Peace With War that, “It is noteworthy that between 100 and 313 no Christian writers, to our knowledge, approved of Christian participation in warfare. In fact, all those who wrote on the subject disapproved of the practice.” Princeton graduate Dr. Gregory Boyd, in his book, The Myth of a Christian Nation, talks about how, although while in much of the history of the Church its members have been involved with and supported war, “For the first three hundred years, this wasn’t so.” Notice how all of the above say that all of the Christians who write on the topic of war and killing speak against it and that it is because of their interpretation of the teachings of Jesus that they do so. Students of the early church know this, and testify to it regardless of their denominational background. Although the witnesses to this are plentiful, I will mention only a few more, and that will have to suffice for the purpose of this article.
Robert McCollough, this writer’s father, friend, and fellow graduate of Lincoln Christian University (M.A. in Church History/Historical Theology) who currently preaches for the Eureka Church of Christ, has also personally read the whole Ante-Nicene Fathers set. In a conversation on the topic, he affirmed the truth of the thesis of this paper and told this writer that all of the Ante-Nicene Fathers that speak on the subject of carnal warfare & physical violence, all speak against Christians killing in such warfare.
Dr. James McClendon, an author of a three-volume systematic theology, says,
So the ‘pacifism’ (a word we have still to define here) practiced by early Christians, lasting into the fourth century and (in the relic of canon law) for at least sixteen centuries more, leads us to approach the New Testament writings with the expectation that this unusual practice may have its roots there and in the authority of Jesus.
In presenting the case for the Nonviolence/Pacifism position of Christians and war, Stassen and Gushee in Kingdom Ethics affirm that, “For the first three hundred years of the Christian movement, the church was almost unanimously pacifist.” The reasons why Stassen and Gushee most likely inserted the word “almost” will be addressed below.
Are all of these witnesses to the historical records of Christianity correct in their assessment? Or, are they simply making unfounded conjectures out of thin air? Other writers would object to the claims made in this article and for various reasons. Who is right? Only an examination of the facts can decide. One objection which is often raised is that the only reason the early Christians did not go to war was to avoid the army’s idolatrous ceremonies, emperor worship, and oaths of loyalty. It is certainly true that idolatry was a crucial reason for not joining the military, but Christians did not only object to serving in the military because of idolatry. It was also because of their literal interpretation of Jesus’ teaching to love one’s enemies and to turn the other cheek.
All the evidence we have available indicates that the pre-Nicene writers’ stance on war (that the true Christian does not kill in war or in any other context) was the universal position of the early church. When these writers wrote on this topic and related topics, they were not merely expressing their individual personal interpretation of scripture. They all stated that this is part of the orthodox Christian faith and that all who are Christians no longer kill, even if the government commands him or her to do so. Some examples of this will be supplied to point this out.
While a plethora of quotations could be given which demonstrate that all these writers taught that Christians should and did literally follow Jesus’ commands to practice enemy love and turning the other cheek, for the sake of space, only the more explicit quotations will be given which specifically mention war and the military. This approach will also be helpful because many people, especially modern readers, tend to “compartmentalize” their life. They divide life into separate artificial categories like the sacred & secular, the spiritual & physical, the personal & political, the subjective experience vs. the objective etc., and people imagine that it is acceptable to think and act differently depending on which constructed category or role they are functioning in at the time. The Ante-Nicene writers, however, thought differently–as will be shown.
The influential Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 A.D.) writing around the year 160 A.D. in his apology to the Emperor, testified of how the Divine Lord Jesus taught things like people are to love one’s enemies, turn the other cheek when stuck, bless those who curse etc., and then he tells the Emperor:
And let those who are not found living as He taught, be understood to be no Christians, even though they profess with the lip the precepts of Christ; for not those who make profession, but those who do the works, shall be saved, according to His word: “Not everyone who says to Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Justin later explains how the Christians understood and obeyed Jesus’ commands. Justin writes, “We who formerly murdered one another now refrain from making war even upon our enemies.” and,
We used to be filled with war, mutual slaughter, and every kind of wickedness. However, now all of us have, throughout the whole earth, changed our warlike weapons. We have changed our swords into plowshares, and our spears into farming implements.
Notice that Justin, speaking on behalf of all Christians, does not say, “I war no more” or even that, “Many of us have stopped warring” but all Christians all over the world have stopped killing and warring. Further, here, as in his apology to the Jews, Justin references Isaiah 2:3-4 and/or Micah 4:1-3 which says,
For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.
Justin says that this prophecy about war being brought to an end is fulfilled within the Church by people of different nations and races all becoming brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God and by their literal following of the teachings of Jesus. Justin is not alone in this belief, but time and time again, writer after writer cites this Old Testament prophesy and explains the same thing. Take Irenaeus for example who served as a bishop of the church at Lyons. He states (c. 180 A.D.) that,
The new covenant that brings back peace and the law that gives life have gone forth over the whole earth, as the prophets said: “For out of Zion will go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem; and he will rebuke many people; and they will break down their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks, and they will no longer learn to fight.”… These people formed their swords and war-lances into plowshares,… that is, into instruments used for peaceful purposes. So now, they are unaccustomed to fighting. When they are struck, they offer also the other cheek.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 A.D.), the teacher and head of the famous catechetical school in Alexandria, Egypt instructed new Christians to obey Jesus’ teachings on enemy love and nonresistance literally. Clement plainly states, “It is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.” He also says, “We do not train our women like Amazons to manliness in war, for we wish even the men to be peaceable.” He refers to the Christians as the people of peace and advises not to even use seals with the shapes of swords or bows because Christians follow the way of peace, and he suggests that Christians (in their feasts) do not use trumpets and flutes and other instruments because they are associated with war and drunkenness.
A well-informed pagan critic of Christianity named Celsus wrote a work against Christianity in 178 A.D. He must have not been aware of any Christians who killed for the emperor because he urged them to contribute to society by using their intelligence and strength to serve, fight, and lead in the military and other government positions. Celsus was aware, however, of the Christians teaching against war. He scoffed at the Christians because of the apparent contradiction in which God through Moses told the Israelites to wage war, yet Christians said that the same God through Jesus told them not to wage war but to love ones’ enemies and turn the other cheek.
About sixty years later, Origen (c. 185-255 A.D.) answered Celsus’ criticisms. Origen was an extremely brilliant and well-respected man who took over Clement’s responsibilities as head of the school in Alexandria. Origen was famous to both Christians and even pagans for his learning and intelligence. Later, he was ordained as a presbyter by the bishop of Caesarea. When answering Celsus, Origen did not respond by saying Celsus was wrong in that Christians do, in fact, wage carnal warfare for the Caesars. Rather, Origen said that Christians ‘fight’ and lead armies for king and country through their prayers made effective by their godliness (but not by killing people), writing: “So none fight better for the king than we do.” And Origen clarified himself, saying: “Indeed, we do not fight under him even if he demands it. Yet, we fight on his behalf, forming a special army – an army of godliness – by offering our prayers to God.”
Tertullian, who has already been mentioned above, was a very influential writer from Carthage, North Africa and who (according to Jerome) was also an ordained presbyter. He was also very decidedly opposed to war. Here are a couple examples of where he stood on the issue:
How will a Christian man participate in war? In fact, how will he serve even in peace without a sword? For the Lord has taken the sword away. It is also true that soldiers came to John and received the instructions for their conduct. It is true, also that a centurion believed. Nevertheless, the Lord afterword, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.
Is it lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword will perish by the sword? Will he who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs, apply the chain, the prison, the torture, and the punishment?
By way of his writings, Tertullian had a disciple named Cyprian (d. 258 A.D.). Cyprian was an extremely influential bishop of Carthage. Cyprian had so much influence that churches in Gaul would by-pass Rome to ask him for help and advice. Cyprian studied Tertullian’s writings regularly and even referred to him as “my master” (i.e. “my teacher”). Cyprian did not adopt any of Tertullian’s later Montanistic sympathies, but Cyprian most certainly did share Tertullian’s convictions concerning the sinfulness of the killing that takes place during carnal warfare. Cyprian taught, as did the other writers, that all killing was prohibited for the Christian. He even said that the state-sanctioned killing which takes place during times of war was nothing less than murder! Cyprian said things like:
Wars are scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood. And murder – which is admitted to be a crime in the case of an individual – is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not because they are guiltless – but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale!
And Cyprian also said that, “The hand must not be spotted with the sword and blood – not after the Eucharist is carried in it.”
Even in the early fourth century, many Christians who were intelligent, well-educated, and theologically orthodox still held to this position. Lactantius (c. 250-325 A.D.), for example, was one such early Christian writer who was so well-respected as a teacher of rhetoric that when Constantine came to power, Constantine had Lactantius serve as a tutor to one of his sons named Crispus—whom Constantine later murdered. But even though he served under Emperor Constantine, Lactantius still believed that if a Christian were to kill, whether in a time of war or while carrying out capital punishment for the state, it would constitute an act of murder. Lactantius obviously did not believe that using deadly force during a time of war could be a virtuous Christian activity, because even as late as 313 A.D. he wrote:
Therefore, it is not befitting that those who strive to keep to the path of justice should be companions and sharers in this public homicide. For when God forbids us to kill, He prohibits more than the open violence that is not even allowed by the public laws. He also warns us against doing those things that are considered lawful among men. For that reason, it will not be lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself. Nor is it lawful for him to accuse anyone of a capital charge. For it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or by the sword instead. That is because it is the act of putting to death itself that is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this commandment of God, there should be no exception at all. Rather, it is always unlawful to put a man to death, whom God willed to be a sacred creature.
Lactantius also wrote: “How can a man be just who hates, who despoils, who puts to death? Yet, those who strive to be serviceable to their country do all these things… When they speak of the ‘duties’ relating to warfare, their speech pertains neither to justice nor to true virtue.”
Around 305 A.D., Arnobius wrote in his apology Against the Pagan about the deep conviction of the Christians, testifying that they would rather be killed than to kill. He asserts that the Christians of his day were, in fact, living out the prophecy of Isaiah 2:3-4 (Micah 4:1-3), and that since this was the Christian lifestyle, if all the people in the world were to become followers of Jesus, wars would simply cease. He says,
You allege that those wars of which you speak were sparked because of hatred of our religion. However, it would not be difficult to prove that (after the name of Christ was heard in the world), wars were not increased. In fact, they actually diminished in great measure by the restraining of furious passions. A numerous band of men as we are, we have learned from His teaching and His laws that evil should not be repaid with evil. Rather, it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, we would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. As a result, an ungrateful world is now enjoying – and for a long period has enjoyed – a benefit from Christ. For by His means, the rage of savage ferocity has been softened and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow creature. In fact, if all men without exception… would lend an ear for a while to His salutary and peaceful rules, … the whole world would be living in the most peaceful tranquility. The world would have turned the use of steel into more peaceful uses and would unite together in blessed harmony, maintaining inviolate the sanctity of treaties.
Arnobius obviously did not understand Jesus’ teachings to pertain only to the personal sphere or only to what is in a person’s heart, as many professing Christians & “Christian nations” have since interpreted Jesus’ words (or else they simply reject & ignore them). There is simply no way that Arnobius could have penned the words quoted directly above if he and the early Christians interpreted Jesus’ words in such a manner.
So, as has been shown, idolatry and oaths were clearly not the only reasons why Christians were opposed to military service. The pre-Nicene Christians understood that the teachings of Jesus should be put into practice and literally followed by all who claimed to be His disciples. Jesus’ teachings were to be followed in all spheres of life, and in all situations by all who identified as being disciples of Christ.
But arguments for Christians participating in war have been based on other things than just the pervasive idolatry that was present in the Roman army (as if when the idolatry is removed, a Christian could then feel free to engage in carnal war). For example, another argument often made is that we have evidence that Christians did, in fact, serve in the Roman army. This is a true observation, but it does not disprove the thesis of this paper. Although armies do wage war and kill, and Christians were in the army, this does not necessarily prove that these “Christian soldiers” took part in the killing. The evidence shows that the pre-Nicene Church would not let a Christian join the military, but if a soldier became a Christian, they were permitted to remain a soldier—so long as they did not kill. If Christian soldiers were put into a position where they had to kill (either in war or in carrying out capital punishment), then they were expected to either refuse to do so and potentially be martyred, or else they would be be subject to church discipline. Dr. Everett Ferguson states,
Christians were serving in the military by the end of the second century, at the latest, but many leaders in Christian thought – such as Tertullian, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Lactantius – viewed Christian involvement in war negatively and either denied that Christians should be in the army or advised those who were soldiers not to participate in the religious observances of the Roman army and not to kill (much of the army’s time was spent in keeping order and building roads).
There are three illuminating passages found in the early Christian writings which support Ferguson’s analysis and which help resolve the apparent contradiction between the two facts that: 1) the early Christians forbade killing even in times of carnal warfare, and that 2) there were Christians in the Roman army.
Let us first consider a passage found in a writing attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-236 A.D.), in his Apostolic Tradition:
A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate who wears the purple must resign or be rejected. If an applicant or a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God. (Apostolic Tradition 16).
If this was written by Hippolytus, it is worth noting that he was a prominent presbyter in the church of Rome. Rome was the most respected of the churches because not only was there an Epistle written to them but, according to tradition, both Peter and Paul stayed and labored in Rome until they were martyred in the persecution under Nero. Since this is the case, as with other churches that were established and founded by Apostles, Rome was looked to and consulted because the Apostles had handed down the faith to them personally. It is also worth noting the weighty title of the work: Apostolic Tradition. In other words, this is work claims to contain the tradition of the Apostles, in essence. Apparently, Hippolytus would not knowingly baptize someone who intended to join the military. And in cases where those who were already soldiers came to faith in Christ, if they were unwilling to make the commitment to abstain from killing, then they too were denied baptism.
The second passage is from Tertullian:
Of course, if faith comes later and finds someone already occupied with military service, their case is different, for example, there is the instance of those whom John received for baptism, and of those most faithful centurions. I mean the centurion whom Christ approved, and the centurion whom Peter instructed. Yet, at the same time, when a man has become a believer and faith has been sealed, there must be either an immediate abandonment of the military office, which has been the course of many – or else all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God. And such quibbling is not allowed even outside of military service.
As seen here, Tertullian understands that the Christian cannot become a soldier. Although he recognizes that it is a different matter if a person was converted while already in the military, Tertullian argues or suggests that they should just leave the military altogether.
From these quotes, it can be seen that the only members of the military that the Church continued to have fellowship with were those who were converted while already in the military and who also made the commitment to not kill anyone even if ordered to do so. As Ferguson mentioned, it was possible to have a career as a Roman soldier and never be called upon to kill. There was not a great deal of fighting that needed to be done during this time period. It was the time of the Pax Romana or Roman Peace, which Christians like Arnobius attributed to the coming of Christ and the prayers of the Christians. Like Ferguson said, much of the soldier’s time was spent in construction and keeping order. It is not clear, but it also seems to have been difficult to formally leave the military. The Roman military was highly disciplined, and a soldier was not allowed to just suddenly decide to leave the military on a whim, nor was there a “conscientious objector” process for soldiers to go through, either. “Conscientious objection was not an option for the Roman army.”
The third passage concerns the account of what is known as the “Thundering Legion.” It is often used as evidence against this paper’s thesis, but it only supports what has already been written herein. The Twelfth Legion was known as the “thunderstruck” legion even in the time of Augustus, well before the event which is about to be described took place. The account of the event is used to point out that Christians were in the military. The story is that the legion was holding the border against the Germanic enemy during a severe drought and was in risk of dying from dehydration. The Roman soldiers blamed the presence of the Christian soldiers within their ranks for the drought and they were brought forward before Marcus Aurelius to answer to him. The Christians then prayed for the army and it then rained soon afterward on the Romans, but hailed on the barbarians, saving the legion both from their thirst and from their enemy. Both pagan and Christian sources attest to the truth of the event, even though the pagan sources do not attribute the precipitation (the rain & hail) to the answered prayers of the Christians.
One of the earliest Christian accounts of this event involving the “Thundering Legion” is from Tertullian’s Apology (chap 5) where he mentions it while trying to demonstrate that only the bad emperors persecuted the Christians. Tertullian says,
So far from that, we, on the contrary, bring before you one who was their protector, as you will see by examining the letters of Marcus Aurelius, that most grave of emperors, in which he bears his testimony that that Germanic drought was removed by the rains obtained through the prayers of the Christians who chanced to be fighting under him. And as he did not by public law remove from Christians their legal disabilities, yet in another way he put them openly aside, even adding a sentence of condemnation, and that of greater severity, against their accusers.
Whether the letter of Marcus Aurelius that Tertullian refers to is spurious or was later dressed up in favor of Christians will not be discussed here. But the letter itself has Marcus Aurelius saying that the Christians in that legion hated war and did not plan to kill, but instead relied solely on God for protection and would rather die than prepare for battle. So, Marcus Aurelius, or someone purporting to write in his name, reported:
I summoned those who among us go by the name of Christians. And having made inquiry, I discovered a great number and vast host of Christians. So I raged against them. However, this was by no means becoming. For afterwards, I learned of their power. Because of that power, they did not begin the battle by preparing weapons, nor arms, nor bugles. In fact, such preparation is hateful to them – because of the God they bear about in their conscience… For having prostrated themselves on the ground, they prayed not only for me, but also for the whole army as it stood. They prayed that they might be delivered from the present thirst and famine.
When Tertullian, in his Apology, says that Christians were “fighting” under the Roman authorities (as was seen above), and when he likewise says, “We sail with you, fight with you, and till the ground with you,” this writer reasons that while Tertullian undeniably used the word “fight,” he does not seem to mean literally killing in battle. Rather, he seems to only mean that the Christians who were already in the army at the time of their conversion continued to serve in the military in some capacity alongside their fellow soldiers. Tertullian does not criticize these Christians of doing wrong by “fighting” under the emperor, which, when we consider Tertullian’s views on violence would be quite strange if they were truly participating in the killing. He certainly would not hold up Christians who kill as being great examples, nor would he even consider someone to be a Christian who killed other humans. Also, the letter which purports to have been written by the emperor specifically says that the Christian soldiers who were “fighting” under the emperor prayed for deliverance instead of preparing with arms because war was hateful to them. If we remember how Origen responded to Celsus’ criticisms, and remember the guidance given in Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition on how to deal with Christians in relation to the military, and if we also take into account Tertullian’s writings and the story of the “Thundering Legion,” then it would make sense to conclude that when Tertullian talks about Christians “fighting,” he simply means that they serve in the military with the Romans. The only fighting the Christians were willing to engage in is the fighting Origen talks about, which is only done though prayer.
Even if it could be proven as an indisputable fact that some pre-Nicene Christians did kill people in a time of war, this would not prove or even imply that the intellectual & spiritual leaders in the Church thought that killing a fellow human being was acceptable Christian behavior. By way of illustration, we know that there are professing Christians today who fornicate, divorce, commit adultery, murder (abortion is murder), get drunk, etc., but this does not mean that such practices are compatible with or are officially condoned by Christianity. It would only mean that there are people who call themselves Christians and yet practice things that are contrary to the religion they profess to follow.
It must be asserted again that there are no accounts of any pre-Nicene writer condoning Christian soldiers engaging in the killing of other human beings. Both the evidence already cited, and the martyr stories of Christian soldiers (which for the sake of space will not be expounded upon in detail here) show that not only did they suffer death and imprisonment due to their rejection of idolatry, but also because they gave their complete and undivided loyalty to King Jesus whose teachings and commands were contrary to the business of carnal war.
The final piece of pre-Nicene evidence we will consider here comes from the Council of Arles (c. 314 A.D.), when Constantine was in power. Within its “canons” or rules, we find some more potential evidence that Christian soldiers were not only martyred over their rejection of idolatry, but also because they refused to kill their fellow human beings. Canon 3 says, “Concerning those, who throw down their arms in time of peace, we have decreed that they should be kept from communion.” Here, if it is talking about Christian soldiers refusing to serve in the military in times of peace, then although the Council forbids the throwing down of arms, let us notice that it is only in times of peace that the Council forbids this! In other words, during times of war, when all military members would be commanded (by the state) to kill the enemy in combat, Christian soldiers are then allowed (by the Church) to throw down their weapons to avoid killing or shedding the blood of their fellow humans.
Another objection that might be raised against the thesis of this article in an effort to justify Christians participating in carnal warfare is the supposed formation & existence of Christian nations that have geographical-political borders that need to be defended by Christian soldiers. For example, the kingdom of Armenia became a “Christian” kingdom in 303 A.D. and would later defend itself with the sword. Then the whole Roman Empire supposedly became “Christianized.” The state government’s conversion is said to have begun with Constantine and then was supposedly completed under Theodosius II—and of course, the empire engaged in warfare in which professing Christians were now doing the killing. All of this happened within the fourth century. The question raised is, “How could the Church’s position change so quickly if the Church’s universal position toward killing others had truly been that of nonresistance?”
To answer in brief, this did not happen overnight, and there are several reasons why much of the Church began to change its position on this, and on other issues. There is not much that can be said with certainty concerning Armenia due to a lack of good resources to research. For the sake of space, it will just be said that the story is that a lay person named Gregory “The Illuminator” (c. 257-331 A.D.) is attributed to have converted King Tiridates III and his family after spending thirteen years in the King’s dungeon. Gregory is said to have healed King Tiridates of some illness. Then, after Tiridates had sent Gregory to be made a bishop, the King (with Gregory) rapidly made Christianity the state religion, baptizing thousands and crushing with deadly force any resistance that was offered. Gregory’s lack of training in Christianity, combined with the rapid “conversion” of the kingdom, while having no scriptures in the Armenian language until about a century later could not have produced anything but a nominal type of Christianity. This is why the Armenian “Christian” kingdom so readily used the sword—it was Christian in name only. Other historians would agree with this assessment. For example, we read that:
As for the spread of Christianity in Armenia, historian Peter Brown argued that “Armenia became a nominally Christian kingdom” after the king’s baptism. The Armenian people in fact “did not receive Christianity with understanding … and under duress.”
More can be said concerning the Church and the Roman Empire.
The Church as a whole, while never perfect, began to grow less zealous and less strict in church-discipline. This is partly why Christian movements such as Montanism, Novatianism, and the short-lived movement involving Hippolytus that arose just before Novatian (d. 257 A.D.), as well as Donatism, and Monasticism had such lasting strength. A common element of such Christian movements was a desire for a more rigorist and a more pure Church due to a dissatisfaction with the lukewarmness & increased laxity in the Church at large.
Moral laxity, along with the sudden changes of the church having gone through devastating persecutions by Decius and Diocletian to then suddenly being under Constantine—who not only ended persecution but even supported the Church by rebuilding and improving church buildings, paying clergy, and helping to resolve church conflicts—all combined to effectively overwhelm the Church. Understandably, many Christians looked up to Constantine and thought that this was God’s doing. Many people in the Church began to imagine that, perhaps, God was ushering in the millennium and that Constantine, being God’s special agent, was helping to bring this about. In the words of Ferguson,
Church-state relations underwent a paradigm shift, now requiring the definition of the competence of a Christian empire. The church found itself largely unprepared for the change from a persecuted church to a favored church. It was not ready for its responsibilities in a state that, if not Christian, at least supported Christianity.
Tertullian would have thought a Christian emperor a contradiction in terms, and the way Constantine and many of his successors ruled (Constantine had his wife, Fausta, and son Crispus murdered for political reasons), there may have been some truth in this. Eusebius, on the other hand, exulted as if the kingdom had come.
Eusebius saw the “recognition” of Christianity as an act of God’s providence determining a period of peace and prosperity before the end of the world.
It would seem, in retrospect, that Eusebius (270-340 A.D.) was mistaken. Also, because the government was now supporting the Church in various ways, there was now some real temporal benefits for people to join the Church. This caused the ranks of both the laity and the clergy alike to swell with nominal Christians who had little desire to deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow Jesus (i.e. to imitate Jesus, suffer with Him and to lead sacrificial lives putting Jesus’ teachings into practice). All of these historical shifts worked together to make the Church, as a whole, less resistant to change and more willing to just go along with the direction that things were going.
However, even while the intellectual leaders in the Church such as Eusebius of Caesarea, and later Ambrose of Milan (c. 340-397), and Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) were trying to work out and harmonize these new relationships between Church & State, and even as Christians in various roles began to be increasingly involved with politics & war, it is both very telling and interesting that the Church, or at least many individual Christians, still viewed the killing that takes place during carnal warfare as being sinful. For example, in Canon 12 of Nicaea (325 A.D.), it states in strong words:
Those who have been called by grace, and have at first displayed their ardour, but afterwards have run like dogs to their own vomit (insomuch that some have spent money, and by means of gifts have acquired again their military station), must continue amongst the prostrators for ten years, after having been for three years amongst the hearers.
Also, Basil of Caesarea (330-379 A.D.), as a bishop, required those who killed in war to go through penance and to not partake in communion for three years. And even after the time when all soldiers were required to be Christian, the clergy were forbidden to shed blood and monastic orders were exempt from military service so that they could live the way of the perfect and follow the gospel teachings, including nonresistance, more closely.
In conclusion, after having examined what modern writers have to say on this topic, in addition to examining the writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, as well as some of the objections to this article’s thesis, the weight of the evidence clearly points to the Ante-Nicene Church’s universal official position as being that the Christian cannot participate in wartime killing. All the extant writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers are opposed to killing because of their interpretation of the example and teachings of Jesus. If this is true, then it cannot be passed over lightly. People who are associated with the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement sometimes argue that since the necessity of baptism was a universal teaching of the early church (and beyond), the very universality of the teaching is itself a strong indicator that it is of Apostolic origin. In like manner, this restorationist (the author) also suggests that since this understanding of nonviolence and enemy love was not some obscure allegorical interpretation of an Old Testament text by one random early Christian writer, but was instead, the universal understanding of the Ante-Nicene writers, then perhaps it too is of Apostolic origin.
The pre-Nicene writers universally taught that Christians were really expected to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek. Not even one of the pre-Nicene writers that address the topic of war (along with abortion, infanticide, and capital punishment) give any exceptions to the prohibition against killing human beings. They taught that Jesus’ precepts, commands and teachings apply to all areas of life because Jesus is the “King of kings and Lord of lords,” and the “Son of God.” They interpreted Jesus’ teachings of nonresistance and enemy love to clearly mean and include that the disciple & servant of Jesus is truly expected to love their enemies rather than to kill them. The disciples & servants of Christ are to call all peoples and nations to use the sandals which were worn for battle and the garments which were rolled in the blood of war as fuel for fire, and to replace them with the sandals of peace and robes washed white with the blood of the Lamb. Christians are to call all peoples from every nation to join together in the New Jerusalem to beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks and to learn war no more.
The time & effort that it took to research this topic and to write this article was not spent merely to satisfy intellectual curiosity or to prove a point. Rather, this article was researched & written due to this author’s genuine concern for the Church. This one article certainly does not end all discussion on the issue, nor does it even answer all of the questions raised in the introduction of the article itself. But hopefully it will cause the Christian reader to take a closer look at the New Testament and to give pause and think before either engaging in the types of nationalistic religious ceremonies as was described above, or in counseling a young man or woman about serving in the military. Even if the reader is still unconvinced that Christians are forbidden to kill in war because of Jesus’ teachings, this writer asks and even pleads with the reader to do at least two things: 1) avoid the guilt of perpetuating the gross ignorance & misinformation that abounds on this important topic, and 2) present this educational information to Christian youths so that they can decide for themselves what to do, and will have made an informed decision. This information should not be shoved under the rug. It is of more than just historical or academic interest. Failing to put the teachings of Jesus into practice is a matter of heaven and hell, and ignorance is no excuse. When the blind lead the blind, both will end up in the same ditch. If the thesis of this paper is correct, then it is the eternal truth taught by Jesus & His apostles and it should be taught to all who would wear the name Christian.
Also, the writer pleads with the Church to flee from all idolatry & false religion—including the false religion of idolatrous nationalism. And flee from all pride—including patriotic pride. The land you live in should not become your idol and living in a certain geographical location is nothing to be proud about (pride is a sin). Soldiers, who have participated in the horrors of war, should not be praised in the Church (or by Christians) as if they had done heroic acts for Jesus and the kingdom of God Instead, these soldiers should be pitied for what they have gone through for a kingdom of this world, and prayers for mercy and forgiveness should be offered up to God on their behalf.
Let the heroes of the Church once again be the evangelists, elders, missionaries, and martyrs of the universal and eternal kingdom of God. Let Christians every Sunday zealously sing, confess, and proclaim that it is Jesus alone who saves us, and that Jesus is Lord! Let there be no confusion in the churches. While Christians are to pay taxes, give honor to and pray for the authorities—as the scriptures and the early Christians teach—Christians are not to put their belief, hope, or trust in any kingdom or nation of this world. All the earthly nations & their rulers will be brought to nothing, but Jesus’ dominion is everlasting, and the kingdom of God shall never pass away or be destroyed.
 Brendan Pringle. “Ethiopia: The First Christian Nation?” ibtimes.com. Last modified on March, 4, 2013 at 10:19 am. Accessed November 9, 2016. http://www.ibtimes.com/ethiopia-first-christian-nation-1110400.