This will be the final installment of this series, and indeed the shortest post of them all. If you have stuck with me thus far, thank you! If not, stop reading now, and go to part 1, then read part 2, and part 3 before going any further.
Today we will end with some tangible thoughts on how I think these ideas and facts intersect with modern Western Christianity. I will offer some critique for the modern church that, though it might sound a bit harsh, is said out of a love for her and her mission in this world.
The Slow Fade Into Worldliness
In the pre-Constantinian age, the voices of Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Justin, and Hippolytus spoke in unison, condemning the use of violence and military service in the kingdom of God. The idea of taking up the sword to defend the church was never in the minds of the early Christians, for they knew that the most potent weapon they wielded against the empire was their peace, their pacifism. It was not until the time of Constantine that the lines between the empires of earth and the kingdom of God began to blur. It was when Christians inherited the power to command earthly armies that Christians began to meld these two worlds together, and rather quickly, the cross itself, the antithesis of the sword, began to be emblazoned on weapons of war, shields, and helmets. As Christianity merged with Emperor Constantine’s rule and began to receive the benefits of power, it also began to shift its views of the use of violence. Eventually, pure pacifism would give way to a ‘just war’ mindset. The change a slow and gradual one, but once the cross and the sword had been united, Christians would not be able to regain the courage to separate them again until this very day.
Critiquing the Modern Church
It seems that most of the world has always understood that Jesus taught non-violence; most, that is, except for Christians. For many in the modern evangelical church, the answer to violence in the world today is more violence, and the gun has replaced the sword. The now infamous words of the President of the National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre, (a self-proclaimed Christian) are forever seared in our collective minds: “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!”. And the majority of white Evangelical Christians in American seem to agree with this sentiment.
In American Christianity, the firearm seems to have risen to occupy an almost sacred position. The government-sanctioned right to “keep and bear arms,” as the 2ndamendment words it, “shall not be infringed,” and in some Christian circles, these government-given rights are spoken of as “God-given” rights. This divine infused language is not necessarily absent from the very words of the American constitution itself, which argues the “self-evident” truth that all people are “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,” such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These ideas presumably necessitate the use of personal and deadly force against all those who would threaten those ideals. Like Rome, American ideals are upheld by the sword; by violence. And this scenario has once again put the church in a precarious situation.
Many American Evangelicals are so immersed in the American philosophy of life that it never occurs to them to seek the counsel of the church fathers or the writings of the Apostles to ascertain biblical instruction as to what Jesus Christ reveals about Gods will for his children. Much like in Tertullian’s day, some still point to the Old Testament violence as evidence that the people of God are free to use violence to purge the earth of those who would threaten them and our land. “If you don’t agree with what Jesus believes about violence,” they might say, “you can always use the Bible to try and find a loophole; you could point out the violence of 1 Samuel 15:3 to ‘Go and attack them with the sword and destroy all they have. Do not spare them, but kill men, women, children, and babies;’” And as Tertullian pointed out, that it is what some Christians will do. However, when we use the bible to silence Jesus in this way, we are using an account of the actions of an unfinished people (Israel) to silence the complete revelation of God in the world: Jesus. This is the same Jesus who said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting” (Jn 18:36).
The readiness of the modern church to prepare for war, to use violence, and to join in with the military operations of earthly empires is particularly troubling in light of the faith of the early church. The insinuation is that the martyr has no place in the 21st-century church; that the martyr is simply a fool without a gun whose life has been cut short for lack of firearms training. There seems to be no place in the modern church for the one who utterly refuses to kill, the one who believes that there are things far worse than death (like destroying the imago Dei in another). But if there is no “blood of the martyrs,” as Tertullian would call it, then how will the world see the power of the cross to truly save?
The Christian, according to Tertullian, is the “son of peace.” She/he is the one who has traded the ways of the world for the ways of Christ, trading the sword for the cross. If the kingdom of God is to be present in the world, the bride of Christ must once again discover the cross’s power, for it is the power of God unto salvation.
Thus, as the Christian and Latin poet, Commodianus, declared, the Christian must “make thyself a peace-maker to all men.”
C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).
Today we will look specifically at how the church fathers responded to the violence inflicted upon them. This is important as it pertains to discussions on self-defense (which we will touch on next week) and the role of the martyrs in the plan of God for evangelism and bringing others into the kingdom. This post addresses what the world sees and feels when they see Christians refusing to use violence in any form, even in the face of great violence against themselves.
Martyrdom as a Display of the Cross
The sacrificial deaths of many of the early church fathers and church members stand as the ultimate display of pacifism in the ancient world. Martyrdom became the most effective tool in neutering the power of the sword of the empire. Long before persecution was systematized in January 250, Christians for two-hundred years had been choosing to lay down their lives (rather than fighting for them), dying for their faith (instead of killing for it) in various corners of the empire, and the influence of the martyrs cannot be understated.
It has always been so that, when the church suffers persecution, it grows faster and stronger than at times of peace. And while Roman’s believed that the persecution of the church would represent an unflattering advertisement to those looking to join Christianity, many who watched the Christians die ended up becoming Christians themselves. They marveled at those who would suffer such things and wondering what incredible power this faith must contain that people would ever die for it. Indeed, the courage to respond to violence with utter peace was something that Rome ultimately could not overcome in the war of ideology.
Public martyrdom is responsible for creating some of the greatest thinkers of the early church. Irenaeus of Lyons personally knew and was heavily influenced by the famous martyr, Polycarp, who had been ordained by the apostle John. He served the church during the persecution in what is now France, he spent the rest of his days defending the church against Gnosticism and Heresies, and he is believed to have been martyred near the turn of the third century.
Tertullian started as a well-educated and devout citizen of Rome but was converted to Christianity at the sight of their persecution. He was impressed with their courage and resolve as they were being thrown to lions and burnt alive in broad daylight. Long after his conversion, he is known to have written: “The more we are mown down by you, the more numerous we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”
Origen, one of the most influential figures in ancient Christianity, saw his father arrested and martyred when he was only 17 years old. He is known to have written a letter to his father, urging him to stand firm in the face of persecution, urging him not to forsake his faith and not to fear for the family he was leaving behind. As he grew, his greatest desire was to suffer the martyrdom that so many great church leaders endured, something that would ultimately escape him as he is known to have survived severe torture at the hands of the Romans for his faith. This torture left him broken, scarred, and unable to continue his work in his old age, but his courageous example of faithful and peaceful endurance of the evils of violent men was passed on to his pupils as well. Notably, during one particularly violent outbreak of persecution under emperor Decius, Dionysius of Alexandria, one of Origen’s pupils, actually survived persecution because of his peace and courage in the face of violence. The soldiers had been scouring the city for days searching for him, and they did not think of going to his house where they would have found him patiently and prayerfully awaiting his arrest and execution.
In AD 165, a debate ensued between Justin Martyr and a pagan philosopher called Crescens in which Crescens, having lost the debate, complained to the authorities that Justin was teaching a forbidden religion. Justin was swiftly arrested, and his trial was brief. He refused to make any sacrifices to the Roman gods before the courts, and together with six other Christians who also had been arrested for their faith, he was scourged and beheaded. He has been seen as an archetype of Christians in persecuted countries ever since, and the word martyr has been permanently transfixed to his name as a way of communicating to all other persecuted Christians that they are in good company.
And by far, the most exceptional example of peaceful Christ-like resistance is the life of Ignatius. Everything that we have of his, the information about his life and the writings of his hands, come to us from captivity while he was awaiting execution for his faith. He was arrested during the persecution of Antioch and was sent to Rome under the guard of ten soldiers. As they sailed west, he was frequently visited by other Christians whom he urged not to intervene with violence to free him. Instead, they are encouraged to let himself “be poured out as a libation to God while an altar is at hand.”
As Ignatius traveled, he wrote of how, through his mistreatment and his bonds, he had become more of a disciple than ever before, even praying that he might “benefit from the wild beasts prepared” for him. He knew that upon his death, the Christians would give him more of an ear than ever before, for the words of the martyr carry more weight than the words of regular men and women, and he knew that he must use this opportunity to edify and instruct the churches.
The letters men like Ignatius come to us from the path of the cross, instead of the sword. They display the power of the cross of Christ in ways that can never be diminished. The victory of the sword of Roman persecutors was swift, but it was temporary, for the world would quickly see the truth that Christ himself has shown us that the cross is stronger because it ends in resurrection. Rather quickly, the writings of the martyrs rose to places of prominence and authority in the church. The church began to gather annually over the graves of the martyrs to venerate and admire their faith, and to ask for strength to follow their examples. This tradition continues until today in some parts of the world.
The word pacifism is often confused with the idea of pacifying or letting the enemy have what they want. However, the actual meaning is found in the root Latin word pax (peace), and it means peace-making. According to Commodianus (250), the call of the Christian is to “make thyself a peace-maker to all men.” In the Roman empire, where the pax-Romana meant peace at the tip of a sword, the church fathers knew that Jesus taught non-violent peace-making. The passage of scripture that comes up more than any other in the writings of the church fathers is Isaiah 2:4-5, which says:
“He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.”
The people of God were looking forward to a day when war, and training for war, would be a thing of the past. They believe that the age of the church was ushering in that day. They believed that they should now focus on planting and reaping, and on kingdom-building and worship, instead of war and survival. They believed that in Christ, God had indeed judged the nations and that it was now time to walk in the light of the Lord; that peace had finally come and was also still coming; that God’s realm was here already, though not yet fully present. Furthermore, they believed that, in this kingdom, there is no place for weapons of war.
C. John Cadoux. Early Christian Attitude to War, (Kindle Locations 1460-1469).
Jonathan Hill. History of Christian Thought, 22.
Tertullian, Apology, ch 50.
Jonathan Hill. History of Christian thought, 39.
Jonathan Hill, History of Christian Thought, 17
Robert Louis Wilken. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity, 28.
The Same Way, or a New Way?
The response to evil in the world is something that the church claims to possess above all other claims. The church claims that the cross of Christ is the answer to those prone to violence, those quick to use the threat of physical violence to coerce, and to those who would attempt to bring peace at the tip end of a sword (or the barrel of a gun). Throughout human history, that answer has been to fight fire with fire; to use violence to try and end violence. Moreover, though the use of ‘redemptive violence’ (a term first coined by American biblical scholar, theologian, and activist, Walter Wink) has grown to epic proportions over the last century as an answer to evil, violence in the 20thcentury has not been diminished. In fact, the 20th century was the most violent in human history. Despite the best efforts of good people, war and violence have never ceased for even a single day.
This series of posts will seek aim to clarify the position of the early church to present its answer to violence and war in the world, along with its response to those who would wield it. In this first post, I will look at the attitude of Christians towards the military, the next post will be an exploration of the church Father’s theology of Pacifism. In subsequent posts, I will outline the unique mindset of the Christians in the world that led them to reject the ways of the world, and in my final post, I will speak to the modern church about regaining this uniqueness and aligning herself once again with the power of the cross, and not the sword.
Military Service and the Church
Perhaps the most significant difference between the modern church and the church of the first and second-century has to do with their collective attitude towards military service, something that most American Christians naturally assume is an acceptable and even encouraged vocation for a follower of Jesus. Readers of first and second-century Christian writings are often surprised to find that there was no conversation about the merits of armed forces. In fact, it was assumed that being a follower of Jesus and being a soldier is incompatible.
From the end of the New Testament period to the about A.D. 170-80, there is no evidence whatsoever of Christians serving in the military.In the writings of the early church fathers, military abstention seems to be taken for granted. What is clear is that, outside of the biblical account of Cornelius (Acts 10:1-8) and the jailor baptized by Paul (Acts 16:33), there is not a single reference to or record of a Christian serving in the military before 170 CE.
Hippolytus, one of the most important theologians of the second and third centuries, wrote a manual to help guide the church body in his day. In that document entitled The Apostolic Tradition, he states that “a military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor… he shall cease, or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.”With that last sentence, Hippolytus is direct and clear in his statement that there is no place in the life of a member of the church for military service.
There are presumably several reasons for this, including the pagan insignia that soldiers were required to wear, and perhaps most of all, the early church would point to the fact that military service required an oath of allegiance made to both the emperor and the gods or the emperor as a god. However, the baptized Christian has been reborn into the service of Christ and Christ alone; they have a single allegiance, and therefore any allegiances given to others are incompatible with the Christian faith as the early Christians understood it. Indeed, they would have rejected any ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ to any earthly state or nation. Those pledges would fall under the category of idolatry.
Another reason for the rejection of military service amongst the early church would be the matter of the shedding of blood. The Roman military was brutally violent, often making a public display of torturing and killing dissenters. One incident during the reign of Diocletian describes a Roman Proconsul traveling through the city of Tebessia in Numidia (Algeria) on a mission to recruit soldiers. He came upon a twenty-one-year-old Christian man named Maximilian and demanded that he serve in the third Augustan legion. The young man refused, citing the fact that his Christian faith forbids him to wear the seal around his neck because the seal of Christ had marked him. He was summarily executed as a warning to all passersby.
Besides Hippolytus and Justin Martyr, we also have the words of a protagonist writing against the practice of the Christians to refuse military service. Celsus, a pagan and a critic of Christianity, lashes out against the Christian community for their refusal to serve the empire. His words make it evident that he is well aware of the Christian position, and he argues that “if all men were to do the same as you, there would be nothing to prevent the king from being left behind in utter solitude and desertion, and the forces of the empire would fall into the hands of the wildest and most lawless barbarians.”He argues that Christianity is a threat to the empire because Roman peace is upheld by the sword, which means that if Christianity spreads, there will be no more swords to uphold the empire at all!
This was not the first time that the Christian ethic of refraining from military service caused problems in the empire. Justin Martyr, in his The First Apology, writing to try and ease the fear of emperor Antoninus Pius, argued that Christians are no threat to the empire because our king is not an earthly and human one. Rather, it is a kingdom that cannot be seen, and which has been already inaugurated, only to be revealed when Christ returns. He quotes the Prophet Isaiah’s words about how his followers “will beat their swords into plowshares” and how they “will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore,”all intended to stave any fears of a violent Christian uprising. He says: “We who once murdered each other indeed no longer wage war against our enemies; moreover, so as not to bear false witness before our interrogators, we cheerfully die confessing Christ.”
Here, in chapter 39 chapter of Justin’s letter, he has set the tone for how the early Christians would exist in the world amongst other kings and kingdoms. The mere attempt to live a normal life in the Roman empire was often disrupted with challenges loyalty to Caesar over Christ. Christians might find themselves unable to buy, sell, or trade in the agora marketplace, a right which was often accessible only after offering incense to Caesar as a god. They would find it impossible to serve in seats of parliament, which required incantations and offerings to other kings and deities.
The propensity of the Romans towards the use of violence was not just limited to military culture, but the broader roman culture also. It was entirely normal to witness extreme acts of violence almost daily in the roman world; gladiators engaging in “blood sport;” men and women alike, fighting in the arena by torchlight in the evenings,and public executions were regular evening events, but these things offended the sensibilities of the Christians, keeping them away. Furthermore, Christianity, not being an officially recognized religion in the empire, was generally looked upon as a bizarre fringe group and a strange thing to be a part of. They were called anti–social for not taking part in attendance of the violent gladiator games; they were called atheists for not worshiping the local deities,and they were called cannibals because of the way they spoke about taking part in the eucharist. All of these things made them a threat to the empire, both culturally and politically.
It is clear then that, while the church was divided amongst many theological issues, there was unity amongst Christians about abstaining from military service. The first recorded instance of a member of the church serving the empire in this way comes to us around 173, listed amongst the ranks of the Thundering Legionunder Marcus Aurelius. From that day forward, the number of Christians amongst their ranks and other areas of government began to grow.
Tertullian confirms, in 197, in his Apology, the presence of Christians in the senate, the forum, and the military;and though he does not explicitly condemn the acts in this particular writing (which was intended to argue that Christians are good citizens and pose no threat to Rome), he also does not offer his support to these supposed members of the church serving earthly kings in this way. In fact, a rebuke of voluntary enlistment written by Tertullian just 15 years laterwill confirm his disapproval of the practice.
The growth of Christian presence in the military in the third century is also confirmed by the presence of two soldiers in Cyprian, apparently martyred during the persecution of Decius in 250, and a record of Galerius’s attempts to weed out the Christians from amongst his ranks.When the persecution broke wide, the Christians in the military were the first to suffer as a number of them are recorded as being executed.
But it is the Christian east which seems to have stood firm for a great deal longer. We have evidence that the Christians were far more inclined to reject taking up the sword in defense of the empire. One piece of that evidence is Origen’s rebuke of Celsus in 248, where he states plainly that where he comes from, “we do not fight under the emperor… although he require it.”
We will look at what Tertullian has to say about the episode with the sword in the garden of Gethsemane, and explore what it means for the church that Jesus commanded Peter to put away his sword.
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace:a Historical Survey and Critical Reevaluation, 67.
John Howard Yoder. Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, 53.
Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition, ch16.
Jonathan Hill, The First Thousand Years, 77.
Origen, Contra Celsum, VIII, 68-69.
Justin Martyr, Apologia I, 39.
Burge, Gary M. A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion, 72.
Jonathan Hill, The History of Christian Thought,16.
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace,68.
Adolf Harnack, Militia Christi.117-121.
Tertullian, De Corona Militis, XI.
Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes Towards War and Peace, 68.
Origen,Contra Celsum, VIII, 73.