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The Early Church on War & Nonviolence - Part 3

Excerpt taken from The Kingdom of God, Volume 3: Learning War No More by Tom A. Jones, used with permission


From my study it seems that the first notable Christian writer who explicitly gives approval to Christian soldiering and killing is Athenasius (296–373), who is often called “the Father of Orthodoxy.” All his writings took place well into the Constantinian era, with his first treatise being done in 319. In his Letter 48 he states, “It is not right to kill, yet in war it is lawful and praiseworthy to destroy the enemy; accordingly, not only are they who have distinguished themselves in the field held worthy of great honors, but monuments are put up proclaiming their achievements. So that the same act is at one time and under some circumstances unlawful, while under others, and at the right time, it is lawful and permissible.”

While in the Constantinian Era most church leaders came to support this view of Athenasius, there were some who continued to oppose military service. But gradually, there were fewer and fewer who agreed with this pacifist position.

After Jesus, we have the Didache, Justin Martyr, and Clement of Alexander, saying, follow Jesus and “love your enemies and pray for them.” Then later—but not until well into the fourth century—we have a leader of the church saying it is praiseworthy to destroy the enemy. The United States of America has been a country for two-hundred and forty-three years. To those of us who live here, we sense that this a long time. Yet, for almost three hundred years Christians taught that they were to love their enemies and not kill them. But then came a great shift—what scholars call the Constantinian Shift. The emperor began to befriend the church and most church leaders began to embrace the empire, including its war machine.

Second, we need to be transparent about the fact that there were Christians who were in the Roman army during the first three centuries. A story, describing events from about 173, appears in Cassius Dio’s Roman History describing the seemingly miraculous rescue of a Roman legion. As the story spread, credit was given, at least by some, to the prayers of Christian soldiers. This is the story of the so-called “Thundering Legion,” whose enemy was supposedly driven away by the sudden appearance of a violent thunderstorm.

Tertullian wrote his The Crown because of a story he had heard about a soldier who was a Christian and who was eventually put to death. Tertullian indicates this soldier was not the only Christian in that force. There are a number of indications that Christians joined the army between 175 and 313, but there are many who say that this was part of a broader moral laxness that began to permeate the church. The persecution of Christians under Diocletian (who became Emperor in 284 and initiated the persecution in 303) is known to have begun in the army. Before he moved on to the general population, he wanted to be sure that all Christians had been purged from the military, clear evidence of the presence of believers in the army of the empire.

However, the presence of confessing Christians in the army is no more an argument against the pacifism of the early church than the presence of sexual immorality in the church in Corinth was an argument against the first century church’s teaching on sexual purity. Just because certain individuals did not live out the message that was taught does not nullify the fact that the message was taught. The church regularly fails to live up to its teaching. I have to admit that I am perplexed when people supportive of the pro-military position seem eager to discount the value of the early church writers, and yet, want emphasize, that there were Christians in the army in the second and third centuries. Seems to me that you can’t have it both ways.

Third, we can conclude that while Christian practice was not always consistent, the normal posture in the early church was one of pacifism until the time of Constantine. We see that there was a unified message from the leading teachers in the church. We have no writer or leader in almost three hundred years who approved of violence. However, even the early church’s critics show us the believers took a pacifist position. Celsus, a Greek philosopher writing about 178, attacked the church for its practice of not serving in the army, arguing that if all people did as the Christians, the emperor would be deserted and his realm would fall prey to savages and barbarians. (By the way, that is still an argument used against Christian pacifists today.) We know as much about Celsus as we do because later Origen would respond to his various attacks including this one. Some of the quotes from Origen mentioned earlier were in reply to this very point. While there were exceptions, the Christian movement was known for its commitment to peace, non-resistance and non-violence, and that stance greatly troubled an opponent like Celsus.

While the early church leaders were united in their message of enemy-love and non-violence, the Christian world has been equally united for the last seventeen hundred years in defending Christians who train for and go to war. Only here and there have small minorities resisted this idea and they have often been regarded as rather odd. It should, however, be said that in recent decades, there has been a resurgence of support for the pacifist view outside the traditional “peace churches.” For our purposes, it is important to note that this development has been closely linked to greater emphasis on Jesus’ Kingdom teaching.

Following Constantine, the idea of “just war” was adopted and has been the flag under which many have gone off to fight for centuries, more often than not against other “Christians.” We will examine that theory or teaching in the following chapter.

Before we turn to that historical shift, I would leave us with this question: Do we find anything in the teachings of Jesus and his gospel of the Kingdom that would cause us to move away from the pacifist teaching that we find in the second and third century church leaders? At least at this point, were they showing us how to live out the teachings of Jesus in this present age?


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