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Nonviolence in the Ancient Church & Christian Obedience


In the course of Christian history, nowhere has the tension between the teachings of Jesus and valid application of those teachings in postbiblical socio-cultural circumstances manifested itself more clearly than surrounding the issue of violence. Stemming from the sixteenth-century divide between pro-statist Magisterial and anti-statist Radical Reformers, most scholarship on this issue may straightforwardly be split between “hawks”and “doves,”with each side open to the charge of reading the sacred text through the respective lenses of either the Protestant appropriation of Augustinian just war theory or the Anabaptist denouncement of the post-Constantinian alliance between church and state.



In the course of Christian history, nowhere has the tension between the teachings of Jesus and valid application of those teachings in postbiblical socio-cultural circumstances manifested itself more clearly than surrounding the issue of violence. Stemming from the sixteenth-century divide between pro-statist Magisterial and anti-statist Radical Reformers, [1] most scholarship on this issue may straightforwardly be split between “hawks”and “doves,”with each side open to the charge of reading the sacred text through the respective lenses of either the Protestant appropriation of Augustinian just war theory or the Anabaptist denouncement of the post-Constantinian alliance between church and state. [2]

Amidst the contemporary discussion, one important set of voices is often unwittingly silenced: the ante-Nicene Church Fathers, who, as the first New Testament exegetes and inhabitants of a Roman imperial climate continuous with the atmosphere experienced by the apostles, arguably stand in a better position to correctly interpret the message of Jesus as pertaining to violence than their early modern and modern successors. From the accumulated literature of the ante-Nicene church, three facts emerge as relatively noncontroversial. First, from the close of the New Testament era until 174 C.E., no Christians served in the military or assumed government offices. [3] Second, from 174 until the Edict of Milan (313), the ancient church treated those Christians who played such roles, including previous o ffice-holders who converted, with great suspicion. [4] Third, underlying this ecclesiastical antipathy to state positions exerting compulsion stood a theory of nonviolence hermeneutically derived from Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God. According to the ante-Nicene Fathers, the kerygma necessitated that Jesus constituted the Christian’s only commander, such that placing oneself under any other commander would spell treason.

To explore the historical development of this theory of nonviolence, we must proceed chronologically, in the process focusing upon the writings of Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Origen, the three Fathers chiefly responsible for its exposition, along with brief references to the topic by other pre-Constantinian church leaders. [5] The soundness of this strategy is borne out by the fact that, as C. John Cadoux observes, this trio of thinkers provided a representative depiction of the prevailing sentiments among ante-Nicene church leaders:

[T]he conviction that Christianity was incompatible with the shedding of blood, either in war or in the administration of justice, was not only maintained and vigorously defended by eminent individuals like Tertullian of Carthage, Hippolytus of Rome and Origen of Palestine and Egypt, but was widely held and acted on in the Churches up and down Christendom. [6]

Thus we shall extensively delineate this nonviolent ethic from the primary sources, closing with a brief assessment of its strengths and weaknesses in light of historical Jesus studies and the ensuing course of Christian history.

Justin Martyr: Apologia I (c. 150 C.E.)

The first Patristic references to the issue of Christians and violence sprang from Justin Martyr (110-165), the early church’s foremost Greek apologist. Refuting the charge of sedition, which the Romans saw latent in the Christian proclamation of the Kingdom of God, Justin apprised Emperor Antoninus Pius that believers lived as citizens not of an alternative human kingdom governed by anti-imperial politicians but of an already inaugurated divine kingdom, presently ruled by Christ from the heavenly realm and soon to be physically implemented when Christ returns. [7] When the Kingdom is manifested on earth, Justin insisted, it will be a kingdom of peace fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 2:4, as people “will beinat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks”since nations will never again train for or engage in war. Since Christians find their citizenship in God’s Kingdom, Justin informed the Emperor that this prediction was starting to find fulfillment through the church and its missionary expansion: “That it is so coming to pass, let me convince you. . . . 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.” [8]

The phrase “we who once murdered each other”proves all the more poignant when we realize that the first mass conversions from paganism to Christianity occurred publicly in the Roman army, as soldiers, risking life and limb, abandoned their posts to join the church. [9] Consequently in Pauline fashion, Justin reinterpreted martial language by announcing that Christians are warriors but of a special kind, namely, peaceful warriors. This apparent oxymoron is warranted because, on the peaceful side, Christians refused to practice violence and, on the warrior side, they excelled everyone, including Antoninus Pius’ own soldiers, in showing fidelity to their cause and courage in the face of imminent death. Such excellence stemmed from the fact that Christians, via the general resurrection, awaited a reward ontologically superior to the money earned by Roman soldiers: “But if your soldiers, who have taken the military oath, choose allegiance over their own lives, parents, countries, and families, although you cannot offer them anything incorruptible, then it would be absurd if we, who fervently long for incorruption, do not endure all things, so that we will receive what we desire from the One with the power to impart it.” [10] Therefore, from his complementary exegesis of the Hebrew Bible and the dominical message, Justin regarded non-violence as an essential attribute of discipleship, such that converts whose prior occupations featured violence as their modus operandi must abandon those occupations.

Authors during the Reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-80)

We now turn to indirect evidence for the early Christian repudiation of warfare provided by the anti-Christian satirist Celsus (fl. 170-80) and the apocryphal Acts of Paul (c. 175). A staunch patriot and leading representative of Roman bureaucracy, Celsus rejected Christianity in large part due to its nonviolent stance. Repeatedly attacking Christians for their refusal to fight in defense of the Roman Empire, Celsus sneered that if everyone behaved like the church, the emperor would be virtually isolated, and the empire would soon be conquered by the unruliest and fiercest barbarians. [11] Based undoubtedly on firsthand knowledge of Christian behavior, Celsus’ objection corroborates our observation that the church of his day would not permit believers to serve in the military.

This impression is further substantiated by the presbyter of Asia Minor who penned the novel-like Acts of Paul. Here Jesus, the King of the Ages, is contrasted with Caesar, the earthly king, and Christians are portrayed as soldiers exclusively of Christ. In one notable scene, Nero accuses Paul of stealing soldiers from his army: “My prisoner, why did it seem good to you to sneak into the Roman Empire and enlist soldiers from my region?”Paul replies: “Caesar, we enlist soldiers not only from your region but from the whole world. . . . For we march not for an earthly king, but only for one who comes from heaven . . . to judge the world. . . . Thus I will never desert Christ, as a faithful soldier of the living God.” [12] The author then draws a sharp dichotomy between Jesus’ Kingdom and the kingdoms of the world: “Shall Christ, therefore, be King of the Ages and overthrow all earthly kingdoms? . . . Yes, he overthrows all earthly kingdoms and he alone shall live forever, and no earthly kingdom will escape him.” [13] Such “either-or”martial depictions make sense only on the assumption that, in the presbyter’s time, the church perceived military service and following Jesus as mutually exclusive, a choice which Roman soldiers attracted to the gospel were forced to make.

The Works of Tertullian (197-212)

Our earliest evidence for Christians serving in the military dates to 174 C.E., when a sizeable number of Christians in the eastern Cappadocian region of Melitene joined the Roman Legio Fulmata to fight against the central European Quadi tribe that was invading the region. [14] Although the evidence renders it uncertain whether these soldiers were chastised by their local congregations, the incident appears to have received little notice by either Christians or pagans outside Melitene. [15] Such an assessment is evidenced in the pre-Montanist writings of Tertullian, who in his early period showed categorical opposition to the military profession, notwithstanding that his father was a Roman centurion. Hence Tertullian articulated a position in Apologeticum (197) identified by Edward A. Ryan as “pacifism” [16]: “We are equally forbidden to wish evil, to do evil, to speak evil, and to think evil toward all people. . . . So if we are commanded to love our enemies, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as evil as our attackers. No one can suffer injury at our hands . . . since we do not bear arms nor raise any banner of insurrection.” [17] This remained true despite the fact, as Tertullian provocatively pointed out, that in certain provinces Christians were sufficiently numerous and powerful to unite and stage an uprising: “For what wars, granted these unequal forces, would we not be prepared and eager to fight, we who so willingly surrender ourselves to death by the sword, if in our religion it were not better to be killed than to kill?” [18] But since the Kingdom of God belongs not to this world, Tertullian insisted that Christians could not, without forfeiting their citizenship in the Kingdom, defend themselves by earthly weapons but must accept death when under attack. In his treatise De idololatria, written between 198 and 201, [19] Tertullian explicitly answered the central questions of whether a believer may join the military and whether a soldier, once converted, can stay in the military.

But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts—for there is no agreement between the divine sacrament and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters—God and Caesar. And yet some people toy with the subject by saying, “Moses carried a rod, Aaron wore a buckle, John the Baptist girded himself with leather just like soldiers do belts, and Joshua the son of Nun led troops into battle, such that the people waged war.”But how will a Christian engage in war—indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime—without the sword, which the Lord has taken away? For although soldiers had approached John to receive instructions and a centurion believed, this does not change the fact that afterward, the Lord, by disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier. [20]

Several features of this speech emerge as noteworthy. First, we find that around the turn of the third century North African Christians began to inquire as to the compatibility of belief and military service. This probably transpired because the Roman military presence in North Africa was considerably small, faced little threat of war, and featured garrisons staffed predominantly by local inhabitants; consequently, Christians there regarded soldiering as a relatively innocuous occupation.

Second, notwithstanding the present tranquility, Tertullian left no doubt as to the intrinsic ungodliness of the military profession itself: one cannot serve both God and Satan; one cannot serve both God and the Emperor. For Tertullian, no Christian may be a soldier and vice versa, a rule applying during war and peacetime alike.

Third, as Jean-Michel Hornus observes, Tertullian’s prohibition against military service was not based simply on avoiding idolatry but also on avoiding bloodshed and violence. [21] For this prohibition served as a corollary of Tertullian’s earlier verdict that Christians could not hold governmental offices due to the responsibility of such posts to preside over matters of life and death. [22] Christians, in Tertullian’s estimation, would arrogate to themselves divine prerogatives if they took the lives of persons God purposed to redeem.

Finally, Tertullian maintained that Jesus ushered in a new era marking a radical break with the former salvific program: God no longer employs the nation of Israel nor any violence associated with its protection to achieve his goal for humanity; rather, God now uses the peaceful fellowship of the regenerate in the final unveiling of his previously veiled will. Echoing this sentiment was Tertullian’s contemporary Clement of Alexandria (c. 200), who acknowledged the restful simplicity in Christ’s new commandment of love: “For we are trained not in war but in peace. War requires tremendous scheming, but peace and love, simple and quiet lives, require neither weapons nor tremendous scheming.” [23]

But the simple solution lauded by Clement soon gave way to a more sophisticated model, as the third-century dominance of the pax Romana led congregations to increasingly perceive peacetime military protection as relatively, though not entirely, innocuous. This was especially true among the progressive Montanist sect, which was already admitting noncombatants into its ranks. Not surprisingly, this new perspective found its way into the later writings of Tertullian following his conversion to Montanism in 202. Even so, Tertullian continued to display personal ambivalence toward the military profession. In his Corona composed c. 208, Tertullian somewhat reluctantly applied Pauline thinking on such matters as circumcision and slavery (1 Cor 7:17-24) to the military profession. Here he argued that, on the one hand, baptized Christians could under no circumstances join the military, but on the other hand, soldiers and public officials could become converts without renouncing their posts so long as they refused to enjoin violence.

Is it lawful for a human promise (sacramentum) to displace one divine, namely, for a person to promise himself to another master after Christ. . . . Shall it, in this case, be regarded lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who takes the sword shall die by the sword? Shall the child of peace join in the battle when he is not even permitted to sue at law? . . . Shall he carry a flag, despite its hostility to Christ? Shall he request a command from the Emperor who has already received one from God? . . . The very transporting of the Christian name from the camp of light over to the camp of darkness constitutes a violation of God’s law.

Of course, if faith comes later and finds any already enlisted in military service, their case is different. This is evident from the soldiers whom John baptized and the faithful centurions, namely, the centurion who believed in Christ and the centurion instructed by Peter. However, it needs to be emphasized that when someone becomes a believer and his faith is sealed, there must either be an immediate abandonment of military service (as has been the course with many) or all sorts of finagling must take place so as not to offend God (a strategy which scarcely works outside of the military). . . . Military service neither absolves one from punishment for sins nor exempts one from martyrdom. Nowhere may a Christian change his character. . . . If we were to make an exception for the Christian as soldier, when the command to openly live out the faith is binding on all Christians even in the face of mortal danger, one would overturn the essence of the sacramentum of baptism in such a way as to remove any obstacle even to voluntary sins. [24]

From this quotation we can deduce several important points. First, when Christianity spread to the African army, many converts left the military service while others remained as soldiers.

Second, congregations tacitly afforded converted soldiers exceptional treatment as pertaining to Christian discipline: soldiers were permitted to obey the commands of their superiors and carry out the demands of military discipline insofar as those obligations did not contravene the dominical prohibition against violence.

Third, the fact that baptism constituted a sacrament, where the forensic Latin term sacramentum originally denoted an unbreakable promise or military vow, [25] spelled a palpable tension between the imperial vows taken by soldiers and the rite of Christian initiation. Hence, as Tertullian stated, soldiers trying to balance both sacramenta may well find themselves lost in hopeless wrangling. But notwithstanding his personal doubts, Tertullian allowed converted soldiers to attempt this balancing act of avoiding contamination with pagan coercion while serving as state representatives expected to implement such coercion.

The Works of Hippolytus (199-217)

As the latter sentiments of Tertullian evolved into mainstream Christian thought, they received reinforcement and amplification by the Roman presbyter Hippolytus. In the first decade of the third century, Hippolytus penned the Traditio Apostolica, one of the earliest church orders appearing to express the Christian consensus of his day. Several articles in the document delineate occupations forbidden to baptismal candidates, including brothel keepers, male and female prostitutes, actors, gladiators, idol manufacturers, magicians, and astrologers. Three succeeding articles address the question of the church’s attitude toward the military profession.

A soldier, being inferior in rank to God, must not kill anyone. If ordered to, he must not carry out the order, nor may he take an oath (sacramentum) to do so. If he does not accept this, let him be dismissed from the church.

Anyone bearing the power of the sword, or any city magistrate, who wears purple, let him cease from wearing it at once or be dismissed from the church.

Any catechumen or believer who wishes to become a soldier must be dismissed from the church because they have despised God. [26]

Here we again note the underlying subtext that baptism remains the sacramentum, a Christian’s military oath, with allegiance owed to Jesus as the imperator (commander and emperor). [27] Since purple garments designated an imperator, any Christian holding political or military position who dared to wear the royal color blasphemed Christ and exposed the disingenuousness of his faith. For Hippolytus, moreover, the Pauline maxim, “Everyone should remain in the state in which he was called”(1 Cor 7:24), could be applied to the soldier, but it must be counterbalanced by the Petrine dictum, “We must obey God rather than human beings”(Acts 5:29), through disobedience of all orders to exert deadly force. Such disobedience comprised the inevitable consequence of a Christian profession, which believing soldiers must accept even if, in the most extreme case, it cost them their own lives via martyrdom at the hands of their superiors or slaying at the hands of their enemies.

In a linguistically primitive section of the Canones Hippolyti, which most Patrologists trace back to its namesake, [28] Hippolytus underscored the applicability of these observations to Christian soldiers and magistrates alike and, for the first time, expanded the treatment of nonviolence to the penitential requirements which must be undertaken by soldiers and magistrates who violate the dominical command against bloodshed.

Rulers entrusted with the authority to take life and soldiers must not kill anyone, even if they are commanded to do so. . . . Anyone holding a prominent position of leadership or a ruler’s authority who does not keep himself disarmed, as the gospel necessitates, must be dismissed from the flock. Let no Christian become a soldier. Any official obligated to carry a sword must not bring bloodguilt upon himself; if he does, he must not participate in the mysteries until he is purified through correction, tears, and groans. [29]

Here a significant distinction is drawn between soldiers, who were legally bound to bear the sword, and magistrates, who found themselves under no such compulsion. While Hippolytus refused any disciplinary leniency to magistrates, expelling them from the church for simply carrying the sword, he extended a great deal of flexibility to soldiers by mandating that they not be dismissed from the flock even if they killed but only suffer banishment from the Eucharist (i.e., “the mysteries”of Christ’s body and blood) until they completed a process of rehabilitation. This process consisted of “correction,”or receiving individual Scriptural instruction on the satanic nature of violence from the bishop or presbyter, followed by “tears and groans,”or publicly demonstrating contrition for the lives taken before the congregation. [30] Only when all members of the community accepted the genuineness of such repentance would the bishop or presbyter, acting on the community’s behalf, absolve the soldier of his crimes and readmit him to the Lord’s Supper. [31]

To understand this reasoning, we must call attention to two features of Hippolytus’ thought delineated in his earlier exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount. First, commenting upon Jesus’ identification of anger with murder and lust with adultery, Hippolytus stipulated the equation of thought and act in determining the gravity of any sin. [32] Second, from the Pater Noster’s statement on tempting circumstances, Hippolytus argued that sins committed under inescapable temptation deserve little punishment, while sins committed under no such duress deserve severe punishment. [33] From these two sentiments, it logically follows that for Hippolytus, the magistrate who voluntarily takes the sword commits the functional equivalent of premeditated murder and hence merits ecclesiastical expulsion, whereas the soldier who sheds blood on the battlefield commits the functional equivalent of manslaughter and so warrants disciplinary mercy from the church.

The Works of Origen (240-48)

Taking a much harder line than either the late Tertullian or Hippolytus was Origen, who returned to the stance of the second-century church. For Origen, the army of Caesar was diametrically opposed to the army of Christ, which would ultimately stand victorious despite the Roman outlawing of Christianity and persecution against the church. As he wrote c. 240,

The kings of the earth, the Roman senate, the Roman people, and the imperial nobility have banded together in order to vanquish at once the name of Jesus and of Israel, for they have established in their laws that there shall be no Christians. But under the leadership of Jesus, his soldiers will always triumph; hence we too say what is written in Ezra, “From you, Lord, is the victory, and I am your servant.” [34]

Therefore, in an Isaianic vein, Origen’s classic Contra Celsum (248) absolutely forbade Christian military participation, such that soldiers must abjure their posts to become followers of Jesus:

We must delightfully come to the counsels of Jesus by cutting down our hostile and impudent swords into plowshares and transforming into pruning-hooks the spears formerly employed in war. So we no longer take up the sword against nations, nor do we learn war anymore, since we have become children of peace, for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of those whom our ancestors followed. [35]

Perhaps the most erudite biblical interpreter of his day, Origen supported this conclusion with two significant exegetical advances. Employing the technique of canonical synthesis, Origen first contended that the mitzvoth within Torah and the constitutional halakhah could not have remained unchanged if Israel had collectively embraced the gospel: “For Christians cannot slay their enemies or, as Moses commanded, condemn to be burned or stoned those who had violated the law.” [36] Notice that, contrary to the allegorical interpretation one might expect from Origen, this argument depends on the presupposition of Hebrew Biblical literalism.

Similarly, as a bridge to his next insight, Origen remarkably proceeded to maintain that it was necessary for God to give Israel the right to use violence and capital punishment, since God knew in his omniscience the counterfactual truth that if Israel were not permitted to employ deadly force, then they would have quickly been vanquished by enemy nations. However, this same divine providence now elected to supplant the model of Jewish nationalism and install a new form, in light of God’s apprehension of the counterfactual truth that if Christ’s followers did not wield the sword, then paradoxically the church would become stronger the more it were persecuted. [37]

Given this background, Origen made his second stride with a distinctive exegesis of Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, two texts which have since functioned as the centerpiece of many just war arguments. Here Origen insisted that, indeed, Christians must obey the governing authorities; but the highest form of such obedience is to do whatever comprises the best interest of the authorities even if it contravenes their commands. Since underlying every physical battle is a greater spiritual one, when commanded to fight, Christians render obedience superior to the command itself by praying for the state, thus serving as warriors who fight the real battle of which the authorities are unaware: “Accordingly, no one fights better for the emperor than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he requires it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army—an army of piety—by offering our prayers to God.” [38] Origen cited as proof of this exegesis its ability to harmonize the texts under investigation both with 1 Timothy 2:1-3, which mandates prayer for the authorities so that believers may live peaceful lives, and with the logia Jesu. Reasoning by analogy from Roman religious praxis, Origen attempted to persuade the authorities that, while initially counterintuitive, his model of genuine obedience through formal disobedience proved ultimately compelling.

We render assistance to the emperor by means of spiritual protection through our prayers. So we remind those who order us, ostensibly for the common good, to proceed into battle and to kill, that even their own priests are not allowed to be soldiers, because the Divine must be worshiped with pure hands. If that is reasonable, how much more reasonable is it that we, while others go to war, preside as priests and servants of God in the campaign by keeping our hands pure and praying for the lawful side and its victory. Consequently, we render a far greater service to the kings than the warriors in the field, because by our prayers we overcome the demons that provoke the war and destroy the peace. [39]

After his martyrdom in 254, Origen’s unconditional ban against violence emerged as the official position of the Alexandrian church until 381, [40] when Theodosius I decreed Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. Moreover, this Alexandrian interdiction received acceptance among some Latin Fathers, even as late as the first decade of the fourth century. Thus writing c. 307, Lactantius, the traditionally styled “Christian Cicero,”declared that no just person could take the life of another, whether through combat or through capital punishment: “Before God it is unlawful for a just person either to engage in warfare, since warfare is injustice itself, or to judge anyone guilty of a capital charge, since it makes no difference whether you put someone to death by word or by sword—it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited.” [41] Likewise, in the anonymous Acta Maximiliani, the early fourth-century novelist portrays Maximilian, the son of a veteran who is thus obliged to serve in the army, declaring repeatedly, “I am a Christian, and therefore I will not serve.” [42]

Concluding Reflections: Evaluating the Patristic Nonviolent Ethic

Prior to the Edict of Milan, the ancient church leadership’s aversion to civic occupations invested with the sword, including magistracy and military, could be summarized in three observations. First, Christianity on principle rejected war and the shedding of human blood. Second, magistrates under certain circumstances were obliged to pass the death sentence, and soldiers were obliged to carry out all acts of violence ordered by their military commanders. Third, the unconditional imperial oath or sacramentum required of the civic official stood in direct conflict with the baptismal sacramentum to God.

On this threefold basis, church leaders universally denounced the practice of baptized civilians serving in either the government or the military from the New Testament period to the reign of Constantine. Furthermore, while some segments of the post-174 church leadership permitted converted magistrates and soldiers to retain their positions insofar as they practiced civil disobedience when their duties violated the precepts of the gospel, other segments maintained the earlier ecumenical standard of not allowing converts this luxury. [43] With this ethic expounded, we shall now critically examine its validity against the absolute standard of Scripture, in order to reveal both our “blind spots”and those of the ante-Nicene church on the matter of nonviolence so that we may learn to emulate their successes and avoid their failures.

Among recent historical Jesus scholarship, there has emerged something of a consensus (despite sharp disagreement on other points) that one of Jesus’ central aims in giving the Sermon on the Mount was to promote a countercultural program of nonviolent Jewish resistance against the oppressive Roman occupying forces. Through a series of real-life Palestinian examples, Jesus attempted to teach his Jewish contemporaries how to respond to the Romans in such a way as to not overcome evil with evil but to conquer evil with good, thereby proving to be the light of the world. [44] In sum, Jesus declared that any appropriate response to evil must refuse to let the evil define the sufferer (so the sufferer does not stoop to its level) and must poignantly expose the evil for precisely what it is to the one committing the evil. [45] Refraining from reading either pro- or anti-statist presuppositions into the text, an even-handed exegesis would therefore point out that, without demanding an exceptionless pacifism, the Sermon indeed compels believers to display extreme reluctance on matters of war and to exercise discernment toward political agendas by measuring them against Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God. Insofar as the ancient church correctly stressed this often underdeveloped aspect of Christian obedience, the contemporary church would do well to follow its lead by thoughtfully and prayerfully reconsidering the ethical viability of situations where believers take the acceptability of engagement in potentially violent government-sponsored causes for granted.

To the contrary of the Patristic ethic, however, New Testament scholarship has reached something of a consensus as to the meaning of Jesus’ hallmark antithesis between the kingdom of the world (or, more simply, the world) and the Kingdom of God. On the one hand, the kingdom of the world denoted the philosophical system of self-centeredness, tribalism, domination, and oppression according to which the world operates and ultimately ruled by Satan. [46] On the other hand, the Kingdom of God conveyed the dynamic of God’s kingship being increasingly applied over all earthly affairs, whether social, political, economic, aesthetic, or religious, in a world that is not yet fully under his authority. But the way God rules is quite different from the “top-down”imposition of power over others endemic to the world; rather, God’s Kingdom functions as a “power-under”or “bottom-up”transformative system that works for the sole purpose of replicating agapÄ“ to all people at all times in all places unconditionally, carrying out the will of God at the probable cost of self-interest. [47]

Now where in this scheme did the state fall? Understandably, because of their persecution by the Roman Empire, the second and third-century church conflated the world with the state. But although the state can become wrongly allied with the world, even to the degree of serving as the chief instrument of the world (as seen in the cases of the Babylonian and Roman Empires), no New Testament evidence indicates that the state in and of itself is identical to the world (or, conversely, the Kingdom of God). Rather, the biblical writers regarded the state as a tertian quid, providentially used by God for the protection of the good and the punishment of the wicked. We may also validly discern from Jesus’ relentless preaching against the blasphemy of conflating Judaism (whose redeemed community he was inaugurating) with nationalistic ambitions that church and government must remain separate since their divinely ordained roles are fundamentally distinct; confusion of one with the other inevitably destroys the purpose and structure of both. [48]

Conjoining these insights with the testimony of the Hebrew Bible, it follows that the answer to whether Christians may serve in government seems to be yes, as long as they do so counterculturally. In other words, Christians in government must disregard the worldly standards permeating politics and instead govern by distinctly Kingdom-of-God standards.

The classic example of Kingdom people so serving is Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego), who were pressed into service by the Babylonian Empire, the very government which had taken the Israelites captive and consequently became the paradigm of an anti-God and anti-Christian government throughout the remainder of Scripture. [49] Without trusting in the Babylonian Empire to accomplish God’s purposes, Daniel and his friends lovingly and responsibly served as “resident aliens”in this foreign juggernaut and thereby advanced the salvific plan of God. The fact that these Hebrew Biblical figures displayed obedience to God by serving in a state lying firmly within the world’s clutches further substantiates the fundamental distinction between these two concepts, a distinction that is not evaporated even when the world powerfully manifests itself through the state.

Throughout church history, when Christians have disregarded this distinction and isolated themselves from participation in government, as seen in the separatist branch of sixteenth-century Anabaptism and in its contemporary descendants (e.g., Amish, Hutterites, Old Orders, conservative Mennonites), the case can be made that believers invite unnecessary suspicion of treason by the state [50] and, even worse, shirk their dominically assigned social responsibilities. Such criticisms were not only levied against the separatist Anabaptists by Magisterial reformers like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, but also by evangelical Radical reformers like Balthasar Hubmaier. [51] For tolerating society through nonresistance is a far cry from Jesus’ mandate to change society through nonviolent resistance.

We close by pointing out that our historical investigation, although furnishing the necessary background to informed decision-making, leaves unanswered a series of controversial questions which immediately transpire from this discussion. For instance, are Christians allowed to take up arms in self-defense? Is there ever such a thing as a just war? Can Christians ever validly serve in the military? Since these questions fall outside this piece’s historical domain of interpretation and within the pastoral realm of application, we shall make no attempt to adjudicate them here. Rather, we shall note that these are precisely the questions Christians need to continually ask and wrestle with, always being sure to demonstrate a charitable openness toward, and an eagerness to learn from, solutions proposed by sisters and brothers in Christ outside their own faith communities. By so shining multiple lights on this ethical prism from the widest spectrum of angles, the church procures the best chance of authentically living out the social implications of the gospel and thereby displaying obedience to Jesus in both word and deed.



1. “Magisterial”refers to the top-down approach to religious change, adopted by the Protestant reformers, through conversion of magistrates, who in turn impose the new beliefs upon their subjects—this approach is encapsulated by the principle cuius regio eius religio (lit. “whose region, his religion”). By contrast, “Radical”denotes the bottom-up approach to religious change, adopted by the Anabaptists and other evangelical reform theologians, through evangelism of individuals. For a thorough discussion of this nomenclature see Kirk R. MacGregor, A Central European Synthesis of Radical and Magisterial Reform (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2006), 1-4.

2. For a representative sample of modern just war advocates see John C. Bennett, Foreign Policy in Christian Perspective (New York: Scribner, 1966); William R. Stevenson, Christian Love and Just War: Moral Paradox and Political Life in St. Augustine and his Modern Interpreters (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1988); Richard J. Regan, Just War: Principles and Causes (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996); Darrell Cole, When God Says War Is Right: The Christian’s Perspective on When and How to Fight (Colorado Springs: WaterBrook, 2002); and J. Daryl Charles, Between Pacifism and Jihad: Just War and Christian Tradition (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2005). Conversely, representative modern exponents of nonviolence include Ronald V. Sampson, The Discovery of Peace (New York: Pantheon, 1973); John Lamoreau and Ralph Beebe, Waging Peace: A Study in Biblical Pacifism (Newberg, OR: Barclay Press, 1980); Gerard A. Vanderhaar, Beyond Violence: In the Spirit of the Non-Violent Christ (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1998); John D. Roth, Choosing Against War: A Christian View (Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 2002); and Dale W. Brown, Biblical Pacifism (2d ed.; Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing House, 2003).

3. Guy F. Hershberger, War, Peace, and Nonresistance (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1944), 57-59.

4. This point is nicely made by W. H. C. Frend, The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 420, who ironically displays open criticism toward the third-century church for its so-called “inconsistent”and “impractical . . . inability to think out any positive evaluation of the soldier’s role.”

5. I have translated all primary source quotations directly from the Patrologia graeco-latina [hereafter PG], 161 vols., ed. Jacques-Paul Migne (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1857-64) and Patrologia Latina [hereafter PL], 221 vols., ed. Jacques-Paul Migne (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1841-80). Along with each quote I have, for the convenience of readers desiring further interaction with the sources, listed the corresponding page numbers from the standard English series The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to 325 a.d. [hereafter ANF], 10 vols., ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1885).

6. C. John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War (rep. ed.; New York: Gordon Press, 1975), 127-28. This general summary of the position of various churches is not negated by the fact that, as one stream of contemporary Patrology has inferred from late antique Mediterranean sociological analyses and epigraphic evidence, various individual Christians within those churches may have disobeyed their leaders by joining the military or assuming magisterial positions.

7. Justin Martyr, Apologia I, 11, in PG 6 (ANF 1:166).

8. Ibid., 39 (ANF 1:175-76).

9. Adolf von Harnack, Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries, trans. David McInnes Gracie (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 24.

10. Justin, Apologia I, 39 (ANF 1:176).

11. Celsus, quoted by Origen, Contra Celsum, 8:68-73, in PG 11 (ANF 4:665-68).

12. Acta Pauli aus der Heidelberger koptischen Papyrushandschrift, ed. Carl Schmidt (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1904), 10:3-4; for English translation see Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963-65), 2:385-86.

13. Ibid., 10:2 (Hennecke, Apocrypha, 2:384).

14. Cadoux, Early Christian Attitude, 229.

15. Ibid., 231-32.

16. Edward A. Ryan, S.J., “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,”Theological Studies 13 (March 1952): 14.

17. Tertullian, Apologeticum, 36-37, in PL 1 (ANF 3:45).

18. Ibid., 37 (ANF 3:45).

19. Timothy David Barnes, Tertullian: A Historical and Literary Study (rev. ed.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 55, 326-28.

20. Tertullian, De idololatria, 19, in PL 1 (ANF 3:73).

21. Jean-Michel Hornus, It Is Not Lawful for Me to Fight (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980), 158.

22. Tertullian, De idololatria, 17-18, in PL 1 (ANF 3:71-73).

23. Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, 1:98-99, in PG 8 (ANF 2:234-35).

24. Tertullian, De Corona, 11, in PL 2 (ANF 3:99-100).

25. Francis J. Hall, Theological Outlines Volume III: The Doctrine of the Church and of Last Things (Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1895), XXVI.141.2.

26. Hippolytus, Traditio Apostolica, ed. Dom Gregory Dix (London: Alban, 1937), 16:17-19; for English translation see Dom Gregory Dix and Henry Chadwick, The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome, Bishop and Martyr (3d ed.; London: Alban, 1992), 26-27.

27. Ibid., 21:9-11 (Dix and Chadwick, Treatise, 34-35); the same points would be asserted later in the third century by Cyprian, Epistolae, 15:1, 31:4-5, 54:1, in PL 4 (ANF 5:295, 313-14, 335-36).

28. Allen Brent, Hippolytus & the Roman Church in the Third Century (Leiden: Brill, 1995), 185-91.

29. Canones Hippolyti, in H. Achelis, Die ältesten Quellen des orientalischen Kirchenrechtes, Erstes Buch (Berlin: Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1891), 13-14; for English translation see Paul F. Bradshaw, ed., The Canons of Hippolytus, trans. Carol Bebawi (Nottingham: Grove, 1987), 19.

30. H. B. Swete, “Penitential Discipline in the First Three Centuries,”in Paul Finney, Christian Life: Ethics, Morality, and Discipline in the Early Church (New York: Routledge, 1993), 256-62.

31. On the same score, Basil the Great significantly ruled during the post-Constantinian period that those who shed blood in war should abstain from the Eucharist for three years: see Epistolae, 188:13, 217:56-57, in PG 32; English translation available in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1890), 8:228, 256.

32. Brent, Hippolytus, 520.

33. Ibid., 166.

34. Origen, Homilia in Jesu Nave, 9:11, in PG 12 (no English translation available).

35. Origen, Contra Celsum, 4:82, in PG 11 (ANF 4:558).

36. Ibid., 7:25, in PG 11 (ANF 4:621).

37. Ibid., 7:26, in PG 11 (ANF 4:622).

38. Ibid., 7:73, in PG 11 (ANF 4:668).

39. Ibid., 4:82, in PG 11 (ANF 4:187).

40. Frend, Rise of Christianity, 630-42, 699-701. As previously suggested in n. 6, assessing how widely this official position was obeyed by the laity depends upon one’s interpretation of highly equivocal epigraphic evidence and the degree to which one believes sociological analyses remedy the shortage of textual evidence as to the behavior of lay Christians in late antiquity. For an excellent discussion of this problem see Virginia Burrus, ed., Late Ancient Christianity: A People’s History of Christianity, Vol. 2 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 1-25, 213-33.

41. Lactantius, Divinae Institutiones, 6:20,16, in PL 6 (ANF 7:186-88, 181).

42. Acta Maximiliani, in D. R. Knopf and G. Krüger, Ausgewälte Martyrerakten (3d ed.; Tübingen: Mohr, 1929), 86-87; for English translation see Herbert Musurillo, The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 248-49.

43. Early in the fourth century this situation became otherwise, as the Council of Arles (314), meeting one year after the Edict of Milan, demanded that Christians consent to being drafted into the military and forbade current Christian soldiers from deserting the military. As Harnack demonstrated (Militia Christi, 88-90), Arles marked a fundamental revision of the church leadership’s position concerning the army and war.

44. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, vol. 2 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 530-31; Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount (New York: Herder & Herder, 1999), 27-40; John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007), 116-18.

45. Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 10-15; Wright, Jesus, 446.

46. Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2006), 225-35; Wright, Jesus, 608; Crossan, God and Empire, 78-82; cf. John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph 2:2; 6:12; 1 John 5:19; Rev 9:11; 11:15; 13:14; 18:23; 20:3, 8.

47. N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001), 36-37; Kirk R. MacGregor, A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2007), 275-77; Gregory A. Boyd, The Myth of a Christian Nation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 32.

48. MacGregor, Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology, 295.

49. E.g., Ps 137:1, 8; Isa 43:14; 47:1; 48:14; Jer 50:13-14, 18, 23-24, 29; 51:7-24; Ezra 5:12; 1 Pet 5:13; Rev 14:8; 16:19; 18:2-21.

50. Here I am not arguing against suspicion of treason per se, as many times the state will exhibit such suspicion precisely as the result of believers living out their Kingdom vocation (e.g., the life of Jesus and the New Testament church), but rather against believers needlessly inciting such suspicion.

51. MacGregor, Central European Synthesis, 11-12, 227, 240-41.


Originally published at Themelios, used with permission


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