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Should Christians Join the Military? A Forgotten Perspective

I have hesitated to write this post for some time now. Military service holds a special place of honor in American society. Veterans are our heroes, and everyone who joins the military gives up their life. Some sacrifice their lives unto death, while the rest forsake their homes, their families, their friends, and a “normal” life within society. I would expect that almost everyone joins for noble reasons—for the protection of the weak and innocent and to secure the future of freedom in this world. I can also expect that many Christians resonate with these feelings of patriotism. I have many friends, Christian and otherwise, who have served in the military and who have fought overseas. I cannot stress enough how thankful I am for their sacrifices, and how fortunate I am to know them or to have known them. I must confess that I don’t know the answer to my own question, and I don’t believe that even a long blog post could handle all of the complexities and nuances of this issue. Here, I simply want to offer the forgotten perspective of the early Church Fathers.

I have been wrestling with the idea of Christian non-violence and if a Christian should serve in the military for a while now. It started with my reading of Preston Sprinkle’s Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence (now, Nonviolence: The Revolutionary Way of Jesus). It provides a compelling case, complete with a biblical theology of non-violence and a whole section devoted to the tricky “What ifs?” (Like, what if someone breaks into my house to kill me?) But the thing that really struck me was his section on the theology and practice of the early Church Fathers. Was he really suggesting that not one single Church Father approved of killing or military service before the Edict of Milan? (That’s the decree by Constantine in 313AD that made Christianity legal; Nicene Christianity didn’t become the official religion until 380AD with the Edict of Thessalonica).

It must be hyperbole. I had to find out for myself.

What makes the conversation of Christian non-violence in the early church so difficult is that there is no straightforward treatise on it. Theologians spent more time battling various heresies and developing orthodox doctrine. Periodic persecutions also hampered systematic treatises from being produced like we have today. It is not as simple as googling “What did so and so think about military service?” This means that readers must piece together various strands of argument and exhortation, from different writers and texts to form a composite picture of the theology. However, one should not paint the picture of the case for Christian non-violence too thin and bleak.

There are approximately 60 to 90 different texts (depending on how you count them) that address the questions and dispositions to warfare, violence, and military service in the church. These writings come from 10 named authors such as Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, Origen, Tertullian, Lactantius, and a few anonymous authors who wrote the Didache, Epistle to Diognetus, and Apostolic Traditions (often attributed to Hippolytus). These works vary in terms of genre and audience; some are a defense of Christianity and written to a Roman official (usually the emperor), and others feel more pastoral as they are addressed to Christians. I found another great book on the subject by Wheaton professor George Kalantzis, called Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service. What made this book so powerful was that he simply introduces each Church Father and lets the excerpts speak for themselves. And there were a lot of excerpts. Here are just a few that were the most shocking to me:

“For what kind of war would we not be fit and ready, despite our inferior numbers, we who willingly submit to the sword, if it were not for the fact that according to our rule of life we are given the freedom to be killed rather than to kill?” – Tertulian, Apology 37.4-5.
“It is as when the blaring trumpet sounds and calls the troops together, and proclaims war. Will not Christ, who has blared a song of peace to the very ends of the earth, gather together his own soldiers of peace? Indeed, O people, he did assemble a bloodless army by his blood and his word, and to them he entrusted the kingdom of heaven.” – Clement of Alexandria, Exhortations to the Greeks 11.116.
“For when we, so large a number as we are, have learned from His teachings and His laws that it is not right to repay evil for evil; that it is better to suffer wrong than be its cause, to pour forth one’s own blood rather than to stain our hands and conscience with the blood of another.” -Arnobius of Sicca, Against the Pagans 1.6.1-3
“It is not right for those who are striving to stay on the path of virtue to become associated with this kind of wholesale slaughter or to take part in it. For when God forbids killing, he is not only ordering us to avoid armed robbery, which is contrary even to public law, but he is forbidding what men regard as ethical. Thus, it is not right for a just man to serve in the army since justice itself is his form of service. Nor is it right for a just man to charge someone with a capital crime. It does not matter where you kill a man with the sword or with a word since it is killing itself that is prohibited. And so there must be no exception to this command of God. Killing a human being whom God willed to be a sacred creature, is always wrong”. – Lactantius, Divine Institutes 6.20.15-17
“The Lord, by taking away Peter’s sword, disarmed every soldier thereafter.” – Tertulian, OnIdolatry 19.1-3
“But because for us even watching a man being slain is next to killing him, we have forbidden watching such spectacles [Gladiatorial Games]. How, then, can we, who do not even look on, lest guilt and pollution rubs off on us, put people to death?” – Athenagoras, responding to the charge that Christians are cannibals, Plea on Behalf of the Christians 35.5.

And these are just the tip of the iceberg.

After doing a little more digging, I decided to catalog these references and see if there was a pattern. Why was this aversion to killing, war, and military service so unanimous among the early Church Fathers? Here are a few things that I found:

  1. No early Church Father approved of killing in any context. This belief was rooted in Jesus’ command to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:39-44) as it is frequently alluded to or quoted. It was both Jesus’ teaching and his example of the cross that provided the foundation for this nonviolent ethic of enemy-love.

  2. The nonviolent response of Christians to persecution and defamation was seen as a fulfillment of prophecy and a major identity marker of following Jesus. (“We came in accordance with the commands of Jesus to beat the spiritual swords that fight and insult us into ploughshares, and to transform the spears that formerly fought against us in pruning-hooks.” Origen, Against Celsus 5.33).

  3. The nonviolent response of Christians to persecution and defamation was often given as evidence of the value of Christianity to the Roman empire. It was argued that Christianity was making Rome more just and virtuous. This means that the enemy-love ethic had become a widespread way of living for Christians. If not, the arguments would fall flat in the face of opposing evidence.

  4. The aversion to Christian military service is primarily a result of its commitment to enemy-love rather than a focus on idolatry. While the idolatry infused in the Roman military constituted by mandated sacrifices and the taking of a public oath (Sacramentum, the same word used for the Christian mystery and the sacraments), was a concern in the writings of the early Church, it was not the Violence was the main source of contention as both issues are almost always addressed together. (To my knowledge, there are only two explicit instances, Tertullian The Crown 12.1 and Clement of Alexandria Commentary on 1 Cor. 26.98, which deal with Idolatry only. Various accounts of martyrdoms occurring in the military, especially Marcellus and Julius the Veteran, also only address the issue of idolatry.)

  5. Military and war imagery within the Old and New Testaments were reused and reimagined by the Church Fathers to draw a distinction between the Church and the Empire. The early Christian community really did wage war, even on behalf of the emperor, but it was done in accordance to Scripture, like Ephesians 6:11-17. Armed with the word of God, prayer, and their nonviolent enemy-love, the Church fought against the spiritual forces of evil that were the source of violence and warfare. The imagery was retained, but it was clear that the Militi Christi was made of martyrs and those who prayed fervently for peace.

Now, I know that some may want to draw a distinction between the modern military and the Roman military. I think we can all agree that there are a great number of differences. For example, there are many people who serve in the military who never see combat, who never fire their weapon at another individual, and will never have to serve in a potentially morally-compromising way (according to the Church Fathers). I think it is more than fair to point this out, for then, the military can be treated just like any other occupation. What if we were to reframe our question to “Should a Christian serve in a non-combatant division of the military?” I believe the Church Fathers’ opinions would vary because some would see that the military and the Church are still competing for a Christian’s allegiance. But still, it’s a good point to make. Another distinction that should be made between ancient and modern warfare is the increased effectiveness of military weapons, training, and tactics, as well as the greater risk of non-combatant causalities. Even excluding nuclear devices, our modern weapons have the capability of decimating landscapes and cities. This means that wars waged today have the likelihood of causing more deaths, innocent and otherwise, than it did in first 3 centuries. Let us again limit and reframe our original question to this, “Should a Christian fight in military combat during wartime?”

According to the early Church Fathers, the answer is a unanimous,


Now, I am a Protestant, and I must hold that the God-inspired, God-embodied, and God-illumined Scripture is my ultimate source of authority. I follow first and foremost the Bible. But, is it shocking that the early Church was so vehemently opposed to violence and serving in the military? I don’t think we necessarily have to follow the Fathers in everything, but we at least should be aware of when we are breaking ranks with them, especially on a topic in which there didn’t seem to be much disagreement. In addition, they were not just spouting things off the top of their heads. No, the Church Fathers were serious readers of Scripture who took following Jesus’ non-violent ethic of enemy-love seriously. Many of these writers suffered persecution for their beliefs, some even demonstrated it in martyrdom. We cannot so easily dismiss them or their reading of Scripture simply because they don’t live in the modern world. We also cannot make the cry that this theology is impractical today, dismissing by simply asking, “We can’t all be nonviolent, right?”

First, we don’t follow Jesus because its practical, we follow Jesus because He is the Lord and King, and as Christians, he is our Lord and King. Second, Rome made that same argument about how impractical Christianity and their nonviolent ethic was, and Tertullian responded, “The blood of the Martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Apology 50.13). Non-violence worked. In the first three centuries, the Kingdom of God did not require Christians to serve in physical combat, but in spiritual warfare. They were conscripted to love and serve their Lord, Jesus Christ, and reflect his non-violent ethic of enemy-love to the world. And it worked! Like a virus, the Christian faith spread throughout the Roman empire, thus conquering their persecutors through love, not war. Make no mistake, an ethic of nonviolence is not the gospel, but according to the early Church Fathers, it was the natural outworking of the gospel of peace.

“and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths . . . . . . and 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.” (Isaiah 2:3-4)

“And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.” (Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 39)


Originally published at The Two Cities, used with permission.


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