The conventional pacifist argument is made by David Hoekema, executive director of the American Philosophical Association —
The early Christian community understood Jesus’ commands to prohibit the bearing of arms. Christians refused to join the military, even though the Roman army of the period was as much a police force as a conquering army. Those who converted to Christianity while in military service were instructed to refrain from killing, to pray for forgiveness for past acts of violence, and to seek release from their military obligations. A striking example of the pervasiveness of pacifism in the early church is the fact that Tertullian and Origen—church fathers who stood at opposite poles regarding the relation of faith to philosophical reasoning—each wrote a tract supporting Christians’ refusal to join the military.
A profound change in the Christian attitude toward war occurred at the time of the emperor Constantine, whose conversion to Christianity helped bring the Christian community from the fringes to the center of Western society. From the time of Constantine to the present, pacifism has been a minority view in the Christian church. The just-war tradition, rooted in the ethical theories of Plato and Cicero and formulated within the Christian tradition by Augustine, Aquinas and the Protestant Reformers, defends military force as a last resort against grave injustice. According to this view, when the innocent are threatened by an unjust aggressor and all other remedies have failed, Jesus’ demand for sacrificial love may require us to use lethal force.
In short, the early church was uniformly pacifistic until Constantine blended church and state to the point that the church came to approve war, although only in limited circumstances.
Yale church historian Roland Bainton writes, ‘From the end of the New Testament period to the decade 170-180 there is no evidence whatever of Christians in the army. All of the East and West repudiated participation in warfare for Christians.’ Guy F. Hershberger adds, ‘It is quite clear that prior to about AD 174 it is impossible to speak of Christian soldiers.’ None of the Christian leaders in the pre-Constantinian era (313 AD) approved of a military career for disciples of Jesus Christ.
Many early writers spoke of this pacifism. Such as Tertullian who wrote, ‘the divine banner and the human banner do not go together, nor the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil. Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: for the Lord has abolished the sword.’ (On the Chaplet 11-12) Origen wrote, ‘You can not demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers.’ (Against Celsus VIII.7.3 about 240 AD)
Justin wrote ‘We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for ploughshares, our spears for farm tools. Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness to men, faith, and the expectation of the future given to us by the Father himself through the Crucified One.’ (Dialogue with Trypho 110.3.4 about 160 AD)
Athenagoras wrote (about 180 AD), ‘How can we possibly kill anyone, we who call those women murderers who take drugs to induce an abortion, we who say they will have to give an account before God one day! We are convinced that with God nothing goes unexamined, and that the body, after serving the irrational urges and lusts of the soul, will have its share in punishment. We have, therefore, every reason to detest even the slightest sin.’ (A Plea Regarding Christians 32-35).
Hippolytus (218 A.D) states that soldiers who become Christians are not allowed to kill and must refuse to obey orders to kill. He also says that judges who want to become followers of the Christ must resign or be rejected by the church. (‘The Apostolic Tradition’ 16).
This pacifism did not survive the Constantine change. By the year 314 A.D., the church was excommunicating military deserters without any consideration of the motives for desertion.
On the other hand, there’s evidence to the contrary. Bill Muehlenberg argues that the apparent early pacifism can be explained by other factors.
One. A major reason why we find pacifism so pronounced back then is simply one of Christian convictions. The early believers felt that they were being Christ-like in pursuing nonviolence, and they would have held up the example of Christ in this regard. Just as Christ eschewed violence, so did they.
Now for our pacifist friends, this is the reason, and basically the end of the story. Jesus is our model; he committed no violence, and that should be our standard. However the considerations which follow need to be factored into all of this. …
Two. It needs to be remembered that Jews back then were exempt from military service in the Roman forces. In fact, they were for the most part forbidden from serving in the imperial army. Since most Christians were converts from Judaism in the early decades of the church, they would continue to have benefited from these exemptions/prohibitions. So to a large extent military involvement simply was not an option for them.
Three. Christians were mostly a persecuted minority sect in those early centuries. They were struggling to simply stay alive. And they were on a mission to spread the gospel far and wide. Thus the question of joining the military was not much of an option for them, just as the question of joining in politics, or getting involved in various social and public affairs really was not much of a choice for them back then.
Moreover, if the Roman army was a chief means by which the government persecuted Christians, it would have been unthinkable for Christians to join in with them. And it would have been difficult to participate in public life of any kind when so often the early believers were hiding to stay alive, dwelling in the catacombs, etc.
Four. Military life was rife with idolatry and pagan practices back then. Roman army religion was a thorough part of the military experience, complete with idolatrous ceremonies and festivals. Chief among the idolatrous practices was emperor worship. All soldiers had to swear an oath to the emperor. This obligatory oath demanded unquestioning loyalty to the emperor as the highest authority. …
Thus part of the reason why there was a marked increase in Christian participation in the military after Constantine was simply because he changed or removed those idolatrous circumstances. Indeed, by AD314 at the Synod of Arles, Christians were given freedom to serve in the army.
Five. The expansion of Christianity mainly occurred among civilians in the urban centres. Christianity had most adherents in the cities and in the interior of the Roman Empire. Christians were fewest at the frontiers, where the legions were most in number. Thus there was less likelihood of Christians being involved in the military, simply because of these geographical factors..
Six. There is no record of any conciliar decree against military service for the entire pre-Constantinian era. While Bainton may be correct to say no early church writer approved of military involvement, very few appear to have condemned it either. Indeed, a number of theologians and church historians have argued that pacifists have overstated their case here, and there is a fair amount of evidence showing Christian military involvement during this period, especially in the second half of the period under question..
Seven. The early church of course looked for Christ’s imminent return. Certainly in the earliest years there was a strong expectation of an imminent Parousia. Over time of course this expectation diminished, as the realization sunk in that the second coming of Christ may not be taking place as soon as was expected. But believing that activity of any kind on planet earth was short lived would have kept many Christians from entering into “worldly” occupations, at least in the early decades of the young church.
Now, I disagree with Seven. There’s simply no evidence of the early church rethinking their theology because Jesus didn’t return as early as expected. To me, the most important factor would be Six — that the early Christians were not in fact uniformly pacifistic. Is that true?
Andrew Holt has gathered considerable evidence that the early church was not entirely pacifistic —
While Christians may have generally been opposed to war, this is far different than saying they opposed all war under all circumstances. In fact a considerable number of Christians served in the Roman Army before the reign of Constantine and few, if any, of the major early Christian theologians who wrote about the issue were uniform in their opinions. Indeed, some theologians, such as Tertullian, seem to have held multiple positions at different stages of their life. Yet at one time or another each seems to have seen a usefulness for the military or war. Note for example how in the following passage, Tertullian, whose works are often cited to argue early Christians were pacifists, prays for the Roman Empire to have “brave armies.”
Looking up to Him, we Christians with hands extended, because they are harmless, with head bare because we are not ashamed, without a prayer leader because we pray from the heart, constantly beseech Him on behalf of all Emperors. We ask for them long life, undisturbed power, security at home, brave armies, a faithful senate, [etc…]
Tertullian. “Apology.” Trans. Rudolph Arbesmann, Emily Joseph Daly, and Edwin A. Quain. Tertullian: Apologetical Works and Minucuis Felix: Octavius. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1950, 86.
Perhaps this was because Tertullian understood Christians were serving in those armies. He even boasts of their presence as a rebuke to this who would charge Christians with disloyalty to the state.
We are sailors along with yourselves; we serve in the army; we engage in farming and trading; in addition, we share with you our arts; we place the products of our labor at your service. How we can appear worthless for your business, when we live with you and depend on you, I do not know.
Tertullian. “Apology.” Trans. Rudolph Arbesmann, Emily Joseph Daly, and Edwin A. Quain. Tertullian: Apologetical Works and Minucuis Felix: Octavius. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1950, 106-107.
Tertullian, continuing in this strain of thought, also noted how Christians had reportedly served in the Roman army as early as the reign of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (c.170-180). A unit of Christian soldiers who fought for Aurelius were famously credited with bring rains to a thirsty army at a desperate point in a battle with barbarians through their prayers.
We, on the contrary, bring before you an emperor who was their protector. You will see this by examining the letters of Marcus Aurelius, that most serious of emperors. For, in his letters, he bears witness that the Germanic drought was removed by the rains obtained through the prayers of the Christians, who happened to be fighting under him.
Tertullian Apology – Ante Nicene Fathers, 3.22.
Like Tertullian, there is much in Origen’s writings that argues against his supposed “pacifism.” Origen notes that should Christians ever engage in just wars, they should imitate the bees.
But we ought to admire the divine nature, which extended even to irrational animals the capacity, as it were, of imitating rational beings, perhaps with a view of putting rational beings to shame; so that by looking upon ants, for instance, they might become more industrious and more thrifty in the management of their goods; while, by considering the bees, they might place themselves in subjection to their Ruler, and take their respective parts in those constitutional duties which are of use in ensuring the safety of cities. Perhaps also the so-called wars among the bees convey instruction as to the manner in which wars, if ever there arise a necessity for them, should be waged in a just and orderly way among men.
Origen. Origen Contra Celsus – CHAP. LXXXI- LXXXII
Origen also points to the militarism of the Hebrews when he suggests that if Christians ever came to control a country and its government, which did not happen until the reign of Constantine (long after Origen’s death), then Christians also would have an obligation to protect their lands and people.
But in the case of the ancient Jews, who had a land and a form of government of their own, to take from them the right of making war upon their enemies, of fighting for their country, of putting to death or otherwise punishing adulterers, murderers, or others who were guilty of similar crimes, would be to subject them to sudden and utter destruction whenever the enemy fell upon them; for their very laws would in that case restrain them, and prevent them from resisting the enemy.
Origen Origen Contra Celsus Book 7: XXVI
Nor did Origen oppose war in principle as he and other Christians desired and prayed for victory for the Roman army and the destruction of its enemies.
In the next place, Celsus urges us “to help the king with all our might, and to labour with him in the maintenance of justice, to fight for him; and if he requires it, to fight under him, or lead an army along with him.” To this our answer is, that we do, when occasion requires, give help to kings, and that, so to say, a divine help, “putting on the whole armour of God.” And this we do in obedience to the injunction of the apostle, “I exhort, therefore, that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority;” and the more any one excels in piety, the more effective help does he render to kings, even more than is given by soldiers, who go forth to fight and slay as many of the enemy as they can. And to those enemies of our faith who require us to bear arms for the commonwealth, and to slay men, we can reply: “Do not those who are priests at certain shrines, and those who attend on certain gods, as you account them, keep their hands free from blood, that they may with hands unstained and free from human blood offer the appointed sacrifices to your gods; and even when war is upon you, you never enlist the priests in the army. If that, then, is a laudable custom, how much more so, that while others are engaged in battle, these too should engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!” And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. And we do take our part in public affairs, when along with righteous prayers we join self-denying exercises and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures, and not to be led away by them. And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army–an army of piety–by offering our prayers to God.
Origen Origen Contra Celsus Book 8: LXXIII
Finally, an important distinction needs to be made between the sin of murder (always condemned by early Christians) and killing (executions and warfare) which God often called for according to the Hebrew scriptures. Basil noted this distinction among the early fathers when in 374 he wrote, “Our fathers did not think killing in war was murder.”
Clearly, it can’t be contended that the pre-Constantinian church was uniformly pacifistic. It seems that Origen did not so much disfavor war as disfavor Christians participating in war.