The Early Church and War
The early church was pacifist. To this, most scholars agree. Roland Bainton, retired professor of Church History from Yale University has written that, “The age of persecution down to the time of Constantine was the age of pacifism to the degree that during this period no Christian author to our knowledge approved of Christian participation in battle.”
This is significant, for the teachers of the early church were frequently those who had personal contact with the apostles or with others who had sat at their feet. From the close of the apostolic era until near 180 A.D., there is no evidence of Christians serving in the army. Consider the following early writers who had somewhat to say about first, second and third century Christians, and their attitude toward war.
Justin Martyr (A.D. 110-165) “We who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our war-like weapons have changed our swords into plowshares, and our spears into implements of tillage and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith and hope…”
Irenaeus (circa A.D. 120-202) “But if the law of liberty, that is, the Word of God, preached by the apostles (who went forth from Jerusalem) throughout all the earth, caused such a change in the state of things, that these (nations) did form the swords and war-lances into ploughshares, and changed them into pruning-hooks for reaping the corn, that is, into instruments used for peaceful purposes, and that they are now unaccustomed to fighting, but when smitten offer also the other cheek, then the prophets have not spoken these things of any other person, but of him who effected them. This person is our Lord…” (Irenaeus is reasoning that the literal pacifism of Christians proved that Isaiah referred to Jesus in his prophecy.)
Athenagoras (circa A.D. 170) “We have learned, not only not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder us, but to those who smite us on the side of the face to offer the other side also, and to those who take away our coat, to give likewise our cloak.”
Tertullian (A.D. 145-200) “There is no agreement between the divine 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 be due to two mastersGod and Caesar…how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord hath taken away?…The Lord…in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.”
In The Chaplet or De Corona, “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? Shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain and the prison and the torture and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?”
Origen (about A.D. 250) “(Christ) taught that it was never right for his disciples to go so far against a man (as taking human life) even if he should be very wicked; for he did not consider it compatible with his inspired legislation to allow the taking of human life in any form at all…we no longer take up ‘sword against nation,’ nor do we ‘learn war anymore,’ having become children of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”
Lactantius (about A.D. 290) “For when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will be (not) lawful for a just man to engage in warfare.”
It is significant that these early writers, so near the voice of the apostles, actively spoke and wrote against participation in carnal warfare in any form. Their writings are not inspired, yet provide us an insight into the innocent purity of the Lord’s church prior to its almost complete contamination under the influence of Rome.
The Light, March, 2006