A short answer to this question would be ‘yes’. End of article. But as with many historical issues, the proper answer in fact is much more nuanced. ‘Yes and no’ would be a more accurate response. While it is generally accepted that the early church tended to be pacifistic, scholars debate the extent of this, and how many exceptions can be found.
While scholarship on these questions has moved on somewhat from 1960, the summary statement penned back then by Roland Bainton in his classic Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace is worth recalling: “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. The position of the Church was not absolutist, however. There were some Christians in the army and they were not on that account excluded from communion.”
That much is clear. But questions of why this is so need to be dealt with. What were the reasons for this pacifism and how do we account for it? It seems that there are at least seven considerations that must be explored as we grapple with these issues.
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.
Moreover, the whole issue of Christ and his example, and the relevant texts from the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount, need to be dealt with in some detail. That cannot here be done.
However for the reader who is interested in such a discussion, a lengthy yet informative, stimulating and hopefully worthwhile debate on this topic between two believers can be found on my website. One article which I penned on the subject, “Is it Ever Right To Kill?,” resulted in an on-going debate between myself and a Christian of strong pacifist leanings. You can see that full debate here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/09/11/is-it-ever-right-to-kill/
(Unfortunately, perhaps, my sparring partner there will undoubtedly take me on here, so the debate may be never-ending!)
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.
With all this idolatry going on, it would have been very difficult indeed for a Christian to consider becoming involved. And if a person was already a soldier, and then became a Christian, he would have had great difficulty indeed.
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 realisation 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.
These various considerations need to be kept in mind as we deal with the question of the pacifist nature of the early church. Some of these points are stronger than others, but taken together they provide an intellectual framework by which we can understand the question at hand. At the very least, these considerations demonstrate that theological or ethical reasons were not the only ones involved in the general Christian non-involvement in the military. There were equally good political and social reasons as well.
But the whole exercise is quite a different matter than the issue of whether the New Testament in fact teaches and enjoins pacifism. That is a theological, biblical and hermeneutical issue that cannot here be covered. Instead, it will be the subject of another article for another day.
Secondly, this discussion really just focuses on the question of Christian involvement in the military. Related issues have not been addressed here, but also warrant discussion. For example, what about self-defense? Is the use of force ever justifiable? What about just war theory? And what do we make of capital punishment? How do we understand war in a nuclear age? All of these are separate questions that also need to be fleshed out in order to get a more well-rounded and biblical understanding of the question of pacifism and Christian conscience. It is the stuff of yet more articles for yet more days to come.
Third, while the broad issues of war and peace are quite important, and Christian reflection, discussion and even debate are needed on them, to my mind they are secondary, not primary, concerns for the Christian. That is, one’s view of pacifism does not make or break one’s Christianity. Believers can agree to disagree on these difficult issues.
There will be both pacifists and just-war supporters in heaven, in other words. While some in the “peace churches” may argue that this is a primary issue of concern, most believers would say it is certainly an important topic, but not one which should unnecessarily divide believers or break Christian fellowship.
Finally, and in a more broad direction, why do I keep writing on such controversial topics? My life would be a whole lot easier, and I would get a lot less flak, if I simply stuck to inconsequential topics such as my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe, or why I like the Geelong footy club.
But as difficult and potentially divisive as these various topics are which I regularly write about, they are quite important topics. They are topics which thinking Christians – indeed, all Christians – should be concerned with. We are called to love God with our minds, and biblical reflection on the contentious issues of the day is part of our calling to be salt and light.
Sure, one can make a lot of enemies – or at least step on a lot of toes – when one deals with such issues, but we cannot hide our heads in the sand, and pretend these issues do not exist, or do not concern us. They will generate passionate discussions and emotions will flare up, but we must address these pressing issues of the day, or risk being seen as being completely irrelevant to our day and age.
So I will expect to see some lively debate and commentary on this issue, as with my other posts. It becomes a full-time job to take on my various critics – Christian and non-Christian alike – but it is important that the vital issues of the day are debated in public, and are treated to rigorous biblical and theological reflection. Happy thinking and happy blogging!