Part 10 of 12
The Church Fathers
BY HERB MONTGOMERY
“When Christ disarmed Peter, He disarmed every soldier.” – Tertullian, Apology
I must apologize this week. I’m going to be sharing an appendix to Part 9 of last week. I freely admit that there is not much devotional value to this week’s eSight. This is a history lesson for sure. But we must address some very passionate objections to what was shared last week. Let me explain.
Beginning in the 70’s and 80’s here in America, we see a concerted effort to counter the pacifist narrative of the early Christians. Some have taken the material produced from this group and endeavored to paint a radically different picture of the early Church than what I presented last week. This is more than debate, more than argument. Taking the peace teachings of Jesus seriously is what is at stake. And I know if there is one out there raising these objections, there are also many out there too who have these questions. So I feel, that although this week is going to be heavily weighted on the “information” side rather than the “devotional” side, sometimes, it is necessary. If you’re like me, your heart has trouble getting behind something your head has questions about. So this week, I admit, I’m focused on our heads, but please know it’s with a sincere desire to liberate our hearts so that they can run free in the peace teachings of Jesus. Let’s begin.
There are really only two main prongs to this approach that work well as sound bites, but fall apart, for me personally, when actually tracked down and honestly researched.
First is the sound bite: As early as the late second century we begin to see evidence that there were “Christians” who were serving in the Roman military.
Second are a few select statements by Tertullian (160-220) and Origen (184-254, estimated), distantly removed from their immediate context.
I really want to do my best to present the side of those who believe Christians can or should participate, in certain circumstances, in some sort of redemptive violence (bloodshed) with these two prongs, first, and then take you back to the actual evidence and have you see how quickly the arguments begin to break down.
Again, before the 70’s and 80’s there was broad agreement that existed among scholars across the spectrum on this issue regarding the historical thought and practice of early Christians in respect to military service. Beginning in 1980 we see a number of earlier works on Christians in the military either being republished or translated into English for the very first time. Foremost among these are:
1981: Harnack’s Militia Christi (first published in German in 1905, did someone say German?)
1982: C. John Cadoux’s The Early Christian Attitude to War (first issued in 1919)
1980: Jean-Michel Hornus’s It is Not Lawful for Me to Fight (first published in French in 1960)
New volumes on this topic began to be published as well. New authors, such as Helgeland-Daly-Burns (1985) and Johnson (1987), began offering revisionist readings of the sources and critiques of the older scholarly literature. These authors represent a new fundamental réévaluation of early Christian attitudes towards military service. Both of these author’s work and their extreme biases deserve serious consideration, when one considers the Christian militaristic fruit these works have produced in American over the last three decades. I’m not going to be addressing their critiques of the “older scholarly literature” here. What I am most concerned with is their revisionist readings of source material from which we discern what the early Christian attitude toward military service honestly was.
Up until this time, again, there was broad agreement among scholars regarding the historical thought and practice of the early Christians in regards to military service. Both those who believed that Christians can participate, given certain circumstances, in redemptive violence as well as those who held the pacifist position agreed on three basic conclusions when the early source material was evaluated:
1) That the early Christians who addressed the matter directly during the first three centuries, most notably Tertullian and Origen, condemned warfare and military service on the basis of an aversion to bloodshed, being essentially pacifistic.
2) That at least from the end of the second century, some Christians participated in the military and that the number continued to grow throughout the third century.
3) That by the end of the fourth century, a “just war ethic” had developed, largely due to the work of theologians such as Ambrose and Augustine, which met the new need for a Christian accommodation to a changed political and social situation.
They differed widely, of course, in their ethical and theological applications of these three points. But these were the three points both pacifist scholars and scholars that saw just causes for, under certain circumstances, participating in redemptive violence, agreed on.
This point must be remembered.
Let’s look first again, at the two arguments used by those who subscribe to the redemptive violence position. The first is that the early church could not be pacifists because there were Christians who served in the military.
Again, beginning in the late second century we do have well documented accounts of how Christians were beginning to be found in Rome’s military. We have two examples that I am aware of. One is from Tertullian’s own account of a specific occurrence of Christians (in the military) praying for rain (which we will actually look at in a moment) and the other is the legend of the Theban Legion, who according to the story, was decimated and then slaughtered without exception for not being willing to kill other Christians. The occurrence of this story is generally accepted while the details of this story are strongly debated among scholars. It has proven difficult to discern how much of this story is based in history and how much is legend. At the bare minimum, it’s debatable.
But what are we to make of this? How can we say the early church were pacifists when we find these two examples? Sounds pretty convincing doesn’t it? We’ll get to this in a moment, I promise.
Second, I want to share with you the few statements, removed from their context, that are used to prove that there was dissention over pacifism in the early church. Again, as a sound bite, at first glance, it looks pretty convincing:
“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 . . .” Tertullian, Apology (emphasis supplied.)
“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 (emphasis supplied.)
“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 (emphasis supplied.)
When you take these statements out of their context and place them in the context of our current Christian militarism here in America today, it looks pretty convincing; the early church weren’t pacifists. But wait, we’re not done. We’ve seen Tertullian. We have to look at the statements the redemptive violence argument uses also from Origen.
“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, Against Celsus (emphasis supplied.)
“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 . . .” Origen, Against Celsus (emphasis supplied.)
That’s it. That’s all. But even with this, it can seem pretty convincing. Now let’s look at the actually facts surrounding this information.
Here is what Tertullian actually wrote regarding that first statement.
Remember, Tertullian’s Apology was a defense of Christianity directed at the Emperor. Follow carefully.
“Thither we lift our eyes, with hands outstretched, because free from sin; with head uncovered, for we have nothing whereof to be ashamed; finally, without a monitor, because it is from the heart we supplicate. Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Cæsar, an emperor would wish. These things I cannot ask from any but the God from whom I know I shall obtain them, both because He alone bestows them and because I have claims upon Him for their gift, as being a servant of His, rendering homage to Him alone, persecuted for His doctrine, offering to Him, at His own requirement, that costly and noble sacrifice of prayer dispatched from the chaste body, an unstained soul, a sanctified spirit, not the few grains of incense a farthing buys — tears of an Arabian tree,— not a few drops of wine,— not the blood of some worthless ox to which death is a relief, and, in addition to other offensive things, a polluted conscience, so that one wonders, when your victims are examined by these vile priests, why the examination is not rather of the sacrificers than the sacrifices. With our hands thus stretched out and up to God, rend us with your iron claws, hang us up on crosses, wrap us in flames, take our heads from us with the sword, let loose the wild beasts on us, – the very attitude of a Christian praying is one of preparation for all punishment. Let this, good rulers be your work: wring from us the soul, beseeching God on the emperor’s behalf. Upon the truth of God, and devotion to His name, put the brand of crime.” – Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 30 (Emphasis supplied.)
Did you catch it? Tertullian’s claim that Christian’s were praying for Caesar to have “brave armies” was not an endorsement of redemptive violence. Quite the contrary, Tertullian is saying, even while you hang us upon crosses, wrap us in flames, and behead us, we will still be praying for you, the Emperor, and for blessings upon Rome. This isn’t an endorsement of redemptive violence, it’s an example of Christian Pacifism if there ever was one.
Please take note of exactly what Tertullian says next in context:
”But we merely, you say, flatter the emperor, and feign these prayers of ours to escape persecution. Thank you for your mistake, for you give us the opportunity of proving our allegations. Do you, then, who think that we care nothing for the welfare of Cæsar, look into God’s revelations, examine our sacred books, which we do not keep in hiding, and which many accidents put into the hands of those who are not of us. Learn from them that a large benevolence is enjoined upon us, even so far as to supplicate God for our enemies and to beseech blessings on our persecutors. Matthew 5.44 Who, then are greater enemies and persecutors of Christians, than the very parties with treason against whom we are charged? Nay, even in terms, and most clearly, the scripture says, “pray for kings, and rulers, and powers, that all may be peace with you.” 1 Timothy 2.2 for when there is disturbance in the Empire, if the commotion is felt by it’s other members, surely we too, though we are not thought to be given to disorder, are to be found in some place or other which the calamity affects.” Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 31 (Emphasis supplied.)
Powerful! Powerful! THIS is Tertullian’s voice. Here we do not find a voice dissenting against some sect of pacifism within Christianity with an argument of justified violence instead. What we find is that Tertullian is here leveling the early Church’s actual Pacifism as one of his greatest apologetics of how Christianity is not against Rome. Beautiful!
Now this next one is long, and I apologize, but I share it so you can truly get a flavor for where Tertullian really was in his headspace on this, and I have to include the whole thing so you can see it’s not taken out of context. This is from a different volume of work by Tertullian, The Chaplet or De Corona. Some have argued that in this work Tertullian argues against Christians in military service simply because of the “religious” allegiance to Caesar that would be involved. And although Tertullian uses that argument as well, it is not used exclusively, but in addition to Tertullian’s use of Christian Pacifism as a reason Christians should not enter the military.
“To begin with the real ground of the military crown [pagan religious implications], I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians. What sense is there in discussing the merely accidental, when that on which it rests is to be condemned? Do we believe it lawful for a human oath to be superadded to one divine, for a man to come under promise to another master after Christ, and to abjure father, mother, and all nearest kinsfolk, whom even the law has commanded us to honour and love next to God Himself, to whom the Gospel, too, holding them only of less account than Christ, has in like manner rendered honour? 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? And 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? Shall he, forsooth, either keep watch-service for others more than for Christ, or shall he do it on the Lord’s day, when he does not even do it for Christ Himself? And shall he keep guard before the temples, which he has renounced? And shall he take a meal where the apostle has forbidden him? [Yes, this is a religions argument, but please note it is in addition to the pacifist arguments he used previously, not instead of.] And shall he diligently protect by night those whom in the day-time he has put to flight by his exorcisms, leaning and resting on the spear the while with which Christ’s side was pierced? Shall he carry a flag, too, hostile to Christ? And shall he ask a watchword from the emperor who has already received one from God? Shall he be disturbed in death by the trumpet of the trumpeter, who expects to be aroused by the angel’s trump? And shall the Christian be burned according to camp rule, when he was not permitted to burn incense to an idol, when to him Christ remitted the punishment of fire? Then how many other offences there are involved in the performances of camp offices, which we must hold to involve a transgression of God’s law, you may see by a slight survey. The very carrying of the name over from the camp of light to the camp of darkness is a violation of it. Of course, if faith comes later, and finds any preoccupied with military service, [Those who embrace Christ while already serving in the military!] their case is different, as in the instance of those whom John used to receive for baptism, and of those most faithful centurions, I mean the centurion whom Christ approves, and the centurion whom Peter instructs; yet, at the same time, when a man has become a believer, and faith has been sealed, there must be either an immediate abandonment of it, which has been the course with many [He said many, not all, we’ll mention more about this in a moment]; or all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God, and that is not allowed even outside of military service; or, last of all, for God the fate must be endured which a citizen-faith has been no less ready to accept. Neither does military service hold out escape from punishment of sins, or exemption from martyrdom. Nowhere does the Christian change his character. There is one gospel, and the same Jesus, who will one day deny every one who denies, and acknowledge every one who acknowledges God,—who will save, too, the life which has been lost for His sake; but, on the other hand, destroy that which for gain has been saved to His dishonour. With Him the faithful citizen is a soldier, just as the faithful soldier is a citizen. A state of faith admits no plea of necessity; they are under no necessity to sin, whose one necessity is, that they do not sin. For if one is pressed to the offering of sacrifice and the sheer denial of Christ by the necessity of torture or of punishment, yet discipline does not connive even at that necessity; because there is a higher necessity to dread denying and to undergo martyrdom, than to escape from suffering, and to render the homage required. In fact, an excuse of this sort overturns the entire essence of our sacrament, removing even the obstacle to voluntary sins; for it will be possible also to maintain that inclination is a necessity, as involving in it, forsooth, a sort of compulsion. I have, in fact, disposed of this very allegation of necessity with reference to the pleas by which crowns [taking place in the pagan religious ceremonies connected with being a soldier] connected with official position are vindicated, in support of which it is in common use, since for this very reason offices must be either refused, that we may not fall into acts of sin, or martyrdoms endured that we may get quit of offices. Touching this primary aspect of the question, as to the unlawfulness even of a military life itself, I shall not add more, that the secondary question may be restored to its place. Indeed, if, putting my strength to the question, I banish from us the military life, I should now to no purpose issue a challenge on the matter of the military crown. [the aspect of being a Roman soldier that demands loyalty to pagan religious elements as well].” – Tertullian, The Chaplet, or De Corona, chapter 11
Wow, powerful again! But I want you to note that Tertullian does mention Christians in the military service of Rome who came to Christ while already in the military. This posed a special problem for the early church. This was not something looked on as something acceptable because they weren’t pacifists, but as a problem because they were!
What is a Soldier to do who comes to Christ while already serving in Rome’s Military?
Tertullian offers one solution above, “martyrdom endured that we may get quit of offices.” Tertullian was offering one solution of even being willing to embrace death so as not to continue serving in Rome’s militia. So far, I stand by my statement that within Christianity for the first three hundred years, there is not one dissenting voice among the Church leaders. They could disagree on anything and everything, but on this, they were unified with one voice. The accounts we find of Christians in the military during this time are simple examples of the Church wrestling with how to apply Jesus’ peace teachings rather than just abandon them. An example of this is found within some churches today that hold the position that if someone is drafted into military service, they should take the classification of non-combatants. The early church had to face this same dilemma. Beginning in the later part of the second century, we find indentured slaves who were Soldiers, who were required to be in the military in the place of an owner or an owner’s son, who came to Jesus while in the military. What are they to do? That is the dilemma. I’m submitting THAT is why we find Christians in Rome’s military. Not because they subscribed to redemptive violence, but because their pacifism was winning over the world, even Roman Soldiers. We’ll see this is quite evident in our next passage from Tertullian. I know this is long, but bear with me. It’s worth the time in the end. This is the statement many who subscribe to participating in “redemptive violence” use to prove Christians were in the military. Let’s look at the context. This, again, is from Tertullian’s Apology, His defense of Christianity to the Emperor.
“To say a word about the origin of laws of the kind to which we now refer, there was an old decree that no god should be consecrated by the emperor till first approved by the Senate. Marcus Æmilius had experience of this in reference to his god Alburnus. And this, too, makes for our case, that among you divinity is allotted at the judgment of human beings. Unless gods give satisfaction to men, there will be no deification for them: the god will have to propitiate the man. Tiberius accordingly, in whose days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from Palestine of events which had clearly shown the truth of Christ’s divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favour of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Cæsar held to his opinion, threatening wrath against all accusers of the Christians. Consult your histories; you will there find that Nero was the first who assailed with the imperial sword the Christian sect, making progress then especially at Rome. But we glory in having our condemnation hallowed by the hostility of such a wretch. For any one who knows him, can understand that not except as being of singular excellence did anything bring on it Nero’s condemnation. Domitian, too, a man of Nero’s type in cruelty, tried his hand at persecution; but as he had something of the human in him, he soon put an end to what he had begun, even restoring again those whom he had banished. Such as these have always been our persecutors,—men unjust, impious, base, of whom even you yourselves have no good to say, the sufferers under whose sentences you have been wont to restore. But among so many princes from that time to the present day, with anything of divine and human wisdom in them, point out a single persecutor of the Christian name. So far from that, we, on the contrary, bring before you one who was their protector, as you will see by examining the letters of Marcus Aurelius, that most grave of emperors, in which he bears his testimony that that Germanic drought was removed by the rains obtained through the prayers of the Christians who chanced to be fighting under him [Tertullian uses the word here “chanced”. Again, beginning in the late second century, between 161-180, we find indentured Soldiers who were in Rome’s military because it was required of them by law and while in the military they became Christians. What’s also notable, is that these Christians were now praying once again for their enemies (Rome) so that they might have water to end their drought. This is in perfect harmony with Paul’s words in Romans 12, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12.20) Also, please see Marcus Aurelius’ own report of this event, at the end of this eSight. This is the actual report from the Emperor himself of the occurrence Tertullian is here mentioning. It is clear from Aurelius’ own words that these soldiers were something similar to what we, today, would call “consciencious objectors” or “non-combatants.”*] And as he did not by public law remove from Christians their legal disabilities, [possibly a status similar to our today’s “conscientious objector”] yet in another way he put them openly aside [exempt], even adding a sentence of condemnation, and that of greater severity, against their accusers. What sort of laws are these which the impious alone execute against us—and the unjust, the vile, the bloody, the senseless, the insane? which Trajan to some extent made naught by forbidding Christians to be sought after; which neither a Hadrian, though fond of searching into all things strange and new, nor a Vespasian, though the subjugator of the Jews, nor a Pius, nor a Verus, ever enforced? It should surely be judged more natural for bad men to be eradicated by good princes as being their natural enemies, than by those of a spirit kindred with their own.” Tertullian, Apology, Ch 5 (Emphasis supplied.)
I’ll end our section on Tertullian with Tertullian’s most famous passage from his work Apology.
“In that last section, decision may seem to have been given likewise concerning military service, which is between dignity and power. But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments. 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 masters—God and Cæsar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. [these same arguments, by the way, are being used today.] But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action.” Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 19 (Emphasis supplied.)
Powerful, powerful, powerful. I’m blown away. Now wait, don’t get carried away. Could there have been some Christians, who rebelled against the church’s teaching, and joined the military of their own volition? I’m sure that’s possible. (I don’t know how probable though.) But stop and consider alone the oath to Caesar a Roman soldier would have to make to even join the military. Upon enlisting, a Soldier would have to swear allegiance to their Lord and Savior, Caesar, emperor of Rome. This alone, calls into question how truly representative that person is of the church at that time. Again, so far as the evidence we do have, we have no evidence of Christians voluntarily joining Rome’s militia. Again, we find, among the leaders of the Christian church during this time, not one dissenting voice.
Now let us turn our attention to Origen’s statements, previously used by those who subscribe to participating in redemptive violence, but include context. These are taken form Origen’s Against Celsus. Celsus was actually leveling arguments against Christians because they were refusing to serve in the military. Here is Origen’s response. Again, for honesty and transparencies sake, I want to include a good portion of the context, but that makes this passage really long. Please bear with me.
“Our noble opponent, however, not observing how many philosophers there are who admit the existence of Providence, and who hold that Providence created all things for the sake of rational beings, overturns as far as he can those doctrines which are of use in showing the harmony that prevails in these matters between Christianity and philosophy; nor does he see how great is the injury done to religion from accepting the statement that before God there is no difference between a man and an ant or a bee, [this is the contextual argument of this section] but proceeds to add, that “if men appear to be superior to irrational animals on this account, that they have built cities, and make use of a political constitution, and forms of government, and sovereignties, this is to say nothing to the purpose, for ants and bees do the same. Bees, indeed, have a sovereign, who has followers and attendants; and there occur among them wars and victories, and slaughterings of the vanquished, and cities and suburbs, and a succession of labours, and judgments passed upon the idle and the wicked; for the drones are driven away and punished.” Now here he did not observe the difference that exists between what is done after reason and consideration, and what is the result of an irrational nature, and is purely mechanical. For the origin of these things is not explained by the existence of any rational principle in those who make them, because they do not possess any such principle; but the most ancient Being, who is also the Son of God, and the King of all things that exist, has created an irrational nature, which, as being irrational, acts as a help to those who are deemed worthy of reason. Cities, accordingly, were established among men, with many arts and well-arranged laws; while constitutions, and governments, and sovereignties among men are either such as are properly so termed, and which exemplify certain virtuous tendencies and workings, or they are those which are improperly so called, and which were devised, so far as could be done, in imitation of the former: for it was by contemplating these that the most successful legislators established the best constitutions, and governments, and sovereignties. None of these things, however, can be found among irrational animals, although Celsus may transfer rational names, and arrangements which belong to rational beings, as cities and constitutions, and rulers and sovereignties, even to ants and bees; in respect to which matters, however, ants and bees merit no approval, because they do not act from reflection. 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.” – Origen, Against Celsus (Who was criticizing Christians for not participating in military service) Chapter 81
Next Origen writes:
”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. But the bees have no cities or suburbs; while their hives and hexagonal cells, and succession of labours, are for the sake of men, who require honey for many purposes, both for cure of disordered bodies, and as a pure article of food. Nor ought we to compare the proceedings taken by the bees against the drones with the judgments and punishments inflicted on the idle and wicked in cities. But, as I formerly said, we ought on the one hand in these things to admire the divine nature, and on the other to express our admiration of man, who is capable of considering and admiring all things (as co-operating with Providence), and who executes not merely the works which are determined by the providence of God, but also those which are the consequences of his own foresight.” – Origen, Against Celsus (Who was criticizing Christians for not participating in military service) Chapter 82
In this statement Origen is arguing for differences between man and beast. One of the differences he suggests is the nature of war between bees and humans. If anything, this statement is a plea to become more humane in how war is carried out. This is, apologetically, the most we can make of this statement. Nowhere is Origen even concerned with the pacifism vs. redemptive violence debate. On the contrary, he is speaking to someone who is criticizing Christians for not participating in war. Origen is defending, at most, looking at bees to understand, “perhaps” how wars, if they are deemed necessary by the Roman empire, should even be carried out. I want to remind us this week of what I said in part nine. (I believe I actually said this twice.) Jesus’ peace teachings, and therefore Christian Pacifism is not a condemnation of war for wars sake alone. It is not a call to Governments to become more peaceful. It is a call to those who are claiming to follow Jesus to become more peaceful. The early church was not concerned with attacking “war” per say, on the basis of war alone. No, they were concerned with those who were bearing Christ’s name ever participating in war. This distinction is missed by so many, so often, who subscribe to Christians participating in some sort of redemptive violence, that one wonders if some are doing it on purpose. This was Paul’s counsel in Romans 13. Civil powers are to wield, at times, the sword. But Paul is very clear in Romans 12 and 13 both, that although we are not to condemn a civil authority for wielding the sword, neither are we to enlist and participate with that authority in wielding the sword. It is a position of neither condemnation nor participation. This is not to say that the sword cannot be used in ways that are unjust. And in those cases, that specific wielding of the sword could be condemned, but wielding the sword, just on the basis of sword wielding alone, was neither condemned, nor participated in by the early church. This is what made the early church pacifists; their refusal to participate in war. To make Origen’s words above mean that Origen believed in and taught that it is acceptable for Christians to participate in redemptive violence is a “taking a statement out of context” to a degree that challenges the integrity of any who would use it in this manner. This becomes overwhelmingly evident when one looks at exactly what Origen has written just a few chapters earlier:
“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, Against Celsus, chapter 73 (Emphasis Added.)
Wow!!!! Again, these words are so powerful. Neither condemnation for wielding the sword, nor participation in wielding the sword. They would pray, but they would not fight. This is Christian Pacifism as defined by Jesus, Paul, the Apostles, and the Early Church Fathers. Again, Jesus’ peace teachings are not aimed at telling a kingdom of this world how to govern its affairs, but rather how those who bear Christ’s name are to live. We, just like the early church, abstain from killing simply because it was commanded by our Lord Jesus.
Before the above passage, Origen wrote the following in Chapter 26. This is the most powerfully written passage on why Christians refused to wield the sword against Rome’s enemies.
“However, if we must refer briefly to the difference between the constitution which was given to the Jews of old by Moses, and that which the Christians, under the direction of Christ’s teaching, wish now to establish, we would observe that it must be impossible for the legislation of Moses, taken literally, to harmonize with the calling of the Gentiles, and with their subjection to the Roman government; and on the other hand, it would be impossible for the Jews to preserve their civil economy unchanged, supposing that they should embrace the Gospel. For Christians could not slay their enemies, or condemn to be burned or stoned, as Moses commands, those who had broken the law, and were therefore condemned as deserving of these punishments; since the Jews themselves, however desirous of carrying out their law, are not able to inflict these punishments. 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. And that same providence which of old gave the law, and has now given the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not wishing the Jewish state to continue longer, has destroyed their city and their temple: it has abolished the worship which was offered to God in that temple by the sacrifice of victims, and other ceremonies which He had prescribed. And as it has destroyed these things, not wishing that they should longer continue, in like manner it has extended day by day the Christian religion, so that it is now preached everywhere with boldness, and that in spite of the numerous obstacles which oppose the spread of Christ’s teaching in the world. But since it was the purpose of God that the nations should receive the benefits of Christ’s teaching, all the devices of men against Christians have been brought to nought; for the more that kings, and rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more have they increased in number and grown in strength.” Origen, Against Celsus, chapter 26 (Emphasis supplied.)
Origen was clear. Yes, in the Old Testament, violence was not only permitted, but commanded. But now, something different has come. God, in the person of Jesus, has come. The law was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth has come from Jesus. God did speak through the prophets in different ways in the past, but now He has spoken to us through His Son who is the exact revelation of what God is really like. John said, after seeing Jesus, truly no one had ever even seen God until Jesus. Strip away all the concessions and accommodations of the Old Testament, and you get a God who looks like Jesus. (John 1, Hebrews 1, and part 7 of this series)
Again, even if all of this weren’t true, even if the early church were not pacifists, my arguments for embracing Christian Pacifism are not based on their history. It’s based on the actual teachings of Jesus Himself. It just so happens that the early Church, for the first three hundred years, without one dissenting voice got it! Can you take certain records and statements out of context and bend them to say otherwise? Sure. Always. I’m submitting this week, that for 1700 years, on the whole, the world has not seen Jesus as a result of our embracing and participation in, as Christians, some form or another of redemptive violence. Before Jesus can return to this world, we must allow Him to return to those who bear His name.
“Behold I stand at the door and knock.” Revelation 3.20
I know this was long. I’ll shut up now.
Much to ponder.
Go build the Kingdom.
I love you guys,
See you next week.
* Epistle of Marcus Aurelius to the senate, in which he testifies that the Christians were the cause of his victory.
“Having then examined my own position, and my host, with respect to the vast mass of barbarians and of the enemy, I quickly betook myself to prayer to the gods of my country. But being disregarded by them, I summoned those who among us go by the name of Christians. And having made inquiry, I discovered a great number and vast host of them, and raged against them, which was by no means becoming; for afterwards I learned their power. Wherefore they began the battle, not by preparing weapons, nor arms, nor bugles; for such preparation is hateful to them, on account of the God they bear about in their conscience. Therefore it is probable that those whom we suppose to be atheists, have God as their ruling power entrenched in their conscience. For having cast themselves on the ground, they prayed not only for me, but also for the whole army as it stood, that they might be delivered from the present thirst and famine. For during five days we had got no water, because there was none; for we were in the heart of Germany, and in the enemy’s territory. And simultaneously with their casting themselves on the ground, and praying to God (a God of whom I am ignorant), water poured from heaven, upon us most refreshingly cool, but upon the enemies of Rome a withering hail. And immediately we recognised the presence of God following on the prayer —a God unconquerable and indestructible. Founding upon this, then, let us pardon such as are Christians, lest they pray for and obtain such a weapon against ourselves. And I counsel that no such person be accused on the ground of his being a Christian. But if any one be found laying to the charge of a Christian that he is a Christian, I desire that it be made manifest that he who is accused as a Christian, and acknowledges that he is one, is accused of nothing else than only this, that he is a Christian; but that he who arraigns him be burned alive. And I further desire, that he who is entrusted with the government of the province shall not compel the Christian, who confesses and certifies such a matter, to retract; neither shall he commit him. And I desire that these things be confirmed by a decree of the Senate. And I command this my edict to be published in the Forum of Trajan, in order that it may be read. The prefect Vitrasius Pollio will see that it be transmitted to all the provinces round about, and that no one who wishes to make muse of or to possess it be hindered from obtaining a copy from the document I now publish.” (Emphasis supplied.)