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Early Christians on Pacifism and Military Force

There is a persistent claim that the early Christians were pacifists—in the strong sense of being opposed to all use of violence—and that it was not until the time of the Emperor Constantine that this began to change.

After Christianity became the official religion of the empire, the Church embraced the use of military force, with St. Augustine playing the part of the enabling villain, who came up with the idea of the just war.

This story plays with well-worn tropes: the fall from original innocence into corruption, the idea that Constantine corrupted the Church, that the Christianization of the empire was a bad thing, etc.

You may notice that these same tropes are often used in anti-Catholic apologetics stemming from the Protestant Reformation. That’s not surprising, since these tropes were needed to justify separation from the Church at the time of the Reformation.

It’s also not surprising that, relying on these same tropes, the denominations that historically have been strongly pacifistic stemmed from the Protestant community.

Most Protestants, of course, are not pacifists and recognize the legitimate use of military force, and there is a good reason for that: Protestants are the majority in many countries, just as Catholics are in others, and so they have been confronted with the task of ensuring the safety of their nations.

No nation can be safe if it is unwilling to use military force to defend itself. If, in the present, fallen state of the world, a nation were to suddenly renounce the use of military force and beat its swords into ploughshares, it would suffer a dire fate.

Either:

  • It would be conquered by its external enemies,
  • Its internal, criminal element would overrun it and turn it into a failed state,
  • Its more sensible-minded citizens would stage a coup and re-establish a government willing to use force to defend the nation, or
  • It would depend for its defense on another country that is less scrupulous about the use of force.

Any way you go, pacifism is not a stable, self-sustaining enterprise. It’s a dangerous world out there, and pacifists depend for their safety and security on the generosity and good will of non-pacifists.

Prior to the Christianization of the Roman empire, many Christians were not faced with the responsibility of defending the public and ensuring public order. As a result, some authors of this period had the luxury of entertaining pacifistic ideals without having to worry about keeping people safe.

But were they all in this condition? What about those Christians who were in the military?

What about the era of the New Testament itself? What attitude toward military service did it take?

Is the idea of a uniformly pacifist early Church accurate? Or does it distort what actually happened?

 

Written by Jimmy Akin










6 comments

  1. Kurt Hansen Reply

    You don’t actually counter the claim of early Christians being pacifists. In fact, you admit it at the end but say it was only possible because of the Roman military kept the peace. You argument is that no nation could reject violence and survive. Well, God is the God of surprises…Costa Rica eliminated its military in 1948, and it’s still around. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_of_Costa_Rica.

    Instead, maybe you should consider that Jesus really, really meant what he said about loving your neighbor. That it is simply not possible to love someone while putting a bullet through his or her heart. Or, that you should not objectify a whole group of people just because a subset decide to wage war. It seems the followers who were separated from him the least in terms of time and the temptations of living “in the real world” chose pacifism, an attitude that was counter to Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultural beliefs of the day.

    1. shellmcfarny Reply

      Do you have a child? What would you do if some intruder attacked your wife or children? Would you do anything to stop them or simply turn the other cheek? Would you offer them cookies and tea?

    2. Tom Parnow Reply

      Costa Rica’s protection stems from its contract with the USA to provide for its military defense. Also using just one country in the entire history of the world is a flawed example of success,

  2. Tom Grasso Reply

    I’d say you are forgetting THAT THE MAN THIS FAITH IS SUPPOSEDLY BASED ON WAS A PACIFIST. What came after him should be irrelevant in the minds, practices and beliefs of those who call themselves “Christians”.

    And what was happening during Jesus’ time is also fairly irrelevant in this discussion. Jesus supposedly existed to change things, not to keep the status quo.

    The reason you consider those things “tropes” is because truth is often recited as fact many times over. Constantine distorted the Catholic Church, created the canonical bible, and basically used the religion to solidify his power and attempts at world domination. These aren’t stories, they are historical facts. As are the facts of the forced subjugation of indigenous peoples under the Cross.

    Military service does not mesh with the actual teachings of Jesus, even after Constantine bastardized those teachings in Nicaea. You can’t be a Christian who “turns the other cheek” and “puts away the sword” and serve in an institution whose only mission it is to do just the opposite. That is unless you’re a Catholic, which means you can pretty much do with you want as long as you go to confession.

  3. Les Martin Reply

    Jesus healed the centurion’s servant, he made no implications nor did he indicate that the centurion should not be a soldier. When questioned by a soldier, John did not tell him to quit being a soldier, he told him to obey those over him, be content with his pay and don’t take advantage of others.

  4. J.P. Moskal Reply

    I have just seen a video of 21 Coptic Christians getting beheaded for their faith. In the video, the murderers say they are coming after the people of the Cross in Rome. There has never been a time or such a warning for Christian unity to pursue the freedom of religion as there is right now. The issue of pacfism and the teachings of Christ never lay down a prohibition against Christians defending themselves or their lives. We are, however, expected to die for our faith if the situation demands it. Christ said that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. In that it reaffirms the validity and Old Testament to me personally, and there have been numerous instances where G** expects faith and adherence to His laws and ensures His aid. We cannot and should not allow the ideas of pacifism to permeate the soul of the Church where we might one day find our resolve and faith tested. The medevil butchery is expanding around the world like a metastasizing cancer. It could very well be that this evil exists as a test of our faith for if we continue to permit it to exist then we may very well have failed that test. If we did not fight evil in the past then we very well might not exist today.

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