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.
- 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