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The Church Ethic
Christianity and War
Christianity and War (Continued)
Bless America: Patriotic Christianity
many centuries the Christian world has long accepted that
the Church (as a body and as individuals) may participate
in and wage war so long as that war is a just one. This article
will challenge this accepted position of the modern Church
by demonstrating that this doctrine is not only without support
in the New Testament, but in complete contradiction of the
teachings of Jesus Christ and the traditions passed on by
his apostles, which formed the basis of the Christian faith.
Additionally, some time will be spent confirming the pacifist
nature of New Testament teaching through the writings of the
early, orthodox Church from the first two and a half centuries
after the New Testament was recorded.
As we begin, let us first clarify the argument before us.
There are few within the Church that would seriously contend
that violence is a divinely sanctioned option regarding matters
of a personal nature. To the contrary, the testimony of the
innumerable martyrs of the first, second, and third century
Church leave little doubt that the early Church was taught
by the Apostles that violence was prohibited from the Christian
life even as a means of redressing or averting personal injustice
Yet despite this historic witness some today are comfortable
suggesting that violence, even by an individual may be permissible
under some dire circumstances. Yet despite this historic witness
some today are comfortable suggesting that violence, even
by an individual may be permissible under some dire circumstances.
However, Jesus' own words, recorded in Matthew 5:38-39 clearly
Matthew 5:38 Ye have heard that it hath been said,
An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: 39 But
I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall
smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.
In this passage Jesus clearly replaces the previous code with
a new command. The concept of the rule "an eye for an eye,
and a tooth for a tooth" is that it is acceptable to repay
injustice and injury in like kind. Yet, by contrasting his
new rule with this old rule, it is clear that Jesus is forbidding
responding with violence to matters of personal injustice
or injury. Jesus is explicitly advocating pacifism on the
part of his followers in the face of violence and injustice.
That this is exactly what Jesus meant is overwhelmingly confirmed
by the widespread martyrdom of the early Church, who took
Jesus' statements to mean just that.
Those who would suggest that violence is permissible by an
individual Christian under various injustices or threats should
better consider the plight of the martyred Church. For what
injustice or wrong suffered can be conceived which would be
greater than that to which they so willingly succumbed? One
only need read the stories of these persons and the descriptions
of the methods of their demise to recognize that theirs was
the most difficult of trials, the most horrible of injustices.
Given this, what is the modern Christian to think of such
persons and their compelling sacrifice? Should we attribute
such undying faithfulness to unfortunate doctrinal error?
Would we label their selfless devotion a kind, but gratuitous
and unnecessary display? Perhaps if only they had known that
God would also have been pleased and well-served by their
violent resistance they might have saved themselves and so
many of their loved ones.
Such second-guessing would be far beyond inappropriate. Yet
to suggest that violence is an acceptable Christian option
when faced with injustice is to second-guess countless early
Christian martyrs. And for what reason?
Should we also suppose that the faith of those who heard the
teaching of Jesus from the mouths of the Apostles is inadequate
and inferior to our own who after nearly two millennia now
would correct their misunderstanding? Should we applaud their
martyrdom as an honor to our Lord, while at the same time
declaring that if we were faced with such circumstances we
would fight back in Jesus' name? Can such contradictory responses
both be legitimately found within the same faith? Absolutely
Modern Christians must recognize that the early Church was
in a much better position to know the true Christian doctrine
on violence and injustice. As such we can only take their
proximity to the Apostles combined with their universal conduct
for over two centuries as compelling evidence that personal
pacifism even in the face of grave injustice and injury was
the Apostolic teaching handed down to the Church from Jesus
through his disciples from the earliest times. To now consider
whether this is not so is to consider deviating from Jesus'
Regardless of what we in the twentieth century might make
of it, it is certain that the earliest Church, the church
that sat under the instructions of the Apostles, clearly understood
that Jesus' instructions to "turn the other cheek" (Matthew
5:39, Luke 6:29) meant pacifism even in the face of great
personal injustice and injury.
This fact, is not only attested to by the innumerable martyrs
of the early Church, but also by their leaders, the post-apostolic
writers, who in some cases were discipled by the those who
penned the New Testament.
The consensus expressed in the writings and sentiments of
these men coupled with the widespread martyrdom and their
proximity in time to the Apostles can only confirm the universality
of the pacifist position, which in turn points to its origination
with Jesus and the Apostles.
Consider, the words of Ignatius, who in addition to being
a martyr himself, lived between 30-107 A.D., and was discipled
by John the Apostle.
"If thou lovest the good disciples, no thanks are due to thee
on that account; but rather seek by meekness to subdue the
more troublesome. Every kind of wound is not healed with the
same plaster. Mitigate violent attacks [of disease] by gentle
applications. (1) Be in all things "wise as a serpent,
and harmless as a dove." (2) For this purpose thou art
composed of both flesh and spirit, that thou mayest deal
tenderly (3) with those[evils] that present themselves
visibly before thee."
- Ignatius, CHAP.II.--EXHORTATIONS.
"For if the Lord were in the body in appearance only, and
were crucified in appearance only, then am I also bound in
appearance only. And why have I also surrendered myself
to death, to fire, to the sword, to the wild beasts? But,[in
fact,] I endure all things for Christ, not in appearance
only, but in reality, that I may suffer together with Him,
while He Himself inwardly strengthens me; for of myself I
have no such ability."
- Ignatius, CHAP. IV.--BEWARE OF THESE HERETICS.
Irenaeus, who lived in the second century (120-202 A.D.),
was the bishop of Lyons, and the author of a five volume work
under the title Against Heresies.
"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"
(Against the Heresies, Book 4)
Justin Martyr, a second century convert (110-165 A.D.) to
Christianity and a philosopher who wrote a work entitled Apology.
"And when the Spirit of prophecy speaks as predicting things
that are to come to pass, He speaks in this way: 'For out
of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from
Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall
rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into
ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation
shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they
learn war any more.' And that it did so come to pass, we can
convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world,
men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability
in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every
race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all
the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one
another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies,
but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly
die confessing Christ." (First Apology of Justin Martyr,
"We who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter,
and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth
changed our warlike weapons,-our swords into ploughshares,
and our spears into implements of tillage,-and we cultivate
piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which
we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified;
and sitting each under his vine, i.e., each man possessing
his own married wife." (Justin Martyr's dialogue with
Trypho the Jew, Chapter 109)
And concerning our being patient of injuries, and ready
to serve all, and free from anger, this is what He said: "To
him that smiteth thee on the one cheek, offer also the other;
and him that taketh away thy cloak or coat, forbid not. And
whosoever shall be angry, is in danger of the fire. And every
one that compelleth thee to go with him a mile, follow him
two. And let your good works shine before men, that they,
seeing them, may glorify your Father which is in heaven."(3)
For we ought not to strive; neither has He desired
us to be imitators of wicked men, but He has exhorted us
to lead all men, by patience and gentleness, from shame
and the love of evil. And this indeed is proved in the
case of many who once were of your way of thinking, but have
changed their violent and tyrannical disposition, being
overcome either by the constancy which they have witnessed
in their neighbours' lives,(4) or by the extraordinary forbearance
they have observed in their fellow-travellers when defrauded,
or by the honesty of those with whom they have transacted
business. CHAP. XVI.--CONCERNING PATIENCE AND SWEARING.
Tertullian, who lived during the second and third centuries
(145-220 A.D.) also makes some clear statements on the early
Christian view of military action.
"To begin with the real ground of the military crown, 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? ... Of course, if faith
comes later, and finds any preoccupied with military service,
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; 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 ... 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 Chaplet, or De Corona c.204 CE)
Now inquiry is made about the point of whether a believer
may enter into military service. The question is also asked
whether those in the military may be admitted into the faith
- even the rank and file (or any inferior grade), who are
not required to take part in sacrifices or capital punishments…A
man cannot give his allegiance to two masters - God and Ceasar…How
will a Christian man participate in war? In fact, how
will he serve even in peace without a sword? For the Lord
has taken the sword away. It is also true that soldiers
came to John [the Baptist] and received the instructions for
their conduct. It is true also that a centurion believed.
Nevertheless, the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, disarmed
every soldier. Tertullian
"Nation will not take up sword against nation, and they
will no more learn to fight." Who else, therefore does this
prophecy apply to, other than us? For we are fully taught
by the new law, and therefore observe these practices…The
teaching of the new law points to clemency. It changes the
primitive ferocity of swords and lances to tranquility. It
remodels the primitive execution of war upon the rivals and
enemies of the Law into the peaceful actions of plowing and
cultivating the land. Tertullian
In us, all ardor in the pursuit of glory and honor is dead.
So we have no pressing inducement to take part in your public
meetings. Nor is there anything more entirely foreign to
us than affairs of state. Tertullian
(NOTE: This final quote by Tertullian will be more relevant
when we consider the notion of Christian government later
on in this article.)
Athenogaras who wrote at around 177 A.D., also confirms ancient
"We have learned, not only not to return blow for blow,
nor to go to law with those who plunder and rob us, but to
those who smite us on one side of the face to offer the other
side also, and to those who take away our coat to give
likewise our cloak." (A Plea for the Christians)
And we can likewise, include remarks by Cyprian (200-258 A.D.)
and Lactantius of Bythynia (240-320 A.D.).
"But when beaten back as well by the faith as by the vigour
of the combined army, he perceived that the soldiers of Christ
are now watching, and stand sober and armed for the battle;
that they cannot be conquered, but that they can die; and
that by this very fact they are invincible, that they do not
fear death; that they do not in turn assail their assailants,
since it is not lawful for the innocent even to kill the
guilty; but that they readily deliver up both their lives
and their blood; that since such malice and cruelty rages
in the world, they may the more quickly withdraw from the
evil and cruel." (Epistle 56 to Cornelius)
The hand must not be spotted with the sword and blood -
not after the Eucharist is carried in it.
"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 neither
lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare
is justice itself, nor to accuse any one of a capital charge,
because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death
by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting
to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with
regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception
at all but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man,
whom God willed to be a sacred animal." (The Devine Institutues,
Book 6, Of True Worship)
- Lactantius of Bithynia
"What then, or where, or of what character is piety? Truly
it is among those who are ignorant of wars, who maintain
concord with all, who are friendly even to their enemies,
who love all men as brethren, who know how to restrain their
anger, and to soothe every passion of the mind with calm government."
(Of Devine Institutes, Book 5, Of Justice)
- Lactantius of Bithynia
Why would [the just man] carry on war and mix himself
with the passions of other when his mind is engaged in perpetual
peace with men? Would he be delighted with foreign merchandise
or with human blood - he who does not know how to seek gain?
For the Christian is satisfied with his standard of living.
He considers it unlawful not only to commit slaughter himself,
but also to be present with those who do it.
- Lactantius of Bithynia
(NOTE: While some of these writers may on some matters be
considered unorthodox, their consensus on this matter, does
confirm, that warfare was not acceptable to the Christian
Since, the New Testament, as well as the ancient Church (through
both martyrdom and written record) are prohibitive of violence
on the part of the individual (without regard for the justness
of the cause) where have we gotten the notion that the Church
(or other organized body of Christians) may employ violent
means to accomplish some just cause? Why do so many Christians
believe that the New Testament sanctions participation in
or even initiation of a just war?
Some may suggest that the New Testament, the early Church
writers, and the history of martyrdom in the early Church
are enough to establish that violence is unacceptable for
individual believers, but that the issue of corporate violence
is not so readily concluded. It is, of course true, that the
New Testament has very little to say directly about this matter
and in no place provides us an explicit statement for or against
a larger Church body engaging in or waging war.
However, if we seek to understand the Bible in the manner
it was meant to be understood, it is clear that corporately
sanctioned violence or war is just as unacceptable for the
Church as a larger body, as it is for individual believers.
Those that argue must answer this question. If one believer
should not resist injustice with violence, then how many believers
does it take before violent resistance is acceptable in Christ?
If one believer cannot resist injustice or injury with violence,
can two believers enact violence to prevent injustice or injury?
Surely, the answer is no without regard for the numbers involved.
The prohibition of violence upon individual believers in the
face of great injustice and injury sufficiently establishes
that no collection of individual believers is permitted to
wage violence (i.e. war) as a means to avert injustice or
To be sure, we must recognize that there are several instances
in the New Testament in which a soldier, or Roman centurion,
is commended by God. Matthew 8 and Luke 7 recount Jesus healing
the servant of a centurion and proclamation that he has not
seen faith like that of the centurion in Israel. In Acts 10
and 11, Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his household are
saved after an angel instructs him to send for the Apostle
Peter, who has likewise been instructed by God to go to them.
Clearly, then God draws soldiers to faith in Jesus Christ
and accepts them through Christ, just as the rest of us. And
the soldiers' life may be a violent one. But do these instances
mean that violence is acceptable to God? It is hard to see
how this could be the case.
Surely, these portions of the New Testament record were not
interpreted or taught that way to the early Church as we have
attested to earlier (see quote from Tertullian above). Yet
these passages do not condemn the soldiers lifestyle. Nor
do they state that any requirement was placed on the soldiers
to abandon their station.
The closest we come to such a requirement would be Luke 3
which records the instructions of John the Baptist to soldiers
who sought to live as God required.
Luke 3:14 And the soldiers likewise demanded of
him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them,
Do violence (1286) to no man, neither accuse [any]
falsely; and be content with your wages.
Taken in context and with attention to the Greek language
that is employed, the phrase "do violence to no man" speaks
of a ban on intimidation, perhaps with the idea of monetary
extortion in mind. So we do not have any New Testament passage,
which necessarily forbids military service.
We must be careful here. While it may be accurate to state
that the New Testament does not clearly state whether or not
soldiers were to lay down their arms in coming to Christ,
it is quite another thing to take this silence on this specific
matter to be a Biblical endorsement of Christian participation
in just warfare. To turn the absence of a New Testament statement
into a positive statement affirming the acceptability of violent
means would constitute one giant leap of logic to say the
But beyond the martyrs, we also have a few New Testament statements
that warrant at least a pause in the path of those who would
advocate Christian participation in just war (some of which
were quoted by the early Church writers we looked at above).
Matthew 26:51 And, behold, one of them which were with
Jesus stretched out [his] hand, and drew his sword, and struck
a servant of the high priest's, and smote off his ear. 52
Then said Jesus unto him, Put up again thy sword into his
place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with
the sword. 53 Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to
my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve
legions of angels? 54 But how then shall the scriptures be
fulfilled, that thus it must be?
Matthew 26 is not alone in recounting this event in Jesus'
arrest. In fact, all four gospels record it. What is interesting
to note is Jesus' reaction. He is clearly not in favor of
the action and instructs Peter to put away the sword.
We cannot take either of these statements as an explicit statement
against violence by Christians. Jesus' response in the Gospel
accounts can all be explained as a unique circumstance in
which violence was prohibited in order to allow for his death
and resurrection in redemption of mankind. However, prior
his crucifixion, Jesus explains his aversion to violence on
the part of his followers to Pilate.
John 18:36 Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this
world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my
servants fight (75), that I should not be delivered to
the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.
While Jesus' statement here need not be taken as a direct
reference to Peter's actions at his arrest it can confirm
one thing for us regarding his followers. It is clear from
Jesus' words to Pilate that he meant to contrast to the Roman
governor the manner of his followers from those of the political
powers that will proceed his coming kingdom. The specific
point Jesus is making is that unlike the political rulers
of this present age, his disciples do not resort to violent
means or earthly political measures as a method of accomplishing
God's will on earth.
And then there is Paul's epistle to the Romans. A debate of
the acceptability of warfare for the Church must always include
a discussion of Romans. However, far too many of these discussions
begin in chapter 13 of this epistle. Instead we will begin
with the closing verses of chapter 12.
Romans 12:17 Recompense to no man evil for evil.
Provide things honest in the sight of all men. 18 If
it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with
all men. 19 Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves,
but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance
is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. 20 Therefore if
thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink:
for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.
21 Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.
In Romans 12 Paul, who no doubt was very familiar with Jesus'
instructions on turning the other cheek, directs the Church
at Rome regarding justice in this world and violence. One
need not be a Greek linguist to understand Paul's words here.
Verse 17 states that we are not to repay any man evil for
evil. This includes, among other things, injurious or destructive
behavior. Then in verse 18, Paul tells us, that for our part,
we are to live peaceably with all men. Clearly, the phrase
"if it be possible, as much as lieth in you" is not intended
to be taken as avoid violence "unless you can't help it" or
"to a point."
Instead, Paul knew that believers would face persecution in
this world and that at times this persecution would be violent.
It is in this context that Paul is writing "do not repay evil
for evil" and "live peaceably with all men." By writing "if
it be possible, as much as lieth in you" Paul is acknowledging
that, as Christians, sometimes trouble will inevitably come
looking for us, and that there will be times when we will
be unable to avoid it. Yet, he instructs us, for our part,
to live at peace. In other words we are not to cause the violence,
or contribute to it when it occurs.
These instructions are in complete harmony with Jesus' command
to "turn the other cheek." With both Jesus and Paul advocating
non-resistance even in the face of physical harm and leading
by examples, its no wonder why martyrdom and not armed resistance
was the chosen path for a young Church facing brutal persecution.
That Paul is in reinforcing Jesus' instructions on this matter
can be seen in his next statement. In verse 19, Paul commands
us not to avenge ourselves. The word "avenge" does not carry
with it vigilante justice or anything done inappropriately,
out of anger, or outside of the law. The Greek word (Strong's
No. 1556) simply means to vindicate one's right, to do justice,
to protect or defend. It has legal and social justice in mind
under the law, not an act of revenge done outside of the law.
Yet, Paul instructs that we are not to do this. His teaching
is that even if the cause is just or has legal merit we should
forego reparation. Paul does not make exception for just cause,
but instead instructs us not to act even when justice is our
He goes on to state that we are to leave room for wrath, proving
all the more that it is legal and social justice that he has
in mind in this passage of his letter. The wrath Paul has
in mind is not one that we ourselves are to carry out. Instead,
the word for wrath that Paul uses is the Greek word "orge,"
which is also used in Romans 13:4, and which in both cases
speaks of the role of the government in matters of justice
and to have the legal authority to enforce the law and enact
punishment upon those who break it.
The relationship between these two passages must not be overlooked.
In them, Paul makes a clear distinction between members of
the Church and members of the government, between Christians
and those who have the power to make and uphold the laws of
a society. In verses 17-21 of chapter 12 he instructs believers
not to avenge themselves upon those who do evil to them, but
to leave room for wrath, which God is in charge of dispensing.
In verse 4 of chapter 13, Paul informs us that God's chosen
minister to be the avenger who executes wrath upon those who
do evil is the state (or civil government).
These two groups then are mutually exclusive and did not overlap
in Paul's view. The Church is not in charge of carrying out
justice in society, but is to stay out of it. On the other
hand, the state is God's means of dispensing justice. We must
note that Paul's directions in these chapters inherently depend
upon the recognition that Christians are not members of the
body that enacts or enforces the laws of a society.