“[W]hen God forbids killing, he is not only ordering us to avoid armed robbery, which is contrary even to public law, but he is forbidding what men regard as ethical. Thus, it is not right for a just man to serve in the army since justice itself is his form of service. Nor is it right for a just man to charge someone with a capital crime. It does not matter whether you kill a man with the sword or with a word since it is killing itself that is prohibited. And so there must be no exception to this command of God. Killing a human being whom God willed to be a sacred creature, is always wrong.” — Lactantius, Divine Institutes (~311 AD)
From Brandon Hurlbert:
After doing a little more digging, I decided to catalog these references and see if there was a pattern. Why was this aversion to killing, war, and military service so unanimous among the early Church Fathers? Here are a few things that I found:
1. No early Church Father approved of killing in any context. This belief was rooted in Jesus’ command to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:39-44) as it is frequently alluded to or quoted. It was both Jesus’ teaching and his example of the cross that provided the foundation for this nonviolent ethic of enemy-love.
2. The nonviolent response of Christians to persecution and defamation was seen as a fulfillment of prophecy and a major identity marker of following Jesus. (“We came in accordance with the commands of Jesus to beat the spiritual swords that fight and insult us into ploughshares, and to transform the spears that formerly fought against us in pruning-hooks.” Origen, Against Celsus 5.33).
3. The nonviolent response of Christians to persecution and defamation was often given as evidence of the value of Christianity to the Roman empire. It was argued that Christianity was making Rome more just and virtuous. This means that the enemy-love ethic had become a widespread way of living for Christians. If not, the arguments would fall flat in the face of opposing evidence.
4. The aversion to Christian military service is primarily a result of its commitment to enemy-love rather than a focus on idolatry. While the idolatry infused in the Roman military constituted by mandated sacrifices and the taking of a public oath (Sacramentum, the same word used for the Christian mystery and the sacraments), was a concern in the writings of the early Church, it was not the [issue.] Violence was the main source of contention as both issues are almost always addressed together. (To my knowledge, there are only two explicit instances, Tertullian The Crown 12.1 and Clement of Alexandria Commentary on 1 Cor. 26.98, which deal with Idolatry only. Various accounts of martyrdoms occurring in the military, especially Marcellus and Julius the Veteran, also only address the issue of idolatry.)
5. Military and war imagery within the Old and New Testaments were reused and reimagined by the Church Fathers to draw a distinction between the Church and the Empire. The early Christian community really did wage war, even on behalf of the emperor, but it was done in accordance to Scripture, like Ephesians 6:11-17. Armed with the word of God, prayer, and their nonviolent enemy-love, the Church fought against the spiritual forces of evil that were the source of violence and warfare. The imagery was retained, but it was clear that the Militi Christi was made of martyrs and those who prayed fervently for peace.
Hurlbert concludes, “Make no mistake, an ethic of nonviolence is not the gospel, but according to the early Church Fathers, it was the natural outworking of the gospel of peace.”
Further resources on Christian non-violence:
- Brian Zahnd, A Farewell to Mars: An Evangelical Pastor’s Journey Toward the Biblical Gospel of Peace (Amazon Canada, or Book Depository)
- Michael Gorman, Becoming the Gospel: Paul, Participation, and Mission (Amazon Canada, or Book Depository), especially chapters 5 & 6, “Becoming the Gospel of Peace”
- Bruxy Cavey, “Inglorious Pastors: Waging Peace in a World of War” (7-part series from The Meeting House)
- Rachel Stanton, “The Early Church on Violence“
- Ron Sider, “The Early Church on War and Killing“
- Brian Zahnd, “God Doesn’t Build His House By Violence“
- Greg Boyd, “Does the Bible teach total non-violence?” and “Following Jesus: Enemy-Loving Non-Violence” (multiple articles)
- John Piper, “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?“
- Preston Sprinkle, “A Case for Christocentric Nonviolence“
- Ben Witherington, “Enough of the sword play—- Luke 22.38“
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