The Early Church on War and Violence

Who can deny we live in a world that is always experiencing war somewhere? We're inundated with reports from far away war lands, complete with images of the most brutal savagery humanly possible. And yet, many who consider themselves disciples of Jesus will cheer on from the comfort of their family room or favorite pub as politicians rattle their sabers and threaten yet another violent conflict over issues that could be resolved in other ways. This brings up good questions. Can we as disciples of Jesus support war? Is it wrong for a disciple to support his country by participating in war? While there are a wide variety of opinions on this topic, if we look to the teachings of Jesus and the practices of the early church, the answer to this question is very clear. 

The Kingdom and the World
The focus of the gospel is the Kingdom of God. Jesus made a clear distinction between His kingdom and those kingdoms of this world. In addressing Pontius Pilate he said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight....." (John 18:36) Jesus didn't encourage His followers to fight, to strike out in an insurrection. He had no concern for the kingdoms of this world. His disciples are citizens of His kingdom- a divine, peaceful kingdom.

"It is not in war, but in peace that we are trained."- Irenaeus

The kingdoms of this world aren't divine in origin, godly in culture, nor peaceful in nature. Even in the United States, where we possess certain freedoms, we can't say this is a Christian or anything near a godly nation. Our government is corrupt, our culture degenerate, and our people increasingly immoral and aggressively anti-biblical. As we've seen, Leftists have made disciples a target of political and social persecution, dragging us into courts for living by our faith, while praising all things that work against it. It can therefore be difficult to live in a nation whose laws and values are inherently worldly while remaining faithful to the standards of God’s Kingdom. Are such worldly kingdoms really worth dying for?

For a disciple living in the United States, which affords us at least the idea of freedom of religion, it is easy to be influenced by and adopt many of the same principles as the surrounding culture. It is easy to fall into the cheering  crowds when a foreign "enemy" gets trounced by our military, all in the name of freedom and liberty. In reality, however, all governments are guilty of the same thing they attack others for. None has a moral high ground. And there is no biblical promise that any government anywhere will be what we would like it to be-not even the United States.

As Jesus teaches in The Sermon on the Mount: 

"You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also. And whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks you, and from him who wants to borrow from you do not turn away." (Matthew 5:38-42) 

Disciples are called to a submission of our own will to that of God by embracing a peaceful approach to life and its conflicts. This biblical concept of submission was not only foreign to ancient Israel, but is also foreign to modern Americans, whose nation is, like it or not, founded on rebellion. This teaching of non-violence was not conditional, but was commanded under all circumstances – no matter how evil the oppressor – even to the point of slavery.

"Servants, be subject to your Masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the unjust." (1 Peter 2:18). 

Love Your Enemy
We're not simply to be non-violent, but we have to love our enemies: 

"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)

Christ isn't making this easy on us, but demands not only that we refuse to retaliate, but also to love and pray for those who abuse us. This leaves no room for vengeance.

The Apostle Paul elaborates on this: 

"Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord. Therefore 'If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." (Romans 12:17-20) 

We are to be a people of peace.

"Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord." (Hebrews 12:14) 

While God expects us to be a people of peace, our culture values war, patriotism, and rebellion. Let's be honest, the beatitudes aren't pronounced on patriots, warmongers, and conquerors but on peacemakers, on whom is conferred the greatest blessing, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God." (Matthew 5:9)

The only war disciples face and are encouraged to fight is a spiritual one.

"Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand." (Ephesians 6:10-13) 

"For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds." (II Corinthians 10:3-4) 

Just as the teachings of our Savior on the Law challenged and called Israel to higher standards, so His teachings on non-violence, peace, and loving enemies challenge us today. 

Isaiah's Prophecy
Jesus is fulfilling Isaiah’s prophesy:

"He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore." (Isaiah 2:4). 

Writing on this verse, Tertullian tells us:

"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....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 peaceful actions of plowing and cultivating the land."- Tertullian

Although God had permitted war in times past, the early Christians understood that it was God’s ultimate plan to do away with it and bring peace through Christ. This is fulfilled first in the lives of those who are His disciples. The early church carried on this Apostolic Tradition of non-violence. They didn't consider participating in war a "necessary evil" as many Christians do today. They understood what Paul wrote: 

"Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21) 

Some examples are in order:

"An enemy must be aided, so that he may not continue as an enemy. For by help, good feeling is compacted and enmity dissolved."- Clement of Alexandria

"If, then, we are commanded to love our enemies, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become just as bad ourselves."- Tertullian

"The Christians does no harm, even to his enemy."-Tertullian

"God put his prohibition on every sort of man killing.."- Tertullian

My Patriotic Duty
As a former soldier and a present disciple, I think the most convincing argument against a Christian being in the military is the fact that you must fight against an innocent person. The men that fight are not the men that cause war. Furthermore, he may be a fellow Christian, which means you're murdering another disciple of Christ. Tertullian gives us the perspective of the early church:

"Now inquiry is made about the point of whether a believer may enter military service. The questions is also asked whether those in the military may be admitted into the faith-even the rank and file, who are not required to take part in sacrifices or capital punishments...A man cannot give his allegiance to two masters- God and Caesar. 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 instructions for their conduct. It is also true that a centurion believed. Nevertheless, the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier."

Lactantius adds his voice.

"How can a man be just who hates, who despoils, who puts to death? Yet those who strive to be serviceable to their country, do all these things...When they speak of the "duties" relating to warfare, their speech pertains neither to justice nor true virtue."

Despite these strong beliefs, we don't have an excuse to neglect our duty to the government and leaders that God has put over us. Paul writes: 

"Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence." (I Timothy 2:1-2) 

Our responsibility, our "patriotic duty", is to be "salt" and "light", and to pray for our nations and its leaders, not to cheer them on as they engage in violence.

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