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Nonviolence & The Early Church (Part 1 of 3)
““If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies … whom have we to hate?”
– Tertullian, Apology. Chap. 37
Throughout the Church’s history, there has been a lot of instances in which violence has been wielded through the arms of the church. The Crusades are one famous example of the church wielding violence, but there has also been a lot of violence being done in God’s name through governments that have a close relationship to the Church. The violence done in the name of God. Whether that be The Crusades, or nations which claimed that every action that they committed was the will of God. Regardless of if the violence came through the hands of the church, or through the hands of a country claiming to be doing the will of God, the resulting question remains: How does this align with Jesus, who is the fullness of God (Col. 2:9)?
When Nazi soldiers wore belt buckles that said “Gott Mit Uns”, meaning “God with us”, was that in the Will of God/Christ?
When the Crusaders fought in the name of God, through the arms of the church… was that in the Will of God/Christ?
Early Christians dealt with these issues as they found themselves, jews and gentiles, together united under a new faith. In his book, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, author and journalist Mark Kurlansky examines the idea of nonviolence through several cultures, and religions, and has this to say about the early church, pre-constantine, on the subject:
“For 284 years, roughly the same span of time as from the end of Louis XIV’s reign in France to the beginning of the twenty-first century, Christians remained an antiwar cult. Christian writers emphasized the incompatibility of warfare with Christian teachings. Some characterized warfare as the work of evil spirits and weapons as cursed. They labeled the taking of human life in warfare murder.” (Kindle Locations 356-358)
Two hundred and eighty four years sounds like a lot, and just for perspective’s sake: Americans declared independence from Britain in 1776, which is STILL not up to 284 years ago yet. We will get to why things shifted in a little bit, but I wanted to point this out as a testament to the roots of the nonviolence movement – it’s not an idea imposed on the bible by “hippies and liberals”…It’s something that people DIED and were beaten for throughout Christianity’s history. Early Christians who refused to fight back against their persecutors. Anabaptists who refused to fight back against other Christians in the late 1600s. Christian african-american activists who refused to fight back as they were beaten as they nonviolently protested the racist laws that governed the way that they lived. And many others.
The earliest Christians refused to take up arms, and had strong convictions about it. Christians who were not too far removed from when Jesus walked the earth, or when Peter, John, and Paul were still preaching and writing, refused to take up arms when it sometimes costed them their lives.
For this chapter, I will be using several sources to point out specific examples of early Christians advocating against warfare, and/or violence, and advocating for peace, and nonviolence. A wonderful sourcebook on the topic has been written by Ronald Sider, and it is this book that I will use predominantly. Please see the book information below, and consider reading it for further study on this subject matter:
Sider, Ronald J. The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012. Print.
I am not a historian, and so, this chapter will not be as weighty with my own personal interpretations as the chapters on the study of the Scriptures were, but it will more so serve as a glimpse of the opinions of the early church on the matter, and hopefully will encourage further research by the reader.
The Didache – 80-120 A.D.
“Didachē, ( Greek: “Teaching”, ) also called Teaching Of The Twelve Apostles, the oldest surviving Christian church order, probably written in Egypt or Syria in the 2nd century. In 16 short chapters it deals with morals and ethics, church practice, and the eschatological hope (of the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time) and presents a general program for instruction and initiation into the primitive church.” – Encyclopaedia Britannica
The Didache served as a statement on how to live, as well as made statements on church order. It is a glimpse into how the early church may have functioned, and a look into how they thought. The work is broken down into 16 chapters, or sections, and the first section starts with saying that there are two ways – one of life, and one of death. The way of life is described in the first chapter by Loving God, Loving your Neighbor, following the golden rule, and immediately after that, it says:
“Bless those who curse you,” and “pray for your enemies.” Moreover, fast “for those who persecute you.” For “what credit is it to you if you love those who love you? Is that not the way the heathen act?” But “you must love those who hate you,” and then you will make no enemies. “Abstain from carnal passions.” If someone strikes you “on the right cheek, turn to him the other too, and you will be perfect.” If someone “forces you to go one mile with him, go along with him for two” – From Didache 1 as seen on ccel.org
To the early Christian writers of the Didache, the Sermon on the Mount and more specifically these teachings from Matthew 5, were very important for the Christian to live the “way of life”. The first chapter in this ancient work follows what Christ said were the two greatest commandments, which is are Love God, and to Love others, and it didn’t stop there, but it also instructed its readers of the love that doesn’t come easy – loving our enemies, praying for our persecutors, and going the extra mile of good for the person who shows you no goodness in return. Not only did the New Testament text confirm Christian nonviolence, but this early church document did as well. Nonviolence is not a new idea.
Justin Martyr – 100 – 167 A.D.
Justin Martyr is known for being one of the earliest Christian Apologists, or defenders of the faith. He started out as a philosophy student, and then came to find Christianity to be the truest philosophy, and so his arguments incorporated philosophical reasoning.
A few of his writings have lasted through time, and I will be quoting excerpts from his First and Second Apology, and from his Dialogue with Trypho.
“We who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with people of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavor to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live according to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God the ruler of all” – from Chapter 14 of Justin’s First Apology, as quoted in “The Early Church on Killing” by Ronald Sider, pg. 24
The above excerpt is from Justin’s First Apology, written to Antoninus Pius, Emperor of Rome, which was a plea for the emperor to not persecute the Christians by explaining the faith to the emperor, and how this faith does not make Christians disloyal citizens, or rebels as they were seen.
In the excerpt quoted, in part 14 of his Apology, Justin conveys the transformative nature of the Christian faith by highlighting how their quarrels with those different from them has ceased, and how they even have begun praying for their enemies. This would have conveyed that the Christians were not violent rebels, but a people of faith focused on peace and reconciliation. In the face of persecution, prejudice, and social alienation, Christians were praying for their enemies, and making amends with those who may have wronged them.
“We have been taught that God did not make the world aimlessly, but for the sake of the human race; and we have before stated that He takes pleasure in those who imitate His Properties, and is displeased with those that embrace what is worthless either in word or deed. If, then, we all kill ourselves, we shall become the cause, as far as in us lies, why no one should be born, or instructed in the divine doctrines, or even why the human race should not exist; and we shall, if we so act, be ourselves acting in opposition to the will of God. But when we are examined, we make no denial” – from Chapter 4 of Justin’s Second Apology. Sider, 25
The Second Apology of Justin was written “to show that the Christian faith alone was truly rational. He [Justin] taught that the Logos (Word) became incarnate to teach humanity truth and to redeem people from the power of the demons.” – Christianity Today
The excerpt above showcases how Christ redeemed people from their sinful natures so that they are able to go against their desire to kill their enemies, or others. Justin argues that if Christians kill their fellow human beings, they take away those person’s lives, the lives of their possible unborn children, and their chance to hear the Gospel. He then follows the logic through that if retaliation was resorted to by all whom wrong was done against, the human race would dwindle so much that we should question why we even deserve to exist. If Christians, he says, kill their fellow human beings, they are acting in opposition to the Will of God.
Dialogue with Trypho
Justin’s “Dialogue with Trypho” was written to a Jewish man with the purpose of arguing that Christianity should be accepted if one properly understood the Jewish scriptures. Within this dialogue, after quoting Micah 4:1-7, which is a passage about turning swords into ploughshares, Justin says the following:
“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” – from section 110 of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho. Sider, 26.
In order to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, that Christianity is the true carrying out of the Hebrew scriptures and prophecies, Justin stated that Christians gave up their yearnings for violence, and embraced the way of peace through changing the way that the lived and interacted with others in order to be obedient to God’s Will.
Irenaeus – 130 – 202 A.D.
Irenaeus was the Bishop of Lyons France from 177 – 202 A.D. He is best known for his work “Against Heresies” in which he refuted Gnosticism, and in doing so, he provided a look at second century Christianity, and the issues that it was trying to combat.
I am going to highlight two excerpts from Irenaeus’ writings that highlight his positions on the topic of Christian Nonviolence.
“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.” – from 4.34 in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies. Sider, 28.
Jesus is the Messiah who conveyed messages focused on instructing the Will of God on how His people ought to live, and gave his life in order to reconcile fallen human beings. Jesus’ messages of enemy love, and nonviolence were radial to his audience, as we covered before, and as seen in this quote from Irenaeus, the writings of Justin, and others, his teachings of nonviolence, and the early Church following these teachings, were seen as a fulfillment to the prophecies of Isaiah and Micah about swords into plough shares.
Proof of the Apostolic Preaching
“Therefore also we have no need of the law as pedagogue….For no more shall the law say: … thou shalt not kill, to him who has put away from himself all anger and enmity….Nor an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, to him who counts no man his enemy, but all his neighbors, and therefore cannot even put forth his hand to revenge.” – from chapter 96 in Irenaeus’ Proof of the Apostolic Preaching. Sider, 29-30.
The previous chapter, chapter 95, in this work ended with the following sentence: “Now the love of God is far from all sin, and love to the neighbour worketh no ill to the neighbour” (as translated by Roger Pearse) , and so the next section would then be the fulfilment of that ethic, which would be the transformation of a follower of Christ so that they would not have to be told to not kill, for they would not have the desire to do so, as they have been radically changed by the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Tertullian – 160 – 225 A.D.
Tertullian is regarded as one of the most important early church authors and theologians who wrote in Latin prior to Augustine, according to Sider on page 42. It is in Tertullian’s writings that we find perhaps the most convincing arguments against Christian’s going to war, or utilizing violence.
“If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies … whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves: who can suffer injury at our hands?’
‘For what wars should we not be fit, and ready even with unequal forces, we who so willingly yield ourselves to the sword, if in our religion it were not counted better to be slain than to slain” – Two excerpts from chapter 37 of Tertullian’s Apology. Sider, 45
Again, we see an early church father take Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence quite literally in asking, how can we hate, when we are told to love our enemies? Or how can one be a soldier when our faith teaches us that it is better to die, than to kill?
“But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military [man] may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters – God and Caesar’
‘But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action” – Two excerpts from chapter 19 of Tertullian’s On Idolatry. Sider, 50-51
In this chapter, Tertullian writes that Christians should not be in the military, no matter the position, or likliness of involvement in violence, for two reasons.
The first reason Tertullian gave against Christians joining military was because a Christian has no business taking part in Sacrifices, which were to a pagan god(s). Essentially, being a part of the military necessitated involvement in pagan religious ceremonies, which a Christian could not do, due to fact that there is only one God.
In modern American times, the military is divorced from any sort of religion on an official level. Chaplains exist for soldiers to find spiritual guidance in whatever faith they follow, but there is no state-sponsored religion. And so the question comes down to: Does Tertullian’s first argument against Christians in the military still hold any weight?
I would argue that it does because the root of the problem was Christians being commanded by their government to do that which is contrary to the Will of God, and that the government would demand allegiance of that Christian’s life in all things. Patriotism/Nationalism can be extremely damaging to the Christian faith if the love, or devotion, of country overrides their love and devotion to the Lord. I doubt many sincere Christians would renounce their faith if their government tells them to…it’s not as obvious as that. The danger happens when political views and religious views meet and politics come into theology, and starts whispering in the ear, “Jesus didn’t mean it like that” so that Christians become more willing to go to war, support its government’s wars, and utter the phrase “For God And Country”.
Nationalism hard-wires the brain to believe that we are better than people in other countries because of lines on a map, and when that mindset infiltrates our theology, our interpretation of the scriptures and their calling to our lives, become, in part, dependent on what we believe is congruent with our political and social identity. This is why Christians were Nazis. This is why Christians owned slaves. This is why, currently, some Christians in the hard political right look in disgust and scorn at the poor, instead of out of a place of compassion – regardless of who they believe is responsible to provide them aid. This is also why some Christians in the hard political left accept the pro-choice rhetoric as a societal good – without advocating against abortion and for adoption within the walls of their churches. Politics can infiltrate theology like how a cancer can gradually take over the body. And so serving in a governmental position, or any position for that matter, where you would be expected to do/support things contrary to the Will of God is not wise for the Christian, just as it wasn’t wise in Tertullian’s day.
The Second reason Tertullian gave against Christians joining the military was that Christianity, as he understood it, did not allow for the taking of life. His basis for that belief came from Christ’s teaching, and in how he told Peter, after Peter struck the ear of one of the men trying to capture Jesus, “No more of this!” (Luke 22:51), and “Put your sword back into its place” and “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52). His writing, as quoted above, says that by disarming Peter, Jesus disarmed every soldier who identified as Christian. And if that was not enough to give his audience pause, he wrote “No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action”. Note that he was not talking about governmental laws, for he was speaking about the enforcers of those laws, and agents of a government. He was talking about the government committing unlawful action against the law and Will of God for the Christian.
What is confusing then is why many other Christians throughout Church History advocated for their country’s military, and for the Christian’s involvement in it, when the texts that Tertullian used to found his arguments were available to all of his predecessors. We know through my covering of the Old Testament that there are some passages within it that could cause someone to believe that Christians can go to war, but when it comes to Jesus, there is simply no permission to do so. Christians have debated this conundrum for centuries, saying we have to look at Scripture holistically, or saying that Jesus is the prime authority on the matter, but the debate still continues.
I would like to submit a question: If this debate has been going on for centuries, and if you can see, at minimal, how both sides arrived to their conclusion, which side would be safest to take, theologically?
If a Christian decides to join the military because they do not see a conflict with their faith, but the Will of God is for them to abstain from it, they would be going against the Will of God, and would be held accountable for any blood on their hands.
If a Christian decides to abstain from joining the military because they see a conflict with their faith, but the Will of God allows for them to join the military, they commit no posible sin in abstaining, and are merely wrong in their understanding God’s Will, without going against it themselves.
The debate of self-defense, or the defense of others, is not to be had at the moment; we will get to that in the Appendix section. This question is purely asking – what measurable good comes out of a Christian joining the military, when the Church has been divided on whether or not killing in warfare is a sin for centuries?
From a pastoral perspective, how a pastor, or church leader, handles this topic hypothetically is also very important. For many church goers, their church leaders are their prime source for spiritual guidance, and some will make whatever decision their church leader points them toward, believing that it is within the Will of God. This is one of the reasons why this debate should not be glazed over to be left up to personal choice, but should be deliberately thought about by church leaders.
*All Sources Quoted in parts 1-3 of Chapter 6 will be in the Works Referenced section at the conclusion of part 3*