Scripture, as illuminated by the Holy Spirit, is the source of doctrine and practice for every Christian. The “early church fathers” have left us a testimony of how they interpreted and followed the Scriptures. They were fallible men, and cannot be our final authority. Yet I think it is worth examining what they taught, since these men preached in a time before the leaven had so thoroughly corrupted the whole loaf.
On the subject of Christians in military service, and Christians using violence for self-defense, much was written by these men. Their convictions on these matters are strikingly different than the prevailing convictions of Christians today, even though they lived in times and places where persecution was likely. Have we surpassed these men in understanding what God’s will is, or have we fallen into greater ignorance and unbelief? Each of us must prayerfully decide.
A person who has accepted the power of killing, or a soldier, may never be received [into the church] at all.
—Hippolytus (170-236 A.D)
Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence.
—Clement of Alexandria
I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command… Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.
—Tatian’s Address to the Greeks
We who formerly used to murder one another now refrain from even making war upon our enemies.
—The First Apology of Justin Martyr
Whatever Christians would not wish others to do to them, they do not to others. And they comfort their oppressors and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies…. Through love towards their oppressors, they persuade them to become Christians.
—The Apology of Aristides
A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.
—Hippolytus of Rome
There is nothing better than peace, in which all warfare of things in heaven and things on earth is abolished.
—Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians
The new covenant that brings back peace and the law that gives life have gone forth over the whole earth, as the prophets said: “For out of Zion will go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem; and he will instruct many people; and they will break down their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and they will no longer learn to make war.” These people formed their swords and war lances into plowshares,” that is, into instruments used for peaceful purposes. So now, they are unaccustomed to fighting, so when they are struck, they offer also the other cheek.
We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. As a result, an ungrateful world is now enjoying–and for a long period has enjoyed–a benefit from Christ. For by his means, the rage of savage ferocity has been softened and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow creature. In fact, if all men without exception…would lend an ear for a while to his salutary and peaceful rules,…the whole world would be living in the most peaceful tranquility. The world would have turned the use of steel into more peaceful uses and would unite together in blessed harmony.
Wars are scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood. And murder–which is admitted to be a crime in the case of an individual–is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not because they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale!
—Cyprian of Carthage
Those soldiers were filled with wonder and admiration at the grandeur of the man’s piety and generosity and were struck with amazement. They felt the force of this example of pity. As a result, many of them were added to the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and threw off the belt of military service.
—Disputation of Archelaus and Manes
We have rejected such spectacles as the Coliseum. How then, when we do not even look on killing lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?
—Athenagoras of Athens, A Plea for the Christians
In that last section, decision may seem to have been given likewise concerning military service, which is between dignity and power. But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, whether the military 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. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John is girt with leather, and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. 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.
–Tertullian, On Idolatry 19
‘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?
—Tertullian (c. 197, W) 3.154.
A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate who wears the purple must resign or be rejected. If an applicant or a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected.
Oh emperor, it is the Christians that have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God. They do not keep for themselves the goods entrusted to them. They do not covet what belongs to others, but they show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not like done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way, they make their enemies their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies. They live in the awareness of their own smallness. Everyone of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. And if any of them sees a homeless stranger, they bring them into their own home, under their roof. If anyone of them becomes poor while the Christians have nothing to spare, then they fast two or three days until everyone can eat. In this way, they supply for the poor exactly what they need. This, oh emperor, is the rule of life for the Christians. This is how they live.
—Aristides 137 AD
[Origen, quoting Celsus] If everyone were to act the same as you Christians, the national government would soon be left utterly deserted an without any help, and affairs on earth would soon pass into the hands of the most savage and wretched barbarians.” [Origen:] Celsus exhorts us to help the Emperor and be his fellow soldiers. To this we reply, “You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests.” We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this. [Origen goes on to say that if the Romans followed the teachings of Jesus there would be no barbarians.]
We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies ad try to win those who hate us.
I do not wish to be a ruler. I do not strive for wealth. I refuse offices connected with military command. I despise death.
The Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.
—Tertullian’s On Idolatry
Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength.
—Origen, Contra Celsius Book VII
Wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence.
—Lactantius, Divine Institutes IV
As simple and quiet sisters, peace and love require no arms. For it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.
—Clement of Alexandria, Chapter 12 of Book 1
In their wars, therefore, the Etruscans use the trumpet, the Arcadians the pipe, the Sicilians the pectides, the Cretans the lyre, the Lacedaemonians the flute, the Thracians the horn, the Egyptians the drum, and the Arabians the cymbal. The one instrument of peace, the Word alone by which we honor God, is what we employ.
—Clement of Alexandria, Chapter 4 of Book 2
Do not avenge yourself on those who injure you… let us imitate the Lord, who when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he was crucified, he answered not; when he suffered, he threatened not; but prayed for his enemies…Nothing is better than peace, by which all war of those in heaven and those on earth is abolished.
—Hippolytus (approx. A.D. 200)
The soldier of the government must be taught not to kill men. If ordered to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the military oath. If he does not accept this, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. The believers who wish to become soldiers shall be cast out, because they have despised God.
—Tertullian (wrote between A.D. 195-212)
I owe no duty to forum, campaign, or senate. I stay awake for no public function. I make no effort to occupy a platform. I am no office seeker. I have no desire to smell out political corruption. I shun the voter’s booth, the juryman’s bench. I break no laws and push no lawsuits; I will not serve as a magistrate or judge. I refuse to do military service. I desire to rule over no one – I have withdrawn from worldly politics! Now my only politics is spiritual – how that I might be anxious for nothing except to root out all worldly anxieties and care.
Inquiry is made whether a believer is able to turn himself into military service… But how will a Christian wage war, indeed how will he serve even in peace without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? …The Lord in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.
What will be God’s if all things are Caesar’s?
All zeal in the pursuit of glory and honor is dead in us. So we have no pressing inducement to take part in your public meetings. Nor is there anything more entirely foreign to us than the affairs of state. We acknowledge one all-embracing commonwealth – the world. We renounce all your spectacles.
For what difference is there between provoker and provoked? The only difference is that the former was the first to do evil, but the latter did evil afterwards. Each one stands condemned in the eyes of the Lord for hurting a man. For God both prohibits and condemns every wickedness. In evil doing, there is no account taken of the order… the commandment is absolute: evil is not to be repaid with evil.
As for you, you are a foreigner in this world, a citizen of Jerusalem, the city above. Our citizenship, the apostle says, is in heaven.
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? Shall he who is not to avenge his own wrongs be instrumental in bringing others into chains, imprisonment, torment, death?
The Lord will save them in that day – even His people – like sheep… No one gives the name of ‘sheep’ to those who fall in battle with arms in hand, or those who are killed when repelling force with force. Rather, it is given only to those who are slain, yielding themselves up in their own place of duty and with patience – rather than fighting in self-defense.
I am a Christian, and therefore I cannot fight.
—Origen (approx. A.D. 250)
What if the law of nature – that is, the law of God – commands what is opposed to the written law? Does not reason tell us to bid a long farewell to the written code… and to give ourselves up to the Legislator, God. This is so even if in doing so it may be necessary to encounter dangers, countless labors, and even death and dishonor…It is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a divine and more necessary service in the church of God for the salvation of men…How was it possible for the Gospel doctrine of peace, which doesn’t permit men to take vengeance even on their enemies, to prevail throughout the earth, unless at the coming of Jesus a milder spirit had been introduced into the order of things?…Our prayers defeat all demons who stir up war. Those demons also lead persons to violate their oaths and to disturb the peace. Accordingly, in this way, we are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. And we do take our part in public affairs when we join self-denying exercises to our righteous prayers and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures and not to be led away from them. So none fight better for the king than we do. Indeed, we do not fight under him even if he demands it. Yet, we fight on his behalf, forming a special army – an army of godliness – by offering our prayers to God…We have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into ploughshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take sword against nation, nor do we learn any more to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader…If all the Romans were to be converted they will by praying overcome their enemies – or rather they will not make war at all, being guarded by the Divine power, which promised to save five whole cities for the sake of fifty righteous men.
—Athenagoras (approx. A.D. 180)
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 the one side of the face to offer the other side also, and to those who take away our coat to give likewise our cloak…We cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly. —Testament of Our Lord (approx. A.D. 220)
If a soldier or one in authority wishes to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service or from the post of authority. And if not, let them not be received.
It can never be lawful for a righteous man to go to war, whose warfare is in righteousness itself.”“When God prohibits killing, he not only forbids us to commit brigandage, which is not allowed even by the public laws, but he warns us not to do even those things which are legal among men. And so it will not be lawful for a just man to serve as a soldier – for justice itself is his military service – nor to accuse anyone of a capital offense, because it makes no difference whether thou kill with a sword or with a word, since killing itself is forbidden. And so, in this commandment of God, no exception at all ought to be made to the rule that it is always wrong to kill a man, whom God has wished to be regarded as a sacrosanct creature…When we suffer such ungodly things, we do not resist even in word. Rather, we leave vengeance to God…The Christian does injury to no one. He does not desire the property of others. In fact, he does not even defend his own property if it is taken from him by violence. For he knows how to patiently bear an injury inflicted upon him…When God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence…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… 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…We do not resist those who injure us, for we must yield to them…When men command us to act in opposition to the law of God, and in opposition to justice, we should not be deterred by any threats or punishments that come upon us. For we prefer the commandments of God to the commandments of man…Someone will say here: ‘What therefore, or where, or of what sort is piety?’ Assuredly it is among those who are ignorant of war, who keep concord with all, who are friends even to their enemies, who love all men as their brothers, who know how to restrain their anger, and to soothe all madness of mind by quiet control…God might have bestowed upon his people both riches and kingdoms, as he had given previously to the Jews, whose successors and posterity we are. However, he would have Christians live under the power and government of others, lest they should become corrupted by the happiness and prosperity, slide into luxury, and eventually despise the commandments of God. For this is what our ancestors did…Why should the just man wage war, and mix himself up in other people’s passions – he in whose mind dwells perpetual peace with men?
—Clement of Alexandria (approx. A.D. 195)
Christians are not allowed to use violence to correct the delinquencies of sins…Man is in reality a pacific instrument…The followers of peace use none of the implements of war…We have made use of only one instrument, the peaceful word, with which we do honor to God…We are being educated, not in war, but in peace…We are the race given over to peace…[Christians] are an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.
—Tarachus (3rd century)
I have led a military life, and am a Roman; and because I am a Christian I have abandoned my profession of a soldier.
—Marcellus (approx. A.D. 298)
I threw down my arms for it was not seemly that a Christian man, who renders military service to the Lord Christ, should render it by earthly injuries.
—Marcellus (approx. A.D. 298)
It is not lawful for a Christian to bear arms for any earthly consideration.
—Marcellus (approx. A.D. 298)
Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not now how to fight.
—Justin Martyr (approx. A.D. 138)
The devil is the author of all war…We, who used to kill one another, do not make war on our enemies. We refuse to tell lies or deceive our inquisitors; we prefer to die acknowledging Christ…We who had been filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness, have each one – all the world over – changed the instruments of war, the swords into ploughs and the spears into farming instruments, and we cultivate piety, righteousness, love for men, faith, and the hope which is from the Father Himself through the Crucified One…We who hated and slew one another, and because of differences in customs would not share a common hearth with those who were not of our tribe, now, after the appearance of Christ, have become sociable, and pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate us unjustly, in order that they, living according to the good suggestions of Christ, may share our hope of obtaining the same reward from the God who is Master of all…As to loving all men, he has taught as follows: ‘If ye love only those who love you, what new thing do ye do? For even fornicators do this. But I say to you: Pray for your enemies and love those who hate you and bless those who curse you and pray for those who act spitefully towards you.’ … And as to putting up with evil and being serviceable to all and without anger, this is what he says: ‘to him that smiteth thy cheek, offer the other cheek as well, and do not stop the man that takes away thy tunic or thy cloak. But whoever is angry is liable to the fire. Every one who impresses thee to go a mile, follow for two. Let your good works shine before men, that seeing them they may worship your Father in heaven.’
—Justin Martyr (approx. A.D. 138)
Maximilian, a young Numidian, was brought before an African proconsul named Dion in A.D. 295 for induction into the army. Maximilian refused to join, stating: “I cannot serve as a soldier; I cannot do evil; I am a Christian.” Dion threatened Maximilian, stating: “Get into the service, or it will cost you your life.” With courage, Maximilian did not yield to the threat of death: “I shall not perish, but when I have forsaken this world, my soul shall live with Christ my Lord.” Later he refused the royal badge that had the sign of the emperor on it, saying, “I do not accept your mark, for I already have the sign of Christ, my God… I do not accept the mark of this age, and if you impose it on me, I shall break it, for it is worth nothing.” The outcome was that on March 12, 295, Maximilian was executed. Maximilian’s father returned home, “giving thanks to God that he had been able to bring such a present to the Lord.” Later, as a special honor, his body was brought to Carthage and buried near the tomb of Cyprian, a great leader in the church, who had also died as a martyr.
—The Martyrdom of Maximilian (A.D. 295)
Make thyself a peace-maker to all men.
[Christians] are not allowed to kill, but they must be ready to be put to death themselves… it is not permitted the guiltless to put even the guilty to death…God wished iron to be used for the cultivation of the earth, and therefore it should not be used to take human life…The whole earth is drenched in adversaries’ blood, and if a murder is committed privately it is a crime, but if it happens with state authority, courage is the name for it. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not on the plea that they are guiltless, but because cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale…We should ever and a day reflect that we have renounced the world and are in the meantime living here as guests and strangers.
—Cyprian (approx. A.D. 250)
You know that you who are the servants of God dwell in a strange land. For your city is far away from this one. If, then, you know your city in which you are to dwell, why do you here provide lands, and make expensive preparations, and accumulate dwellings and useless buildings? He who makes such preparations for this city cannot return again to his own… Do you not understand that all these things belong to another, and are under the power of another? …Take note, therefore. As one living in a foreign land, make no further preparations for yourself except what is merely sufficient. And be ready to leave this city, when the master of this city comes to cast you out for disobeying his law.
—Hermas (approx. A.D. 150)
If all without exception . . . would lend an ear for a little to Christ’s salutary and peaceful rules… the whole world, having turned the use of steel into more peaceful occupations, would now be living in the most placid tranquility, and would unite in blessed harmony, maintaining inviolate the sanctity of treaties…Since we – so large a force of men – have received from Christ’s teachings and laws, that evil ought not to be repaid with evil, that it is better to endure a wrong than to inflict one, to shed one’s own blood rather than stain one’s hands and conscience with the blood of another, the ungrateful world has long been receiving a benefit from Christ, through whom the madness of savagery has been softened, and has begun to withhold its hostile hands from the blood of a kindred creature. But if absolutely all who understand that they are men by virtue, not of the form of their bodies, but of the power of their reason, were willing to lend an ear for a little while to his healthful and peaceful decrees, and would not, swollen with pride and arrogance, trust to their own senses rather than to his warnings, the whole world would long ago have turned the uses of iron to milder works and be living in the softest tranquility, and would have come together in healthy concord without breaking the sanctions of treaties…Did Christ, claiming royal power for himself, occupy the whole world with fierce legions, and, of nations at peace from the beginning, destroy and remove some, and compel others to put their necks beneath his yoke and obey him?
—Arnobius (approx. A.D. 310)
The soldiers of Christ require neither arms nor spears of iron…The servants of God do not rely for their protection on material defenses but on the divine Providence.
—Tatian (approx. A.D. 160)
Say to those that hate and curse you, you are our brothers!
—Theophilus of Antioch, approx. 412 A.D.
Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not now how to fight.
Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when ye assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.
—Ignatius of Antioch