Quotes: The Early Church on War and Violence

One of my best friends is studying in hopes of earning a Ph.D. in Early Church History. Thanks to his influence and my desire to study Christian Ethics I have become more and more interested in these early radical followers of the Way. In particular, I have come to love and appreciate their convictions about war and violence, especially in light of the persecution they faced for their faith.

Marcellus, ?-298 A.D. 

“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.” “It is not lawful for a Christian to bear arms for any earthly consideration.” 

Ignatius of Antioch, approx. 35-110 A.D.

“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.”

Irenaeus, approx. 180 A.D.

“Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not now how to fight.” 

Justin Martyr, approx. 138 A.D.

“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.” 

Tertullian, 155-230 A.D.

“But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts—for there is no agreement between the divine sacrament 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 serve two masters—God and Caesar…But how will a Christian engage in war—indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime—without the sword, which the Lord has taken away? For although soldiers had approached John to receive instructions and a centurion believed, this does not change the fact that afterward, the Lord, by disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”  

“Under no circumstances should a true Christian draw the sword.” 

Origen of Alexandria, 185-254 A.D.

“We have come in accordance with the counsel of Jesus to cut down our arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take swords against a nation, nor do we learn anymore to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our Lord.” 

Hippolytus, 170-236 A.D.

“A soldier, being inferior in rank to God, must not kill anyone. If ordered to, he must not carry out the order, nor may he take an oath (sacramentum) to do so. If he does not accept this, let him be dismissed from the church. Anyone bearing the power of the sword, or any city magistrate, who wears purple, let him cease from wearing it at once or be dismissed from the church. Any catechumen or believer who wishes to become a soldier must be dismissed from the church because they have despised God.”

“A person who has accepted the power of killing, or a soldier, may never be received [into the church] at all.” 

Cyprian, approx. 250 A.D.

“[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.”

Ambrose, 338-397 A.D.

“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.” 

Theophilus of Antioch, approx. 412 A.D.

Say to those that hate and curse you, you are our brothers! 

Tatian, 2nd Century A.D.

I do not wish to be a ruler. I do not strive for wealth. I refuse offices of military command. 

These are just a few quotes from the writings of early Christ-followers. I encourage you to look them up and find out more. Then ask questions like:  Were these Christians right? What does this mean for the church today? Why does most of the church take a radically different position today? How can we revive this ancient spirit and way of life?

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20 Comments on “Quotes: The Early Church on War and Violence”

  1. dancethespears Says:

    Some of them might be right, some of it might be personal conviction, and some of them might be wrong. These quotes provide little to no reasoning in support of their views, how are we to know if they are right or wrong? I’d need some insight into why they think the way they do. Though respectable individuals, they are not scripture, so simple quotes can not suffice.

  2. rogueminister Says:

    Certainly quotes alone arent sufficient, but these quotes are representative not only of each these men’s writings; they are also representative of early Christian thought. In fact, as far as I understand, the belief that Christians should not participate in any violence or the military is universal for the first couple of centuries of the Church. That is why I encourage folks to read more from each of these men and other early Christian writers. Some of them have written fairly extensively on this topic.

    Regardless of the reasoning behind each quote they make bold claims that we can judge as right or wrong based on their face value. For instance is is right or wrong to say a Christian should not commit any kind of violence?

  3. M. Cantu Says:

    Very interesting. I didn’t even know that quotes like these existed. (I know that might reveal my lack of knowledge for church history.)

    Have you ever thought of doing a question and answer series on your blog? Where someone can ask a question anonymously related to the Bible/ Christian life and you answer it? I just wanted to suggest it to you!

    I suggested it to Mike Cope on his blog but I guess he’s too busy, which is understandable. I have questions I would like to ask a minister but don’t feel comfortable asking my own minister,you know? If you’re not up to it, I understand 🙂

  4. rogueminister Says:

    Not only do these quotes exist, but every Christian writer of the early church had similar things to say.

    Hmmmm…. Q&A, I could give that a shot. I wouldnt say I am an expert or anything but I would be willing to research and find a sufficient answer.

    Mike Cope, does this mean you are from the coC?

    Also, I am working on a Prop 8 post, but I know how sensitive of a subject it is so I want to make sure to cover my bases and write in such a way that I am as clear as possible.

  5. dancethespears Says:

    You’re absolutely correct that the quotes are a summary of a great deal of early Christian thought. Was just pointing out how difficult it can be to come to conclusions just based off of quotes alone, but that’s beside the point.

    I’ve thought a great deal about the Christian and War. As I said, you’re quotes are pretty representative of some early church thought on the subject. I wonder though, if their view of war was impacted by the role that war played in ancient societies. Though I will readily admit that I am not a scholar of the period, most of the wars that I’ve read about find their cause in greed, expansionism, or pacification. Did war, and the life of the soldier, simply seem to be lending support to a corrupt and sinful government?

    If so, I can easily see why early Christians would be so adamantly opposed to it.

    Also, what about truly ancient scripture? There are loads of cases in the Old Testament where God commands his people to go to war, and to do so without reservation or quarter.

    If God has commanded people to go to war in the Old Testament, then how can the Devil be the author of all war, as Justin Martyr claims? Should David be barred from the Church, as he accepted and promised to slay Goliath, and also a fair number of Philistines?

    Tertullian claims that Jesus disarmed every Christian when he disarmed Peter, but I don’t see his reasoning for this. Is it not far more likely that Jesus prevented a blood-bath that would be without meaning? Perhaps the lesson we should draw from the disarming in the olive trees is that it is foolish to fight that which God has ordained.

    Granted, all the men you’ve quoted are much more knowledgeable then I am, but I can not reconcile the fact that God Himself has commanded people to wage war and to kill with the statement that there is now no reason to ever wage war.

    I will not say that I disagree with you, or the wisdom of the early church leaders that you have quoted, but I will say that I do not understand how it can be so.

    • kenneth parent Says:

      very simple explanation the only explanation old testament is the old covenant the new testament is the new covenant by which we are now bound what i do not understand is why the old covenant is even bound together whith the old covenant and read from… i suppose it is to pointedly expose the contrast between the two

  6. Leanne Says:

    Perhaps quotes are not enough to base a theology or life upon, yet I think that it is important to understand that this seems to be a prevelant mindset among Church Fathers.
    I think when we look at the Old Testament and then at the New Testament we need to hear Jesus say, “You have heard it said. . .but I say to you.” Jesus in the New Testament seems to be overriding the prevailing attitude which the Jewish people had gained by not understanding who they were. They saw themselves as the Chosen People as exclusive to the rest of the World. Yet they were chosen to be the means by which God embraced the whole world. I think when we look at the Old Testament, it must be applied via the Cross and Empty Grave today, not standing by itself. But then again, so should Paul and the Epistles.

  7. dancethespears Says:

    Leanne,

    I agree that the Old Testament must be viewed in the light of the complete revelation which we have been given. Many things in the Old Testament are supplemented by Christ’s resurrection.

    I guess the question should be, does Christ’s resurrection significantly alter the reasons why God lead his people to war? If it does not, then anti-war doctrine must be reconciled with that fact that God has declared wars, and commanded his people to fight them.

    Also, although I have a great deal of respect for early church leaders, they were no where near infallible. Justin Martyr and Tertullian, for example, heavily endorsed Pelagianism. Something that another early church father, Augustine of Hippo, opposed.

    Though these men are indeed leaders of those times, I don’t think we can ascribe any more special weight to their comments then we can someone of these times, especially without knowing their reasoning.

    I’d be interested to hear what rogueminister’s PhD-candidate friend has to say on the reasons why these church fathers were so anti-war.

  8. rogueminister Says:

    Dance, I think that every generation has a great deal of war and suffering so I dont know that there perspectives were affected by this more than any other Christian writers. I would also argue that any soldier, intentionally or not, lends there support to greed etc. and therefore the take of the early church fathers is appropriate not only for their time but for all times.

    Also, several writers/theologians including Greg Boyd and Stanley Hauerwas have written on reconciling the violence in the OT with the teachings on peace from Jesus. There are some convincing arguments but I havent delved into them very extensively yet. Ultimately though, we believe Jesus is the full revelation of God and therefore we seek to live as he lived and taught.

    Certainly some of these church fathers were proponents of heresies, mostly later in their lives. However the fact that this one particular thing is universal in the early church has to say a great deal. There is no dissenting opinion in the first couple centuries of the church on this point.

    The reason I think Tertullian is right in the statement that all Christians were disarmed is because Jesus taught his disciples that His Kingdom was not of this world, and that his followers would not fight. That means all of his followers.

    I would disagree about saying that we shouldnt give more authority to the comments of these men because they were in direct contact with the apostles or only removed by a few generations. We can find much of their reasoning hashed out in their writings and the writings of non-Christian writers of the time, who also gave similar accounts of the early church. Therefore they received purer teaching or at least didn’t have to dig through a couple thousand years of Christian thought. Not only this but they wrote/spoke on behalf of the entire church on these matters as we understand historically that this was the accepted position of all of the early church from the apostles on to the time of Constantine.

    Sorry I miscommunicated about my friend. He is on the tail end of his masters and has started his study towards his Ph.D on his own, but is not yet a Ph.D candidate. However he knows more about the early church than some professors out there since he has been reading works from these folks since we were in high school. Either way, I will ask him about this and see if he will post something here.

  9. dancethespears Says:

    Much obliged concerning your friend, and Hauerwas would be a good one to read for a subject like this. I’m assuming that most of his arguments well center around the fact that Israel was a nation/government established by God and therefor had direct revelation on when and where war should be engaged in. Since there is no pillar of smoke or fire dwelling in the white house, Christians can’t wage war.

    Not to say that I agree, but I just have a feeling. You might also want to check out Hauerwas’ mentor/influence/friend John Howard Yoder, a Mennonite. If there’s anyone to look to in discussions like this, it’d be the Mennonites.

    I think Tertullian is reading into the text a bit. In John 18:11,

    “Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

    Jesus gives, explicitly, his reasoning for telling Peter to put his sword away. To do otherwise would be attempting to shirk the responsibility put on him by the Father. There is no more said then this. Where does Tertullian find his support that Jesus has commanded all his believers to never raise arms? Jesus did say that his kingdom is not of this earth, but that was in response to questioning designed to frame him as an insurrectionist. To link the two seems to be reading into the text to find what one wants, not determining only what is there.

    The use of warfare in the time of the early church is vastly different then today. As much as there may be similarities, they are generally superficial. Rome was the military power of the day, and employed it’s might to further it’s imperialism and occasionally combat Christianity.

    It is no surprise to me that early Christians would reject such an institution, one that twists force to its own corrupted ends. Though some modern wars have been greedy in nature, there are also wars that have been entered into to combat such greed and imperialism.

    Declaring all warfare to be criminal and sinful seems to be much akin to declaring all work on the Sabbath to be sinful. Usually right, but there are notable exceptions.

    And yes, the early fathers were closer to the original apostles, but this still does not make them infallible. It is quite reasonable that they saw war, and the life of the soldier, for what it was in their time and assumed that it would stay that way. If war stayed the same, then they would be correct in saying that Christians shouldn’t support it. So of course, at the time, they would be universally united in their opposition. This does not mean that they foresaw where all war would lead, and decided that it was unfit too.

    It seem far more likely that they saw something that was horrific, and found scripture that seemed to support that. If you begin by assuming that violence and war is wrong, then you can say that Jesus disarming Peter is demonstrative of him disarming all Christians.

    If you don’t, he simply tells Peter to stop fighting God’s will. It seems like saying that riding boats is bad because God almost sank that one that Jonah was on, instead of being on the road to Nineveh.

  10. rogueminister Says:

    Dance, i love John Howard Yoder. He was actually the mentor of one of my favorite professors as well.

    Later in John 18 Jesus says “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” This may not have been said directly to Peter but it seems to further explain Jesus’ reasoning when he spoke to Peter. Even in its context, Jesus makes clear that his followers will not fight. We are still part of that Kingdom today and we still will not fight. If one only took this verse then I think they might be reading too much into the text but when it is combined with the OT prophecies and the teachings and life of Jesus, then paul etc. we can see how it fits into the greater story of Scripture and thus the continuing life of God’s people.

    As far as the similarities about war in ancient times and now, I think they are much deeper than you presume. We may try to dress it up with noble rhetoric, but I dont think war has changed much except that we can kill more people more quickly now. I think Shane Claiborne’s book “Jesus for President” deals with this in a fairly convincing way, albeit not in great depth.

    I cant think of any instance when warfare is not sinful. I think there is always a non-violent witness that Christians can find and should try to live.

    I grew up in a military family and certainly didnt think all war was wrong, that is until I started studying scripture. So at least in my case I didnt begin with these assumptions. I cant speak for others but that was the case for me. In fact I was resistant to this idea for a good while, but felt God pulling me that way.

  11. rogueminister Says:

    By the way, thanks for the discussion. I like this kind of honest, thoughtful and challenging dialogue and dont get it as much as I would like at seminary.

  12. dancethespears Says:

    Good, glad to hear that you enjoy it, as I am always uncertain how tone comes across in comments.

    Again, in John 18 Jesus says specifically that his followers are not fighting his arrest, not that his followers do not fight. Again, this is exactly in line with what Jesus tells Peter. Also, he provides this as proof that he is not an insurrectionist. If he was attempting to overthrow the current government, his followers would have fought against his arrest.

    I disagree that Jesus makes it clear that his followers WILL not fight, simply that they are currently not fighting. That’s all the text says there.

    If this is combined with Jesus’ arrest, we can know that it is contrary to God’s plan in this instance to engage in bloodshed, as Jesus is supposed to be arrested. Importantly, if it were necessary, his followers WOULD have been fighting. Jesus never says that the violence is inherently wrong, but rather that it is pointless. I’m sorry, but I simply do not see it in this text. I only see him saying to not fight the arrest, because why would he try to escape the will of the Father?

    Later he says that his followers are not fighting his arrest because his kingdom is not in peril due to his arrest, but that if his kingdom was on earth and in peril then his followers would be fighting. He then follows this up with a statement that this is why he was born, why he was on earth in the first place.

    I understand the difficult nature of war, when it seems so horribly irredeemable. However, the fact that there is no explicit mention of it in the NT causes me to wonder. I don’t easily condone it, but it seems a stretch to me to find anti-war doctrine in the NT when none is overtly mentioned.

  13. Kirsten Says:

    Thank you so much that there is a place to discuss this topic!!! Since I have come to the conclusion that I have, I have been wanting to share the conclusion I have come to with anyone who will listen!

    In Hebrews 1 it says, “God spoke long ago to our fathers by the prophets. In these last days he has spoken to us through HIS SON…For this reason we must pay MUCH closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.”

    In the Old Testament with the Old Covenent God told Israel to do certain things (such as go to war). Their job was to obey. In the New Testament God sends His Son with the New Covenent. With the New Covenent came a new set of instructions. For this reason, if there is ever an apperent contradiction between Jesus’ words and the Old T., or the New. T and the Old T., (based on Heb.1) we are to follow Jesus’ words, or our newest set of instructions (namely, the New T.). Our job is to obey.

    This is what Jesus and the New Testament have to say on War, persecution, and self-defense:

    2 Corinthians 10…Though we walk in the flesh, we are NOT waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of OUR warfare are not of the flesh but have DIVINE power to destroy strongholds.

    Ephesians 6:11…Our battle is NOT with flesh and blood, but against the master spirits and powers who are the rulers of this present darkness.

    Rom. 12:14…Bless those who persecute you, and do not curse them. Live in peace with one another. NEVER REPAY EVIL WITH EVIL. “Never avenge yourselves, for vengeance is mine alone,” To the contrary, if your ENEMY is hungry, feed him, if he is thirsty, give him drink. Overcome evil with good.

    1 Peter 2:21…Christ suffered for you, leaving you an EXAMPLE, so you should follow in His footsteps. When He was abused and insulted, He did NOT abuse or offer insult in return; when He suffered, He made NO threats of retaliation; instead He trusted in Him Who judges fairly.

    Matt.5:38…Jesus said, “You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury. BUT I SAY , ‘Do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on one side of your face, offer the other side as well. Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you! If you do that, you will be acting as true children of your Father in Heaven. If you love and are kind only to your friends, what reward is there for that? Even pagans do that!’ ”

    Jesus COMMANDS us to love our enemies. 1 Corinthians 13 states that love is patient and kind. It does not envy or boast. Love is NOT proud, rude, self-seeking, or is easily angered. Love keeps no record of wrongs…Love endures all things. Is killing your enemy in War, or killing them in your own self-defense, or killing them at all, loving them? I mean sure, it saves your skin, but is it loving them?

    The command Jesus gave goes AGAINST HUMAN NATURE ITSELF! Who wouldn’t have the impulse to protect their life and the lives of their friends and family? I would most definitely want to protect my family and friends (and myself!). But as Christians, His commands have to be obeyed.

    And just like those of the Early Church of the first and second century, the fact that Jesus’ commands have to be obeyed may mean paying for them with our lives.

    Is it worth it?

  14. rogueminister Says:

    Kirsten, thanks for your input. Those verses all play a big part in this argument and are the basis, I believe, for these quotes. You are especially right about this command from Jesus. It is against our nature to love our enemies and risk our lives for them. It is absolutely worth it to give up our lives to follow our savior, in fact that is what He demands when he says take up our crosses and follow him, whether that means daily sacrificing ourselves in life or it means giving ourselves up in death.

  15. Kevin Says:

    I am in total agreement with the early church fathers about not just war but violence torward others. War is no different now than it was then. You have governments who for whatever reason they see justified send people to kill other people. WE as Christians CANNOT get involved in war because most wars are conducted by sinful men for sinful resaon…revenge…greed..power.I can see defense of ones self or property and even THAT has to evaluated in accordance with scripture but invading anothers land and killing someone for what their government “MAY” do in the future is unbiblical.
    What Christians NEED to do stay out of politics period. Our mandate by GOD is to preach the Kingdom of God the perfect kingdom and proclaim CHRIST as king…the perfect KING!!! Making people “moral” through laws and policies does not make ones heart right with GOD. Its the changing of the heart and the rebirth of a new person in CHRIST that make us righteous.

  16. Bible Student Says:

    Where did you find these quotes? what reference books, chapters, pgs?

    • Kirsten Says:

      David W. Bercot compiled many teachings of the Early Church in a book called “A Dictionary Of Early Christian Beliefs” and is a literal dictionary of issues from A to Z that list quotes and teachings from the early church fathers that were on that topic. Included is teachings by the early church fathers on nonviolence, war, and persecution and such. He included citations and references so if someone wanted to look it up for the full context they could. I love the Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs..it was very helpful for me!

  17. rogueminister Says:

    Bible Student… It has been forever since I put up this post so I don’t remember where I got them from… But, this book probably has a lot of them… http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Peace-Nonviolence-Documentary-History/dp/1570759227/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1321048228&sr=8-1

    Again, sorry I can’t give you all the citations…


  18. […] listened to him? They rather listen to Paul who said that authorities have right to carry a sword. Early Church Fathers saw it like Jesus taught; no soldier in active duty could be Christian. Then came Constantine and […]


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