The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Whittling down the pacifist narrative: Did early Christians serve in the army?


Is it true that Christianity was a pacifist movement for the first few centuries of its existence?

“Most serious scholars of church history today agree that for the first three centuries of the Christian church, Christians rejected not only emperor-worship and idolatry but also participation in the military.”

This quote was taken from a fairly unknown website. I picked it just because it reflects a confidence that a lot of Christians I have spoken to appear to have: The confidence that everyone who knows about this knows that the first few centuries of church history reveals that Christians were pacifists, and that got messed up later when theologians like Augustine compromised the teachings of Jesus with the worldly ways of violence.

There are scholars who do make claims of early Christian pacifism – but certainly (or rather – hopefully) none who would make the ludicrous claim that Christianity was a pacifist movement for the first three centuries of its existence. Roland Bainton’s claim made in 1960 was more cautious in terms of dates:

From the end of the New Testament period to the decade A.D. 170-80, there is no evidence whatever of Christians in the army. The question of military service obviously was not at that time controverted. The reason may have been that participation was assumed or that abstention was taken for granted. The latter is more probable.1

This is a more moderate claim – revealing a fairly marked contrast between the way that enthusiastic proponents of a cause make strong claims about what all serious scholars know, set against far less reaching claims of the scholars in question. And still, the further we look – even among pacifist writings – the smaller the claim becomes. Cadoux’s claim is closer to the mark:

Apart from Cornelius and the one or two soldiers who may have been baptized with him by Peter at Caesarea (?40 A.D.) and the gaoler baptized by Paul at Philippi (circ A.D. 49), we have no direct or reliable evidence for the existence of a single Christian soldier until after 170 A.D.2

The more scrutiny we apply, the more the very strong popular claims, like ice-cubes in warm water, diminish: First, the claim was that most historians (or at least the serious ones) agree that Christians were pacifists for the first three centuries. Then when a little more care is applied, the claim is that we do not actually have any positive evidence of Christians in the army prior to AD 170 – coupled with the admission that actually, no public arguments about the issue had been presented by Christians. And then when a few more of the known facts are taken into account, we end up with Cadoux’s claim – vastly more modest than the initial popular claim – that actually there is a small amount of evidence within the New Testament itself that some early Christians (but probably very few) were in the Roman military, and we have no “direct” evidence of any specific Christians being in the military until after AD 170. The last of these is hardly a persuasive historical argument, to put it gently. In fact within a few pages Cadoux then undercuts his line of historical suggestion, when he comes to consider the New Testament examples of John the Baptist and then Jesus interacting with soldiers. He notes that Jesus never condemned the sin of the centurion as a military man, but even went as far as to praise him as a man of faith. In fact every time a Centurion is mentioned in the New Testament (numerous times: Matthew 8:5ff / Luke 7:2ff; Matthew 27:54 / Luke 23:47; Acts 10:1, 22:25, 23:17, 23, 22:23, 27:1), they are always portrayed in a favourable light as people who respond appropriately to God in some way. Does this suggest at least a lack of disapproval of his role on Jesus’ part? Not so, says Cadoux:

The attempt to draw such a conclusion is at best an argument from silence. Considering the number of things Jesus must have said of which no record has been left, we cannot be at all sure that he said nothing on this occasion about the illegitimacy of military service for his own followers. And even supposing he did not, is it reasonable to demand that his views on this point should be publicly stated every time he comes across a soldier?

On the one hand, Cadoux wants us to think that it counts as good evidence that for the window of time from when soldiers believed during the New Testament era until AD 170 there is no direct mention of specific Christians who were soldiers, suggesting that there were none – an argument from silence. However he forbids us from making arguments from silence when it comes to the fact that while Jesus spoke positively of a centurion he never implied that his lifestyle was sinful – because Jesus might have said as much at some point but it was simply not recorded for posterity! It hardly needs pointing out that there could just as easily – or more so – have been the case that there were Christians in the military from the New Testament era to the year 170 (a window of barely more than a century) without them being singled out and their profession named. After all, other than Paul how many Christian tent makers do we know of during that same period?

The reality is that if there were Christian soldiers in the first century (as we know there were), it is likely that there were more than we know of. Cornelius, for instance, was a Centurion who would undoubtedly have shared his faith with others in the army. There is simply no good reason to think that there were no other Christians in the army when the ones we know of died later in the first century, and so for a window of perhaps 100 years there were no Christians in the army until suddenly in around AD 170 there was an entire legion of them, springing from nowhere.

The “thundering legion”

This brings us to the first documented example of a group of Christians in the military. The Catholic encyclopedia sums up the known facts – both concerning the stories that existed about the so-called “thundering legion” and the facts that we can take as fairly certain. The story, including all possible mythological elements is:

When the Emperor Marcus Aurelius led an expedition against the Quadi in 174, his army, exhausted by thirst, was on the point of falling an easy prey to the enemy. It was then that the soldiers of the Twelfth Legion, which was composed of Christians, prayed to their God for help. Forthwith a heavy thunderstorm arose, bringing the desired relief to the Romans, but terrifying and dispersing the barbarians. Hereupon the emperor issued a decree forbidding the persecution of the Christians and to the Twelfth Legion he gave the surname of fulminata, or fulminea, that is, “thundering.”

In fact the reference to the decree is likely untrue. The persecution of Christians by Rome became worse after this time, not more relaxed (which might also explain why more Christians were not in the army without the need to propose a pacifist mindset among Christians). And as for the miracle of rain, some attribute its occurrence to the prayers of the emperor himself, others to the work of the Egyptian magician Arnuphis, and the Antonin Column depicts the rain as being brought by Jupiter. But what nobody at all disputes is that the event did take place, and it is testified to by a number of Christian and pagan writers of the ancient world. There was a legion under Marcus Aurelius composed at least largely of Christians who took part in the Marcomannic Wars (which began in AD 166), and during these wars they were part of a well-known army expedition against the Quadi, who had been involved in a siege against the Northern Italian town of Aquileia. These were soldiers – fighting men, and Christians. There is of course every reason to think that these Christian soldiers had some experience prior to this famous expedition. How much? Who knows?

But the Fathers were pacifists, right?

The claims about Christianity being pacifist as a rule for the first few centuries draws support from two things, Firstly from the silence that existed in the early second century on there being Christian soldiers, and secondly from the claim that of all the Church Fathers prior to Augustine who wrote directly on the question of whether or not it is morally acceptable for people to serve in the military, they stated quite clearly that it was not. This much is certainly true. It is also true that everyone who wrote this article is named Glenn Peoples – 100% of them! This truth isn’t significant, however, because only one person wrote this article, and surveying one person tells us nothing of interest.

The same problem arises for the strong sounding claim that all the Church Fathers who wrote directly on the permissibility of membership in the military condemned it. The persuasive force of the claim begins to evaporate in light of the observation of historian John Helgeland:

The first striking fact about the Fathers’ writing on Christians participating in the Roman army is how infrequently the subject appears. Obviously there was no controversy calling forth angry exchanges of letters on the problem; in most cases only random comments appear regarding war in general. Only Tertullian, Origen and Hippolytus mention the problem explicitly, and Hippolytus devotes one sentence to it. Pacifist historians have tried to argue that, since the early church said so little about enlisting, it was a tacit understanding among the Christians that one did not even consider such an occupation. However, the lack of references to enlistment proves that there is a lack of references to enlistment — nothing more.3

The truth is that the Fathers in general almost never spoke about the rights and wrongs of enlistment in the Army, so the fact that all who clearly did so were opposed to the practice tells us little – there were just three of them. I’ll look at Tertullian last because of the way that his contribution to the discussion so clearly confirms the fact that Christians were enlisting in the army.


Origen’s views on military involvement are primarily known through his reply to Celsus. In Contra Celsum, Book 7, chapter 25, he cited Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek. But just when we might expect him to say that this command overturns aspects of Old Testament ethics, he insists that this command is entirely compatible with the Old Testament, with its armies and fighting. How could this be? He explains in chapter 25: It would have been impossible for Israel, being not simply a religion but a nation, to adopt the teachings of Christ as its law, because of Israel’s “subjection to the Roman Government” that existed in Jesus’ day. Neither does it make sense for Christians to employ those national laws on behalf of the faith.

For Christians could not slay their enemies, or condemn to be burned or stoned, as Moses commands, those who had broken the law, and were therefore condemned as deserving of these punishments; since the Jews themselves, however desirous of carrying out their law, are not able to inflict these. punishments. But in the case of the ancient Jews, who had a land and a form of government of their own, to take from them the right of making war upon their enemies, of fighting for their country, of putting to death or otherwise punishing adulterers, murderers, or others who were guilty of similar crimes, would be to subject them to sudden and utter destruction whenever the enemy fell upon them; for their very laws would in that case restrain them, and prevent them from resisting the enemy. And that same providence which of old gave the law, and has now given the Gospel of Jesus Christ, not wishing the Jewish state to continue longer, has destroyed their city and their temple: it has abolished the worship which was offered to God in that temple by the sacrifice of victims, and other ceremonies which He had prescribed. And as it has destroyed these things, not wishing that they should longer continue, in like manner it has extended day by day the Christian religion, so that it is now preached everywhere with boldness, and that in spite of the numerous obstacles which oppose the spread of Christ’s teaching in the world.4

It may well be true, as pacifists are only too happy to point out, that the New Testament insists that the weapons of “our warfare” are not carnal, and that the kingdom of God does not, as a kingdom, make use of warfare, but that is because, as Origen points out, it differs from the nation of Israel in that it is not an earthly political kingdom with land and borders.

God’s kingdom transcends nations, and no fighting on behalf of a kingdom on earth could ever amount to fighting for the kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom transcends nations, and no fighting on behalf of a kingdom on earth could ever amount to fighting for the kingdom of God. Christians do not slay their enemies (i.e. those who are not in God’s kingdom) or have them executed. That is what one does in defence of an earthly kingdom and that is not what the kingdom of God is. But that nations that are temporal, earthly political kingdoms, like the kingdom of Israel, are not therefore doing wrong when they exercise “the right of making war upon their enemies, of fighting for their country, of putting to death or otherwise punishing adulterers, murderers, or others who were guilty of similar crimes.” And so, Origen reasons, there is no conflict between the commands of Jesus, which relate to the spiritual kingdom of God, and the war and use of force by governments on behalf of earthly kingdoms, for Jesus does not require that such kingdoms do not use violence.

Where then might one get the impression that Origen thought that it was wrong for people to belong to the military? Celsus claimed that Origen’s stance was first and foremost disloyal to society, since it was the stance that Christians should not become involved with the normal, healthy, civil affairs at all, including worshipping the gods of Rome or taking part in the military. In response to Celsus’ call to support the Emperor and, if need be, fight under him or lead an army with him to secure justice, Origen’s reply is that in fact we do help the Emperor in these things – by praying for him in his endeavours. And why should this seem so disloyal, when Roman priests in times of war are permitted to stay in the temple and serve rather than go to fight?

If that, then, is a laudable custom, how much more so, that while others are engaged in battle, these too should engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!” And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them.5

It should strike the reader that Origen countenances the possibility that although he claims that it is more profitable to pray than to fight, those who do fight may well be fighting in a just cause, and the Christians who pray for them pray that those who oppose those who act justly will be destroyed.

The impression Origen gives here is that while it is not for him or for other Christians, fighting is not wrong in itself.

The impression Origen gives here is that while it is not for him or for other Christians, fighting is not wrong in itself. And yet this is the side of Origen that gets him portrayed as a pacifist. It still has to be asked why Origen thought that being a soldier was not for a Christian. If, as he says, the war may be for a just cause, and if, as he says, Christians pray that the opponents of injustice will be destroyed, why shouldn’t a Christian be a part of the army?

Here Origen’s concern appears not to be primarily about the morality of warfare in general, but rather the particular religious concerns of belonging to the Roman army. In book 8, beginning at chapter 65 of Contra Celsum, Origen is at pains to say that swearing allegiance to the emperor carries with it a concession to idolatry, given the pagan religious beliefs associated with the emperor. Celsus seems to know this, as his fundamental objection to the Christians is that they will not give full loyalty to the Emperor. And there is the rub. This is why Origen must find other examples of how Christians support the empire than by taking part in its civic rituals and military service. It is not that civic involvement or warfare is wrong (in fact he explicitly claims that it may be just), but a Christian can never tacitly support paganism. At most, then, Origen is a highly ambiguous voice.


In Hippolytus, however, we have a much clearer voice, preserved in his short work The Apostolic Traditions. There in paragraph 16, we read:

A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.

Not all of this is obvious in its meaning. Naturally a military man has likely killed (or would be prepared to do so), but what does it mean for a military man in authority to execute people? Are they prisoners of war? Persecuted Christians? We don’t know. Hippolytus singles out the oath as sinful. Is this because, like Origen, he regarded it as idolatrous, rather than because it meant belonging to an institution that uses force against others? Why is there something especially wicked about being a military governor? If war is wrong because it uses violence, then surely one’s rank is irrelevant. Is it because of the religious implications? Is this suggested by wearing the purple robe? And precisely how does a person who becomes a soldier “despise God”? Is it because the military uses violence? Or is it because of its religious implications in Rome? Hippolytus does not explain this; presumably the audience at the time would have known the answer to these things. But let’s assume a pacifist answer to all these questions: A military officer should never kill anyone or take the oath, since killing is always unjustifiable. Nobody should hold high office in the military, since serving in the military is wrong by virtue of the fact that it involves the use of force and killing, and if any new believer seeks to become a soldier he should be rejected from the church, because he has despised God by wanting to belong to an institution of violence.

While these restrictions would likely mean that a new convert to the faith who is a ranking officer should be counselled to cease, this was evidently not a concern for Peter, who told the centurion Cornelius to immediately be baptised. But the concern here is not over whether or not these restrictions are biblical or Apostolic. The point is just that they existed, and Hippolytus called them Apostolic.


Back to Tertullian, the earliest Father I will look at here. Here is an interesting case, since Tertullian changed his mind on the issue. In his earlier writings he apparently had no issue at all with Christians serving in the military. He took it for granted, apparently approved of it, and used the fact of Christian involvement in the army as a defence of Christians against slander. The Christians were accused of not pulling their weight in the Empire or really caring about its well-being, but Tertullian would have none of it.

Tertullian’s response in his Apology was that Christians care very much about the well-being of the empire and the Emperor, illustrated in their prayers:

Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Caesar, an emperor would wish. These things I cannot ask from any but the God from whom I know I shall obtain them, both because He alone bestows them and because I have claims upon Him for their gift, as being a servant of His, rendering homage to Him alone …6

Like the later Origen, Tertullian noted that Christians prayed for armies who will secure the security of the empire.

Like the later Origen, Tertullian noted that Christians prayed for armies who will secure the security of the empire. But unlike Origen, Tertullian explicitly counted Christians as being among the soldiers in those armies. In the same work, Tertullian replied to the charge that Christians do not participate in the life of the empire, and are “useless in the affairs of life .” Tertullian does not attempt to excuse Christians. Instead he flatly denies the claim:

We are not Indian Brahmins or Gymnosophists, who dwell in woods and exile themselves from ordinary human life. We do not forget the debt of gratitude we owe to God, our Lord and Creator; we reject no creature of His hands, though certainly we exercise restraint upon ourselves, lest of any gift of His we make an immoderate or sinful use. So we sojourn with you in the world, abjuring neither forum, nor shambles, nor bath, nor booth, nor workshop, nor inn, nor weekly market, nor any other places of commerce. We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you; and in like manner we unite with you in your traffickings—even in the various arts we make public property of our works for your benefit. How it is we seem useless in your ordinary business, living with you and by you as we do, I am not able to understand.7

He then goes on to note that there are exceptions: Christians did not take part in pagan religious rites, wear the floral crown associated with paganism, or go to the spectacles, the blood sports. In chapter 43 he adds that there may be people who suffer a lower income because of people converting to the Christian faith: “pimps, and panders, and bath-suppliers; assassins, and poisoners, and sorcerers; soothsayers, too, diviners, and astrologers.” But notice the way that Tertullian is able to point out that “we sail with you, and fight with you.” Christians fought in the Roman army as a normal occupation like any other.

This is a mundane observation – not singled out for special mention. Clement of Alexandria illustrates the attitude taken by others who did not make an issue one way or the other of military service – apparently sharing the earlier view of Tertullian. Being in the army was a career like any other, and one in which people could be followers of Christ:

As, then, we do not compel the horse to plough, or the bull to hunt, but set each animal to that for which it is by nature fitted; so, placing our finger on what is man’s peculiar and distinguishing characteristic above other creatures, we invite him—born, as he is, for the contemplation of heaven, and being, as he is, a truly heavenly plant—to the knowledge of God, counselling him to furnish himself with what is his sufficient provision for eternity, namely piety. Practise husbandry, we say, if you are a husbandman; but while you till your fields, know God. Sail the sea, you who are devoted to navigation, yet call the whilst on the heavenly Pilot. Has knowledge taken hold of you while engaged in military service? Listen to the commander, who orders what is right.8

Tertullian was not just using exaggerated rhetoric to keep Christians out of trouble. For one, we already know about the “Thundering Legion.” We also know – as a number of pacifist writers did not, simply because of when these discoveries were made – of archaeological evidence that Christians were involved in the military. In one of the most overpriced books ever published on ancient history (which is why I don’t own it), John Shean points out that we have the grave stones of Roman soldiers from the third century identifying their religion as Christian.

Mosaic on the floor of the ancient church in Megiddo

Perhaps even more compelling, in the late 1990s, on the grounds of what is now a prison in Megiddo, archaeologists in Israel discovered what is the oldest known church in the Holy land. It dates from the early third century, containing a table that was used for the celebration of communion (before the use of altars in churches began). What is interesting is what archaeologists found in the inscriptions in the church. The table was evidently gifted by a woman named Akeptous, bearing the inscription: “The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial.” This is interesting for theological reasons, as it shows that Jesus was worshipped as God very early in churches. But my interest is in this inscription: “Gaianus, also called Porphyrius, centurion, our brother, has made the pavement at his own expense as an act of liberality. Brutius carried out the work.” The inscription is made all the more interesting by the fact that Megiddo was essentially a Roman outpost or fortress at this time.

Here we have a church inside a Roman military community, being funded by Roman military officers, who were themselves Christians.

Here we have a church inside a Roman military community, being funded by Roman military officers, who were themselves Christians.

Tertullian and others were right. It was normal for Christians, like anyone else, to take part in the military. However, he changed his mind on the acceptability of them doing so after his involvement with the Montanists. One of the hallmarks of the Montanists was an extraordinary moralism. Tertullian went from saying that Christians pray for brave armies and that they fight in those armies just like others, to this:

But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and 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 (Baptist) 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.9

It is interesting to note that this is a chapter from Tertullian’s work on idolatry, and characteristic of his new moral zeal, he has in the previous chapter condemned as idolatry the wearing of any special clothing or crowns by rulers. After all, Jesus the greatest king of all did not wear any such thing, and “Therefore what He was unwilling to accept, He has rejected; what He rejected, He has condemned; what He condemned, He has counted as part of the devil’s pomp. For He would not have condemned things, except such as were not His; but things which are not God’s, can be no other’s but the devil’s. If you have forsworn “the devil’s pomp,” know that whatever there you touch is idolatry. ” I add this to set the tone – Tertullian is on a rampage here against anything at all that may seem worldly.

What then of his condemnation of military service? At least some of that condemnation is clearly because of idolatry. His reference to the human “sacrament” is likely a reference to pagan sacrifices and the military oath (sacramentum) sworn to the emperor. His reference to the “standard of the devil” is explained by Helgeland as follows: “The standards were considered sacred and as such were housed in a sanctuary (aediculnm) in the permanent camp. All standards partook in numen, the power communicated from the gods to the emperor and to the armies.”10 In his other work where he addresses the question of military service, De Corona, Tertullian analyses the case of a Christian soldier who refused to wear the laurel crown on the grounds of its pagan origin. Tertullian apparently finds no fault with him for being a soldier, and praises him above the other Christian soldiers because of his refusal to take part in idolatry. Hence it is clear that Tertullian’s overall concern was not a moral concern about the military per se, but over the Roman military in particular because of its religious associations. However, there is no escaping the fact that Tertullian maintained that since Jesus had told Peter not to defend him with a sword when Jesus was arrested, by extension Christ forbids anyone from bearing the sword under any circumstances.

The clear voices among the Fathers condemning participation in the military on apparent pacifists grounds are few. The evidence that Christians did take part in the military is undeniable (and there is more such evidence for Christians in the Roman army from the second century onwards).

Christians pacifism may have arguments to be made in its favour. I do not think the argument about “turning the other cheek” is a good argument, as I explained recently. What I want people to take away after reading this article, however, is that the historical argument too must be rejected. In its popular form – claiming that the first few centuries of Christian history were pacifist until Constantine – the claim should be laughed out of town as utterly preposterous. It is quickly whittled down by the facts to a very modest claim: We do know of Christian soldiers in the first century, and from that time until about AD 173, none are specifically named as Christian soldiers, which is not historically significant. When Christianity spread more and more among soldiers, some Church Fathers – although very few – spoke out against military service. Their reasons were not always clear, and certainly pacifist concerns are not always at the forefront. And while these few voices were speaking out, Christians continued, just as they had before, to take part in the military as soldiers and officers.

The strong pacifist narrative of early Christian history is simply, emphatically and demonstrably untrue, and I dare say more the product of ideology and wishful thinking than the study of the facts.

Glenn Peoples

  1. Christian Attitudes to War and Peace: A Historical Survey And Critical Reevaluation (New York: Abingdon, 1960), 67-68 []
  2. C. J. Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War (London: Headley Bros, 1919), 97. []
  3. John Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” Church History 43:2 (1974), 150. []
  4. Origen, Contra Celsum book 7 chapter 25 []
  5. Contra Celsum book 8 chapter 73. []
  6. Apology chapter 30. []
  7. Apology chapter 42. []
  8. Clement of Alexandria, Protrepticus (“Exhortation to the Heathern”) chapter 10. []
  9. On Idolatry chapter 19. []
  10. “Christians in the Roman Army,” 152. []


Pacifism, Matthew 5 and “Turning the other cheek”


Some very short thoughts about evangelicalism and welfare


  1. Jason

    Thanks Glenn. I think Tertullian is my favourite Church Father, but he may have suffered from new convert syndrome when he first became a Montanist. Too much zeal.

  2. Dan

    I find Hippolytus to be a poor example for the pacifist to marshal, because he also prohibited Christians from pursuing the vocation of teacher, among others. Nobody today would likely defend his full stances on vocation.

  3. Thank you very much for this post! I was quite interested to see what you had to say on this subject. My Dad is Retired Air Force and my husband is currently Enlisted. Both of them are devote Christian men. To imply their military service makes them less Christian or not Christian at all makes me…. twitchy. >_O

  4. Julie

    “I find Hippolytus to be a poor example for the pacifist to marshal, because he also prohibited Christians from pursuing the vocation of teacher, among others.”

    I’m curious. I had never heard of Hippolytus before reading this article. I was wondering if there is anything online about this stance against teachers.

  5. Cal

    Hi Glenn,

    I wish I had some of my books with me, but this is not a fair portrayal of all the voices of the early Church on the issue of violence. Some quick points to note:

    -Celsus’ criticism that Origen replies to has to do with the lack of this civil service. Why would Celsus complain about the Christians not being loyal subjects serving in the army unless there was a deficiency or some sort of prohibition?

    -Later Christian writers, like Lactantius, would posit dedication to protecting Rome all the while eschewing violence as a method Christians participate. Here:

    ” For when God forbids us to kill, he prohibits more than the open violence that is not even allowed by the public laws. He also warns us against doing those things that are considered lawful among men. For that reason, it will not be lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself. Nor is it lawful for him to accuse anyone of a capital charge. For it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or by the sword instead. That is because it is the act of putting to death itself that is prohibited. ”

    -Your Clement quote is deficient in failure to capitalize commander whereas it capitalizes Pilot. In this sense, without furtherance of the quote, it is ambiguous. What is the Commander telling the soldier? Jesus Christ may very well be telling him to leave! Here’s Clement:

    “He who holds the sword must cast it away and that if one of the faithful becomes a soldier he must be rejected by the Church, for he has scorned God.

    -You’ve failed to deal with the martyrdom of Maximillian of Tebessa, which stands as a building block to understanding this period. It is debated whether or not this occurred but the debate is illuminating. Maximillian is the son of a centurion, expected to be inducted, but argues against it on the grounds of his Christianity. When the governor rejoins, for the sake of saving his life for treason, “There are Christians in the army”, Maximillian replies, in so many words, “They themselves know what is best for them. But I am a Christian, and I cannot do wrong”. This is all to say that this literature heavily indicts Christians going into the army as being disloyal. This is something that can’t be passed over lightly.

    -The fact that the growing class of clergy for Church elders were still kept from war (as they are now still). Why? War was dirtying and it follows the trend of divide between spiritual Christians and the mass of everyday Christians who were not expected to stand so strictly in line. This division is what continuously sprouted monasticism, as an internal valve in christendom, and more radically in breakaway groups. Lollards, Waldenses, Hussites, Unitas Fratrum and Anabaptists were from this fissure. Many of these groups took rather solid positions that leaned pacifistic in the stream that all Christians had to follow Christ, not merely belong to a blob of christendom with ecclesiola in ecclesia acting as the center.

    -A major issue in antiquity was the state of a Christian in the army if he had converted in its midst. This must be taken into account. One could not just walk off camp with impunity. There are stories of soldiers throwing their belts (a sign of soldiery) at their commanders and renouncing to fight for the world and instead be a soldier for Christ. The implication was they would no longer shed other men’s blood. If you point to the existence of Christians in the army (which there were), you must prove enlistment post-conversion and not merely their existence. That is wholly inadequate.

    These are a few points on this issue. I was a Pagan committed to a world-view driven by the necessary evil of war. Now as a Christian, I see it will still exist. However, we ought to hope in and practice the radical shift of a New Heavens and Earth where self-sacrificial love is the driving force, not violence (as it seems now). Soldiering is not a valid…

  6. Cal, I wonder if perhaps you wrote your comment before you finished reading the article. For instance, you point out, by reference to Origen, an existing concern about Christians shunning civil involvement. However, using Origen’s writing, I suggest a reason for this that you don’t appear to acknowledge. Just presenting the same issue that I’ve responded to doesn’t really offer a reason to reconsider.

    You do offer an argument from silence, however. Yes, Christian soldiers killed (e.g. the legion under Marcus Aurelius), but you add that we don’t know that they converted after already being in the army. But this silence tells us little or nothing. According to the narrative I am showing false, it was pretty universal for Christians to oppose violence in war just because it was violence. You yourself allude to soldiers throwing down their arms. But these soldiers did no such thing. As Tertullian said – they fight with you on the field. I am not excluding the existence of opposing voices. But the popular pacifist narrative is false, plain and simple.

    • Joel

      Lol. You talk about an “argument from silence” and then you argue that Christian soldiers under Marus Aurelius “killed” when the whole story is that they prayed for rain and records nothing about killing.

      Your whole argument is therefore debunked because it isn’t actually silence on this subject, its explicit testimony, whereas your position you even admit yourself IS from silence. You ignore clear testimony and the new testament because it contradicts your tradition.

      Origens language and the purpose of his reply are very clear. It was uncontroversial because it was universal. The early church had rules regarding acceptable professions. Christians could be soldiers so long as they did not shed blood. They couldn’t serve as magistrates in the early church. They also couldn’t be actors, or teach acting due to the moral environment and associations of the time.

      The logical inconsistency of holding a non-mainly-pacifist Christian narrative is breathtakingly duplicitous. How on Earth would Christians who were not at least mostly pacifist allow themselves to be thrown into a circus with never a jailbreak to be found? I mean if people are coming after you and your children – you kill them, right? You assemble a Christian army to overthrow the empire and establish a new kingdom, right?

      All the best finding that in the antenicene church 😂

    • Yes, Joel, I’m sure that the usual work of a soldier was making sandwiches. Or perhaps they were full-time prayer “warriors.” Imagine calling the explicit acknowledgement of people as soldiers “silence”! That’s quite an incredible way to describe direct testimony, or archaeological evidence – or, for example, Tertullian’s express acknowledgement.

      If you take any lesson from all this, Joel, it’s to be resistant to simplified, uncomplicated, smoother-over versions of church history. Also, try to reconsider what counts as “silence.” 🙂

  7. Cal


    I did the read the article and the dilemma with Origen still stands. Is he really saying its acceptable to fight or is he saying that Christians do more for the Empire than fighting ever would? My point was Origen does not respond with a mere “yes Celsus, christians are fighting” he gives a different argument. The reason Celsus brings this up is the fact that they were minimally involved.

    As for Tertullian, it says nothing to do with serving in the army specifically. This may seem like a quibble when lined up against the fact it says “fighting”. A look at the original latin (which I’m unequipped to do so or do so adequately) would say more.

    Then there are quotes from Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Athenagoras et al. that testify to a similar spirit. This is not a slam-dunk case.

    However, this all depends on a rejection of Constantinian Monism that involves the State in the realm of the Church. I have no problem that horrible bestial states come and go and are used by Christ in this world as a restraint. There will be wars and rumors of wars. The difference is that the Church ought not to be apart of this.

    I’m not sure why you call it the “popular pacifist narrative”, maybe it’s that way in New Zealand. A majority of Christians and so-called christians still line up for the army in the States without a singe thought of the idea of returning good for evil.

    I suppose between the both of us the truth lies and it’ll all be sorted out when our Lord returns.


  8. Julie

    I like your post Cal. Not sure if I agree totally but it makes some very good points.

    Maybe I’m just biased but the pastor of my old church was in the army. Originally enlisted, then a chaplain, and then running Everyman’s – which my understanding is that it runs the chaplaincy service in the Australian army – or at least the protestant christian part (I should probably look into it more).

    But because of this, my experience of christians in the army, has always been a positive one.

    Even though I considered joining the army when I was finishing school (ironically only rejecting it because ADFA didn’t offer dual degrees), I now personally probably wouldn’t be comfortable with joining. I don’t think being in the army is wrong per se, but that I don’t trust governments to decide what is just war and what is unjust war. And I would refuse to fight in what I believe to be an unjust war, and refuse to follow unjust orders. And we all know what happens to soldiers who refuse to follow orders.

    Although I’d happily work in a support role where disobeying orders or refusing to participate in unjust pursuits doesn’t carry a jail term as punishment.

    Three of my four grandparents and most of their siblings served in the armed forces for the UK and Australia in WWII and the aftermath and I am proud of that heritage. Christians have a duty to fight injustice and sometimes that means going to war.

    So many people appeased Hitler rather than stand up to him and that had devastating consequences.

    Growing up, my attitude towards war was probably most heavily influence by a fictional piece – Has anyone watched the Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever”? It showed the damage that pacifism can do.

    Also, the true stories of Bonhoeffer and others have been a big influence. Sometimes we have to physically fight evil.

  9. Cal

    I would also add that it would be better to read some more of the full sweep of Tertullian’s apology. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as “fighting with you” means joining the legions. Tertullian uses the same word (translated the same) to reference martyrdom in ch.50 and he is apauled at the behavior of soldiers skewering people in the streets during the festivals in ch.35.

    I think you’re over simplifying the complexity of Roman soldiering as if a man could pick up and put down a sword as he liked.

  10. Cal


    I struggle to take a strictly pacifistic line and yes, it seems like things would fall apart in the model. However, John Howard Yoder makes a good point when he says that Christian pacifism only makes sense because it’s Christian. Why did Stephen go to Jerusalem and preach to his Jewish brothers, where he knew he would surely aggravate them into his own death. In fact the words he spoke were given to him by the Spirit. His death is meaningless unless Christ rose from the dead.

    I agree Christians should fight injustice, but I don’t see any war that it was ever just to fight in. Despite the wickedness of the Nazis, was it right to fire bomb Dresden? To fire bomb the Japanese in Tokyo? Imagine WW2 if Germany was really filled with Christians who would die before they bent a knee to Hitler or held a gun for him. Who took bullets for the Jews. It seems foolish and useless, but that is how the Gospel comes and goes. In weakness with power.

    I certainly recognize there may be times where you act one way and use violence, say to protect a child or a friend. It may have to occur, but it’s not a good thing or a holy or just thing that occurred. It was a necessity and it ought to break us each time it happens.

  11. “Is he really saying its acceptable to fight or is he saying that Christians do more for the Empire than fighting ever would?”

    I don’t really see why this is phrased as an either / or. He clearly thought that prayer had more effect, and (notice, I do not say “but,” I say “and”) he also – if taken at his own word, believed that it is just to engage in warfare sometimes. However, as he also makes clear, he had a strong aversion to the idea of membership in the Roman army. What I would ask people to remember is that objecting to belonging to the Roman army is not the same as endorsing pacifism. There were some uniquely religious reasons for not wanting to be in the army. In Origen’s case, for example, he singles out for mention the sacramentum, an oath of unqualified devotion to the Emperor. So we have to be careful not to jump to conclusions.

    As for Tertullian, he has just finished saying that Christians pray for brave armies, and now he says that Christians take part in the other professions and worldly affairs. He uses several examples, all of which are related to real-world work in the Roman Empire, which was his point: That Christians are good, worldly citizens in the Roman Empire:

    We are not Indian Brahmins or Gymnosophists, who dwell in woods and exile themselves from ordinary human life. We do not forget the debt of gratitude we owe to God, our Lord and Creator; we reject no creature of His hands, though certainly we exercise restraint upon ourselves, lest of any gift of His we make an immoderate or sinful use. So we sojourn with you in the world, abjuring neither forum, nor shambles, nor bath, nor booth, nor workshop, nor inn, nor weekly market, nor any other places of commerce. We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you; and in like manner we unite with you in your traffickings—even in the various arts we make public property of our works for your benefit.

    The attempt to isolate just one phrase from this, as some have, and spiritualise it, is not tenable. Christians sailed and fought alongside non-Christians.

    “A majority of Christians and so-called christians still line up for the army in the States without a singe thought of the idea of returning good for evil.”

    Cal, please be careful. Falling into the strong language of implying that people aren’t genuinely Christians or that they have simply never thought – even once – about the moral and biblical issues surrounding the use of violence is incredibly unfair. It is convenient, I know, to just write off the faith and intellect of those who do not think as we do, but you’ve got to resist that. I now actually have some regret that I didn’t get involved in the New Zealand military. Am I not a real Christian? Do I not think about these things? Take care.

  12. Cal


    That’s incredibly unfair to Origen’s corpus of work when he clearly has problems with not just joining the Roman army but the very act of killing. There are swathes dedicated to spiritualizing the taking of Canaan.

    It’s a bit frustrating to be treated like one can’t read. Yes, I understand the flow of the passage and I’m not spiritualizing it. What does ‘fight’ me? Does it mean living at risk of invasion in a border town? Does it me struggling to exist, like all Romans, in procuring enough to survive (which is what this sweep is about: trade & market relations). I’m not sure Tertullian is even talking about the legions here.

    In what I wrote, I made a distinction. Christians and so-called christians. So I’m not accusing everyone but there are congregations, in the US, that take for granted that “just” (rarely defined properly) war is a good and right. Then you have plenty of people who are just simply in a cloud of christendom and don’t care.

    I’m not writing this as if I’ve had no experience with all this. We’ve fallen on opposite sides here: I had to reluctantly give up pursuing a military career because I could not reconcile it with following Jesus. Perhaps it’s for the best you didn’t end up joining.

    As for the record, I’m not questioning yours or anyone’s walk with the Lord.

  13. “I’m not sure Tertullian is even talking about the legions here. ”

    OK, how many other secular careers involving fighting might there have been – and might Christians have been involved in, as Tertullian claims? I think we can be pretty sure he wasn’t talking about gladiatorial combat. What you are proposing just isn’t defensible in Tertullian: We Christians are world citizens too: We literally attend the the baths, we literally use inns, we literally take part in commerce, we literally sail, we literally till the earth. We literally make public property of our works in the various arts – and we fight alongside you too – but by that I no longer mean that we do this as part of our civic or professional lives, as in all these other examples. No, now I’m suddenly talking in metaphors about that great struggle to exist in today’s difficult world – even though in the next breath I’m about to return to talking about trade and employment again. No, in context this is an obviously wrong reading of Tertullian. It fails to understand the flow of thought – it just doesn’t appreciate the point that Tertullian is trying to make at all.

    There’s a good reason that view of Tertullian’s comments isn’t dominant – if it exists in the literature at all. Historians know about the “thundering” legion of Christian soldiers – That was prior to Tertuallian’s writing here, and Tertullian knew about them. So of course he was able to say “we fight with you.” It was a fact – even if pacifists now think that it shouldn’t have been a fact.

    And you can object to me cautioning us not to jump to conclusions as “incredibly unfair,” but this is not true. This is just a sober look at Origen that tries not to take the easy road of only listening to the evidence that favours one view of where he stood – the error that is the very thing that gave rise to the incorrect pacifist narrative in the first place. I have acknowledged Origen’s rejection of military service in Rome, and I have granted that he is one of the dominant voices that speak negatively about such service, but I refuse to simply exclude inconvenient evidence so that I can present a smoothed over version of facts. I’m perfectly willing to grant that he held views that I don’t – I certainly have to need to claim him as one of “my own,” as it were. But he also – as I showed – gave an argument for why the church doesn’t use force that makes his case look like it’s not decidedly pacifist, and he even said the unthinkable: That wars can be “just,” and that Christians pray that the unjust will be destroyed in war. So we’ve got to resist the easy way here: Origen’s just not as straight forward as the popular pacifist narrative implies, and we have to allow him not to be. He said some things that contemporary Christian pacifists could not. Besides, I would expect a Christian to condemn killing. You don’t think that Christians who accept a just war theory to advocate going around killing people as a way of life, do you?

    In any event, even granting the examples I chose as pacifists, my overriding point here is obviously true: The Christianity of the first few centuries was not, on the whole, pacifist. Now – this is not to say that pacifism is wrong, even though that’s what I do think. This is not an argument against pacifism. This is merely an argument about a popular but misinformed narrative about what Christianity was like prior to Augustine. Christian pacifists are welcome to say that large numbers of Christians in the first few centuries simply got it wrong – indeed, they must say that. But there is no good end to be gained in trying to re-write history. Until I started examining for myself and checking what historians had to say, I too believed the popular, smoothed-over narrative about the Christian movement being pacifist until nasty old Augustine came along. I wasn’t threatened by that, because it’s perfectly acceptable to say that Christians got things wrong – and that’s what Christian pacifists have the option of saying. I do not oppose pacifism because of what Christians did or didn’t do. I oppose it because pacifism is, as bet I can tell, morally wrong in its condemnation of all who use force to defend others.

    Now, if your previous reply to me is indicative of how you see my approach to this, you’ll find this all most unfair, so the last say is yours.

  14. Cal


    No need to get nasty. I don’t understand why you make all sorts of jumps in logic here. I’m not talking about metaphors, I’m talking about the reality of living in the Roman world. You’ve yet to explain why “fighting” extrapolates to a career of soldiering. I’m not spiritualizing here, it’s just simple language conventions. The fact that Tertullian in this same apology has no good opinion of killing (as if it would be just) ought to make one cautious. Unless I can see an exposition of the latin used, it’s useless to hammer this.

    However, for the sake of charity, I’ll concede this point. It’s a possibility your right on this, and you may be thinking “Wow! Way to quibble over something so obvious!”, I’d ask you to refrain for the sake of translation. If I say I fight alongside you, yet I lived in the Midwest during the Indian Wars (American history), that doesn’t mean I joined in the army. It means I might’ve taken up a gun in defense of the town.

    It is unfair for Origen because you disservice his, and men like Lactantius and , nuance. They support the empire, they think the empire does good and they even believe Christians should help run it. But, they don’t think Christians should serve in the army. Why? It’s not a mere calculus of utility. Peace comes by prayer, not sword. Whether or not their triumphalistic assessment is true is another matter. Your blending a very nuanced view of the world here.

    Anyway, I don’t think a good pacifistic narrative says there was never a Christian in the army. The issue was what this meant. Was it condoned or not? Was it something to be wanted or not? A harsh but apt comparison is the man and his mother in law in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. There are Christians who are in sick relationships, is this condonable?

    A huge question still left unresolved is whether or not most of the Christians in the army were they pre or post conversion. One couldn’t just walk off without being put to death and, hard to believe, not everyone wanted to suffer martyrdom. It was an issue of compromise.

    I should’ve asked in the beginning: what popular pacifistic narrative are you referring to? I’ve never seen or heard it nor seen any fingers pointed at Augustine as the originator of all that is wicked. The whole endeavor seems like a big strawman, like trying to prove their were Christian thieves or Christian prostitutes. Of course there were, what did the Church do about it?

    Ultimately this ends up being on what we’re to do today. I’m of the complete opposite opinion. This sort of just-war leveling is extra-scriptural and even if given, there has never been a war that meets all the criteria. Christian pacifism (if you can call it that) is morally irresponsible by the means of the world. No I’m not pulling the sanctimonious card. Violence is of this world, and Christians ought not to participate in prolonging these cycles. Violence does not solve violence and when Christians do (and inevitably will) engage in it, it should be a time of grieving and mourning. Thanks be for the blood of Christ who washes all sins away.

    May we pilgrims both continue on after our Lord,

  15. Cal – I’m not really sure what you meant by getting “nasty.” I don’t think I said anything that could be described that way. As promised, I won’t go back through the details of our disagreement again. However, in answer to your new question: The popular pacifist narrative that have been referring to is the one that I quoted at the start of this blog entry – which is a quote that appears in a couple of locations online. Some examples of this narrative being passed around as fact include:

    George Kalantzis of Wheaton College, the church of the first three centuries after Christ was resoundingly pacifist.
    Rationalwiki claims that “Pacifism appears to have been a core belief of the church for the first three centuries”
    According to, “Christians for the first three centuries after the death of Jesus were pacifists. They rejected the Just War tradition.”

    It’s fairly easy to verify that there are many examples like this, varying in the strength of the claim, and I can attest to hearing the claim made in person many times. At its strongest the claim is that Christianity as a whole was a pacifist movement, and Augustine is the theologian largely responsible for changing this. I call it a popular claim because it is fairly common among modern Christian movements that admire pacifism and see it as a very “Kingdom of God” attitude to take. As I explain in the opening paragraphs of this blog entry, once we turn up the heat and look at how to make the claim more respectable in light of the evidence, it quickly starts to get whittled away into something much more modest and certainly less impressive. A more defensible claim would be: “Christian theologians for the first few centuries very rarely even raised the issue of whether or not it’s acceptable to be in the military, and the question of pacifism was hardly addressed. Just like today, those (although there were not many at all) who clearly did feel strongly enough to speak up about it were opposed to the practice, but we know that their view wasn’t necessarily representative of a general consensus, as evidenced by the fact that being a Christian in the military as a fighter was not strange – and we also know that those who raised concerns over the matter were not always clear on precisely why they were opposed, so they are not automatically countable as pacifists.”

    In other words, my aim here was to get people to stop making extreme claims that just can’t be substantiated – and the popular pacifist narrative is precisely such a claim.

    As I have said, the fact that Christianity as a whole wasn’t pacifist does not show that pacifism is wrong on Christian principles. That wasn’t my purpose in this blog post. However, I have already offered an explanation of why I think the principle of “turn the other cheek” fails to support pacifism in a recent blog entry. This blog entry tackles the popular historical claim, and future blog entries will address some of the other biblical arguments for pacifism, showing why I maintain that they fail. One issue at a time. 🙂

  16. Marcus

    I feel that Glenn’s essay chases the proverbial red herring. Yes, it is true that there were some Christians serving in the military in the centuries prior to Constantine. And yes, modern day pacifist Christians often point to the early Church and make the claim that “it was all pacifist.” None of these things are in dispute. The question that one should be addressing is not whether the early Church was pacifist, but rather, is military service compatible with Christian discipleship?

    The flaw in Glenn’s essay is that it focuses on other Christians, e.g., what the early Christians did and wrote. This is all interesting and well, and can be useful as secondary support for one point of view or another, but this focus on the early Church is the red herring. Rather than chase after the early Church, one should be following and focusing on the teachings, life and example of Jesus.

    You will never find 100% of all Christians agreeing on anything, so to expect the early Church to be 100% in agreement and consistent on the matter of military participation is wishful thinking. So if Glenn is trying to counter the argument that should Christians abstain from military service, he misses the mark by focusing his attention on the wrong subject. One should not focus solely on the early Church, but rather on the teachings of Jesus and his disciples. That’s what is lacking in this essay, and why did fails to counter the pacifist Christian’s claim that Christian discipleship is incompatible with military service.

  17. Cal

    If that’s what they’re saying then that’s just sloppy argumentation. Augustine never expounded a doctrine of Just War. He gave passing mentions of this or that and these bits were collated many years after him to have a systematic doctrine.

    Well, pacifism (anachronistically) was addressed by the early Church but it wasn’t in terms we’d argue in now. It was the issue of killing and whether or not Christians can participate in it. This cover issues like going to blood sports (chariot racing and gladiatorial combat), day to day ethics (issues of self-defense) and joining the legions.


    While I agree with you, that’s not what Glenn’s arguing. Don’t go opening more doors before we’ve finished in the room we’re in.

    I don’t think the sweeping claims made by the “popular” narrative is wrong but it fails to nuance. It’s like the statement that America rebelled against Britian in 1776. While this is true, in a generalized sweeping sense, it leaves out the nuance of only 3% of the population ever participating directly in the war effort throughout the whole revolution, that the South (excluding Virginia) was extremely reluctant to rebel and that there were entire towns and communities that wanted nothing to do with the war or felt sympathy for the British.

  18. Cal

    PS. I’ll try and get you some more sources in regard to the legions sometime soon Glenn.

  19. “None of these things are in dispute. The question that one should be addressing is not whether the early Church was pacifist, but rather, is military service compatible with Christian discipleship?”

    Marcus, as I have already explained: This particular blog entry was never intended to show that Christians should or should not be pacifists. I am doing that in other blog posts. I have done one already where I look at the exegesis of Matthew 5 and the reference to turning the other cheek. More will follow on other passages and theological issues. This particular blog post was only ever about the false historical claim that I see too often. Please don’t fault this post because it fails to prove an entirely different point.

  20. Giles

    Wow, just read this, one of my areas. I’m not going to get into the fathers, though I believe you misread Origen, and also Tertullian. Glad you mentioned Cornelius as that proves Peters attitude would have been known, and would surely have made it impossible for Tertullian to say Christ’s words to Peter disarmed every soldier if in fact Peter took your view. But the proof you are wrong is canon 12 of the council of Nicea. “as many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military belts, but afterwards returned like dogs to their own vomit … let these …be for ten years prostrators.”
    Subsequent Church commentary has held this refers to Christians who fought for Licinius against Constantine. But that’s historically impossible. When Licinius broke with Constantine he purged Christians from his army, prior to that time he was a defender of the faith and service in his army would have been no more objectionable than serving Constantine. And the canon says nothing of Licinius speaking only of soldiers. So there you have it. The Council that defined orthodoxy proves that pacifism was the orthodoxy of the primitive church, and also that Constantine didn’t rig the Council of Nicea!
    I note in this debate pacifists say the church was pacifist, just warriors that it wasn’t. Well I have no axe to grind. Like you I’m not a pacifist, though I am certain Jesus was. I live with the tension rather than rewriting history. Not saying you are trying to do so by the way. Oh and re Hippolytus, you read Greek. You know execute can simply be translated kill.
    Not trying to be feisty. It just seems to me canon 12 makes your understanding impossible. But you have persuaded me before on other matters so maybe you have some killer piece of evidence that would allow us to ignore the canon?

  21. Giles

    The alternative translation of Hippollytus “a soldier of the civil authority must not kill..” makes more sense. On your reading it would be OK for a private to take the pagan oath.

  22. Well I (obviously) don’t think I misread the Fathers I quoted, and clearly I am not alone. I certainly don’t see how anything at Nicea could show, for example, that I’ve gotten Tertullian wrong. Nicea was in the year 325. Moreover, I notice that the section you quoted from Nicea indicates that it was possible for soldiers to leave the Army, and yet we know of examples previously who did no such thing. I also don’t see how my only route here is to get people to “ignore the canon.” We can simply observe that the canon, if it is meant to prohibit military serves and (crucially) to do so because of the fact that it involved violence (we cannot just assume this, as I think you know), then I’ll simply disagree with the canon, and note that there’s no clear evidence that it was the primitive view.

    So I don’t see that Nicea can do the work you want it to. As it turns out, I’ve started writing the next podcast, which is on Christian pacifism.

    I must also say that there’s an error in logic in your reply on Hippolytus. On my reading it states that a Christian military officer must not take the oath. Presumably they are picked on because they would be under more pressure to do so. But you infer from this that it would be OK for a private. But this does not logically follow at all. Why would it be OK for a private?

    As for “execute” vs “kill,” I’ll admit to not knowing the Greek text of Hippolytus. What’s the Greek word translated “execute” there? Evidently some translators think “execute” is correct, and they certainly read more Greek than I do.

    I did a blog on “turn the other cheek” if this subject interests you.

  23. Giles

    Thanks Glenn, I appreciate the response. Sorry to take up do much of your time. Let me start with whether we can assume the objection behind canon 12 is pacifist. Surely we can? Idolatry would no longer have been compulsory by 325.
    Re reading the fathers my point was that Nicea was trying to define the existing orthodoxy of faith and practice, not invent new tenets, so your possible reading of Tertullian’s apology as condoning military service becomes less plausible. The alternative notion, that Peter approved military service, but then the church took a pacifist turn raises the question, where on earth did the church get this idea from, given pagans and Jews alike would have regarded it as insane?
    Concerning soldiers who didn’t leave the army, even my reading of Hippolytus doesn’t demand they do so, merely that they refrain from killing. As for translation, you have me skewered. When I said you read Greek I didn’t mean I do (I studied it for a year only). And I don’t have the text. But the translation I offered seems widely accepted as an alternative, with people seeming to choose based on their convictions.
    I accept your point that your translation doesn’t require us to conclude idolatry would be acceptable for privates.
    Can you reject canon 12? Sure. Luther, who accepted it forbade war, used it to show that councils (or the record thereof) can err. In fact I reject it myself. I see non violence as an ideal fully attainable only by the perfectly wise which I am not. I gave a close friend, a much decorated soldier “The Art of War” for Christmas. I guess my point is that your argument that pacifists should give up claiming pacifism as the primitive orthodoxy, is cast in doubt by canon 12. But then I do agree that pacifists shouldn’t impugn the faith of Christian soldiers. I honour all those of any faith or none who have fought for the freedom I enjoy to sit here and criticise your position. I myself would not refuse the call if the war was just. I don’t consider it proper to say with Origen, “you fight and I will pray for you”. Though I guess it’s exactly what I do say given I have never served.
    Peace (but not pacifism!)

  24. In regard to Tertullian, Giles, I think direct evidence from his own hand is the best source to rely on, and this is what I have provided. Notice too that even if you believe that, contrary to appearances, when he wrote those words he was opposed to military service, the point is his acknowledgement, as though it were common knowledge, that Christians were serving in the military.

    I don’t think that it’s “insane” to imagine that a pacifist movement grew within Christianity. When you consider that for the first few centuries, the army was associated by many with pagan rites and that those executed were often Christians, I think a sympathetic reader can appreciate why an attitude of outright mistrust and denunciation could develop without much assistance.

    Whatever canon 12 called for, it cannot erase any actual evidence we find in earlier centuries for the fact that, whatever we might now wish to have been the case, Christians participated in the military.

    PS – I don’t really “read Greek.” At best I would simply look at the word Hippolytus used (there are several he might have used) and then looked for examples of how that word was most often used. A primitive method!

  25. Giles

    I accept all your points! Certainly there were Christians who served and fought. If I could honestly be persuaded of your reading of the fathers I would be overjoyed. I still think, on balance, that pacifism was the orthodoxy. I shall read your other post at a later point. But I am trying not to read you so much as I can’t resist commenting and then that puts you to trouble if you think you ought to respond. And we all have livings to earn. Thanks again.

  26. Giles

    Oh, you might wish to mention the Synod of Arles of 314 (I’m sure you are familiar) which forbade Christians to leave the army in peacetime. It doesn’t necessarily contradict my reading of Hippolytus that they had to resign rather than kill, but it could be so interpreted.
    In favour of my view it seems that St Martin of Tours served for two years in peacetime under Constantine, but when asked to fight he refused, though volunteering to stand in the front line. But clearly there was a diversity of witness. I think both views can be defended. But I will make this my last comment.

    • Thanks Giles! I was more familiar with the doctrinal / metaphysical declarations made at Arles, and I wasn’t aware of this one. And you’re right, there is a diversity of witnesses. My intention has never been to imply that pacifism didn’t exist, but only to point out that it wasn’t the consensus, which is the story that some tell.

  27. Mark

    Glenn’s point is cogently reasoned and fluently articulated. It’s glib and misleading to state that ‘Christians’ did not engage in military service from the time of Jesus to Tertullian. That would homogenise an array of scenarios spanning many decades. It also glosses over a number of ambiguities: never mind ‘fight’ – define ‘military service’.
    But the claim that – overall – the majority of early Christians were “not pacifist” is wholly unsupported by evidence here presented. At best, such fishing for counter-currents can only land examples of exceptions proving the rule.
    More fundamentally Marcus and Cal cut to the heart of the question with meaningful insights. After the death of the canonical apostles (in fact, in many places, well before) the application and interpretation of Jesus’ teaching quickly diversified. In the absence of monolithic authority prior to the concrete consolidation of Nicea there was a lot of ‘law unto themselves’ about. Then, as now, nominal ‘Christians’ could be found engaging in the full spectrum of variously unsanctioned activity. Jesus predicted that many would say ‘Lord, Lord – did we not do such-and-such in your name?’ but would be condemned by him. He also warned that after his departure ‘wolves’ would lead his sheep astray and speak twisted things. It’s no surprise – and irrelevant – therefore that some would seek to compromise Jesus unambiguous instructions under societal pressure. Time and again Jesus set before his disciples the challenge of following his personal example, or that of the prevailing religious and political paradigm. He made very clear that in such matters compromise was inadmissable. The book of Acts demonstrates how some succeeded; later examples, more commonly, that many failed.
    Actually, I find the ‘arguments from silence’ re: Jesus and John the Baptist quite persuasive: Jesus didn’t tell the Centurion to leave the army; nor did John advise the soldiers accompanying the tax collector to do so. Although, in the latter case, John’s advice favours the view that they were involved only in tangential ‘military’ service. Today, some pacifists are willing to work away from front line duty in medical, maintenance, manufacturing, administrative or other support roles still on the payroll. Also, on several occasions Jesus chose not initially to confront a wrongdoer with condemnation, but this would not be interpreted as tacit approval. Crucially, though, Jesus’ ministry focused almost entirely on extending the invitation to Jews in Judea, Perea and Galillee. Conversations with Samaritans were rare exceptions. Although Jesus performed miracles almost indiscriminately, Roman gentiles were not permitted to join the congregation until at least three years after Jesus’ death. Likely, Jesus would not have addressed a centurion as he did the rich young Hebrew ruler invited to be his follower on the proviso that he first sold everything he had.

  28. Giles

    I don’t think Glenn was saying most Christians weren’t pacifists, just that not all were, something that Tertullian’s testimony about Christians who did fight places beyond doubt. Whether John was silent is moot. Part of his advice can be translated “do violence to no man”.

  29. Mark

    But that’s the nub of it: the major testimony from this period (from which there is minor dissent) has it that one renounced ‘true’ Christianity by swearing allegiance to a human master – killing in his name and for his cause. According to the prevailing view, a Christian might join the army but in so doing would no longer be entitled to call themselves Christian. But who bestowed such entitlement? In the fragmented post-apostolic, pre-Nicean era, some were evidently free to title themselves literal ‘Christian soldiers’ and found no contradiction in this position, whereas most found it heretical.

    Constantine embodied Augustine’s resolution to this conflict: a king who both commanded an army and presided over a Christian state religion could uniquely, legitimately exhort Jesus’ followers to march under the banner of just war.

    But again, the nagging question persists: who is entitled to entitle? Who adjudicates proper Christian behaviour? Augustine? Origen? Tertullian? None have authority in themselves beyond what is based on and (the tricky part) legitimately extends the sense of Jesus teaching and personal example. Even Jesus himself was often careful to base his words on pre-existing texts: “It is written…”

    Post-apostolic writers offer (at best, but no more than) useful snapshots of local or current opinion. It’s sensible not to co-opt them too fervently one way or the other in to bolster our preferred viewpoint. If ‘Christian’ most fundamentally means ‘doing what Jesus did and taught’ then later elaborations are irrelevant. How we follow that path as individuals is for no man to judge: we stand accountable for our actions before God alone.

    But considering the record of the great and varied divergence from Jesus’ instruction over many centuries, it’s all too easy to be wrong-footed by following a meandering follower rather than following the leader. Who cares what Tertullian said. What did Jesus say?

  30. Giles

    Here’s why I think the fathers matter. What did Jesus mean when he said “don’t resist one who is evil”? We all know what Jesus said. We can all turn to the Greek lexicon, resist means “stand against” and is commonly used of battle. No one disputes Jesus said “those who take up the sword will die by the sword”. What’s in dispute is if this entails pacifism. And here the fathers are a link to the Apostles. So if the fathers agreed that in the latter text “Jesus disarmed every soldier” it’s powerful evidence that Peter might have taken this view and taught it to Cornelius.
    Alternatively might the anti-militarism of at least some fathers have resulted from the fact that at the time the Church was born Rome was an occupying force dedicated to subjugation? So that the change in attitude shown by soldiers serving in the 2nd Century can be attributed to the fact that by Tertullian’s time the army was seen by provincials not as an occupying force but rather as a bulwark against Barbarian invasion?
    Understanding whether all the fathers were pacifist matters, as if they were it weighs in favour of the view that non violence was passed down by the Apostles. So to establish the legitimacy of Just War theory one must whittle away the pacifist narrative. Or take the line that I do that Jesus promoted non violence as a more excellent way without necessarily ruling out exceptions to the rule. As I say I believe Jesus, the Apostles and the fathers did teach non violence as a general principle, yet there are circumstances in which I would regard the use of force (eg to prevent a murder) as the least violent available option. Nevertheless I am aware that means siding with the minority report in the early Church and I think it’s important for Just Warriors to acknowledge that. And in the absence of such a minority report I think my/Glenn’s position would be untenable.

  31. Giles

    To elaborate a little. The question in first century Palestine wasnt, “is it permissible to join the army?” but “is it permissible to take up arms against Rome?” That’s the context of “do not resist one who is evil” which is why Jesus talks of being forced to carry a soldiers backpack for a mile. In that Sermon he lays out techniques for non violent resistance. If someone slaps you on the right cheek (a backhander from a social superior) you show him the left. He can’t backhand you again as that would mean using the left hand – a social taboo.
    The context of the soldiers mentioned by Tertullian, defending provincials from barbarian rape and murder was very different to that of Cornelius, serving in an occupying army. So the question becomes to what extent was Jesus non violence a rule or a tactic? I think it was both but I don’t see it as an inviolable rule. At any rate I agree with you that we stand accountable to God alone and each must wrestle with what Jesus teaching entails in their time and context. Augustine’s Just War theory didn’t come out of nowhere. Origen talked of just wars even while forbidding military service to Christians.

  32. Giles

    I have decided you are right about Tertullian. By commending active Christian soldiers to the Emperor he accepts them as true Christians (he would not have commended heretics) and at least winks the eye at the minority report. He must have changed his mind later. I hate to base my liberty of conscience on a man who believed we would delight in the torments of the damned but I think he the only father who comes close to approving military service by Christians.

  33. Giles

    Pre Nicene father I mean.

  34. Ben Stasiewicz

    Hi Cal, can you please point me to where Clement says :

    “He who holds the sword must cast it away and that if one of the faithful becomes a soldier he must be rejected by the Church, for he has scorned God.”

    I’m having trouble finding it.

  35. Ben Stasiewicz

    “If, as he says, the war may be for a just cause, and if, as he says, Christians pray that the opponents of injustice will be destroyed, why shouldn’t a Christian be a part of the army?”

    I agree that preventing ‘concession to idolatry’ could be a reason why Origen said a Christian shouldn’t be part of the Roman army. But I think there’s another important reason. In Contra Celsus Book III chapter 7 we see that the Christian Law-giver [i.e Jesus] has “altogether forbidden the putting of men to death”, “nowhere teaches that is is right for His own disciples to offer violence to any one, however wicked” and that he “did not deem it in keeping with such laws as his … to allow the killing of any individual whatever.”.

  36. As a great fan of Origen, but I am disappointed in his position on war, as explicated here. He talks about those who “engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!”

    Is this really what Origen is doing, namely advocating what we ultimately have here in America, a nearly idolatrous worship of warriors and wars that preserve our the Freedoms so vaguely mentioned?

    No, I read this as referring only to what the pagan priests do. Origen’s real view is presented afterward: “we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace.” Perhaps I am missing something, but this seems to be a marked difference. Origen advocates praying to stop war, while the pagan priest are praying for successful war. I see Origen as opposing the false, nationalistic prayers of Celsus and the Emporer to the moral, and, yes, pacifist, prayers of Christians.

    • Tadd, I don’t see any conflict between those two prayers. The destruction of whatever is opposed to the righteous cause, and the vanquishing of the demons who stir up war. Can you unpack where you think the contradiction lies there?

  37. Hi Glenn, I think the title of your post says it all: whittling down the pacifist narrative.

    The attitude is that the narrative, the big story, the whole story, should be qualified and negated bit by bit to refute the conclusion the narrative gets us to. All the sub-plots, all the twists and turns are magnified and developed, to undermine the author’s intention: the conclusion the book reaches. The very point of the story is turned right around.

    This is the approach of the defence lawyer: qualify, question, proposing alternative scenarios where the narrative of the prosecution isn’t established, and where the conclusion fails. The defence lawyer prevails so long as enough doubt is created. The prosecution narrative then just becomes an opinion, a theory, and an unsafe one upon which a verdict cannot be rested.

    I fear this is the approach of doubt rather than faith. I believe we are called to accept the narrative as a whole by accepting its conclusion and understanding it in light of its conclusion. Sure there are sub-plots and twists and turns, but our faith is on the grand conclusion. The conclusion qualifies the sub-plots and the twists and turns.

    Perhaps an example would help. The law of Moses prescribed and mandated the death penalty for murder. For other capital crimes a financial penalty could be substituted, but not for murder. To negate and abolish the death penalty, the lawyers went to work in a lawyery way. The burden of proof was jacked up so high that the Sanhedrin that put a man to death in 7 years was bloody, and the one who put a man to death in 70 years was too, and others insisted if they were on the council no one would be put to death. The abolition of the death penalty was de facto.

    The narrative we have is that Jesus abolished it de jure. He fulfilled that law in laying down his own life as a capital convict. He fulfilled that law by ruling that all the blood shed on the land since Abel would be avenged against Jerusalem at the destruction of the temple in his generation. Then would those who resorted to the sword of rebellion be killed with the sword of Rome. Then would the song of Moses be fulfilled:
    Rejoice, you nations, with his people,
    for he will avenge the blood of his servants;
    he will take vengeance on his enemies
    and make atonement for his land and people.

    Now the early Christian writers picked up on this. They understood that to put a man to death, even a guilty one, and even through the official channels of legal formality and state power, was disallowed, prohibited and abolished.

    Now if the Jews of Jesus’ time, and the earliest followers of Jesus agreed with the theory and the practice of not killing even the guilty, even following due process of law, how can we start fishing for support for the death penalty by magnifying side remarks and miscellaneous material from wherever we can glean it to come to the position that the death penalty is just fine as long as it is done right and subject to the right qualifications and administration? That is the negation of the climax and the point of the narrative: Jesus Christ abolished death and brought the ministry of death to a flaming end when the blood of those who shed the blood of the prophets was avenged in fulfillment of the law of Moses and its death-penalty-for-murder regulations. The law of Moses concerning the death penalty for murder was fulfilled; even the two witnesses requirement was met (John 8:13f, Rev 11…

  38. Let’s continue to the question of litigation which you did not even raise. Have a look at this quote:
    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? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs? (Tertullian, The Chaplet, Ch XI)

    Now notice how his argument works. Given that Christians do not even resort to coercion and worldly courts to recover money, then how can the Christian resort to the sword and take life?

    Now the problem with this argument, for you, is that you don’t accept the premise: you think there is no problem with worldly litigation and coercive legal judgement per se. As long as the laws are ‘just’ and the courts ‘fair’ and not corrupt or whatever you don’t have any problem with using them to recover money, I will assume. But that position is not the early Christian position which was against worldly litigation entirely and unconditionally, either the debtor must pay because he has the means and the honour or because he wants to do business with you or others like you again, or you have to walk away from the debt and forgive it. Given this fact, the argument provided by Tertullian works just fine and undermines your interpretation of him (unless you are right he taught different things at different times or contradicted himself which may well be true).

    Now if we want to understand the Christian teaching on killing, then I think Tertullian is perfectly correct, we need to understand the Christian teaching on using coercion for any end, including the end of recovering money. And here we find again that the narrative comes to the conclusion that you I guess don’t want to accept. So you scratch around and build your case against it from bits and bobs where you can find them. And the bits and the bobs come together to turn a rule of give no sworn testimony to make it mean you can give sworn testimony as long as it is truthful and necessary for legal proceedings like recovering legitimate debts. And that ‘do not judge’ has nothing to do with taking or hearing civil lawsuits in coercive worldly courts. And that resist not an evil person means you can resist him as long as you do so with truthful sworn testimony in a proper government court. And that the judicial institutions Jesus did give us in Mat 18:15-20 are only for resolving internal church administration issues such as whether it is acceptable to have guitars and drums as part of the church music.

    The grand conclusion is that Jesus did establish a new legal jurisdiction and judicial institution, the court of the three (i.e. the ad hoc court of the sages where each side chooses one, they together choose a third), who were to hear and decide cases, and that he empowered them with all power on heaven and earth. And the most severe sanction he permitted was an order to shun. And that he prohibited the alternative means of getting legal remedies that involved giving sworn testimony. If you listen to most modern teachers forgiveness is applicable to insults from your mother-in-law or non-Christian boss mocking you and not much more. Surely it doesn’t involve forgiveness of debts of money! The literal application is treated as secondary, and the metaphorical application primary!…

  39. Not sure why the comments get cut off even though it is within the character limit, but anyway.

    To conclude: the narrative, the big story is the end of the means of violence and coercion and bloody warfare: swords, legions, beasts with iron teeth, and the coming of the kingdom of heaven, the reign of clemency, forgiveness, grace, mercy, reconciliation and peace. Those First Century saints were promised that they were peacemakers who sowed in peace and would reap a harvest of righteousness. The means of achieving justice and the right way of living was the way of peace as the means. The new heaven and new earth in which righteousness dwells would come when heaven and earth — and the Law of Moses — passed away, at the fall of Jerusalem, the end of the age harvest time. Then would the tares be gathered up to be burned, then heaven would come down to earth and then would the tree of life give its leaves to heal the nations. Then there would be no more death. This is the conclusion of the narrative.

    No more death means no more death. The ministry of death ends. Death is abolished. Then him who held the power of the fear of death was defeated. Then was the death penalty applied to the body of death, then the dispute over the body of Moses was settled, the eagles gathered to dispatch the corpse, as our Lord predicted.

    Glenn wants us to stay in the body of Moses, and to live by and under its means of coercion, fear and death. He doesn’t call it the body of Moses but it is spiritually the body of Moses. This is the consequence of whittling away at the narrative: you turn the conclusion upside down.

    Maybe it is time to come out, Glenn. Embrace the conclusion of the narrative.

  40. Giles

    David, a genuine question. If Jesus hadn’t allowed his disciples to carry swords Peter would never have been able to cut off a man’s ear. Granted Jesus took the opportunity to condemn violence but one can’t use that as justification of Jesus allowing his disciples to carry swords without embracing the whole ends justify the means that undergirds the Just War doctrine. So doesn’t this undermine what you take to be Jesus non violent witness?

  41. Sure, genuine questions should be asked about all the twists and turns and all the proffered counter-examples.

    The Jewish way of teaching is not limited to words, and a lot of the words are figures of speech and parables. It takes quite a bit for us to get into the mind-set and style of a Jewish sage in the First Century. Cursing fig trees, for example. Stories about vineyards and weddings and the stars falling to the earth and all that.

    Jesus used a bravado of royal power to impress a donkey. Does that justify and suggest that coercive royal power is how his kingdom works?

    Jesus made a whip and overturned the tables of the money-changers, and made chaos and a stampede of animals and their owners in the temple after them. Does that justify and suggest that he endorsed the coercion and the sword that he said he came to bring upon that people and that city and that temple?

    The actions of Jesus were frequently acted out parables, and they were dramatic, forceful and provocative. His verbal parables were hardly any more meek and mild: the king was enraged and sent his army to kill those murderers and burn their city. The sons of the kingdom will be thrown outside. The vineyard will be taken from them and given to others who will give him his share of the harvest. The language is often violent.

    But that doesn’t meant that the message of the parable was to endorse or institute or justify violence. We have to look at these events as parables, they generally have one main point and most of the rest is there to make the story work or to build the context for the punchline.

    The punchline for most of the parables including those acted out was the same: the axe was at the root of the tree and the three that did not produce fruit would be cut down and thrown into the fire. The parables and the teaching are mostly predictive of the fall of Jerusalem and the significance of that event as the coming of the kingdom of God, the passing of heaven and earth, the end of the age, the coming in judgement, the avenging of the blood of the martyrs, the gathering of members into a new body, resurrection of the dead and so on.

    Jesus taught through the sword exercise the teaching about the sword. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. The punchline is the same. Living by the sword is the resurrection of the unjust. The unjust would rise up in rebellion, as Gog and Magog, to fight THE war. The sword is about war, not capital punishment, and not civil administration. Jesus said he came not to bring peace but a sword. Israel would be divided into two: the followers of the true Christ, and those who followed false christs to rebellion, seeking freedom via the sword. As Paul taught, those who persecuted the Christians would not be repaid by Christians, they would be rebel and be repaid by Rome, who then carried the sword and who then collected taxes. This was God’s agent of wrath, to repay Israel for shedding the blood of the martyrs. See Romans 12-13, Mat 23-24, 2 Thes 2.

    Yet Paul was very upset about that coming day upon his countrymen according to the flesh (Rom 9:1-4). Jesus wept over Jerusalem at the thought of this judgement he predicted so many times. That tells us there is no endorsement of that sword of vengeance.

  42. Giles

    I don’t disagree with your thrust. Non violence was the stance of the pre Nicene fathers who wrote on the subject albeit not, as Glenn points out, those lay soldiers whom Tertullian at least seemed to wink at. But surely to say that Jesus used the sword exercise to disavow violence is to say the end justifies the means?

  43. That is a curious wedge of an argument Giles. The actions and the means we are talking about are essentially rhetorical. They are used to communicate a message. Their violence is somehow a symbol, like Hananiah breaking the yoke off the neck of Jeremiah.

    Perhaps an example would help. Jesus forbade swearing oaths, and yet Paul used oaths for rhetorical effect in his letters. Now most people say this is what Jesus really meant: swearing oaths for non-serious matters or that are not intended to bind in a legal sense were prohibited, and oaths should be reserved for ‘matters of weight and moment’ (Westminster confession). It is fairly obvious that it is the other way around: Paul’s rhetorical use of oaths was permitted because they were not in connection with appeal to coercive remedies Christ abolished and forbade and that were the reason for the prohibition on swearing oaths in the first place.

    The real issue is not the symbolic or rhetorical and incidental use of low-level violence in, for example, impressing the donkey or clearing the temple. Arranging the presence of two swords is hardly the same as endorsing their use, especially when the point being made by the exercise was the opposite and Jesus never answered Peter’s question in the affirmative.

    The more weighty issue instead is the providential use of the sword in prophecy and in God’s scheme or redemption. The use of the Roman sword as God’s agent of wrath, and the celebration of its use to destroy ‘Babylon’ raises the question of whether God uses evil means to take vengeance upon his enemies. A closer look shows how it works: God mourns when the wicked reject the way of peace and suffer war instead (Luke 19:41f). God hands men over to suffer from sin, and Jerusalem filled up the measure of her sin and bloodguilt. That measure was poured out upon her when she fell (Deut 32:32-35; Is 65:6-7; Mat 23:29-39; Luke 21:20-24; 1 Thes 2:14-16; Rev 17:4-6; 18:4-8).

  44. Giles

    I agree with everything you say with one exception. If my ear had been cut off I wouldn’t see it as low level violence even if it got reattached. I do agree that the pacifist narrative is sufficiently strong that dissenters much search for exceptions to the rule. But I do also note that the fathers who forbade all litigation went beyond Paul, who urged only that Christians should settle their disputes out of court.
    I am inclined to think with developing techniques of non violent resistance and non lethal disabling weaponry the gap between the pacifist and the Just warrior is shrinking. I can imagine a future where stress on the “last resort” criterion turns just warriors into de facto pacifists.

  45. Giles

    I have been thinking about my own question, that curious wedge as you call it. I think the key is “he must be numbered amongst the transgressors” Jesus was showing solidarity with sinners, even violent sinners, without approving their violence.

  46. Giles

    Nevertheless he clearly thought the temporary loss of a man’s ear was a price worth paying to teach a lesson. I still wonder if that is compatible with a pacifist commitment. I mean would you in certain circumstances be prepared to counterfeiting grevious bodily harm whilst drawing the line at killing?

  47. David Hillary

    Giles, sure you can object to losing an ear temporarily as low level violence, I guess I was thinking of impressing the donkey and clearing the temple where Jesus was the one doing it. Jesus set up a little object lesson with the two swords. And God set up a big object lesson called the scheme of redemption. Both involved violence. God even commanded the death penalty and conquest. And he employed foreign empires to deal with man and his people in history. And we need to deal with these and make sense of them and how they show us God and his character and his will.

    I submit that the only way to approach the issues is in the context of the narrative as a whole and its conclusion in particular.

    Although I hate this form of argument perhaps it has a place here : we are called to be obedient and faithful to the way and the teachings and it is not our role to do calculus on means and ends when the means are prohibited to us and the ends are less violence or a better society. God’s calculus, if we need to resort to it apologetically, is not necessarily ours.

    Why do you think the early Christians exceeded Paul”s restrictions on litigation in state courts? Paul followed his master in prohibiting resort to state courts because of the issue of the forum, rather than whether the dispute was between believes or a believer and an unbeliever. Paul taught that the Christian church would judge the world. And he taught that there were basically two alternatives: the remedy the church could get or to be defrauded. So absolute was the prohibition on resort to state courts Paul said it was better to be defrauded than resort to state courts.

  48. David Hillary

    Giles, I can’t accept your theory that better non-lethal tools of coercion are a solution. We can have very well paid, well trained police force, subject to strict discipline and a host of humane regulations to deal with the dangerous and disturbed and those resisting arrest. We can have well built jails with good provisions for climate control and food and safety. We can have well administered judges and efficient procedures for case management. But these things are all false gods and are the anti-christ. This is the therapeutic state, the welfare state, the most seductive and anti Christian institution ever imagined.

    Most who call themselves Christian have been totally seduced by it.

    But the Christian faith and message is rival to this : the rejection of coercion as the means. We have no jails, no arrest powers, no property seizures, no debtors prison, no coercion. Instead we have a community of honour and support, a system of discipleship and discipline, a jurisdiction of power but not force. A ministry of reconciliation, a river of life and the tree of life for the healing of the nations.

    The therapeutic state takes a lot of good and Christian policies and goals and incorporates them into the state power, control and coercion system. It purports to have healed the state of its brutality. But it is only the iron fist in the velvet glove.

  49. Giles

    Well I love your Tolstoyan hymn. I was a Christian anarchist for twenty years. But the Pauline passage I am aware of (in Corinthians) is dealing with disputes between believers and Paul didn’t think it better to be wronged that to appeal to his Roman citizenship to escape punishment. The reason I am no longer an absolute anarchist/pacifist is that I believe they go beyond the text in making non violence an absolute rule. True Tertullian said Jesus by his words to Peter disarmed every soldier, but that is interpretation, albeit one shared by the other pre-Nicene fathers who wrote about this subject.

  50. David Hillary

    Paul never resorted to filing a lawsuit against anyone post conversation. Both Jesus and Paul were subject to legal action that lead to their deaths and both gave testimony concerning what they were accused of and what they had actually done and taught. In both cases good argument was made to exonerate and spare them and in both cases it nearly worked.

    As with the pacifist narrative we can try to grasp at straws to whittle away at it. But again the story and its point is that they were on trial for teaching or being a rival to the power of Rome and the Jewish state’s leadership. Jesus was on trial for opposing payment of taxes and for claiming to be the christ, a king, and leading a rebellion against Rome. Paul was on trial for the resurrection of the dead, which was the hope of the 12 tribes. The resurrection of the pharisees was a national one and did not involve physical bodies coming out of the dirt. And Paul identified that hope and that promise and those old testament prophecies as what his trial was all about. The old testament predicted a national resurrection and the war (ez 37-39) . Isaiah and hosea and Daniel predicted the same. Paul insisted he taught nothing other than what moses and the prophets said. And that he was on trial for the doctrine of the pharisees and for the earnest hope of his country and his people. The politics and the threat of this teaching is generally totally missed because of a wrong understanding of the nature of the resurrection and the idea it has something to do with giving us personal life in individual human bodies. The resurrection body is the collective immortal spiritual body founded by jesus Christ, against which the gates of death will not overcome.

    Both Paul and jesus advanced arguments and used tactics to defend themselves and the Christian cause by showing how the Jewish and Roman legal systems failed to provide the protections and benefits they claimed to enshrine. Are we are to grasp from these complex legal stories that the Christian stance was somehow in favour of use of and resort to and acceptance of them, at the expense of the ascendancy of the kingdom of God and the jurisdiction of the church?

  51. “The attitude is that the narrative, the big story, the whole story, should be qualified and negated bit by bit to refute the conclusion the narrative gets us to. All the sub-plots, all the twists and turns are magnified and developed, to undermine the author’s intention: the conclusion the book reaches. The very point of the story is turned right around.”

    Well that’s not what I meant. All I meant is that some pacifists have a neatly smoothed over narrative of history, according to which all the Fathers clearly affirmed absolute pacifism and there are no exceptions until wicked compromisers like Augustine came along an formulated a just war theory. I’ve whittled down this narrative by showing that it over-simplifies things and isn’t defensible. I’ve certainly not turned the point of any story right around.

    • David Hillary

      I concur with you that the forthright and enthusiastic pacifism of the earliest Christian writers failed to be consistent in some minor ways and the reasoning they advanced for their positions was a bit confused at times. They provided the seed of some of the ideas that did reverse the narrative and the position with enough time and opportunity and temptation. In particular their defense of Christianity as not wholly rival to the claims of the roman empire opened the door to legitimisation of the roman empire. And the rest is history.

      If we want to be faithful it is our duty to reverse the reversal. If we are to be wise we should succeed where they failed in their reasoning and exegesis.

  52. Giles

    David, whilst admiring your exegetical skills in the end we must all follow our own conscience. George Fox said to one who wore a sword “wear it while you can.” Gandhi said “if you have a sword in your bosom pull it out and use it like a man!” like Peter I have a sword in my bosom. I would not be the first to unsheath it but I might wield the second of those swords Jesus referred to in his rebuke to the Apostle. Here I stand, I can do no other etc

    • David Hillary

      OK, Giles, so you think Jesus was being sufficiently ambiguous with ‘no more of this! Put your sword away’? Could be just for Peter, just for the arrest, just after suffering him to use it once… I guess you can read in all manner of contextual qualifiers there. But do you? If so, what is the exegetical basis for finding them and what are they? And what is the motivation for developing them? Although normally I discount motivational arguments, here permit me to inquire and to test. Let it not be permissible to be motivated to water down the teaching or the teacher.

      How about the command of Paul never to repay evil with evil and to bless those who curse you and to feed your enemies etc. Is this to be qualified, is it subject to exceptions and exemptions? If so, what is the exegetical basis for them and what exactly are they? And again what is the motivation for developing and applying them as you do.

      How about when Jesus gave the procedure for pursuit of remedies. Do you interpret this as being subject to qualifications, exemptions and exclusions? If so, develop, defend and justify what they are and your motivation.

      I am sick of people asserting exemptions, exceptions, qualifications and opt outs and failing to properly develop and defend them and avoiding the discussion about motivation and intended application. Appeal to one’s right to have an opinion and to follow conscience seems to be a cop out to avoid the serious exegesis.

      My objection to Glenn and his writing and arguments are not to the quality and his development of the issues. He is an old friend of mine and I respect his scholarship and presentation. My objection is to the overall approach of whittling away at the key messages and conclusions I see from the narrative and that I believe can be very well supported both historically and exegetically. Honestly, why make it a thing to limit, qualify, and attack piece by piece to the point of negating? Of course he will deny that result and claim to be seeking nuance and balance. But I don’t buy it, I see it stronger and stronger the more I study it.

  53. Giles

    David, to me your challenge to continue in an exegetical duel is similar to a hypothetical challenge from Glenn to continue the Calvinist-Arminian duel until I have proven libertarian free will to his satisfaction. A fools errand as he already knows my verses and I already know his and we probably both even have a good idea of how the other would interpret “our” verses. My mind can be changed by exegesis, Glenn convinced me of conditional immortality, but having an intimate familiarity with Christian pacifist/anarchist arguments, indeed having convinced a Church of England cleric to join a community focused on studying the pacifist fathers, I still say those fathers went beyond the text. But to answer one of your questions I do see an ambiguity in Christ’s words to Peter. Someone has to wield the second sword that punishes the drawing of the first. You may say on the basis of the fathers’ teaching “let it not be a Christian hand” but again that is interpretation. As for as exceptions to Christ’s rules are concerned, clearly there are none to the two greatest commandments but Jesus citation of David appropriating the holy bread and his understanding of Sabbath observance indicate their might be exceptions to others. I think we are answerable to one another so you may ask about motive. I will happily admit my exegesis of the text is influenced by my knowledge I would kill to save my daughter from harm and thus I can’t condemn another for doing the same. What of it? Is our conscience not allowed to speak? Remember it is not believers whose conscience is said to be seared. I am happy to listen to your exegesis and acknowledge the weight of your case, but I stand with those Christian soldiers (and whilst I don’t believe Tertullian was ever a just warrior he describes them as such) who defended the citizens of Marcus’ empire against rape and pillage. If you want to say I am not submitting to the text or even excommunicate me, be my guest! But I will have to decide for myself when you have persuaded me with your exegesis.

    • David Hillary

      OK, good to see you are open to review of the case on the issues and I accept your claim to familiarity with the issues and arguments for Christian anarchy and pacifism.

      Perhaps you are weary of a lot of exegetical dueling. And you are right that you are the judge and the one who decides what you want to believe and how you live your life.

      Let me invite you to develop your analysis of the two swords. So we have two swords of the party of Jesus. And the use by Peter and the rebuke and the lesson. What is the lesson? What is the character of the sword that kills those who resort to the sword? Who are those who resort to the sword and when do they so resort to it and where and who and how and when is the repayment?

      My analysis and exegesis is based on on the sword teaching of mat 10, luke 21 and Romans 12-13 that the sword is the revolt, the Jewish war and the Divine repayment through the Roman agent of wrath at the fall of Jerusalem ad 66-70.

      May I suggest you consider the case for this meaning and interpretation, and develop your own or anything you think is better. I can understand if you find my exegesis foreign and unfamiliar. Chew on it and share your thoughts. I am not inviting you to duel, rather to consider and develop.

  54. Giles

    Thank you, I will ponder on it. It seems prima facie plausible.

    • David Hillary

      Giles, some time ago I did a word study on the word ‘sword’. My technique was conflation : try to make all the usages of the word mean and refer to the same thing. Then see how far you can go. If it breaks you have gone too far. If it doesn’t break consider that it might be a united doctrine. My result was a significant common usage linking sword to ‘the war’ and ‘the rebellion ‘

  55. Giles

    Interesting technique. I will bear it in mind. I do understand the frustration you have when you have what’s seems an ironclad case but others just don’t seem able or willing to grasp it. t drives me crazy whenever someone quotes the parable of the talents to justify lending money at interest. The point of the saing “if you knew I was an unjust master willing to reap where I did not sew why didn’t you bank my money and give me the interest” (or words to that effect) is precisely that an unjust man, willing to reap where he hadn’t sown (the classic criticism of usury) would be willing to accept interest. A just man wouldn’t. I’m sure some of the exegetical moves made by just warriors enrage you equally.

    • David Hillary

      No, friend, I don’t feel or get enraged by those who don’t see what I feel is important and supported by good scholarship and faithful submission to the word. Let me share with you my experience. I used to be a good friend of Glenn and agree with his ideas about almost everything. I thought I had a good understanding of the Bible and Christianity. I didn’t know how little of the context and culture etc. I understood.

      Then I walked away from the faith. I studied it from the perspective of an unbeliever. I felt OK to disagree with the bible and any creed or interpretation. I studied legal and social theory. I figured jesus was a whole lot less statist than he was interpreted to be. And as man fond of freedom and spontaneous order I liked Jesus more than I liked most Christians. After a very long time I figured that Jesus was killed by the state. I can get that! I figured out I could and would follow him.

      I wasn’t a pacifist. I felt I needed to study the teaching. I couldn’t understand or agree with everything Jesus said and taught but I chewed on it. I tried to accept it. And I studied it. And it grew on me.

      Given how well I thought I studied when I knew Glenn and how long it took me to understand and accept it, and I could still be wrong about a lot of things so I don’t feel anger when others don’t understand or agree. But at my age (40) I need to live and practice and lead my wife and family and others I am responsible for so I have to submit to and follow the teaching as I understand it. And come what may, I pray that I can follow the teachings.

    • David Hillary

      Re the interesting technique, you can also try it on the word body in the new testament. You can get body of Christ = spiritual body = immortal body = incorruptible body. And you can get body of Adam and body of moses = body of death = mortal body = corruptible body. So you fail to conflate the two bodies because they are in antithesis.

      And if you cast the verbal net a bit wider you get :

      Body of christ= the church = the new man= the new creation = the new heaven and the new Earth = new Jerusalem = heavenly city = the Jerusalem above = enduring city = immortal body = life giving spirit.


      Old man = body of death = Jerusalem below = the prostitute = the kingdom shaken = the old heaven and the old earth = the flesh = corruption etc.

  56. Giles

    Thanks for the exegetical tip. It is hard to practice what one preaches. I owe money borrowed at interest. Best Wishes.

  57. I’ve come across some folks who concede that there were Christians in the army, but say that they were non-combatant soldiers, more akin to civil engineers. When I’ve asked for evidence of this, none has been forthcoming…but what what say you?

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