Did The Early Church Fight?
Most churches and their leaders take for granted that good Christians should fight for their country during the time of war.
Here is an example of this common and almost universal teaching today.
“A soldier may kill in time of war, but for him to kill in the spirit of hatred is not the proper Christian attitude, a Roman Catholic priest said last night. Francis J. Connell, C.S.S.R., a former dean of Catholic University in Washington D.C., said Catholics may not justifiably become pacifists or conscientious objectors” Bergen Record, Baltimore, April 17, 1961).
This clergyman states that it is wrong for a Christian not to engage in war. A Christian must not become a pacifist or conscientious objector!
This article continues: “He said that war is not intrinsically evil, according to Catholic doctrine, but for a nation to embark on a course of war certain conditions must be met.”
What are the conditions that must be met before a nation may embark on a course of war?
“The first condition, he said, requires that there be sufficient reason for a country to engage in war.”
What are the reasons that a nation may use to justify entering into a war?
“Connell said the only just war is one of defense and that there is never sufficient moral reason for aggression. Other conditions demand that those who declare war must be morally certain they are right and that the results expected overbalance the evil caused by the conflict. ‘Before a nation enters a war it must have exhausted all avenues leading to a possible peaceful solution,’ he said. A soldier, he said, also must comply with a condition — that he does not bear hatred for the enemy in his heart. ‘No man may take another’s life without authorization from God,’ Connell said, ‘and every government receives its authority from him’.”
This is representative of the teachings of most churches today, as will be proved in a later chapter.
Did the Church start this way? Has this always been the teaching of the Church? In this chapter we will begin to see the historical record of what Church leaders taught during the first few centuries.
In the last chapter we saw time after time how Jesus Christ and the original true Apostles taught exactly opposite to the clergyman just quoted. The Apostles practiced the very same things that Christ practiced. The Church followed His personal instructions, to escape to safety prior to the siege and destruction of A.D. 70.
How Can Man Kill in Love?
Pastor Connell stated that a soldier must not kill in hatred. Even though a soldier does not kill in hate, how can he kill in love? Jesus said: “Love your enemies,” Matthew 5:44. How can a physical human being KILL another human being in love? To love is to give of the self, in service and in devotion to others.
Killing is not giving, it is taking. It is not showing love to neighbor. If this is an expression of love, then the soldier ought to let the enemy kill him instead of killing the enemy.
This same source states that it is wrong to become a pacifist, or a conscientious objector. Is it wrong to be peaceful? (That is what pacifism means). Paul said, “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another,” Romans 14:19. This man says that it is wrong to have a conscience which will not permit you to kill other human beings in mortal combat.
Are these teachings the same as those of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount, and throughout your New Testament? Pastor Connell states that defensive war is permissible. Did Jesus and the true Apostles defend themselves? Did they teach anyone, or any country, to defend itself? Did they teach Christians to take vengeance on invaders? Did they say that we are to take vengeance, or instead, that God would take vengeance for us, Romans 12:19?
In essence, this teacher says (like most of the teachers and religious leaders of our day), that we as individuals or as nations (which are made up of many individuals) may decide for ourselves, within our own conscience, what is right and what is wrong. But God says our natural hearts — our consciences — will deceive us and lead us to eternal death (Jeremiah 17:9 and Proverbs 14:12, 16:25).
The teaching of man is that nations have been given the authorization from God to wage war. They, in turn, have authority from God to force a citizen to take up arms against a citizen of another country. The citizen is then required to kill other human beings.
Has Almighty God given nations authority to cause Christians in one country to slay Christians in another country? Christian against Christian, brother against brother, race against race? This is confusion. It is Babylon. IT IS WRONG! It did not come from the Bible. It did not come from the teachings of Jesus Christ. It did not even come from the original leaders of the Catholic Church, as this chapter will prove unmistakably.
What has led to this “about face” from the simple and plain teaching of Christ? What did happen, when did it happen, and who was involved in it?
The last chapter closed with events leading up to, and including the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. But, the Bible was not completely written in A.D. 70. Some books were not finished until about A.D. 96. In order to continue the historical account we must first look in the Bible, to the scriptures which were written after A.D. 70.
History Continues in the Bible
The Book of Revelation was inspired by Jesus Christ. It is His Revelation, His revealing, Revelation 1:1. It tells us some of the things that were taking place then, and those things which were going to happen very quickly.
Did Jesus Christ preach the same message through John in this book as He did before?
The things prophesied to “shortly come to pass” begin in chapters two and three. Here is an account of the seven eras of God’s Church. The first era was the Ephesian era. This era was one which would require much patience because of the terrible times of deception and trial.
The period of God’s Church known as Smyrna was one of extreme tribulation. It was one in which true Christians would be imprisoned, and in which many would die. They were exhorted to be faithful even unto death, verse 10. Here is an example of where God’s people were persecuted to death. They did not love their lives, even unto death. They did not take up arms — arms were taken up against them — they were slaughtered for the sake of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They did not believe in participating in war and fighting, even to save their own lives.
Christ knew that there would be an increasing number of wars, the climax would come at the close of this age, with world wars, Revelation 6:4. These many martyred Christians of all times are symbolically seen under the altar, Revelation 6:9.
Conditions were prophesied to become so bad that God’s Church would have to flee into an almost uninhabited wilderness or desert, Revelation 12:13-17.
These scriptures, inspired by the living Christ and written by John ought to show that true Christians were not to fight in the many wars of the past 2,000 years.
A false church system is described in Revelation 17 and 18. It is pictured as one which is drunk on the blood of the saints, Revelation 17:6. Here is a false church which takes advantage of, and kills those who will obey God. For these crimes against God’s people, in the name of religion, God will bring judgment and vengeance on this counterfeit and deceitful system, Revelation 18:20-24.
All these scriptures in Revelation are plain in showing that Christians would be taken advantage of in every possible way. They would be like Christ, as lambs led to the slaughter, and as sheep in the midst of wolves. Not having natural or physical protection, they can only rely on God for His help and ultimate escape from evil men who desire to kill and exterminate them any way possible.
The teachings in the Book of Revelation are not contrary to other teachings of Jesus Christ. He did not speak differently in the Book of Revelation in 96 A.D., than 65 years earlier when He was in the flesh.
Secular History Shows Changes
When did the “about-face” in teaching occur? We have now seen that it did not occur prior to A.D. 96. And yet, there was a great change about this time. Two historical writers have particularly noted a remarkable, unmistakable, and definite change.
“For fifty years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the Church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D., with the writings of the earliest church fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” The Story of the Christian Church, (Hurlbut, page 41).
This same period is called by some scholars the “Age of Shadows.” Others have aptly called it the “Lost Century.”
The famed historian Edward Gibbon referred to this same period in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. “The scanty and suspicious materials of ecclesiastical history seldom enable us to dispel the dark cloud that hangs over the first age of the Church” (chapter XV).
When this cloud over the first age of the Church is removed, what will we find being taught in regard to Christian participation in warfare? Will it be drastically changed as other doctrines were, or will it continue the same as under the teachings of Jesus Christ and the apostles?
Warfare Teaching Didn’t Change
To find the answer we must examine certain writings of the church leaders of the period. The writings concerning our subject are summed up in the following surprising quotation from The Christian and Military Service by Herman Will, Jr. “It is a known fact that for two centuries and more after Christ, Christians almost invariably refused to serve in the armed forces.”
Justin Martyr is known as one of the first and most important church leaders and writers. He is acknowledged as one of the “church fathers” by Catholic and Protestant alike. This famous man lived in the period of 100 to 167 A.D. He has been termed “one of the ablest men of his time” (Halley’s Bible Handbook, page 674). He died a martyr at Rome, This church leader left considerable writings which have been preserved. Here is his personal comment about Christians and warfare.
“And we who formerly used to murder do not only refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ” (From Apology I, page 39).
He spoke for those of his religion, who in his day did not participate in warfare of any kind. Instead of persecuting those of contrary religious or political belief, these people were the persecuted. They would not take part in war and even in the case of “examination” (torture) they would not lie, nor would they cause harm to come to others.
Here is just one source of proof that shows the people who professed Christ in his day were still following the teachings given by Christ and continued by the Apostles. There is no great change here from the beliefs and practices of the Church of God during the time of the Apostles. The great change in belief regarding participating in war had not yet come.
The second writer of this era whom we wish to examine is Irenaeus, who lived from 130 to 200. He was a teacher of the Church in the school of Asia Minor. He traveled widely, wrote several books, and later became bishop of Lyons, in Gaul (now France). Here are his comments about Christians, taken from the books Irenaeus Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter XXXIV, section 4.
“These (Christians) did form the swords and war lances into ploughshares, and changed them into pruning hooks for reaping the corn, (that is), into instruments used for peaceful purposes, and that they are now unaccustomed to fighting, but when smitten, offer also the other cheek.”
Tertullian was another prominent leader who lived in this time. He was one of the two most noted men of the famed church school at Carthage in North Africa. As a result he did much to shape theological thought in Europe. He is called the “Father of Latin Christianity,” and lived from about 160 to 220. He was very explicit in his teachings and writings on this subject.
“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?” (From De Corona, Chapter XI).
He uses a similar statement in another book to show that the common teaching prohibited Christians from taking part in war.
“But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?” (From De Idolatria, Chapter XIX).
The statement of Jesus in Matthew 26:52 was well understood by these men who knew that warfare and fighting was strictly and completely forbidden by the plain words of Christ and the Apostles.
Here is an even more remarkable excerpt from his teachings. Certainly this shocking teaching would be completely unacceptable in most churches today
“If we are enjoined, then, to love our enemies, as I have remarked above, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become as bad ourselves: who can suffer injury at our hands . . . For what wars should we not be fit, not eager, even with unequal forces, we who so willingly yield ourselves to the sword, if in our religion it were not counted better to be slain than to slay? Without arms even, and raising no insurrectionary banner . . .” (From Apology, Chapter XXXVII).
Multitudes of Christians Would Not Fight
Some may suppose that these teachings were limited to just a few Christian converts, or to a small portion of those who considered themselves to be Christians. Were these teachings of the most prominent Church leaders generally accepted and practiced by the Church people in this time? There is no need to be in doubt. To make it very clear how widespread this teaching was and how it was then accepted by the whole Church it is necessary to continue from the text last quoted.
“For if such multitudes of men were to break away from you (Caesar), and betake themselves to some remote corner of the world, why, the very loss of so many citizens, whatever sort they were, would cover the empire with shame; nay in the very forsaking, vengeance would be inflicted . . . you would have more enemies than citizens remaining. For it is the immense number of Christians which makes your enemies so few — almost all the inhabitants of your various cities being followers of Christ” (From Apology, Chapter XXXVII).
The Church accepted and practiced these teachings in such great numbers that if they would leave the Roman Empire, Caesar would have few enemies left. The Christians were not his enemies. They did not take up arms against him or with him. He would have everything to gain and nothing to lose to keep this vast number of people from leaving the empire, even though they would not fight or support him in his wars.
How different are the beliefs and practices today! Most who now profess the name of Christ almost totally accept the teachings that a Christian should fight for his country. The great majority of people in the churches today will fight. In the beginning ages of the Church, the people would not fight. They knew it was wrong.
These teachings were not done in a corner. Everyone embracing the faith knew about it. We have already seen the proof in history. Any good public library has these very same comments in the many volumes of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, from which they have been taken.
Another very famous scholar and church leader of this period was Origen. Here is a summary from Halley’s Bible Handbook about this man, found on page 675.
“ORIGEN. 185-254. The most learned man of the ancient Church. A great traveler; and a voluminous writer, employing at times as many as twenty copyists. Two-thirds of the New Testament is quoted in his writings. He lived in Alexandria, where his father Leonidas, suffered martyrdom; later, in Palestine, where he died as a result of imprisonment and torture under Decius”
Here is what he wrote and taught concerning the question of a Christian fighting. Notice the kind of fighting he did.
“And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he requires it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army — an army of piety — by offering our Prayers to God” (Contra Celsum, Chapter VIII, page 73).
In another place he discusses the same subject in this work as follows:
“We are come, agreeably to the counsels of Jesus to ‘cut down our hostile and insolent wordy swords into plowshares, and to convert into pruninghooks the spears formerly employed in war.’ For we no longer take up ‘sword against nation,’ nor do we ‘learn war anymore,’ having become children of Peace, for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of those whom our fathers followed among whom we were ‘strangers to the covenant’,” (Contra Celsum, Chapter V, page 33).
Cyprian was another very famous Church leader of this same period and time. He was the other leader of the famous school at Carthage, North Africa, who was mentioned earlier in connection with Tertullian. He was a bishop at this Church school, and has been referred to as “one of the great writers and Church leaders of the period” (Story of the Christian Church, Hurlbut, page 56). He was martyred in 257 by the Roman Emperor Valerian. Here are his comments about warfare:
“The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds, not on the plea that they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetrated on a grand scale” (Epistles, Chapter I, page 6).
The last writer to be mentioned from this period is Lactantius. He lived until the time of Constantine. His writings show very plainly that Churches were still teaching that Christians were not to fight, at least until the time of Constantine.
“But we on the contrary do not require that anyone should be compelled, whether he is willing or unwilling, to worship our God, who is the God of all men; nor are we angry if anyone does not worship Him. For we trust in the majesty of Him who has power to avenge contempt shown towards Himself as, also He has power to avenge the calamities and injuries inflicted on His servants, and therefore, when we suffer such impious things, we do not resist even in word; but we remit vengeance to God” (The Divine Institutes, Book V, Chapter 21).
This same author covers the subject of military service and killing more specifically in the following excerpt from The Divine Institutes, Book VI, Chapter 20.
“For when God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but he warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare . . . .”
These statements of principal writers and Church leaders of the time ought to prove without any further doubt what the Churches as a whole practiced at that time in regard to fighting.
The belief of the Church during this time was so ingrained that: “Maximilian and a number of others in the second century actually suffered martyrdom for refusing, on gospel principles to bear arms” (Inconsistent with the Religion of Jesus Christ, by David Low Dodge, page 117).
This same work also states, “Clarkson, who also examined the fathers, declares that ‘every Christian writer of the second century who notices the subject makes it unlawful for Christians to bear arms’,” (page 117).
How different this is from the teachings of the present generation of the churches! Both Protestant and Catholics trace their churches through these very men and these are the written teachings of that time.
Obviously, a startling transformation has been made since that time. The next chapter will show how that remarkable change came, and who caused it.