Christians Don’t Kill

People who read a flat Bible, that is, people who think Exodus and Leviticus and Deuteronomy or Joshua and Judges are not just God’s Word but irrevocable commands for all of God’s people and stand at the same level as the Gospels or the Epistles, or people who think Jesus’ powerful statements in the Sermon on the Mount about violence and retaliation and loving one’s enemies aren’t the framework in which they are to read those Old Testament texts have an easier time justifying capital punishment, the use of violence, and war. But others aren’t so sure that’s the way to read the Bible.

One who isn’t is Ron Sider and his newest book, the important collection of evidence from the pre-Constantinian church about killing — abortion, capital punishment, military service, called The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment (Baker, 2012) — good work Bob Hosack at Baker — is the new place to begin if you want to see the evidence in an anthology.

Do you think Jesus/the gospel call the Christian to “no killing”?

Sider collects all the evidence — 22 authors (from Didache to Lactantius), church orders and synods, miscellaneous items (like Paul of Samosata), and other evidence — including epitaphs. It’s all here and he’s probably got all we need right here.

Again, this is about how to read the Bible in light of Jesus’ cross and resurrection. Perhaps what just war theorists need to read in this book is the evidence that clearly shows some in the early churches believed following Jesus meant not serving in the military because it was killing. In other words, some read the Bible this way because they thought what Jesus said put everything else into proper perspective. Here are some conclusions from this very fine book:

1. There have been two major camps: the pacifist camp (Bainton, Cadoux, Yoder) that argues the age before Constantine was the age of pacifism; the non-pacifist camp that argues the evidence is not clear and it is divided on the issue so that nothing firm can be argued from the praxis and teaching of the earliest Christians. The consensus today is that military was prohibited because of idolatry (not killing), division ruled during these days and that over time support for the Roman military grew, that the just war theory was an idea with continuous background, and there were regional variations.

2. Abortion is mentioned by eight authors; everyone opposed it. The reason is because the unborn child had a soul and was a person; abortion is killing/murder.

3. Four different authors say that Christians must not participate in capital punishment. Two texts say desiring the death of an adulterer is not a crime. But the evidence of major thinkers favors a disposition against capital punishment. Origen says the OT permits this but the NT does not. In the Apostolic Tradition it is said that a prominent official who converts must abandon a position that involves the sword — or he will be excluded (from the church).

4. Military service is where Sider’s conclusions focus, and he has nine areas of evidence that he considers and draws these conclusions:

4.1 Prior to Constantine not one writer says it is right to kill or join the military.
4.2 Many passages prohibit participation in killing or the military.
4.3 Rejection of killing is comprehensive.
4.4 It is inaccurate to say military participate is wrong because of idolatry. Sometimes, but often it is related to Christ’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount.
4.5 The evidence for “divided and ambiguous” is overdrawn. No one says it is right to join the military. No one encourages capital punishment.
4.6 Sider also thinks the continuous theory toward Just War is overcooked.
4.7 There is clear evidence that by the end of the 2d and early 3d that some Christians were in the military. Perhaps these are those who were converted after joining the military. Some texts condemn baptized Christians joining the military. Lactantius’ later writing therefore inveighs against what is going on, suggesting that by the early 4th Century the voice was being divided.

But what is clear is that no one supports killing in war. That some participated, Sider argues, shows a Christian disconnect. There is no voice saying it was right, so anyone who says there were different teachings goes against the evidence we do have. To make this a little clearer: that some were in the military does not mean there were teachers who said it was right.

What the texts show is that the teachers of the earliest churches taught unconditional rejection of war and killing in all its forms (see the blurb of Kalantzis on the back cover).

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  • Jeff Y

    This looks quite interesting – thanks for the summary, Scott. In your summary (and in the table of contents of the book itself) it doesn’t appear that Sider spends much time in direct analysis of the NT documents – perhaps he weaves in and out through the survey – which, though I believe are distinct from and stand above the rest of the early church writings, might have been a useful section, perhaps at the end. Would be interesting to see what is written in the early post-NT writings or by Sider himself in this book addressing ambiguous NT texts such as the silence on the post-Christian life of the Centurion Cornelius or of John the Baptist’s statement in Luke to the soldiers asking what they needed to do to demonstrate repentance – where he said nothing about ceasing military participation.

  • scotmcknight

    JeffY, this book is about the evidence in the early church after the NT and before Constantine.

  • NateW

    Scott – I wonder more and more lately whether or not a good deal of our lives are lived in necessary “christian disconnect”. If I try to look at things objectively, it seems almost impossible to choose one good (say pacifism) without at the same time paving the way for a different evil (unhindered oppression of the weak). In short, are there times when we must choose to disobey God in order to remain faithful to Him? I just can’t help but see two sides to almost every issue and feel like its not always clear which path is love and which isn’t. In your reading of the fathers, do you think that it’s possible that they always abhor killing, but do not see real life in a fallen world in such a black and white way?

  • Cal

    I’m glad a comprehensive volume is coming out, though its certain not to end the debate.

    I think a major understanding needs to be that while evidence concludes that there were always Christians in the military from very early on, it needs to be asked: a) How did they get there? and b) What did the Church say?

    Being brought into the Legions was not just a career choice in butchery (though some certainly joined up for loot), a lot of times there was conscription of a particular area of the Empire. There is also the fact that one can’t just walk off camp and say “Oh, Jesus is my King now, I don’t slay other men”. Christianity was not a recognized ‘cultus’ and even so, it sounds like an attempt to desert. It became a matter of. “Do I die in martyrdom or hide?”

    Of course some threw their belts at their commander and said, something like Martin of Tours, “It is not lawful for me to fight”.


    One tradition goes that Cornelius became a bishop, and even in the Constantinian shift (as now) elders (or at that point the Clergy class) were prohibited from battle.

    That’s the sort of pragmatism that undermines the whole principle of the thing. I’m not a totally consistent pacifist, but to place it as if we have to disobey the Lord to do good is absolutely insane. It makes King Jesus out to be some sort of nancy grandpa figure who can’t dirty His hands and that He is so stupid to not see our world of grays. This ended in the Niehburian dissection of the Trinity.

    The purpose is that violence is never to be glorified nor celebrated but lamented. Yet, sometimes love leaves little choice. However this is not a means for going off to the army nor ignoring the Sermon on the Mount. One can be driven by love and turning the cheek, and use force to stop a rape.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. McKnight,

    I don’t see how capital punishment, focus on the word punishment, has anything to do with the Sermon on the Mount. It is a punishment not a retaliation. In fact the need for Christ to become a sacrifice upholds the idea of this kind of punishment. I am NOT saying God was punishing Jesus, He sent Jesus and Jesus complied because they loved us. Isaiah 53

  • scotmcknight

    In fact, Jeff, Christ’s death as a punishment for sins committed ends any need for further punishment … eh? Hasn’t he absorbed the payment for all sins, past, present, and future?

    Going to the cross to justify capital punishment, then, is exactly backwards (and Sider has written on this in his book Christ and Violence).

  • EricW

    What was the early church consensus on Luke 6:30 and Matthew 6:19-20 re: one’s “possessions” and property ownership? After all, most or at least many wars and the attendant killing are over property, land, natural resources, etc.

  • Tim Atwater

    Following Eric (#7), what about the take as in (many, not all translations of) James 4:1, that the roots of war are in lust for material things? (NRSV and NEB say conflicts — NIV fightings, RSV, Message etc have it as wars…)

    I have long been persuaded by the line of reasoning that Sider is following.

    It does seem unmistakeable — that those of us who oppose wars and violence are still at least somewhat inadvertently involved in supporting wars and violence indirectly through our life styles, our taste for luxuries far beyond what’s necessary for a simple and good life. (?)

    grace and peace in the discussion…

  • Cal – “The purpose is that violence is never to be glorified nor celebrated but lamented. Yet, sometimes love leaves little choice.”

    That’s pretty much what I was trying to say. Violence is clearly ALWAYS “bad” but it doesn’t seem like we can say that it is always “wrong”. I perhaps am being a bit tongue in cheek when i say that we must disobey God in order to be faithful to Him. What I mean is that in our natural wuest for certainty and stability we have a tendency to idolize God’s commands, deifying [our understanding of] the letter of the law rather than the Animating Spirit of Love within and behind it. So, in saying that we must “disobey God” I meant that we who claim to have eyes to see and ears to hear must sometimes be willing to lay aside God’s commands in situations where they are in conflict with Love. There must come a point in every disciple’s journey, i think, when each has their “Huck Finn” moment and says “Allright then, I’ll go to Hell!”

    Tim Atwater – “It does seem unmistakeable — that those of us who oppose wars and violence are still at least somewhat inadvertently involved in supporting wars and violence indirectly through our life styles, our taste for luxuries far beyond what’s necessary for a simple and good life.”

    Absolutely. It’s a tangled web of culpability that none of us–pacifist or not–are exempt from.

  • thanks for this Scot, looks like a very interesting book with significant conclusions. Seems to me that the consistent Christian position is against killing in the three areas of the book title. I don’t pretend to understand many Christians’ strong opposition to abortion and yet enthusiastic support of ‘just war’ and (especiallly in the USA perhaps) of capital punishment.

  • Cal

    Nate W:

    To fall on Finn, even loosely, is misunderstanding Christ then.

    Zealous love has Jesus flipping over tables and moving about with a whip. Non-violence here is not docile or passionless, the anger is motivated by selfless love, not self aggrandizement.

    I’m not saying emulate this episode (i.e. pull out a whip every time you see injustice and get cracking), but it should show what non-violence looks like. Jesus is tough, but not like Driscoll’s macho-man portrayal and He loves justice, but not like the liberation-theology Che-ish portrayal. Obedience to Him does find itself in radical love, not in stepping away from His commands but more into them.

  • I think that even without moving to full pacifism (ie, killing is wrong, full stop, with exceptions, even protected the weak or stopping the Holocaust), American Christians can go a LOT further toward promoting peace.

    A lot of my fellow Evangelicals are very pro-death penalty and pro-military … which often means pro-war. I try not to be too harsh, because I can recall being that way too, and having a very wise World War II veteran gently called me out on it. It’s really easy to bang war drums when you haven’t served, and you know you’re not going to have to.

    I think the opposite extreme – being overtly anti-military – isn’t quite right, either. I think the actual soldiers aren’t the problem … it’s our government (and our own) willingness to send them off to kill and die.

    I turned against the death penalty about 10 years ago, before I had any inkling of taking pacifism seriously. It just seemed wrong that so many death penalty cases were getting overturned, and the people on death row were overwhelmingly minorities and poor.

    Even without rejecting the idea of capital punishment, I lost my trust in our system to be accurate and fair enough to tell the wheat from the tares.

    These days, I’m overwhelmingly in favor of prison reform and against the death penalty altogether. I’m fine with armed self defense, and I think if a would-be victim kills her assailant, that’s fine. But once somebody is captured and locked away by the state, we gain nothing in killing him. Nothing. It isn’t even cheaper than life in prison.

    From a materialist perspective, we gain nothing. From a Christian perspective, we actually lose part of our compassion, as we systematically kill certain people.

  • Cal


    I’d put it the other way. Being anti-military means respect for the soldiers as human beings and disgust for the institution that molds them like a cult as a tool for their government, democracy or no.

  • Mike M

    Love those Anabaptists. I’ve heard several Evangelicals use the same bible excerpts to justify torture at Guantanamo Bay. “Do unto others” takes on a whole new perverted twist. It’s also amazing how Constantine was able to turn 3 centuries of Christianity on its head and how we’ve been “flying upside-down” ever since.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. McKnight,

    Obviously your answer to my question cannot possibly be true, or we should not punish anyone for anything. Also while God in Christ has taken the punishment for our sins, the punishment is a death that goes beyond a physical death. Temporal and eternal punishments still exist for those who commit crimes, eternal for those without repentance. The eternal aspect of Christ’s death is the ability for that one sacrifice to continue to be effective to stand righteous before God even if we continue to sin, but this does not say anything about temporal punishments

  • Merv Olsen

    Jeff Martin – 15

    Well said Jeff. I agree totally!

  • Stephen Weaver

    I believe where we go off the rails in this discussion is to strive for some equal ethos between the state and the church. This was the Constantinian error. I fully expect that the nation in pursuit of its Romans 13 mandate will take a pragmatic, unbiblical, ends justifies the means stance. But the church, over and against the state, must always question the means in light of the seamless teaching between the Sermon on the Mount and I Corinthians 13. That is why there is an “us”and “them.” Other Christians critique us Anabaptists for being sectarian. But unless the Church has an “us” and “them” mentality, we cease being the ekklesia. Caesar, unfortunately, will continue being Caesar, no matter what the official name is – America or whatever. But the Church and her members are held to a much higher standard. What is so difficult to comprehend about this? Do we believe it will water down common grace and the leavening of society? I believe it will enhance the witness of the church and erase the sameness between her and society that the polls measure.

  • Merv Olsen

    Stephen 17

    You took the words out of my mouth, Stephen.

    Actually, you articulated what I was unable to express but totally agree with … and I’m just a Baptist, not even Anabaptist.

  • scotmcknight

    Jeff, if I read your original comment aright you said the cross justifies punishment since the cross is punishment from God against sin/sinners. If that is the case, then I would argue that if that is your logic then that logic seems to me to exclude any need for punishment. Are you now suggesting that the cross only undoes spiritual punishment? If that is the case, then the original argument is weakened since the cross only demonstrates punishment against spiritual sins not temporal sins. Beyond that logical discussion, I’m not sure the cross is the place to go to justify punishment. What I think is at work is the logic that since God punishes then punishment is justifiable until all sin has been accomplished. That is the logic of many Christians when it comes to temporal punishment, and since so many embrace it I accept it as a fair and reasonable argument. The Sermon on the Mount, as a kingdom ethic, takes us beyond this — so I think.

  • Jeff Martin

    Dr. McKnight, let me be clear, Jesus took the punishment that our sins deserved, which is not the same thing as out actual sins. This results in full access to God.

    The Sermon on the Mount does not say anything about ending punishment, nor does the cross, nor does it say anything about ending violent action completely, but does go a long way in putting a stop to a lot of it, if we nip things in the bud. Jesus was not shy about castigating those opposed to him condemning them to hell!

    I would agree with you to the point that if people really followed the Sermon there would be a drastically less amount of violence and I also agree that a moratorium should be placed on all capital punishments in the US, until the evidence is re examined. And safeguards should be put into place if they are not already to prevent innocent people form being condemned.

    Turning the other cheek has to do with individual affronts to someone’s honor, not crimes against society.

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek

    Jeff Martin and Merv Olsen,

    Regarding the implications of the teaching of Jesus and the cross of Christ for the biblical prescription and human practice of capital punishment, I suggest reading Chaps 24-25 in my book…Atonement, Justice, and Peace: The Message of the Cross and the Mission of the Church (Eerdmans 2012). In these chapters I show how the ruling of Jesus in the case of the “woman caught in adultery” (John 8) effectively entails a complete moratorium on the human practice of capital punishment and how the cross of Christ, in continuity with the Sermon on the Mount, effectively nullifies the death penalty itself. My arguments are biblically grounded and carefully constructed, so please don’t dismiss or dispute them without having actually read and considered them. Thank you.


  • Jeff

    Dr. Belousek,

    The book looks interesting. I might have to bite the bullet and purchase it.

    If you are emphasizing this passage would you agree though that the Sermon on the Mount and the cross should not be used to speak against capital punishment and a complete annihilation of any kind of violent action?

  • Darrin Snyder Belousek


    Thanks for the response–glad to see you “took the bait”! You’ll find that my view on the Sermon on the Mount coincides more or less with that of Sider. I might place the emphasis a bit differently than other Anabaptist thinkers, however: what Jesus teaches in Matthew 5 is not non-violence but non-retaliation. One can be nonviolent and still retaliate (witness passive-aggressive behavior as exhibit one!). So, Jesus’ teaching is more radical than simply non-violence: he doesn’t say “do not return violence for violence” but “do not return evil for evil” (an injunction repeated by both Paul and Peter–Romans 12:17, 1 Thessalonians 5:15, and 1 Peter 3:9). That command includes no violence but also no legal retaliation.

    To see the full implication of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, one needs to examine the Torah text that Jesus is citing. Allow me to quote a passage from my book (pp. 496-7):


    I then proceed to show (pp. 495-500) how the cross of Christ completes the nullification of the lex talionis as legal justification of capital punishment: at the cross of Christ, God executes the death penalty, nailing it to the cross (cf. Colossians 2:13-15).

    Now, to respond to a previous issue you raised, it does not follow from this that all punishment is done away with–only punishment “in kind” and punishment that kills are annulled in the cross of Christ. This leaves the possibility of non-retaliatory discipline that is open to the redemption of the sinner. Indeed, I would argue, the covenant community is both free and responsible to practice restorative discipline (or “redemptive punishment”) among its members according to “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:1-2). In John 8 we see a beautiful example of this: Jesus refuses to consent to a death sentence (punishment that kills), but still requires repentance, turning from sin, on the part of both the accusers and the accused. (I discuss this story at length in the book–pp. 474-88).

    I hope that is helpful!


  • CGC

    Hi Darrin,
    You are one of my favorite persons on this list. I hope you are like Captain Pickard and continue to “engage” 🙂

  • Ben Thorp

    Takes me back to Andrew Wilson’s assertion that in the US there is no completely “pro-life” position (anti-abortion, anti-war, anti-capital punishment) whereas I think here in the UK it’s probably the default position for the majority of evangelicals.

  • Chris

    Scot, I’m curious about Stephen’s recounting of Moses’ killing of the Egyptian in Acts 7:24. He characterizes Moses’ killing of the man as avenging the oppressor. I realize Moses ends up fleeing after being called out for this, but it is interesting that at least in a case where someone is being oppressed that Stephen didn’t pass a negative judgment on it. I am attempting to throw off my utilitarian stance in reading the Bible but I ran across this scripture this morning and had to ask.