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).