Non-Violence in the Early Church
*The following post is adapted from Preston Sprinkle’s forthcoming book: Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013), 187-207. Preston’s book is due to release on August 1.
If the early church was pacifist, or close to it, would that impact your views for today?
One of the most sobering things about writing a book on violence is where I’m writing from. Here I am, locked up in the confines of a Southern Californian suburb with little real threat of violence, while millions of Christians around the globe suffer from daily perils. I’ve never awoken to a hissing air-raid siren or a crazed militia busting down my door. As one of my friends joked, “It’s easy to be a pacifist in Indiana.”—home of many Mennonite institutions—“Try living like that in Gaza.”
This is why the voice of the early church (pre-Constantine) is so important. The first Christians didn’t resort to violence, and they weren’t living in Indiana. The first three hundred years of the faith were stained with brutal persecution. Rome lacked no creativity when it came to torture: swords, torches, chains, and wild animals were unleashed upon stubborn Christians unwilling to give up their confession of faith. Crucifixion continued to be practiced, though disembowelment and dismemberment were popular too. From the second century onward, Christians were thrown into the ring with ferocious gladiators, who shed blood for an audience thirsty for violence. Such was the fate of many enemy-loving Christians.
These believers weren’t living in some monastery in a desert, nor were they shielded from violence by walls of Indianan cornfields. They were writing about warfare and violence from the terrifying trenches of the Roman world. So what did they say about violence?
While early Christian writers were divided on many issues (e.g. the mode of baptism, the role of women in leadership), when it came to killing, their voices seemed to be unanimous: believers are prohibited from taking human life.
Several writers said this explicitly. Origen, for instance, said that Christ “nowhere teaches that it is right for his own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked. For he did not deem it in keeping with the laws such as His to allow killing of any individual whatever” (Against Celsus 3.7). Tertullian agreed that God prohibits “every sort of man-killing” (Spec. 2). Cyprian argued that persecuted Christians “do not in turn assail their assailants, since it is not lawful for the innocent even to kill the guilty” (Letter 56). Athenagoras went even further by saying that “we cannot endure to see someone be put to death, even justly” (Legatio 35).
All of these statements condemn every sort of killing—even of the guilty—on the principle that killing is always wrong. Or in the words of Lactantius:
When God forbids killing, he doesn’t just ban murder, which is not permitted under the law even; he is also forbidding to us to do certain things which are treated as lawful among men…no exception at all should be made: killing a human being is always wrong because it is God’s will for man to be a sacred creature. (Divine Institutes 6.20.15-17)
Every early Christian writer who discusses killing prohibits it. It’s no wonder that Jesus’s command to “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44) was quoted by ten different writers in twenty-eight different passages, making it the most cited passage by early Christian writers before Constantine. Loving one’s enemies was the ethical heartbeat of early Christianity. It’s what separated Christians from everyone else, according to Tertullian (Scap. 1.3).
What about Christians serving in Rome’s military? Can they kill?
No. Or at least, not according to the Christian writings we possess. In fact, whenever military service was discussed, believers were never encouraged to join. There was not a single Christian writer in the first three hundred years of Christianity who said that Christians should serve in Rome’s military.
Early-church writers, living in various parts of the empire, all agreed: Christians should not kill. These writers didn’t just condemn immoral killing (abortion, murder, etc.), but all types of killing. Most of these same writers didn’t think Christians should serve in the military. But even those who allowed converted soldiers to remain in the service instructed them not to kill. This is because early Christians believed that enemy-love is the hallmark of Christianity. You can mock us. You can torture us. You can even throw us to wild beasts. But we will still love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. And the church increased. Without the sword, the church spread. With no religious freedom, the church grew—like a mustard seed—shouldered by the stiff, persistent enemy-love of martyred saints.