Quotes to Ponder: Early Church on Empire and Violence

Battle Between Constantine and Maxentius for ownership of the Empire. Constantine won and as a result the Empire eventually became a Christian nation.

Since I have been on the topic of empire/nationalism/violence/military lately, I thought I’d throw out some quotes,  from the period between the Apostles and Constantine, that have challenged me.  It is historically undeniable that the early church of the first three centuries was against employing violence in any situation.  Something that is frustrating at times is that folks in the “just war” camp (whom I respect as friends and sisters and brother is Jesus) often appeal to reason to defend their view.  “What if…” scenarios drive their rebuttals and often their view of scripture appeals to Old Testament texts as a model, when Jesus (the perfect revelation of God) ought to be our model.  All that is to say, we ought to be willing to look at history and Scripture (and its trajectory as it flows from Old to New to Now) and build our case from there. This post will list a few quotes that give witness to how the early church viewed nationalism and violence.  How ought we respond to these quotations?  How do they confront our views of nationalism and war?  What are your thoughts on the importance of these witnesses to how we ought to understand the way of Jesus in modern times?

“The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined.  The nature and type of each must be established… brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator… give it up or be rejected.  A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected.  A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected.  Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he ha despised God.”  — Hippolytus, 218 AD[1]

I do not wish to be a ruler.  I do not strive for wealth.  I refuse offices connected with military command.  I despise death.  — Tatian[2]

We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war.  We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools… now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the crucified one… the more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.  – Justin, martyred in 165 AD[3]

“I recognize no empire of this present age.”  — Speratus, Acts of the Martyrs[4]

[1] Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 145.


[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 143.

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  • These quotes are the reason why I feel strongly about not joining the military. I find it difficult to consider violence against another person an act of love, regardless of the motivation. However, I cannot justify requiring the secular governments of this world to live by the same standard, simply because scriptural evidence shows that God can use those instruments of violence for his judgement against nations and individuals, not necessarily by enacting them himself, but by withholding his protection (as he did Israel).

  • what could be more ironic than christs promise that his followers would be hated and persecuted being overturned by a keen statesman whose strong pagan beliefs provided room for honoring the power of yet another god if it meant a political or military advantage?

  • Tony Ward

    there is absolutely nothing wrong with the temporal arm of the Church wielding the sword of protection. in today’s world, unfortunately, the Church has no such arm because today’s Christians (especially in america) have allowed the secular state system to assume the role of “peace police,” which would be laughable if it hadn’t murdered so many people over the years. in our global system, “authority” has become synonymous with “physical force;” in other words, “might makes right” is the order of the day. this was not, as it is now, official policy under the highly decentralized Holy Roman Empire when the temporal powers were dedicated to protecting the Church, as there was absolutely no artificial, unbiblical separation of Church and state.

    moving to the quotes you provided: Hippolytus seems to be speaking of those who “live by the sword.” if the sword is used in protection and not in violence, then it is no sin to possess the sword. Tatian might not want to be a ruler or a military commander, but our world still requires them and the Church should be the underpinnings of both. Justin lived in a time when the Church did not possess the kingdoms of the world, so it made sense for the Christians to take up plows and farming tools as the Christians could not even imagine actually wielding the power of the government. as for Speratus, if he had lived at any time between 800AD and 1648AD, he would not have made such a statement.

    i have nothing wrong whatsoever with the Church being the “governing authorities” of Romans 13:1. in fact, there were prophecies about the physical kingdoms of the world being given over to the saints (Daniel 7:21-22) since the spiritual Kingdom was already in the saints’ possession (Matthew 21:43-45). this actually happened in history, beginning in 378AD and reaching fulfillment in 800AD.

    • Daniel

      I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this notion of wielding the sword “in protection, but not in violence”…

      Do you only consider it “violence” if the sword is being used for conquest or crime? Is it any less violent to stab someone who is trying to rob me, than it is to stab someone to try and rob someone else? In either scenario, someone is getting stabbed in the end, and is Christ really being glorified in either case?

      Jesus said, “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you”. (Matthew 39-42)

      How can this idea of the “sword of protection” really be reconciled with Jesus’ command, “Do not resist an evil person”….?

  • and indeed, how often do we confuse protection for defense? they are certainly not the same thing.