The Early Church and Military Service

The Early Church and Military Service July 8, 2013

 The Early Church and Military Service

 *The following post is adapted from Preston Sprinkle’s forthcoming book: Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013). Preston’s book is due to release on August 1.

In a previous post, I stated that “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.” My statement, however, deserves closer inspection since there were many Christians who served in Rome’s military; yes, even before Constantine.

Apart from the New Testament, which records several military leaders coming to Christ (Matt 8; Acts 10), we have evidence of a growing number of Christians in Rome’s military from A.D. 173 right up until A.D. 313 (Constantine’s edict to end persecution of Christians). Some of these were converted while serving in the military. Others may have joined as Christians. In any case, one thing is clear: early Christian writers condemned military service among believers.

Tertullian, for instance, wrote an entire treatise forbidding military service among Christians (The Crown) and such sentiment is found throughout his other writings (On Idolatry). Origen too condemned military service whenever he addressed the subject. And Lactantius agreed: “A just man may not be a soldier” (Divine Institutes, 6.20).

Now again, there were Christians in the military before Constantine. But as far as the opinion of early Christian writers goes, historian Alan Kreider was correct that “no Christian theologian before Constantine justified Christian participation in warfare” (“Military Service,” 431).

But this actually doesn’t tell us too much. The main question is not whether the theologians permit military service. This much is clear. They condemn it. The question, though, is why? On what grounds are Christians forbidden to join the military?

One reason is idolatry. The Roman military was inseparable from Roman religion; to serve one meant serving the other. It would have been virtually impossible to be a Christian soldier and not participate in idolatry. For instance, before embarking on a military campaign, soldiers would take part in various pagan rituals, including sacrificing sheep, bulls, and pigs to purify the army. Similar rituals dominated the postwar celebration. Throughout the legions, soldiers regularly burned incense and offered grain to local deities, and idolatrous symbols everywhere pervaded the camps.

It’s not that Christian soldiers couldn’t worship Jesus alongside other Roman gods. Well and good. But no soldier could worship a single deity (such as Jesus) without honoring the others. “[T]he totality of Roman army religion was an impressive system,” wrote one historian. “[It] would be impossible for any Christian in the army to avoid dealing with it in one way or another” (Helgeland et al., Christians and the Military, 54). Christians were clearly forbidden to join the military on account of idolatry.

But idolatry wasn’t the only reason military service was forbidden. Christians weren’t allowed to join because killing is wrong in principle. And several writers made this plain.

Lactantius, in the quote we read, said that “a just man may not be a soldier” and not because of idolatry. His reason was that “killing itself is banned” and “killing a human being is always wrong” (Divine Institutes, 6.20). Tertullian spoke out most frequently against Christians joining the military and often appealed to idolatry as the main reason. But killing was another reason. In arguing whether “a believer can become a soldier,” he unambiguously said no: “The Lord, by taking away Peter’s sword”—referring to the incident in Gethsemane—“disarmed every soldier thereafter.” Then, in the very next statement, Tertullian said: “We are not allowed to wear any uniform that symbolizes a sinful act.” That “act” refers back to wielding a sword that Jesus took away. Military service is wrong because killing is wrong. Origen also, in a lengthy treatise, said that Christians are not to participate in war, even if they are just wars (Against Celsum 8.73). His entire argument was governed by a rigorous defense of the nonviolent character of the Christian faith. Again, as Origen said earlier, Christians are prohibited from killing even the guilty.

The issue of killing was prohibited in every mention by early church writers. Whenever the issue of military service and warfare was discussed, Christians were prohibited from participating. Nowhere in the written record in the first three hundred years of Christianity is killing ever justified. Not even for soldiers.


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  • I think a key example is the soldiers who came to John (Luke 3.14). They asked him, as disciples of his teaching on how to enter the kingdom of God, what they should do. He didn’t tell them to quit the military altogether. His response was ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’

    Which military they were a part of isn’t quite so relevant* as the fact that John never outright condemns military service in itself as intrinsically immoral, just the abuse of the power that came with one’s position.

    *Although, did the Jews have their own military circa 28 AD? It seems we’re meant to infer they were in the Roman military.

  • Susan_G1

    Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Jesus and Scripture do, however, give governing power to Caesar and rulers. How are we to obey those in authority over us in this matter?

    I have been a believer in ‘just war’. I believe that WWII was a just war. I’m pretty sure we have not been in one since. The recent Daniel Somers suicide note has further clouded the issue for me.

  • Very interesting points; in terms of being part of an organisation with pagan ritual, however, Namaan immediately sprung to mind.He declared that there was no other god in all the earth apart from the God of Israel. However his miltary duties to the king required him to enter the temple of Rimmon and bow. He confesses this up front to Elisha and in doing so indicates that it is his job only and robs it of any other meaning or power. Elisha told him to go in peace. It’s old covenant, so not an exact parallel, but very close.

  • Jasen

    Although John The baptist is a New Testament figure he is a prophet of the Old Covenant. It’s not surprising then that he does not condemn military service. Jesus himself said that his Testimony is greater then that of John The Baptist. Quoting him on this matter is really no different then quoting any other Old Testament author on this subject

    A friend of mine has written a great blog post on many of the biblical objections that often come up in this discussion. Check it out:

  • Perhaps it’s important to understand that Jesus takes us as we are, where we are at the moment, whatever our current state might be. We may be near the kingdom of heaven or far from it, but we are not in the kingdom without faith.

    So I wonder if a Roman soldier who then believed was in a different position than a believer who joined the army. In other words being a soldier is not the same as becoming a soldier.

    When we believe, each of us in our various life situations must decide, ‘What now?’ Why would a believer join a pagan organisation that was designed to conquer and kill? But a soldier who believed might be led by the Spirit to reach his closest friends, his comrades in arms.

    Life is never simple, is it?

  • Norman

    I don’t quibble with the desire to not participate in the military but Acts 10 clearly illustrates Cornelius as a Roman Centurion that was already considered devout in Jewish eyes as a practicing Roman soldier. So much for all Roman military men fitting the simplistic model painted above. Also Jesus encounter and commentary speaks about the Centurion whose faith exceeded the Jewish leaders and was worthy to sit at the banquet table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sheds more light.

    Early church fathers were just as susceptible to misreading and interpreting
    scripture as we are today so I put them in context with others who speak to
    these issues and bestow them no special insight into the matter.

  • Rick

    Were they basing this just off Scripture, or perhaps also from the tradition handed down to them from the Apostles and those close to them? They were just a few generations removed, and may have been partially basing there reading of Scripture on the influence of that tradition.

  • Norman

    The tradition handed down from the Apostle was not consistent. You had Jewish traditions and you had Gentile traditions and they were not the same. We have much more knowledge available to us today to make better evaluations than isolated and segregated segments of Christianity during the first 2 or 3 hundred years or even later for that matter. We overrate the early church fathers abilities and need to keep our eyes open and use our resources available to us.

    Of course they were just a few generations removed but it doesn’t take long to lose context and allow individuals of influence to overly dominate groups.

  • However, the Bible is silent if whether or not the Roman centurion left his post as a centurion after his new found faith in Jesus Christ. Many of today’s evangelicals assume he continued with his service. However, historically, most of the early church left their military service to show their new allegiance to Jesus as Lord and not Caesar. This, not to mention that most all early Christians were pacifists up until the time of Constantine. If any early Christians remained in the military, they only served in non-combative roles.

  • Stephen

    I wonder if realizing that being in the military today is not synonymous with being in the military in Rome. In Rome it was probably a guarantee that you would have to hurt or kill people. Being in the armed forces today, specifically the US armed forces everybody is not called to kill people or are ever in that position. Many are dentist, cooks, car mechanics, plumbers, hotel customer care, finance workers etc

    I don’t see how that is equal to being in the Roman army who went dominating other countries & pretty much ALL soldiers were called to fight & kill.

    My friend, in basic training was signed up to be a cop. He didn’t want to do it so he lied & said he was scared of guns. So they gave him an office job instead where he’d never have to touch another gun for the rest of his military career.

  • Norman

    I believe that is reading a whole lot more into the situation than can be determined. Cornelius had ample opportunity as a Gentile God fearer to have moved away. You can’t base one’s understanding upon supposing either way but you can see what his practice had been while remaining in Rome’s service. Christ Kingdom does not preclude one giving up their civic duties. People have different callings, some are called to preach, teach and ect and some continue with honor in their work. If Cornelius had given up his military position then he would have not been able to continue a lot of the good works he had been praised for would be my take.

  • Phil Miller

    I don’t think there should be anything particularly controversial about this. It does seem relatively straight-forward to me that pacifism was more the norm than the exception in the early church. I wouldn’t say it was 100% consistent, but it seems that the church now is 180-degrees the other way, especially in the US. I think in the US we tend to idolize the military, and that even goes for churches.

    That being said, I’m not sure what the best answer is for Christians who are currently in the military. Simply walking away may not be a viable option. Some feel called there, I’m sure. My dad was a chaplain in the reserves for many years, and was actually called up to active duty a few years ago. I know he felt called to minister to those in the service. Even from a secular perspective, though, I think Americans are re-thinking their stance towards war. It’s interesting that in the military now a soldier is more likely to die because of suicide than in battle. There is a spiritual toll exacted in warfare.

  • Stephen J. Bedard

    Clement of Alexandria said in Exhortation to the Heathen 10 “Has knowledge taken hold of you while engaged in military service? Listen to the commander who orders what is right.” Clement does not counsel soldiers who come to Christ to leave the military, he counsels them to be good soldiers.

  • Guest

    Clement of Alexandria never wrote. Eusebius wrote what he claims Clement said. This is the same Eusebius who was a friend of Constantine and who endorsed militarism as a result. This is not evidence of early church support of Christians joining the military.

  • Kipp

    We do need to make a distinction between Cornelius’s life as a Gentile God-fearer pre-Christ and his Christian life. What he did, and was expected to do, as a Gentile follower of the Old Covenant might be quite different from what the newly founded Church called it’s people to.

  • JoeyS

    Of course, Clement was most likely referring to Jesus as “the commander who orders what is right.”

    He also said this: “Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence the delinquencies of sins.”

  • Pitching the old against new, as if they see incompatible, seems like a false dichotomy. Jesus didn’t render the prophets voiceless, he affirmed them. It seems quite flimsy to dismiss John’s words as ‘old covenant’ when it was included in a Gospel book at all; obviously Luke saw it as relevant to his Gospel / kingdom of God message in some way.

  • Jeremy B.

    I think the same principle of interpretation applies as we use elsewhere. What does military service mean today vs. when the Roman empire stood. As previously pointed out, the Roman military was actively engaged in religious practices a Christian couldn’t participate in.

    The thing is, it was also engaged in conquest, genocide, violent suppression of “subjects,” and a whole bunch of other things most modern Western militaries would find unacceptable. If the US military was being ordered to invade Mexico in order to add them to our empire or raze Toronto because the Canucks were getting uppity, I think we might have a one-for-one comparison. It isn’t.

  • JoeyS

    Understanding progression is not the same as pitching one against the other. Jesus didn’t throw out the prophets, he taught a more full revelation – one that requires love, even of enemies.

  • Norman

    Yes but there is no evidence that says he was to quit his current position as a Roman Centurion. That idea is over stated conjecture IMO, taken out of context of the overall theme of OT and NT practices. The new covenant called for adherence to God via faith and putting aside certain aspects of legalism. You can carry that logic about abandoning OT ways way too far in its application. Hebrews chapter 11 illustrates people of faith from the OT will be included in Christ gift of eternal life.
    Also the instructions to the Jews by Christ in the sermon on the mount was in anticipation of the percieved tribulations that they would encounter from others as seen in Acts. They were to model the suffering that persecution brought on them and not take matters into their own hands but leave it to God to exact vengance upon their persecutors. That is what happended according to Josephus in AD70. They were called during a time of coveanant transition but it says nothing about quitting their day job as a policeman or soldier. It’s not unusual for readers of NT letters to over apply them beyound their historical scope.
    Also I believe this mindset about excluding policemen and soldiers from the gift of eternal life through Christ if they end up having to kill someone in defence is definitely a major problem for its proponents.

  • Rick

    “We overrate the early church fathers abilities and need to keep our eyes open and use our resources available to us.”
    I don’t think evangelicalism can be accused of overrating the early church fathers. In fact, it has been the opposite.

  • Adam

    So, what did the early church leaders do with a person who claimed to be christian yet served in the military and killed as a soldier?

    Did the condemnation mean anything or was it simply “we frown upon your actions”?

    What and how do we condemn things now?

  • John was a prophet because he spoke a message from God about the imminent kingdom of God, and part of that message was that shoulders should not abuse their power. If the kingdom John was preaching about was new covenant, and John was old covenant, why would God give him anything to say at all if it was too be dismissed? This is a far too simplistic perception of how to read the ‘old covenant’ prophets in relation to the ‘new covenant’.

  • Norman

    I respectively disagree, as we often set them up as equivalent to the apostles in regards to revelation and project more wisdom toward them than is sometimes due. As I stated earlier they had less resouces available to them than we do and often synthesized their understanding with western philosophy.
    I’m not saying there isn’t historical value in studying them as one would other ancient thinkers through the ages.

  • attytjj466

    What I find interesting about Jesus Telling Peter to put away his drawn sword, as referenced by Tertullian, is that Peter packed a sword with him into the garden. And by inference at least, he may well have not been the only one doing so among the band of disciples. Which tells me packing a sword while with Jesus moving about Jesusalem and traveling about the countryside was Peter’s practice. Which makes sense given how dangerous travel was in first century Judea and Gallilee, as evidenced by the story of the good samaritan. Traveling with armed individuals was a common security measure. Peter would not be packing a weapon while traveling with Jesus unless there were at least some circumstances where its use would be permissible.

    In addition, Jesus’ comments were spoken in a very specific context, where Peter was attempting by force to prevent the arrest of Jesus which was akin to Peter’s earlier statement to which Jesus responded “get behind me Satan”.

  • Richard

    I think you’re overrating their “isolation” to suggest we understand the context of the early church better than the 2nd and 3rd generation believers. If there were any Pre-Constantinian Fathers that supported your position, I’d be inclined to agree on the ambiguity but there isn’t a single example, isolated or otherwise. This was a uniform voice proclaiming a woven fabric of the sanctity of human life.

  • Richard

    Except when it is. See Latin America in the 80s, the Marine invasion of Haiti in the early 20th century, the massacre of native peoples following the Civil War. Our military is no different than any other military throughout the ages.

  • Richard

    But ‘Just War’ is a defined philosophy and WWII doesn’t fit the requirements for a just war due to the targeting of civilian populations and the dropping of atomic weapons by the USA (violating proportionality). Just because we feel something is ‘justified,’ doesn’t mean it’s ‘just.’

  • Richard

    John himself seemed pretty skeptical of Jesus being the Messiah when he didn’t literally burn everything to the ground the way John was predicting him to. It seems fair to suggest that maybe John didn’t have a full revelation of the KOG. After all, being prophetic doesn’t imply full revelation/omniscience.

  • Norman


    2nd or 3rd generation believers would still be the first century or early to mid-second century.

    Also I’m not arguing the sanctity of human life but as I stated earlier if you exclude police and those who protect ours and their lives by having to take a life in the line of duty then you have a real philosophical conundrum, do you not; if you say they are not kingdom fit? You really need to deal with that issue head on and not ignore it.
    Point blank: do you think a policeman who takes a life to save one is relegated outside Christ Kingdom?

    Also if you follow the story line in Genesis regarding the taking of human life it was contextually set around the idea of not murdering or killing your brother in faith. It was written against the Cain’s of this world rising up against their more faithful brothers. That is why in the NT the exhortation is to not be like Cain who was a murderer who did so in jealousy of his faith brother. The context for the Jews was to turn the other cheek to their spiteful older brother and let God deal with them. The jealous brother is a common theme in Jewish literature. If we extrapolate the Jewish context and try to apply it too broadly we are in jeopardy of missing the internal power struggle that was going on within Judaism for hundreds of years up until Christ. It’s all about context and there is ample evidence that the Jewish 2nd Temple context was lost rather quickly as the church turned westward unto the Gentiles and that rubbed off on the Jewish remnants as well over time and understood themes vanished quickly.

    Personally when I served in the military I chose to go in as a medic because of my conscience against overt killing. However I was under no illusions that if I ended up on a battle field and had to save my life or another member by grabbing a weapon I would do so as a last resort. This issue is not a cut and dried discussion by both side and that is why I’m inserting my thoughts today as it’s a very difficult and nuanced examination that calls for more intellect than is often exhibited by bot sides of the divide.

    Civilizations simply will not stand without those willing to defend it against those who historically abuse others. However the pacifist is just as sorely needed to provide tension and balance between our lesser human nature to go too far. Books can be written arguing for either position.

  • Susan_G1

    Agreed. There is Just War in going to war (jus ad bellum) and Just War in being at war (jus in bello), even after war (jus post bellum). It’s difficult to predict how authorities are going to make their decisions during war. Since the bombing of Dresden and Hiroshima/Nagasaki targeted civilians, it was not in keeping with jus in bello. But the entering into WWII, I think, met jus ad bellum.

  • Terrance Tiessen

    Before contending so absolutely that “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,” might it be wise to consider carefully the material referenced by David Hunter in “A Decade of Research on Early Christians and Military Service,” Religious Studies Review 18/2 (April 1992): 87-94?

    Following an excellent review of literature, David Hunter posits that “the former ‘pacifist consensus’ has definitely been revised in the light of the contemporary discussion. . . . The ‘new consensus’ would maintain: 1) that the most vocal opponents of military service in the early church (e.g. Tertullian and Origen) based their objections on a variety of factors, which included an abhorrence [sic] of Roman army religion as well as an aversion to the shedding of blood; 2) that at least from the end of the second century there is evidence of a divergence in Christian opinion and practice and that Christian support for military service (first reflected obversely in the polemics of Tertullian) grew throughout the 3rd C;
    3) that the efforts of Christians to justify participation in warfare for a ‘just’ cause (most notably that of Augustine) stand in fundamental continuity with at least one strand of pre-Constantinian tradition” (Hunter, 93, col. 1). In light of this more recent work, Hunter concludes that “the distance between Augustine and his predecessors is not very great.”

    Louis J. Swift has collected primary sources in The Early Fathers on War and Military Service (cited by Hunter, 91, col. 2). He includes letters of Basil of
    Caesarea and of Athanasius that speak in justification of military service
    (93-95) as well as letters of Paulinus of Nola and works of Sulpicius Severus
    and Prudentius that speak against it (149-57). Consequently, Hunter concludes that it is now evident “that the Constantinian development was anticipated by large numbers of Christians in the third century who saw no necessary contradiction between their Christianity and their military profession (apart from the command to sacrifice) . . . Christian soldiers could still regard themselves as
    faithful Christians” (Hunter, 92).

    I’m no expert on this myself but, given Hunter’s work, I would be very cautious about speaking as definitively as you have done about the early church’s position.

  • scotmcknight
  • Terrance Tiessen

    Thanks, Scot. I haven’t read Sider’s book. His work is
    more recent than Hunter’s literature review and I can see why you feel confident making the statement you did.

    Since my own reading of Scripture leads me toward the just peacemaking position, with force where necessary, in this stage
    of “not-yet-ness” of God’s kingdom, I am naturally inclined to appreciate the work of experts who find a more ambiguous position in the early church. Sider inclines otherwise, as do you. But I’m radically Protestant enough that I would affirm just peacemaking (by force if necessary) if I believed Scripture led us
    there, even if it was the 4th century before the church got to see

    I envy complete pacifists their (your) simplicity though. A selectivist approach to participation in military action is far more perilous than complete conscientious objection. Were I an American, I would be less likely to join the military with a clear conscience than I would as a Canadian, but the Canadian military isn’t “safe” for selectivists either. No military is likely to feel very positive about members whose consciences may forbid them to participate in particular wars their government chooses to wage. I’m reminded of the Christian soldiers in the Russian army who were executed by firing squad because their consciences prohibited them from participating in the Russian military action in Afghanistan.

    The problem is that I believe that evil doers must be restrained and that often requires the use of force. In principle, at least, the more Christians there are in the structure that decides when and how this is necessary the better. This is far too important an
    area of governance to leave it entirely to the ungodly. So it seems to me, anyway, but I have great respect for my pacifist Mennonite ancestors who paid a big price to obey their consciences, even though I think their consciences were ill informed.

  • Jasen

    I’m not pitting them against each other. I’m saying that they cannot be blended together because they are 2 separate covenants. Jesus point’s this out in his six Antitheses ( “You have heard it said. . . But I tell you. . . Matt. 5:21-48) Paul picks up on this in Hebrews when he says:

    “By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” Heb. 8:13

    Jesus didn’t just amend, clarify, or enhance the Old Covenant, He gave us a New one and that means there are some drastic changes.

  • Preston

    Good thoughts, Phil! And just to be clear, I do think that Christians can and should serve in the military, though not as combatants.

    One minor quibble, though. I’m not sure that we should put such a high premium on the idea of “feeling called” so such and such a ministry. I explain why here:

    In any case, great thoughts!

  • Preston

    Thanks for sharing, Stephen. As stated above, I think it’s fine for Christians to serve as noncombatants.

    Regarding serving in Rome’s military: Actually, during some periods of the empire, being a Roman soldier did not demand that you kill or use violence. There’s a famous quote about not having to act violently, except in a bar fight with fellow soldiers. Now, all solders would be required to fight and kill if the need arises. Sometimes, however, the need never arose.

  • Preston

    Great thoughts, Chris!

  • Preston

    Ya, I would agree with Richard below. America has bee responsible for the death of over 6 million civilians between WWII and today. Some would say it’s just collateral damage. Others call it a Holocaust. However you slice it, you’ll see a lot of dirt once you pull up the carpet.

  • Preston

    Joey and “Guest” are correct. “The Commander” is possibly Christ, but even if it isn’t, I doubt that Clement (who advocated elsewhere for nonviolence) would exhort Christians soldiers to obey unconditionally.

  • Preston

    Thank you for the push back, Terrance. Indeed, I read Hunter’s work very carefully and agreed with some portions while disagreeing with others. You’ll have the read the whole chapter of my book and attend to the footnotes to see my interaction with Hunter and many others.

    You may like to know, Terrance, that there have been over 100 books written in the last 100 years on early Christians in the military. The works by Swift and Hunter make up a very small percentage of these works.

    All that to say, one simply cannot cite one “authority” and consider the case closed. One must work through much of the secondary sources as well as relevant primary sources to come to a responsible conclusion. It takes a lot of work, as I found out!

  • Preston

    Adam, good question! I explain much more in the book.

  • Preston

    Hey all, sorry for not responding to your questions in a more timely minor! I’m actually on vacation: road trippin with my family. SoCal to Colorado, up through Idaho and back to Eden–I mean, Los Angeles. I’ll try to chime in when I have a chance, but it may be delayed. I will certainly read through all your comments in due time and make any necessary adjustments to my thinking.

  • Stephen Gonzalez

    Thanks, never heard an anabaptist affirm that before.

    I agree, despite just coming back from Afghanistan with a non combatant type job I struggle seriously w/ killing anyone. Thankful my job would never require that from me.

  • Terrance Tiessen

    Thanks, Preston. Your point is well taken. Your book sounds very valuable.

  • How does the fact that while in prison Paul preached to soldiers almost exclusive reconcile with your theory?

  • Actually, we are called to leave our worldly lives if it goes against the word of God. If a prostitute becomes a Christian, is she to continue in her profession? No. So too if a Centurion who is commanded to kill another person (against God’s word) then becomes a Christian, it would make sense for him to leave his profession.