Early Christians On Non-Violence

Early Christians On Non-Violence May 14, 2019


Quotes from first and second century Christian writers about the continuing posture of non-violence in the early Church following the age of the Apostles:

“The Lord, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” —Tertullian from “On Idolatry”

“Christians could never slay their enemies. For the more that kings, rulers, and peoples have persecuted them everywhere, the more Christians have increased in number and grown in strength.” —Origen Contra Celsius Book VII

“Wherever arms have glittered, they must be banished and exterminated from thence.”
—Lactantius’ Divine Institutes IV

“As simple and quiet sisters, peace and love require no arms. For it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.” —Clement of Alexandria Chapter 12 of Book 1

“Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence.”
—Clement of Alexandria

“I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command… Die to the world, repudiating the madness that is in it.”
—Tatian’s Address to the Greeks

“We who formerly used to murder one another now refrain from even making war upon our enemies.”
—The First Apology of Justin Martyr

“Whatever Christians would not wish others to do to them, they do not to others. And they comfort their oppressors and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies. Through love towards their oppressors, they persuade them to become Christians.”
—The Apology of Aristides

“A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate must resign or be rejected. If a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.”
—Hippolytus of Rome

“There is nothing better than peace, in which all warfare of things in heaven and things on earth is abolished.”
—Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians

“The new covenant that brings back peace and the law that gives life have gone forth over the whole earth, as the prophets said: “For out of Zion will go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem; and he will instruct many people; and they will break down their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and they will no longer learn to make war.” These people formed their swords and war lances into plowshares,” that is, into instruments used for peaceful purposes. So now, they are unaccustomed to fighting, so when they are struck, they offer also the other cheek.”

“We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. As a result, an ungrateful world is now enjoying–and for a long period has enjoyed–a benefit from Christ. For by his means, the rage of savage ferocity has been softened and has begun to withhold hostile hands from the blood of a fellow creature. In fact, if all men without exception…would lend an ear for a while to his salutary and peaceful rules,…the whole world would be living in the most peaceful tranquility. The world would have turned the use of steel into more peaceful uses and would unite together in blessed harmony.”

“Those soldiers were filled with wonder and admiration at the grandeur of the man’s piety and generosity and were struck with amazement. They felt the force of this example of pity. As a result, many of them were added to the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ and threw off the belt of military service.”
—Disputation of Archelaus and Manes

“We have rejected such spectacles as the Coliseum. How then, when we do not even look on killing lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?”
—Athenagoras of Athens’ A Plea for the Christians

This should be enough to give you an idea about how the early Christians understood the Way of Christ. They knew that to love our enemies we’d have to start by not killing them.

Just in case you’re still not convinced, maybe this will help:

For a follower of Jesus, violence is never an option. We carry the cross, not the sword. When we do that, the only one’s who die are us – daily – as we follow Christ’s example to love those who hate us, bless those who curse us and forgive those who harm us.


Keith Giles was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church 11 years ago, to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. Today, He and his wife live in Meridian, Idaho, awaiting their next adventure.

His book “Jesus Unbound: Liberating the Word of God from the Bible”, is available now on Amazon and features a Foreword by author Brian Zahnd.

He is also the author of the Amazon best-seller, “Jesus Untangled: Crucifying Our Politics To Pledge Allegiance To The Lamb” with a Foreword by Greg Boyd.

Keith also co-hosts the Heretic Happy Hour Podcast on iTunes and Podbean. 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Chuck Johnson

    A huge amount of violence has been done in the name of Christ and God.
    The philosophies that you quote just have not been sufficient to prevent this.

    An egregious example is the mass murder that George W Bush committed in Iraq.
    This war was was launched to protect the world from weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.

    George W got his information on weapons of mass destruction from a “reliable source” he told us.
    He also told us that he frequently had conversations with God.

    Philosophies of peace are nice.
    But a conversation directly with God outranks any kind of philosophy that a human may propose.

    I am an atheist.
    I see Bush’s use of God and Christianity in this instance to be despicable.

  • Dennis

    Keith Giles: Christians should generally avoid violence, but your statement “For a follower of Jesus, violence is never an option.” is unwarranted. Sometimes violence is needed to defend oneself or the innocent. Jesus did not teach pacifism. Pacifists want to lift the “love your enemies” verse (Matt. 5:44) from the Sermon on the Mount and apply it as a universal ethic of nonviolence without qualification and without considering the historical and theological context of the Sermon on the Mount. To do that is a misuse of that verse as I explain in this paper: http://www.academia.edu/15326755/The_Meaning_and_Misuse_of_Love_Your_Enemies_in_Matt._5_44

  • PhillipWynn

    And yet, Tertullian himself (c. 200) is witness to the fact that by his day there were already Christians to be found in the Roman army. This fact, and others, some of which is corroborated by archaeological evidence (e.g. Dura Europos, Megiddo) indicates that Christians served in the Roman army in increasing numbers over the course of the third century. The Great Persecution under Diocletian was motivated, in part, by the increased visibility of Christians in the Roman army, which stirred pagan antipathy.

    How to explain? Simply that the Christian church of this early period was far too widespread in a large (for its time) Roman empire, and too loosely organized compared with later times, for any pacifistic teachings to be able to be authoritatively promulgated and effectively enforced.

    This means that the old simple model of an originally pacifistic Christianity that was subsequently corrupted (Constantine being the usual suspect, with some justification) is misleading. On the scholarly re-evaluation in recent decades of this aspect of early Christian history, see among others David Hunter, “A Decade of Research on Early Christians and Military Service,” Religious Studies Review 18:2 (1992), 87-94.

    All this to say that although one can make an excellent case for a pacifistic mindset in the New Testament, any appeal to an argumentum ad antiquitatem based on the early church fathers is invalid. Once we get past New Testament times, the evidence rather shows differences and disagreements on this subject, on up until today.

  • PhillipWynn

    As to employing violence in self-defense, this is expressly condemned both by Ambrose (De officiis III 4, 27) and Augustine in De libero arbitrio, neither of whom were exactly wooly-headed hippies of their age.

    The argument that violence is sometimes necessary to defend oneself or the innocent comes from pagan writers in the natural law tradition (e.g. Cicero), and is NOT Christian in origin.

  • Dennis

    So are you saying that if someone was trying to kill you, your family, and your loved ones and you had the chance to kill that person first, then you would not do it?

  • PhillipWynn

    Nice try. The question at issue isn’t about what I would do, but the attitude of the early church. Not only Ambrose and Augustine, but earlier Lactantius all wrote of self-defense in the context of distinguishing Christian attitudes from those of contemporary pagans. I’m just relating the historical facts; make of them what you will.

  • Dennis

    I think Ambrose and Augustine would have come down from their ivory tower if faced with the choice of doing violence or see themselves or their loved ones killed. Admittedly, most people will never have to make this choice, but if I ever had to make it, I have no doubt what I would do and I know God would be on my side.

  • PhillipWynn

    I had no problem with what you wrote until the very end. I would remind you what Lincoln said about mortal humans needing to be less concerned about whether God is on our side than with whether we’re on His.

    And, anyway, I would hesitate to ever say something like “I know God is on my side”. That way lies al-Qaeda and Da’esh.

  • Dennis

    Okay. I see how you could interpret “God is on my side” that way. My intent was really a critique of some pacifists who say that they would use violence to defend themselves but they know that God would be displeased with them for doing that. I don’t think God would be displeased, thus he is on our side in that way.

  • bill wald

    It took from Bar Kochba revolt (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bar_Kokhba_revolt) until Hitler for the Jews to decide that their religion was no a suicide pact. It only took from 70 AD to the Pope’s Catholic church rebellion against the Orthodox Catholic Church for Christians to realize that Christianity was not a suicide pact.

    An old rabbinical saying is that Messiah will return when all Jews perfectly observe 3 consecutive Sabbaths.Maybe Jesus will return when all “Born Again” Christians “believe in” Christianity is a suicide pact. sarcasm, not intended insult.

  • lynnelmiller

    We should not, but being imperfect, we might, and have to pay for it.

  • Dennis

    I’m always amazed at pacifists’ reply to this topic. Let me rephrase it: If you were to take all of the people you love (family, friends) and people doing good (like ministers and others sharing gospel of Christ), line them up, and then a person says he will kill them one by one unless you kill him, are you saying that you “should not” kill that person?

  • lynnelmiller

    I believe that I should not, but I’m afraid I possibly would – however, extremely unlikely situations such as you propose aren’t very good ways of testing a person’s beliefs. Give me a reasonable situation – something that might actually happen -and you’d get another answer.

  • lynnelmiller

    I’m amazed by Christians saying they would happily kill someone under any circumstances.

  • Dennis

    But why do you even think you should not kill a person in self-defense or to protect the innocent? Those situations, though rare for most people, are not entirely ivory-tower considering the increased frequency of shootings (school, church, etc.).

  • lynnelmiller

    Well, it is a Commandment.

  • Dennis

    The sixth of the Ten Commandments (“You shall not murder.”) forbids the unjustified taking of a human life. There are two different Hebrew words (ratsakh, mut) for “murder” and “killing.” One means “to put to death,” and the other means “to murder.” The latter one is the one prohibited by the Ten Commandments, not the former. The fact that the sixth commandment does not ban all killing is also evidenced by the fact that God commanded a lot of killing in the Old Testament, e.g. 1 Sam. 15:1-3.

  • lynnelmiller

    That’s O.T. – Jesus is New Testament. Love Thy Neighbor, Turn The Other Cheek, Give Him Your Cloak, Also, remember Jesus rebuking Peter for cutting off the soldier’s ear. I’m pretty sure that when He said all that stuff, no killing was included. He came so that our sins would be forgiven, and I suppose that included self defense, (or defense of others,) but it doesn’t feel like a true reading.

  • Dennis

    I encourage you to take the time to read the following for a different perspective on those verses:

  • lynnelmiller

    Ah, I see I’m arguing way out of my league here! I have downloaded them and will read them, probably tomorrow. Thanks!

  • jekylldoc

    Suppose we committed ourselves, as a matter of holiness, to avert our eyes from any “entertainment” which makes use of killing to gain suspense. So, no Game of Thrones, no Lord of the Rings, no Shane, no Agatha Christie, no Last of the Mohicans, no Ivanhoe. Would we gain in our power to influence society? Would society turn to exploring themes of communication, reconciliation, meaning and reflection? See Father Brown stories for reference.

    But note also, no Elijah, no Samson, no David, perhaps even no Jacob and Esau. Bloodthirsty behavior seems to be baked in, somehow.

  • Brandon Roberts

    my view is sometimes violence is unavoidable.