A few months ago, as I was heading into the second Pacifist Fight Club event which was called Round 2 – “The Means War”, I received an email with links to an article which claimed that my position regarding the non-participation of the early Christian church in the military was inaccurate.
The main piece of evidence supplied to me at that time was the discovery of an historical (second century) document which detailed the actions of several Christians who were part of the army of Marcus Aurelius. Second to that was a response by Tertullian (a second century church father) who claimed that the prayers of those Christian soldiers were instrumental in the victory of that army.
Since our event was only a few days away, I shared it with fellow presenter Thomas Crisp and we both did mention this evidence briefly during the discussion sessions following the presentations, but until now I’ve held off sharing a detailed response.
About a month ago another friend, Herb Montgomery, contacted me because he had come across this same information and, like myself, was a bit crest-fallen to have discovered evidence that suggested the early Christian church actually did participate in military actions much earlier than we had come to believe.
I shared the research I had done up to that point with him and we corresponded a little back and forth. As a result of Herb’s continued research there is much to discuss regarding this apparent contradiction between Christian pacifists and those Christians who hold to redemptive justice.
Here’s a little more background information and a summary of what we found. (And by “we” I mostly mean Herb Montgomery).
The Rain Soldiers
The event which informs this discussion occurred when Roman General Marcus Aurelius was preparing to go to battle with barbarian forces in what we now call Germany. His men were exhausted and suffering from heat exposure. The forces ahead of them were fresh and they were outnumbered. After praying to his own pagan gods (and finding no help), Marcus summons the Christians in his army and after they pray (“simultaneously”) water began to pour from the sky – refreshing them with cool water which they caught and drank from their shields – and pelting the barbarian horde with giant hailstones. As a result, the Romans won the battle.
When I first read of this account it stunned me. I immediately searched online for the source and found only one (a single book) and was immediately skeptical. Mostly because I’ve been reading about this topic and debating it with people for years and no one has ever (not once) brought up this as evidence that Christians were involved in military service before the time of Constantine.
Keep in mind, the Christian pacifist holds that the early Christian church was anti-war and anti-violence up until the corruption of the church by the Emperor Constantine in the mid 3rd century. How could it be that Christians were engaging in violence so much earlier than this? Well…hang on a minute and you’ll see the whole truth.
I continued to research and I did find an article on Wikipedia (a most reliable source of trust-worthy information, I know), which backed up the claims of the email and of the book that was quoted. Furthermore, there was a quote by Tertullian who not only referenced the “Rain Soldiers” event but also appeared nonplussed by the fact that Christians were serving in this army.
The quote (taken out of its context, by the way), says:
“You will see this by examining the letters of Marcus Aurelius, that most serious of emperors. For, in his letters, he bears witness that the Germanic drought was removed by the rains obtained through the prayers of the Christians, who happened to be fighting under him.” – (Tertullian, Apology.)
In addition to this, we also have two other quotes by Tertullian referenced which also appear to contradict his many other non-violent, anti-military quotes, for example:
“Looking up to Him (God), we Christians with hands extended…constantly beseech Him on behalf of all Emperors. We ask for them long life, undisturbed power, security at home, brave armies, a faithful senate . . .” – (Tertullian, Apology)
“We (Christians) are sailors along with yourselves; we serve in the army; we engage in farming and trading…”– (Tertullian, Apology)
Now, again, you have to remember that Tertullian is the same guy who famously said:
“When Christ disarmed Peter, He disarmed every soldier.” – (Tertullian, Apology; Appendix to Part 9)
So, you can see this appears quite contradictory, especially when added to the many, many other anti-military quotes by Tertullian that many Christian Pacifists hold up as evidence that the early followers of Christ did not stand for violence or condone participation in the military. However, when you peel back the layers and actually read all of the quotes in their entirety what you learn is that, (yes Virginia), the Christian Pacifists were right all along.
For example, when you read Marcus Aurelius’ entire epistle regarding this instance what you see is that those Christians in his army were non-combatants. And he even goes further to explain that the reason why they were non-combatants is due to their faith in Christ. Here’s the full quote with emphasis on the sections left out by our pro-military friends.
The Epistle of Marcus Aurelius to the Roman Senate reads:
“Having then examined my own position, and my host, with respect to the vast mass of barbarians and of the enemy, I quickly betook myself to prayer to the gods of my country. But being disregarded by them, I summoned those who among us go by the name of Christians. And having made inquiry, I discovered a great number and vast host of them, and raged against them, which was by no means becoming; for afterwards I learned their power. Wherefore they began the battle, not by preparing weapons, nor arms, nor bugles; for such preparation is hateful to them, on account of the God they bear about in their conscience. Therefore it is probable that those whom we suppose to be atheists, have God as their ruling power entrenched in their conscience. For having cast themselves on the ground, they prayed not only for me, but also for the whole army as it stood, that they might be delivered from the present thirst and famine. For during five days we had got no water, because there was none; for we were in the heart of Germany, and in the enemy’s territory. And simultaneously with their casting themselves on the ground, and praying to God (a God of whom I am ignorant), water poured from heaven, upon us most refreshingly cool, but upon the enemies of Rome a withering hail. And immediately we recognized the presence of God following on the prayer —a God unconquerable and indestructible.”
The quote continues by arguing for the end to Christian oppression and the punishment of those who persecute them.
If we examine the Tertullian quote in its entirety (without removing all the annoying pacifist bits) we find out that he (believe it or not) was consistently non-violent in his theology.
For context, Tertullian was writing to show the Emperor that Christians were no threat to the Roman government and that they actually prayed for their Emperor as Christ commanded all Christians to do:
“Thither we lift our eyes, with hands outstretched, because free from sin; with head uncovered, for we have nothing whereof to be ashamed; finally, without a monitor, because it is from the heart we supplicate. Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Cæsar, an emperor would wish. These things I cannot ask from any but the God from whom I know I shall obtain them, both because He alone bestows them and because I have claims upon Him for their gift, as being a servant of His, rendering homage to Him alone, persecuted for His doctrine, offering to Him, at His own requirement, that costly and noble sacrifice of prayer dispatched from the chaste body, an unstained soul, a sanctified spirit, not the few grains of incense a farthing buys — tears of an Arabian tree,— not a few drops of wine,— not the blood of some worthless ox to which death is a relief, and, in addition to other offensive things, a polluted conscience, so that one wonders, when your victims are examined by these vile priests, why the examination is not rather of the sacrificers than the sacrifices. With our hands thus stretched out and up to God, rend us with your iron claws, hang us up on crosses, wrap us in flames, take our heads from us with the sword, let loose the wild beasts on us, – the very attitude of a Christian praying is one of preparation for all punishment. Let this, good rulers be your work: wring from us the soul, beseeching God on the emperor’s behalf.” – (Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 30)
See that? Tertullian is saying that Christians are praying for God to bless their Emperor even while they are being tortured and killed for their faith. This sounds more like the Tertullian that Christian Pacifists know and love.
Many have tried to say that Tertullian and Origen were not against military involvement because of any non-violent Christian pacifism but mainly because of the participation in pagan rituals and swearing allegiance to the Roman Emperor as a Deity. However, the following quote from Tertullian demolishes that argument soundly:
“I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians. What sense is there in discussing the merely accidental, when that on which it rests is to be condemned? Do we believe it lawful for a human oath to be superadded to one divine, for a man to come under promise to another master after Christ, and to abjure father, mother, and all nearest kinsfolk, whom even the law has commanded us to honour and love next to God Himself, to whom the Gospel, too, holding them only of less account than Christ, has in like manner rendered honour? Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” …”Touching this primary aspect of the question, as to the unlawfulness even of a military life itself, I shall not add more, that the secondary question may be restored to its place. Indeed, if, putting my strength to the question, I banish from us the military life...” – (Tertullian, The Chaplet or De Corona; chapter 11)
So, it’s fairly clear that Tertullian did not want any follower of Christ to engage in military action or warfare and that his reasons were directly related to obedience towards Christ’s commands against using violence. In this same work, he also argues that:
“Of course, if faith comes later, and finds any preoccupied with military service….when a man [already in the military] has become a believer, and faith has been sealed, there must be either an immediate abandonment of it (military service), which has been the course with many, or all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God, and that is not allowed even outside of military service;”
In this document, Tertullian urges those who are already serving in the military to cease involvement and, if necessary, suffer a martyrs death (as was often the case).
Finally, let’s end with a look at how Tertullian handles the common objection we often hear from pro-military Christians regarding the Old Testament use and acceptance of warfare as an argument for why Christians should be free to go to war today:
“But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments [Note: he’s talking about an exception whereby a Christian in the military might not have to take the offensive oaths to Caesar as “Lord and Savior”, etc.]. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters—God and Cæsar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. [Sound familiar?] But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” – (Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 19)
So, in spite of so-called “evidence” that appears to contradict the claim that the early Church was peaceful and non-violent, the truth is still evident: The followers of Jesus did not approve of warfare nor engage in violence until the time of Constantine in the mid third century.
For those of us who desire to follow Christ with all our hearts, we cannot appeal to the Old Testament to support a belief in redemptive violence. At the very heart of this issue is one single fact: Our Lord Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and bless those who curse us. He disarmed Peter and he forbid His disciples to work violence against others. We cannot serve both God and Caesar. Our Lord Jesus has given us our marching orders. We cannot do less than obey His every word.
*SPECIAL THANKS to Herb Montgomery for his diligent research in this area. You can read his extensive treatment of this subject (with longer quotes and a discussion of Origen’s position) here>
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 new 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.
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