The early church and our position concerning the morality of military service

In a recent post on “The early Church and military service,” Scot McKnight 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.” I commented:

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.

Scot’s original post was adapted from Preston Sprinkle’s forthcoming book: Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013), which is scheduled to appear in August. Sprinkle kindly responded to my first comment on Scot’s post, in this way:

I read Hunter’s work very carefully and agreed with some portions while disagreeing with others. You’ll have to 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!

Sprinkle is certainly right about the need to read widely before being certain of our conclusions. As I had said in my comment at Scot’s blog, I have not done the extensive work on this subject that Sprinkle has done, but the subject is of considerable interest to me, and I know that not everyone who has studied the early church’s position on the moral position regarding military service prior to Augustine has reached the same conclusion about whether or not the early church was agreed that military service is always immoral for Christians or why such is the case, if they did argue for that position. But a larger question faces us in this regard and that has to do with the role of the church’s tradition in the formation of our own moral theology.

Scot himself responded to my comment and he referred me to a post he had written in 2012, entitled “Christians don’t kill.” In that post, Scot had drawn on a book that Ron Sider had edited (The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment), in which Sider had argued for consensus in the early church against Christians killing in war. I responded with this comment:

 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 this.

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 [on moral grounds].

The problem is that I believe that evil doers must be restrained and that [this] 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.

I am not one who believes that no truth was believed and taught in the Christian church between the time of the apostles and the Protestant Reformation. I value highly the theological work done by godly scholars within the church, as they studied Scripture in their varied contexts. Tradition is important to me, and I think that we ought to be very careful when we disagree with widespread consensus in the church through the centuries. But I am definitely a Protestant in my conviction that Scripture is uniquely God’s Word, which has supreme authority. Outside of inspired Scripture, God has given no individual or group infallible interpretation of his Word. Clearly there were theologians in the early centuries, like Tertullian and Origen, who considered it immoral for us to take human life. But Tertullian and Origen had some peculiar ideas in other areas, and they did not agree with one another about everything. Each of us must study Scripture, praying that God will illumine our minds and give us the ability to obey what he commands. We must obey our Scripture informed consciences, even though we are aware that we may be wrong and that we may hear God speak differently at some future time.

In a later post, I will review a book which provides a very helpful perspective on the morality of combatant military service for Christians. I had planned to include that review in this post, but this is long enough for now.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

3 replies on “The early church and our position concerning the morality of military service”

Thanks for the comments, Terry. My perspective is the same as yours, but you have stimulated me to pursue the patristic material more than I have in the past. Of course, I may have to retire to do that.

Retirement would certainly help, but now even I don’t have time to get to the next post I spoke about. We have put an offer on a house in London (a year earlier than we expected to be doing so) and have put our house on the market, so life has gotten crazy all of a sudden. Order will return eventually, I’m sure.

You know that I am committed to non-violence (and find the language of pacifism troubling, because of its secular connections). A basic reason for my position–and for many Brethren in Christ and Mennonites–is that the military requires absolute obedience to one’s superior officer in order to function. That is, the authority that belongs only to God transfers to one’s superior officers. This is close to the religious objection you cite at the beginning (Jesus is Lord; therefore one cannot say, Caesar is Lord). It is a fundamental problem that I don’t see a way around. Society must replace God as authority in order to rule well; Christians cannot accept that authority as ultimate. Find me a solution (for my position of abstaining is not itself a solution either), and I am in your debt!

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