Early Church Pacifism

The early church was a non-violent church. In my various learnings, I’ve never seen anybody even try to claim otherwise.  Of course, this does not mean that they were right. Primarily my arguments for non-violence are from the biblical texts, but even though I don’t consider the early church the primary authority, I do think the fact that they interpreted the teaching of Jesus in this way does support the peace position. They refused to serve in the army, and in fact part of the reason why Rome felt increasingly threatened was because there were so many Christians who weren’t fighting in their army. Without the kind of framework like that of two kingdoms theology, it is a pretty rational conclusion on Rome’s part to be afraid that the Christians would rise up against them.

“Last Prayer” by Leon Gerome, depicting early church martyrs

One issue of a little bit of debate was when a soldier converted while in the army. Some church leaders said he had to leave the army now, which would most often result in execution for desertion. Others permitted them to fulfill their oath they had already taken, but they had to resign once they had done that minimum committed duty. The peace position stance otherwise remained completely unanimous, though, despite official doctrine not saying anything about it (the idea of official doctrines was just starting).

I do want to be fair and present some of the other side of the argument. Proponents of Just War Theory would point out other things that came with military service. Specifically it usually required worship of certain gods and of the emperor, so maybe the real problem was this worship. Just War Theorists could also argue that the early church would have thought that Rome’s wars were not just, but they would have fought in other wars if a just cause did come along.

Those are fair arguments, but to me they just skirt around the issue. Those were quite possibly reasons not to join the army, sure, but it doesn’t answer whether a belief in non-violence as a general principle was also a reason. To put it another way, there are two possible scenarios. One is that the church did hold to non-violence, in which case these other reasons just affirmed the decision not to join the military. The other is that the church didn’t hold to non-violence, and would have fought if the other things weren’t an issue, but as it was those issues unanimously over-rode the willingness to fight.

All other things being equal, I could see either conclusion being very valid. But all other things aren’t equal. Jesus as well as the apostles were pretty clear. The texts that we now call the New Testament weren’t officially canonized but they were floating around and most were unanimously accepted as authoritative Scripture. They had these teachings of Jesus and the apostles, and to be fair, they took them much more seriously than the church does today.

The one thing I did want to challenge in this post is the usual assumption that the church has always accepted committing violence. It hasn’t by any means.  The peace churches (Anabaptists as well as Quakers) are a significant minority now, although regaining some ground now in the post-Christendom era, but this serious interpretation of Jesus’ teaching was the norm for 300 years.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.