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American Christianity Compared to the Early Church: On Military Service

In American Evangelical Christianity military service is considered a service to God. We have been indoctrinated to think that our Country is held by God at a higher esteem than others. War is thought to be just and the result of our godly country protecting others or spreading God ordained justice to other Countries.

While some wars in the past were possibly needed and unavoidable, war today is often fueled by the American Political agenda of colonization, securing oil, and money. While we need military in our day and age to protect us and the service of soldiers is typically honorable, Christians should refrain from participating in these things and pray rather than take part. Violence and military action were clearly not the ways of Jesus or the early Church. In fact, Jesus’ lack of military leadership and nationalism is one reason Jews cite as to why He was denied as the Messiah. For example, in the Bible Christ said that those who live by the sword die by the sword:

And behold, one of those with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, and striking the servant of the high priest, he cut off his ear. But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place, for all those who take the sword shall perish by the sword. (Matthew 26:51-52)

In Genesis we read that killing another is the same as killing God as we were created in God’s image:

Genesis 9:6: 6 He that sheds man’s blood, instead of that blood shall his own be shed, for in the image of God I made man.

Because one can not serve in the military without taking part in murder, the early Church did not advocate service in the military or war:

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… 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. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action. Tertullian (A.D. 198) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.3 pg.73

I do not wish to be a king; I am not anxious to be rich; I decline military command; I detest fornication; I am not impelled by an insatiable love of gain to go to sea; I do not contend for chaplets; I am free from a mad thirst for fame; I despise death. Tatian (A.D.160) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.2 pg.69

For He says, “Take no anxious thought for tomorrow,” meaning that the man who has devoted himself to Christ ought to be sufficient to himself, and servant to himself, and moreover lead a life which provides for each day by itself. For it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained. War needs great preparation, and luxury craves profusion; but peace and love, simple and quiet sisters, require no arms nor excessive preparation. The Word is their sustenance. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 195) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.2 pg.235

For we do not train our women like Amazons to manliness in war; since we wish the men even to be peaceable. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 195) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.2 pg.420

“For when God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but he warns us against the commission of those beings which are esteemed lawful among men….Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all, but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.” – Lactantius (240AD – 320AD)

“We Christians cannot endure to see a man being put to death, even justly.” – Athenagoras (133AD – 190AD)

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,

“Nothing is better than peace, by which all war of those in heaven and those on earth is abolished.” – Hippolytus (approx. A.D. 200)

“None of us offers resistance when he is seized, or avenges himself for your unjust violence, although our people are numerous and plentiful…it is not lawful for us to hate, and so we please God more when we render no requital for injury…we repay your hatred with kindness.” – Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (died 258AD)

“We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies ad try to win those who hate us. “- Justin Martyr

“Oh emperor, it is the Christians that have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God. They do not keep for themselves the goods entrusted to them. They do not covet what belongs to others, but they show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not like done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way, they make their enemies their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies. They live in the awareness of their own smallness. Everyone of them who has anything gives ungrudgingly to the one who has nothing. And if any of them sees a homeless stranger, they bring them into their own home, under their roof. If anyone of them becomes poor while the Christians have nothing to spare, then they fast two or three days until everyone can eat. In this way, they supply for the poor exactly what they need. This, oh emperor, is the rule of life for the Christians. This is how they live. – Aristides (137 AD)

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. – Arnobius

We who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.- Justin Martyr (A.D. 160)

For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly; who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism? …But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? – Athenagorus (A.D. 137)

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

And when you hear that we look for a kingdom, you suppose, without making any inquiry, that we speak of a human kingdom; whereas we speak of that which is with God, as appears also from the confession of their faith made by those who are charged with being Christians, though they know that death is the punishment awarded to him who so confesses. For if we looked for a human kingdom, we should also deny our Christ, that we might not be slain; and we should strive to escape detection, that we might obtain what we expect. But since our thoughts are not fixed on the present, we are not concerned when men cut us off; since also death is a debt which must at all events be paid. Justin Martyr (A.D. 160) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg.166

We who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ. Justin Martyr (A.D. 160) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg.176

Contrasting early Christians with the American Christian view of war and military service we find that the two are not in line. It must be that one is not teaching true Christianity. Since the early Church was far closer to the time of Christ and many of the early fathers were taught by an Apostle, we have to admit that it is the modern Christian views that are in grave error. Many American Christians will cite the Old Testament as proof that military service or wars are acceptable for a follower of Jesus, however, the early Church believed that the New Covenant changed things in such a way that it brought back peace and Christians were not allowed to fight:

No new covenant was given, but they used the Mosaic law until the coming of the Lord; but from the Lord’s advent, the new covenant which brings back peace, and the law which gives life, has gone forth over the whole earth, as the prophets said: “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem; and He shall rebuke many people; and they shall break down their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks, and they shall no longer learn to fight.”… the law of liberty… caused such a change in the state of things, that these [nations] did form the swords and war-lances into ploughshares, and changed them into pruning-hooks for reaping the corn, [that is], into instruments used for peaceful purposes, and that they are now unaccustomed to fighting, but when smitten, offer also the other cheek. Irenaeus (A.D. 180) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg.512

Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman government on their persecution of Christians showing that Christians were peaceful and did not wish to hate or harm others:

We who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavour to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope of a reward from God the ruler of all. Justin Martyr (A.D. 160) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg.167

We who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons – our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage – and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified. Justin Martyr (A.D. 160) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg.254

True Christians will remain in line with their early Christian ancestors as the Church should not change and conform to the times in such a way to allow an evil such as war and murder to become virtues. These are the ways of modern humanism and of this world which is not our home anyhow:

Wherefore we have no country on earth, that we may despise earthly possessions. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 195) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.2 pg.281

But as for you, you are a foreigner in this world, a citizen of Jerusalem, the city above. Our citizenship, the apostle says, is in heaven. You have your own registers, your own calendar; you have nothing to do with the joys of the world; nay, you are called to the very opposite, for “the world shall rejoice, but you shall mourn.” Tertullian (A.D. 198) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.3 pg. 101

Finally we should note that even though serving in the military is considered brave, the early Church would not have viewed this as bravery and a virtue due to the destruction, lost lives, and stolen property that stems from war:

For how can a man be just who injures, who hates, who despoils, who puts to death? And they who strive to be serviceable to their country do all these things…Whoever, then, has gained for his country these goods – as they themselves call them – that is, who by the overthrow of cities and the destruction of nations has filled the treasury with money, has taken lands and enriched his country-men – he is extolled with praises to the heaven: in him there is said to be the greatest and perfect virtue. And this is the error not only of the people and the ignorant, but also of philosophers…Therefore, when they are speaking of the duties relating to warfare, all that discourse is accommodated neither to justice nor to true virtue, but to this life and to civil institutions. Lactantius (A.D. 303-313) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.6 pg.168-169

“We are scattered all over the world with the bloody horror of camps (military outposts). The whole world is wet with mutual blood. And murder – which is admitted to be a crime in the case of an individual – is called virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the (military’s) wicked deeds, not because they are guiltless – but because the cruelty is perpetuated on a grand scale!” – Cyprian (c.250) vol. 5 pp. 277 Ante-Nicene Fathers

“If we all derive our origin from one man, whom God created, we are plainly all of one family. Therefore it must be considered an abomination to hate another human, no matter how guilty he may be. For this reason God has decreed that we should hate no one, but that we should eliminate hatred. So we can comfort our enemies by reminding them of our mutual relationship. For if we have all been given life by the same God then what else are we but brothers? … Because we are all brothers God teaches us never to do evil to one another but only good – giving aid to those who are oppressed, and experiencing hardship, and giving food to the hungry.” – Lactantius (Divine Institutes bk. 6 ch 10.)

(Lucilius, a Pagan writes) “It is a virtue to give that which is really due to honor… That is, we should consider the interests of our country first, those of our parents should come next and our own interests should be in the third and last place.”… (Christian Reply) “However, we will presently see how false these things are… It is a virtue to restrain anger, to control desire, and to curb lust. For this is to flee from vice. …Also, if desire is restrained, no one will use violence by land or sea. Nor will anyone lean an army off and lay waste to the property of others. For what are the interests of our country but the hardships of another state or nation? To extend the boundaries that are violently taken from others, to increase the power of the state to improve revenues – all these things are not virtues, but the overthrowing of virtues. Lactantius (A.D. 303-313) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.6 pg.168-169

The following was written by a pagan Roman emperor regarding his experience with professing Christian soldiers in his army who refused to fight but instead offered prayers:

The Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius, to the People of Rome, and to the sacred Senate… I was surrounded by the enemy; And the enemy being at hand… there was close on us a mass of a mixed multitude of 977,000 men, which indeed we saw… Having then examined my own position, and my host, with respect to… 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. – Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius (A.D.160) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.1 pg.187

What should Christians do concerning wars? For one, we should never look down upon those who do serve in the military. In most cases, if they believe they are Christian, they have been indoctrinated with a false version of Christianity that glamorizes the duty of those who fight for their country. Instead, we should pray for those who do choose to fight as well as seek them out if possible and show them that this is not Christianity. We should pray for our country as well, but we should also pray for other countries involved and not see them as our personal enemies:

“I exhort, therefore, that first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority;” and the more any one excels in piety…… If that, then, is a laudable custom, how much more so, that while others are engaged in battle, these too should engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause, and for the king who reigns righteously, that whatever is opposed to those who act righteously may be destroyed!” And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead to the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. And we do take our part in public affairs, when along with righteous prayers we join self-denying exercises and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures, and not to be led away by them. And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army – an army of piety – by offering our prayers to God. Origen (A.D. 248) Ante-Nicene Fathers vol.4 pg. 668

Here we will close with one more early Church quote. As already mentioned it is commended as an act of bravery to fight, thus here in the US it a dishonor for an American to refuse to fight. We hear people talk of those who refused service or who “dodged the draft” or went AWOL as if they are cowards and should be looked down upon. So beelow we have included the story of an early Christian who refused to serve which shows that to refuse to kill someone else in war and military service should be considered the brave act rather than one of a coward:

Maximilian, a young Numidian, was brought before an African proconsul named Dion in A.D. 295 for induction into the army. Maximilian refused to join, stating: “I cannot serve as a soldier; I cannot do evil; I am a Christian.” Dion threatened Maximilian, stating: “Get into the service, or it will cost you your life.” With courage, Maximilian did not yield to the threat of death: “I shall not perish, but when I have forsaken this world, my soul shall live with Christ my Lord.” Later he refused the royal badge that had the sign of the emperor on it, saying, “I do not accept your mark, for I already have the sign of Christ, my God… I do not accept the mark of this age, and if you impose it on me, I shall break it, for it is worth nothing.” The outcome was that on March 12, 295, Maximilian was executed. Maximilian’s father returned home, “giving thanks to God that he had been able to bring such a present to the Lord.” Later, as a special honor, his body was brought to Carthage and buried near the tomb of Cyprian, a great leader in the church, who had also died as a martyr:- The Martyrdom of Maximilian (A.D. 295)

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