"Love your enemies"
Some New Testament Texts: Luke 3:14; Acts 10:1-33; Matthew 5:38-48; Romans 12:14 - 13:10.
XVIII.1JUSTIN: We who formerly murdered one another, not only do not war against our enemies but, in order not to lie or deceive our judges, gladly die confessing Christ. (Apology I, 39)1
2We who were full of war and murder of one another and all wickedness have each changed his warlike instruments-swords into plows and spears into agricultural implements. (Dialogue 110)
3TATIAN: I do not want to rule, I do not wish to be rich, I reject military command, I have hated fornication. (Oration 11)
4ATHENAGORAS: Since we consider that to see a man put to death is next to killing him, we have renounced such spectacles [gladiator contests]. How then can we, who do not look lest we be stained with guilt and defilement, commit murder? (Plea for Christians 35; see also 34).
5TERTULLIAN: Letters of Marcus Aurelius, that most venerable of emperors, testify that the drought in Germany was broken by rain obtained through the prayers of Christians at that time in his army. (Apology 5.6)
6We are but of yesterday, and we have filled everything of yours–cities, islands, forts, towns, marketplaces, the army itself, tribes, councils, the palace, senate, forum. We have left you the temples only! For what war [against Rome] were we not fit and ready even if we were not equal in forces, we who are willing to be slaughtered, were it not that according to our doctrine greater permission is given to be killed than to kill. (Ibid. 37.4-5)
7We live together with you in this world, not apart from the forum, nor meatmarket, nor baths, shops, factories, inns, nor your market days and affairs of business. We sail with you, fight with you in the army, we farm and trade with you. (Ibid. 42.2-3)
8To begin with the real basis of the military crown, I think we must first inquire whether military service is proper at all for Christians. . . . Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword when the Lord proclaims that he who makes use of the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it is not proper for him even to go to law? . . . Of course, if faith comes later to those already occupied with military service, the case is different. . . . Yet at the same time, when faith has been acknowledged and sealed [at baptism], there must be either an immediate abandonment of the army, as has been done by many; or there must be all sorts of quibbling in order not to offend against God, and that is not allowed even outside of military service; or, at last, for God there must be the suffering which a citizen-faith has equally accepted. For military service promises neither impunity from wrongs nor exemption from martyrdom. (On the Crown 11)
9But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer is able to turn himself to military service, and whether the soldier may be admitted unto the faith, even the ordinary soldier or the lower ranks, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments? There is no agreement between the divine and the human oath, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be under obligation to two, God and Caesar. . . . But how will a Christian war, indeed how will he serve even in peace without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? . . . The Lord, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier. (On Idolatry 19)
10HIPPOLYTUS: A soldier of the government must be told not to execute men; if he should be ordered to do it, he shall not do it. He must be told not to take the military oath. If he will not agree, let him be rejected [from baptism]. A military governor or a magistrate of a city who wears the purple, either let him desist or let him be rejected. If a catechumen or a baptized Christian wishes to become a soldier, let him be cast out. For he has despised God. (Apostolic Tradition 16.17-19)2
11CELSUS: If everyone should do the same as you, nothing would prevent the emperor from being left alone and deserted, and the affairs of the earth would come into the hands of the most lawless and the wildest barbarians. (Quoted by Origen, Against Celsus 8.68)
12ORIGEN: For if, as Celsus says, “everyone should do the same” as I, it is evident that even the barbarians, having come to the word of God, will be most law abiding and civilized, and every religion will be destroyed except that of the Christians, which will prevail. And it alone some day will prevail as the word more and more holds sway over human souls. (Ibid.)
13If all the Romans, according to the supposition of Celsus, are converted, they will by their prayers prevail over their enemies. Rather, they will not war in the first place, since they will be protected by that divine power which promised to save five whole cities for the sake of fifty righteous persons. (Ibid. 8.70)
14We also by our prayers destroy all the demons, the ones who cause wars, violate oaths, and disturb the peace, and we are more help to those who rule than those who seem to be fighting his battles. . . . We fight better on behalf of the king. Indeed we do not fight at his side, even if he should command it, but we fight on his behalf, organizing our own army of piety through our petitions to God. (Ibid. 8.73)
15Christians benefit their country more than other people because they train up citizens and teach piety toward the God of the universe. (Ibid. 8.74)
16Celsus urges us to take up the rule of the country if this should be necessary for the preservation of law and religion. But we recognize in each city another native constitution, created by the word of God, and we exhort those powerful in word and experienced in a wholesome life to rule over the churches. . . . Christians decline public offices not in order to escape these duties but in order to keep themselves for a more divine and necessary service in the church of God for the salvation of human beings. (Ibid. 8.75)
Early second-century literature gives no direct evidence in regard to Christian participation in military service. The general statements which do occur imply a negative attitude. They reflect the Christian abhorrence of bloodshed3 and a general Christian affirmation about peace.
Both of our passages from Justin (XVIII.1, 2) occur in contexts where he quotes the famous peace passage of Micah 4:14 (=Isaiah 2:1 -4).4 Peace and not war is the ideal and goal of the Christian dispensation. Tatian’s spirituality was world-denying and his declaration against military command (XVIII.3) is in a context affirming freedom against fate, so generalizations cannot be made from it, but military duty is in bad company. Athenagoras (XVIII.4) is rebutting the charge of ritual murder committed in Christian gatherings (for which see chapter XVI on the pagan slanders about Christians). His reply is that Christians so abhor bloodshed as not even to be allowed to attend the gladiatorial contests.5 This shows the typical rigorist Christian attitude on morality, but may or may not be relevant to the actual presence of Christians in the army.
Only in the early 170s do we find the first explicit evidence since apostolic times to the presence of Christians in the military service (XVIII.5). The evidence concerns an incident involving the “Thundering Legion” while on campaign on the Danube frontier. A drought threatened the army, and the soldiers prayed for rain. A thunder storm frightened the barbarians away and brought relief to the Roman troops. The incident is reported by pagan authors, who ascribed the supposed miracle to pagan deities.6 The earliest Christian reference comes from Claudius Apolinarius, quoted by Eusebius.7 Apolinarius addressed an apology to the emperor Marcus Aurelius not long after the incident. He is wrong in his details,8 but he is a witness to the firm conviction of Christians that it was the prayers of Christian soldiers which saved the day for Rome. The legion concerned had been recruited from Melitene, in Armenia, later a strong Christian region. The presence of Christians in the legion, therefore, seems certain. Later the Christians elaborated the story so that the whole legion was reported to have been Christian, but this has no claim to credibility. It was a famous story and the basic incident was historical. Its importance for this study is its indication of the presence of at least some Christians fighting in the Roman army and apparently with the approval or acceptance of their fellow-believers.
Tertullian provides further incidental information about Christians in the army (XVIII.6, 7).9 His statements occur in the context of an apology addressed to the Roman authorities. These statements are testimonies to the way Christianity had permeated all of society. At this point he registers neither approval nor disapproval but simply records the fact. That was to his apologetic purposes, and there was no need for him to declare his full mind on the matter.
Elsewhere Tertullian shows what his real feelings were (XVIII.8,9), and the probable chronology of his writings is against there being any change in his attitude. Indeed his very treatises that argue against the possibility of a Christian serving in the army are an evidence that Christians did so, even had joined the army after conversion.
The occasion for the work On the Crown was the refusal of a Christian soldier to wear a laurel crown in a procession on the grounds that it was a sign of idolatry. A military tribunal imprisoned him. While he awaited martyrdom, adverse criticisms were made against him (perhaps by Christians) for a headstrong and rash action. Tertullian defends the man as more faithful than his brothers in the army who thought they could serve two masters (ch. 1). The treatise then takes up the question whether it is lawful for a Christian to wear the laurel crown. In the passage quoted Tertullian turns to argue against the lawfulness of warfare at all for Christians. If a Christian cannot even sue in court to defend his rights, how can he take the sword to do so?
In On Idolatry Tertullian seems to be engaging in a real debate, answering real arguments which had been put forward. The support for the presence of Christians in the military, cited by Tertullian, came from the Bible: Joshua led a “line of march,” Israel engaged in wars, soldiers received from John the Baptist instructions about their conduct, and the centurion Cornelius became a believer (ch. 19). We do not hear elsewhere for the early period other arguments which may have been used. Social and cultural considerations would come later, but the first Christians in the military made a simple and unreflective appeal to Biblical examples without dealing with the Biblical teachings.
Tertullian’s reply on the Scriptural level is that Jesus had forbidden the military occupation in his words spoken at his arrest (Matthew 26:52; John 18:10-11). Peter had taken a sword and struck off the ear of the servant of the high priest. Jesus told him to put up his sword. Tertullian interpreted the declaration by Jesus as a denunciation of any use of the sword, a disarming of every soldier. In a more fundamental way Tertullian sees a basic incompatibility between the profession of a soldier and the profession of a Christian. It is a matter of trying to serve two masters. This double allegiance is an impossibility, and Tertullian is at his rhetorical best when he can flourish antitheses (XVIII. 9).10
Tertullian’s views were often highly individual, but on the question of a Christian serving in the army his thought appears to have been in harmony with that of the other leading thinkers and spokesmen of Christianity at his time.
The weightiest theological case for Christian non-involvement in military service came from Origen. His fullest discussion occurs in his apologetic writing Against Celsus. About the same time the “Thundering Legion” was praying for rain, Celsus was criticizing Christians because they held themselves aloof from the state and the necessary tasks of society. Specifically, he reproaches Christians because they will not fight in the emperor’s armies and so defend the state from its barbarian enemies. Apparently Celsus did not know of any Christians in the army and understands the rejection of military service to be a matter of principle with them. On most points Celsus, although prejudiced, was reasonably well informed about the Christianity he writes against. Origen, in his answer, gives his own defense of Christianity, but he writes as the defender of the church at large. Although some of the arguments may be original, what he is defending is not original with him. Thus it is notable that he does not answer Celsus by saying, “You are wrong; look, here are the Christians who do fight for the empire.” Rather Origen accepts the accuracy of what Celsus says and seeks to justify the Christian abstention from military service. If Origen knows of Christian soldiers, he chooses to ignore the fact. For him, the Christian position is a consistent pacifism.
Origen, like Tertullian, had to reckon with the wars of Israel in the Old Testament. He explains that the Jews had a “land and form of government of their own,” which required that they fight their enemies and execute criminals. Now the Gospel of Jesus Christ has supplanted the law, and the Jewish state has been destroyed.11 Christians cannot slay their enemies. He cites the text, “sell your tunic and buy a sword” (Luke 22:36), if taken literally, as an example of “the letter kills.”12
Since Celsus was a pagan, Origen’s main task was to answer objections which came from the standpoint of a champion of classical civilization. Clearly, one of Celsus’ prime criticisms of Christianity was the way it held itself aloof from the affairs of society. Origen’s vindication depends on the notion of a divine society, independent of the political state. Origen initially takes Celsus’ “everyone” (XVIII.11, 12) literally and shows that there will be no barbarian problem if all have become Christians. And Origen sees the progress of the Gospel as a herald of this time. Further, if all the Romans are Christians (XVIII.13), they will be protected by the divine power that promised to save the five cities of the plain at the intercession of Abraham (Genesis 18:22-23). Christians “will not war” at all. Until such a time as the general acceptance of the Christian faith, Christians “fight” for the emperor in a different way. Instead of fighting for the emperor with physical weapons or leading an army, as Celsus calls on the Christians to do, they fight with the spiritual weapons of prayer and intercessions (XVIII.14). Origen seems to imply a distinction between what Christians may do and what unbelievers may do. Piety is a better help than that rendered by soldiers (ch. 73). Indeed, paganism recognized this principle, for the priests were exempt from military service so that they could serve the gods with unstained hands. For Origen the whole church is this holy priesthood, who by their prayers aid those who are fighting in a righteous cause. The Christians’ part in public affairs is fulfilled by prayer and righteous living. In this way they overcome the demonic forces which are behind all wickedness. Christians also benefit their country in disciplining citizens and teaching godliness (XVIII.15). Origen, furthermore, justifies an abstaining from all public office in favor of leadership in the church (XVIII.16). The ministry of the church is a better and more necessary service to human well-being.
The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus contains a long list of occupations and circumstances in life that were forbidden to Christians. Some of these we would expect: the prostitute and panderer. Some may occasion surprise: the teacher. The reason here was that the basic curriculum for children involved teaching the basic texts of polytheism. The situation was marginal, for one might teach in such a way as to avoid contamination, so the provision is added that if one has no other way to make a living he should be forgiven. The charioteer, the gladiator, and the pagan priest are to be rejected from baptism unless they cease their occupation. The instructions about the magistrate and the military man fall last in this list (XVIII.10).
Hippolytus’ instructions suggest the possibility of making certain distinctions. A difference was recognized between converts made out of the army and Christians entering the army. The former, if they can stay in without taking again the military oath and without shedding blood, presumably could remain in the army.13 The problem with the military oath was that it was sworn by the gods of paganism, particularly by the genius (the life principle) of the emperor. Tertullian (XVIII.8) sees three alternatives before the military convert: (1) immediate abandonment of his profession, (2) compromising of conscience, or (3) martyrdom. He did not see any hope of one staying in the army without compromise on sacrifices, oaths, bloodshed, execution of penalties, and other things. Hippolytus forbids the one already a Christian or undergoing instruction for baptism to volunteer for military service. Since the Roman army under the Empire was largely raised from volunteers,14 there would not have been many occasions where a Christian was forced to choose between military service and defiance of the government. One might not be able to do much about a situation in which he already found himself, but a Christian was not deliberately to seek trouble.
A second distinction seems to be allowed between what might be called “police duties” and bloodshed. Certain functions now performed by other public servants, such as fire fighting and road building, were the responsibility of military organizations in the Empire. Tertullian implies a difference between peacetime and wartime service, but he rejects both. Hippolytus seems to allow the possibility of a soldier not being called on to perform an execution; otherwise his exception would be meaningless. The military calling as such, then, did not exclude from baptism, but the activities that often went with it did.
Hippolytus, moreover, makes a distinction between officers and common soldiers. Magistrates and officers must resign before being admitted to baptism. Presumably their official capacities did not allow for possible exemptions from tasks considered inconsistent with the Christian calling. They would be responsible for the orders to execution. And their role in public affairs was inextricably bound up with idolatrous sacrifices, oaths, and ceremonies.
These distinctions bring us to the core of the early Christian rejection of military service. The question is closely bound up with the early Christian separation from the world and what was meant by it. How much of that separation was cultural and how much was theological? Various explanations have been offered for the anti-militarism of the ancient church: the idolatry inherent in the army of an Empire held together by the worship of Rome and the emperor; the cultural isolation of the early church; the incompatibility of warfare with Christian ethics. The problem of idolatry was real and was recognized by the authors cited. However, that does not seem to be the real reason for their objections, and that could at least in some cases be avoided. The cultural isolation again is true for the formative periods of the church. Christianity began within Judaism, and one of the privileges of the Jews was exemption from military duty.15 As the church reached out into the non-Jewish world, it drew its recruits from the underprivileged and those segments of society which ordinarily were not called on for military service. Thus a pattern of non-involvement was established before there was ever a question of its ethical propriety raised on a large scale. With the growth of the church and its increasing cultural accommodation, converts were won from the military, and some Christians went into the army as a matter of course. This situation raised the ethical and theological issue. The numbers initially were few. The arguments advanced soon touched on most of the points that have since been debated in the history of Christian ethics. In that period, as often since, the leaders of thought and the writers voiced opposition whereas many of the rank and file Christians did in fact serve in the army. The opposition of the theologians was to killing. The sayings of Jesus and the whole of his teaching were felt to be contrary to active participation in warfare. The ones who did serve tended to be the ones confronted with the concrete issue, and they decided on pragmatic rather than theoretical grounds what should be done. The evidence is that initially the numbers of Christians in the army were few. This can be sustained in spite of the fact that most of what we hear is from those who opposed participation. But the numbers grew steadily in the third century, and when Constantine recognized the church in the fourth century the situation altered radically. Finally Theodosius II in 416 decreed that only Christians could be in the army, for he wanted divine favor to rest with the armies of the empire against the barbarian threat.
Bainton, Roland H. Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. New York: Abingdon, 1960.
Cadbury, Henry J. “The Basis of Early Christian Anti-Militarism,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 37 (1918), pp. 66-94.
Cadoux, C. J. The Early Christian Attitude to War. London: Headley Bros., 1919; repr. New York: Seabury, 1982.
Campenhausen, Hans von. “Christians and Military Service in the Early Church.” Tradition and Life in the Church. London: Collins, 1968. Pp. 160-170.
Hamack, Adolf von. Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981.
Helgelund, John, Robert J. Daly, and J. Patout Burns. Christians and the Military. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985.
Homus, Jean-Michel. It Is Not Lawful for Me to Fight. Scottdale: Herald, 1980.
1 Cf. selection XVI.5.
2 Quoted from Gregory Dix, The Treatise on the Apostolic Tradition of St. Hippolytus of Rome (Reissued with corrections; London: S.P.C.K., 1968), pp. 26f.
3 Cf. the Acts of John 36 for “warmongers” in a list of those who go to eternal torment. Statements against war include Athenagoras, Resurrection 19; Tatian, Oration 1; 8; 19; Justin, Apology II, 5. Cf. PseudoClement, Recognitions (Ascents of James) 1.71.1, “Because of their fear of God, they [disciples] allowed themselves to be slain by the few rather than slay others.”
4 The passage is quoted in reference to the peacefulness of Christianity in Irenaeus, Against Heresies 4.34.4 and Origen, Against Celsus 5.33. Cf. also Justin’s statements in Apology I, 14 quoted XVI.5.
6 Dio Cassius 71.8-10 (72.14) gives the story of the battle in detail and attributes the salvation of the Roman army to an Egyptian magician. The Scriptores Historiae Augustae, “Marcus Aurelius Antoninus” 24.4 has the emperor’s prayers bring a thunderbolt against the enemy and rain for his thirsty men. The Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome portrays the rain god showering rain on the Roman army.
7 Church History 5.5.4.
8 The legion had its name “Thundering” before this time and did not acquire it as a result of the incident.
9 To the Nations 1.1 is closely parallel; see also To Scapula 4.
10 On Patience 3 parallels the contrasts in On Idolatry 19.
11 Against Celsus 7.26. Origen also interpreted the wars of the Old Testament as figures of spiritual wars, since carnal wars are “no longer to be waged by us”–Homily on Joshua 15.
12 Homily on Leviticus 7.5.
13 Clement of Alexandria seems to contemplate a convert remaining in the army-Exhortation 10.100; Instructor 2.11.117. Elsewhere he speaks negatively of war–Instructor 1.12.98, 2.4.42; Miscellanies 4.8.61; Exhortation 11.116. The Utrecht Coptic papyrus of the Acts of Andrew (W. Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha Vol. II [Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1992], pp. 127-128) has a youth, when he is converted, take off his military uniform. There were in the third and early fourth centuries military martyrs; a notable case is studied against the background of earlier teaching in the church by Peter Brock, “Why Did St. Maximilian Refuse to Serve in the Roman Army?” Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 45 (1994), pp. 195-209.
14 H. M. D. Parker, The Roman Legions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928), pp. 45, 185; R.E. Smith, Service in the Post-Marian Roman Army (Manchester University Press, 1958), pp. 44ff., 72. Later there was an obligation on sons of veterans to follow the military profession.
15 Josephus, Antiquities 14.204, 226, and elsewhere.