Was the Early Church “Pacifist”?

by Travis Pickell

In this reflection I would like to comment on some recent readings that dealt with the topic of early Christian relations to the state and perspectives on the acceptability of Christians in military service. This topic is one that has interested me ever since I took Jim Childress’s class on Just War last fall. In that class, the basic narrative presupposed by most people in the class was that the early Christian church was most likely against Christian participation in the military, and it was not until later, perhaps around the time of Constantine’s conversion, that it became an acceptable profession. As Kocheski[1] rightly points out, however, this does not necessarily mean that the early Christian church was “pacifist”—at least not in the way we tend to use that term today. Kocheski refers to Childress’s article from 1984,[2] in which he elucidates different types of pacifism.

One type of pacifism opposes Christian participation in the military because of the danger of idolatry; Roman soldiers had to make an oath of allegiance to Caesar that could potentially undermine their absolute allegiance to God. Until reading the article by Kreider,[3] I was convinced that this was the predominant reason for the rejection of Christian participation in the military for the fathers (especially Tertullian). Now, however, I see that bloodguilt was a central idea in the early church orders; the participation of the catechumenate in killing would prevent him from “hearing the Gospel.”

Another type of pacifism decries all use of political force as inherently evil, and rejects any attempt to legitimize war or political coercion. This type of pacifism, however, does not seem to be entailed in the early church orders’ proscription of Christian participation in the military. It was not the political realm, as such, that was rejected, but the bloodguilt that accompanied acts of killing. That is why some of the versions of the church orders allowed for the possibility of participating in military service without shedding blood. Such a view of total pacifism (rejection of all political force) does not seem to be in line with early Christian biblical sources (especially Paul’s discussion of the “governing authorities” in Romans 13:1-7).

Therefore we are left with another type of pacifism, one that does not reject war and coercion as such but only the perpetration of these by Christians. Such a view does seem to be central to the earliest Christian texts, but three points can be made about such a view. (1) First, such a perspective does seem to be perfectly suited to the sort of “interim ethic” often attributed to the first generation of Christians. Such an “interim ethic” looked forward to the coming parousia, and was particularly focused on keeping clean and pure while awaiting the eschaton. Bloodguilt, in such a context, seems to put the person’s salvation in peril pointlessly. (2) A rejection of Christian participation in shedding of blood as rhetorical and apologetic value. Given the fact that Christians were not in a position of power anyway, they had much to gain by juxtaposing their nonparticipation in political force with the violence of the empire. They did not have political responsibility, so they came across, in comparison, as pure and blameless. (3) Finally, as shown by the Kocheski article, the early Christian pacifism was not of an absolute sort. They did not oppose war as such. Rather, they felt that they were participating in a war of cosmic proportions. They opposed the shedding of blood, but only because they believed that the witness (marturion) of their deaths helped the church to grow (c.f. Tertullian), and therefore, was a method of defeating the devil at his own game.

[1] Jonathan Koscheski, “The earliest Christian war: Second- and third-century martyrdom and the creation of cosmic warriors,” Journal of Religious Ethics 39.1, 2011

[2] James F. Childress, “Moral Discourse About War in the Early Church,” Journal of Religious Ethics, 12.1, 1984

[3] Alan Kreider, “Military service in the Church orders,” Journal of Religious Ethics 31.3, 2003