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Modern Christians Compared to the Early Church: On War

Below we have compiled some quotes from the early Church showing that they did not see war the same as some Christians do today. War is almost always evil. Christians are to be the peacemakers, not warmongers:

Clement of Alexandria (approx. A.D. 195)
“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.”

“For we do not train our women like Amazons to manliness in war; since we wish the men even to be peaceable.”

“And so, in this commandment of God, no exception at all ought to be made to the rule that it is always wrong to kill a man, whom God has wished to be regarded as a sacrosanct creature.”

“The Christian does injury to no one. He does not desire the property of others. In fact, he does not even defend his own property if it is taken from him by violence. For he knows how to patiently bear an injury inflicted upon him.”

“When God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence… but he warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare… 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.”

“We do not resist those who injure us, for we must yield to them.”

“When men command us to act in opposition to the law of God, and in opposition to justice, we should not be deterred by any threats or punishments that come upon us. For we prefer the commandments of God to the commandments of man.”

“Someone will say here: ‘What therefore, or where, or of what sort is piety?’ Assuredly it is among those who are ignorant of war, who keep concord with all, who are friends even to their enemies, who love all men as their brothers, who know how to restrain their anger, and to soothe all madness of mind by quiet control.”

“Why should the just man wage war, and mix himself up in other people’s passions – he in whose mind dwells perpetual peace with men?”

“It can never be lawful for a righteous man to go to war, whose warfare is in righteousness itself.”

“When God prohibits killing, he not only forbids us to commit brigandage, which is not allowed even by the public laws, but he warns us not to do even those things which are legal among men. And so it will not be lawful for a just man to serve as a soldier – for justice itself is his military service – nor to accuse anyone of a capital offense, because it makes no difference whether thou kill with a sword or with a word, since killing itself is forbidden.”

Hippolytus (writings c. 180-230)
“Do not avenge yourself on those who injure you… let us imitate the Lord, who when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he was crucified, he answered not; when he suffered, he threatened not; but prayed for his enemies.”

“Nothing is better than peace, by which all war of those in heaven and those on earth is abolished.”

“A soldier, being inferior in rank to God, must not kill anyone. If ordered to, he must not carry out the order, nor may he take an oath (sacramentum) to do so. If he does not accept this, let him be dismissed from the church. Anyone bearing the power of the sword, or any city magistrate, who wears purple, let him cease from wearing it at once or be dismissed from the church. Any catechumen or believer who wishes to become a soldier must be dismissed from the church because they have despised God.”

“A person who has accepted the power of killing, or a soldier, may never be received [into the church] at all.”

Tertullian – (writings c. 197-220)
“But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts—for there is no agreement between the divine sacrament and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters—God and Caesar…But how will a Christian engage in war—indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime—without the sword, which the Lord has taken away? For although soldiers had approached John to receive instructions and a centurion believed, this does not change the fact that afterward, the Lord, by disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”

“In that last section, decision may seem to have been given likewise concerning military service, which is between dignity and power. But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, 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. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters–God and Caesar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John is girt with leather, and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. 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, unbelted every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action.”

“I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians. What sense is there in discussing the merely accidental, when that on which it rests is to be condemned? Do we believe it lawful for a human oath to be superadded to one divine, for a man to come under promise to another master after Christ, and to abjure father, mother, and all nearest kinsfolk, whom even the law has commanded us to honor and love next to God Himself, to whom the gospel, too, holding them only of less account than Christ, has in like manner rendered honor? Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?”

“Of course, if faith comes later, and finds any preoccupied with military service, their case is different, as in the instance of those whom John used to receive for baptism, and of those most faithful centurions, I mean the centurion whom Christ approves, and the centurion whom Peter instructs; yet, at the same time, when a man has become a believer, and faith has been sealed, there must be either an immediate abandonment of it, which has been the course with many; or all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God, and that is not allowed even outside of military service; or, last of all, for God the fate must be endured which a citizen-faith has been no less ready to accept. Neither does military service hold out escape from punishment of sins, or exemption from martyrdom.”

“Under no circumstances should a true Christian draw the sword.”

Lactantius – (writings c. 303-316)
“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.”

“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.”

“If a soldier or one in authority wishes to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service or from the post of authority. And if not, let them not be received.”

Arnobius – (writings c. 297-310)
“If all without exception . . . would lend an ear for a little to Christ’s salutary and peaceful rules… the whole world, having turned the use of steel into more peaceful occupations, would now be living in the most placid tranquility, and would unite in blessed harmony, maintaining inviolate the sanctity of treaties.”

“Since we – so large a force of men – have received from Christ’s teachings and laws, that evil ought not to be repaid with evil, that it is better to endure a wrong than to inflict one, to shed one’s own blood rather than stain one’s hands and conscience with the blood of another, the ungrateful world has long been receiving a benefit from Christ, through whom the madness of savagery has been softened, and has begun to withhold its hostile hands from the blood of a kindred creature. But if absolutely all who understand that they are men by virtue, not of the form of their bodies, but of the power of their reason, were willing to lend an ear for a little while to his healthful and peaceful decrees, and would not, swollen with pride and arrogance, trust to their own senses rather than to his warnings, the whole world would long ago have turned the uses of iron to milder works and be living in the softest tranquility, and would have come together in healthy concord without breaking the sanctions of treaties.”

“Did Christ, claiming royal power for himself, occupy the whole world with fierce legions, and, of nations at peace from the beginning, destroy and remove some, and compel others to put their necks beneath his yoke and obey him?”

Tarachus – (writings c. 239-304)
“Christians are not allowed to use violence to correct the delinquencies of sins.”

“The followers of peace use none of the implements of war.”

“We have made use of only one instrument, the peaceful word, with which we do honor to God.”

“We are being educated, not in war, but in peace.”

“We are the race given over to peace.”

“[Christians] are an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.”

Justin Martyr – (writings c. 150-160)
“The devil is the author of all war.”

“We, who used to kill one another, do not make war on our enemies. We refuse to tell lies or deceive our inquisitors; we prefer to die acknowledging Christ.”

“We who had been filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness, have each one – all the world over – changed the instruments of war, the swords into ploughs and the spears into farming instruments, and we cultivate piety, righteousness, love for men, faith, and the hope which is from the Father Himself through the Crucified One.”

“We who hated and slew one another, and because of differences in customs would not share a common hearth with those who were not of our tribe, now, after the appearance of Christ, have become sociable, and pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate us unjustly, in order that they, living according to the good suggestions of Christ, may share our hope of obtaining the same reward from the God who is Master of all.”

“As to loving all men, he has taught as follows: ‘If ye love only those who love you, what new thing do ye do? For even fornicators do this. But I say to you: Pray for your enemies and love those who hate you and bless those who curse you and pray for those who act spitefully towards you.’ … And as to putting up with evil and being serviceable to all and without anger, this is what he says: ‘to him that smiteth thy cheek, offer the other cheek as well, and do not stop the man that takes away thy tunic or thy cloak. But whoever is angry is liable to the fire. Every one who impresses thee to go a mile, follow for two. Let your good works shine before men, that seeing them they may worship your Father in heaven.’”

Athenagoras – (writings c. 175-180)
“What if the law of nature – that is, the law of God – commands what is opposed to the written law? Does not reason tell us to bid a long farewell to the written code… and to give ourselves up to the Legislator, God. This is so even if in doing so it may be necessary to encounter dangers, countless labors, and even death and dishonor.”

“It is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a divine and more necessary service in the church of God for the salvation of men.”

“How was it possible for the Gospel doctrine of peace, which doesn’t permit men to take vengeance even on their enemies, to prevail throughout the earth, unless at the coming of Jesus a milder spirit had been introduced into the order of things?”

“Our prayers defeat all demons who stir up war. Those demons also lead persons to violate their oaths and to disturb the peace. Accordingly, in this way, we 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 we join self-denying exercises to our righteous prayers and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures and not to be led away from them. So none fight better for the king than we do. Indeed, we do not fight under him even if he demands it. Yet, we fight on his behalf, forming a special army – an army of godliness – by offering our prayers to God.”

“We have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into ploughshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take sword against nation, nor do we learn any more to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”

“If all the Romans were to be converted they will by praying overcome their enemies – or rather they will not make war at all, being guarded by the Divine power, which promised to save five whole cities for the sake of fifty righteous men.”

Origen – (writings c. 203-250)
“You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.”

Cyprian – (writings c. 246-258)
“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!”

“[Christians] are not allowed to kill, but they must be ready to be put to death themselves… it is not permitted the guiltless to put even the guilty to death.”

“God wished iron to be used for the cultivation of the earth, and therefore it should not be used to take human life.”

Irenaeus – (writings c. 175-185)
“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.”

Tatian – (writings c. 160-170)
“The soldiers of Christ require neither arms nor spears of iron.”

“The servants of God do not rely for their protection on material defenses but on the divine Providence.”

If the early Christians could live in our times it can not be denied that the Evangelical, ultra political and patriotic “Christians” that exist today, that believe war is holy, backed by God and advocate it, would be excommunicated from the Church by these early Christian men, some of whom were Presbyters and Bishops. Today’s Christians would likely be considered heretics to the early Church fathers. It may be something that most Christians today don’t want to hear. You may find it offensive as well, but it is undeniably true. In some areas, Modern Christianity looks nothing like the early Church.

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