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Were the Church Fathers Pacficists?

April 21st, 2010 | 4 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

If you ask noted pacifist John Howard Yoder, the answer is unequivocally “yes.”  Writes Yoder:

The answer of the pre-Constantinian church was negative; the Christian as an agent of God for reconciliation has other things to do than to be in police service. . . . Christians saw their task as one of patient suffering, not taking over themselves the work of the police. . . . The post-Constantinian church obviously accepted government service by Christians, but for reasons which cannot be deemed adequate.

That judgment has been repeated often, even by those who are sympathetic to just-war theory as a legitimate development of Christian doctrine.

But the pre-Constantinian church’s understanding of the relationship between Christians and the police functions of the state may be more complex than Yoder and others indicate.

So argues J. Daryl Charles in the latest issue of Logos. Contra Yoder and others, Charles contends that the early church fathers are not as unified on the issue of pacifism as is often thought.  Consider his judicious conclusion on Tertullian:

In the end, how is Tertullian to be interpreted? We have noted the willingness in his earlier writing to refute the accusation that Christians were indifferent to—or enemies of—the state. His response is that “we fight alongside you and serve in your army.” In his later response he waxes increasingly resistant to the idea of Christians serving in the Roman army: there exists a fundamental incompatibility between the two masters of Christ and military service. We might reasonably conclude that his later argument against soldiering and warfare is set forth precisely because not all Christians agreed with him. And indeed this response is understandable since by this time baptized Christians were joining the army. Tertullian’s increasingly rigorist stance, however, is neither a necessary outcome of the position of the apostolic Church nor a reflection of the New Testament’s ethical teaching. And because of his wholesale condemnation of civil service (including serving as a ruler), literature, art, forms of dress, and signing of contracts, his opposition to military service is properly understood as part of the logic of apostasy.

Or Origen:

What is noteworthy in Origen’s argument is that Christians do participate responsibly in civil affairs, and they do support the governing authorities, since Scripture requires as much.  Thus, unlike contemporary pacifist interpretations of early Christian history, Origen not only does not deny that Christians are serving in the military (a matter which Tertullian also concedes, even when both are opposed), but more importantly, he sees the need for Christians to support the authorities and contribute to a just and civil society even when he believes that Christians should not be soldiers. Thus, it should be noted that even when Tertullian and Origen, as the two chief pacifist Fathers, prohibit Christians from bearing the sword, neither denied to government the moral duty of self-defense nor denied that Christians actually served in the military.

Tertullian and Origen are two of the loudest proponents of pacifism in the early church, so Charles’ reading here must be kept in that context.  He also surveys a number of other church fathers, finding disagreement among the ranks, and raises bothersome questions like:

  • If serving the in the military and war are clearly proscribed in the early church, why do they pay such scant attention to the subject?
  • Why, if pacifism was universal, were Christian soldiers not commanded to leave the army or denied the sacraments?
  • What about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments with respect to the ethics of nonviolence?  Is the sermon on the mount a repudiation of Exodus 21:12ff, or is it a reappropriation by way of resituating it into its proper moral context?
  • If war (and by extension, serving in it!) is always and everywhere wrong, why in Luke 3:14 does John the Baptist not tell soldiers who ask him how they should repent to leave the army, but instead admonishes them to tell the truth and be content with their earnings?

As Dr. Craig Carter pointed out some time ago in a different context, there’s probably a misinterpration of Yoder’s thought that is lurking throughout Charles’ counterargument.  According to him, “Constantinianism” isn’t a historical argument per se, but rather a theological critique.

But among his heirs, the historical argument is often put forward unequivocally.  The evidence Charles brings forward is enough to call it into serious question.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.