Ronald J. Sider

The Early Church on War and Killing

Distinguishing speculation from historical fact.

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In their attempt to downplay the extent of pacifist thought and practice in the early church, both Shean and Iosif substantially overlook the importance of the earliest church order, the Apostolic Tradition. Shean seems to think it was written by Hippolytus, bishop of Rome. Shean says, "Hippolytus' canons had no force outside of his own see … . Indeed it is not clear if Hippolytus' canons were even followed by his successors." Iosif speculates that "we do not know whether these regulations were ever followed or even accepted and authorized as generally binding by the Christian congregation in which their author belonged." But modern scholarship points to a much wider influence; see the understanding of modern scholarship in Paul Bradshaw et al., The Apostolic Tradition (Fortress, 2002). Originally written in Greek (probably in the late 2nd or early 3rd century) it was translated into Sahidic (a Coptic dialect), Arabic, Ethiopic, and Latin. Later church orders written after the time of Constantine incorporate major portions of The Apostolic Tradition but modify its sharp rejection of killing and prohibition of Christians joining the army.

The Apostolic Tradition provides directions for how to deal with people seeking to become catechumens and prepare for baptism. Pimps, prostitutes, gladiators, and anyone who has "the power of the sword" must be rejected. A soldier who wants to begin catechetical training must be told not to kill and must refuse to kill if ordered to do so. A soldier who acts otherwise must be excluded. Someone who is already a Christian and who seeks to join the military must be excluded from the church.

The several translations of The Apostolic Tradition indicate a substantial circulation and impact. To suggest that it only had influence in one diocese for the brief period of one bishop's episcopate is to vastly downplay its significance.[1] The historian would like more information about The Apostolic Tradition's circulation and influence, but it is a reasonable inference from what we do know that it is one of our best clues about the teaching of many Christian leaders in the early 3rd century.

In spite of Tertullian's repeated, vigorous condemnation of Christians serving in the army, Shean claims that Tertullian was ambivalent. Shean even says that "Tertullian saw no problem with Christians engaging in all forms of public service, including armed conflict." The only textual justification for this claim is two very brief statements in his Apology written about AD 197 and addressed to a pagan Roman audience to counter the attacks against Christians. Tertullian wanted to assure Romans that Christians were not a threat to the empire. In his Apology, Tertullian says Christians are engaged in all aspects of ordinary Roman life: "We sail with you, and fight with you." He claims Christians have "filled every place among you—cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp."

Second, again and again, in all periods of his life, in a number of treatises, Tertullian argued that Christians dare not kill and must not join the Roman army. Christ, he wrote, "unbelted every soldier" (On Idolatry, p. 19). Tertullian's two statements in his Apology clearly show that he knew that there were some Christians in the Roman army in his day. But again and again his writings make it clear that he thought Christians should not join the army or kill. And he encouraged soldiers who became Christians while already in the army to abandon military service. Shean himself acknowledges Tertullian's strong opposition to Christians' service in the army but then tries to dismiss its significance by labeling it a minority opinion: "Tertullian's rigorist ideas probably represented the minority position within the Christian church as his views were also at odds with those of his fellow apologists who saw no moral difficulty in military service." But Shean provides no supporting data for this statement that other Christian writers were not opposed to Christians joining the army.

Another argument that Shean develops for his view that soldiers were a regular and essentially non-controversial part of the Christian community in the first two centuries is based on his claim that "early Christianity would have borne little superficial distinction from any other community of believers in the Mediterranean world." Since soldiers were a central part of 1st- and 2nd-century life in the Roman Empire and Christians were not much different from anyone else, therefore there must have been lots of soldiers in the church. This basic understanding of early Christians as appearing hardly any different from the rest of Roman society is itself highly questionable. But even if it were correct, the inference that therefore there were large numbers of soldiers in the church is an argument from silence. The fact that when we do get Christian authors discussing killing and joining the army, all extant authors condemn such action certainly makes Shean's argument dubious.

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