Ronald J. Sider

The Early Church on War and Killing

Distinguishing speculation from historical fact.

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Hundreds of articles and scores of books have been written in the last 150 years seeking to establish what the early (pre-Constantinian) church thought and did about war and killing. Four recent books reflect the ongoing persistent disagreement about the answer to that question.

Two of these books—John F. Shean's Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army and Despina Iosif's Early Christian Attitudes to War, Violence and Military Service—argue that early Christians held widely divergent views, and that the "rigorist, pacifist stance of selected authors has been overly emphasized at the expense of archaeological, epigraphic and literary evidence showing Christian participation in the military almost since the very inception of the faith."

The other two—George Kalantzis' Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service and my own book The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion and Capital Punishment—argue that the historical record contradicts the view that the teaching of the early church on killing was "small, divided and ambiguous."

Shean's Soldiering for God is volume 61 of an important series, The History of Warfare, from Brill, a prominent scholarly publisher. Shean argues that there never was unified Christian opposition to Christian participation in the Roman army, even in the first three centuries. "Taken as a body, the writings of the early church fathers do not reflect any consensus on the issue of war and military service." Rather, Shean argues, after exploring the relevant literature, "there was widespread disagreement among the patristic authors over the propriety of Christian participation in Roman military service."

Iosif's Early Christian Attitudes to War, Violence and Military Service is volume 1 in a series on classical and late antiquity from Gorgias Press, a fairly new publishing house. Iosif largely agrees with Shean. Citing inscriptions from tombstones of Christians serving in the Roman army, the use of military metaphors by many Christian writers, and literary references to Christians in the army, Iosif argues that from the earliest period onward, "military careers were not regarded as scandalous, at least not by the majority of Christians." "My aim," she says, "is to refute the well-established notion that all the early Christians were pacifists."

Iosif and Shean's conclusion is shared by many prominent contemporary Christian thinkers in the Just War tradition. See for example James Turner Johnson, The Quest of Peace (Princeton Univ. Press, 1987); Peter J Leithart, Defending Constantine (IVP, 2010); and J. Daryl Charles, Between Pacifism and Jihad. In Just War Against Terror (Basic Books, 2002), Jean Bethke Elshtain (speaking of the first three centuries) maintained that "in these first generations of Christian life after the crucifixion of Jesus, there is little evidence that the faithful were enjoined from serving in the Roman army." Leithart suggests that Tertullian and Origen may have been a small articulate minority, not representative of the majority of Christians.

The thesis of George Kalantzis' Caesar and the Lamb (published by Cascade Books) is quite different. He acknowledges that there is clear evidence for a growing number of Christians in the army in the later 3rd and early 4th centuries, but quotes a number of Christian writers who condemn killing and military service by Christians. He frequently asserts that contrary claims are not supported by the extant sources.

Is there sufficient evidence to resolve this debate one way or the other? In spite of the massive amount of articles and books written about the early Christians' views on war and killing, no scholar had ever collected in one volume all the extant data (literary and archaeological) on the topic. I did that in The Early Church on Killing, published by Baker Academic. This sourcebook contains every extant statement I could find by Christian authors up to the time of Constantine relating directly to killing. It also includes all relevant inscriptions on tombstones and other archaeological data.

In an afterword, I summarize the historical record. Starting in the late 2nd century and then increasingly in the later 3rd century and the first decade of the 4th century, there is evidence that some Christians were serving in the Roman army—at least a few by AD 173, and a substantial number by the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Unfortunately, our sources do not enable us to say how many.

On the other hand, there is not a single extant Christian author before Constantine who says killing or joining the military by Christians is ever legitimate. Whenever our extant texts mention killing—whether in abortion, capital punishment, or war—they always say Christians must not do that.

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