How Did the Early Church Fathers View Military Service?December 14th, 2009
David Bercot has written a few books on early Christianity, the early church, and the early church fathers. I have real issues with Mr. Bercot and his methodology of research and presentation - you can read my review of his text Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up to get a full presentation of how he misrepresents the early fathers. This is an excerpt of that review where Bercot basically states that the early church did not support the Roman military. There is also a comment submitted by a CH101 reader with my response. One must remember that Bercot's main objective is to offer a critique of modern Protestant Christianity - and I agree with much of what he says. I want to give an overview of his mistake.
David Bercot does admit that “the early church made no law that Christians could not serve in the army…Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever strictly forbade Christians to serve in the military,” but he goes on to say that the empire was experiencing peace during the second century and soldiers were more like police officers. (p.97)
Here is the historical context: every 20 to 40 years Christianity would come under persecution and get slapped around. Pastors and bishops would be arrested, thrown in jail, and some would be executed. Laypeople would be tortured and forced to sprinkle salt on the altar to the empire at the risk of being thrown to wild animals in an amphitheatre. Roman soldiers were known for their cruelty in battle, but they were also known for their cruelty towards Christians during these times of persecution. Even during times of peace Roman soldiers had some license to make harsh demands on average citizens.
With this context in mind, why would Christians be encouraged to serve in the military? The citations used by Bercot are each commenting on military service (or joining the army) for Rome, not military service or warfare in general. I know a man who was a pastor in Cuba when Fidel Castro led the Communist takeover. He fled with his family, but many of his friends were ripped from their beds in the middle of the night, beaten, imprisoned, and some killed. Would it surprise anyone if Christians in Communist Cuba were discouraged from enlisting in the military after the takeover? You cannot compare military service in the modern-day army of the USA with the Roman empire. You might disagree with Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq; you might think the USA is imperialistic, but you simply cannot objectively compare soldiers in the USA to those in the Roman empire in this way.
Some of the early fathers discouraged military service (mainly Tertullian), but they also did not encourage believers to be involved in politics or acting. Overall, they speak negatively about politics. Does this mean that we should discourage believers from serving in the political arena as well? The problem with this is that the New Testament does not have this prohibition against joining the army or politics. As much as I respect the early fathers, the NT is our first and primary authority when it comes to the teaching of the apostles.
In fact, we are given a fairly positive view of military service in the NT.
But I want to further address Bercot's mistake. As with many other issues, Bercot only presents one side of the data. In his presentation he cites Tertullian's treatise The Crown where he tells the story of a Christian soldier who refuses to wear the appropriate headress laurel with his fellow soldiers. He is mocked, stripped of his commission, and imprisoned to await death. But this treatise itself shows that Christians were, in fact, serving in the military.
Eusebius tells us that Christians were serving in governmental positions and in the army long before Diocletian. (Church History 8.1) He mentions that some Christians were allowed to refrain from sacrifice (8.3) apparently being shown preferential protective treatment. Lactantius tells us that Christian attendants to Diocletian made the sign of the cross while fortune tellers were trying to divine the future for the emperor, thus causing the soothsayers difficulty. Diocletian demanded that these Christians be whipped. He also sent orders to his commanders that all Christians serving in the military be made to offer sacrifices or be dismissed from service. (Of The Manner in Which the Persecutors Died 10.6)
These examples show that Christians were indeed serving in the Roman army. Although Tertullian was against military service, the early church did not have a concensus view. This is typical of early Christianity - there is diversity of opinion and practice on many, many issues. Bercot fails to appreciate the evidence for this in the data or just fails to present this evidence to the reader.
Comments and Questions sent by a CH101 Reader:
When the Romans leveled Jerusalem, none of the Christians fought to liberate it. They were told to flee to the mountains, which they did and survived.
When Christ told Peter, put your sword away, for the man who lives by the sword will die by the sword, the early Christians obeyed. As you well know it was Constantine who united the religions by paganizing it in order to expand his empire. As I see it, there is no difference today. Each country/empire uses religious beliefs to promote its own interests. The Romans put down revolt. The Christians did not support either side and were executed for remaining neutral in the affairs of state/religious sanctioned conflicts. No Christians died at Masada. Only those who lived by the sword died. Ghandi and Martin Luther King understood the true principles of not using the sword. They did not fear death, nor did the early martyrs who refused to worship the Emperors of their day and join their armies to take or expand their controlling interests. Do you not see a parallel by supporting a war by joining an army of today as the same as becoming a crusader in the time of the Catholic Church's wars with the infidels. Liberating Jerusalem? Liberators or invaders? Is this Christ way of showing LOVE?
These are all good questions regarding important issues, but I am afraid that you are conflating several issues. I will try to answer your questions while also sorting out some of the details.
Do you not see a parallel by supporting a war by joining an army of today as the same as becoming a crusader in the time of the Catholic Church`s wars with the infidels. Liberating Jerusalem? Liberators or invaders? Is this Christ way of showing LOVE?
While I personally would NOT want to join an army like the crusades, it should be remembered that many of those who joined in the Crusades were not acting as Christians, but as paid soldiers, and for various reasons. It was also in response to Christians being forced to convert to Islam. The forces of Islam had moved through entire regions forcing "Christians" to convert - it could be argued that many did not take a great amount of pressure, but some were pressured. While this does not justify the crusades, it is a fact seldom mentioned anymore.
Comment from another Reader:
Bottom line for me is that I can't see how a Christian could ever take the life of another man, eliminating permanently the possibility that the individual could ever hear the gospel message. Struggle as I might, I can't reconcile this with Scripture.
I appreciate your comment and I understand your perspective.
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