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How Did the Early Church Fathers View Military Service?December 14th, 2009
Updated: February 17, 2015
Christian Pacificism: While I do think pacificism, based on select teachings from Jesus is a valid position, I have heard from so many who hold this view trying to promote the concept that the early DID NOT serve in the military prior to Constantine. Unfortunately, the latest news of radical Muslims is making the pacifistic view dangerous - those who stand in judgement against the "Just War" theories developed in the ancient Church AND are using the early church to bolster their views are wrong.
This post is a concise overview of a 110 page study by John Helgeland, "Christians and the Roman Army from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine," ANWR 2.23.1 (1979), pp.724-834. This article is unfortunately not easy to get - I am happy to share parts of it to those who want to engage the argument. I have augmented Helgeland's information with some of my own research/comments. We MUST present the historical data accurately - Helgeland does a great job of presenting the data. You can see Helgeland's outline here.
This page initially started as a result of people sending me comments from David Bercot's book - 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. Since originally starting this web site I have had several e-mail exchanges on this issue - many Christian pacifists have stated that the early church did not approve of Christians serving in the Roman military. Bercot's objective was to offer a critique of modern Protestant Christianity - and I agree with much of what he says. Pacifists usually have good theological and ethical points to make. Fine. Just do not misrepresent the historical data.
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. In addition, to be in the Roman army almost demanded making an oath to the greatness of the Emperor and offering sacrifices to his patron god. This was idolatry.
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 we will see below that his position was not consistent), but they also discouraged believers from involvement in politics, acting, teaching "worldly" knowledge, the gladiator games (or ANY "sport" in the coliseum). 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, or sport.
In fact, we are given a fairly positive view of military service in the NT.
Evidence from the Early Church
Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Caesar, an emperor would wish.
So Tertullian says that we should be praying for the success of our leaders AND their armies. Tertullian knew full well that the "security" of the empire rested on God's sovereignty, but also on the strength of the "brave armies." Apology 30.4
Marcus Aurelius also, in his expedition to Germany, by the prayers his Christian soldiers offered to God, got rain in that well-known thirst. When, indeed, have not droughts been put away by our kneelings and our fastings? Ad Scap 4.6
Eusebius relates this same story, giving additional details:
It is reported that Marcus Aurelius Caesar, brother of Antoninus, being about to engage in battle with the Germans and Sarmatians, was in great trouble on account of his army suffering from thirst. But the soldiers...kneeled on the ground, as is our custom in prayer, and engaged in supplications to God. This was indeed a strange sight to the enemy, but it is reported that a stranger thing immediately followed. The lightning drove the enemy to flight and destruction, but a shower refreshed the army of those who had called on God, all of whom had been on the point of perishing with thirst. H.E. 5.5.1-6
Later in his life Tertullian becomes bitterly opposed to the empire and to Christians serving in the military. He had probably heard terrible things about the persecutions of Severus in Egypt, circa 200-203 AD. What becomes clear, however, is that his frustration is not with war, violence and killing - he is concerned with the idolatry in the military camps and knows that Christians would be tempted or pressured to engage in idolatry. The Roman military was a very religious subset of Rome: most commanders engaged in worship of some kind prior to battle, hoping to gain victory. It makes sense - soldiers see death around them during battles - "there are no atheists in a fox hole."
For he who reckons it a pleasure, that a man, though justly condemned, should be slain in his sight, pollutes his conscience as much as if he should become a spectator and a sharer of a homicide which is secretly committed. And yet they call these sports in which human blood is shed...they think that they are amusing themselves with sport...I ask now whether they can be just and pious men, who, when they see men placed under the stroke of death, and entreating mercy, not only suffer them to be put to death, but also demand it, and give cruel and inhuman votes for their death, not being satiated with wounds nor contented with bloodshed...they order them, even though wounded and prostrate, to be attacked again...They are even angry with the combatants, unless one of the two is quickly slain; and as though they thirsted for human blood, they hate delays.
Lactantius also speaks strongly and critically against killing and war, but he leaves some room for war being an option. He has read and cites both Tertullian and Cyprian on the issue - he echoes both of these earlier fathers. In the end, Lactantius is conflicted on war and killing in war. He approves of the war in the Old Testament and he seems to be in favor of the battles fought and won by Constantine (or even Licinius) as ordained by God. Of the Manner in Which the Persecutors Died chapters 45-47 read like the history and battles of Joshua or King David.
When I read or speak with those who hold to Christian pacifism and/or are anti-Constantine they tend to be very judgemental (in my opinion) of Eusebius and Lanctantius for their support of Constantine...and his battles. I think we fail to appreciate the historic context: Christians had been enduring intermittent persecution for more than 200 years, then an intense time under Diocletian followed by ("Daia made this vow to Jupiter, that if he obtained victory he would extinguish and utterly efface the name of the Christians." Persecutors Died, 46.1)
Suddenly an emperor appears on the scene and claims to have had a vision that led him to the Christian god. He then begins to sign edicts that restore property to Christian churches and to make it illegal to persecute citizens for their religious beliefs. And he has Christian bishops in his administrative staff, worships in Christian churches and makes monetary donations to bishops and to the building of churches.
While we have the benefit of knowing the history that followed Constantine, these men did not. We need to admit that their mistake of thinking God had now ordained the Roman government to protect and promote the faith is at least something we can see was not a reasonable response. They could not know the actions of future emperors and how this government sponsored religion, even the "true" religion, could quickly get off track.
Lactantius speaks of Roman emperors mostly as evil men until Constantine. He appears to credit God for Constantine victories. To cite a key study on the subject,
"Nowhere in 'On the Deaths of the Persecutors' do we find any condemnation of Christians enlisting, for the armies of Constantine and Licinius shoulder a sacred task, aided at crucial points by divine intervention." - Helgeland, John, "Christians and the Roman Army from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine," ANRW 2.23.1 (1979), p.759
Eusebius is an interesting character. After the Great Persecution under Diocletian (of which he is an eyewitness) he presents the coming of Constantine as something like the 1,000 year reign. This seems absurd to the modern ear, but we must remember the historical context AND note that his view of John's Revelation had not been overly positive. Eusebius has been criticized by modern scholars and by Christian fundamentalists as not being trustworthy - while this is true, we have many other historical sources that allow us to have a better view of the data AND thus help us to figure out when/how/why Eusebius is not giving us an objective view.
The data shows that Christians were indeed serving in the Roman army prior to Constantine, in fact as far back as Tertullian and Clement of Alexandria. Although one can certainly find fathers (like Tertullian) making comments 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.
One reader expressed it very close to how I learned it as a young man:
"Paul said that the 'mystery of iniquity' was already at work in the church even during his day (2 Thes. 2:7). How much more in the years following the death of Paul and the other Apostles would the 'mystery of iniquity' be working."While there are some valid points to be made for Christianity losing it's zeal and spiritual power, Constantine gets a bad rap in MY opinion. If you are interested in learning more about Constantine I would highly recommend the text by Charles Odahl (to the right) to better decide if Constantine was a Christian or just a political opportunist. My articles will be edited using Odahl's excellent research:
Emperor Constantine comes to Power
Emperor Constantine and Christian Faith
Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea
Emperor Constantine and Worship of the Sun (Sol Invictus)
Emperor Constantine and Christians in the Military
Emperor Constantine Against the Donatists
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