CHRISTIANITY AND THE MILITARY: How Did We Go From Rejecting To Celebrating Military Service? Should we have?

I want to make a few points before I start.

  • Firstly, the sentiments expressed here are mine and not those of the church I pastor.
  • Secondly, this is not an attack on the USA, other countries also mix Christianity and militarism.
  • Thirdly, this is not meant to be a personal attack on families who have members serving in the military, rather it’s my genuine attempt to stir some debate on a subject I rarely ever hear raised, never mind discussed.
  • Finally, if you respond, lets keep this to the issues and avoid personal attacks etc If we disagree lets do so aggreeably

OK HERE GOES

I saw this picture of a Church service in the United States and my mind immediately went not just to Jesus teaching on peace and avoiding violence but on how Jesus commands and example were interpreted by the church in the earliest centuries of its existence.

I want to ask you to look at the picture above and read these quotations.

THE EARLY CHURCH FATHERS ON REFUSAL OF THE SWORD AND MILITARY SERVICE

TERTULLIAN (160–220)

  • “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”
  • “Shall we carry a flag? It is a rival to Christ”
  • “It is absolutely forbidden to repay evil with evil.”
  • “Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.”
  • “How will a Christian engage in war (indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime) without the sword, which the Lord has taken away?”
  • “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?”

JUSTIN THE MARTYR (100–165)

  • “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One.”
  • “God called Abraham and commanded him to go out from the country where he was living. With this call God has roused us all, and now we have left the state. We have renounced all the things the world offers. . . . The gods of the nations are demons.”

ARNOBIUS OF SICCA (died c. 330)

  • “For since we, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His  teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil—that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it—that we should shed our own blood than stain our hands and consciences with that of another, an ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying a benefit from Christ . . .”

IRENAEUS (c. 180)

  • “Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not now how to fight.”

MARCELLUS OF TANGIER (spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298)

  • ““I threw down my arms for it was not seemly that a Christian man, who renders military service to the Lord Christ, should render it by earthly injuries.” “It is not lawful for a

MARTIN OF TOURS (315–397)

  • “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier; allow me now to become a soldier to God. Let the man who is to serve you receive your donative. I am a soldier of Christ; it is not permissible for me to fight.”

ATHANASIUS OF ALEXANDRIA (293–373)

  • “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”

CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA (150–214)

  • “Above all Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings.”
  • The Christian poor are “an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.”
  •  “We Christians are a peaceful race . . . for it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.”

HIPPOLYTUS (170–236)

  • “The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. . . . . A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.”
  • “A person who has accepted the power of killing, or a soldier, may never be received [into the church] at all.”

TATIAN OF ASSYRIA (died c. 185)

  • “I do not wish to be a ruler. I do not strive for wealth. I refuse offices connected with military command.”

ORIGEN (185–254)

  • §  “You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.”

ST. CYPRIAN, BISHOP OF CARTHAGE (died c. 258)

  • “The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which, in the case of an individual, is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale.”
  • “[Christians] are not allowed to kill, but they must be ready to be put to death themselves . . . it is not permitted the guiltless to put even the guilty to death.”
  • “God wished iron to be used for the cultivation of the earth, and therefore it should not be used to take human life.

ATHENAGORAS (133–190)

  • “We Christians cannot endure to see a man being put to death, even justly.”

THE TESTAMENT OF OUR LORD (anonymous author, 4th or 5th Century)

  • “If anyone be a soldier or in authority, let him be taught not to oppress or to kill or to rob, or to be angry or to rage and afflict anyone. But let those rations suffice him which are given to him. But if they wish to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service or from the [post of] authority, and if not let them not be received. Let a catechumen or a believer of the people, if he desire to be a soldier, either cease from his intention, or if not let him be rejected. For he hath despised God by his thought, and leaving the things of the Spirit, he hath perfected himself in the flesh and hath treated the faith with contempt.”

AMBROSE (338-397)

  • “The soldiers of Christ require neither arms nor spears of iron.”

Here are a couple of conclusions I find unavoidable; in the earliest centuries of the church, it was universally held that Jesus’ teaching and example ruled out military service for his disciples.

THE EARLY CHURCH ON KILLING by Ronald Sider is the most comprehensive survey of the early churches attitude to killing (including as part of the military). In that book Sider points out there is not a single document from the church before 313AD saying that Christians can kill or join the military.

This is his conclusion:

“What we can say with confidence is that every extant [existing early church] Christian statement on killing and war up until the time of Constantine says that Christians must not kill, even in war. That a growing number of Christians, especially in the late third and early fourth centuries, acted contrary to that teaching is also clear….But we have absolutely no evidence to support the suggestion that [teachers who supported just war] ever existed until the time of Constantine. Any claim that they did is sheer speculation.”

Yet the opposite view is clearly shown in the picture above where military service is not rejected by the church but actually celebrated by it.

Now I have some questions.

How are these two expressions of Christianity compatible? They seem mutually exclusive to me. Is the faith in the picture and that expressed by the Early Church Fathers the same faith?

How did we get from the view of military expressed by the Early Church and that shown by the Church in the picture? Is this acceptance and celebration of the military by much of the church today a legitimate development from the Early Church or an aberration of its teaching?

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