Has the Christian church really been historically pacifist?

As Mark van Steenwyk and I have prepared to teach both a Masters and a DMin version of our “Resources for Radical Living” course this coming winter, we have reconfigured the course significantly. Among the changes will be the figures and movements we deal with under the heading of “the prophetic life.” There we hope to deal with two public issues that continue to challenge Christians today: the problem of the poor and the problem of war.

Thus it is with interest that I read today George Weigel insisting that for some time now, following the late great Luther scholar Roland Bainton, we have been “Getting History Wrong on Just War”.

Weigel summarizes Bainton’s position, which he understands to be highly influential today, as follows:

According to Bainton, there are “three Christian positions with regard to war,” which evolved in “chronological sequence, moving from pacifism to the just war to the Crusade.” This evolution, Bainton suggested, was really a devolution or deterioration, reflecting an abandonment of primitive Christian purity and an untoward alliance with the state: after Constantine, the Church cut itself off from the moral purity of the evangelical counsels and the Sermon on the Mount and began, in Stanley Hauerwas’s memorable phrase, to “do ethics for Caesar.” A truly reformed Christianity—a Christianity true to its origins and to its Founder—is thus, necessarily, a Christianity that embraces pacifism.

Weigel observes that Bainton’s schema is still in force for many, and that therefore “many Catholics who hold to some version of the just-war tradition now smuggle into it a pacifist premise: the just-war tradition, they argue, begins with a ‘presumption against war,’ a ‘presumption’ that goes far beyond the obvious moral truism that nonviolent problem-solving is preferable to problem-solving through war.”

The problem, says Weigel, is that Bainton’s schema has now been revealed as “simplistic and inaccurate”:

In an important article in the spring 2010 issue of Logos, the quarterly published by the Catholic Studies Program of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., theologian J. Daryl Charles argues that Bainton got it wrong, by failing to give an “accurate accounting of the complexity and diversity of pre-Constantinian Christian attitudes toward the military.” Drawing on the last half-century of historical study of the early Church, Charles reminds us that, while there were indeed early Christian pacifists who took their moral cues for thinking about war and peace from the Sermon on the Mount, there were also Christians in Roman military service long before to the Constantinian settlement in the early fourth century.

Moreover, following the research of James Turner Johnson, Charles suggests that whatever difficulties military service posed for Christians in, say, the second century A.D., had to do with state-enforced idolatry rather than with soldiering per se. The early Church, as Charles puts it, lived with “divergent strands of thinking” on war and peace and the ethics of Christian participation in the military, a plurality of thought that “does not require” the assumption of a “universal or uniform conviction” that pacifism was the only imaginable Christian position, on the Bainton schema. Things were more complicated—and more interesting—than that.

16 responses to “Has the Christian church really been historically pacifist?

  1. David Whitten Smith

    I don’t see anything in the early church resembling later just war theory, which is remarkable considering that the Jewish community of the time looked with favor on war to free its community from foreign oppression. JEWISH arguments for and against (Zealots against high priests, for example) were based on whether revolt was likely to succeed–perhaps because God would guarantee the victory. The Gospels show that a militant messiah was widely anticipated, but Jesus refused to fulfill that expectation.

    The early centuries were dominated by martyrs, not militants. While soldiers who converted were not always expected to renounce their service, as Martin of Tours did, I’m not aware of any Christian writer recommending that Christians JOIN the army. Nor did they recommend that Christians use violence against their persecutors.

    While the early Church showed much variety and struggle of divergent viewpoints, even as reflected in New Testament Epistles, it is remarkable how little divergence there was on the community’s self-defense.

    • Good summary.

      I’m guessing that much of the controversy above stems from how more modern pacifism has reacted to “just war theory” that presumed and legitimated the Constantinization of Christianity.


    • I’m wondering if we could see such a practice as the norm, while allowing for atypical exceptions. I’m thinking more like situations where there’s been a collapse of institutions (like in the chaotic aftermath of the 30 years war) or institutions are rudimentary (like in Christian monastic settlements in Ireland faced with Viking raids) and the threat of large-scale imperialism isn’t a big deal. I could see some scope then for encouraging Christians to help elevate the professionalism in the defense of their local community. The rub would be, of course, the need to keep such as an atypical exception at the forefront our minds and to anticipate the need to revert back to the norm as soon as possible. This is so we could resist emphatically any further appropriation of our imagery and liturgy for the purposes of imperialistic empire-building. Because we sure as gehenna haven’t been very effective at making sure such, when misappropriated, gets used to do the just (war) thing….


  2. DLW–I would love for you to expound on the idea that the developing hierarchy had more of an impact on the restrictions placed on the use of violence, as I think it is a stretch to make that claim. Even as early as Justin Martyr, long before a truly developed hierarchy, there are blatant arguments against the use of violence. I think the idea that the developing hierarchy in the early centuries is responsible for the downfall of the diversity of Christianity is a poor argument. There was a clear intention towards unity in the earliest ‘orthodox’ theologians before there really was a developed hierarchy. The developing hierarchy certainly helped maintain unity, but the desire for unity in faith and praxis was clearly there prior to any developed hierarchy.

    Edwin–I understand the argument that you are pointing to in Webster & Cole. However, I find the argument lacking. The idea that one must abstain from approaching the Cup do to committing a violent act implies that something wrong was done. Even if it is a precautionary measure, it still implies that something ‘might’ have been done wrong. If there is any ambiguity that something ‘might’ be wrong is it not better to avoid it?

    To Both Of You–It is important to point out that I am Eastern Orthodox. The lack of an official stance by the Eastern Orthodox Church on this issue is one of the things that I struggled with during conversion. For me, the evidence surrounding the issue before and after the legalization of Christianity points to a pacifist Church. The fact that Eastern Orthodoxy has been so closely tied to the state (Byzantine Empire and in Russia) bothers me. However, if my Church leaders are not going to make a definitive stance on the issue, I will not either. While I prefer a pacifist (non-violent resistance, not just standing by doing nothing) I will not judge those who hold a different opinion. This is an issue that has little bearing on one’s salvation and, therefore, needs to be discussed as such–something that seems almost impossible in most dialogues on this issue.

    • Mike,
      The existence of arguments doesn’t imply uniformity of doxy. It usually implies a lack of uniformity. The later increase in ecclesial hierarchy would then account for an increase in uniformity as to teachings. But I don’t believe Christian unity mandates a universal rule of faith in all respects, including the ethics of Christians serving in the professional administration of state-based violence. No doubt there will always be serious tensions for Christians in this regard.

      I think Christian unity in both doxy/praxy was more organic earlier on… and that the sort of unity that was developing and maintained later on was not per se natural to Christianity (more broadly considered).

      I shd mention that I’m post-creedal in my Christianity and believe that our answers to this question matter most in terms of how we show love in dealing with controversy. I believe that it’s an intrinsically thorny problem that sincere Christians have disagreed on and that what matters most is to work out how best to subvert myths of redemptive violenc e through our local communities in part through dialogues with others who share similar commitments and, as always, through a wide variety of self-sacrificial acts of love.

  3. Mike,

    Alexander Webster and Darryl Cole apparently argue in their book _The Virtue of War_ (I’m relying on a review in _First Things_ some years ago) that the penitential practices in Eastern Christianity to which you allude did not imply that killing people in war was itself sinful, but were simply precautionary measures in case the soldiers had incidentally committed a sin in the course of waging war. Not having read the book, I remain uncertain as to whether that’s a convincing explanation–but it is an explanation I have heard offered and am not going to dismiss just because I’m biased in the other direction! (For what it’s worth, I would put myself in the “just war” camp theoretically, but more or less accept Hauerwas’s and Yoder’s strictures on what a legitimate just war would look like, which means that in practice such a war is almost impossible to find! Basically I believe that a war of genuine self-defense is legitimate, but any other kind of war probably isn’t.)

  4. dlw,

    I would be very surprised if early Christians took for granted that “we all serve earthly masters in potentially ethically-compromising manners,” unless of course you simply mean that while we live in this world we are subject to temptation, but should resist these temptations as fiercely as Joseph resisted Potiphar’s wife or Daniel and his friends resisted eating the king’s food.

    If you’re implying some kind of Niebuhrian Christian realism, then I don’t think that’s a fair way of describing what even Augustine thought, and I can’t think of an earlier writer to whom it remotely applies. Perhaps you can point to one (or perhaps I have misunderstood you altogether).

    On the contrary, it seems to me that early Christians took for granted that if serving earthly masters threatens to compromise us ethically, we should stop compromising them. That doesn’t mean that Christians always acted in this way–but those are the kinds of _prescriptive_ statement we have.

    I’m not sure I’d call Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Origen “outsiders” exactly, but certainly all of them could be seen as marginal in one way or another. At the same time, they’re all very significant figures–Tertullian and Origen in particular are arguably the two most important Christian theologians between the New Testament and the fourth century (or perhaps two of the three most important, along with Irenaeus). And I’m particularly baffled by your suggesting both that early Christian pacifists may have been “outsiders” and that they were somehow part of the hierarchy which was increasingly imposing uniformity. I don’t see how both these things can be true.

    This isn’t entirely relevant, but I’m becoming increasingly suspicious of the extent to which contemporary people rely on the “imposition of uniformity on diversity” as the One True Paradigm for understanding early Christianity (or anything else for that matter). Certainly the stress in recent scholarship on the diversity of early Christianity has been hugely beneficial–it’s helped us see a lot that we didn’t see before. But perhaps it blinds us to some things as well.

    • I’m sorry I don’t have time to back up my more conjectural style based on recall from my seminary studies with better evidence (I am job-sseking). I am below appealing tacitly to how oral local traditions would have been more significant in earlier early Christianity than they were in later early Christianity.

      yes, we all face temptations to abuse what little power or say-so we have as part of our occupations. John the Baptist counselled soldiers in John 3:14 not to do so, as opposed to resigning from being soldiers. This was similar to what he counselled for tax-collectors, who no doubt worked hand-in-hand with soldiers. And so, if what is at issue is whether the professional wielding of “legit” violence was considered chronically ethically compromising then it seems earlier Christian writers took a less stronger line on this question than later Christian writers/leaders did.

      I don’t see this as Niebuhrian realism, so long as it’s not coupled with an exhortation for Christian leaders to seek out and wield greater amounts of such authority (for the greater good). It’s just a matter of fact that soldiers typically wield violence in a manner that reduces the total amount of violence, even when done imperfectly, as illustrated in the Acts of Apostles when Roman soldiers helped to keep Paul alive in Jerusalem. As such, earlier in the early church, there might not have been perceived a need to dialogue on this issue. There was less hierarchy and no need to work out a universal rule of faith on when a Christian soldier would need to commit occupational suicide (or lay down his life) for the sake of his faith. This would have been taken for granted as something that was context-dependent and to be done with the help of their faith-community.

      Also, I don’t think one can distinguish between lines that could not be crossed, like worshipping idols, and more ambiguous roles like playing a police-officer role in keeping the peace. Initially, these lines might have been coupled for Christians, but that doesn’t mean that they would be coupled in all times and places.

      As for Origen/Tertullian, like you said, their significance lies more in later developments in Christianity. That doesn’t mean they were typical of their times or that their proposed doxies fit with the praxy of most Christians. Odds are they were at odds with much praxy, and thus their influential nature comes from how Christian praxy changed.

      It is above debate that the 2nd and 3rd and 4th centuries of
      Christianity were quite dynamic in terms of praxy and generally trended towards increasing degrees of ecclesial hierarchy. The Church Fathers were part of this process and some of their “greatness” is derivative of it. Ie, their conceptualizations of Christianity might have become unduly important later on with the creedal debates and what-not.

      And so my point comes down to saying that there is no need for a pacifist doctrine to be held by all Christians and that the earliest Christians probably didn’t hold to such a doctrine. War is bad. The Church shd be salt and light in our world. The specifics of how we do that can be worked out with fear and trembling by Christian communities.


  5. As others have mentioned, there is little evidence that the Church supported any sort of violence before Constantine legalized Christianity. There is no early Church Father that I have found that supports the use of violence in any situation–martyrs being a great example of the rampant non-violent stance. Even once the Church started allowing violence by believers there were restrictions placed on anyone who had killed another person. I can’t remember who exactly it was, but it was clear that the person who had killed was barred from the Eucharist for a minimum of two years after the fact. Being barred from the Eucharist seems to imply that something was done that was not permissible. So while the Church had started allowing for the use of violence, for the sake of the state, they also acknowledged that it was something sinful. Pacifism was generally the overwhelming stance until the legalization of Christianity and had it stayed that way history would probably have been different. However, that is not the case, so all we can do today is continue to look at the issue in our times and try to learn from our past.

    • The legalization of Christianity was not the same as it’s Constantinization, or when it became the official religion of Rome, albeit the economic supports given by Constantine to Bishops did help the latter come about.

      And my point is that we need to consider also the growth of hierarchy in Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries of its existence. When there was less hierarchy earlier on, it’s likely that there was more diversity of views about whether Christians could participate in the professional administration of state-based violence so as to help check the overall use of violence.


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