Was Jesus a pacifist? Early church beliefs about war and violence

I had a debate with someone about pacifism the other day, online. Did Jesus teach pacifism? To me it is fairly clear that He did, with words such as ‘love your enemies’, ‘pray for those who persecute you’, ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’ etc.

It’s not easy being a pacifist, especially if faced with violence personally, or when there are murderous expansionist fascistic regimes who hope to kill or rape all those who don’t agree with them. I honestly wouldn’t want to judge anyone who committed violence, and there are many situations where it would be an automatic reaction for me. Sometimes it is done with good intentions – those going in to rescue people from slavery, for example.

I just can’t see that violence is God’s will, based on the New Testament. Yes it was ‘allowed’ in the OT, though there are many passages that show this would not be God’s ultimate will for the world. But post-Jesus, things change, it seems to me.

One of the strongest arguments that this is what Jesus taught, I believe, is that the early church was unanimously pacifistic. I’d highly recommend a book called ‘Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs’ compiled by David Bercot. It’s a quick way of examining what was taught in the pre-Nicene church (the first couple of centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection). Here’s a very quick summary:

Many church fathers taught that it was not right for a Christian to go to war, or be in the army. Explicitly condemning war and violence (rather than the idolatry of the army etc, which some say is the reason early Christians were not allowed in the military) were: Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Lactantius, Arnobius.

Also saying that they personally would not go to war, or making less explicit condemnations of war, or commenting that Christians do not commit violence or go to war: Tatian, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus.

There are a small number of mentions of Christians being in the army. But they had this restriction, which is a pretty extraordinary one, when you think about it:

By the close of the second century, if someone who was already a soldier came to faith, they were allowed to stay in the army after baptism, but only if they didn’t use the sword, take oaths, or engage in idolatrous practices. This was confirmed in the writing of Hippolytus, who wrote: “A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism.”

The earliest Christians had the heritage of the early church, led by people who spent 3 years in Jesus’ company. Wouldn’t they have a pretty good idea of what His views were on this subject?

War may seem the easiest way. But Jesus doesn’t teach the easy way.

 

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