In beginning our discussion on the Christian viewpoint on carnal warfare, it’s important that we view all sides of the argument, including biblical text evidence as well as prevailing thought from Christians past and present. Please be sure to read yesterday’s introduction to this series of posts.
Pacifism, or conscientious objection to all things war, is not a common view amongst Christians of the 21st century. I suppose that like myself, many honest Christians of our day have not given much thought to the topic, or if they have, have not spent much time in the study of God’s word, but have been swayed in their thinking by the popular opinions of their time. In reality, I would agree that the easier course of action would be to leave the difficult decisions of war-making to others and live quiet, peaceable lives, oblivious to the havoc that war creates.
I too, found myself taking this form of action, or inaction as it were, and failed to realize how the biblical instructions for a Christian do cause us to address such things as killing and justifiable war. So with that in mind, we will begin our study of carnal warfare with the case for pacifism.
I will say right at the outset that I come from a military family. My father and grandfathers served in the military for their careers. I live in a decidedly patriotic town right outside an Air Force base where most people in the community and in my church family support all things American, even the idea of justifiable war. It would be very easy to be heavily influenced by the overall sentiment around me that says that to love America means sometimes having to accept war, and that it is akin to blasphemy to speak down about our country’s propensity to make war.
But as a God-fearing Christian, I want to make sure our look at pacifism is founded upon biblical principles and teaching rather that popular opinion. With that in mind, we will start by looking at the Sermon on the Mount and its effect on our attitudes as Christians. One need look no further than Jesus’ longest recorded public teaching to see the evidence for a quiet and peace-filled life that doesn’t include killing our fellow man. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). Now many will argue that the life the beatitudes call for us to live is unattainable to achieve, and yet Jesus spoke this message anyways. He also said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in Heaven” (Matthew 5:43-45a).
It only takes a very elementary level of discernment to conclude that God wishes for his children to be kind and forgiving to our fellow man and not be a war-mongering people looking for excuses to annihilate an enemy. Not only do we have the teachings of Jesus during his earthly ministry to guide us, but the lives and examples of the early church as well.
Christ’s church of the first several centuries was decidedly pacifist in nature, even with the fact that they lived during a time with much war and political maneuvering amongst world powers. Almost the entire New Testament writings echo the teachings of Jesus that we be concerned about the advancement of his kingdom and leave the concerns of fallible earthly kingdoms to themselves.
Even outside the biblical writings themselves, early Christian apologists were adamant about the Christian’s denial of anything warlike. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, Ignatius address our response to the evils of this world:
“Be ye humble in response to their wrath; oppose to their blaspehmies your earnest prayers; while they go astray, stand ye steadfast in the faith. Conquer ye their harsh temper by gentleness, their passion by meekness… Do not seek to avenge yourself in those that injure you, for says [the Scripture]… And let us imitate the Lord, ‘who, when he was reviled, reviled not again’; when he was crucified, he said, ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.’ If anyone, the more he is injured, displays the more patience, blessed is he.”
Other Christian writings on the topic of pacifism include:
“We who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our war-like weapons,- our swords into plowshares, and our spears into implements of tillage, – and we cultivate purity, righteousness, philanthropy, faith and hope…” (Justin Martyr- AD 110~165- “Dialogue with Trypho”)
“We have learned, not only not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder and rob us, but to those who smite us on one side of the face to offer the other side also, and to those who take away our coat to give likewise our cloak.” (Athenagoras- early Christian apologist AD 177- “A Plea for the Christians”)
“There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters- God and Ceasar… How will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve in peace, without a sword, which the Lord hath taken away?… The Lord… in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.” (Tertullian- early Christian apologist AD 145~220- “Apology”)
“We no longer take up ‘sword against nation,’ nor do we ‘learn war any more,’ having become children of peace, for the sake of Jesus who is our leader.” (Origin- AD 185~254- treatise “Against Celsus”)
“The wickedness of war is demonstrated in the following particulars: 1st. Those who are engaged in killing their brethren, for the most part, have no personal cause or provocation whatsoever. 2nd. They seldom, or never, comprehend the right or the wrong of the war. They, therefore, act without the approbation of conscience. 3rd. In all wars the innocent are punished with the guilty. 4th. They constrain the soldier to do for the state that which were he to do it for himself, would, by the law of the state, involve forfeiture of his life. 5th. They are the pioneers of other evils to society, both moral and physical.” (Alexander Campbell- 19th century leader of the Restoration Movement- lecture “Address on War”)
There seems to be abounding evidence pointing to the idea of pacifism as the preferred mode of thinking amongst early Christians, so much so, that there is very little or no evidence to the contrary. So when did the church experience a change in its thinking? When did the church grow support for state mandated wars, and even begin to encourage and participate in them? In the next post, “The Case for Non-Pacifism,” we will examine the evidence for the participation in and approval of carnal warfare and see what the Bible has to say to this end.