The thing that strikes you when looking through early church sources on the issue of killing is the consistency. The consistency in their view on any kind of killing, and the consistency among all sources from the early church period.
Today we are often inconsistent on this subject. For example, we are generally against abortion. We call this being pro-life. But the same people who are against abortion, are often, not always, in favour of capital punishment for some crimes, and in favour of war. A common dichotomy today, is to be against abortion and euthanasia, and in favour of killing in wars or capital punishment.
This brings us into the discussion about war theory. For centuries, the church has debated this topic about pacifism, just war, or holy war theory. Probably, just war theory is the most common one held in Christianity today. Sometimes, people hold a blend of views, on a scale between pacifism and just war.
The early church had an aversion to violence of any kind, which meant a consistent value on human rights, and even animal rights. They claimed all humanity are made in God’s image, to be treated as sacrosanct. Until recent times, the church was at the forefront on standing for human and animal rights, and for the environment. Such matters are now largely left to secular institutions, as the church has taken on a much more individualistic flavour.
Our point here is that, people ask why the church is against abortion and euthanasia, but also for capital punishment and war. Capital punishment is difficult to justify from a Christian perspective. People claim God universally mandated it with Noah, but that is not the case. He instructed capital punishment then, as he did in Moses, due to our widespread practice of genocidal vengeance. God’s mandate was to limit killing. Christ’s teachings clearly eradicated capital punishment.
A problem with capital punishment is that it is difficult to be sure the person is guilty. Innocent people are sentenced to death. Another problem is that capital punishment isn’t restorative. There are many stories of people being restored to faith and love, even with the victim’s family. The bible shows us that our view as the church in the world should be restorative. This is what we learn from the cross and from God’s new creation program. He restores.
This is what the gospel is about. Its purpose is to move the creation from punitive to restorative justice, from law to love.
But our topic here is about discipleship. Our aim is to show the early church’s views on discipleship. Today, Christians can support wars, that are said to be just, but in hindsight end up being highly unjust. They kill large numbers of civilians, ruin nations, promote terrorism as a response, and are 18 often carried out for purely hidden economic purposes. They are simply baptised in faith, to divide us against each other, while the powers carry away the profit.
So, the question for us today is, if we are pro-life, which I am, why aren’t we consistent about it? Why aren’t we pro-life for all life? Just war theory says pro-life means killing some today, to stop more killing tomorrow. But as disciples of Christ, is this what Jesus taught us?
Consistent Witness Against Killing
Let’s get back to the early church. Ronald Sider, looking through every available early source on the church, found that without exception, all church sources reveal that the church was pacifist. This is true from the times of the first apostles, till towards the end of the third century, for about the first 200 – 250 years of the church.
Every source on early church views in this matter condemns killing by Christians. This includes abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment and in war. The early church was entirely consistent on its view of Christians killing. They all taught openly that a disciple of Christ must not kill. If it came to it, a disciple would prefer to be killed, than to kill.
Authors in the early church gave their reasons for teaching this. They said this was the way Christ lived. He did not kill, but gave his life for his enemies. Then they quoted the teaching of Jesus. They said that Jesus commanded plainly, that we must love our enemies. All early church leaders said that this means we must not kill them. They said, we cannot love our enemies and kill them.
We can debate this, whether this is the right thing or not. But the point here is to look at the early church from the apostles’ day for the first 200 years following. What was their view? Our answer to this question, leaves us without question. We know their view, without any uncertainty, and we know their view was entirely consistent. They were all consistently against any form of killing.
Their second reason for claiming a Christian can’t kill, was because of their view of eschatology. Eschatology comes from the Latin, meaning last things, or, the end. Today, we call it the last-days. Eschaton really means the end, as in the goal, the mature state, the fulfilment. The early church believed that they were living in the fulfillment of prophecy about the kingdom of God. The end was a new beginning, a new creation, which had already dawned in the resurrection of Christ, and in the heart of every true believer.
So, when they read prophecies, like in Isaiah 2, which said, in the last-days, it shall come to pass that all nations shall come to the mount of the house of the Lord, they believed they were living in that time. They didn’t see the last-days as something that would come in the future, after Christ returned, but something that had already begun in the church. The final transformation comes at Christ’s return, but the change that will renew all things, had already begun in the world through the church community.
“In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 2:2-3)
A New Beginning
The mountain of the house of the Lord refers to God’s kingdom and reign. The temple was on the mountain in Jerusalem. Heaven, or God’s reign, came through the temple to Israel and the nations around them. Isaiah said, the day was coming when all nations will come to God’s kingdom. This didn’t mean a literal coming to Jerusalem, but to the God who then dwelt in their temple. The world will come to God and have their hearts renewed.
This is the same view we see in Ezekiel, were waters come from the temple, which in Christ is the church, and go throughout all the nations of the world, bringing life. Also, in Zechariah, it was said that a fountain would open in Jerusalem, and issue living waters to all the nations of the world. We see the new covenant beginning in Jerusalem, and going out to renew the entire world. The early church saw themselves, as the fulfillment of this eschaton, this promise of the Prophets.
From Destruction to Peace
Isaiah spoke of the mountain of the Lord being exalted above all other mountains. Mountain referred then to the place of power. Paul spoke a lot about these powers. They referred to anything that controlled our lives. To Paul, this meant our selfish desires, by which we fight against one another. The mountains spoke of the temperaments, the desires, passions and behaviours that control human life and drive humanity into destructive outcomes. This is what is destroying our creation. God has come to renew the creation, by renewing us.
God’s mountain, which means his power, which is Christ and his gospel, is being raised above the other powers that have controlled human desires and destruction. With the kingdom of God coming into our hearts, our temperament is being renewed, which means a new rule is coming to our hearts and nations. Paul called this, putting off the works of the flesh, and being clothed in the fruit of the Spirit. This is the new rule of God coming to our lives and relationships.
Beating Swords in Ploughshares
What then is the result of this new heart? Isaiah goes on to explain it:
“The Lord will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will no longer fight against nation, nor train for war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4)
When the early church saw this, they believed they were living in this eschaton, in this fulfillment. They believed they were God’s end-times people, living out this new kingdom and renewal in the world. They weren’t waiting for this peace movement to come. They believed, they all believed, that they were this peace-movement. They were God’s people, beating their swords into instruments of community service, and thereby bringing renewal to the waring, covetous nations of the earth.
Following the Lord
They didn’t see this as cheap. They knew they would suffer for this. But their Lord suffered for doing this, so, they thought, why should their case be any different? They were honoured, to be called to follow the Lord. They called it an honour to suffer as the people of peace. We may not agree with this, for our lives today. That is not the point. Here, we are describing what is, without question, the view of the church of the first 200 years.
We have looked at two reasons why the early church refused to kill. First, they saw that Jesus didn’t kill his enemies, and that he commanded us to love our enemies. This meant we couldn’t kill them. 20 Second, they saw themselves as the fulfilment of God’s kingdom in the world, through which the warring, covetous nations are being transformed, to finally take on the values of heaven on earth. The church was the way heaven was coming to earth. Dedicated to Life
This reinforces the view of discipleship in the early church, that we saw in previous sections of these notes. They were a people dedicated to life, to bringing justice to their community by serving, reconciling enemies where possible through peace, coming against the war in our hearts, which breaks out in our nations. They were following James, who claimed that the reason for war was greed. Discipleship, to the early church, was to renounce this greed, either on a personal level, or on a national level. The early Christians were under a pledge by their baptism. This baptism meant they were pledged to love their brother and sister, from all national backgrounds, at the cost of their own lives, as Christ loved them and gave himself for them. This is what baptism meant. It was the discipleship of the early church. They didn’t have a doctrine of Christianity or atonement, but a life that demonstrated what God had done for the world through his condescension, his incarnation in the flesh, death and resurrection. The world could only be renewed as we follow this.
The early church saw the corruption of the world, more than we do today. Their views were not naïve. They could have taken up arms to defend themselves, just as many other local groups in trouble did. But their view of Christ and of the kingdom of God stopped them doing this.
They had a different hope. Their hope wasn’t force. Peter spoke of the hope that was in the church, which the world thought strange. This is that hope. They believed that the world would only be renewed through the restorative justice Isaiah spoke of. By this, Isaiah meant mercy to the stranger, foreigner and outcast. This kingdom had clearly begun in Christ in his love for the outcast, and would be carried on in a renewing movement to the world through the church.
“Look, a righteous king is coming! And honest princes will rule under him. Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a parched land.” (Isaiah 32:1-2)
“Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” (Isaiah 35:6)
“Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from those who need your help… Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” (Isaiah 58:7, 12)
“Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end.” (Isaiah 9:7)
“In that day, the wolf and the lamb will live together… Nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for as the waters fill the sea, so the earth will be filled with people who know the Lord.” (Isaiah 11: 6, 9)
The early church saw that they were these people of Isaiah, to bring transformation to our corrupt nations, to bring a change to the corrupt powers which executed Christ. They saw that mercy was 21 the way of the Prophets, not the force of arms, which they saw as unjust, serving the national interests, not human interest.
This isn’t a debate about pacifism and just war theory. My view is that the truth lies between pacifism and a peace-keeping military constraint when necessary, but by a military that represents the community interests, not the interests of any group. That is, a genuine peace-keeping unit.
This is very rare in our current world, as all trouble spots today are centred of national or economic interest. A just peace-keeping unit is very hard to come by, unless we genuinely cooperate as a group of nations. The church is called to bare witness to this kind of selfless cooperation. That is why the United Nations carries the logo from Isaiah, of the man beating his sword into a ploughshare.
But the main part of peace-keeping isn’t restraint. It is genuine justice, building for the poor and those left behind. This justice is largely missing from our world, and little cared about. We depend rather on arms, just as God warned Israel not to do.
Genuine justice takes work, and courage, speaking truth to power in our world. This is the witness of the Prophets. A church that has forgotten this, has forgotten the Prophets, and the Torah, which calls us to build peace through Jubilee and Sabbath, releasing the debts of the poor. Today, most of the world lies in the grip of debt.
This section isn’t meant to be a debate about biblical teaching on war. The issues are discussed more in my book Violence in Scripture. We may say Paul claimed the armies of the world are to bring justice to our nations. This has been the claim of Christian armies down through the years.
But for Paul, it was about worldly armies, like Babylon and Rome, whom the church in diaspora should not revolt against. The church’s task was to transform them peacefully. The early church forbad any Christian to kill in the Roman army, despite Paul’s comment about these evil forces being instruments of order in an evil world. They forbad Christians joining the army, not primarily because of Roman idolatry, but because of Christian baptism being non-violent.
Early Church View
The purpose of this section, is to show the position of the early church regarding war, killing and their role in discipleship in renewing the world, according to the promises of God in the Prophets. There is no question that the view above was the view of the church for its first 200 years.
They were to overcome war by helping their enemy. They were to overcome abortion, by serving disserted mothers. They were to overcome crime by forgiving the criminal and serving them when in state punishment. They were to overcome selfishness by living as a giving community. They were to overcome unrighteousness by suffering.
The Apostolic Tradition (Egyptian Church Order) of the third century, has been described as of incomparable importance as a source of information about church life. It did not permit people into baptism who were gladiators or who taught “gladiators or swordsmanship or military skills or weapons training.” “A solider in the sovereign’s army should not kill, or if he is ordered to kill, he should refuse. If he stops, so be it, otherwise he should be excluded (from baptism).” If someone is 22 already a believer, “If they want to be soldiers, let them be excluded, because they distance themselves from God.”
This would have hindered Hitler somewhat!
It is superfluous, in this short study, to go through all the sources from the early church. The reader can see Ronald Sider for a comprehensive comparison of early sources for this topic. The Apostolic Tradition, on its own, shows how far the official church shifted in its character in the years following Constantine: from refusing to fight, to eventually building unjust Christian armies.
The Apostolic Tradition says people should not be admitted into baptism who teach weapons training. How many lives are taken today through international arms trade? Though the early church prayed for their king in battle, their witness was, that if everyone became like them, like the Christians, then there would be no war, and there would be no killing (see Lactantius, Divine Institutes.)
We follow Jesus, no matter what other people do. This is what Christianity is. I guess, if we were going to debate this, it would be along the lines of realism in our current world. There is the realism of human culture and the realism of God’s gospel. One day war will end, and it will end by ending fighting, not by winning a fight. This is the hope of the church, inherited through Christ.