Did Early Christians Serve in the Military?

Derek Ouellette —  January 26, 2014

Soldier PrayingN.T. Wright made some claims about the military and early Christianity which has sparked a bit of a conversation in certain quarters of the web close to me. I’m not a pacifist – though I’m quickly moving into the “non-violence” position, which is somewhat different – and so naturally I appreciate Wright’s cautious approach to the subject. To the chagrin of many Wright enthusiasts, the good scholar does not lead the charge with the mantle of pacifism raised high in the air.

It was acknowledged that Wright’s an Anglican. So without giving him a full pass, it’s said that we shouldn’t expect much different from an Anglican. But from what I know of reading Wright (who is said by Roger Olson to fit the description of a “post-conservative”) he has not been afraid to part with his tradition on matters he believes the Bible teaches (vis. women in the ministry). Wright is, beyond a doubt, a Bible-first Christian. If he believes Christians can – at least in principle – serve in the military, it’s probably not on account of his Anglicanism.

And so when a historian of Wright’s caliber makes a cautious statement about what he doesn’t know about the second and third century of the church, that gives me pause from thinking I can whip out a quote or two of a Church Father here or there and be done with it. A good historian knows that you can’t judge the ethos of a community in a period just by quoting a few literate voices.

I came across a lengthy and well researched article called Whittling down the pacifist narrative: Did early Christians serve in the army? I found the article interesting because the author, Dr. Glenn Peoples, takes a more historical-critical approach to the subject.

Early Christians in the Military

First he traces the scholarly mood of the subject over the past sixty years. He cites a scholar from the 1960’s who gives the moderate claim that there was no evidence for Christians serving in the military before 170 A.D., and says “the question of military service obviously was not at that time controverted.” In other words, an argument from before 170 is an argument from silence. (As we’ll see, there is evidence Christians served in the military prior to 170 A.D.)

Peoples then quotes from a guy named C. J. Cadoux who wrote the book, The Early Christian Attitude to War, to show how Cadoux undermines his own arguments. Cadoux argues that there are no good evidence that Christians served in the military before 170 A.D. since there is (in his estimation) no mention of the such. Then, it talking about Jesus’ dealings with centurions, Cadoux writes:

The attempt to draw such a conclusion [that Jesus was passive about their continued post in the army] is at best an argument from silence. Considering the number of things Jesus must have said of which no record has been left, we cannot be at all sure that he said nothing on this occasion about the illegitimacy of military service for his own followers. And even supposing he did not, is it reasonable to demand that his views on this point should be publicly stated every time he comes across a soldier?

Peoples observes:

On the one hand, Cadoux wants us to think that it counts as good evidence that for the window of time from when soldiers believed during the New Testament era until AD 170 there is no direct mention of specific Christians who were soldiers, suggesting that there were none – an argument from silence. However he forbids us from making arguments from silence when it comes to the fact that while Jesus spoke positively of a centurion he never implied that his lifestyle was sinful – because Jesus might have said as much at some point but it was simply not recorded for posterity! It hardly needs pointing out that there could just as easily – or more – have been the cases that there were Christians in the military from the New Testament era to the year 170 (a window of barely more than a century) without them being singled out and their profession named. After all, other than Paul how many Christian tent makers do we know of during that same period?

The reality is that if there were Christian soldiers in the first century (as we know there were), it is likely that there were more than we know of.

He goes on to make a case for that, giving the very same examples that came to my mind when I came across articles that tried to suggest otherwise. According to Christian tradition around the year 166 there was a whole military legion made up mostly of Christians who intervened in prayer for the rest of the army who were dying of thirst. They were nicknamed “The Thundering Legion.” There’s another occasion I’m recalling from memory from George Fox’s book, of Roman Christian soldiers who were stripped down and sent into the freezing cold water until they recanted (which most did not). They were persecuted for their faith, but nothing is said of them giving up their post.

People’s then talks about one of the oldest churches discovered in Palestine located at Megiddo – a Roman military outpost. On the Communion table archaeologists found this inscription: “Gaianus, also called Porphyrius, centurion, our brother, has made the pavement at his own expense as an act of liberality. Brutius carried out the work.” A Roman military outpost with a church on site and Christians serving in the military.

What About the Church Father’s?

Now, as has been evident as of late, it can be correctly said that all of the Church Father’s who spoke on the subject spoke against the idea of Christians serving in the military. True, that is. BUT, however strong that argument sounds, it’s actually not really that strong since only three writers in all of early Christendom spoke on the subject, and one of them gave but a single sentence. That’s like saying that all of the writers of this blog are Wesley-Arminian. Sounds good right? How many writers are there? 20? 30? Nope. Just one! Talk about deflation. It seems that Christians serving in the military was not an issue because, if it was, it would have been addressed and in fact it was almost entirely not addressed. We know that Christians did serve in the military. So why was it not addressed more frequently if the Patristic Father’s saw it as being so counter to the normal Christian life?

Peoples goes on to address the statements of Origen, Hippolytus and Tertullian, in context. You’ll see that Peoples pulls out some interesting points not routinely highlighted when given as soundbites by pacifists. I’ll let you go to his site to read all about that. I’ll just highlight here that one of the points that Wright made was that a problem early Christians had with serving in the military was primarily over the way that the military was tied up with the cultic pagan practices of the Empire – and undying allegiance to the Emperor. Though the “favourite quote” of Origen highlights a Jesus-ethic; Peoples shows, in context, that underlining Origen’s quotes is a response to Celsus who’s

“fundamental objection to the Christians is that they will not give full loyalty to the Emperor. And there is the rub. This is why Origen must find other examples of how Christians support the empire than by taking part in its civic rituals and military service. It is not that civic involvement or warfare is wrong (in fact he explicitly claims that it may be just), but a Christian can never tacitly support paganism “

Which is more or less what Wright said. Peoples goes on to show the ambiguity of Hippolytus’ statement and then turns his attention to Tertullian. It may surprise the pacifist to learn that Tertullian explicitly supported and defended Christians serving in the military in his early writings (which is more evidence that Christians actually did serve in the military, despite Tertullian having changed his opinion on the matter later on).

Anyways. It’s curious to note that Tertullian changed his mind on Christians serving in the military, not when he became a Christian (obviously, see above), but after his involvement with the Montanists AND that the famous quote against Christians serving in the military is in a chapter he wrote on idolatry. Again, this is more or less exactly what N.T. Wright said. Though Tertullian appeals to a Jesus-ethic in the now famous quote, the context of that quote is that serving in the military involved pagan worship. Again, that was exactly what Wright said was the real issue in those early centuries with Christians serving in the military.

Glenn Peoples finishes with a bold statement that I will leave you with and strongly encourage you to interact with the full arguments on his site (as this post is more of a highlight of sorts). He concludes:

“The pacifist narrative of early Christian history is simply, emphatically and demonstrably untrue, and I daresay more the product of ideology and wishful thinking than the study of the facts.”

I’ll just make the final point that I’m not arguing against Christian pacifism or non-violence. I’m simply pointing out that the argument that the early church was by-and-large pacifistic (meaning that they saw service in the military as sin or wrong) is simply not true.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • http://www.TheologicalGraffiti.com/ T. C. Moore

    Derek, it’s so easy to dig up decenting voices on Christian nonviolence; they’re a dime a dozen! Christian nonviolence is still the minority position, and for obvious reasons: It has far-reaching implications that threaten the power structure and status quo of churches. Most churches and denominations are inextricably intertwined with the military industrial complex. They won’t risk losing the financial support from this highly lucrative sector over a minority position. Not until the position begins to be marketable and profitable.

    Also, scholars love to make a name for themselves (or money) attempting to overthrow a well-established consensus. That’s why it’s also not impressive to find plucky young philosophers who are excited to throw shade on pacifism with self-righteous glee. C. S. Lewis was the same way! I took his essay “Why I’m not a Pacifist” to task too! (A terrible piece of faulty logic unworthy of his legacy).


    Moreover, the claim that Origen and Tertullian are taken out of context to support nonviolence is false and unfounded. I’ve written a researched academic paper engaging critics and supporters both. I also drew evidence not only from Jesus’s teachings directly, but also from the apostolic, biblical witness. The nonviolent Kingdom ethic of Jesus runs right through the New Testament into the early church. The argument from silence is not the argument that nonviolence was the norm, it is the argument that the NT and early church never spoke out against soldiers specifically (e.g. Cornelius etc.)

    Wright is brilliant, and I’m a fan, but he’s not perfect and not without his own biases. Rather than mindlessly following everything he says, we should not hold back from critiquing him for that reason. Our heroes are human.


    • http://covenantoflove.net/ Derek Ouellette

      Hey T.C., I’m all for critiquing our heroes. After all, I’m not into infant baptism which N.T. Wright affirms. Just to be clear, the quotes of Origen and Tertullian were taken out of context in so far as the quotes in question are treated as though “this is their position on Christians in the military, and this is why.” The “this” being what I call the “Jesus-Ethic,” (turn the other cheek, love your enemies, sermon on the mount et cetera). As true as that is about those two voices, both of their comments are made in the wider context of the pagan ritual expectations for those who take part in the military. And that is more or less what N.T. Wright said. And if I call, in your post, that is what you took umbrage with, instead suggesting that at the heart of their rejection of Christians in the military was the Jesus-ethic, when that, in fact, is in the wider-context of Allegiance to Christ and resistance to worshipping the Roman gods and paying Caesar top allegiance. Hence, out of context.

      Sure, the position you speak of is the consensus now, which is what Glenn Peoples states and shows we got here to some extent. Should we just take that uncritically all the while judging the other guy as just someone who wants to make a “name for themselves” or worse, judge their motives as being financially motivated? To me that seems to be a hit below the belt. In any case, he’s right that Christians did, in fact, serve in the military prior between the New Testament and AD 170 from the *little* research I’ve done (admittedly nothing by comparison to yourself). Plus the other arguments in the post et cetera, et cetera… Gotta go. Peace.

      • http://www.TheologicalGraffiti.com/ T. C. Moore

        Tertullian and Origen do not oppose military service *Exclusively* on the grounds of allegiance (i.e. participation in pagan idolatry). They also, and correspondingly, oppose military service on the grounds of Jesus’s nonviolent Kingdom ethic. In his _Treatise on Idalotry_, Tertullian specifically mentions the incompatibility of membership in the church and participation in “capital punishments” (quoted in my post). He also doesn’t believe its compatible to follow the Prince of Peace and “make war.” The reason the context is idolatry is because Roman, pagan idolatry entailed a violent worldview which the Jesus Movement explicitly rejected. They were non-coercive, and Rome was Uber-Coercive! Therefore, the remarks from Tertullian (and Origen) are not “out of context.”

        “To those who ask us whence we have come or whom we have (for) a leader, we say that we have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into ploughshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take ‘sword against a nation,’ nor do we learn ‘any more to make war,’ having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of (following) the ancestral (customs) in which we were stangers to the covenants.”

        – Origen, _Against Celsus_ V:33 (c. 248 AD)

  • Chris Criminger

    Hi Derek,
    A couple of brief comments (by the way, I am a huge Wright fan and I am waiting for his new tome on Paul and the Faithfulness of God—-can’t wait to get into it :–)
    1. The early church fathers were in consensus on a non-violent ethic. They told Christians not to join the military but they also said to Christians who were in the military that they were not to draw the sword and kill. Many in the Roman army more functioned like police officers today than simply thinking they were always going into a battle somewhere against another nation to kill as many as they can.
    2. Besides Origen, Hypolytus, and Tertullian, there also was Justin Martyr, Iranaeus, Tatian, Clement of Alexandria as examples. Here is Justin Martyr for example, “We who formerly murdered one another now refrain from making war even upon our enemies.” Tatian says, “I don not wish to be king, I am not anxious to be rich. I decline military command.” And the list and examples go on an on . . . Shalom!

    • Glenn Peoples

      Just a couple of observations:

      Tatian declined to be a military commander. This is not a statement about non-violence.

      Justin is right that “we” do not make war on our enemies. But who is we? The church? If so, all just war Christians agree. The church does not make war. That is the job of states.

      So while it’s true that people do cite many voices in favour of pacifism, you have to check twice. Some of those quotations are just too hasty.

      Shalom to you!