5 Reasons We Should Listen To The Early Christian Teaching On Violence

/5 Reasons We Should Listen To The Early Christian Teaching On Violence

In yesterday’s post, I revealed a profound, historical irony that occurs within the life of the Church every Veterans Day.  If you haven’t already done so, you’ll want to read that post: The Untold Story of Veterans Day.  Today’s reflection builds upon it.

This post is the second in a series of reflections that seek to familiarize you with the early Church’s teaching on the permissibility of Christians using violence.  But before we start immersing ourselves in the direct teaching of the early Church, I want to list five reasons we would be wise to place significant weight on what they have to say:

Reason #1: Listening to the voices of Christians throughout time and place protects us from being enamored by every passing theological fad.  In other words, it is unwise to only listen to contemporary Christian leaders.  To do this is to ignore the teachings and writings of Christians throughout the centuries.  This neglects the wisdom the Holy Spirit has been imparting to Christians since the Church began.  It also produces major spiritual blind spots and makes one susceptible to foolishly fixating on the plethora of theological trends that come and go.  Knowing this, John Stott once warned his readers, “One cannot ignore the great works of the past.  To be disrespectful of tradition and of historical theology is to be disrespectful of the Holy Spirit who has been actively enlightening the church in every century.”

Reason #2: Many of the quotes we will be looking at are from Christians who were taught directly by the apostles or the immediate disciples of an apostle.  My friend Eddy Hall once wrote:

“When we want to better understand the teachings of Jesus, it can help to look at the lives of the early Christians.  The apostles learned much more from watching and listening to Jesus than could be included in the Gospels.  While the writings of these early Christians don’t have the authority of Scripture, they give us valuable insight into how the apostles, and those who learned directly from the apostles, understood and practiced Jesus’ teachings.” 

Though we certainly want to avoid giving early Christian teaching the same authority as Scripture, we’d better have strong evidence before we conclude that we more accurately understand the teachings of Jesus and His apostles than those who were taught directly by them.  In fact, one of the oldest texts to denounce Christians using violence, the Didache, is widely considered to be directly from the twelve apostles!

Reason #3: The usual vantage point from which we observe injustice is not the same as that of the early Church.  Let me explain.  For the first 300 years of her existence, the Church ardently strove to follow Jesus’ clear teaching about being in solidarity with the oppressed, poor, and marginalized.  In fact, they went so far as to refuse positions of power and authority.  As these early Christians stood next to the powerless, marginalized, and voiceless they saw violence from a different perspective.

Yet, the perspective of the Church today, especially in Western contexts, is usually formed from the exact opposite vantage point.  For you see, by and large, we have moved:

  • From the margins to the center of society.
  • From being amongst the powerless to being amongst the powerful.
  • And from speaking up on behalf of the voiceless to understanding the world through the perspective of those with a voice.

Now here is why this shift in the Church’s vantage point is so important and why it has caused massive ramifications: Where you stand determines what you see, and whose voice you listen to determines what you think.  In the words of Richard Rohr:

“Once we moved from the bottom of society to the top, we developed a new film over our eyes, and we couldn’t read anything that showed Jesus in confrontation with the establishment. We became the establishment.  Clear teachings on issues of greed, powerlessness, nonviolence, non-control and simplicity were moved to the sidelines, if not actually countermanded.”

For the past 1700 years, the Church’s perspective has largely come from a position (or desire to attain a position) of power, centrality, and popularity.  From this point of view, it comes as no surprise that the Church has chosen to forsake her original stance on non-violence.  In fact, I personally have little hope in seeing Christians or churches today embrace what I see to be Jesus’ clear call to nonviolently work for peace unless they first choose to be in solidarity with the poor, marginalized and oppressed.

This is an observation I’ll pick back up in a future post, as we’ll eventually come to discover that there has been a consistent pattern throughout Church history of many Christians denouncing the use of violence soon after they began to interact with the poor.  As we’ve already seen, such was the case for St. Martin of Tours.

So to summarize this lengthy yet crucial third reason for taking seriously the early Christian teaching on violence: If we truly believe that Jesus calls His followers to be in solidarity with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed, then we ought to place significant weight on the perspective of those who have faithfully stood with them.

Reason #4: Though their stance is certainly in the minority today, leaders in the early Church were in strong agreement that Jesus called His followers to never use violence.  In fact, before Constantine’s legendary conversion in 313AD, all extant Christian writings that touched on the subject, disapproved of Christian participation in war.  This fact alone hopefully inspires all of us to listen and consider what these early Christians had to say on the subject.

Reason #5: Tertullian, a prolific Christian writer who lived from 160AD—220AD, once wrote, “Learn about the incorruptible King, and know his heroes who never inflict slaughter on the peoples.”  Let’s take Tertullian’s advice and learn from some of the earliest heroes of our faith who never inflicted violence on people.  May their faith and example inspire us to live similarly for the sake of Jesus and all those who are oppressed in our world.

For the past 1700 years, the voice of the early Church on this topic of violence has seldom been heard.  In future posts, let’s rediscover what the early Christians have to say!

Time For Your Feedback: Are there other reasons you place significant weight on what the early Christians taught on the impermissibility of using violence?  Which of the aforementioned five reasons was most compelling for you and why?  Did you find any of the listed reasons to be unconvincing or insignificant?  How would you suggest I improve the content of this reflection?

If you enjoyed this post, you’ll also like: The Untold Story of Veterans Day


About the Author:

Husband, father, writer on Jesus' approach to peacemaking, and North America Coordinator for Servants to Asia's Urban Poor (servantsasia.org). Servants is an international network of Christian communities living and working in the slums of Asia and the West, participating with the poor to bring hope and justice through Jesus Christ.
  • Great stuff Jason, keep it going. The greatest cost of war is always borne by the poor & vulnerable; the greatest benefits by the rich & powerful. Titles: I liked ‘Love does no harm’ out of those listed – rolls off the tongue best.

  • A few days after writing this reflection, I came across a sixth reason for placing significant weight on what the early Christians taught. John Howard Yoder, in his book entitled Christian Attitudes To War, Peace, and Revolution, states the following: “Early Christians…read the Bible in a first-century context. They read the New Testament in teh same world in which tit was written, in the same language in which it was written. They probably read it, therefore, with more understanding than we do. Hence, how they read the New Testament is helpful to us in our reading of the New Testament, whatever the limits of their faithfulness” (pg 43).

  • Dennis Hesselbarth

    Jason, a question must be asked about the role of force when Christians find themselves in the majority, when they have been handed authority and power. The state, as Rom 13 notes, does bear the sword as an agent to bring punishment to wrongdoing. That passage needs to be carefully “unpacked” to explain if and how the use of force is sanctioned. But most understand it to mean that police powers, using force if necessary to restrain evil, is sanctioned by God. So the natural question is, should then Christians refuse to participate in the state if it means participating in the use of force? Can they participate, but with clear limits on the use of power? How did the the early church, which until Constantine was in a place of powerlessness and the recipient of oppression, grapple with this question once they found themselves invited into the seat of power?

    I suspect that a common response was to welcome the opportunity without a thoughtful examination of the implications. That’s certainly what I’ve seen in evangelical circles beginning in the late 70’s when evangelicals began to gain political influence. When James Dobson realized he had great influence through his millions of radio listeners, he immediately began to advocate that his listeners try to influence the political process. This is a form of power, though it may not involve physical violence. To this day, I rarely ever hear evangelicals question if it’s appropriate to mobilize and use political power to bring the kingdom to earth, so to speak. They just assume it is. But Kuyper and current Catholic thought argue, thoughtfully, that there is a proper role for Christians in the state.

    So I’d love to hear what you’ve uncovered in the writings of the church during those early years when the church had been legitimized and found themselves moving from oppressed to being able to influence – and participate in – power. Where did the church refuse to participate? Where did it remain outside yet seek to influence? Where did it, thoughtfully, join in the state? What were their arguments?

    • Thanks Dennis for such a thoughtful comment. It’s quite helpful to know the questions others are asking! I have been planning on eventually posting a reflection on Romans 12-13 as it is one of the prime passages both staunch pacifists and Just War adherers use to support their positions. The role of government and the parameters around how Christians can participate with it is certainly an important topic needing covered.

      Just a few short comments to your reply for now: (1) Skim through the list of forty early Church quotes that I posted a couple days ago. There are a handful of those quotes that explicitly voice various early Christians stances on participation with government. Many historians seems to agree with your suspicion that many Christians did not put much thought into participation with government, and that is likely why their leaders were concerned and wrote about it. There was a real wariness of positions connected with power, and also numerous of the quotes mention a refusal to take on any governmental position that either involved directly killing people or casting a verdict for someone to be put to death. (2) It should be noted that there were some Christians with significant influence or power, and/or who were requested by the Romans to take on governmental position or join the military. So, for example, Lactantius tutored Constantine’s son. He has a quote in that list of 40. Also, you’ll read quotes like, We refuse to join the military, even if you demand it of us. Thus, the belief is incorrect that the early Christians were pacifist only because they were a persecuted minority. They refused even when asked to participate in the military. (3) My short answer to your main question is that the test all Christians ought to use for determining the extent of their participation with government is found in Romans 13:8, 10. Paul writes, “Owe no one anything but love”, and then he goes on to define love as “love does no harm to a neighbor”. This is the simple criteria I use over and over to decide when I can participate with our government and when I must refuse participation (yet submit to any punishment it might impose).

  • Joseph Kuzara

    Well in my observances of what is granted or not, we non-violent Christians must not forget that God Granted the two prophets in Revelations 11 to use deadly force Supernaturally and as they willed brought forth plagues as they pleased while proclaiming Gods message for 3.5yrs. Now the keys to this passage was that God Granted these two saints the authority to do these things. So sense we know Jesus commanded against violence force in resistence to evil people it made sense that they had to be granted this authority from God to act separate from the other saints. Another key to notice is that they only did such activities in the Holy Spirits Power, no physical weapons were permitted because it was prophesied that these two witnesses were to come not by might, nor by power but by Gods Spirit. So by observing this we can conclude that no one was allowed to use violent force with physical means and only the two witnesses had the granted authority and Spiritual ability to kill and harm with Supernatural Powers. This would obviously contrast the first century ministry of the Apostolic era when thier supernatural powers were used to heal and set free those in spiritual oppression while establishing our collective teachings. Those who are permissed by God to perform such duties are still conforming and upholding Christs Law as they obeyed Gods command to fulfill scripture.

  • Dutch M. Gilson

    Much needed teaching among Christ’s followers today.