Themelios 33 - Nonviolence in the Ancient Church

Today I read an interesting article from the latest issue of Themelios (which can be found here in PDF). Not only does it use a nice serif font for the article text (I wonder what it is) but the article itself is interesting. If you are interested in the early church’s thinking on Christianity and violence, it is certainly worth your read.

The summary of the early church’s opinion was not surprising, showing what most of us know anyway that there was a pretty consistent stance against military service among the Christians of the first few centuries (I know of no exceptions. Do you?).

The conclusion was short and well-said but I will not repeat the arguments here. Read them for yourself; the whole article is pretty brief.

To me one of the fundamental points is what does the NT mean when it says the state "bears the sword" and "It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer" (Rom 13:4, NET)? It seems to me that this would involve violence. Last time I checked, swords were meant to kill.

Another point that needs to be brought up is a little more abstract, but relevant to the question, and it is this: if something is right and good for the government, it must be right and good for a Christian to do that in the government. After all, if it is wrong it is, well, wrong. But if it is okay for the government, or stated more strongly, if it is a divinely ordained task of the government, it seems terribly inconsistent to say that a Christian cannot fulfill that role.

I must admit, though, that I am not well-read in this area. Perhaps I am missing something, but it seems somewhat straightforward.


The Militant Pacifist 2008-08-21 04:52:20

It is unarguable that human governments exercise force (violence) whether they are good governments (if there is such a thing) or bad (worse) governments.

The next to last paragraph of your posting raises the interesting question of the legitimacy of Christian service in human government. The Westminster Divines (heirs of the magisterial reformers) certainly approved [Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. XXIII] and most modern “reformed” folk concur (of course most of them can’t see past the flag that they’ve wrapped themselves in).

Certainly a great historical debt is owed to the magisterial reformers, but their reformation was woefully incomplete. Though the positions of the radical reformers are less well documented than those of the magisterial reformers, the Anabaptist doctrine of “renunciation of the sword” seems to have often forbidden participation in governmental office (for what is government but “force”).

Though this writer is not (currently) convinced that ALL Christian service in government is illegitimate, he is certainly convinced that most of it is, because it is thoughtlessly and carelessly undertaken.

Any “Christian” soldier had better make sure he is able to give a well-reasoned answer to the brother who asks him how he can kill at Caesar’s command. Such logical gymnastics as removing the sword from the hand while retaining its lethality through the hands of minions is really a deficient answer.

Let those of us Christians who claim that we long for the true (archaic) Christianity espoused by Jesus of Nazareth be willing to wrestle with the hard issue that living the way that Jesus taught may make many career paths “non-options” for us.

Doug Chaplin 2008-08-24 05:01:11

The typeface looks like Warnock Pro to me.

Eric 2008-08-24 05:30:03

Edward: I agree that the reformation didn’t go far enough; I think that is clear enough.

Your point of removing the problem of having minions do your governmental sin work is very valid. If it is wrong for you to murder, it is wrong for you to ask a subject to commit murder for you. I would, however, differ on whether or not certain offices could be held by Christians. Sure, if a Christian took a certain office and fulfilled it correctly it might cause serious issues because he was unwilling to command his minions to do the sinful things that perhaps his predecessor had done, but that does not mean he cannot take the office. It just means he needs to be willing to make a lot of people mad.

Are there any offices in particular that you don’t think a Christian could fulfill? I don’t remember you being a complete pacifist, so you can’t say "secretary of defense" :)

Doug: Yes, that does appear to be it! What a nice font. Thanks for the tip.