Was the Early Church Really Pacifist?

The topic of the pacifism in the early church is something I have written about before for PCPJ. However, in our world it often needs repeating and restating. The Church has often fallen into the temptations of politics and militarism. This is clearly seen in the Pentecostal/Charismatic Movement, which leaned towards pacifism in its early years, but became tolerant towards nationalism and militarism within only a few decades.

In the United States, we are in the midst of two events that make the topic of Christian pacifism relevant: 1. We are in the midst of a very brutal election season, and 2. We are approaching the 19th anniversary of the War on Terror, specifically the war in Afghanistan (which officially began October 7, 2001). It is the longest war in American history. Of course, PCPJ is an international organization, just as the Church is an international organization, but I think these are universal issues, and the war in Afghanistan includes many countries (including all of NATO). Additionally, PCPJ was founded in that time and context.

Considering that we have been in constant war for almost 20 years, I think it is time for Christians in the West to look back to our roots again and to not be seduced by politics or nationalism. What would Jesus say and do if He was here today? What would He say to a supposedly “Christian nation”? What would the prophets, apostles, and church fathers say in this time? Specifically, we should look at the early church. After all, Pentecostal/Charismatic Christianity is primarily about revival – an attempt at recovering the Christianity of the apostolic age.

If one simply looks to the New Testament, there is an abundance of evidence in favor of pacifism. It was back to the New Testament that the early Pentecostals looked, and many of the great Christian pacifists of recent history did the same (e.g. Leo Tolstoy, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day).

Take a look, for example, at the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  Matthew 5:9 says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” It is from this verse that the term pacifism derives. In Latin, the term for “peacemaker” is pacifici. People often think that pacifism means to be passive, but in reality it is active. Pacifism is the action of making peace and doing justice. Likewise, another commonly used term is “nonresistance”, which is also taken directly from the Sermon on the Mount – “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” (Matthew 5:39). Historically, the term “nonresistance” also referred to active peacemaking (for instance, look up the New England Non-Resistance Society which pushed against slavery and racism in the US).

The Sermon on the Mount also states:

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 (Matthew 5:43-44)

In addition to these statements from Matthew’s Gospel, there are many similar statements from elsewhere in the New Testament.

Paul repeats the teaching that we should “love our neighbors as ourselves” on multiple occasions (Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14). He also teaches us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and to overcome evil with good (Rom. 12:14-21). James tells us love our neighbors as ourselves (James 2:8). John tells us that whoever loves is from God and knows God (1 John 4:7). Peter tells us to love earnestly for love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). 

I think in terms of the New Testament, the message is clear, and I simply do not understand those who think that violence is at all compatible with the New Testament teaching. Over and over again, the New Testament urges Christians to love. This sometimes refers to love within the church communities, but it also refers to love of our enemies. Simply put, we cannot love our enemies and try to do harm towards them in the name of national defense (or national offense).

This was the stance of the early church until about the time of Saint Augustine. He was the first major Christian theologian to discuss the concept of a “just war,” and he lived in a time when the Roman Empire was becoming a “Christian empire”. However, even Augustine strongly advocated for peace and love, and almost no war has ever met the conditions of a just war.

The church fathers for the first few centuries were consistent on this issue. Here are some examples:

The Didache, Chapter 1: The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you.

Justin Martyr: We who formerly murdered one another now refrain from making war even upon our enemies. (Ante-Nicene Fathers 1.176)

Athenagoras: We have learned not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder or rob us. Instead, even to those who strike us on the side of the face, we offer the other side also. (ANF 2.129)

Clement of Alexandria: Christians are not allowed to use violence to correct the delinquencies of sins. (ANF 2.581)

Tertullian: The Christian does no harm even to his enemy. (ANF 3.51)

Tertullian: The practice of the old law was to avenge itself by the vengeance of the sword. It was to pluck out “eye for eye”, and to inflict retaliatory revenge for injury. However, the practice of the new law points to clemency. (ANF 3.154)

Origen: We revile no one, for we believe that revilers will not inherit the kingdom of God. And we read, Bless them that curse you; bless, and curse not; also, Being reviled, we bless. (ANF 4.654)

Cyprian: Even our enemies are to be loved. (ANF 5.546)

Theonas of Alexandria: Do no one an injury at any time, and provoke no one to anger. If an injury is done to you, look to Jesus Christ; and even as you desire that He may remit your transgressions, do you also forgive them theirs; and then also shall you do away with all ill-will, and bruise the head of that ancient serpent. (ANF 6.161)

Ambrose: It is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it. We would rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. (ANF 6.415)

There are many more instances such as the above. Some of them are mentioned in my previous article on the subject. A Google search reveals many more, and I strongly recommend looking through the collected writings of the church fathers.

The early church – the church of the apostles and their disciples – was pacifistic. Even when a slight tolerance for violence emerged a few centuries later, there were strict limitations on it through the just war doctrine. However, Jesus’ urging for us to be peacemakers still stands, and the Church constantly needs reminded that we are called to follow His example of self-sacrificing love and charity.

Rev. Kevin R. Daugherty is an Elder (Priest) in the Convergent Christian Communion, Abbot for Kindling Fires: A New Monastic Order, and works as a clerk in Elizabeth, PA. 

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Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please become a member!

One thought on “Was the Early Church Really Pacifist?”

  1. The early Christian opposition to violence in any form is well outlined by Rob Arner in Consistently Pro-Life: The Ethics of Bloodshed in Ancient Christianity (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/160608612X/quakerinfocom-20)

    An extensive listing of source material from early Christian documents was compiled by Ron Sider in The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0801036305/quakerinfocom-2)

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