In a post I made a few months ago I mentioned that I would eventually be looking at: “Mainstream Christianity’s move away from pacifism.” Unfortunately, this was a poor choice of wording, because mainstream Christianity has never fully embraced pacifism since the apostolic period prior to Constantine’s acquisition of Christianity. In this post, I want to look at the history of pacifism during the first three centuries of the Church. Then I would also like to explore how several groups over the last several centuries have embraced pacifism and then moved away from this theological conviction.
The Anabaptists were restorationists, meaning that they desired to restore the Church to its original status during the First-Century-Apostolic era. Many believed that both Roman Catholics and Protestants had led the church to a significantly different place than its founding. When we look at the words of several early church leaders, we discover that regarding the topic of pacifism, the Church certainly did progress in an unhelpful direction.
Looking first at Tertullian (circa Second–Third Century CE), we realize that military service was not acceptable for two primary reasons (1) killing was oppositional to the gospel; and (2) military service involved a from of idolatry by making commitment and offerings to pagan religion. Tertullian writes about this in a few different documents, but the Chaplet, chs. XI–XV address this topic very well.
We can also gain some insight from Hippolytus (circa Second–Third Century CE), an early bishop of Rome who is credited with indicating that a military man should not be allowed to be a member of the church – some translations indicate that this person should be rejected baptism because this concept is interconnected (The Apostolic Tradition, ch. 16, v. 9). In this list, we find Hippolytus describing a military man not being allowed to be a member if he executes people or takes a military oath. Interestingly, both of these pieces would have been an expected reality of the job for a soldier. Essentially, Hippolytus was excluding military personnel from church membership.
During the Fourth Century CE, the Roman emperor Constantine issued a decree making Christianity the official religion of the state. Finally, Christianity was no longer illegal and people would not be persecuted for their Christian faith. However, it was during this time that Constantine actually created a bizarre syncretism of Christianity and Roman state religion. The Church had become intertwined with the structure that once persecuted it. Since Constantine and other Roman emperors had nations to manage, they could not (nor did they want to) embrace the original nonviolence perspectives held by the early Church leaders. Christianity went from being a nonviolent faith network to a military-led organization.
Moving forward several centuries, we find that the Church had become rather corrupt as a result of state influence. The Christian armies of Europe waged war on non-Christians in the Middle East during the multiple crusades. The Church led several inquisitions to persecute and convert non-Christians. The bishops and leaders of the Church took advantage of their parishioners financially through indulgences. As you can see, a Church run by the government or a government run by Church (depending on how you look at these scenarios) causes great challenges for the gospel. Essentially, the gospel was compromised for political agendas.
Throughout more recent history, we have seen several movements gravitate towards a nonviolent understanding of following Jesus. There were groups such as the Anabaptists, the Quakers, and the Moravians, who all embraced nonviolence. Additionally, there was a large group of churches that were formed during various revival movements (Holiness, Pentecostalism, and Restorationism) that practiced nonviolence. These groups included: Assemblies of God, Church of God (Anderson, IN and Findlay, OH [the church in which I grew up]), Church of the Nazarene, Disciples of Christ/Christian Church/Churches of Christ, the Salvation Army, and the Wesleyan Church. There are other groups that held the view of nonviolence, but this is just to name a few. When you look at the doctrinal statements of these previously mentioned churches today you will notice that none of them take a position favoring nonviolence. So… what happened? Well, the two World Wars happened. It was during these several decades in the 20th Century that these churches began to evolve – each in their own manners. The members of these churches were being conscripted for military service in one of the darkest eras of global history. Many people have a hard time arguing with the necessity of stopping World War II. The crimes committed by the Axis powers were heinous and incredibly grievous. This reality led to the acceptance of military service for these groups.
So what does all of this mean now? It means a lot of things. Primarily, it means that nonviolence is the minority view in the global Church. However, that does not mean it is irrelevant for today’s world. Modern generations are becoming more disillusioned with global militarism and more committed to peaceful reconciliation. I believe that now, at this point in history, Christian nonviolence might have significant relevance for a generation that has grown up in perpetual global warfare. Personally, I believe that we have an opportunity to not solely return to the early Anabaptist ideals of nonviolence, but actually look to our foundations in the first three centuries of the Church. We have an opportunity to rewrite history and reclaim a significant part of theological identity as Christians.