We don’t know, what we don’t know.
That’s not an indictment or a judgment. It’s an admission. Especially when it comes to our 21st century knowledge and understanding of early Christian views on how Christians ought to deal with violence.
In my last post, I began to answer the question, “Should we arm our churches?” I drew specifically upon the many words of Jesus throughout the Gospels and from the words of Paul in his letters to the Church.
While one may believe that the words of Jesus, upon whom all of Christianity is supposedly built, are sufficient in answering any and all questions that have anything to do with how a Christian ought to relate to an enemy, and then how a Christian ought to respond to violence, this is certainly not the case.
While there is a mountain of evidence, straight from the mouth of Jesus, that anyone who follows him ought to- love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, not repay evil with evil, not resist an evil doer, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, give the shirt off of our back, not avenge ourselves, bless those who curse us, give food to your enemies, and pray for those who persecute us, there are still Christians who go to extraordinary lengths to nuance the words of Jesus or make well-intentioned excuses as to why the way of Jesus is not relevant, or applicable, to the 21st century Christian.
Well, that was Jesus and we are not Jesus.
Well, that was Jesus’ special calling that was specific to him.
Well, we live in a fallen world with fallen people and Jesus didn’t mean all of that for us.
Well, you are trying to make Jesus a hippy.
Well, as a Christian we have a responsibility to protect people.
Well, Jesus told his disciples to buy swords so he advocates violence.
I have to say that it is amazing and surprising to me all of the beliefs Christians stand firm upon as non-negotiables with barely a mention by Jesus, but how casual and flippant so many Christians become when dismissing or nuancing Jesus’ words on enemy-love and non-violence, despite mountains of direct and unequivocal words from Jesus.
So in attempt to take another step in making the case for followers of Jesus, that Jesus did, indeed, mean that we ought to love our enemies to the point that it would mean our lives, I will address specifically the “two swords” when Jesus was arrested and then I will overwhelm you with quotes from the early church fathers on how they viewed enemies and Christian retaliation to evil.
I said it in the previous post, but it seems either people didn’t read my post, or they purposefully ignored what I wrote, but Jesus did not tell his disciples to get swords for the sake of self-defense or for any sort of violence. The passage in Luke 22 tells the exact reason that he had them get swords. Read it below. It was for the sake of fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah that he would be numbered among transgressors, or law-breakers.
He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”
The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That’s enough!” he replied.
Were two swords enough to take on the temple guards who were heavily armed and protected with body armor? It is a ludicrous assertion. If you are going to mount a serious defensive against the temple guard, you better bring more than two daggers. Seriously. Beyond that when Peter used the dagger to cut the ear of one of the guards, Jesus rebuked him and told him to put it away. Jesus then subsequently healed the temple guards ear.
Please do not use this as an example for violence, retaliation, or self-defense, because it falls flat.
So to the early church fathers and I will end with this. Considering that Jesus died around 30 AD, the early church began to organize after his resurrection, and the first Gospels were written approximately between 50-90 AD, one ought to be able to look at the words of those in the second and third centuries to get a clear idea of how they interpreted Jesus’ words. What we find is that the early church was as radical in their non-resistance to evil as Jesus. In fact, that was the belief and disposition of the early church until Christianity was politicized and militarized by Constantine in the early 4th century and then through the opinions of Augustine of Hippo, who introduced Just War Theory in the 5th century. That does not mean that there could not have been earlier smaller, rogue movements within the church who advocated for Christian’s to pick up the sword, but it absolutely was not the norm as you will find in the quotes below.
Keep in mind that these are the words of the leaders of the earliest churches that formed out of the Great Commission by the disciples of Jesus.
Teachings of Twelve Apostles
“This is the way of life: first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, secondly, thy neighbor as thyself: and all things whatsoever thou wouldest not should happen to thee, do not thou to another. The teaching of these words is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast on behalf of those who persecute you: for what thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you? Do not the Gentiles also do the same? But love ye those who hate you, and ye shall not have an enemy.”
100AD – 165AD
“We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”
“We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.”
“We used to be filled with war, now all of us [Christians] have, throughout the whole earth, changed our warlike weapons. We have changed our swords into plowshares, and our spears into farming implements.”
“We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.”
“The devil is the author of all war.”
“We, who used to kill one another, do not make war on our enemies. We refuse to tell lies or deceive our inquisitors; we prefer to die acknowledging Christ.”
133AD – 190AD
“We Christians cannot endure to see a man being put to death, even justly.”
“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.”
St. Ignatius, Disciple of John
35AD – 110AD
“Take heed, then, often to come together to give thanks to God, and show forth His praise. For when ye assemble frequently in the same place, the powers of Satan are destroyed, and the destruction at which he aims is prevented by the unity of your faith. Nothing is more precious than peace, by which all war, both in heaven and earth, is brought to an end.”
“It is the Christians, O Emperor, who have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God…. They show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies. This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.”
“Christians appeal to those who wrong them and make them friendly to themselves; they are eager to do good to their enemies; they are mild and conciliatory.”
Clemente of Alexandria
150AD – 214AD
“The Christian poor are ‘an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.’”
“Above all Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings.”
“We Christians are a peaceful race…for it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.”
“If you enroll as one of God’s people, then heaven is your country and God your lawgiver.”
“It is not in war, but in peace, that we have been trained.”
“An enemy must be aided, so that he may not continue as an enemy. For by help, good feeling is compacted and enmity dissolved.”
2nd Epistle of Clement, who was ordained by Peter
“For the Gentiles, hearing from our mouth the words of God, are impressed by their beauty and greatness: then, learning that our works are not worthy of the things we say, they turn to railing, saying that it is some deceitful tale. For when they hear from us that God says: ‘No thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you; but thanks will be due to you, if ye love your enemies and those that hate you’—when they hear this, they are impressed by the overplus of goodness: but when they see that we do not love, not only those who hate us, but even those who love us, they laugh at us, and the Name is blasphemed.’”
Tertullian, who knew Polycarp, another Disciple of John
160AD – 220AD
“It is absolutely forbidden to repay evil with evil.”
“The Christian does not hurt even his enemy.”
“If, then, we are commanded to love our enemies, whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become just as bad ourselves. Who can suffer injury at our hands?”
“Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.”
“The Christian does no harm even to his enemy.”
“Under no circumstances should a true Christian draw the sword.”
“We willingly yield ourselves to the sword. So what wars would we not be both fit and eager to participate in, if in our religion it were not counted better to be slain than to slay?”
“God put His prohibition on every sort of man-killing by that one inclusive commandment, ‘You shall not kill.’”
“For what war should we not be fit and eager, even though unequal in numbers, we who are so willing to be slaughtered—if, according to that discipline of ours, it was not more lawful to be slain than to slay?”
“Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”
“But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts.”
“Learn about the incorruptible King, and know his heroes who never inflict slaughter on the peoples.”
“How often you [legal authorities] inflict gross cruelties on Christians….Yet, banded together as we are, ever so ready to sacrifice our lives, what single case of revenge for injury are you able to point to?”
“But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts—for there is no agreement between the divine sacrament and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters—God and Caesar. But how will a Christian engage in war? indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime without the sword, which the Lord has taken away?”
“How will a Christian man participate in war? It is true that soldiers came to John [the Baptist] and received the instructions for conduct. It is true also that a centurion believed. Nevertheless, the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”
“Is it lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword will perish by the sword? Will the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? Will he who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs, apply the chain, the prison, the torture, and the punishment.”
“Shall we carry a flag? It is a rival to Christ.”
“The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.”
“A soldier, being inferior in rank to God, must not kill anyone. If ordered to, he must not carry out the order, nor may he take an oath (sacramentum) to do so. If he does not accept this, let him be dismissed from the church. Anyone bearing the power of the sword, or any city magistrate, who wears purple, let him cease from wearing it at once or be dismissed from the church. Any catechumen or believer who wishes to become a soldier must be dismissed from the church because they have despised God.”
“A person who has accepted the power of killing, or a soldier, may never be received [into the church] at all.”
Irenaeus, who knew Polycarp, another Disciple of John
“Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not now how to fight.”
“[Christians] formed their swords and war-lances into plowshares, that is into instruments used for peaceful purposes. So now, they are unaccustomed to fighting. When they are struck, they offer also the other cheek.”
185AD – 254AD
“We have become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”
“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 strangers to the covenants.”
“We have cut down our hostile, insolent, and wearisome swords into plowshares. We have converted into pruning hooks the spears that were formerly used in war. For we no longer take up ‘sword against nation,’ nor do we ‘learn war anymore.’ That is because we have become children of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our Leader.”
“You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.”
“Christ nowhere teaches that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to anyone, no matter how wicked. For He did not consider it to be in accord with His laws to allow the killing of any individual whomever. For [Christian] laws do not allow them on any occasion to resist their persecutors, even when it was their fate to be slain as sheep.”
“We have come in accordance with the counsel of Jesus to cut down our arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take swords against a nation, nor do we learn anymore to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our Lord.”
“Our prayers defeat all demons who stir up war. In this way, we are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them. So none fight better for the king than we do. Indeed, we do not fight under him even if he demands it. Yet, we fight on his behalf, forming a special army, an army of godliness, by offering our prayers to God.”
Theophilus of Antioch
“Say to those that hate and curse you, You are our brothers!”
Epistle of Mathetes
“Christians ‘love all people, and are persecuted by all; they are reviled, and they bless they are insulted, and are respectful.’”
200AD – 258AD
“Murder, considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.”
“[Christians] are not allowed to kill, but they must be ready to be put to death themselves, it is not permitted the guiltless to put even the guilty to death.”
“The hand must not be spotted with the sword and blood-not after the Eucharist is carried in it.”
“God wished iron to be used for the cultivation of the earth, and therefore it should not be used to take human life.”
“Wars are scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood. And murder, which is admitted to be a crime in the case of an individual is called a virtue when it, is committed wholescale.”
240AD – 320AD
“For when God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but he warns us against the commission of those beings which are esteemed lawful among men. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all, but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.”
“[The Christian] considers it unlawful not only to commit slaughter himself, but to be present with those who do it.”
“How can a man be just who hates, who despoils, who puts to death? Yet, those who strive to be serviceable to their country do all these things.”
St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage
“None of us offers resistance when he is seized, or avenges himself for your unjust violence, although our people are numerous and plentiful. It is not lawful for us to hate, and so we please God more when we render no requital for injury. We repay your hatred with kindness.”
Athanasius of Alexandria
293AD – 373AD
“Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
Mercellus the Centurion
As he left the army during the reign of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD
“I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors…It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.”
“I threw down my arms for it was not seemly that a Christian man, who renders military service to the Lord Christ, should render it by earthly injuries.”
“It is not lawful for a Christian to bear arms for any earthly consideration.”
Martin of Tours
315AD – 397AD
“Hitherto I have served you as a soldier; allow me now to become a soldier to God. Let the man who is to serve you receive your donative. I am a soldier of Christ. It is not permissible for me to fight.”
“The soldiers of Christ require neither arms nor spears of iron.”
“The servants of God do not rely for their protection on material defenses but on the divine Providence.”
“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.”
St. John Chrysostom
347AD – 407AD
“I am a Christian. He who answers thus has declared everything at once- his country, profession, family. The believer belongs to no city on earth but to the heavenly Jerusalem.”
Peace and love,