Were the early Christians pacifists?

by Jimmy Akin

in Apologetics, Bible, Church Fathers, History, Moral Theology

Men who came to Jesus: The Roman SoldierThere is a persistent claim that the early Christians were pacifists—in the strong sense of being opposed to all use of violence—and that it was not until the time of the Emperor Constantine that this began to change.

After Christianity became the official religion of the empire, the Church embraced the use of military force, with St. Augustine playing the part of the enabling villain, who came up with the idea of the just war.

This story plays with well-worn tropes: the fall from original innocence into corruption, the idea that Constantine corrupted the Church, that the Christianization of the empire was a bad thing, etc.

You may notice that these same tropes are often used in anti-Catholic apologetics stemming from the Protestant Reformation. That’s not surprising, since these tropes were needed to justify separation from the Church at the time of the Reformation.

It’s also not surprising that, relying on these same tropes, the denominations that historically have been strongly pacifistic stemmed from the Protestant community.

Most Protestants, of course, are not pacifists and recognize the legitimate use of military force, and there is a good reason for that: Protestants are the majority in many countries, just as Catholics are in others, and so they have been confronted with the task of ensuring the safety of their nations.

No nation can be safe if it is unwilling to use military force to defend itself. If, in the present, fallen state of the world, a nation were to suddenly renounce the use of military force and beat its swords into ploughshares, it would suffer a dire fate.


  • It would be conquered by its external enemies,
  • Its internal, criminal element would overrun it and turn it into a failed state,
  • Its more sensible-minded citizens would stage a coup and re-establish a government willing to use force to defend the nation, or
  • It would depend for its defense on another country that is less scrupulous about the use of force, making its safety and freedom dependent on the whims of that foreign state.

Any way you go, pacifism is not a stable, self-sustaining enterprise. It’s a dangerous world out there, and pacifists depend for their safety and security on the generosity and good will of non-pacifists.

Prior to the Christianization of the Roman empire, many Christians were not faced with the responsibility of defending the public and ensuring public order. As a result, some authors of this period had the luxury of entertaining pacifistic ideals without having to worry about keeping people safe.

But were they all in this condition? What about those Christians who were in the military?

What about the era of the New Testament itself? What attitude toward military service did it take?

Is the idea of a uniformly pacifist early Church accurate? Or does it distort what actually happened?

Here’s a video in which I take on the subject.

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Sam November 18, 2014 at 7:48 pm

Aken commits the error of equating Jesus’ teachings and Christianity with the state. The state is irrelevant to Jesus. Obedience to His teachings was His command, not to Caesar. The two are incompatible.

Bill912 November 19, 2014 at 10:03 am

Please cite an example of this “error”.

Doug Pearson November 19, 2014 at 10:13 am

Luke 22:36… Jesus himself tells the Apostles to purchase a sword, I think we can presume that Jesus was ok with self defense.

Chuck November 19, 2014 at 5:12 pm

That’s quite a leap you are making, Doug. A fundamentalist reading of the text, if you will.

Jacob S November 19, 2014 at 5:58 pm

It’s fundamentalist and quiet a leap to assume that Jesus was ok with the Apostles having and using what He told them to buy? I mean, I suppose He could have intended for it to be a wall decoration.

Of course, “buy a sword” could have been figurative, and maybe it was, but if it was figurative AND if Jesus was opposed to the use of swords in principle, then when the apostles literally bought a sword, He wouldn’t have said “it is enough,” but rather “get rid of that thing, bozo, I meant it figuratively.”

Bill912 November 19, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Please explain how it is Doug who is making the leap?

Chuck November 20, 2014 at 2:19 pm

At what point did the disciples practice self-defense in the gospels? At what point did they actually use swords to fight the powers that killed their leader? At what point did any Apostle take up arms or sound a call to arms against their oppressors?

To use that text as an argument against pacifism fails to consider the wider context, a trick that fundamentalists use. There are far better arguments in opposition to pacifism than that text. It’s pretty weak in fact given that there is no evidence of any call to arms by the disciples.

Bill912 November 20, 2014 at 2:27 pm

I’m still not getting how your questions in response to a question show how Doug is making a leap and not you.

Kenneth Heck November 19, 2014 at 6:28 am

This is a confusing question. Priests and religious (monks and nuns) should never resort to arms but be willing to sacrifice their lives for their faith. The rest of the congregation has the obligation to survive in any way approved by the Church, including taking up arms. For the early Christians, the distinction between the clergy, religious and laity wasn’t as settled as it is today, so they may have left the impression that they were all pacifists. However, remember Luke 22:36 where Christ told the apostles to buy a sword if they had none. Also there was no condemnation for Peter cutting off the right ear of the high priest’s servant (Luke 22: 50).

EFPynn November 19, 2014 at 12:28 pm

Monks carried knives.

Rule of St. Benedict 22:6

EFPynn November 19, 2014 at 12:30 pm

Rule Ch. 22:5

Chuck November 19, 2014 at 5:13 pm

Because there was no condemnation? He picked the ear up and put it back on! Another mistaken exegetical leap.

Bill912 November 19, 2014 at 7:22 pm

“Another mistaken exegetical leap.” How so?

Chuck November 20, 2014 at 7:12 am

If you are using the text to posit that Jesus was not opposed to war, then you have indeed made an exegetical leap. The intent of the text is in no way related to this issue. It is proof-texting.

Bill912 November 20, 2014 at 7:41 am

Again, I’ll ask: HOW is this a “mistaken exegetical leap”?

Bill912 November 20, 2014 at 7:45 am

I didn’t see anyone “posit that Jesus was not opposed to war”; only the evil or insane are not opposed to war. Some have defended the Church’s teaching that there are times when force may be used in legitimate defense of one’s self or another.

lelnet November 19, 2014 at 6:36 am

Now if only our Bishops could remember this, from time to time…

kelso November 19, 2014 at 7:25 am

Excellent and concise. Right to the point. So many martyrs were serving in the Roman armies in the early Church. They, of course, would be committing grave sin, were they to participate in an unjust war of aggression and conquest. Therefore, did Saint Augustine deal with this very timely question. However, as far as I know, no pope made any decree on this subject prior to Constantine’s reign. I know Saint Ambrose confronted the Catholic emperor Theodosius for committing a slaughter (murder) against a people (whoever they were) that opposed him by some sort of treason. And he had to do penance. Afterwards, still, until the Crusades, I do not know of any papal decree. Mr. Akin, this is an important subject. I hope you can enlighten us more.

Rob B. November 19, 2014 at 10:15 am

The people you are referring to were the citizens of Thessalonica. Ambrose’s concern was that these people were slaughtered without any kind of effort to determine their guilt or innocence in that treason.

melanie statom November 19, 2014 at 8:35 am

” In a community of cannibalism, it is utterly difficult to raise the issue that cannibalism is contrary to the will of God. ” Emmanuel McCarthy, Center for Christian Nonviolence.

The nonviolent witness and response of Jesus Christ to evil in our fallen world necessarily remains an uncomfortable, troubling stumbling block for all Christians on this issue. If he truly is the visible image of the trinitarian mystery of God, he is “the Way” we must meet violence no matter how grave the circumstances. Who then can follow such a way? Only in, with and through him is such a way of nonviolence made possible.

Bill912 November 19, 2014 at 4:17 pm

Please explain Jesus’ use of force the two times he made a whip of cords and forcibly drove the buyers and sellers out of the temple.

Chuck November 19, 2014 at 5:14 pm

This is a tired argument. Was anyone killed while Jesus drove out the money changers?

Bill912 November 19, 2014 at 7:15 pm

What argument? I didn’t make one. I asked the poster to explain Jesus’ actions in light of her assertion that Christians must be pacifists.

Chuck November 20, 2014 at 7:10 am

The money changers episode is often used as an example that Jesus used violence himself and therefore could not have espoused pacifism. If that was not your implied intent in the question, then I apologize.

But in fact, that text has nothing to do with pacifism, for or against. For it to be used to bolster an argument either way is a misuse of the text. To those who would use it to provide an example of Jesus’ use of violence and therefore he could not have been a pacifist, I would simply say again, “Was anyone killed when Jesus entered the Temple?”

Bill912 November 20, 2014 at 7:37 am

“(T)hat text has nothing to do with pacifism.”

Pacifism is the philosophy that any use of force is wrong, not just deadly force. Jesus used force.

Chuck November 20, 2014 at 2:35 pm

Christian pacifism is the refusal to kill. Christian pacifists are not opposed to the use of some force (incarceration for instance) to protect society. Christian pacifists refuse to take another person’s life.

I will say this: If someone comes into my home and tries to harm my family, I will use any force that I can to prevent that from happening without killing them. I will, of course, not stand idly by and let them kill us all. I have no intent to kill. But if I kill someone in that process, I believe I have committed a mortal sin that requires The Sacrament of Reconciliation and penance. My intent, however, should never be to kill, but simply try to stop it. (To be sure, I believe that the just war theory took Augustine too far, but that’s another discussion)

But I have no gun, no weapon. I am not stockpiling weapons. I have not built a military industrial complex.

Christians, particularly in the U.S., are far too complicit in the militarization of the nation state. We have by and large written a blank check for our government to kill as it sees fit. We are forced to pay taxes to support the military industrial complex and barely a peep from the Church is heard in resistance. This is a grave sin when you consider that Jesus made it clear that we are to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. Do we just simply ignore these statements? Even using Walter Wink’s interpretation of ‘turn the other cheek’ ( Fr. Robert Barron makes reference to this in his Catholicism series too) the text is clearly a call to non-violent resistance.

Christian pacifism is a timely and much needed response to this circumstance. Christians must be a prophetic voice here.

Bill912 November 20, 2014 at 2:48 pm

“But if I kill someone in that process, I believe I have committed a mortal sin…”

You are incorrect. The Church teachers otherwise. “The act of self-defense can have a double-effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor….The one is intended, the other is not.” CCC #2263 (ellipses in original).

“Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:…’Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.'” CCC #2264.

Chuck November 21, 2014 at 5:10 am

This is certainly a point of departure for me and the teaching of the Church. I am aware of this. I cannot in any way see that the taking of another human’s life is not a danger to one’s soul.

The Sarge November 21, 2014 at 6:09 am

The Authority of the Church (to which Christ gave His Authority) is good enough for me.

Nick from Detroit November 21, 2014 at 3:27 pm

“This is a grave sin when you consider that Jesus made it clear that we are to love our enemies and turn the other cheek.”

You don’t get to decide what is a “grave sin,” or not. You may disagree with a teaching of the Church, but, in private, not publicly. It is up to you to find out why the Church teaches what She does. You may try consulting an orthodox priest. Or, the Catechism of the Catholic Church. God Bless!

Mike in KC, MO November 19, 2014 at 12:59 pm

It’s not just Protestants that push this. Pax Christi members push this ALL the time. I’ve run into some of them that declare that it is against the teaching of the Nonviolent Jesus (they always use that term, ‘Nonviolent Jesus’, not just Jesus, as if there was a hyper violent version of Him running around or something) to even defend yourself personally from unjust lethal attack.

Thank you for bringing some sanity to this.

Mike in KC, MO November 19, 2014 at 1:02 pm

“It would depend for its defense on another country that is less scrupulous about the use of force, making its safety and freedom dependent on the whims of that foreign state.”
– I would also note that by embracing THIS reason, the pacifist would simply be saying that they are actually totally cool with war and killing in self defense, so long as someone else does it for them.

Xavier Abraham November 19, 2014 at 1:23 pm

I’m convinced of the rationale of just war. Nevertheless, there are circumstances where pacifism, and not war, is the Christian response. One such instance would be the case where a civil war is waged. By St. Augustine’s just war theory, any civil war is unjust because it’s not a legitimate authority that declares war, in a civil war. Secondly, history has good examples of peaceful resistance to authorities, without resorting to war. So like there are cases where a war is justified, there are also cases where pacifism has to be the Christian response. They are two Christian approaches to particular societal situations, and not necessarily conflicting doctrines.

Malcolm November 19, 2014 at 2:01 pm

A logical comparison could be made between the right of self defense of an individual and of a nation.
If an attack was aimed at a Christian individual, a choice could be made rightfully to defend oneself or as means of perfection not to resist.

If the attack was aimed at a defenseless person a Christian would be duty bound to come to their aid. It would be a vice to ignore the attack done to our neighbor if we are able to defend him or her.

A government cannot be free with the right to defend its citizens from unjust aggression and is duty bound to defend its citizens. If it acts within the policies, within its law, no Christian could invoke their conscience to refuse to serve the State, it would be their duty to obey the laws of the State.

This brings to mind that we need to consider, have we done a disservice to our Christian brothers and sisters in Iraq and Syria.

Chuck November 19, 2014 at 4:59 pm

“Any way you go, pacifism is not a stable, self-sustaining enterprise. It’s a dangerous world out there, and pacifists depend for their safety and security on the generosity and good will of non-pacifists.”

Christian pacifism does not in any way depend on the good will or protection of ‘non-pacifists’. Christian pacifism is rooted in the life and witness of Jesus Christ, who rather than take up arms against his enemies, allowed them to put him to death. Christian pacifism is a witness to a different world, a kingdom of peace where the creatures of the kingdom dwell together in peace (Isaiah).

To frame this issue as a Catholic versus Protestant debate is not only an exercise in missing the point, it’s pretty tenuous given that pacifism is indeed a faithful Catholic option practiced by many of our Catholic witnesses from the earliest days of the Church to Dorothy Day and beyond.

Christian pacifism is not intended to be stable or self-sustaining. Again, it is a witness.

Your arguments are utilitarian and rooted more in the foundationalism of the nation-state. They also fail to take Jesus seriously when he said “Love your enemies.” Christian witness is never intended to be ‘effective’ or even ‘reasonable’…it is meant to point to something different, to be a light exposing the darkness of violence.

We also witness this ‘difference’ in our opposition to abortion or the death penalty, for surely one could argue that the more ‘reasonable’ or ‘sustainable’ approach is to eliminate an unwanted baby (particularly when its birth may create financial hardships) or execute a criminal. But we argue differently. We believe that Christ has called us to respect all life, even those who threaten our peace.

The narrower and much more difficult way, is to resist the spiral of violence. You make it sound like pacifists are passive and fearful. Ask the Christian Peacemaker Teams about that.

I challenge you to read John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus by, yes, a Protestant. Read that book, Mr. Aken, and tell me that pacifism is not a faithful witness to the gospel.

I do not in any way think that persons who support the Catholic ‘Just War’ theory are less faithful, but they do bear the burden of proof. Always, those who resort to or support violence bear the burden of proof. Besides, find me a war in the 20th Century that follows every tenet of the theory.

Nick from Detroit November 21, 2014 at 4:14 pm

Dorthy Day? When did she ever have to choose between violence and non-violence? She certainly didn’t choose non-violence when she chose to abort her baby.
You also confuse an individual choice (e.g., abortion, self-defense) with the duties and responsibilities of the state and its rulers (e.g., just war, capital punishment).
Of those, only abortion has been constantly condemned, because it is intrinsically evil, i.e., it can never, for any reason, be justified. Just war, capital punishment, and self-defense can be justified, in certain situations.
Also, why did Christ use the Roman army to destroy Jerusalem, in A.D. 70?

This is the problem that Christians who cling to leftwing ideologies always run into. Because they are actually materialists, they see poverty and death as the only true evils. But, as the Ten Commandments teach (along with Christ’s Two), there are worst things than death and being poor. There is a reason that the first three are about rejecting God. God is more important than life and livelihood. God Bless!

Chuck November 19, 2014 at 5:03 pm

I apologize for misspelling your name, Mr. Akin. :)

Jimmy Akin November 19, 2014 at 5:30 pm

No problem, Chuck! I’ve had worse. :-)

leftbehind November 20, 2014 at 5:24 am

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.” Luke 3:14

Carl Sommer November 20, 2014 at 7:16 am

Excellent post, Jimmy! Obviously, for Christians, force must be the last resort, and every effort must be made to resolve differences nonviolently, but there are circumstances where the Christian use of force is justified. One thinks of World War II, for example. Would it have been Christian to let the Nazis murder their way across
Europe without any resistance at all?

The Masked Chicken November 22, 2014 at 6:40 am

“Christian pacifism does not in any way depend on the good will or protection of ‘non-pacifists’. Christian pacifism is rooted in the life and witness of Jesus Christ, who rather than take up arms against his enemies, allowed them to put him to death. Christian pacifism is a witness to a different world, a kingdom of peace where the creatures of the kingdom dwell together in peace (Isaiah).”

There is a subtle sin of presumption in this argument. In fact, Jesus did not allow His enemies to simply put Him to death. His teaching ministry would have been rather short, if He had, wouldn’t it, seeing as how a crowd, early in His ministry, wanted to throw Him over a hill (Luke 4:30). In this case, Jesus, by an exercise if His Divine authority, turned and walked through the midst if them, untouched. Jesus, also, on occasion, fled His persecutors, as well. The point is that Jesus certainly acted to protect His own life until it was time for Him to die. Indeed, He said that no man takes His life from Him. In an abstract way, this is staring that it was impossible for anyone to harm Him, until it was a His time to die.

We do not get to act like this. This is, What Would Jesus Do, carried to the extreme. We are not Divine. We do not have the luxury of the Beatific Vision in this life. We cannot walk on water or pass through the midst of people who are trying to kill us. Jesus was not passive. He was utterly active and he used His activity to forestall death until the proper time. Jesus never let a man lay a hand on Him until His Passion. We cannot act, thusly. Clearly, we cannot exactly take Jesus as a model for how to deal with threatening behavior.

Even the Apostles, such as St. Paul, at least defended themselves, as in when Paul escaped over a city wall by bring lowered in a basket. Given that, we must try to understand how closely we, who are not God and do not know the time of our own end, can imitate Jesus. This is a matter for the Church to decide. The Church speaks for God and is charged with rightly interpreting Jesus’s message. If the Church says that self-defense is okay and the doctrine of Double Effect is sound, without a very compelling reason (which, still must be presented to the Church for discernment), one is obligated, by Faith, to accept that Jesus, likewise, assents to these teachings, otherwise, the Church would have erred and violated Jesus’s promise that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against it.

Even in Scripture, in Ecclesiastes 3, it says:

“1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: 2 a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 3 a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; 5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 6 a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; 7 a time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; 8 a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”

Jesus has not, to my knowledge, abrogated this passage of Scripture.

The Chicken

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