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The Early Church on Killing Part 2: How Did the Church Become so Violent?

This is part 2 of a 2 part series about violence and the early church. Read part 1 “What Did the Early Church Teach about Killing and War? here.

On March 12 , 295, Maximilian Victor was a 21 year-old follower of Jesus called to service in the Roman army. He refused to enter, saying, “I cannot serve as a soldier because I am a Christian. I must obey God before anyone else.” The military commanders threatened him with death, the penalty for refusing military service, but Maximilian held his ground. The following day he was executed. The church buried Maximilian next to Cyprian, the famous bishop and Martyr, as evidence that there was strong support for his action in the North African church.

The early church understood that following Jesus meant pursuing a daily life of justice, giving life rather than taking it, and building peace. They taught and followed the example of God on earth, as Jesus. Their focus was not doctrines, although they did develop, but they focused on living simple lives of active love for God and neighbours.

What Did the Early Church Teach about Refusing Violence and Killing?

Ignatius, an early church father and the Bishop of Corinth from 50 – 115 AD, wrote that Christians should not pursue revenge against those who attack them. Instead, they should imitate Christ, who responded to torture and crucifixion without lashing out. He suffered for His persecutors and prayed for His enemies. Ultimately the Creator God, as Jesus Christ on earth, forgave his own creation for killing Him.

Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna from 69 – 155 AD, instructed followers of Christ not to return evil for evil or scolding for scolding. Early church leaders taught the way of peace and overcoming evil with creative good (Romans 12:21). The church was to model this way of life and refuse to participate in the way of killing and death.

Justin, a Greek Christian teacher and martyr, who lived from 100 – 165 AD, argued that Christians must not make war against their enemies and that they shouldn’t lie or deceive others. He believed that war and deception was not in line with our example of how to live as God’s children, Jesus Christ.

In the second century, another teacher, Athenagorus, forbid Christians from attending gladiator games where contestants fought to the death. The common second century practices of abortion and infanticide were impossible for followers of Jesus Christ. Christians preserve life at all times, they never take it. In fact, modern orphanages and hospitals emerged from the Christian way of caring for the sick and orphaned.

Until the time of emperor Constantine in the third century, Christians were considered enemies of the Roman Empire. Their subversive commitment to Jesus over their commitment to following Roman authority sparked long periods of suffering and tremendous persecution for the church. But mostly they remained faithful to the teaching of Jesus.

The positive stance for life was a powerful form of witness that Jesus was creating a different way on earth. The church community was the model of that way and the early church was committed to creating peace and refusing military service and any killing. This stance prompted one Roman neighbour to declare that if all people follow the example of Christians, the Empire would fall. There would simply not be enough soldiers committed to kill or die for the empire to defend it. This is strong evidence that the church was very clear about their stance against taking life.


The Big Switch: How did the Church Become Nationalistic or Patriotic?

In 313 Emperor Constantine ended the systematic state persecution of the church. Shortly after, Christianity became the religion of the empire and all Romans became “Christians” by forceful declaration, not by individual choice. In the following centuries the church abandoned its earlier critique of military service and participation in killing.

Bishop Augustine of Hippo, who served from 354 – 430 AD, developed a theory which imagined special conditions where Christians could legitimately participate in war. His thinking planted the seed that grew into today’s “Just War Theory.” This theory spread far and wide, as if it was from Jesus (though it clearly wasn’t) and paved the way for the violent church of history and of today.

The Crusades

After the church aligned itself with violence for the state, the violent church became the tool of the state, rather than the tool of Christ. This opposed Paul’s teaching in Romans 6:13 when he describes early Christians as God’s “tools/weapons/instruments of righteousness, justice and peace.”

In 1095 Pope Urban II launched the first war of Christendom. “Christendom” is a label describing when Christianity partners with a state for the benefit of the king or the nation. Pope Urban II initiated the Christendom war known as the Crusades against Muslim Turks. The church lead the crusades believing that Christ commanded the extermination of this “vile enemy,” Islam.

This idea clearly goes against the teaching of Jesus Christ, but Christian political leaders were more interested in international power and control than the way of Jesus. They were used to promote state glory and power, not the good news about the Kingdom of Jesus on earth. They were used to promote the kingdom of Spain not Jesus’ lasting peace, justice and salvation for all people. Christian soldiers slaughtered thousands of Muslim and Jewish residents of Jerusalem in 1099.

In Europe

Likewise, European kings set out to conquer and colonize “New Worlds” using the symbol of the cross with the flag and the sword. They believed the cross gave legitimacy to their conquests. In some instances, the cross was used to justify the genocide of indigenous peoples (see The Doctrine of Discovery). In more recent history both church and state leaders have invoked the name of God to wage war against communism, terrorism and other revolutionary movements around the world. Looking to the early church, this was clearly outside of their understanding of the mission of God for the church.

What about Jesus? He was Killed for Public Opposition to Legitimate Roman and Jewish authorities?

The history of Christianity is very bloody and shameful. It is especially shameful when we remember that our leader, Jesus Christ, was leading a new “Kingdom” of people who love God and love others before anything else. But for those subversive actions, Jesus was killed by the Jewish and Roman authorities (Acts 3:15 – You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. Acts 2:23 – With the help of lawless gentiles, you put him to death by nailing him on the cross). The authorities saw Jesus’ rapidly growing movement of people acting with love for their neighbours and destabilizing social hierarchy as a threat to their power.

Since Jesus, Christians who follow his path of sacrificial-servant love for all people often becomes a threat to power when large groups of them choose to live the Jesus way. Their way of life is hope for the hopeless, but a threat to the injustice of the status quo.

The Philippines

The Philippines is one nation where European conquerors spread violent Christianity. The Filipino people are named after king Philip, after all. For 333 years, the Philippines was a colony of Spain and the church was a powerful governing institution. Filipinos were taught to fear the church and suffer injustice quietly “like Jesus” in order to gain salvation. They were pacified rather than empowered to pursue nonviolent justice, peace and salvation the way the early church did.

Throughout Philippines history, Philippine spirituality has continued with centralised power and elements of fear, hierarchy and an impersonal, distant God. It has been a mixture of beautiful rituals and memorized prayers, but also controlling leadership modeled after the leaders of the world. This history of the church in the Philippines, modeled after the global mixture of church and state, echoes all over the world. This model has greatly impacted today’s Filipino religion, spirituality and politics.

But, There is Good News…

A vision for Jesus’ way of peace was not completely lost. Over the centuries, the Holy Spirit drew many Christian movements back to the teaching of Christ and His radical loving way. They chose to be faithful to Jesus’ way of loving enemies and forgiving others while refusing to harm them, and living towards justice and salvation.

  • In 12th century France, a group of pacifist Christians emerged under the leadership of a man named Peter Waldo. They became known as the Wildensteins.
  • In thirteenth-century Italy, Francis of Assisi established a monastic order which became known as the Franciscans. Members of this order continue to commit themselves to lives of poverty, simplicity, and non-violence. The Franciscans were only one of many Catholic monastic orders who build peace as a virtue and vocation.
  • In the 17th century, a British, George Fox, and The Society of Friends (aka. Quakers) believed that all people possessed “the indwelling light” of God. Therefore it was wrong to take up arms against any other person.
  • During World War 1 a British Christian named Muriel Lester become an outspoken advocate of the poor and opponent of the war. She helped found the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a leading international peace organization.
  • In the 20th century, Martin Luther King Jr., an African-American Baptist Minister, and Dorothy Day, a white activist and Catholic, encouraged Americans to resist injustice, violence and oppression with suffering love.

Despite the church’s bloody history, the Spirit has continued to raise up men and women who have courageously witnessed to Jesus’ way of peace, justice and salvation.

Today in the Philippines, Peace Church Philippines exists to encourage the growing movement of Jesus followers and people exploring His way, to walk His path of peace with the love and power that He gives us through His Spirit.

That is my prayer, and our commitment as Peace Church Philippines. Contact us if you want to explore this path with us.

This is part 2 of a 2 part series about violence and the early church. Read part 1 “What Did the Early Church Teach about Killing and War? here.

Post Script: About the Philippines in January 2017

Today the president of the Philippines and much of the church approves and even encourages killing in the president’s “war on drugs”. Even though they believe this is best for the nation history and Jesus have shown us that killing never stops violence, it creates new violence and multiplies the damage of violence in the past. The way of Jesus is life, the way of evil is death. Hebrews 2 says that Jesus came and “broke the power of him who holds the power of death – that is the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death… I believe the church must refuse to affirm the use of death as a tool to force any kind of action.

I refuse to approve any form of destroying life including, but not limited to:

  1. Capital Punishment
  2. Police violence outside of the justice system
  3. Violence against indigenous people, especially as a tool in the conflict between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Communist Party of the Philippines – New People’s Army
  4. Violence at the hands of private militias
  5. Abortion

All forms of taking life are destruction of God’s creation and therefore outside of God’s will.

The psalmist wrote that, “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” – Psalms 24:1.

Therefore, violence against any person is violence against God. All people are all invited to be God’s children and as his child I refuse to destroy any of his creation.

The Evangelical church in the Philippines should not align itself with the political desire to approve capital punishment in the Philippines.

It goes against Jesus, our leader, who we know as “The author of life” – Acts 3:15.