The earliest Christians embraced Jesus’ message of peace. Indeed, up until the time of Constantine the early church taught that Jesus forbade his followers to kill. The most profound theological foundation for this conviction was the cross – that Christians should love, not kill, their enemies, as Jesus had shown them. Miroslav Volf is right: “If one decides to put on soldier’s gear instead of carrying one’s cross, one should not seek legitimation in the religion that worships the crucified Messiah.”

Even so, when Jesus commanded his disciples to love their enemies, did he mean that they should never kill them? Did Jesus literally want his disciples to put down their swords?

One may conclude with Reinhold Niebuhr that Jesus said to love one’s enemy, but that it does not work in the real world. One may also note the obvious, with C. S. Lewis: “Does anyone suppose that our Lord’s hearers understood him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim?” and with that, discount pacifism altogether. Yet Jesus’ command remains: Christians are to love their enemies. What does this mean?

For two thousand years, Christians have sought – more or less seriously – to grapple with this question. What can we learn from the history of the church? Could Jesus have really intended his followers to lay down their arms?

The Early Church

Scholars have long offered contradictory views about early Christian perspectives on killing. In my research for what became The Early Church on Killing, I compiled all the existing literary and archeological sources, which make it possible to see the record with much greater precision.

For example, no extant Christian text from before Constantine says military service is ever legitimate. Numerous treatises state explicitly that killing is wrong, others that Christians should not join the military; Jesus’ teaching to love one’s enemy is connected to Christians’ being peaceful, ignorant of war, opposed to attacking others. The passage in Isaiah about swords being beaten into ploughshares recurs frequently.

What can we learn from the history of the church? Could Jesus have really intended his followers to lay down their arms?

On the question of the sword, every writer who mentions the subject takes the same position. No early Christian writer stated the absolute prohibition of killing more firmly than Lactantius in the third century. The Divine Institutes, a brilliant defense of Christian faith in superb Ciceronian Latin, condemns every kind of killing: abortion, infanticide, capital punishment, gladiatorial contests, war. “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 things which are esteemed lawful among people.” But more than condemning violence, the first Christians cared for abandoned babies, those in prison, and the destitute.

Though by the later third century there is evidence that some Christians were serving in the Roman army – the disconnect between teaching and action recurs throughout church history, as a glance at the divorce rate will show – the message in all remaining Christian writings of the era is clear. Killing is always wrong for Christians.

Paul Klee, New Harmony, detail (Image public domain)

The Constantinian Shift

When the Roman emperor Constantine placed the chi rho symbol on his soldiers’ shields before a decisive military victory in 312 AD and a year later legalized their religion, Christians entered a dramatically new period. Since some of his rivals favored continued persecution, it is hardly surprising that Christians cheered Constantine’s military victories as well as his political ones, or that many joined his army. Within a hundred years, only Christians could serve in the Roman army.

In the years after Constantine, leading Christian theologians – especially Ambrose (ca. 340–397), bishop of Milan, and Augustine (354–430), bishop of Hippo in North Africa – developed the basic framework of the just war tradition. Borrowing from Cicero, Augustine wrote that war may be justified only if it cannot be avoided in defense of the state, and its end is peace and justice, not revenge. War itself must be conducted justly. In subsequent centuries, Christian thinkers refined and developed just war criteria, considering both when it might be just to go to war (jus ad bellum) and what constitutes right conduct in war (jus in bello). From the fifth century to the present, the just war tradition has shaped many Christians’ understanding.

During the Middle Ages, such Christian theologians and leaders as Thomas Aquinas made arguments to reduce war. Some sought to greatly expand the categories of people exempt from attack, others to limit the times when military campaigns could be conducted (not on Sunday). But the church itself launched the Crusades as holy wars willed by Christ to capture and free the Holy Land from centuries of Muslim control. Prominent church leaders summoned Christians to slaughter the infidels controlling the Holy Land.

Despite this, the pacifist tradition continued in the Middle Ages. A small but significant pacifist movement emerged in central Europe in the fifteenth century. After Jan Hus, the great Prague reformer, was burned at the stake in 1415, several streams of Hussite thought emerged. One, led by Petr Chelcicky, who rejected all killing on the basis of Jesus’ teaching, coalesced at mid-century as the Unitas Fratrum, (Unity of Brethren, now know as Moravians), a part of which was totally pacifist and survived into the sixteenth century and beyond.

The Reformation

The large Protestant traditions – Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican – affirmed and taught the just war tradition as Christian orthodoxy.

The Anabaptists, or Radical Reformers, disagreed. They insisted that the church should manage its own life free of interference from the state. They also taught that Christians serve a different kingdom, ruled by love, and are never to kill. The Anabaptists rejected two widely held institutions – the state or established church and the just war tradition. The result? Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Zwinglians, and Calvinists executed the new “heretics” by the hundreds, and the Anabaptists emigrated to places which tolerated their refusal to participate in war. They have especially flourished in North America where the Mennonites, originally from the Netherlands, are among the major denominations belonging to the “historic peace churches.”

The Quakers, or Religious Society of Friends, emerged toward the end of the English Civil War in the middle of the seventeenth century. Founder George Fox rejected the Constantinian union of church and state, iterating an early “peace testimony” and other private ethical and theological positions which would compel believing Friends to act toward moving the larger “Christian” society toward peace. For example, William Penn, the first governor of Pennsylvania, endeavored to establish peaceful, just relations with the Native Americans living in his colony. Quakers, who controlled the colony’s legislature, also refused to vote for military expenditures until 1756, when the French and Indian War was well underway. With great reluctance, the legislature voted for a bill that exempted Quakers from military service but funded the campaign. After this, the Quakers simply refused to run as candidates in the next election and non-pacifists took over the legislature. Through their American Friends Service Committee and other organizations, they continue to the present as an important pacifist voice in the United States and around the world.

Early Holiness and Pentecostal Denominations

Several evangelical denominations and a majority of Pentecostal denominations have embraced pacifism from their inceptions. For instance, the official Discipline of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection declared in 1844: “We believe the Gospel of Christ to be every way opposed to the practice of war.” Along with other groups that were also working to abolish slavery, the Wesleyan Methodists (now the Wesleyan Church) were pacifists. But when the Civil War broke out, their opposition to slavery led them to support the North.

Early in the twentieth century a number of articles in The Gospel Trumpet, the denominational paper of the Church of God (Anderson), clearly advocated pacifism. By the time of World War I, this group had officially registered with the US government, claiming exemption from the draft and involvement in war as “inconsistent with our religious stand.” By the end of the war, however, The Gospel Trumpet had softened its stand and many church members joined the army. By World War II, a majority of church members who were drafted joined the army.

More than condemning violence, the first Christians cared for abandoned babies, those in prison, and the destitute.

A similar story plays itself out among the Churches of Christ. Alexander Campbell, the most prominent leader among the Disciples of Christ in the first half of the nineteenth century, made it clear that he was an absolute pacifist. Later in the era the Churches of Christ were also ardent pacifists. During the American Civil War David Lipscomb, the editor of their paper, the Gospel Advocate, persisted in rejecting Christian participation in war, despite threats on his life. The Churches of Christ remained largely pacifist until 1917, when the government threatened the editors of its magazines with arrest.

From its beginning in the early twentieth century, the Assemblies of God, today’s largest Pentecostal denomination, occupied a strong pacifist position. Around the time the US entered World War I, in 1917, its General Council, citing a number of biblical statements, declared: “We cannot conscientiously participate in war and armed resistance which involves the actual destruction of human life, since this is contrary to our view of the clear teachings of the inspired Word of God which is the sole basis of our faith.” This was an official statement sent to President Wilson by the top leaders of the church and remained the official position of the Assemblies of God until 1967. Other Pentecostal denominations have maintained very strong pacifist positions.

Prominent Individuals in the Last Two Hundred Years

Dwight L. Moody was one of the most famous evangelists of the late nineteenth century. He founded the Moody Bible Institute, which today is a conservative school both theologically and socio-politically. During the Civil War, Moody was quite clear that his son “could not conscientiously enlist.” Moody himself said: “There has never been a time in my life when I felt I could take a gun and shoot down a fellow human being. In that respect I am a Quaker.”

Catherine Booth, cofounder of the Salvation Army, was a pacifist, as was Charles Haddon Spurgeon, one of the most popular preachers of mid-nineteenth century Britain. “I always mourn to find a Christian soldier, for it seems to me that when I take up Christ Jesus, I hear one of His laws: ‘I say unto you resist not evil. Put up your sword into its sheath.’”

“We cannot conscientiously participate in war and armed resistance which involves the actual destruction of human life.”

Today, there are scholars like Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most influential Christian ethicists of the last forty years, and others who argue a strong pacifist position. Of course, there are many other famous contemporary Christian pacifists: Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara of Brazil, and Nobel Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel of Argentina. In his speech before the US Congress on September 24, 2015, Pope Francis mentioned four “great Americans.” Two were Catholic pacifists: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.

Growing Catholic Affirmation

The Catholic Church’s attitude toward pacifism has changed substantially since World War II. In World War II, Catholic officials considered pacifism morally unacceptable. But in the 1960s, the pope and bishops endorsed pacifism as an equally valid Catholic stance alongside the just war position. In 1965, the encyclical Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, called for legal protection for conscientious objectors. “We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights.”

There had been prominent Catholic pacifists like Dorothy Day, but Gaudium et Spes recognized the legitimacy of pacifism at the highest level of the Catholic Church. As a result, in 1983 in their pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace, the US Catholic bishops recognized the validity of two Catholic positions on war: “While the just war teaching has clearly been in possession for the past 1,500 years of Catholic thought, the ‘new moment’ in which we find ourselves sees the just-war teaching and nonviolence as distinct but interdependent methods of evaluating warfare. . . . They share a common presumption against the use of force as means of settling disputes.” The importance of this statement is underlined by the fact that it acknowledges the pacifism of the early church and modern pacifists like Day and King.

In his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II underlined the point that Catholics need to take nonviolence more seriously. He noted that the defeat of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 “was accomplished almost everywhere by means of peaceful protest,” and marveled that the division of Europe into communist and democratic nations had been “overcome by the nonviolent commitment of people who, while always refusing to yield to the force of power, succeeded time after time in finding effective ways of bearing witness to the truth.” He concluded: “I pray that this example will prevail in other places and other circumstances. May people learn to fight for justice without violence.”

Today’s Challenge

Clearly contemporary Catholic teaching, including the teaching of historic peace churches, encourages nonviolent methods in situations of conflict. This is important, because Christ’s love compels action. Just-war Christians like Lewis are surely correct that if there are only two options – to kill or do nothing to defend neighbors –­ Jesus does not want us to step aside and watch an aggressor brutalize others.

But this is not the kind of pacifism we read about in church history. There is a third possibility: to oppose evil nonviolently. Nonviolent resistance to injustice, tyranny, and brutal dictatorship has had many astonishing successes. Gandhi’s nonviolence defeated the British Empire. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent civil rights movement changed American history. Solidarity’s nonviolent campaign defied and conquered the Polish communist dictatorship. In Why Civil Resistance Works, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan examine 323 major armed and unarmed insurrections from 1900 to 2006 and report an amazing result: “Nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.”

What, then, would happen if Christians in the US (or the whole world) refused to kill? Evil people would likely kill many millions. Christians would suffer a huge loss of possessions. But the path of killing also has enormous costs. Eighty-six million people died in wars just between 1900 and 1989.

If Christians truly loved their enemies, and refused to kill, I believe that fewer people would die from violence in the next hundred years than in the past century. And sometimes nonviolent resistance would be stunningly successful. We know how courageous nonviolent resistance can move the hearts of hardened soldiers. When a million Filipino citizens dared to stand in front of the tanks sent by the ruthless dictator President Marcos to crush them, the soldiers hesitated. As one eyewitness reported: “The soldiers did not have the heart to pull the triggers on civilians armed only with their convictions.” Praying nuns and unarmed civilians conquered a vicious dictator.

Not always, of course. We dare not forget the Tiananmen Square massacre in China in 1989. There would be terrible suffering and many deaths.

The question is whether Christians will choose to follow the way of Christ rather than to kill our enemies. Millions of Christians might suffer and die, but more millions of astonished observers might decide to embrace Christ, just as they did in the earliest years of the church. I even dare to expect that fewer people would die than if we continue on the path of violent defense. That expectation, of course, is grounded in hope. But this hope, indeed, is what disciples of Christ ultimately stake our lives upon.