We who preach the gospel must not think of ourselves as public relations agents sent to establish good will between Christ and the world. We must not imagine ourselves commissioned to make Christ acceptable to big business, the press, the world of sports or modern education. We are not diplomats but prophets, and our message is not a compromise but an ultimatum. A.W. Tozer
Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth. --Basil of Caesarea
Once you learn to discern, there's no going back. You will begin to spot the lie everywhere it appears.

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service. 1 Timothy 1:12

Monday, July 3, 2017

Early Church Views of Military Service

While there have been views promoted in the Church over the centuries both for and against military service, overall the attitude had been favorable — or at least not against it.  Several years ago I posted an article about war and killing, and you might look there for a good place to start on this topic.

The Religion Analysis Service puts out a quarterly apologetics letter, titled “The Discerner.”  The first issue this year (Vol.37/No.1) has a very good article about the teachings of early Christians and war, as they relate to the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and military service.  This current post is for highlighting early teachings of the Church as examined in “The Discerner.”

To begin with, I am going to heavily cite The Discerner’s article, Jehovah’s Witnesses, War, and Neutrality, Part 5, by Steve Lagoon, along with citations he provides from early Christian sources.  My intent is to demonstrate that military service in and of itself is not taught against by the Christian faith, nor is it against God to participate in military service.  Citations from Steve Lagoon will be in blue, while citations from early sources he cites will be in maroon.

As one would suspect, the actual picture of the early Christian view toward military service is much more complicated than the simplistic and misleading picture portrayed in Watchtower literature.

Certainly, there were many Christians in the early church that did indeed oppose military involvement.  However, their reasons for resisting military service were different from the Watchtower’s view, either because they were pacifists or because they rejected the idolatrous acts that were sometimes required of soldiers.

In neither of these cases is neutrality the issue, and in fact most Christians in the early church were patriotic toward the Roman Empire.

Further, despite the impression the Watchtower seeks to create, there were in fact many Christians in the early church who not only did not object to military service, but willingly served in the Roman military. . . . 

It will be most instructive to consider a fair and comprehensive summary of the early Christian view of military involvement by Church historian Louis Swift:
There were two sides to the issue.  The most vocal and the most articulate side was pacifist.  In this school Tertullian, Origen, and the early Lactantius stand out as the most reflective and persuasive writers…they leave no doubt that for them violence of any kind is incompatible with the demands of the Christian faith.  The other side is non-pacifist . . .  It appears, then, that these examples from Scripture were being cited by some as reasons for not following a strictly pacifist line of thought, and the very fact that Tertullian speaks at length about the moral dimension of military service is evidence that the whole issue had not been settled in the Christian community.  . . .

Swift provides a balanced assessment of Tertullian’s views on military service:
He [Tertullian] is the first Church writer to wrestle with the issue of military service in a concrete way, and his attitude toward Christian participation in war is anything but sympathetic.  It is fair to say that he is the first articulate spokesman for pacifism in the Christian Church . . . If he takes a rather trenchant position against Christian participation in war, he is not always consistent on this point.  Thus, in his Apology, which was written around 197 A.D. and which is a plea for fair treatment of the Christians, a certain amount of ambiguity is create by the pride he takes in the spread of Christianity even to the camps.  . . .

Swift then provides the most telling comment from Tertullian:
Thus we [Christians] live in the world sharing with you the forum, the market, the baths, the shops, the factories, the inns, the market days and all other commercial activities.  We, no less than you, sail the sea, serve in the army, farm the land, buy and sell (42.2-3).

Christians in the Early Church Did Serve in the Roman Military
One of the greatest Church historians, Philip Schaff, summarized the period this way:
In regard to military and civil offices under the heathen government, opinion was divided. Some, on the authority of such passages as Matt.5:39 and 26:52, condemn all war as unchristian and immoral; anticipating the views of the Mennonites and Friends.  Others appealed to the good centurion of Capernaum and Cornelius of Caesarea, and held the military life consistent with a Christian profession.  The traditions of the legio fulminatrix indicates that there were Christian soldiers in the Roman armies under Marcus Aurelius, and at the time of Diocletian the numbers of Christians at the court and in civil office was very considerable.

Another highly regarded church historian, Kenneth Scott Latourette stated:
Indeed, in its earliest days the Church seems to have regarded with complacency the baptism of soldiers and not to have required them to resign from the army.  Coolness towards the enlistment of its members in the army appears to have brought no very marked embarrassment to the Church . . .  To most Christians, however, at least in the first three centuries, the ethical problem involved in military service was not an issue.

It seems that the major problem with military service during the first few centuries was the frequent requirement for Caesar worship.  In this case the individual would end up either resigning from the military (if possible) or was executed for his faith.  Steve Lagoon’s article gives two such examples:

Marinus, who was beheaded ca. 260 AD, had been in service for long enough to warrant promotion to the rank of Centurion.  The eve before his promotion a rival denounced him as being unfit for promotion due to his Christian faith.  Marinus was given the chance to recant his faith, but he refused.

Julius, another veteran legionnaire in 303 or 304 AD, was confronted with new orders from the emperor that all troops must sacrifice to pagan deities.  In a long dialogue with the prefect Maximus, Julius defended his loyalty without the need to sacrifice to idols, having served for 27 years in seven campaigns and was considered an excellent warrior, with never a fault found in him by his commanding officer.  Since Julius refused to deny his God, and refused to participate in the idol sacrifices, he was beheaded.

The point of this article is two-fold: (1) to demonstrate that the early church did not see serving in the military to be against the Christian faith, and (2) to demonstrate that the Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot be trusted when it comes to teaching about military service — any more than they can be trusted with any other teachings about the Christian faith!

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