The matter of participation in the affairs of the Roman state was not an important practical question in the Primitive Church. The earliest Christians were slaves and Jews and women, few if any, were eligible for political office or to serve as soldiers in the Roman government. Rendering unto Caesar, therefore, did not entail a participation in the evils of State, rather a patient suffering of them.
It was not until after 174 A.D. that the question of whether a Christian should participate in the affairs of State were raised and not until 303 A.D. that the Christians were persecuted for failure to do so. From being disenfranchised in matters of State to being conscripted in matters of State had much to do with the Hellenization of Christianity as it occurred under Pagan influence beginning about the middle of the second century through the fourth centuries. After that, there were the Crusades. But lets focus on the early years and see what happened and why the primitive Christians moved from a nonresistant attitude toward one that was militant.
The Cross to A.D. 174
C.J. Cadoux says: “No Christian ever thought of enlisting in the army after his conversion until the reign of Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161 to 180.)” It was rare that Roman agents converted to Christianity, exceptions being Cornelius (Acts 10:1-48) and the Philippian Jailer (Acts 16:19-24). According to Cadoux, the few who did convert often refused to continue as soldiers and police after their baptism. For reasons previously mentioned, the question of whether a Christian should refuse military service rarely came up. It only became an issue as more Romans began converting to the Gospel. On a personal basis, the majority of Romans who had converted, renounced the State and began service in the Church. Therefore, they did not renounce the State to join in with Jewish patriotism or to assist in armed resistance against Caesar. They were genuinely nonresistant. Church service became their sole focus.
Ignatius, writing to the Ephesians about 110 A.D. says: “Do not seek to avenge yourselves on those that injure you…. And let us imitate the Lord, who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he was crucified, he answered not; when he suffered, he threatened not; but prayed for his enemies.” Polycarp wrote the Philippians, urging obedience to Christ, “not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing, or blow for blow, or cursing for cursing.” Justin Martyr, writing about A.D. 153 says: “We who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have changed our warlike weapons, our swords into plowshares, and our spears into implements of tillage.” In 180 Athenagoras said: “We have learned not only not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder and rob us, but to those who smite us on one side of the face to offer the other side also, and to those who take away our coat to give likewise our cloak.”
And then there was a growing change. About 174 A.D., the social irresponsibility of Christians, their community and honor, were viewed as threatening to the Roman State. A pagan philosopher name Celsus wrote against the Christians because they were not taking part in the judicial system or serving as soldiers. He urges them “to help the king with all our might, and to fight for him and lead an army along with him.” Celsus argues, as some Christians do today, that if every one did as the nonresistant Christian did then imperialism would come to an end and the Empire would be ruined. It was the philosophy of the pagan Celsus that the persecutions of peaceful Christians gained ground and eventually led to the Diocletian persecutions of 303 A.D. The Christians did not seek martyrdom, but it was forced upon them for refusal to kill or to litigate.
A.D. 174 to 313
Beginning about the year A.D. 174 and under pressure from the heathen, there were Christians in the Roman Army. Tertullian opposed this new development with great vigor: “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?” Now, Tertullian makes exception for those who are first soldiers and then become Christians, but in this case “there must be either an immediate abandonment of” military service, “which has been the course with many,” or the individual must suffer martyrdom. It is evident Jewish Christians refused military service and use of the judicial system. It is also evident that Roman Christians resigned from military service and use of the judicial system once they had been converted. It is evident that participation in military service was only permissible if conscripted and, even then, Christians accepted martyrdom rather than kill. Finally, it is evident that Tertullian was condemning the voluntary service of Christians in the military and voluntary participation in the judicial system.
Origen wrote about the year 250: “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 the sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.” Origen then confronts the practical problem raised by the pagan Celsus nearly a century before. Origen specifically states that Christians do not serve as soliders or as police or as magistrates for Caesar and then referred to the Scriptures citing the miraculous escape of Israel fom the hand of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. He argued that Caesar and Celsus would do better to preserve their empire were they to leave the peaceful Christians alone. He argued that the Christians through their peaceful manner of life were a much greater help to the emperor than they would be if they served as soldiers or police or magistrates:
“For men of God are assuredly the salt of the earth; they preserve the order of the world; and society is held together as long as the salt is uncorrupted. And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead the violation of oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kings, than those who go into the fields to fight for them. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army–an army of piety–by offering our prayers to God. Christians are benefactors of their country more than others. For they train up citizens, and inculcate piety to the Supreme Being; and they promote those whose lives in the smallest cities have been good and worthy, to a divine and heavenly city. And it is not for the purpose of escaping public duties that Christians decline public offices, but that they may reserve themselves for a divine and more necessary service in the Church of God–for the salvation of men.”
Therefore, the Christians, promoter of the peace, were far more beneficial to Caesar than the promoters of wrath. Soldiers, magistrates, police and prosecutors were the disturbers of the peace. Origen fought the pagan argument for universal participation in retaliation by stating the obvious: The escalation of hostilities will only ruin the nation in purse and men. Who will be left if the Christians go to war also? Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, who died in 258, said: “The whole earth is drenched in adversaries’ blood, and if a murder is committed privately it is a crime, but if it happens with state authority, courage is the name for it.” Mutual Assured Destruction would be the quickest way to ruining the Empire, not peace.
Cyprian continued, 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.” Lactantius of Bithynia, writing in the early fourth century, comments on the sixth commandment as follows:
“When God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence, but he warns us agaist the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among warfare. 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.”
Eusebius tells the story of a Roman officer of high rank who became a Christian about the beginning of the fourth century and who then “by his voluntary confession and after nobly enduring bitter scourging succeeded in getting discharged from military service.” Perhaps the best known case is that of Maximilian, the young Numidian who in 295 was brought before the proconsul of Africa for induction into the army. Maximilian refused saying: “I cannot serve as a soldier; I cannot do evil; I am a Christian.” When told he was to be put to death if he refused, he replied: “I shall not perish, but when I shall have forsaken this world my soul shall live with Christ my Lord.” He was then put to death. The example of Maximilian was widely known throughout the Christian world and inspired many Christians to follow. It was his example and its subsequent influence upon Christians in general that helped to bring on the great persecution of A.D. 303.
The Spirit of Nonresistance becomes a little radical after the Diocletian persecution. Many Christians unable to hold up after the persecutions begin to join the State en masse. Fretful of this new development, many local church leaders from differing communities begin excommunicating Christians who volunteer for military service or who were not otherwise forced by law to participate in the judicial system. While these canons and orders of local churches did not have a universal application, they did seek to proscribe conscience of Christians who on a personal basis, and often in fear of social ostracism and persecution, decided on voluntary participation in war and use of the judicial system. This fanaticism to uphold Christian principles by threat of excommunication eventually led many Christians from reluctant participation to an enthusiasm for participation in retaliation. If they were rejected by their Church, they still had the honors of men as socially responsible citizens. The pagans had effectively split the church and turned member against member. Atmosphere for a great apostasy developed. It would not be long before the Church and State would combine.
After A.D. 313
Not only did the Diocletian persecution turn many Christians against their faith, but with the growing admission of soldier-converts, in the words of Cadoux, there “proved to be a thin end of the wedge” which slowly, but surely, opened the church to unification with the Roman state. In A.D. 313 a startling thing happened. Constantine, the Roman Emperor, declared himself a Christian and recognized Christianity as a legal religion. From this point on a great change came over the Christian Church. The Church gave up its nonresistant position and Christianity became the imperial religion of state. As Cadoux puts it: “The sign of the cross of Jesus was now an imperial military emblem, bringing good fortune and victory. The supposed nails of the cross, which the Emperor’s mother found and sent to him, were made into bridle-bits and a helmet, which he used in his military expeditions.”
In 314 the Council of Arles announced a decision that “they who throw away their weapons in time of peace shall be excommunicated.” The Church began excommunicating Christians who, on a personal basis of conscience, refused to participate in war or bring charges at law in the courts against their private offenders. The orders and canons of the church now begin to sound a different note. About 350 Athanasius said: “Murder is not permitted, but to kill one’s adversary in war is both lawful and praiseworthy.” A little later Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, made the case even stronger: “And that courage which either protects the homeland against barbarians, in war, or defends the weak at home, or saves one’s comrades from brigands, is full of righteousness.” Then in 416 the Empire went so far as to forbid non-Christians to serve in the army at all or to participate in political insitutions, thereby effectively disenfranchising the heathen from equal suffrage in the enjoyment of their political rights.
And so the nonresistant Christian brotherhood founded by the suffering Christ, after three and one-half centuries was transformed into a militant imperial state church. James Westfall Thompson gives us a most vivid picture of what came next:
“The triumph of the Church in the fourth century was one of the dearest bought victories in the history of humanity. With Constantine the governing classes, the rich, the worldly came into the fold in numbers, bringing with them their normal qualities and social standards, their normal ways of conduct. The result was a blurring of the line between the Church and the world, the subordination of religion to policy and politics, the invasion of ‘marginal’ men and women into the Church, the lowering of ideals, the corrupting influence of sudden wealth and spiritual sclerosis. The Church yielded to the world in order to gain support of and acquire the property of the rich and influential pagan aristocracy. The increase of its authority was paid for by a loss of spiritual vitality. The speed of this degeneration is as astonishing as the magnitude of the corruption. It was so great that before a century had passed there were not a few of those more spiritually minded who declared that the Church had more reason to deplore its prosperity than that adversity and persecution which it had suffered in the third century. A study of the moral and the religious physiology of the Church in the fourth century is a study not of health but of disease; of moral lesions, corruptions, abuses.”
The Church pandered to the State and the Wealthy classes, often persecuting the oppressed poor for not being better and more patient and more diligent subjects in their suffering. Following Constantine, the Church became a universal institution, made up of all kinds of persons, the great mass of whom did not meet the high standards of conduct taught in the New Testament, or even the Old Testament for that matter. “Heathen hordes flocked into the Christian church, and quickly allowed themselves to become fanatics for their new faith, and the ‘holy war’ was speedily proclaimed.” The Church not only made exception for sinners, but degenerated into making exception for sin in order to appease the wealthy and aristocratic castes that benefited from State power and largess. The least the Lord required dropped below the center of justice revealed in the Law of Moses and rarely, if ever, were Christians challenged to live the higher moral Christ revealed. The Church had become an insipid mass of doctrines that promoted a watered-down faith. Love and forgiveness became doctrines of mere mental assent or were completely reinterpreted to mean that causing injury and depravity to sinners were love and forgiveness. The standards of the pagan world met those of the church half-way, and the kingdom of heaven was badly confused with the kingdom of this world. The Church had become impotent in being able to cultivate sufficient faith and community in its members to save, much less exalt. Instead, they sought occasion against each other at every turn and, in fact, it became a “moral” responsibility to do so or else be excommunicated.