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Ambassador College Thesis
Should a Christian Fight?
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Should a Christian Fight?
Leroy Neff   
Church of God

Born: November 20, 1923
Died: January 28, 2014
Member Since: 1951
Ambassador College: 1959
Ordained: June 7, 1958
Office: ACE - Evangelist

Chapter V:


   "What would happen if everyone believed like you and would not fight?" Have you ever heard this question? To many people today it is almost incredible that some Christians will not fight in war.
   In the last chapter, we saw writings of the leading churchmen in the first few centuries. They wrote that many thousands, and possibly even millions of people in the early church would not fight. As a result, many people in the Catholic religion were asked, "Why won't you fight?" The historians, as well as the church writers, have noted this fact.
   "This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare (of not fighting for the empire) exposed them (the Christians) to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans, who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?" (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, Chapter XV, Volume I, page 416).
   It is now definite that early Christians would not fight in war, but wouldn't they at least defend themselves from being killed by others? Wouldn't they fight in self-defense?
   "Their simplicity was offended by the use of oaths, by the pomp of magistracy, and by the active contention of public life; nor could their humane ignorance be convinced that it was lawful on any occasion to shed blood of our fellow creatures either by the sword of justice or by that of war, even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community.... But while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defense of the empire" (Ibid.).
   With such a start, it is strange that the common teaching in religion today is exactly opposite to the practice of the early Church. When did the remarkable change take place? In the last chapter we found that the change had not been made by the time of Constantine.

Compromise With Sin Begins

   The general teaching of the church was against any participation in warfare. However, even though this was the accepted teaching, there were a few in the latter part of the second century who were beginning to waver from this truth. Signs of compromise by a few were becoming increasingly evident. A few did not follow the original church teaching. One of the scholars who is a recognized authority on this subject states that there is no record of a Christian enlisting in the army after his conversion until the reign of Marcus Aurelius (The Early Christian and War, by C. J. Cadoux, page 276). Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who reigned from 161 to 180 A.D. Some began to compromise with the teaching of the church by this time. This was about one hundred years after the fall of Jerusalem. Several new generations had been born by this time.
   From the time of Marcus Aurelius there was a gradual change of practice by a few of the people. However, there was no general teaching by the clergy permitting Christians to enter into the army or to fight in war. The recognized leaders of the church along with the overwhelming majority of the people continued in their refusal to take up arms. At this time the church was being subjected to violence and persecution instead of being violent and persecuting others. It was not until about a century and a half later that the way was paved for a change in the thinking of the clergy. To give a little background on the reason for this change, it is necessary to give a few details of what was happening in civil and religious affairs.

The Cross Became Symbol of War

   In 305 A.D. the Roman emperor Diocletian abdicated his throne. There were four contenders for the throne, Maxentius and Constantine being the two leading ones. Before this time there had been persecution against the church. But, Constantine was friendly towards the Christians. His principal rival represented an element which persecuted them.
   About this time Constantine claimed to have seen a heavenly vision of the cross bearing a motto, "By this sign thou shalt conquer." He adopted this as the new standard for his army. Before this time, the cross had become a symbol of peace and reverence in the Catholic Church. Now the symbol became one of war. As a result many people have questioned Constantine's claim of this "heavenly vision."
   "And so for the first time the meek and peaceful Jesus became a God of battle, and the cross, the holy sign of Christian redemption, a banner of bloody strife. This irreconcilable incongruity between the symbol of universal peace and the horrors of war, in my judgment, is conclusive against the miraculous or supernatural character of the transaction" (The History of Christianity, H. H. Millman, page 288).
   Constantine had been a man of war and bloodshed. His toleration of the Christian religion at this period in his life did not change him from a pagan to a Christian. He gave many concessions to the Catholic Church, forced the people to obey this church, but still continued in some of his pagan ways. This patron of the church did not even submit to the rite of baptism until several years after, when he was near death.
   The remarkable change of Constantine, concerning the church became apparent in the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. This edict returned to the church their confiscated lands and properties. Now the developing Catholic hierarchy was greatly in the debt of this emperor, and he became a great influence in the thinking and practice of this professing Christian church. Constantine accepted the Catholic religion but found that there were many differing doctrines and sects within the church. He wanted to unify the church, to get the clergy to agree on the various doctrines so that there might be one church and not many churches. Prior to this time there had been many, many sects and divisions.

Constantine Brought Unity

   Today there is a growing trend toward unity. But before Constantine there was no binding force to hold the various sects together. Constantine was the needed factor to bind these sects together. It was his desire for the clergy to get together and decide the theological issues. Whatever the clergy decided would be forced on the whole church. Those who would not obey would be called heretics or "anathema from Christ" and excommunicated. This meant almost certain death if the person did not flee for his life.
   To unify the church, a series of church councils were held. The first general council of the Western church was the Council of Arles in 314 A.D. It was summoned by Constantine and was attended by thirty three bishops. Clergymen of lesser rank were not permitted to participate; however, they and the whole church were bound by the decisions rendered.
   Ordination of the clergy was one of the principal subjects discussed and decided on in this council. However, other decisions were also made and bound on the church.

New Laws Come Into Vogue

   Up to this time, the teaching of the church was against participation in war. Now something new happened. This council decided that: 'They who throw away their weapons in time of peace shall be excommunicated (Canon III).
   What is meant by this particular canon law now bound on the whole Catholic Church?
   Prior to this time there were many severe persecutions against those who espoused the cause of Christianity. All this was now changing. Constantine accepted Christianity as the state religion. There was now peace between the empire and the church.
   Paul taught that true Christians were to try and gain their freedom from slavery if at all possible (I Cor. 7:21). Now that Christianity was the accepted religion, many pagans in the armies would try and get their release from military service (a type of slavery) as a result of the new religion and its teachings.
   Something must be done to stop this trend, which from a physical point of view might leave the whole empire defenseless against foreign invaders. Military strength must be kept, even though peace between the church and the state had been attained and even though the empire was not involved in any major wars.
   To stop a mass exodus from the army, it was necessary for the church to publish this canon law. New Catholic Christians in military service were now prohibited from throwing away their arms now that peace between church and state had been attained.
   There have been various interpretations of this canon of the council, however, this is the generally accepted one. Here is one authority, translated from the German to further prove this very point.
   "Aubespine... reasoned, many Christians under the heathen Kaisers had doubts about military service and refused to render military service, or even deserted it, therefore our Synod spoke out, because of Constantine's intervention to change the duty of the Christian towards military service, to be sure for this reason: because the Church now has peace under a prince who is sympathetic to Christians one is not permitted to evade military service under such a prince.' (Conciliengeschichte, by Hefele, page 206).
   Here is the first official council of the Catholic Church. Already they have begun to compromise with the New Testament Biblical teachings. The practice of the church for almost three hundred years is now being changed. The result of this terrible compromise will be the subject of later chapters.
   In spite of this instruction, some apparently did leave the army in their first love and zeal of the religion. Instead of following the instructions and remaining in the army, they left. Later that same zeal waned and they reconsidered. In fact, many even paid considerable sums to be accepted back into military service. The next council, the Council of Nicaea, had this to say about such a change. "As many as were called by grace, and displayed the first zeal, having cast aside their military girdles, but afterwards returned, like dogs to their own vomit, (so that some spent money and by means of gifts regained their military stations): let these, after they have passed the space of three years as hearers, be for ten years prostrators" (Canon XII).
   By the time of Constantine, many men in the church were either in service or entering into military service. There was no longer a prohibition against killing in war. The attitude of the church was in a process of great change.
   The church now had peace with the state, but the church was making compromises which would later lead to much war and bloodshed.

Eusebius Eulogizes Constantine the Warrior

   At this period of time the principal church writer and historian was Eusebius. This man is well known for his ecclesiastical and historical writings. Because of his influence on the church, he is named among the principal church fathers.
   As we have seen repeatedly, the church writers previously deplored any fighting or war making.
   The remarkable change of attitude regarding war is also noted in the writings of Eusebius. He wrote about the great military conquests of the emperor in most complimentary terms. Previously it had been wrong in every sense of the word to fight. Now it became an act of benevolence and holiness to subjugate nations and people by the terrible scourge of war.
   "And instructing his army in the mild and sober precepts of godliness, he carried his arms as far as the Britons and the Western Ocean. He subdued likewise all Scythia; though situated in the remotest North, and divided into numberless diverse and barbarous tribes. He even pushed his conquests to the Blemmyans and Ethiopians, on the very confines of the South; nor did he think the acquisition of the Eastern nations unworthy of his care. In short, diffusing the effulgence of his holy light to the ends of the whole world, even to the most distant Indians, the nations dwelling on the extreme circumference of the inhabited earth, he received the submission of all the rulers, governors, and satraps of barbarous nations who cheerfully welcomed and saluted him, sending embassies and presents, and setting the highest value on his acquaintance and friendship; insomuch that they honored him with pictures and statues in their respective countries, and Constantine alone of all emperors was acknowledged and celebrated by all. Not withstanding, even among these distant nations, he proclaimed the name of his God in his royal edicts with all boldness" (Life of Constantine, Eusebius, Chapter VIII).
   Who was the God of Constantine? Was He the Prince of Peace, Jesus, or the god of war?

It Became Praiseworthy to Fight

   The change in attitude and teaching is evident in the writings of other church leaders and teachers of this time. One such man was Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt. This clergyman lived from about 296 to 373 A.D. He attended the great Nicaean Council of 325. He was rather outspoken in his beliefs and was not accepted by the majority. As a result he was banished several times, but he was accepted back during his last years as a bishop of the church. This man had a great deal of influence over the thinking of the church for the following centuries. As a result he is sometimes called the father of orthodoxy. He was a man who had great influence in establishing within the church what was later taught as orthodoxy or the correct doctrines of the church. He taught that it was lawful and praiseworthy to kill one's adversary in war (The Early Church and the World, C. J. Cadoux, page 589).

New Testament Theology Harmonized With War

   Augustine was another church leader of this period. He also had great influence on the church. It has been said that he, more than any other leader of the church, molded the doctrines of the church during the time of the Middle Ages. This man lived from about 354 to 430 A.D. and was Bishop of Hippo, North Africa. Some of the church historians have considered him to be the greatest expositor of the church since the Apostle Paul.
   He "was one of the first Christian theologians to try and harmonize war with the New Testament" (The New Testament Basis of Pacifism, G. H. C. MacGregor, page 115).
   Among the many works of Augustine is a very long and detailed work called "The City of God." In this work he endeavored to describe the desire to make the empire into a church-state system comparable to the Kingdom of God on earth. In his long comments on many subjects a few show his belief and teachings regarding fighting in war.
   "For even when we wage a lust war, our adversaries must be sinning; and every victory, even though gained by wicked men, is a result of the first judgment of God, who humbles the vanquished either for the sake of removing or of punishing for their sins" (Book XIX, Chapter 15).
   He believed that Christians could fight just or righteous wars. It would be the enemy who sinned This very idea that Christians could wage a just war led to many of the wars and persecutions to follow.
   In another place in this same work he showed why people wage war. Notice the exact opposite reason to the Bible reason for war as given in James 4:1-4.
   "For everyone seeks peace by waging war" (Chapter 12).
   What folly! Man has always sought peace by the means of war. Here the church is teaching this same falsehood that war is the way to bring peace. Just as the Bible says, men do not know the way of peace (Rom. 3:17).
   Instead of realizing the Bible teaching of what causes war, this theologian continues to explain his idea of what forces men to be involved in war.
   "For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars" (Chapter 7).
   It is the "wrongdoing of the opposing party," not lust and greed and vanity that causes war. This is the same excuse that has justified about every war that man has fought and still there is no peace!

Killing in Defense is Justified

   Another leader and writer of this time was Basil, Archbishop of Caesarea. He lived from about 330 to 379. He gave certain rules concerning homicide.
   "He that kills another with a sword, or hurls an axe at his own wife and kills her is guilty of wilful murder; not he...who kills a man in his own defense, when he only designed to hurt him" (Canon VIII, The First Canonical Epistle of Basil).
   A century earlier the church writers stated that it was wrong to kill under any conditions. Now it is all right to kill in defense as well as in war.
   'Our fathers did not think that killing in war was murder; yet I think it advisable for such as have been guilty of it to forbear communion three years (Canon XII, loc. cit.).

The Whole Roman Army Becomes "Christian"

   This new trend continued to the point where in the year 416 A.D., non-Christians were forbidden to serve in the army (Cadoux, p. 589). A few decades had now brought an about face to where the whole Roman army consisted of "Christians."

Church Now Committed to Sanction War

   The unusual situation of the church at this point is aptly described by the historian Cadoux.
   "The consequence was that, when the events of the years following 313 A.D. suddenly called upon the Church to come down definitely on one side of the fence or the other, she found that a free decision was no longer open to her. Her joy at the deliverance Constantinus had wrought for her was so great that it put her off her guard.... Official Christianity was now committed to the sanction of war so far as the practical conduct of Christian men as citizens was concerned whenever the State chose to wage it. Further than that the decision not only settled the practical question for the moment and doomed the dissentient voices many as they still were to ultimate silence, but it tied up the freedom of Christian thought, and made any unfettered discussion of the problem on its merits next to impossible for centuries to come. (From The Early Church and the World, C. J. Cadoux, page 592).
   What has been the attitude of the Catholic Church regarding war since that time? In general, it has continued down to the present day with the same belief. Certain men of the clergy have spoken out against war from time to time. But, the overwhelming majority have either been silent or taught that war and Christian involvement is necessary.
   Rather than continue an exhaustive study of teachings of this world church regarding killing and warfare, it should suffice to say that the Catholic Church does sanction warfare by sovereign states. It does teach that under certain conditions war is just and right. It does teach that a Christian should fight in war for his country. A clear example of this kind of teaching was given at the beginning of the last chapter.
   The teaching of the church regarding homicide, or the killing of another human being in defense, is the same now as when taught by Basil, Archbishop of Caeserea in the fourth century.
   "For the protection of one's own or another's life, limb, chastity, or valuables of some moment, it is agreed on all sides that it is lawful for anyone to repel violence with violence, even to the point of taking away the life of the unjust assailant, provided always that in so doing the limits of a blameless defense be not exceeded" (Catholic Encyclopedia, article on "Homicide").
   According to this teaching Peter would have been justified in killing the high priest's servant (Matt. 25:51-52). But Jesus Christ taught differently. The Catholic Church has not perpetuated the teachings of Christ against Christians fighting and killing. It did not contend for the true faith which was once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). It compromised with Christ's teachings and even its own teachings by its founding fathers of the first three centuries. The result of this terrible compromise has brought untold suffering on millions of people. As a result God prophesies a soon-coming day of reckoning a day of retribution and severe punishment.

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Publication Date: May 1962
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