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War - Christian Responsibility In


Early Christian View
of War and
Military Service


Chapter 2

The Early Christian Church
Conscientiously Opposed
To Military Service


A. General Historical Perspective

“The rise of Christianity led to a rapid growth of conscientious objection. According to A. Harnack, C.J. Cadoux, and G.J. Herring, the most eminent students of the problem, few if any Christians served in the Roman Army during the first century and a half A.D.; and even in the third century there were Christian conscientious objectors.”[5]

“That many early Christians accepted the injunctions of the Sermon on the Mount quite literally is certain and their attitude brought them into much the same kind of conflict with the Roman authorities which conscientious objectors of our own time face in dealing with the military authority. G.C. Macgregor (The New Testament Basis of Pacifism) points out that ‘until about the close of the third quarter of the second century the attitude of the church was quite consistently pacifist.’ Harnack’s conclusion is that no Christian would become a soldier after baptism at least up to the time of Marcus Aurelius, say about A.D. 170 (Militia Christi, p. 4). After that time, signs of compromise became increasingly evident, but the pacifist trend continues strong right up into the fourth century.”[6]

“During its first three centuries of existence, the Christian church was opposed to war and other forms of violence. Christian opposition to war early expanded into a denial of the rightness of all coercive action on the part of the civil power. Thus arose that form of conscientious objection which has been designated as political non-participation.”[7]

“For years many Christians regarded service in the army as inconsistent with their profession. Some held that for them all bloodshed, whether as soldiers or executioners, was unlawful.”[8]

“During a considerable period after the death of Christ, it is certain…that his followers believed He had forbidden war, and that, in consequence of this belief, many of them refused to engage in it, whatever were the consequences, whether reproach, or imprisonment, or death. These facts are indisputable: ‘It is as easy,’ says a learned writer of the 17th century, ‘to obscure the sun at midday, as to deny that the primitive Christians renounced all revenge and war.’ Of all the Christian writers of the second century, there is not one who notices the subject, who does not hold it to be unlawful for a Christian to bear arms.”[9]

“Christ and his apostles delivered general precepts for the regulation of our conduct. It was necessary for their successors to apply them to their practice in life. And to what did they apply the pacific precepts which had been delivered? They applied them to war; they were assured that the precepts absolutely forbade it. This belief they derived from those very precepts on which we have insisted: They referred, expressly, to the same passages in the New Testament, and from the authority and obligation of those passages, they refused to bear arms. A few examples from their history will show with what undoubting confidence they believed in the unlawfulness of war, and how much they were willing to suffer in the cause of peace.”[10]

“Our Savior inculcated mildness and peaceableness; we have seen that the apostles imbibed his spirit, and followed his example; and the early Christians pursued the example and imbibed the spirit of both. This sacred principle, this earnest recommendation of forbearance, lenity, and forgiveness, mixes with all the writings of that age. There are more quotations in the apostolical fathers, of texts which relate to these points than of any other. Christ’s sayings had struck them.”[11]

“If it be possible, a still stronger evidence of the primitive belief is contained in the circumstance, that some of the Christian authors declared that the refusal of the Christian to bear arms, was a fulfillment of ancient prophecy. (Isa. 2:3; Micah 4:2) The peculiar strength of this evidence consists in this: that the fact of a refusal to bear arms is assumed as notorious and unquestioned.” [Regardless of the validity of the prophetic interpretation.][12]

“A very interesting sidelight is cast on the attitude of the early Christians to war by the serious view they took of those precepts of the Master enjoining love for all, including enemies, and forbidding retaliation upon the wrongdoer, and the close and literal way in which they endeavored to obey them. This view and this obedience of those first followers of Jesus are the best commentary we can have upon the problematic teaching in question, and the best answer we can give to those who argue that it was not meant to be practiced save in a perfect society, or that it refers only to the inner disposition of the heart and not to the outward actions, or that it concerns only the personal and private and not the social and political relationships of life.”[13]

B. Affirmations of Early Church Orders

1. The Didaskalia

“The Didaskalia forbids the acceptance of money for the church ‘from soldiers who behave unrighteously or from those who kill men or from executioners or from any (of the) magistrates of the Roman Empire who are polluted in wars and have shed innocent blood without judgment,’ etc.”[14]

2. The Testament of Our Lord

“‘The Testament of Our Lord,’ which dates in its present form from the middle of the fourth century or a little later, arose among the conservative Christians of Syria or southeastern Asia Minor.” It embodies a list of rules and regulations governing the “acceptance of new members into the Church and (deals) with the question of the trades and professions which it is legitimate or otherwise for Church-members to follow. It will be observed that…‘The Testament of Our Lord’ is consistently rigorous in refusing baptism to soldiers and magistrates except on condition of their quitting their offices, and forbidding a Christian to become a soldier on pain of rejection (from the Church):

“If anyone be a soldier or in authority, let him be taught not to oppress or to kill or to rob, or to be angry or to rage and afflict anyone. But let those rations suffice him which are given to him. But if they wish to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service or from the post of authority, and if not let them not be received. Let a catechumen or a believer of the people, if he desire to be a soldier, either cease from his intention, or if not let him be rejected. For he hath despised God by his thought, and leaving the things of the Spirit, he hath perfected himself in the flesh, and hath treated the faith with contempt.”[15]

3. The Canons of the Church of Alexandria

“The canons of the Church of Alexandria absolutely forbade volunteering, which was the foundation of the Roman Army, and authoritatively laid it down that ‘it was not fitting for Christians to bear arms.”[16]

C. Writings of Early Christian Leaders

Christian Condemnation of War

“The view was widely prevalent in the early Church that war is an organized iniquity with which the Church and the followers of Christ can have nothing to do. This sentiment was expressed, though with varying degrees of lucidity and emphasis, by Justin Martyr, Tatian, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origenes, Athanasius, Cyprian, and Lactantius.”[17]

Aristeides (140 A.D.)

(He) “says of the Christians: ‘They appeal to those who wrong them and make them friendly to themselves; they are eager to do good to their enemies; they are mild and conciliatory.’”[18]

Arnobius (300 A.D.)

“The treatise of Arnobius abounds in allusions to the moral iniquity of war. Contrasting Christ with the rulers of the Roman Empire, he asks: ‘Did he, claiming royal power for himself, occupy the whole world with fierce legions, and, (of) nations at peace from the beginning, destroy and remove some, and compel others to put their necks beneath his yoke and obey him?’

“‘What use is it to the world that there should be…generals of the greatest experience in warfare, skilled in the capture of cities, (and) soldiers immovable and invincible in cavalry battles or in a fight on foot?’ Arnobius roundly denies that it was any part of the divine purpose that men’s souls, ‘forgetting that they are from one source, one parent and head, should tear up and break down the right of kinship, overturn their cities, devastate lands in enmity…hate one another…in a word, all curse, carp at, and rend one another with the biting of savage teeth.’

“Addressing himself to the pagans, he says: ‘Since we… (Christians) have received (it) from his (Christ’s) teachings and laws, that evil ought not to be repaid with evil, that it is better to endure a wrong than to inflict (it), to shed one’s own (blood) rather than to stain one’s hands and conscience with the blood of another, the ungrateful world has long been receiving a benefit from Christ…But if absolutely all…were willing to lend an ear for a little while to his healthful and peaceful decrees, and would not, swollen with pride and arrogance, trust to their own senses rather than to his admonitions, the whole world would long ago have turned the uses of iron to milder works and be living in the softest tranquility, and would have come together in healthy concord…’

“(He) speaks as if abstention from warfare had been the traditional Christian policy ever since the advent of Christ.”[19]


“In the third century Clement of Alexandria contrasted warlike pagans with ‘the peaceful community of Christians.’”[20]

“Clement of Alexandria calls his Christian contemporaries the ‘Followers of Peace,’ and expressly tells us that ‘the followers of peace used none of the implements of war.’”[21]

“Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings. For (it is) not those who abstain from evil by compulsion, but those (who abstain) by choice, (that) God crowns. For it is not possible for a man to be good steadily except by his own choice.”[22]

Cyprianus (250 A.D.)

“Cyprianus declaims about the ‘wars scattered everywhere with the bloody horror of camps. The world,’ he says, ‘is wet with mutual blood (shed): and homicide is a crime when individuals commit it, (but) it is called a virtue, when it is carried on publicly. Not the reason of innocence, but the magnitude of savagery, demands impunity for crimes.’ He censures also the vanity and deceitful pomp of the military office.”[23]

Irenaeus (180 A.D.)

“For the Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not how to fight.”[24]

Justinus (150 A.D.)

“Justinus told the Emperors that the Christians were the best allies and helpers they had in promoting peace, on the ground that their belief in future punishment and in the omniscience of God provided a stronger deterrent from wrongdoing than any laws could do.

“We who hated and slew one another, and because of (differences in) customs would not share a common hearth with those who were not of our tribe, now, after the appearance of Christ, have become sociable, and pray for our enemies, and try to persuade those who hate (us) unjustly, in order that they, living according to the good suggestions of Christ, may share our hope of obtaining the same (reward) from God who is Master of all.

“And we who formerly slew one another not only do not make war against our enemies, but, for the sake of not telling lies or deceiving those who examine us, we gladly die confessing Christ.”[25]

Justin Martyr (150 A.D.)

“That the prophecy is fulfilled, you have good reason to believe, for we, who in times past killed one another, do not now fight with our enemies.”[26]

“We, who had been filled with war and mutual slaughter and every wickedness, have each one—all the world over—changed the instruments of war, the swords into plows and the spears into farming implements, and we cultivate piety, righteousness, love for men, faith, (and) the hope which is from the Father Himself through the Crucified One.”[27]

Lactantius (300 A.D.)

“Lactantius also, in his Divine Institutes, again and again alludes to the prevalence of war as one of the great blots on the history and morals of humanity. Speaking of the Romans, he says: ‘Truly, the more men they have afflicted, despoiled, (and) slain, the more noble and renowned do they think themselves; and, captured by the appearance of empty glory, they give the name of excellence to their crimes…If any one has slain a single man, he is regarded as contaminated and wicked, nor do they think it right that he should be admitted to this earthly dwelling of the gods. But he who has slaughtered endless thousands of men, deluged the fields with blood, (and) infected rivers (with it), is admitted not only to a temple, but even to heaven.’

“In criticizing the definition of virtue as that which puts first the advantages of one’s own county, (he says): ‘All which things are certainly not virtues, but the overthrowing of virtues. For, in the first place, the connection of human society is taken away; innocence is taken away;…in fact, justice itself is taken away; for justice cannot bear the cutting asunder of the human race, and wherever arms glitter, she must be put to flight and banished…For how can he be just, who injures, hates, despoils, kills? And those who strive to be of advantage to their country (in this way) do all these things.’

“If God alone were worshiped, there would not be dissensions and wars; for men would know that they are sons of the one God, and so joined together by the sacred and inviolable bond of divine kinship; there would be no plots, for they would know what sort of punishments God has prepared for those who kill living beings.”[28]

“And so it will not be lawful for a just man to serve as a soldier—for justice itself is his military service... And so, in this commandment of God no exception at all ought to be made that it is always wrong to kill a man whom God has wished to be a sacrosanct creature.”[29]

“There cannot be a thousand exceptions to God’s commandments: Thou shalt not kill. No arm save truth should be carried by Christians.”[30]


“Lucifer, Bishop of Calaris, professed that the Christians should defend their greatest possession, faith, not in killing, but in sacrificing their own lives.”[31]

Origenes (240 A.D.)

This great Alexandrian scholar took occasion to defend early Christian pacifism in his rebuttal to “A True Discourse,” which was an attack on the Christian community by the heathen philosopher Celsus, written in 178 A.D.

Arguments of Celsus: “Towards the close of his treatise, Celsus dealt with the customary refusal of the Christians to serve in the Imperial legions and to hold public office. He was concerned for the safety of the Empire in the face of the attacks of the barbarian tribes of central Europe. And, indignant though he was at what he regarded as the selfish lack of patriotism on the part of the Christians, he mingled appeals with his reproaches, and begged them to abandon their fanaticism and take their share in the common task of defending the civilization of the Empire from destruction.”[32]

“(Celsus) not only exhorts the Christians to take part in civil government, but ‘urges us to help the Emperor with all (our) strength, and to labor with him (in maintaining) justice, and to fight for him and serve as soldiers with him, if he requires (it), and to share military command (with him).’”

Reply to Celsus by Origenes. First, in replying to the objection that, if all did the same as the Christians, the Emperor would be deserted, and the Empire would fall a prey to the barbarians, Origenes says: “On this supposition” (that all did the same as himself and took no part in war) “the Emperor would not be left alone or deserted, nor would the world’s affairs fall into the hands of the most lawless and savage barbarians. For if, as Celsus says, all were to do the same as I do, clearly the barbarians also, coming to the Word of God, would be most law-abiding and mild; and every religious worship would be abolished, and that alone of the Christians would hold sway; and indeed, one day it shall alone hold sway, the Word ever taking possession of more (and more) souls.

“How much more (reasonable it is that), when others are serving in the army, these (Christians) should do their military service as priests and servants of God…And we, (in) putting down by our prayers all demons—those who stir up warlike feelings…and disturb the peace—help the Emperors more than those who, to all appearance, serve as soldiers. We labor with (him) in the public affairs—(we) who offer up prayers with righteousness…And we fight for the Emperor more (than others do); we do serve as soldiers on his behalf, training a private army of piety by means of intercessions to the Deity.”[33]

“It is noteworthy that both Celsus and Origenes write here as if the refusal to serve in the army was not the universal attitude of the Christians. We know that this was not quite the case…(after 170 A.D.). Still the language of these two writers is significant as showing what, at both their dates (178 and 248 A.D.) was understood by well-informed persons to be the normal Christian view and practice.”[34]

“Origenes happily lays great stress on the positive service which he claims is diviner, more needful, and more effective than that of the soldier or magistrate…Of this service, he specifies two forms: (a) Intercessory prayer, which he rightly regards as exceedingly effective when coming from Christians: this prayer is that the Emperor and those associated with him may be successful in their efforts, in so far as their purposes are righteous. (b) Influence for good over others by the activities of the Church and the power of Christian life, ‘educating the citizens and teaching them to be devout towards…God’…and working effectually for their moral and spiritual salvation.”[35]

“To those who ask us whence we have come or whom we have (for) a leader, we say that we have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, 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 sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of (following) the ancestral (customs).

“He points out that God united the warring nations of the earth under the rule of Augustus, in order that by the suppression of war the spread of the gospel might be facilitated: for ‘how’ he asks, ‘would it have been possible for this peaceful teaching, which does not allow (its adherents) even to defend themselves against (their) enemies, to prevail, unless at the coming of Jesus the (affairs) of the world had everywhere changed into a milder (state)?’ Later he says: ‘If a revolt had been the cause of the Christians’ combining, and if they had derived their origin from the Jews, to whom it was allowed to take arms on behalf of their families to destroy their enemies, the Lawgiver of (the) Christians would not have altogether forbidden (the) destruction of man, teaching that the deed of daring (on the part) of his own disciples against a man, however unrighteous he be, is never right—for he did not deem it becoming to his own divine legislation to allow the destruction of any man whatever.’”[36]

“And the reason why Christians avoid the public services of earthly life is not because they want to evade them, but because they are reserving themselves for the more Divine and more needful service of the Church of God, taking the lead—at once needfully and righteously—in the salvation of men, and being concerned for all men…”[37]

Tertullianus (210 A.D.)

“You must confess that the prophecy has been accomplished, as far as the practice of every individual is concerned, to whom it is applicable.”[38]

“…the new law pointed to clemency, and changed the former savagery of swords and lances into tranquility, and refashioned the former infliction of war upon rivals and foes of the law into the peaceful acts of plow and cultivating the earth. And so…the new law…has shown forth in acts of peaceful obedience.”

“Dealing specifically with the question of military service, Tertulliansus writes (in his Apology:) “(The question) also concerning military service, which is concerned both with rank and power, might seem (to have been) definitely settled in that (last) chapter. But now the question is asked on what (very point), whether a believer may turn to military service, and whether the military—at least the rank and file, or (say) all the inferior (grades), who are under no necessity of (offering) sacrifices or (passing) capital sentences—may be admitted to the faith. There is no congruity between the divine and human ‘sacramentum,’ the sign of Christ and the sign of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness: one soul cannot be owed to two, God and Caesar. And (yet, some Christians say), Moses carried a rod, and Aaron (wore) a buckle, and John was girt with a leather belt (the allusions are to various items in the Roman soldier’s equipment), and Joshua…led a line of march, and the people waged war—if it is your pleasure to sport (with the subject). But how will (a Christian) make war—nay, how will he serve as a soldier in peace (time)—without the sword which the Lord has taken away? For, although soldiers had come to John and received the form of a rule, although also a centurion had believed, (yet) the Lord afterwards, in disarming Peter, ungirded every soldier. No dress is lawful among us which is assigned to an unlawful action.” (The military oath asks too much of a man who owes his allegiance to Christ.)[39]

In another work, (De Corona Militis), written in 211 A.D., Tertullianus writes: “Do we believe that…(a Christian) may (give a promise in) answer to another master after Christ…? Will it be lawful for him to occupy himself with the sword, when the Lord declares that he who uses the sword will perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace, for whom it will be unfitting even to go to law, be engaged in a battle? And shall he, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs, administer chains and imprisonment and tortures and executions? Shall he now go on guard for another more than for Christ, or (shall he do it) on the Lord's Day, when (he does) not (do it even) for Christ? And shall he keep watch before temples, which he has renounced? And shall he carry a flag, too, that is a rival to Christ? And shall he ask for a watchword from his chief, when he has already received one from God? And (when he is) dead, shall he be disturbed by the bugler's trumpet—he who expects to be roused by the trumpet of the angel? (And) how many other sins can be seen (to belong) to the functions of camp (life)—(sins) which must be explained as transgressions (of God’s law)…If the faith comes subsequently to any (who are) already occupied in military service…when faith has been accepted and signed, either the service must be left at once, as has been done by many, or else to resolve to endure death for God…Faith knows not the meaning of the word ‘compulsion.’”[40]

Commenting on these forceful views of Tertullianus, Cadoux says: “It is a mistake to regard Tertullianus as an individual dissenter from the Church as a whole on this question of whether Christians ought to serve in the army or not…When we consider these views…agree with the testimony of Origenes and the oldest Church-Orders as to the normal Christian practice in the earliest part of the third century, and were apparently endorsed by so representative a churchman as his own fellow countrymen and admirer Cyprianus, we shall hardly be inclined to believe that at this time he was voicing the opinion of a minority of Christians, still less that he represented the views of a mere handful of fanatical extremists.”[41]

Letter from Confessors in Prison at Rome (250 A.D.)

“The confessors of Rome wrote from prison to their brethren of Africa: ‘What more glorious and blessed lot can fall to man by the grace of God, than to confess God the Lord amidst tortures and in the face of death itself…to become fellow-sufferers with Christ?...Pray for us, then…that the Lord, the best captain, would daily strengthen each one of us more and more, and at last lead us to the field as faithful soldiers, armed with those divine weapons (Eph. 6:2) which can never be conquered.’”[42]

D. Example of Early Christian Believers

1. Attitude Toward Military Life as a Vocational Calling

“No Christian (from 70-110 A.D.)…would voluntarily become a soldier after conversion: He would be deterred from doing so, not only by fear of contamination by idolatry, but also by a natural reluctance—and doubtless in many cases by a conscientious objection to using arms.

“There were certain features of military life which could not have failed to thrust themselves on a Christian’s notice as presenting, to say the least, great ethical difficulty. The shedding of blood on the battlefield, the passing of death sentences by officers and the execution of them by common soldiers, the judicial infliction of scourging, torture, and crucifixion, the unconditional military oath…the average behavior of soldiers in peacetime, and other idolatrous and offensive customs—all of these could constitute in combination an exceedingly powerful deterrent against any Christian joining the army on his own initiative.”[43]

Harnack: “The position of a soldier would seem to be still more incompatible with Christianity than the higher offices of state, for Christianity prohibited on principle both war and bloodshed…We shall see that the Christian ethic forbade war absolutely (überhaupt) to the Christians…Had not Jesus forbidden all revenge, even all retaliation for wrong, and taught complete gentleness and patience? And was not the military calling moreover contemptible on account of its extortions, acts of violence, and police service? Certainly: and from that it followed without question, that a Christian might not of his free will become a soldier.”[44]

“It has been sometimes said, that the motive which influenced the early Christians to refuse to engage in war, consisted in the idolatry which was connected with the Roman armies. One motive this idolatry unquestionable afforded; but it is obvious from the quotations which we have given, that their belief of the unlawfulness of fighting, independent of any question of idolatry, was an insuperable objection to engaging in war. Their words are explicit: ‘I cannot fight if I die.’ ‘I am a Christian, and, therefore, I cannot fight.’ ‘Christ, by disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier,’ and Peter was not about to fight in the armies of idolatry.”[45]

“It is also interesting that neither Celsus, nor Origenes in replying to him, alludes explicitly to the fear of contamination with idolatry as the Christians’ (sole) reason for refraining from military service: Celsus does not say what their ground was; but Origenes makes it perfectly clear elsewhere in this treatise that it was the moral objection to bloodshed by which they were mainly actuated.”[46]

“The prohibition of military service was partly due to the consideration that the soldier was required to compromise his faith by participation in the pagan rites associated with Roman warfare, and to jeopardize his character by association with brutal and licentious comrades, but objection was also taken on principle to the military profession, and was supported by arguments such as these—that the military oath was inconsistent with the pledge of loyalty to Christ, that Christ had warned His disciples against taking the sword (Matt. 26:52), that, if the lesser strife of litigation be forbidden, much more is the greater (1 Cor. 6:7), that, if it be unlawful to fight on our own behalf, it is also unlawful to fight in the quarrels of others, and especially that in war men fight to kill, and that intentional killing is murder.”[47]

“Christians objected not only to war, but also because soldiers were called upon to execute death sentences. Then, too, army service was intimately bound up with the religious-political system of emperor worship, which Christians believed was a form of idolatry.”[48]

“Gibbon, writing in 1776, said of the imperial Roman armies: ‘The common soldiers, like the mercenary troops of modern Europe, were drawn from the meanest, and very frequently from the most profligate, of mankind.’ Harnack says: ‘The conduct of the soldiers during peace was as opposed to Christian ethics as their wild debauchery and sports at the Pagan festivals.’ Marcus Aurelius called successful soldiers robbers; but he was a soldier himself, and was obliged to fill his ranks with gladiators, slaves, and Dalmation brigands.”[49]

“This collection of passages will suffice to show how strong and deep was the early Christian revulsion from the disapproval of war, both on account of the dissension it represented and of the infliction of bloodshed and suffering it involved. The quotations show further how closely warfare and murder were connected in Christian thought by their possession of a common element—homicide…The strong disapprobation felt by Christians for war was due to its close relationship with the deadly sin (of murder) that sufficed to keep the men guilty of it permanently outside the Christian community.

“It has already been remarked that the sentiments expressed by (early) Christian authors in regard to the iniquity of war, the essentially peaceful character of Christianity, the fulfillment of the great plowshare prophecy in the birth and growth of the Church, the duty of loving enemies, and so on, all point to the refusal to bear arms as their logical implicate in practice.”[50]

(a) Summary of Objections to Military Service

(1) Refusal to kill—on authority of Ten Commandments and Jesus’ teaching.

(2) Refusal to bear arms—on authority of Master’s command not to take sword.

(3) Refusal to violate Christian principles—love, gentleness, and patience replacing hate, revenge, strife, and envy.

(4) Refusal to abide by unconditional military oath on ground of inconsistency with the pledge of loyalty to Christ.

(5) Refusal to comply with military life which necessitated:

Police service.
Acts of violence, scourging, torture, crucifixion.
Association with brutal and licentious comrades.
Contamination by idolatry, emperor worship, and pagan rites.

2. Christian Refusal of Induction: Martyrdom 

Maximilianus (295 A.D.)

“Maximilianus, a young Numidian Christian, just over 21, was brought before Dion the proconsul of Africia at Teveste (Numidia) as fit for military service. This was in 295 A.D. during the reign of Maximilianus.

“Maximilianus answered, ‘But why do you want to know my name? I dare not fight, since I am a Christian.’ ‘Measure him,’ said Dion the proconsul; but on being measured, Maximilianus answered, ‘I cannot fight, I cannot do evil; I am a Christian.’ Said the proconsul, ‘Let him be measured.’ And after he had been measured, the attendant read out ‘He is five feet ten.’ Then said Dion to the attendant, ‘Enroll him.’ And Maximilianus cried out, ‘No, no, I cannot be a soldier, I am a soldier of my God. I refuse the badge. Already I have Christ’s badge…If you mark me, I shall annul it as invalid…I cannot wear ought laden on my neck after the saving mark of my Lord.’ To the proconsul’s question as to what crime soldiers practiced, Maximilianus replied, ‘You know quite well what they do.’” Maximilianus was beheaded.

Unknown to most Roman Catholics, Maximilianus has been honored as one of the canonized saints of the church, though he died as a conscientious objector![51]

Typasius (305 A.D.)

“Typasius, who (earlier) had served honorably as a soldier in Mauretania and had been discharged because he desired to devote himself wholly to religion, refused to re-enter the service when recalled to the ranks and suffered martyrdom.”[52]

3. Desertion after Conversion: Martyrdom

“During the early period of Christianity, soldiers who were converted usually left the army immediately, although such action might mean death or other severe punishment.”[53]

“The primitive Christians not only refused to be enlisted in the army, but when they embraced Christianity whilst already enlisted, they abandoned the profession at whatever cost…These were not the sentiments, and this was not the conduct, of the insulated individuals who might be actuated by individual opinions, or by their private interpretations of the duties of Christianity. Their principles were the principles of the body. They were recognized and defended by the Christian writers their contemporaries.”[54]

Achilleus and Nereus

“Pope Damasus (366-384 A.D.), who took a great interest in the records and tombs of the martyrs, put up an epitaph to two praetorian soldiers, Nereus and Achilleus, who, he says ‘had given (their) names to military service, and were carrying on (their) cruel duty (but) suddenly laid aside (their) madness, turned around (and) fled; they leave the general’s impious camp, cast down (their) shields, helmets, and bloodstained weapons; they confess, and bear (along) with joy the triumph of Christ’: they were put to death with the sword.”[55]


“Julius, who suffered martyrdom in Moesia, said to the judge at his trial: ‘During the time that I was, as it appears, going astray in vain service of war, for twenty-seven years I never came before the judge as an offender or a plaintiff. Seven times did I go out on a campaign, and I stood behind no one, and I fought as well as any. The commander never saw me go wrong; and dost thou think that I, who had been found faithful in the worse things, can now be found unfaithful in the better?”[56]

Marcellus (298 A.D.)

Marcellus had been a centurion in the Roman army, but “in 298 A.D. took the initiative and insisted on resigning from his office. On the occasion of the Emperor’s birthday, he cast off his military belt before the standards, and called out: ‘I serve Jesus Christ, the eternal king.’ Then he threw down his vine staff and arms, and added: ‘I cease from this military service of your Emperors, and I scorn to adore your gods of stone and wood, which are deaf and dumb idols. If such is the position of those who render military service, that they should be compelled to sacrifice to gods and emperors, I renounce the standards, and I refuse to serve as a soldier.’

“While the objection to sacrifice thus appears as the main ground for the bold step Marcellus took, it is clear that he was also exercised over the nature of the military service as such: for his last words to the judge were: ‘I threw down (my arms); for it was not seemly that a Christian man, who renders military service to the Lord Christ, should render it (also) by (inflicting) earthly injuries.’

“When he was sentenced to death, Cassianus, the clerk of the court, loudly protested, and flung his writing materials on the ground, declaring that the sentence was unjust: he suffered death a few days after Marcellus.”[57]


“Martin, of whom so much is said by Sulpicius Severus, was bred to the profession of arms, which on his acceptance of Christianity, he abandoned.”[58]

Tarakhos (304 A.D.)

“Tarakhos of Cilicia, on trial because he had left the army, told the governor he had been a soldier, ‘but because I was a Christian, I have now chosen to be a civilian.’” He was martyred in 304 A.D.[59]

4. Action of Christians in Jewish Insurrections 

First Revolt (66-70 A.D.)

“Shortly before the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans, the Christians of that city, in obedience to ‘an oracular response given by revelation to approved men there’ left Jerusalem, and settled at Pella in Peraea, thus taking no part in the war against Rome.”[60]

Second Revolt (132-135 A.D.)

An insight into the conduct of Christians during this second revolt of the Jews against Rome is afforded by ancient scroll and manuscript findings discovered since 1947 in the Holy Land. The following is an excerpt from a newspaper article entitled “New Scrolls Aid Testament Study” which described some of these findings.

“Experts have asserted that it will take decades to decipher these manuscripts and reassemble their fragments…but…one possible early reference to Christians has been deciphered. A freshly translated letter written by Simon ben Kaseba, leader of a Holy Land revolt from A.D. 132-135, refers to a group of ‘neutralists’ in the war between Rome and Jewish insurgents. They are called ‘Galileans,’ and conceivably may be Christians.”[61]

5. Attitude Toward Gladiatorial Contests

“It was not only looking askance at military service that Christians separated themselves from the secular life about them. Far more sweeping was their condemnation of some of the most prominent of the prevailing amusements. It is, of course, a commonplace that among the outstanding popular forms of entertainment of the pre-Christian Roman Empire were the theatre, gladiatorial combats and contests between beasts and men…For gladiatorial combats and the theatre many of the leading Christians had nothing but condemnation. There was a time when the Church refused to receive for baptism a professional gladiator unless he promised to surrender his calling, and excluded from the communion those of its members who entered the games.”[62]

“The brutality of gladiatorial combats was something on which a Christian could not voluntarily gaze.”[63]

“So entire was (the early Christian) conviction of the incompatibility of war with our religion, that they would not even be present at the gladiatorial fights, ‘lest we should become partakers of the murders committed there.’ (Theophilus). Can anyone believe that they who would not even witness a battle between two men, would themselves fight in a battle between armies?”[64]

“The opposition of the Church, had, of course, at first only a moral effect, but in the fourth century it began to affect legislation, and succeeded at last in banishing at least the bloody gladiatorial games from the civilized world. (The historical Lecky comments: ‘There is scarcely any other single reform so important in the moral history of mankind as the suppression of the gladiatorial shows, and this feat must be almost exclusively ascribed to the Christian Church.’)”[65]

E. Military Non-Conformity
Cause of Roman Persecutions

Cadoux, commenting on the various cases of early Christians who either refused induction into the military or deserted the service after conversion, says: “It is probably true that such instances of refusal were sufficiently numerous to have helped to bring about that imperial suspicion and dislike, out of which sprang the great persecution of 303 A.D.”[66]

“Then, too, the conscientious refusal of the Christians to pay divine honors to the emperor and his statue, and to take part in any idolatrous ceremonies at public festivities, their aversion to the imperial military service, their disregard for politics and depreciation of all civil and temporal affairs as compared with the spiritual and eternal interests of man, their close brotherly union and frequent meetings, drew upon them the suspicion of hostility to the Caesars and the Roman people, and the unpardonable crime of conspiracy against the state.”67 (From section entitled “Causes of Roman Persecution—Obstacles to the Toleration of Christianity.”)

“The comparative indifference and partial aversion of the Christians to the affairs of the state, to civil legislation, and administration, exposed them to frequent reproach and contempt of the heathens. Their want of patriotism was partly the result of their superior devotion to the church as their country, partly of their situation in a hostile world…They fervently and regularly prayed for the emperor and the state, their enemies and persecutors. They were the most peaceful subjects, and during this long period of almost constant provocation, abuse, and persecutions, they never took part in those frequent insurrections and rebellions which weakened and undermined the empire. They renovated society from within, by revealing in their lives as well as in their doctrine a higher order of private and public virtue, and thus proved themselves patriots in the best sense of the word.”68 (From the section entitled “Secular Callings and Civil Duties.”)

F. Summary


“The early Christians took Jesus at his word, and understood his inculcations of gentleness and non-resistance in their literal sense. They strongly identified their religion with peace; they strongly condemned war for the bloodshed which it involved; they appropriated to themselves the Old Testament prophecy which foretold the transformation of the weapons of war into the implements of agriculture; they declared that it was their policy to return good for evil and to conquer evil with good.

“With one or two possible exceptions, no soldier joined the Church and remained a soldier until the time of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 A.D.). Even then, refusal to serve was known to be the normal policy of the Christians—as the reproaches of Celsus testify (177-180 A.D.). In the time of Tertullianus (200-210 A.D.), many soldiers had left the army on their conversion.

“While a general distrust of ambition and a horror of contamination of idolatry entered largely into the Christian aversion to military service, the sense of the utter contradiction between the work of imprisoning, torturing, wounding, and killing, on the one hand, and the Master’s teaching on the other, constituted an equally fatal and conclusive objection.”[69]


“It is, therefore, indisputable that the Christians who lived nearest to the time of the Saviour, believed, with undoubting confidence, that He had unequivocally forbidden war—that they openly avowed this belief, and that, in support of it, they were willing to sacrifice, and did sacrifice, their fortunes and their lives.”[70]


“The declarations made before the military judges by conscientious objectors are only repetitions of what has been said since the appearance of the Christian doctrine. The most ardent and sincere fathers of the Church declared the teaching of Christ to be incompatible with…armed force; in other words, a Christian must not be a soldier, prepared to kill every one that he is ordered to do.”[71]