Outside the pages of Acts, perhaps no time in the church is as celebrated as its first three centuries. The early church is often looked upon with romantic notions, as a church that–despite its violent world—radically lived under a new covenant of peace. The early church is viewed as a church quite unlike the politically polarized church of our day, which took its citizenship in Christ’s Kingdom more seriously than its obligations to the empire around it. In its first three centuries, the relationship between the church and the conquerors of civilization was one of opposing goals and definitions of victory. The early church and pagan state both wanted peace, and made great sacrifices to purchase it, but whereas the soldiers vanquished their enemies with glittering arms, the church made war with praying hands. The tainted love story of church and state had its first kiss in the military of ancient Rome, and we are the children their matrimony.
There are many ethical objections to military service, namely how is it possible to love one’s enemies even as a person’s job necessitates killing them? I cannot spare room for the inherent tensions between the morality of kingdom ethics and the use of lethal force. That is not the purpose of this paper. The purpose of this paper is to explore the complex relationship between the faithful and the fierce, from the time of the closing pages of Acts to the opening of Constantine’s vision. It is the tale of the mystics, the martyrs, and the militants of the Old Roman Empire. This story follows a timeline that spans the geographical edges of an empire, the cultural gap between city and country, and the permeable barriers of church and state.
Not Your Daddy’s Military Service…
Serving as a soldier in the Roman military—if one survived until retirement—came not only with the monetary potential for purchasing citizenship, but carried with it the promise of land and a significant monetary bonus upon honorable discharge.[i] Adolph Harnack, a noted historian, points out many of the daunting hardships a Christian would surely face while serving the empire: The military required of its members an oath of unconditional and unquestioned obedience that had the potential to conflict with sole obedience to God; a dishonorable discharge meant a death sentence, and desertion an act of treason. The military was also the stronghold of the Cult of the Emperor, engaging in unavoidable public worship of the emperor a minimum of three times a year. The military standards and honors were intimately tied up in the worship of Mithra, with her likeness emblazoned on every helmet. Aside from the obvious problem of idolatry and the ethical problem inherent in killing people, even in peacetime it was common practice for soldiers to put down violent uprisings, extort money, torture confessions out of suspects, and carry out death sentences.[ii] Moreover, the Roman military was the muscle behind nearly every act of persecution experienced by the church,[iii] outside the comparatively mild persecution from the Jews.
While the church often used military language and metaphors of a soldier’s tenacity and obedience[iv], a baptized Christian would largely avoid military service if that person could avoid it.[v] Beyond the favorable impression of centurions mentioned in New Testament times, the history between the church and the Roman military had largely been a lethal one. Let us not forget that Jesus, Peter, and Paul were all killed by Roman soldiers.[vi] For a baptized Christian to seek to serve in the military could easily mean being ordered to persecute fellow church members. Military service certainly meant constant pressure to kill, engage in idolatry, and potentially compromise every aspect of one’s faith.[vii] Hippolytus of Rome listed military service as an occupation to be left before church membership. He listed it along with other professions like pimping, sculpting idols, prostitution, and being a magician or astrologer.[viii] These professions all had elements of either immorality or idolatry, but the military profession had both[ix] In the case of a convert who was already a member of the Roman army, the decision between desertion and remaining in the condition in which they were called[x] was often a choice between equally lethal alternatives.
From the Time of Acts to Marcus Aurelius (70-161 C.E.)
According to John Helgeland, there are three camps of historians weighing the evidence surrounding Christians serving in the Roman military, they are Roman Catholic, pacifist Protestant, and what Helgeland calls “establishment Protestant.” Roman Catholics see the medieval period as normative, and minimize the countercultural aspects of the patristic writings. They frame the problems regarding military service as largely one of its inherently idolatrous practices. The Protestant pacifists, while addressing the idolatry issue squarely, look at the Sermon on the Mount as normative, and tend to use heavily the writings in the Church Fathers that echo this perspective. Those in the Lutheran camp are harder to classify but tend to be somewhere in between these poles.[xi]
As far as anyone knows, before around 175, there is no evidence of any Christians serving in the military.[xii] As most Christians in the 1st century were of Jewish lineage and were initially seen as a Jewish sect, they were largely exempt from service in the Roman Army.[xiii] The Jerusalem Christians, forewarned by Jesus of the coming fall of Jerusalem to Vespasian and Titus, evidently did not join the Jewish rebellion or attempt to defend the city.[xiv]
Scholars who lean toward a Just War tradition look to this period of silence as affirming their beliefs that Christians must have served in the military. Their argument is that Christian military service was so normative as to go without mention,[xv] but the military was made up of only a small fraction of the general population. The Christian religion was also a small fraction of the populous, making overlap rare.[xvi] Also, most troops were stationed on the borders of the empire, not the central region where Christianity thrived.[xvii] It would be easy to conclude the lack of evidence as somehow proving a lack of Christian soldiers, yet a lack of evidence is not exactly “evidence of a lack.” Despite the great difficulties involved in Christians serving in the Roman military, it is likely that some people attempted it anyway at great personal risk.
Marcus Aurelius to Decius (161-251 C.E.)
During the rise of Marcus Aurelius, there is clear evidence of a Christian presence in the military. There was also a sharp decline in population, coupled with the growing threat of the barbarian hordes, which lead to massive conscription into the military.[xviii] Conscription was mandatory, giving Christians the “choice” between serving with only the potential of death, paying a significant sum for a substitute to serve in one’s place, or refusing—and immediately paying with one’s life.[xix] Conscription was largely from the affected regions on the outskirts of the empire, which by that time had started to become centers around which Christianity thrived, such as Meletine in southern Armenia. This made it inevitable that Christians would be found among the Legionnaires.[xx]
Eusibius, the first church historian, substantiates that a cohort called the “Thundering Legion” served Marcus Aurelius in 173 C.E.[xxi] According to Eusibius’s account, during the campaign against Quadi, the Romans found themselves facing a serious lack of water. The considerable number of Christians in the Thundering Legion prayed for water. It then rained, refreshing the Romans, and stormed, harassing their enemies.[xxii] Some point to the name thundering (Fulminata), “struck with awe,” as given by Marcus Aurelius as a reward validating the Christian presence in the military, but the name went back to Octavian.[xxiii] It is significant that both pacifism and militarism existed at this time; Even as Celsus famously argued with Origen about how the State would fall if everyone became a Christian and refused to fight, some Christians were already painting Christian symbols on their banners of war.[xxiv]
This great influx of Christian soldiers, and the rapidly changing events of 197 C.E., moved Tertullian to begin writing extensive moral arguments against Christians participating in military service. He wrote his Apologeticum initially, criticizing the church for their presence in the palace, the senate, the forum, and the army. He followed this work with De Corona and De Idolataria fifteen years later, the former of which describes many Christians leaving the ranks of the army.[xxv] Though his reputation is largely tarnished by his conversion to Montanism, one should not overlook that this massive military surge may have been a primary factor in Tertullian’s departure from the church.[xxvi]
Many drastic changes occurred during the time of the early Severan rulers resulting in brief periods of anarchy, especially after the murder of Marcus’s son Commodus. [xxvii] The Senate temporarily held power, but a corrupt military led eventually to the rise of Septimius Severus. Septimius knew the only way for him to keep his power was to greatly reward the military and set up a rural quasi-military rule. He did this by giving soldiers land.[xxviii] This militarized the empire as never before and added much respectability and prestige to soldiers.[xxix]
Roland Bainton, a noted pacifist scholar, points to three regions within the empire that had differing streams of thought on military service: The greatest rejection of military service was in the Hellenistic east. The church in North Africa was divided over the issue, while the Roman church permitted epitaphs regarding the military profession. The region of the Eastern frontier had the most Christian military activity, though there were also people in the region who protested this and held to a peaceful monastic and ascetic ideal.[xxx]
There is no question that Christians of this time clearly saw the stability of the Roman Empire as helpful in the spread of Christianity, and even prayed for the continuing success of the empire.[xxxi] On the other hand, many voices like those of Tertullian, Cyprian, Anethagoras, Hippolytus, Origen, and Minicus Felix raised objections to their fellow Christians violently participating in the achievement of those ends.[xxxii] Origen was famously criticized for his pacifism by a critic named Celsus. Celsus asked what would happen if the entire empire was like Origen in refusing to fight, charging that the empire would be overrun by barbarians. To this Origen replied that if the empire would be like him, then the barbarians would also became Christians, and they too would be peaceful and mild. Origen truly believed that ultimately Christianity would prevail in the end.[xxxiii] Some write off Origen and Tertullian—the clearest pacifists—as extremists or heretics, and attempt to wrangle many of the other Fathers’ writings into categories of nonspecific murder or idolatry.[xxxiv] This author, however, finds their quotes most compelling and direct, moving beyond mere metaphor to application. These Christians obviously recognized an obligation to their government, though they saw their service as one apart from military service: They prayed against the demonic forces that caused war to manifest itself instead.[xxxv]
Decius to Constantine’s Vision (251-312 C.E.)
During the reign of Emperor Decius, Christians tried their best to avoid a persecution. They were unsuccessful.[xxxvi] There is evidence in the writings of Cyprian of two martyred soldiers during Decius’s persecution. One such soldier, Besas, was killed in Alexandria for rebuking fellow soldiers who insulted Christian martyrs.[xxxvii] Another story recounts the trial of a Christian soldier close to recanting his faith to spare his life. Other Christian soldiers in the audience drew notice and confessed they too were Christians, casting their lot with their unstable brother.[xxxviii] These soldiers died explicitly for their faith, not the casting off of their weapons. This marks a definite shift toward Christian military service becoming more commonplace.[xxxix]
Gallienus, the son of the great persecutor of the church Valerian, reversed his father’s policies, granting a short-lived edict of toleration. The purpose of his edict was not a benevolent one; Gallienus thought the best way to get rid of Christians was through a revival of paganism instead of overt violent persecution. He, however, did set a useful precedent in respecting and acknowledging church property.[xl] During Gallienus’s rule, but outside its effectiveness in Caesarea of Palestine, a soldier named Marinius was about to be promoted to centurion after a distinguished military career when a rival said it was illegal because he was a Christian. After a short period of deliberation, a sword and a copy of the Gospels were placed before him and he was made to choose one or the other. He chose the Gospels and was immediately put to death. He, however, clearly saw no previous conflict between his faith and faithful service in the military.[xli]
The Christian within the military had become increasingly common, but there rose up something of a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy within the Roman military, with officials no longer openly searching for Christians in their ranks.[xlii] Diocletian later rose to power in 286 C.E. He saw himself and the rest of the tetrarchy as representatives of Hercules and Jupiter. Diocletian pushed for serious military reform after a Christian soldier’s sign of the cross seemed to disrupt a divination ceremony. He commanded everyone present to offer a sacrifice to pagan gods and anyone who did not was scourged. He also immediately sent out letters that all Christians were to be dishonorably dismissed from the military. This was a nonlethal way to avoid the growing religious conflict, but cost the soldiers who left their land and pensions.[xliii]
Many Christian soldiers were put to death for various reasons before and after this time. Maximilian was executed for refusing to wear his seal or signa. Similarly, Marcellus, a Centurion was beheaded for violating his military oath for denouncing the standards as false gods and throwing off his military belt.[xliv] During this time, a great number of military as well as nonmilitary martyrs lost their lives. One viewpoint of the persecution is that these soldiers were not merely lax in their faith, for no one would die for a lax faith.[xlv] One could also point out that most of these were not recalled retired soldiers.[xlvi] They must have openly denied their faith at some level to stay after Diocletian’s edict to remain in the army, perhaps to collect their land and pensions.
After Diocletian grew ill and was feared close to death, Galerius seized the opportunity to escalate the persecution of soldiers into a life-or-death struggle. He initially made no compromise toward toleration for the Christian soldier. [xlvii] The persecution in the army spilled outside it to a vicious persecution of the church as a whole. A great deal of blood flowed from 303-311. Galerius contracted a strange disease after which, even while berating Christians, he grudgingly granted them a decree of toleration. This was a moment of decisive change in the church, for in a few short months Constantine put the sign of the cross on his soldiers’ shields.[xlviii] His famous vision and subsequent victory would eventually forever blend the church and state, and continue to both profit and plague the story of Christianity far beyond the western world. After Constantine’s rise to power, the Edict of Toleration ended the persecution of soldiers. A few short decades later, no one—without first declaring one’s self a Christian—would be permitted to join the Roman military at all.
Application and Conclusion
The romanticism of the American dream and its ancient Roman counterpart have both made their syncretistic mark on the church. We have often so blended the Christian faith with the dream of Pax Americana that mission work, martyrdom, and military service have become one and the same in the eyes of many in our churches. We are grateful for freedom of religion, but the same danger the church faced as it attempted to baptize the empire—namely losing the sincerity of the Gospel—is just as real for us today. The goals and methods of empire, while often beneficial to the work of the church, are not the work itself. As conjoined children of the marriage of church and state, we must allow the scalpel of God’s grace to reshape our vision of victory back to its ancient parameters of love.
As the early church did, we should not hesitate to ponder the ways in which joining the military may make Christians choose between following orders and persecuting the church. Even though this persecution will probably not take place among us churchgoers in the United States, the church is truly the global family of God. Aside from the blinding pride of patriotism and pat answers about the grace of God, we should ask ourselves seriously if we are comfortable helping our government to even unwittingly bring violence and death upon other believers, simply because “they” happen to be born in Afghanistan or Iraq, and “we” happen to be born in America? We cannot take lightly the ramifications of supporting the bombing of those whose only knowledge of Christ may have been hearing His name as a curse word. While the hindrances to the spreading of the Gospel are minimized within the peaceful interior of our country, they are maximized in places that see Christianity as an extension of the “battle for hearts and minds” of an aggressive occupation. If Christianity remains wedded to empire, then political scandals like Abu Guraib, Gitmo, and Blackwater cast their shadows on the feet of those bringing the Good News of Jesus. In our world of instant mobile videos and social media, we can no longer be seen as a religion that glorifies violence; the grit and stain of which circumnavigate the globe in seconds.
Soldiers are great examples of determination and bravery, and will always be alive in the swashbuckling fantasies of young and old alike. Yet, we would do well to celebrate other kinds of heroes who do not use violence against other people for whom Christ died. The examples of Martin Luther King Jr., Leo Tolstoy, or Nelson Mandela enrich our faith in the power and sovereignty of God as greatly as military figures like Charlemagne or Joan of Arc ever could. We would do well to hold fast to the fact that we serve a Prince of Peace and God of love, not the Judas Maccabeus-type Messiah many Jews still hope for today.
Just as long ago, war is spoken of as a matter of necessity, and what war was not fought to “liberate the barbarian from their barbarity”? We often think supporting “our troops” is the most important thing an American can do to show appreciation for his or her freedom. After all, is not the sacrifice of a soldier as close as anything a person can do to what Jesus did for another? This very thinking is a long evolution beyond the military metaphors of the New Testament and early church.[xlix] The witness of the very pioneers of our faith for nearly the first 300 years challenges this conclusion on every level, yet we are largely ignorant of their courageous words—so relevant today. The early church benefitted greatly from the efforts of soldiers, just as we do. As they did, we should not minimize the power of prayer or limit its focus merely to “our troops.” The pragmatic vision of freedom enforced by our government is as a wet Fourth of July sparkler to the peaceful vision that is the Kingdom of God. Let us allow God’s grace to redefine the goals of true victory in our hearts, and give us eyes to see that battles can also be won with praying hands.
[i]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,” Theological Studies 13 (1952): 19.
[ii]Adolf Harnack, Militia Christi: the Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries (Philadelphia: Polebridge Press Westar Institute, 1981), 46.
[iii]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,”11.
[iv]Henry Cadbury, “The Basis of Early Christian Militarism,” Journal of Biblical Literature 37, no. 1 (1918):6.
[v]Harnack, Militia Christi, 48.
[vii]Thomas Hall, “Christianity and Politics: I. The Hope of the Early Church,” The Biblical World 41, no. 1 (Jan. 1913):7.
[viii]John Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” Church History 43, no. 2 (June, 1974):154.
[x]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,” 9. Quoting 1 Cor 7:21.
[xi]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 149-150.
[xii]Stephen Gero, “Miles Gloriosus: The Christian and Military Service According to Tertullian,” Church History 39, no. 3 (Sep. 1970): 289.
[xiii]Peter Brock, Pacifism in Europe to 1914. (Princeton, N.J.,: Princeton University Press, 1972), 9.
[xiv]C. John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War: a Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics (New York: Gordon Pr Pubs, 1978), 98.
[xv]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,”9.
[xvi]Roland Bainton, “The Early Church and War,” Harvard Theological Review 39, no. 3 (July 1946): 193.
[xviii]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,”13.
[xxi]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 155.
[xxii] Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War, 229.
[xxiii]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 157.
[xxiv] Harnack, Militia Christi, 73-74; Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation (Roland Bainton Reprints) (Nashville: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2008), 68.
[xxv]Bainton, “The Early Church and War,”192.
[xxvi] Gero, “Miles Gloriosus,” 298.
[xxviii]Gero, “Miles Gloriosus,”290.
[xxx]Bainton, “The Early Church and War,”195.
[xxxi]James Childress, “Moral Discourse About War in the Early Church,” Journal of Religious Ethics 12 (Spring 1984):9.
[xxxii]Cadbury, “The Basis of Early Christian Militarism,”80-82; Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 153-155; Bainton, “The Early Church and War,” 209.
[xxxiii]Childress, “Moral Discourse About War in the Early Church,” 7-8.
[xxxiv]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 153-155; Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,” 14; J. Harold Ellens, ed., The Destructive Power of Religion: Violence in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, vol. 3 of Contemporary Psychology (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Pub Group, 2004), 224.
[xxxv] Bainton, “The Early Church and War,”206.
[xxxvi]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,”23.
[xxxvii] Ibid, 24.
[xxxix]Bainton, “The Early Church and War,”192.
[xl] Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,” 24.
[xli] Ibid, 24-25.
[xlii]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 159.
[xliv]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” 158.
[xlv]Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,” 27.
[xlvi]Helgeland, “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,”158-160.
[xlvii] Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians,” 26.
[xlviii] Ibid 27.
[xlix] This slow transformation is the subject of Adolf Harnack’s book Militia Christi, which traces the roots of the crusades to the military metaphors of the New Testament and Church Fathers.
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