Once I happened to sit down at a college cafeteria near two other faculty members. The college was a secular one, and these particular faculty members were rather difficult people. One of them (an English teacher who had, incidentally, told one of my good students she was too stupid to learn), remarked that she supported the other one’s (an administrator) idea that all young people should be required to spend a year or two in military service, starting at age 18. I suppose the suggestion had some merit, especially in the context of irresponsible college students who “needed to be taught some discipline.”
The above context, though, is not the one in which I now write, nor is it the one that gave rise to the question-and-answer to which I will refer below. Here, I will share a response to a question asked of a scholar about early Christians and armed service. I will then offer some historical context and further thoughts on Christians in military roles. [If you don’t have much time and want to skip to the bottom line, scroll down to the two inset paragraphs that begin “The first question and “The second question.”] First, two preemptive considerations:
- Even a top-shelf scholar can be caught somewhat off guard with a question. He may not offer as circumspect or thorough an oral answer as he might have given in writing.
- The particular pursuits of an academic can (sometimes appropriately) color or influence the direction of a response. In this case, I would say that Dr. Larry Hurtado took a rather simple question in a somewhat more complex direction.
The question was posed to Hurtado by an audience member at a Lanier Theological Library (Houston area) lecture¹ and was relayed by the host/moderator Mark Lanier.
“Did early Christians participate in Roman military service? Did they fight wars?”
Yes, at some point we know that there are Christian soldiers, because of course there are examples of Christian soldiers who identify themselves as Christians and in some cases are martyred.
[There are …] Early Christianity in the pre-Constantinian period seems to have been … seems to have differed over this. You have some people who are saying that you can’t be a solider; it’s incompatible. Of course the reason for it is not simply because you’re participating in or may have to participate in violence, but all of the Roman legions had their own tutelary deities which were represented in standards that were borne by the troops, and the troops were expected to engage in cultic devotion and sacrifices to those gods, those standards, to protect them in battle, and so it would be difficult for a Christian to participate in that.
And so we don’t know what the Christian soldiers did on those occasions … you know, did they sort of look at their shoes while this was going on, or … um, or something, we don’t know…. um … various devices had to be formed.
So, we know that there were Christian soldiers from at least the 2nd century and perhaps even earlier … but there were other Christians who said it was wrong for Christians to be soldiers.
Praetorian Guard, Philippians.
[affirmative] [Please see further comment on the Praetorian/Imperial Guard in the appendix to this post here. -bc]
~ ~ ~
I assume Hurtado’s note that there were Christian soldiers who “in some cases are martyred” was about martyrdom for Christian faith and practice; however, I wonder whether the cause of death might be undetermined.
In offering some commentary here about the rest of the response, I am not questioning Hurtado’s sense of early Christian history and culture as they intersect with Roman military symbolism and the “deities” that were supposed to protect fighting men in battle. Hurtado’s stature in the field of Christian origins is celebrated, and I do not think I would be exaggerating to say he is something of a guru. Personally, I am frequently instructed by his teaching on the historical setting of early Christianity, the devotion of early Christian adherents, and Christology. Specifically, the matter of symbols that called for idolatrous response is an important one that deserves attention. However, the audience member’s question was not slanted toward worship and allegiance, and I think the answer could have been simpler. With hindsight, I might have rearranged and expanded his words to provide a more concise, on-target answer like this:
Even in the pre-Constantinian period, Christians seem to have differed over this. We know that there were at least some Christian soldiers from at least the second century and presumably earlier, but there were other Christians who said it was wrong for Christians to be soldiers, because it’s incompatible with Christ’s example and teachings. The violence issue was certainly a key, as was the related matter of allegiance to Roman “deities.”
Of course, being many centuries removed, we have no first-hand knowledge and few written details. While there are some documented examples of first-century Christian adherents with apparently military titles and/or roles, exactly what they did or didn’t do is unknown. It has been presumed that the famous first-century cases of Cornelius (Acts 10-11) and the centurion who approached Jesus (Matt 8 and Luke 7) are exemplars; however, the canonical writings speak neither to those men’s specific activities nor to any perpetuity (or lack of it) of military service after putting on Christ. I take those scriptural examples as intriguing but not specifically instructive. Men who became believers while serving in a military role might have taken one of several courses of action after becoming Christian. The few NT cases are not presented as normative ethical/spiritual paragons in any event.
A related inquiry would involve what the actual job description was for a given Roman military man. Some seem to have performed something akin to “civil service.” In any event, the preponderance of literary evidence, both in canonical scripture and in other sources, suggests that Christian involvement in military or other government functions was spotty to rare, at least for the first couple of centuries. Things changed markedly in the time of the emperor Constantine and beyond, but I doubt there was ever an absolute line in the sand. Both in the earlier times and after Constantine, doubtless some Christians were less committed than others to nonviolence and to giving absolute, singular allegiance to the sovereign God. Perhaps beliefs and practices were regional or correlated with certain groups or sects. (Today, as well, some denominations approve certain practices while others do not. In any age, this kind of variance seems inherent within human sects.) Too, in the case of certain civil service roles, any inherent spiritual conflict might have seemed slight to nonexistent.
Richard Davies, in his article “Relations between the Early Church and the Roman Military Establishment,”² paints a relatively complex picture of military roles—and their acceptance among Christians—in the second and third centuries CE. [Please see the appendix to this post here.]
There are at least two fundamental questions here—one of which Hurtado favored over the other, moving along the lines of his own academic interests and research.
The first question is whether a Christian may participate in military actions. This is—and has been, at least since Peter and Malchus—quite a serious question, although all too often ignored. It is, more or less, the question the audience member was actually asking (although s/he specifically targeted the first and second centuries which constitute the framework for much of Larry Hurtado’s academic inquiry). The majority of Christians today do not appear to take the question seriously—or even as a question at all. I believe the question requires an unequivocally negative answer, even if the answer is based only on the violence aspect.
The second question is one of allegiance. This is the aspect that Hurtado seems better oriented to address. Allegiance may be expressed in multiple ways, and in the 1st century, a Roman soldier appears to have been required not only to “follow the chain of command” but also to pay homage to Caesar as a deity. In monotheistic terms, this requirement would be tantamount to idolatry. In calling attention to the first question above, I am in no way seeking to minimize this second one. In fact, I would say that this allegiance question is the foundational one, the deeper one. If one has sworn allegiance to a Caesar as lord—or to any other lord in whatever century—the Christian question of violence as a part of military action becomes rather secondary or even moot. Put in plainer terms: the first concern for the Christian is never to give allegiance to anyone or anything else. With the right loyalty established, the other questions will be more readily dealt with.
In the final analysis, then, Hurtado’s response is quite on point: he dealt with allegiance (by way of symbols), which I take as the foundation of the can a Christian fight for a country? question.
Other questions—perhaps not as basic—may also be asked:
- What special Jewish or Roman factors might have impacted first-century Christian teaching and practice?
- What about alternate service roles?
- Roman “military” men appear to have played roles other than going to battle. [Please see the appendix to this post here.]
- Historically, at least in the USA, alternative military occupations have included kitchen or office work, “medic” service, chaplaincy, and other noncombatant roles.³ To what extent might alternate roles present the same philosophical dilemmas as combatant roles?
¹The complete video lecture referenced above may be accessed here: https://vimeo.com/185900473. The particular question posed by the audience member is at timestamp 1:10:53.
² Richard Davies, “Relations between the Early Church and the Roman Military Establishment,” Military Chaplains’ Review, Spring 1978, 23-34.
³ While these roles are “noncombatant,” they do support the military machine and, as such, the human kingdom.