Soviet militarism and revived draft registration have opened up old, unresolved debates with some new twists.

Christian attitudestoward war have undergone some changes in the last 40 years. Though the larger denominations have traditionally supported American military actions, many of their members refused to fight in Vietnam. And though the “peace churches” have traditionally combined nonresistance with social isolation, many Mennonites and Brethren now are deeply involved in social action, and some of their ministers have served in the army or navy.

Clearly, once-established ideas are again in ferment. Russian militarism in Afghanistan and revival of draft registration in the U.S. have now created further discussion on whether a Christian should employ military force to restrain evil.

To explore current thinking, CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s next issue will carry two articles, one saying yes, one no. But even the most innovative and striking ideas have their roots in the past, so by way of introduction to these ideas, the following article takes a neutral look at the positions and arguments for nonresistence in various periods of church history, as seen against the alternatives.

Christian attitudes toward government have been fairly uniform across the centuries. The magistrate has usually found the devout to be obedient to the law’s demand. Christians have not, however, uniformly carried cooperation so far as to help Caesar wield the sword. Best known of today’s “peace churches” holding such reservations are Mennonites and Hutterites, Brethren (Dunkers), and Friends (Quakers).

Behind them stands a long—if not continuous—record of what has come to be called conscientious objection, on biblical Christian grounds. In fact, Christian resistance to military service cropped up in the earliest times, though the term “pacifist” does not fit, if it calls to mind current political movements and theories that employ nonviolent force to coerce desired change (for example, to drive the British out of India). Ancient Christians (and modern “peace churches”) supported an idea of political withdrawal, not political action.

The second and third centuries of church history reveal slight, though increasing, involvement of Christians in the armies of Rome. Yale church historian Roland Bainton writes: “From the end of the New Testament period to the decade 170–180 there is no evidence whatever of Christians in the army.” Guy Franklin Herschberger adds, “It is quite clear that prior to about A.D. 174 it is impossible to speak of Christian soldiers.” About this time the famous heretic, Celsus, reproached Christians for failing to help defend the Empire, charging, “If all men were to do the same as you, there would be nothing to prevent the king from being left in utter solitude and desertion and the forces of the Empire would fall into the hands of the wildest and most lawless barbarians.” No single leader of Christianity in the early pre-Constantinian era approved a military career as right for a believer in Jesus Christ. Extant writings are not plain in every respect, but their tenor is clearly against fighting in the Roman armies, if not technically pacifist. Convincing passages can be cited, for example, from such representative “fathers” of the church as the author(s) of the Didache, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Athenagoras.

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For the period 180 to 313 (the year Christianity became legal) historians almost universally acknowledge: (1) “All of the East and West repudiated participation in warfare for Christians” (Bainton). (2) Military service came to be regarded by some (the Canons of Hypollytus are cited) as admissible if bearing of arms not be part of the service (firemen, teamsters, postal clerks, ordinance officials, secretaries, some orders of police), though Tertullian disagreed with this looser view. (3) When in 312–313 the Emperor, Constantine, made Christianity a legal religion and official persecution ostensibly ceased, Christian objections to taking part in military defense of the Empire declined quickly until objections came to be regarded as treasonous.

From that day to this most Christian writers who have treated the subject of the Christian and civil government have regarded the protection of free worship of Christians as the God-given duty of their civil governors. Accordingly, the church has provided an honorable position in its assemblies to pious judges, military officers, and uniformed police. Since the days of Constantine only a small minority have objected to Christian participation in the state either as magistrates, or policemen, or front-line soldiers.

Scholars have searched the literature to find out what reasons the early Christians of the first three centuries gave for their near uniform rejection of military service. Actually the specific reasons vary greatly from one Christian writer to another, but they may be reduced to six.

1. Some believed participation in war to be completely incompatible with the commands of Christ and his example. Tertullian asked, “If we are enjoined to love our enemies, whom are we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate. Who then can suffer injury at our hands?” Clement of Alexandria and Cyprian are frequently quoted to similar effect. This argument has proved to be the most important and the most enduring reason for the position labeled “biblical pacifism,” whether in the first centuries or in modern times.

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2. Origen stated another reason: Christians by their prayers and disciplined lives are of more use to kings than soldiers are. In time of war, he said, Christians contribute more to the common weal by continuing peaceful pursuits than they would by going to war.

3. Before the persecutions ceased, Christians could remind themselves that they suffered at the emperor’s hand whether they joined his armies or not. Why should they fight to defend a government that entertained the populus by throwing Christians to the beasts in the Colosseum? Rome might be their only worldly protection against thieves and wanton criminals, but Rome was also their enemy. In this strange world some of the most upright pagans conceived their moral duty to be the suppression or extermination of religious dissent. This was true of some of Rome’s least corrupt emperors and territorial administrators.

4. Near the end of the pre-Constantinian period the Christians became numerous enough that they might possibly have defended themselves successfully against their persecutors, but did not do so because they expected vindication in the world to come. “All Christians placed their citizenship in heaven. On earth they were but pilgrims and strangers” (Bainton). This was easier for them to understand than for modern people, for at the first very few residents of the Empire were full citizens. So the early Christian was often not a citizen of two realms; his only citizenship was in heaven.

5. Any government office involved some compromise with idolatry. The privilege of citizenship theoretically required participation in the state religion. Indeed, mere residence made accommodation to idolatrous rites obligatory if local magistrates were vigorous in enforcing Roman laws. Exposure to danger from this quarter was even worse in the army, where worshiping images and offering incense to the god or emperor were part of the regular regimen. Many died martyrs’ deaths whenever idol worship was enforced. For the man who refused to burn incense to the emperor, noncombatant service was hardly less dangerous than regular military duty. “The cult of the deified emperor was particularly prevalent in the camps. Officers were called upon to sacrifice; privates participated at least by their attendance. Origen listed idolatry and robbery as sins common in the army” (Bainton).

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6. It has been asserted, perhaps with some justification, that all Christians in the earliest years, and the more primitive sects in the years shortly before Constantine, refused military service because they thought the coming of the Lord was near. Then the Lord would destroy the very Empire they were called upon to defend if they entered military service.

From Constantine to the Reformation

From the time of Constantine (early 300s) military duty quickly became accepted as a legitimate though regretted occupation of the responsible Christian. Unlike some modern forms of pacifism, the earlier Christian attitude had been based on a radical view of the wickedness of man and a withdrawal from a society considered hopeless. The later church, without giving up its doctrine of human depravity, became convinced that evil can be restrained. It felt that governments were divinely instituted for this purpose, and that it was therefore the duty of the Christian citizen to support the state even by bearing the sword.

Augustine (early 400s) created the first great synthesis of Christian faith and the practice of war. Drawing heavily from the ancient pre-Christian philosophers, he argued for the necessity of just wars. With rare exceptions Augustine’s defense of war became the standard position of all major branches of the church from that day to this.

He argued that any justifiable war must have peace as its goal. Its purpose must be to secure justice, including ordinarily the preservation of the state. It must be waged in love. The decision must be made not by private citizens but by rulers responsible for the conduct of government, and the war itself must be conducted with a minimum of cruelty.

With the breakdown of the ancient Roman world, war became nearly the natural state of affairs in the desperate effort to protect one’s life and property. The church worked with only moderate success to regulate the petty wars, to restrict the practice of war, and to eliminate the worst atrocities. Even so, the medieval apologists, from Thomas Aquinas (c. 1250) on, never consciously departed from a basic defense of just war as the one war permissible for the Christian in an evil world.

Very rarely a separatist sect like the Waldensians espoused pacifism. The Bohemian Brethren, a century before Luther, attempted a similar stance but gave it up. We do not know much about these sects.

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The Reformers

As might be expected, the Reformation brought to the church a burst of new ideas regarding the relationship between a citizen and the state. It is doubtful if a new idea regarding war, peace, and nonresistance has arisen since Reformation times. Legitimacy of coercive power by civil government, including the sword, was assumed almost universally.

Catholicism found authority for both church and magistrates in Jesus’ saying about the two swords in Luke 22:38—one a secular sword (civil government), the other sacred (church). Biblical arguments buttressed rational grounding found in natural law and the doctrine of creation. The Roman church thought it had a divine duty to declare truth to government; government was not only to be guided by the church in matters of faith and morals but to enforce church rules and edicts, by war if necessary.

Protestants found scriptural guidance for a somewhat different doctrine of civil government and authority in Romans 13:1–7 and similar texts. They found practical and rational necessity for civil government in the biblical doctrine of sin: man is sinner and therefore violent and lawless; his violence and lawlessness must be restrained. This is why civil government is necessary.

However, discerning men of all sides, including all the Reformation leaders, saw great evil in the war-like spirit of the times. Many humanist scholars, influenced not only by classical ideals (e.g., the Stoic doctrine of the harmony of the cosmos) but also by the Christian ideals of brotherhood under Christ and of common humanity under God as Creator, wrote against the wars of the Reformation era. Without rejecting traditional just war formulas, these men, most notably Erasmus of Amsterdam, hoped to reform Europe peacefully through education. Erasmus wrote a tract, which has been reprinted frequently since, that makes a moving appeal for Christians to treat all fellow believers as brothers and, recognizing even the Turk as a fellow man, to live at peace also with him. Hence all wars should cease.

Yet almost everyone of the Reformation age appears to have recognized, in a world under the condition of sin, the legitimacy of civil government with power of coercion and legitimate use of the sword—police, death penalty for certain crimes, war as a last resort in national defense, and other just causes. The Christian church as a whole has not materially changed its view to the present time. The views of the first three centuries are hardly recognizable anywhere in the modern epoch—certainly not within the major groups of Christians.

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Within the general consensus, however, there were some differences among the leaders of the evangelical Reformation, even before the nonresistant wing of the Anabaptists entered the discussion with something of a consistent voice in the second generation, and quite apart from them. These differences, however, are not as great as sometimes made out.

Luther, Zwingli, Calvin

It is perhaps correct to say, as certain scholars do, that Luther was apolitical. He believed in coercion as a divinely ordained means to maintain the temporal order, but not as a means to promote the church or the Christian life. Luther deplored the apparent necessity for protection of the Reformers by German princes. He was known to say to his best supporters among the princes that they needed his protection more than he theirs. He acknowledged that public justice was imperfect by reason of imperfect magistrates. Though he deplored war, he reminded the emperor that it was his duty to defend his realm against the Turks rather than to persecute the evangelicals in it. At the same time, he supported the emperor and the princes against the peasants in the early social wars. Luther’s views partake of a “paradoxical” outlook which, without wishing simply to be pragmatic, must nevertheless be practical. The ethic of suffering as a ministry to man and service to God is as plain in Luther’s writings as in Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ, or the latest writings of Christian pacifism.

Zwingli, the Reformation leader of Zurich, Switzerland, and contemporary of Luther, has been called real-political. That does not seem fair, for it is not demonstrable that the moral relativism implied in realpolitik applies to this ethically sensitive man. Unlike any overt affirmation of Luther’s, Zwingli felt that it was not wrong to use civil power of the sword to achieve spiritual goals, even to promote ecclesiastical goals. At first reluctant to resort to war, in the last crisis of his career he accompanied Zurich’s troops to battle and died on the field as a chaplain-combatant. He did so as chief pastor of the Grosmuenster Church of his City-State.

Calvin, a generation later, was very reluctant to approve of war as a means for Reformed evangelical Christians to compel Europe to tolerate the Reformed faith. This was true even when the Inquisition was regularly making martyrs of Reformed Christians in France. He taught the legitimacy of every form of civil government. Unlike some later Calvinists he did not advocate violent overthrow of tyrants. He kept in close touch with the thousands of persecuted Reformed people of France (Huguenots), who were severely suffering under the kings of France and their papal advisers. Even in face of the martyrdom of hundreds he counseled submission, flight where possible, and nonresistant suffering. He taught his disciples to set their affection on heaven, not on things on the earth. Williston Walker notes, “To his thinking, war was a poor means of advancing the gospel.” When Calvin learned of the early peace terms he counseled “that arms be laid aside and that we all perish rather than enter again on the confusion that we have witnessed.” He provided no rationale or doctrinal solution to the perennial problem of persecution by unjust government.

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Calvin believed in the free sovereignty of the church under God. Though he also believed in the freedom of civil government from dictation by church or prelates, he insisted that magistrates should support and enforce public morality. Wherever Calvinism in anything like its primitive form has penetrated, it has sought actively to purify society in harmony with the ethics of Christianity. The power of the sword (police, courts) has been employed more than once in this manner. It is no accident that many Calvinist heroes are military men.


A large minority in the Reformation who refused any alliance with the various territorial governments of Europe are called Anabaptists. They endorsed baptism of believers only (not infants) and the related principle that a church (local) is a body of believers gathered voluntarily out of a local community (i.e., not a territorial parish). The name Anabaptist was at first bestowed upon them by their enemies. They called themselves simply Brethren or, sometimes, Baptists. Before long, however, they accepted the name Anabaptists.

Anabaptists of the first generation did not have a uniform doctrine of the sword—though they certainly tended to favor nonresistance rather than military force. It has been convincingly shown by recent scholarship that through the first generation after 1517 they had wide diversity in many doctrines. Being true independents, without status, and mainly led by lay people, they were free to teach and live as they and their assemblies believed—provided they were willing to accept the consequences in an intolerant age. So several views of “the sword” flourished among first-generation Anabaptists. Some were willing to use the sword to establish the kingdom of God on earth. But most expected small support from civil governments, for they shared Luther’s skepticism about the righteousness of most princes and other magistrates. They were, however, unwilling to follow the leading Reformers’ endorsement of the coercive power of the sword to preserve public order and to protect the evangelical church. Luther’s prince gave him protective custody at Wartburg while he translated Scripture. But there were no Anabaptist Wartburgs.

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Recent scholarship has attempted to sort out the strands of the Anabaptist movement during the Reformation era. Walter Klassen notes in Mennonite Quarterly Review, “The main criticism of Mennonite classifications is that they are the result of efforts to push aside everything that does not agree with the somewhat arbitrary norm of ‘evangelical Anabaptism.’ One has the disturbing feeling that by ‘evangelical Anabaptism’ is meant Anabaptism as it ought to have been, seeing through the spectacles of twentieth-century wishful thinking, rather than as it actually was.”

At any rate, the “pacifist” elements of Anabaptism were about all that was left after the shattering developments at Münster in northwest Germany had come to a head. There radical Anabaptists took charge of government. Their leading prophet predicted Christ’s return in 1533 and establishment of New Jerusalem at Strassburg. After a terrible siege, the bishop overlord captured the city (1535) and executed the leaders of the rebellion. Descendants of the continental Anabaptists who survived the persecutions are mainly Mennonites (most numerous), Amish, and Hutterites. They are numerous today only in the New World, mainly the United States and Canada. All teach some form of nonresistance and cultivate the practice among members. Dunkers (Brethren, Church of the Brethren) arose out of pietistical movements in the Reformed part of Germany, coming to organized existence in 1708. They also migrated to America.

In their peace doctrine all conform fairly closely to the Swiss Brethren at Zurich. The leaders of the Swiss Brethren articulated their views in the early 1520s. Their best-known statement is the Schleitheim Confession of 1527, which states that Christians must lay down “weapons of force, such as sword, armor and the like, together with all their use, whether for the protection of friends or against personal enemies.” These Brethren did not deny the state the use of the sword but insisted that they themselves as true Christians must not use it. They wanted to be obedient and cooperative, but not as part of the civil community. They were not only ethical and religious separatists but wished to be social and political separatists also.

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Present-day active involvement of these groups in specific social reforms, in spite of sympathy with abolition, “temperance,” and other movements, does not seem to be a genuine feature of their heritage. It is a recent development. They have been accused of lack of any social mission at all, historically, though representatives deny this. Since World War II, and especially in its immediate aftermath, their “Service Committees” have done some heroic and wonderful works of reconstruction.

Conservative evangelical representatives of these groups reject the political pacifism of our time, as both G. F. Herschberger and Herman Hoyt note. They rejoice, as all Christians do, in every political effort to create peace, but since they believe that man has a fallen nature they have no perfectionist expectations.

The Quakers are much more optimistic. An offshoot of the seventeenth-century Puritan movement of England, they stood apart from the civil turmoil of the time. Like Erasmus of the preceding century, they believed that war is a resort to a sub-Christian ethic. They felt that Christians therefore should have nothing to do with it. Like Erasmus but unlike the Anabaptists they saw great hope for the future in having Christian rulers. As for political activity, they would join gently in that fray to promote peace. Quaker William Penn and Pennsylvania (a Quaker state for several decades) are witness to their practical political activity. They felt that by suffering like Christ and for his sake, by example, by teaching, by legislation, and by public reform, civil life could be improved and causes of war removed.

The reforming temper of Quakerism was coupled with an optimistic view of human nature (the “inner light”) which, given a chance, might bring about peace among men. Though not adopting the separatist stance of the Anabaptists, the Quakers have employed many Anabaptist and Brethren arguments they believe to be grounded in Christ’s example and teaching. Unfortunately, a section of Quakerism became Unitarian in theology long ago and more recently others in the movement have moved away from a basically orthodox Christian view. Hence, today much pacifist Quakerism appears to move in the same channels of thought and practice as liberal Christianity.

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Traditional Peace Church Arguments

Brethren and Mennonites base their view on direct appeal to what are deemed the plain word of Scripture and unmistakable example of Christ. This is no less true of their latest statements than sixteenth-, seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century confessions and other publications. For example, a Dunker General Conference (U.S.A.) of 1845 resolved, “In regard to our being altogether defenceless; ‘not to withstand evil, but to overcome evil with good’ (Rom. 12), the Brethren consider that the nearer we follow the bright example of the Lamb of God, who willingly suffered the cross, and prayed for his enemies … the more we shall fulfill our high calling and obtain grace to deny ourselves for Christ and his Gospel’s sake, even to the loss of our property, our liberty and our lives.”

A Dunker tract of about 1900 presents “in support of the principles of nonresistance the following scriptural facts: Christ is the ‘Prince of Peace’ (Isa. 9:6). His kingdom is ‘not of this world’ (John 18:36). His ‘servants do not fight’ (John 18:36). ‘The weapons of our warfare are not carnal’ (2 Cor. 10:4). We are to ‘love our enemies’ (Matt. 5:43). We are to ‘overcome evil with good’ (Rom. 12:21). We are to ‘pray for them which despitefully use us and persecute us’ (Matt. 5:44).” The tract also cites Matthew 5:39; Luke 9:55–56; Matthew 26:52.

After quoting the familiar words of Paul in Romans 13 regarding the services of government and Christian duty to obey government, the tract adds the principle of separation to the principle of nonresistance, as follows: “The disciple of Christ … is subject to the higher powers, though he is not a subject of them. The kingdom of Christ is not of this world. The government is, or should be, in the hands of the moralist [not far from the Lutheran view that natural law and common sense should prevail in civil matters]. He stands between the righteous and the wicked, ‘the minister of God to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.’ But when the moralist would join the kingdom of Christ, he must relinquish the sword.” The Christian is therefore not a citizen of his country in this world and of heaven, but only of heaven.

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Recent Problems

This conviction has created the social isolation of members of peace churches of continental origin. It is the root of the earnest struggles of their posterity for some kind of integration with modern society—a society now inextricably interdependent in many ways. In days past some of these groups have tended to form socially isolated groups even to the extent of a special plain costume for all members. Their dilemma is evident. If they remain small, the intellectual and social problems of political nonparticipation and social separation are manageable. They can safely leave to others the policing of society. When numerous enough to affect community political power centers, however, nonparticipation becomes hard to maintain. The Unity of the Brethren (Hussite), for example, laid aside these principles when nobility came into the movement; and Mennonites in the Netherlands became just another evangelical element in a homogeneous society—a deacon of the congregation at The Hague was the minister of the Dutch Navy, and Martin G. Brumbaugh, a Dunker, was wartime governor of Pennsylvania. Questions about the proper relation to society at large and correct interpretation of Scripture on the use of force have brought uncertainty into peace churches.

In the years between the two World Wars, there arose among Protestants a near-pervasive pacifism of sorts, based not on the orthodox biblical view of sin but on an optimistic attitude toward human nature. “The Christian Century” idea could even accept World War I by idealistically calling it “the War to end War.”

But this optimism was shattered by a series of blows: the teaching of Karl Barth, the aggression of Adolph Hitler, the depression of the thirties, and that preview of World War II that was provided by the Spanish civil war. Even the traditional peace churches were shaken in their pacifism. Somehow it seemed so right to fight against Hitler.

Recent Responses

The Brethren denomination I know best is not atypical as far as conservative evangelicals of the “peace” churches are concerned. In the midst of World War II (1942) the National Fellowship of Brethren Churches—an energetically evangelical group of latter-day Dunkers—acknowledged officially: “Some of our Brethren young men have already entered combatant military service. While this type of service is not in accord with the historic teaching of the Brethren Church, its acceptance is not made a test of membership nor a cause of discipline, because the church does not wish to coerce the consciences of men in such matters” (The Brethren Annual of 1943, Winona Lake, Ind.: Brethren Missionary Herald Co., Dec. 26, 1942). Ministers in the group are sometimes former army and navy men.

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In the aftermath of Hiroshima a new factor has appeared. The Christian church has always required of a just war that it must envisage a good end of peace and greater justice, and that its ravages fall upon the guilty, not the innocent. Atomic warfare, on the contrary, destroys primarily the innocent civilian population. Neither can it bring a good end of peace by greater justice, because it destroys all. So to some, the older defense of the just war theory has been undercut. It is equally difficult, however, to maintain that even modern atomic warfare introduces a difference in principle from the destruction of Jericho recorded in the Bible. Or for that matter, it is difficult to argue that the Christian ought no longer to be willing to fight for the right because human suffering will be greater than in the past.

Alongside the conservative evangelical wing of traditional “peace” churches a new breed of “peace” scholarship has appeared. Instead of near universal denial that Jesus announced a political program, these thinkers strenuously affirm that he did announce one. John Howard Yoder holds that the program is not found in “remodeling the total society”; it is in “the political novelty which God brings into the world … a community of those who serve.… This new Christian community is not only a vehicle of the gospel or fruit of the gospel; it is the good news.” A high claim, indeed! Justification is, in Yoder’s words, “a social phenomenon.” The peace doctrine of this particular pacifist has apparently become his gospel.

This form of pacifism varies greatly from the separation-withdrawal type found among the traditional Mennonites and the Brethren or, for that matter, in the early church. Among those from the traditional peace churches who have clung generally to the doctrines and practices of their heritage, the influence of this new type of peace doctrine is not great, but it has won to its position a large number of people from many other Protestant groups.

With the perspective of this brief survey of pacifism in the church, we can appreciate the biblical and circumstantial factors that have played a part in molding today’s varying opinions. This may help us to approach the present-day discussion of a Christian’s involvement in war with a substantial respect for those of differing positions.

Editor’s Note: In the November 7 issue Dr. Culver will present a defense of just war, and Mennonite author John Drescher will defend nonresistance.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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