In the Bible Jesus encounters Roman soldiers but does not tell them to 'quit their day job'. Jesus encountered a centurion with 'great faith' as recorded in Matthew 8. Peter as well baptized a centurion, named Cornelius. A centurion was a higher ranking soldier over a hundred strong experienced Roman army men underneath him. (One can only imagine what a man like that would have had to go through to be honored with such a rank especially in the brutal history of Rome). After preaching and praying the Holy Spirit 'fell upon' those they were gathered among Peter and Cornelius and Peter exclaimed in surprise and excitement;

“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (NIV Acts 10:47-48).

Here we find Peter not only 'accepting the soldier', but calling for an 'immediate baptism' -- both against the 'Apostolic Tradition' handed down from Peter?!

Understandably, when Christians were on the ‘hit list’, a Christian soldier, faced with having to kill a Christian, would have had to switch sides and become a martyr. In these same conditions, I assume that serving in the Roman army almost became synonymous with the ‘anti-Christian’ beast of Rome, so in the Apostolic Tradition, I can partly accept the rejection of soldiers from the church (actually rejection of soldiers, actors and others):

If someone is an actor or does shows in the theater, either he shall cease or he shall be rejected. ... 11The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God. (Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition)

What I am wondering was, 'Is there any indication in this tradition by Hippolytus of Rome that the Church in Rome was supposed to have kept this Apostolic Tradition, or was this just a temporary measure of the church in Rome at that time?

2 Answers 2


This answer is based on the article Christians and the Roman Army AD173-337 by John Helgeland (Church History 43(2):149-163, 200; 1974). The start date of AD173 is the year when we have the first evidence (after the NT) of Christians in the military - in Legio XII Fulminata (the Lightning Legion) under Marcus Aurelius.

Prohibitions on members of the (Roman) military becoming Christian were not universally enforced, and there was disagreement among the Fathers as to whether it was possible to be Christian and a soldier at the same time. Certainly Christians should not take part in persecutions. Torture and capital punishment (for which officers were responsible) were also identified as wrong. On the other hand, the ordinary work of the army was not necessarily considered to be bad. Clement of Alexandria (Protrepticus 10) sees it as just another profession, and Tertullian in his early writings urged Christians to pray for the Empire and her armies (Apology 30):

Without ceasing, for all our emperors we offer prayer. We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Cæsar, an emperor would wish.

Origen believed (Contra Celsum 8) that while Christians should not personally serve as soldiers, they should still pray for Roman victory (in wars which were just). In this view, it's not that there's something inherently morally wrong about being a soldier - but only that it is problematic for a Christian to serve in a non-Christian army, for a non-Christian empire.

A related problem was that Roman military service was bound up with Roman religion; Tertullian's On idolatry identified the taking of an oath to the state to be un-Christian, and moreover, Roman military standards (signa militaria) were given special reverence, placed in a sanctuary in the camp so that soldiers could pay homage - these were signs of the gods-given authority of the emperor. Origen, similarly, said that since all authority comes from God, it is not right to give this honour to Caesar. Several Christian soldiers were martyred towards the end of the third century for refusal to perform army rites, objection to the idolatrous nature of the signa militaria, etc. This was intensified under the persecution of Diocletian, who issued edicts to require all soldiers to take part in sacrifices and other rites - the intention being to get rid of Christians in the army, which implies that there must have been a substantial number of Christians there to be purged. So any prohibition on military service, on the part of Christian leaders, was not being well enforced at this time.

After the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, the force of many of these objections was removed, and subsequent authors find little difficulty in commending Christians to military service. This is the case for Lactantius and Eusebius for example, who were both very pro-Constantine and regarded him as being on a divinely-approved mission. After Constantine we find many graves of soldiers whose inscriptions record their Christian faith in addition to their military service.

In summary, Helgeland argues that the prohibitions in Hippolytus and elsewhere should not be construed as objections to military service in general, but only to the specific idolatrous and persecuting nature of the contemporary Roman army. Moreover, Christian responses differed - some said that Christians should avoid military service entirely, while others would allow it, but on the assumption that the soldier should refuse to participate in evil activities (and accept the consequences).

  • Can’t refuse this answer that is a wealth of information – thanks, very interesting.
    – Mike
    Jul 15, 2012 at 14:40
  • This is a lot of good information, but does it answer the question?
    – Dan
    Jan 23, 2014 at 21:03

Here's an answer from a Christian pacifist perspective.

Christian pacifists would point out that the Bible verses you quote focus on what is not said rather than on what is said, i.e. an argument of silence. We highlight what Jesus and the apostles did say about violence: turn the other cheek (Mt 5:39), love your enemies (Mt 5:44), we do not wage war like the world does (2 Cor 10:3) etc. This is strengthen by the fact that pacifism was very widespread in the early church.

Ron Sider writes about this in his new book The Early Church on Killing. In an interview with Christianity Today, he criticizes John Helgeland, quoted in another answer on this page, for cherry-picking quotes istead of looking at the whole picture:

There are works with extensive quotations, but as far as I know nobody has ever tried to collect everything we have extant in one volume. It is overdue given that even the best, most careful just-war historians, like John Helgeland, make sweeping statements that are simply inaccurate when you take the whole body of data together. I'm glad I had the privilege of finally doing it.

More specifically, he criticizes how Helgeland and others think that the reason so many church fathers were against Christian military involvement was because of the risk of idolatry and not that they didn't want to kill:

Their most frequent statement is that killing is wrong. Killing a human being is simply something that Christians don't do, and they'll cite the Micah passage or Jesus' "love your enemies" to support that. But the clear statement that Christians don't kill is the foundation.

The most frequently stated reason that Christians didn't join the army and go to war is that they didn't kill. But it's also true that in Tertullian, for example, idolatry in the Roman army is a second reason for not joining the military. But it's not true that idolatry is the primary or exclusive reason that the early Christians refused to join the military. More often they just say killing is wrong.

On the topic of early Christian presence in the Roman army, Sider says:

First, the evidence we have is modest, and so we have to be careful when drawing conclusions about how many Christians were in the military until the last decade of the third century. It's clear from the Thundering Legion story, which probably goes back to an actual event, that there were at least a few Christians in the military in 173. There is other scattered evidence in the first part of the third century.

It's significant that Origen in the middle of the third century, 248–250, responds to the pagan critic Celsus. Celsus said, If everybody was like you Christians, the Roman Empire would collapse. Origen responded, In fact, if everybody was like us, the Roman Empire would be safe, and we wouldn't need to kill people. So in the middle of the third century, the most prominent Christian author writing at the time responded in a way that only makes sense if Christians by and large didn't join the military.

By the last decade of the third century and the first decade of the fourth, it's clear that there were growing numbers of Christians in the military. Here's how I understand that disconnect between what every extant Christian writer we have says, Christians don't kill, and the growing frequency of Christians in the military: There has always been a disconnect between what Christian teachers have said and what average Christians did.

In addition, historians for the Roman army make it quite clear that you could be in the Roman army for long periods of time in the second, third, and fourth centuries and never be in a battle. There was widespread peace for a lot of this period. One author says you could be in the Roman army for many, many years and never get in a fight beyond the tavern.

Finally, let us hear some of these church fathers ourselves:

Justin Martyr wrote in 160 AD: “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for ploughshares, our spears for farm tools. Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness to men, faith, and the expectation of the future given to us by the Father himself through the Crucified One.” (Dialogue with Trypho 110.3.4)

Tatian, (dead c. 185), Justin's disciple, wrote: “I do not wish to be king, I don’t want to be rich, I reject military service. I hate adultery”(The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Vol. II, reprint 1979, p. 69)

Athenagoras (133-190) wrote: "What, then, are these teachings in which we are reared? ‘I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven, who makes his sun to shine on the evil and on the good, and sends his rain on the just and on the unjust . . . Who [of the pagan philosophers] have so purified their own hearts as to love their enemies instead of hating them; instead of upbraiding those who first insult them (which is certainly more usual), to bless them; and to pray for those who plot against them? . . . With us, on the contrary, you will find unlettered people, tradesmen and old women, who, though unable to express in words the advantages of our teaching, demonstrate by acts the value of their principles. For they do not rehearse speeches, but evidence good deeds. When struck, they do not strike back; when robbed, they do not sue; to those who ask, they give, and they love their neighbours as themselves . . . We . . . cannot endure to see a man being put to death even justly." (Legatio 11, 34-35 (Athens, 175))

Irenaeus of Lyon (c. 130-202) wrote: “But the law of liberty, that is, the word of God, preached by the apostles (who went forth from Jerusalem) throughout all the earth, caused such a change in the state of things, that these [nations] did form the swords and war-lances into ploughshares, and changed them into pruning-hooks for reaping the corn, [that is], into instruments used for peaceful purposes, and that they are now unaccustomed to fighting, but when smitten, offer also the other cheek.” (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, reprinted 1977, p. 512)

Tertullian (160-220) wrote: “To begin with the real ground of the military crown, I think we must first inquire whether warfare is proper at all for Christians. … Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? … Of course, if faith comes later, and finds any preoccupied with military service, their case is different, as in the instance of those whom John used to receive for baptism, and of those most faithful centurions, I mean the centurion whom Christ approves, and the centurion whom Peter instructs; yet, at the same time, when a man has become a believer, and faith has been sealed, there must be either an immediate abandonment of it, which has been the course with many; or all sorts of quibbling will have to be resorted to in order to avoid offending God, and that is not allowed even outside of military service; or, last of all, for God the fate must be endured which a citizen-faith has been no less ready to accept. Neither does military service hold out escape from punishment of sins, or exemption from martyrdom.” (On the chaplet 11)

Origen wrote: “You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers.” (Against Celsus VIII.7.3)

And Cyprian (200-258) wrote: “The world is soaked with mutual blood. When individuals commit homicide, it is a crime; it is called a virtue when it is done in the name of the state. Impunity is acquired for crimes not by reason of innocence but by the magnitude of the cruelty.” (To Donatus, chapter 6)

Personally, I think it's quite clear that pacifism was very common in the early church, and that shines light on the teachings of Jesus.

  • +1, but only hesitantly. A lot of interpretive license was taken in the translations from these fathers. For instance, Cyprian nowhere mentions 'the state', this is entirely read back into the translation (better translated 'committed wholesale'). And this is coming from someone sympathetic to your position.
    – Dan
    Jan 23, 2014 at 19:25
  • FWIW, my reading of (much) history has led me to conclude that there never has been a unified position on pacifism vs. just war. Some felt strongly one way or the other, as some still do today, but there never was a clear consensus pre-Anabaptist theology.
    – Dan
    Jan 23, 2014 at 19:27
  • Also, you probably want to edit this to tailor it to the question more. As it reads it is more of a response to the other answer and/or an answer to a slightly different question. This question asks about a specific historical practice in a fixed point in time and space (late-2nd or early-3rd century Rome), which this doesn't really address directly.
    – Dan
    Jan 23, 2014 at 19:38
  • Dan: It's true that I didn't adress the practices of the church in Rome, but neither did the previous answer. That answer started to talk about the pacifism of church fathers in general, and I tried to give another perspective on that issue. Furthermore, the question itself is like a small article, assuming that the soldiers that were saved didn't leave the army just because it isn't recorded that they were ordered to do so, something I adressed in my answer. But if someone has more insights about the church in Rome at that time one is welcome to share it. Jan 23, 2014 at 20:57
  • 2
    Answers aren't intended to reflect on other answers. Answers should be stating basically the same thing (the answer to the question) in different ways. The goal is to get the best possible answer to the original question. Similarly, comments are intended for helping refine answers. Often some small amount of discussion will occur in comments, but it technically isn't supposed to. Answers are generally judged much more strictly to be a response to the question directly. This is because the site focuses on answering questions rather than discussing topics. Jan 23, 2014 at 21:46

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