As you know there were many prophets in the Bible who were armed and had swords for self-defence. Jesus himself allowed St. Peter and his apostles to buy a sword for self-defence. But did any of the Early Church Fathers believe that being armed to defend yourself was ever justified?

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To start with Jesus, just after the Last Supper, he not only "allowed" but commanded:

"He who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one." ...So they said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:36-38)

Traditionally the idea that the swords were for self-defense is dismissed on the basis of the intervening verse:

For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, “And he was counted among the lawless”; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.

However, others speculate that Jesus may have indeed had self-defense in mind, as soldiers were about to arrest him in Gethsemane. If the apostles had not fallen asleep, "two swords" might indeed have been enough to allow Jesus to make his escape.

Liberation theologians go farther, suggesting that he meant the following literally:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matthew 10:34)

Whatever the historical Jesus intended, the early church opted not to participate in the Jewish Revolt of 66 c.e., although it may be the case that some Jewish Christians did join.

Church Fathers

Turing to the Church Fathers, the early ones are not known to specifically endorse the use of weapons of self defense. However, the matter is debated. If self-defense includes serving in the army or police forces then the answer must be a qualified "yes." Christians were taught to obey local authorities, and they definitely served in the imperial army. At least one Church Father, Tertullian was quite specific about this:

Marcus Aurelius... bears witness that the Germanic drought was removed by the rains obtained through the prayers of the Christians, who happened to be fighting under him... We (Christians) are sailors along with yourselves; we serve in the army. (Apology)

This does not mean, however, that Tertullian encouraged Christians to fight. In other writings he said:

  • Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.

  • Shall we carry a flag? It is a rival to Christ.”

  • It is absolutely forbidden to repay evil with evil.”

  • Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.

Other anti-weaponry quotes from the Church Fathers may be found in the online article Early Church Fathers on refusal of the sword

When we get to the era of the church under Constantine, however, the attitude shifted. The new Christian emperor was himself a military commander, although he delayed baptism until near the time of his death, to avoid the likelihood of post-baptismal sin. Augustine was the first to urge Christians to use force against "heretics" who considered themselves better Christians than the Catholics.

The wandering of the sheep is to be corrected in such wise that the mark of the Redeemer should not be destroyed on it... We have shown that Paul was compelled by Christ; therefore the Church, in trying to compel the Donatists, is following the example of her Lord ...He said to them, "Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in." In those, therefore, who were first brought in with gentleness, the former obedience is fulfilled; but in those who were compelled, the disobedience is avenged. (The Correction of the Donatists: Chapter 6)

By the time of Pope Gelasius in 494 c.e., the Two Swords mentioned by Jesus had become the Church and the State, one spiritual the other temporal and wielding military power, especially in the struggle against paganism, as well as against heresy when necessary:

There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power. Of these that of the priests is the more weighty, since they have to render an account for even the kings of men in the divine judgment. You are also aware, dear son, that while you are permitted honorably to rule over human kind, yet in things divine you bow your head humbly before the leaders of the clergy and await from their hands the means of your salvation.

  • There are those who believe "sword" here is more like a skinning or utility knife. "Our noun describes a relatively small and handheld cutting tool, and not particularly a military weapon that a soldier would wield in a military confrontation (that would be a ρομφαια, rhomphaia, or stick-sword). The core idea captured by our noun is not that of a hysterical head-on confrontation with the intention to destroy, but rather of calmly trimming small bits off the side, or fleshing a carcass and dividing it into useable and not useable parts." Sep 15, 2022 at 2:02
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    I prefer to understand it symbolically...a sword of truth. Especially considering the next verse: 'For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.' Sep 15, 2022 at 4:17
  • "Look, Lord, here are two swords of truth."? Doesn't make much sense that way in Luke. In Matthew it makes sense but only if the "sword" is the same kind of paring knife rather than a weapon of war; that which "rightly divides". Sep 15, 2022 at 12:12
  • In Matthew, where the context contrasts peace with a [...paring knife?...that can't be right.] Neither does it make sense in the context of the scene prior to Gethsemane where the disciples are told to keep watch. the word is μάχαιρα (máchaira)... Strong's defines it as "a large knife, used for killing animals and cutting up flesh; a small sword, as distinguished from a large sword." Sep 15, 2022 at 14:08
  • If peace is lack of division (see the roots of shalom) then the paring knife is that which divides. Jesus did not come to make sure every existing relationship remains whole but to divide truth from untruth...to set them at variance. Sep 16, 2022 at 12:45

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