Did they pick up swords to stop the persecution and control nonconformists? This article is designed to be contrasted with the next one about the sword in the early Muslim community, in our comparative study of the two religions.
Here are more questions:
Should the church be a state of sorts, as it has in some periods in its history?
Should the church wield the sword in the name of God?
We have already seen that Jesus separates the kingdom of God from the kingdom of Caesar, but what are the teachings and practices of the early church?
Do they hint that the New Testament church took a slightly different path?
This article looks at the book of Acts and the epistles. Then a brief description of the lives of key church leaders and their deaths is presented.
Peter and Cornelius the Centurion
The book of Acts records the historical growth of the early Jesus movement, sometimes called the Way (Acts 9:2; 24:14), which was eventually named the church. In many passages the Roman and Jewish authorities confronted the apostles, especially Paul in the second half of Acts (e.g. 4:8-12; 25:8-11). None of the apostles denounced the authorities for carrying swords as such. True, sometimes the apostles challenged the authorities’ justice, but not the government’s right to exist and impose order on society, with the sword, if necessary, as a general rule. Two examples of the Christian community accepting the governmental authorities – the kingdom of Caesar – carrying swords can be seen in Peter’s and then Paul’s life.
Does not a Roman centurion deserve divine censure on the face of it? However, this is God’s assessment of the commander:
1 At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!” 4 Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. (Acts 10:1-4)
Apparently, Cornelius’ godliness positively influenced his family – not an easy task since often the family can see the hypocrisy in the head of household more clearly than outsiders see it. The end of the story, one of divine coincidences, is happy. Cornelius and his family convert, are filled with the Spirit, and are baptized (Acts 10:44-48). He is a military man and the first gentile convert to the church. The lead apostle Peter never tells the centurion to leave the army or give up his weapons. Further, no one knows if Cornelius ever killed an enemy, but if he rose to the rank of centurion, then he probably served for a long time, as a career. And if he served for a long time, then he probably saw some action. If he saw some action, then he probably killed an enemy, or ordered his men to kill. Yet, it is possible to be blessed of God while serving in the military and possibly killing an enemy in battle or in law enforcement. Most important, Cornelius shows that soldiers should develop good and godly characters as they serve the state.
Paul and a Jailer
Paul was constantly persecuted just for preaching the gospel, not for committing acts of “righteous” violence. In this case he expelled a demon from a hapless girl, so he waged spiritual warfare, just as we saw Jesus do. In the Roman colony of Philippi he and his traveling companion Silas were “severely flogged” and jailed in the inner cell of prison, which was probably stinky, damp, insect- and rat-infested. Their feet fastened in stocks, they were singing hymns to God, but then an earthquake in the middle of the night loosed their bonds and opened the prison doors.
27 The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family. (Acts 16:27-34)
Being filled with joy, the jailer and his family convert to Christ. However, Paul never tells the jailer to abandon his career. In fact, the jailer is seen fulfilling his duties in an official capacity the next day (Acts 16:35-36). The jailer carried his sword after his conversion.
These two passages in Acts teach us that Christians can serve in law enforcement, and by extension, in the military because it imposes peace on a large scale, just as law enforcement does on a small scale. To go beyond these two passages, nowhere in the book of Acts do Peter and Paul encourage the church to rush out to buy swords. On a practical level, swords, even small ones, were expensive, so how could the fledgling church buy them for the fast-growing number of disciples? Leaders needed to take care of the poor with food distribution (Acts 6:1-7).
But is it conceivable that some prosperous recent converts to the new Jesus movement owned swords? Yes. However, the enemies of the church would have accused it of violence if it had ever used swords regularly or as an ecclesiastical policy. On the contrary, Christians were sometimes persecuted and even martyred by unjust civil authorities.
Though this reasoning is, in part, an argument from silence (what a text or history does not say), the silence is significant. The logic of history requires us to assume that if the early Christians had an opportunity and a motive to retaliate with violence as a matter of church policy, but the records demonstrate that they did not do this, then we can be certain that they in fact followed the path of peace and nonviolence. But if anyone, whether believer or unbeliever, serves in the military, then he or she performs a sacred duty. The epistles confirm with positive evidence these nonviolent actions and policies in Acts and the state’s role in keeping the peace.
The epistles were written primarily to explain pressing, practical needs, as well as to introduce new Christian theology. In the Mediterranean world, while Christians traveled, they were sometimes subjected to violence that everyone also suffered from, such as banditry (2 Corinthians 11:26). This was a pressing, practical need. But no ecclesiastical policy of carrying swords can be found in these documents. Though the motive and need existed to write such a policy, the epistles’ authors do not take that opportunity.
Paul taught that the kingdom of the world or Satan is different from the kingdom of God. “You were dead in your transgressions . . . when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Satan’s spiritual kingdom) . . . “no immoral person . . . has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Ephesians 2:2 and 5:5). “He has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued you us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son [Jesus] he loves” (Colossians 1:12).
The various teachers in the church through their epistles speak of using weapons while they lived like strangers in the world, but the weapons are very special swords. Paul in his second epistle to the Corinthians reports on his own trials during ministry, which led to “beatings, imprisonment, and riots.” Even though he suffered much unjust violence from his persecutors, he did not lash out with swords, raising a small militia or sending an assassination hit squad. Per contra, he speaks of these weapons: . . . “Weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left” (2 Corinthians 6:7). Physical weapons do not occupy either hand. To strengthen this interpretation of hands empty of physical weapons, he also says in the same epistle:
3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)
In these two Corinthian passages Paul seems glad to contrast divine and moral weapons with physical and worldly ones. He explicitly denies worldly weapons and explicitly affirms divine or moral ones in his ministry. Jesus set the example, and Paul followed him, or perhaps he followed the policy commonly practiced among other leaders in the church who personally knew Jesus. This indicates that the widespread use of physical swords never took root in the church.
In Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians he repeats the notion that the Christian’s weapons are not physical, but spiritual. He borrows from the image of the Roman soldier and explicitly says that the true sword is the word of God (cf. Hebrews 4:12). He writes:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:10-17)
Paul completely agrees with the kingdom message of Jesus, which involves spiritual warfare, such as fighting Satan. Also, this epistle was probably an encyclical, meaning it was intended for several churches. This confirms, again, that the use of physical weapons was not widespread in the early church, according to apostolic teaching.
Paul writes that God establishes, in general terms, civil authorities who are God’s servants and who carry the sword. A passage in the epistle to the Romans is the classical text. Paul writes:
1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. (Romans 13:1-6)
Paul also writes to Titus, whom Paul left on Crete to complete some work there as a leader of the church on the island: “Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities” (Titus 3:1).
Civil authorities may wield the sword for punishing wrongdoing, but the church is not permitted to do this. That is the result of keeping the kingdom of God separate from the kingdom of Caesar. Now we have clarity.
Peter also distinguishes between the realms of the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar (the world). Christians are called strangers in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 17 and 2:11), which is contrasted with heaven and eternal glory (1:4; 5:10) and the “eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:11). Like Paul, Peter uses the metaphor of darkness and light: God “called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9), adding that God’s people are a “holy nation” (v. 10).
Though neither Peter nor Paul (or the author of Hebrews) endorses the sword for the church as a policy, Peter and Paul teach that God endorses agents of the state, who carry the sword and who bring peace and justice to the world. Paul assumes that the military is part of this world system (1 Corinthians 9:7, 14:8; 2 Timothy 2:4), and so does Jesus, incidentally (Matt. 22:7; Luke 11:21-22, 14:31-32, 19:27). Peter writes that civil authorities may punish those who do wrong:
13 Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1 Peter 2:13-14)
Then Peter says Christians should not suffer as criminals.
15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. (1 Peter 4:15)
In the Roman empire, the authorities were instituted among humankind, whether the leader or representative was a king or governor. He had the authority and power to punish criminals, even with the sword. Significantly, however, Peter also teaches in his epistle that the state can go astray and persecute Christians, even though they may live a godly life (1 Peter 2:19-20; 3:8-18). So the state does not receive unquestioned, unchallenged permission to do what it likes. Since the state does not receive revelations directly from God nor from a theocrat, we can use reason and human rights to shape the state.
Of course, the church should offer its guidance, but ultimately the state does not have to listen to it. It would be wise, however, if the state recognized that it receives its ultimate ordination from God, so it should not oppress ordinary citizens obeying the law, who are made in God’s image.
All of these passages about governing authorities in Peter’s and Paul’s writings and the epistle to the Hebrews are full of many truths.
God ordains the state to impose order on the world, even by the sword. But the state must follow justice, not excessive policies that oppress religious or political freedom. This is why Peter wrote that Christians must bear up under official persecution, even though they were good citizens (1 Peter 2:19-20; 3:8-18). Governmental injustice anywhere can be challenged, as Paul often did in the book of Acts.
Second, the believer and unbeliever alike should submit to the governing authorities so the citizens can enjoy a peaceful life. This is especially incumbent on Christians who have to maintain their witness to the world, living a godly life.
Next, the agents of the state punish the wrongdoer and commend the good. Historically, punishing criminals was harsh in the Roman empire (too harsh by today’s standards), but we can use reason to craft the state to follow justice. Regardless of the particulars, the timeless principle behind the history and the texts says that punishment of wrongdoers is God-ordained.
Further, the words “judgment,” “sword,” “terror” (= “fear” in Greek), “wrath” and “punishment” are found in Romans 13:2-4. In the Old Testament, God does not shy away from executing justice on the surface of his planet, against his highest creation, humans. Thus, the so-called “God of the New Testament,” so wrongly separated from the “God of the Old Testament,” does not teach only peace and love – though that is the main message.
With that said, in the God who inspired the New Covenant uses primarily the nontheocratic state to bring about justice and judgment here on earth. This division between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar in the epistles agrees with this thesis in the Gospels.
Moreover, if a Christian becomes a soldier or a police officer, then he officially and publicly serves the state. But his private faith and religion will make him a better servant because he strives to act with integrity. Ultimately, the Christian soldier or officer serves a just and loving God, so he obeys justice. But his service is subjected to fluctuating circumstances.
Therefore the soldier or officer must exercise wisdom as to when and how to apply justice. He must also know the law, which provides a lot of guidance in difficult situations.
To answer one of the questions in the introduction to this article, the early church did not take “a slightly different path” from the kingdom message of Jesus. He separated the kingdom of God from the kingdom of Caesar. Also, he did not try to reestablish the theocratic kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6-7).
He set the institutional genetic code for his later disciples to follow, and Peter and Paul indeed followed him in their actions and policies in the book of Acts and in their theology in their epistles.
The early church had a strong need and motive to institute a policy of violence or at least one of self-defense in the face of its persecutors who often resorted to violence, like stoning. However, not one of them in all recorded early church history swung a sword to bloody people to get them to convert or prove the Christians were right. Instead, following Jesus the king who waged only spiritual and moral warfare, the apostles walked the same path in early church history. None of them mixed post-conquest tax policies, warfare, bloodshed, and the sword with religion.
Another important conclusion to draw from this article is that the church is not the state, and neither is the state the church. The two must be kept separate in their roles in society. God ordains the government as a whole institution, but that does not mean that it receives direct revelations from him.
Sometimes parts or all of it can go astray (e.g. a tyranny). So only in an indirect sense or in the big picture are members of law enforcement and the military servants of God, and, incidentally, members of other religions working in law enforcement and the military also become servants of God.
But Christians should not believe that these institutions are infallible. Therefore, in a direct and more significant sense Christians are servants of the Lord first, ahead of serving the state and must stand for righteousness.
The church as an institution is “pacifist” only in its own internal policies and actions, because it follows the dictates of the kingdom of God, his active rule and dynamic reign. That is, church leaders in the name of the church or of God should never convene a council or general assembly in order to raise a militia or an army to fight battles and to coerce heretics and sinners to conform.
However, the church violates its own Scriptures if it transfers this kingdom policy (only pacifism within itself) to the state, because the New Testament ordains that only the state may use the sword, if necessary and done lawfully. Christ’s and the apostles’ teaching hands the lawful and just sword over to the state (not the unjust or unlawful sword).
The New International Version is used in this article, unless otherwise noted. If readers would like to see other translations, they can go to biblegateway.com.
ARTICLES IN THE SERIES
The two religions are not the same
7 The Early Church and the Sword