13 – Was the Early Church Pacifist?

Home Learning Hub Violence in Scripture 13 – Was the Early Church Pacifist?
There is no doubt about the pacifism of the early church. The book of Revelation depicts it well. The church is the virgin bride, which follows the Lamb. This imagery distinguishes them from both the whore, or unfaithful wife of Jerusalem, and the beast, Rome, who both care for their own interest, and follow this with violence and abandonment of those in need. The bride cares for others, both within the church and their enemies outside the church.

The Revelation is about the church’s refusal to take the mark of the beast, which is violent greed, forsaking the care of others. The beasts hate this witness against them and they pursue the church.

The church continues in pacifism, not retaliating, “not loving their own life, even to death.” This causes its witness to be highly effective, and it turns the world upside-down.

The Revelation has images of violence. It is like the Psalms, with lamentations. For example, the church pleading, “How long will you not avenge,” meaning, “How long with you allow this persecution to go on?” This portrays the extreme difficulty of the persecuted. They are human, like everyone else, and they have human responses. But the Holy Spirit helps us, bringing us through to love for our enemies.

One of the main themes of the New Testament is the victory of the bride; they didn’t become like the beast; their hearts didn’t yield in the end to his hatred of others. They became “overcomers,” just like Christ, who prayed in the intensity, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they do.” This was the prayer of many believers murdered for entrainment in the Roman games.

Revelation adopts conquest language, just as saw Paul did. The purpose again is transformative, by contrasting our human violence with God’s mercy. God wars against the spirit of the beast, not allowing it into his own nature in his battle to overcome it. He also defeats the beast within the hearts of his redeemed. Jesus is depicted on a white horse, with a sharp sword going out of his mouth, not in his hand. This is a symbol of his great victory over the beast, not with violence, but with his word, which strikes down wickedness in the hearts of his people, giving them victory over self-love, purifying them, as the vision shows. This is a victory of pacifism over violence, as we see in the actual history of the early church.

Jesus treads out the vine press of God’s wrath. This, at first appearance, looks like God’s wrath against his enemies, but this is another image that is transformed. The one treading is normally the one crushing the grapes. But this time he instead becomes the grapes that are crushed. That is, God achieves this great treading of his enemies, by becoming the enemy that satan treads upon.

The vision refers to Isaiah 63. God himself becomes the grapes that are trodden down in the press. His wrath is turned against our enemies, meaning it is actually mercy for humanity. The enemies he treads down are satan, sin and death, not the human racial enemies of Israel, as they assumed. His broken and pressed body becomes wine for the nations. The symbol of Christ in the winepress became a very powerful image of church artwork, depicting God’s self-giving love, pouring himself out for his enemies.

Revelation is about the victory Christ won in battle, and transfers to his saints who follow him. As the beast came to destroy both Jesus on the cross, and later Jerusalem, there was a great victory for God, in the great harvest of people who triumphed over this beast and were redeemed. This was the war of God, fighting for the souls of his people, in whom satan could not obtain a hold, despite all of his rage.

Other accounts of the “wrath of God” in the Revelation describe God handing over the violent people to their own end. After giving them countless signs of mercy, in the end God stops the persecution against his people by allowing the wicked to kill themselves. Every fulfilling of the “wrath of God” in revelation is undertaken by the violence of man upon man. God commits none of it whatsoever. Power becomes “drunk in the blood of the victims,” and those involved in power destroy each other. God has decreed that the Lamb, the meek, shall inherit the earth. See earlier chapters on the wrath of God and the fire from heaven.

The controlling image of the Revelation is the Lamb of God. People have said that Jesus was the Lamb before he died, but in his ascension he became the Lion, who seeks war and destruction of his enemies, more particularly, our enemies. This isn’t true. The lion image depicts God’s conquering battle on the cross as the lamb, before the ascension. God is not the one seeking war. The imagery of Revelation depicts the wrath that the enemies bring upon themselves, as God continues in his cross-shaped love for them, continuing to suffer for them, in that his patience doesn’t destroy them, even though they reject him.

In Rev 5, John hears a voice behind him saying the Lion of the tribe of Judah has prevailed. This is the only time this Lion is mentioned in the Revelation. As John turns to see this Lion, he sees a Lamb, as though it had been slain. The lion depicts the overcoming God. The lamb depicts how this God overcomes, by becoming the sacrifice of the world’s wrath (scapegoated). This is the controlling theme of the whole of the Revelation. This Lamb is mentioned 29 times in the Revelation, and is the constant refrain throughout the whole vision. The Lamb gives his life; the beasts take life.

In addition to the Book of Revelation, pacifism is also the underlying theme in all of Paul’s letters. All Paul’s letters called believers to follow Christ’s example. This is the same with Peter’s letters. Repeatedly, Peter told the believers to emulate Christ’s self-giving suffering, in being a witness to the truth, as the means of overcoming and transforming the world.

Paul’s main call to pacifism was to be fulfilled through the believer’s service orientated lives. Philippians, in particular, is all about this service. Philippians was written in the apocalyptic style of the Jewish people. Jesus was the Son of Man of Daniel 7, exalted to God’s right hand. He did this through suffering service. The letter speaks of the coming resurrection, also in keeping with Daniel’s vision.

To Paul, the central theme of the apocalypse, that which is unveiled by the cross, is the service orientation, the way God overcomes evil through self-giving. This permeates Paul’s whole message, and the whole example he tried to live. The Philippians are called to forsake Roman privilege and to dedicate their lives to one another of all classes. The pacifism they were called to, was to emulate the loving God in their society, refusing the violence and self-gratification that their cultures demanded of them. There is no doubt about the pacifism central to this message.

This service is also the central theme of Thessalonians. Here, the persecution of their enemies was emphasised. Paul used this backdrop of violence to paint the picture of the pacifist church. They were to renounce the way of violence that was coming against them. They had been called out of that world, and now they were to live in love and faith, which should grow all the more, in contrast to the darkness. They were to grow in patience and endurance, in the midst of their suffering. They were to follow Paul, who was like a nursing mother to them, in his care for each person.

The Thessalonians were called out of violence, directly into a life of endurance, love, hope, faith and care. A nurse heals wounds. He doesn’t make wounds. They are not to take vengeance, but to leave judgement entirely in God’s hands. The call to pacifism in Thessalonians is central to the letters. It was the actual life style Paul was painting.

Romans is the same. The letter starts by plainly unseating Caesar from the throne, and replacing him with Christ. Rome had claimed the position in Daniel 7, and by senate decree, they had sat Caesar at the right hand of power in heaven, to govern the nations on earth. This was widely known, and Paul directly refutes this, while writing to the church in that city. By doing this, Paul was denying the selforientation of the Roman rule and culture. He was calling the Roman believers, to instead emulate Christ, who proved his Lordship, giving his life for others. This death and resurrection, this apocalyptic service, showed Christ worthy.

Paul’s call to victory over the world in Rome was unity and service. They were called to love each other, from different racial, economic and social backgrounds, to fellowship and eat together at one table, forgiving each other’s weaknesses and differences. This, coupled with the service call to love their enemies, was their victory path, not the path that Rome took against its enemies. They were to “overcome,” meaning to find victory over the world, through doing good. Again, Romans is clearly pacifist, especially in contrast with the Roman way of rule in the city Paul was addressing.

Pacifism was also shown by the way Paul dealt with issues of government in general. In the opening chapter of Romans, he plainly dealt with the Roman government as pretenders, as a complete sham, as satanic in nature. But in chapter 13, Paul called the believers to obey the government and give them respect. This is a balance we must all find in our lives. On the one hand, Paul’s outspokenness, in showing powers up, contrasting them to the true power of the life of Christ. On the other hand, Paul’s refusal to act in rebellion against authority. This, again, was to follow Christ, who obeyed Pilot, who had him sentenced to death. Paul didn’t just say this about government, but he called believers to respect and obey all social institutions, such as social order in marriage, or social order in slavery.

Peter did the same in his letters.

This was important, especially in regard to marriage. With the liberty that women had in the gospel, being established, as the New Testament shows, in all levels in gospel ministry, as well as in all levels of church leadership, the believers had to be careful not to bring accusation against themselves, by being seen to revolt against social order in marriage. This would equate them, in the minds of their neighbours, with the sexual religious cults. They were to transform customs in marriage, bringing down patriarchal culture, by mutual service, not by disrespect for each other, or disrespect for their neighbour’s conscience.

We see this in the way Paul told them to eat in each other’s houses, not causing a stumbling block to those of weaker faith. All things were done, so as not to give offence, because of the gospel. The same could be said of the slavery institution. It was not of God, but they were to overcome evil the way Jesus did on the cross, not by rebelling against social authorities.

All of this further brings out the church’s stance on pacifism, as shown by the example of the cross.

They were to transform the world, not by any form of rebellion whatsoever, not in any way by the arm of the flesh, but by respect, by service, by love, seen by their sensitivity for the conscience of others in the society. This is remarkable love for their neighbour. It is pacifism to the extreme.

They were not in any way to conform to, or adopt the nature of the beast, in overcoming the beast. They could not overcome the evil of Rome by disrespecting the government of Rome. They could only overcome it by contrast, by love and genuine faith. Paul’s call to respect government in Romans 13, isn’t a call to put away pacifism, because Rome bears weapons to destroy the ungodly, but a call to pacifism, because we can’t follow the violent ways of Rome in disrespect of others.

Paul is utterly consistent in his message; follow Jesus Christ, who defeated evil by serving. Don’t try to defeat evil with any form of evil, whatsoever. Overcome it through pacifism. Overcome it by following Jesus. If you try any other way, you become just like the ones you are trying to overcome.

You become part of them.

Looking at the early church in Acts we see exactly the same kind of church. They never had a call to arms among them, to defend themselves against their persecutors. You never see any of them carrying weapons, though in every place you see persecution against them. Sometimes this was severe, yet you never hear of any self-defence, nor of retaliation against others. All the first apostles of Jesus became martyrs for the faith. None of them sought deliverance through violent means. Sometimes they fled, but they never took up arms against others.

The community behaviour of the believers in Acts was central to how pacifism works. There were no denominations to alienate worshippers from each other. They were one family, from all backgrounds. This is how mercy justice spreads. They got to know the problems each person had, from their different parts of society, and they helped each other. This was worship. Professionals, government staff and peasants all ate together. Without these relationships, injustice between different groups grows like a fungus.

They sold their land and helped each other in need. This care for neighbour breaks up the fallow ground of injustice and sows healing for wounds. Zacchaeus launched into this behaviour as soon as he was saved. John the Baptist proclaimed it for all who repent. In Acts, the people, led by the Spirit, were doing the very things that build a new type of peaceful kingdom in the world, possibly without fully realising it at first, but just out of love. It was the very opposite life style to the one that was tearing Jerusalem apart in the first century. They reversed the very problems that James, in his letter, said were then leading to war.

This continued on after the first apostles. Countless numbers were killed by Rome, but they never preached retaliation, or violent resistance. They instead preached forgiveness of their enemies, and sought ways to help them. They took in their rejected children, and ministered to many pagans during plagues, at great risk to their own lives. This is the kind of thing they did over and over, risking their lives to serve their enemies, and this eventually turned the whole empire of Rome over to Christianity. They overcame one of the most violent empires of history, without the sword. If it was done then, it can be done today. Nothing has changed, except our perspective. When we defeated Rome, we became part of Rome, and that has changed our perspective.

It is well documented also, that the early church was doctrinally pacifist. They were against killing of any kind. They were against killing in war, killing in capital punishment, against euthanasia, and killing of babies, or abortions. This is where we can learn today. We speak against abortion, but press for capital punishment and relish in war, calling for actions which have killed hundreds of thousands of innocents, in recent times. The inconsistency here is glaring.

How can we be pro-life in one area and pro-death in other areas? It is not the character of the church, which follows Christ, to be pro the death of any person, except for giving ourselves in their place, as Jesus did; even for Barabbas, the insurgent. How can we ever act and speak outside of this clear character of the church? There is a better way to overcome abortion, and that is to serve the mothers and their babies, as the early church did.

The early church even forbad any believer to serve in the Roman army. This wasn’t just because of their idolatry, but early writings also say it was because of their killing. If someone was in the army, they should look for non-killing roles. This is interesting in the light of Paul’s statement in Romans 13, calling the Roman government “servants of God.” It shows how the early church understood what Paul said. They didn’t take it to mean that what the Roman army did in any way reflected God or his kingdom.

The reason for these views of the early church, was because of how they read the Prophets, like Isaiah, where they saw nations beating their swords into ploughshares. They believed this call was for today, for the church age. They saw the church as the instrument of God, bringing this peace change, transformation, to the whole world. They saw themselves as in the early days of embarking on this world renewal.

They abandoned the violent end-times teachings of the earlier Jewish communities, and embraced an “end-times” of the kingdom of God, transforming governments and armies through the self-giving witness of the church. They didn’t see Jesus coming in the next week, not until the completion of the church’s mission, in bringing these enemies of the world, greed and violence, and death, under the feet of their Master, Christ. This is how we serve our Master, by working with him, in the accomplishment this kind of victory over the world.

There is a sentiment, that withdrawing from armies, especially when those armies serve unjust ends, is still somehow cowardly. It is more often the opposite. It is hard to die, but to live in the face of those who mock you is sometimes more difficult. The early Christians were greatly mocked for their stance. The true life of pacifism may put you in more danger than some soldiers face. A true pacifist is often seeking to help people out, who live in very difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances.

Look at the lives of Jesus, Paul and all the first disciples. Was their pacifism cowardly? True pacifism is anything but cowardly and it is anything but selfish withdrawal. It is a selfless way of life. And true pacifism isn’t letting other people do the dirty work in keeping peace. It can be very dirty and can contribute very significantly to peace.

Today, many of us have two issues with pacifism. These are self-preservation, and private ownership of our property. These are the unalienable rights of our modern democracies. But instead, we have found them to the path of death. That is what our modern civilizations are beginning to discover. Jesus said, he who loses his life, finds it, and he who finds his life, loses it. This is what all the letters of the New Testament teach and it is what the whole early church held to.