The Christian, the Church and Pacifism – the Sword or the Cross

by Dr Damon Adams
17th February 2017

The recent film directed by Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge tells of a Christian pacifist named Desmond Doss who was conscripted during the Second World War and refused to bear arms. As a military medic he put his own life on the line to save dozens of wounded soldiers during the height of battle. In the midst of his non-violent convictions he exemplified selfless bravery, hope and faith. This film brings to the attention of present-day Christians the question of Christian pacifism.

It might come as a surprise to many that for the first three centuries of the Christian Church the overwhelming stance was officially that of pacifism. This is the scholarly consensus on the early church. Amongst the available writings of the Church Fathers leading up to the Emperor Constantine, there is not one voice that supports the right of Christians to participate in the military.[i] In fact the writings of the early church distinctly prohibit Christians in the military. Prior to 180 CE there are no records of Christians in the Roman military.[ii]

The Constantinian Shift

When did the move away from pacifism occur and why? Clearly the change came when Constantine (272-337 CE) became the sole emperor of the Roman Empire in 324 CE. In Church History this has become known as the Constantinian shift. Under Constantine Christianity became a legal religion (Edict of Milan 313 CE) and received the personal support of the Emperor. Eventually, under Emperor Theodosius I (347-395 CE) Christianity was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE with the Edict of Thessalonica. With the union of the church and state, Christian participation in the military became an expectation. This meant the Church and its theologians had to accommodate the political and social changes resulting from being tied to the state. Consequently, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE) provided the basis for Christians participation in the military along with the Church’s support of state sanctioned wars by presenting what has become known as ‘the just war theory’.[iii] From that point to the present, the Christian Church has experienced a paradigm shift away from its early adherence to pacifism. Currently, both the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches largely hold to the ‘just war theory’ and support the place and role of military service as a legitimate choice for members.

Basis for the Early Church’s Pacifism

What was the basis for the early church’s pacifistic stance and opposition to the military? Some scholars have argued that the basis for the church’s opposition rests predominantly in the religious nature of the Roman military.[iv] Although there is truth to this, it is not the main reason for the church’s opposition. George Kalantzis, in his book, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service,[v] carefully examines both the evidence and grounds for the early church’s position. The Church opposed Christian participation in war and military service on biblical and ethical grounds. Essentially, the church could not accept violence and warfare on theological grounds.

The first major biblical argument used by the early Church Fathers against war and military participation for Christians was Jesus’ command to love your enemies – ‘But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:43). This command was exemplified by Christ’s life of non-violence and His forgiveness of His enemies. Kalantzis concludes: ‘Love of enemy as an overwhelming apologetic of love of God and as a pious Christian obligation is a theme that permeates Christian writings of this period (100-300 CE).’[vi] This new ethic of Christ’s was expounded by notable early church leaders: Justin, Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Athenagaros, Origen, Arnobius, Lactantius and the Didache.[vii] This twin act of loving enemies and forgiving them (Luke 6:27-37; Matthew 5:43-48; 6:12; Mark 11:25; Colossians 3:13-14) was a distinguishing feature of the early Christians and was viewed by them as a mark of their citizenship in the kingdom of God.

The second biblical reason for non-violent pacifism was Jesus’ injunction to Peter to put away his sword (Matthew 26:52; John 18:11). This was interpreted as Jesus making the distinction between the old dispensation and the new. Under the new dispensation the physical sword was replaced by the spiritual which consists of prayer and the word of God. Included in this was Christ’s ushering the fulfilment of the prophecy of Micah 4:3:

He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore (ESV)[viii]

Tertullian calls the new dispensation ‘the age of peace’ which is spread by the church as the kingdom of God. Christ’s incarnation and ministry was all about peace. At His birth the angels declared the dispensation of peace, (Luke 2:13-14). One of Jesus’ majestic titles is ‘Prince of Peace’ (Isaiah 9:6-7). He is the Reconciler and the agent of peace through His death on the cross and the shedding of His blood, (Romans 5:1; Colossians 1:20). Christians are called to be ruled by peace (Colossians 3:15) and to be at peace with all, (Hebrews 12:14; 1 Timothy 2:2). Peace is the nature of the kingdom of God, (Romans 14: 17-18) and Christ Himself is peace, (Ephesians 2:14). Jesus is the messenger and maker of peace, (Ephesians 2:15-18). As followers of Christ, believers are called to be agents of peace: And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace, (James 3:18); Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God (Matthew 5:9). Thus the early Church Fathers saw it as incongruous for a Christian to be in the military and engage in worldly warfare.

Returning to Jesus’ words to Peter during His arrest in the garden of Gethsemane, many of the Church Fathers interpreted this event as a prohibition on Christians engaging in military service. In fact in the early church a baptized believer who entered military service was to be excommunicated. In the case of a soldier being converted while in the army, the expectation of the church was that the soldier would endeavor to resign or be prepared to suffer the fatal punishment of declaring inability to continue on the basis of their new allegiance to Christ and His command of peace. No professing Christian remaining in the army was allowed to be baptized.[ix]

Underpinning the church’s stance were the commands not to kill and to love your neighbor as yourself, (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17; Matthew 5:21, 43-48: 22: 39; Mark 12: 28-33; Luke 10:26-28; 19:18). This latter command to love your neighbor was shown by Christ to be inclusive of one’s enemy, (the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10: 29-37). Together these two commands were foundational principles on which the kingdom of God was built by Christ and His Spirit. Christ’s kingdom ethic of peace, along with humility, was in direct conflict with the world. Jesus had declared this on numerous occasions during His earthly ministry and was confirmed in His response to Pilate when He declared, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ (John18:36).

So diametrically opposed was the early Roman Empire to the Christian Church that persecution was inevitable. Martyrdom for Christians was the consequence of the clash of the two kingdoms. It was the peace and patience of the Christian martyrs that testified to the gospel of Christ. Jesus had foretold that there would be areas where the world and the Church would collide. Martyrdom was the supreme badge of honour for the Christian in the early church. ‘Martyrdom was the means by which the Church won her most conspicuous triumphs, and was honoured accordingly.’[x] Consequently, Martyrology was the most popular form of Christian literature during the early church era.[xi] Martyrs were accorded double honour by fellow believers. In fact often Christians imprisoned and sentenced to death were visited by large numbers of believers.

The act of martyrdom was viewed in many different ways by the Church[xii]. One view was that Christian martyrs followed and imitated Christ in the ultimate demonstration of love to a world that is at enmity with them and their Saviour. It was a manifold witness of love – a true expression of the ultimate act of love towards your enemy. Such a concept made military service and war totally contradictory to Christ and His call to believers to take up the cross. ‘The martyr becomes truly a living image of the trinitarian truth revealed in and through the love of the Cross.’[xiii]

Christian Warfare

The metaphor of the military and warfare in the New Testament is used by Paul in relation to spiritual warfare where the weapons of the believer are truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the word of God and  prayer, (Ephesians 6:11-18). For the Christian ‘war’ is waged through service, redemption and love. Much was made of the benefit of the Pax Romana (Peace of Rome) of the Roman Empire during the early centuries of the Church. This stood in contrast with the peace of the Gospel. The Pax Romana came at the cost of the sword whereas the Pax Christi (Peace of Christ) came with the cross. The ultimate weapon of the early Church in ‘waging war’ against the world was the cross which was exemplified by martyrdom. The early believers saw their pacifism in the face of persecution as an act of imitation of Christ and obedience to the injunction of the apostle Paul:

12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1Timothy 6:12-14 (ESV)

Church History and Pacifism

In time, with the church and state becoming intertwined, the Church moved to support military service on the basis of the ‘just war’(bellum iustum) concept.[xiv] During the Middle Ages much of the support for the idea of a ‘just war’ was replaced by a more aggressive view that promoted the concept of a ‘virtuous war’ (bellum sacrum) – the crusade. This view runs contrary to Christ’s actions and His mandate to the Church. Consequently, the concept of a sacred war of aggression must be seen as immoral and outside the realm of Christian ethics. The legacy of Christendom to the contemporary Church has largely been one of accepting the necessity and ‘just-ness’ of war, either waged by, or participated in by Western Christian nations.

Even after the Church embraced Christian participation in the military there have been voices of opposition. During the Middle Ages there were the Waldensians and Cathari followed by a branch of the Hussites.[xv] Arising at the time of the Reformation were the Anabaptists who officially made Pacifism part of their Confession.[xvi] In the seventeenth century came the Quakers[xvii] who were later followed by Alexander Campbell and the Disciples of Christ in the United States of America.[xviii] The Seventh Day Adventists from their formation in the nineteenth century taught pacifism as their churches official stance.[xix] Opposing the Civil War in America was the famous evangelist D. L. Moody, who was a Christian Pacifist.[xx]

Pentecostalism and Pacifism

Pentecostalism commenced with the overwhelming majority in the movement firmly upholding and teaching Christian Pacifism. John Alexander Dowie, the precursor to Pentecostalism founded his church and movement on Pacifism. Charles Fox Parham, Stanley H. Fordsham, A. J. Tomlinson and Frank Bartleman, all significant figures in the early days of Pentecostalism, were all proponents of Christian Pacifism.[xxi] In Britain Donald Gee, the father of the British Assemblies of God and the famous son-in-law of General Booth, Arthur Booth-Clibborn, were Pacifists.[xxii] There is overwhelming evidence that Pacifism was part of the theological perspective of classical Pentecostalism.[xxiii]

In 1917 the Assemblies of God in the USA made an official declaration opposing war in general and the First World War in particular. They were followed by the Church of God and the Church of God in Christ.  In Britain the Elim Pentecostal Church officially declared itself to hold to Christian Pacifism.[xxiv] In Canada the Pentecostal churches took the same stance as the Assemblies of God in the USA and in Europe the Pentecostal churches in Germany and Switzerland opposed war.[xxv] The response of the early Pentecostal churches to war was based on biblical grounds and not just to the conflict of World War I. A change amongst Pentecostals came with the Second World War and the various denominations made it a matter of individual conscience.[xxvi]


It has been shown that the history of Christianity has been marked by oscillation between positions of pacifism and just-war (and the occasional holy war position). Paralleling this history concerning stances toward violence has been the social and political position of the church within the society at the time. At the core of this, attested to by the early church and their reading of the gospels, is the pacifist example modelled by Jesus in his life and mission that stands as a continual challenge and source of inspiration to the church that bears His name. For the Pentecostal church we stand at cross roads. Like the history of the church in general, this tradition began with a pacifist stance but as it has developed, institutionalized, and sought influence in the public and political environments its position on war and violent force has moved. Whether or not this change can be considered accommodation verging on compromise or appropriate contextual application remains to be seen.

This brings us back to Hacksaw Ridge – we must consider the question as Christians, ‘Was the position that Des Doss took correct or was he sincerely misguided?’ As the West moves further away from Christendom and closer towards secularism, both as individual Christians and as the Church, we need to re-examine the issue of Christian Pacifism in the context of the Bible, Christian theology, Church History and Christian ethics.[xxvii] The question may be that of – How far do we follow Christ?


About the author: Damon Adams originally trained as a Presbyterian minister in the 1980’s and was later ordained as a Pentecostal minister. Damon served as Chaplain at Elizabeth College, Hobart and has experience in church planting. He has been involved in lecturing in Theology, Biblical Studies and Church History at John Knox Theological College, Sydney, Tabor College, Tasmania and more recently at Alphacrucis Hobart. Damon holds a PhD in Theology.


[i] See Adolf Harnack, Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981); Cecil John Cadoux, Early Christian Attitudes to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics, (New York: Seabury, 1982); Jean-Michel Hornus, Is It Not Lawful for Me to Fight: Early Christian Attitudes Toward War , Violence and the State, (Scottsdale PA: Herald, 1980); G.H.C. MacGregor, The New Testament Basis for Pacifism, (London: SCM, 1967); Edward A. Ryan, “The Rejection of Military Service by the Early Christians” Theological Studies 13.1 (1952): 1-32; Hans van Campenhausen, “Christians and Military Service in the Early Church” in Tradition and life in the Church Essays and Lectures in Church History, (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1968), 160-170; Heinrich Karpp, “Die Stellung der Alten Kirche zu Kriesdeienst un Krieg” Evangelische Theologie 17 (1957): 496-515; Roland H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes to War and Peace, (Knoxville, TH: Abingdon, 1960); George Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012).

[ii] See J. D. Weaver, “Pacifism” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 879.

 [iii] Contra Faustum Manichaeum Book 22 sections 69-76: The City of God Part IV Book 15, Chapter 4; Part V Book 19, Chapter 12.

 [iv] David G. Hunter, “The Christian Church and the Roman Army in the First Three Centuries” in The Church’s Peace Witness, Marlin E. Miller & Barbara Nelson Gingerich, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 161-181; David E. Hunter, “A decade of Research on Early Christians and Military Service” Religious Studies Review 18 (1992):87-94; Alan Kreider, “Military Service in Church Orders” Journal of Religious Ethics 31 (2003):415-442.: John Helgeland, ”Christians and the Roman Army A.D. 173-337” Church History 43.2 (1974):149-163, 200.

 [v] George Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb: Early Christian Attitudes on War and Military Service (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2012).

 [vi] Kalantzis, Caesar and the Lamb, 52.

 [vii] Justin, 1 Apology. 1.39; 11-16; Clement of Rome, 2 Clement 13; Clement of Alexandria, Paed.3.12; Protr. 10; Strom. 4.8; Irenaeus, Haer. 2.32; 3.18; 4.13; Tertullian, Apol. 31, 37; Scap. 1.3; Cyprian, Test. 3.48; Athenagaros, Leg. 1.4; Origen, Celsus 7.25, 58-6; 8.35; Lactantius, Institutes 5.10; 6.20, Didache 1.1-3

 [viii] See Justin, 1 Apology 1.39; Trypho 110.3-4; Tertullian, Against the Jews 3.10; Origen, Celsus, 8.73.

 [ix] Nicene Council, Canon 12; Canons of Hippolytus 13-14; Testamentum Domini 2.2.

 [x] F. J. Foakes Jackson, The History of the Church from the Earliest Times to AD 461, (London: Allen & Unwin, 1957), 240.

 [xi] See Hubertus R. Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 51, 92-103.

 [xii] Paolo Prosperi outlines several different ways the early Church interpreted the act of martyrdom. See Paolo Prosperi, “The Witness of the Martyrs in the Early Church,” Communio – The International Catholic Review, vol. 44.1 (Spring 2004): 1-36.

 [xiii] Prosperi, “The Witness of the Martyrs in the Early Church”, 1.

[xiv] Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) codified Augustine’s concept of a ‘just war’. Aquinas divided the topic up into two key areas – 1. Just reason for going to war (Jus ad bellum); 2. Just conduct in war, (Jus in Bello). For further detail see, Summa Theologiae, II. 2, Q. 40.

 [xv] Peter Brock, Pacifism in Europe to 1914, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972), 25-58.

 [xvi] The Schleitheim Confession, 1527, Article 6 ‘On the Sword’; Brock, Pacifism in Europe to 1914, 59-114.

 [xvii] Meredith Baldwin Weddle, Walking in the Way of Peace: Quaker Pacifism in the Seventeenth Century, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Andrew Benjamin Smith, “American Pacifists: The Quakers, The Disciples Of Christ, And The Civil War” (MA thesis: Oklahoma State University, 2011), 1-36.

 [xviii] Michael W. Casey, “The Ethics of War: Pacifism and Militarism in the American Restoration Movement,” Leaven: Vol. 7: 4, Article 7 (1999): 194-198; Available at:; Smith, “American Pacifists”, 1-36.

 [xix] Douglas Morgan, “Between Pacifism and Patriotism,” Adventist Review,

 [xx] William R. Moody, The Life of Dwight L. Moody, (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1900), 82.

 [xxi] Grant Wacker, Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals & American Culture, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 20, 218-219, 237-250

 [xxii] James Robinson, Pentecostal Origins, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2005), 53-54, 63-67

 [xxiii] See D. J. Wilson, “Pacifism” in The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal & Charismatic Movements, Stanley M. Burgess & Eduard M. Van der Maas (editors), (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 953-955; Walter J. Hollenweger, The Pentecostals, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1988), 400-401; Jay Beaman, Pentecostal Pacifism: The Origins, Development and Rejection of Pacific Belief among Pentecostals, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2009);  Roger Robins, “A Chronology of Peace: Attitudes Toward War & Peace in the Assemblies of God 1914-18” Pneuma 6.1 (1984): 3-25; Paul Nathan Alexander (editor), Pentecostals and Nonviolence: Reclaiming a Heritage, (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick, 2012); Jay Beaman & Brian K. Pipkin (editors), Pentecostals & Holiness Statements on War & Peace, (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick, 2013); Allan Anderson, “Peace, Pacifism and Reconciliation in Pentecostal Theology” paper for the International Conference on Peace and Reconciliation, Seoul, Korea, 31 October– 4 November 2010,

 [xxiv] Hollenweger, The Pentecostals, 401

 [xxv] Wilson, “Pacifism”, 935-955; Hollenweger, The Pentecostals, 400-401; Grant Wacker, Heaven Below, 237-250

 [xxvi] John Thomas Nichol, The Pentecostals (Pentecostalism), (Plainfield, New Jersey: Logos International, 1971), 143; Robins, “A Chronology of Peace”, 3-25; Beaman, Pentecostal Pacifism, 107-122.

 [xxvii] There are numerous voices in Pentecostalism calling for this re-examination such as Jay Beaman, Paul Alexander, and Amos Yong. Yong states,

There is a movement to retrieve and reappropriate the pacifist stance of many Pentecostals during the early days of the movement. The argument is that pacifism is a moral sign of the restoration of the apostolic church, is a critique of the existing moral order, and puts into practice the universal valuation of human life.

Amos Yong, The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 188-189.

For further  details see Murray W. Dempster, “Pacifism in Pentecostalism: The Case of the Assemblies of God” in The Fragmentation of the Church and its Unity in Peacemaking, Jeff Gros & John D. Rempel (editors) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 137-165; Joel Shuman, “Pentecost and the End of Patriotism: A Call for the Restoration of Pacifism among Pentecostal Christians” JPT 9 (1996):70-96; Paul N. Alexander, “Spirit Empowered Peacemaking: Towards a Pentecostal Peace Fellowship”, JEPTA 22 (2002):78-102.