The early Church on killing and capital punishment

The early Church on killing and capital punishment

I’ve recently been asked a fair bit about my sympathies with pacifism, and especially about my opposition to capital punishment. One part of these dialogues has been looking at the tradition of the early Church which, I believe, was unanimously against killing, a tradition so strong that I hold it to be of comparable strength with almost any Christian doctrine. While I do not currently have time to lay out a complete case against killing, I would like to offer a brief discussion of the early Church’s view on it. What follows is pretty much entirely a distillation of Preston Sprinkle’s treatment of the subject in his book Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence, a sincere and compelling book I fully recommend.

The first important point is the widespread and early agreement on this issue. If the early Church was divided on the issue, it would not carry so much weight. But the unanimity, even among geographically distant parts of the Church, gives their opinion considerable weight. Sprinkle puts it like this: “Leaders from North Africa, Egypt, Israel, Asia Minor, and Rome. They all agree. Christians should never kill. Not in self-defense. Not as capital punishment for the guilty. Not in a just war. Never.”

What did early Christians say about killing? Here is a sample:

“We who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.” Justin Martyr (Apology, 1:39)

“Neither Celsus nor they who think with him are able to point out any act on the part of Christians which savours of rebellion. And yet, if a revolt had led to the formation of the Christian commonwealth… the Christian lawgiver would not have altogether forbidden the putting of men to death; and yet He nowhere teaches that it is right for His own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked. For He did not deem it in keeping with such laws as His, which were derived from a divine source, to allow the killing of any individual whatever. Nor would the Christians, had they owed their origin to a rebellion, have adopted laws of so exceedingly mild a character as not to allow them, when it was their fate to be slain as sheep, on any occasion to resist their persecutors.” Origen (Against Celsus, 3:7)

“By this very fact they are invincible, that they do not fear death; that they do not in turn assail their assailants, since it is not lawful for the innocent even to kill the guilty” Cyprian (Letter 56)

“What man of sound mind, therefore, will affirm, while such is our character, that we are murderers? … For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly; who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism? … But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death?” Athenagoras (Plea for the Christians, 35)

“Has the Creator, withal, provided these things for man’s destruction? Nay, He puts His interdict on every sort of man-killing” Tertullian (De Spectaculis, 2)

“For he who reckons it a pleasure, that a man, though justly condemned, should be slain in his sight, pollutes his conscience as much as if he should become a spectator and a sharer of a homicide which is secretly committed … Therefore they do not spare even the innocent, but practice upon all that which they have learned in the slaughter of the wicked. It is not therefore befitting that those who strive to keep to the path of justice should be companions and sharers in this public homicide. For when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, not to accuse anyone of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all; but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.” Lactantius (Divine Institutes, 6:20)

“For since we, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil, that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it, that we should rather shed our own blood than stain our hands and our conscience with that of another” Arnobius (Against the Heathen, 1:6)

Sprinkle goes on to discuss Christians in the military, his main thesis being that Christians unanimously rejected the permissibility of Christians killing in the military. Even when Christians believed in just war, Sprinkle adds, they still thought that Christians should not kill in the military.

Sprinkle first points to Tertullian, who wrote a whole treatise forbidding military service among Christians (De Corona), and who wrote elsewhere that “the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier”. Tertullian even takes it for granted that sacrifices and capital punishments are so obviously wrong as to be virtually non-negotiable: “But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments.”

He then mentions Origen who, despite recognising the necessity and inevitability of war in some contexts, in those same contexts forbade Christians killing on the grounds of the gospel being a doctrine of peace. Sprinkle also refers to an anonymous document often attributed to Hippolytus, which is more explicit: “A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath … the catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.” (Apostolic Tradition, 16)

Of course, there are familiar examples of Christians in the military, both in the New Testament itself and in early Church literature.  But Sprinkle makes several points in response:

Firstly, this clearly does not constitute an endorsement of the profession. Richard Hays is quoted on this point: “their military background is no more commended by these stories than are the occupations of other converts, such as tax collectors and prostitutes”.

Secondly, the point of the stories is not to show that military service is compatible with the gospel: after all, those in the military were essentially forced to take part in idolatrous practices, and yet these are not addressed in the narratives. Rather, the point of these stories is to show the powerful, universal attraction of the gospel.

Third, after the New Testament, we have no record of Christians in the military until 173 AD, over a century later!

Fourth, those same Christian writers who mentioned Christians in the military tended to be the ones explicitly prohibiting it – so the fact that Christians were in the military is clearly compatible with Christians, on the whole, thinking that it was impermissible! Sprinkle notes that clearly not all Christians thought that joining the military was impermissible, but that all the theologians did, and that Christians have always engaged in activities out of line with Church teaching – after all, 30% of Mennonite men participated in World War II!

Fifth, we don’t know much about what relationship the role in the military had to conversion. That is, we don’t know if Christians were already in the military prior to conversion (as in the New Testament), and we don’t know what Christians in the military did about their jobs after conversion. Nor do we know to what extent those Christians in the military felt ambivalent about their two vocations.

Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, many (maybe even most) jobs in the military did not require killing. Many amounted to office jobs, and the military had far more to do than simply fight: firefighting, mail delivery, accounting, messenger services, general administration, custody of prisoners, public transport, road maintenance and other civil functions constituted the bulk of military work, according to Daniel Bell Jr. This would explain those early Church writings which allowed Christians to join the military, while forbidding them from killing in the military.

In summary, there is an overwhelming body of early Church literature forbidding Christians from killing. This includes all kinds of killing: murder of the innocent, abortion, just war, and capital punishment. Killing was seen as contrary to God’s law for Christians, even for the guilty. It was seen as a violation of the standard most characteristic of Christians: to love one’s enemy as oneself. After all, if killing is compatible with loving, then what does hatred look like? The ban on Christians killing even extended to Christians serving in their capacity as a representative of the state, such that even Romans 13, so commonly cited by defenders of capital punishment and just war, is not enough to justify Christians killing, even if it is enough to justify non-Christians in government killing. This witness is early, widespread, and clear: all killing is wrong.

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