Preliminary Note: What follows is a paper I wrote and presented for a research class in graduate school. I was a pacifist when I began writing, but after evaluating the arguments and discovering inconsistencies and deceptions in the pacifist argument I converted to a just war position. I strove to present both arguments at their strongest with appropriate rebuttals because I was personally conflicted during the writing process.


Christians have often disagreed about how we should interact with war and violence. Some Christians have chosen to abstain from all violence, while others argue it is sometimes necessary to protect justice.

The church leaned pacifist for most of its first three centuries. Participation in the military was discouraged, and soldiers were sometimes instructed to switch their profession.

The conversion of Emperor Constantine changed these attitudes and led to a period in which warfare was embraced and soldiers honored. Christians were told to participate in physical combat for God and king.

The Protestant Reformation and subsequent restoration movements eventually divided Christians on the issue of war. The early Churches of Christ in America and German Anabaptists were among those who opposed Christian participation in war. Mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics continued to embrace it.

In the 1940s, Christian soldiers fighting in World War II were praised for their patriotism. Today, pacifist tendencies appear to be ascendant again. Influential modern theologians like Stanley Hauerwas are working to discredit all of Christian history not carried out under pacifist pretenses. Meanwhile, Just war theorists condemn pacifist Christians as cowardly and naïve. The opposing parties often seem to approach the issue from entirely different religions.

This paper will explore the arguments for and against the pacifist and just war positions in the hope of approaching a conclusion about which is more appropriate for a Christian to maintain. Beginning with just war and moving to pacifism each position’s evidence will be explored and a counter argument will be presented from the opposite point of view. Hopefully, the strongest arguments for each position will be covered and the reader can reach greater clarity about God’s will concerning war and violence.


Just war theory was first systematically developed by Bishop Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century to explain how and why Christians should participate in certain wars. The theory sought to guide Christians on whether they should participate in violent conflict or not. Augustine wrote: “But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars.” [1]

Just war theory was further developed by the medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas believed that three conditions were necessary for a just war:

“I reply that it must be said that, in order that a war may be just, three things are necessary. In the first place, the authority of the prince, by whose order the war is undertaken…. In the second place, there must be a just cause; that is to say, those attacked must have, by a fault, deserved to be attacked…. In the third place, it is necessary that the intention of those who fight should be right; that is to say, that they propose to themselves a good to be effected or an evil to be avoided.” [2]

Just war theory continues to be debated and clarified in modern times. Pope Benedict XVI reaffirmed a belief in the need for war:

“I’d say that we cannot ignore, in the great Christian tradition and in a world marked by sin, any evil aggression that threatens to destroy not only many values, many people, but the image of humanity itself. In this case, defending oneself and others is a duty. Let’s say for example that a father who sees his family attacked is duty-bound to defend them in every way possible — even if that means using proportional violence.” [3]

Many Christens have argued there can be no just war, and that Christ’s followers should abstain from violent conflict regardless of circumstances. Because of these objections, certain arguments have been developed by just war proponents to defend the theory.

Old Testament Continuation Argument

Reading the Old Testament will give an amateur student the impression that Yahweh is a God of war. Passages like Deut 20:13, Josh 11:20, and Gen 14 suggest God accepts and utilizes war. In Josh 11:20 God appears to have created a war for the purpose of genociding a people group: “For it was the LORD himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses.”

In addition to God’s tendency to produce and participate in war there are passages which convey the sense that war is a normal wholesome part of life. The Solomonic author wrote in Eccl 3:8 that there is an allotted time for many activities: “a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build…. a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”

Christians might be excused for studying the Old Testament without thinking much of whether they should renounce violence. Most Christians probably assume they too experience a “time for war.”

Considering this, just war proponents argue Christians should continue waging war as their Old Testament counterparts did. They claim the New Testament nowhere expressly forbids Christians from participating in war. If God was a God of war in the Old Testament why would he have altered his identity and opinion? If God did alter his opinion would he not have specifically informed his New Testament followers?

Lacking evidence of God’s alteration between testaments, just warriors assume God’s commands regarding war have not changed. The New Testament is filled with soldiers, if God had intended to convey a change in his war policy he had plenty of opportunities to express it.

Former Westminster chapel pastor G. Campbell Morgan wrote in his book ‘The Seven Centurions of the New Testament:’ “In all these centurions there is something to admire; in some of them much to admire; and in one of them at least everything to admire.” [4] Soldiers are portrayed positively in the New Testament, and none of them were instructed to change their profession.

In John 3:14, soldiers asked John the Baptist how they should prepare for the Messiah. John responded that they must refrain from extorting others and be content with their pay. Jesus’ cousin did not appear to associate the messianic appearance with the end of physical warfare.

Pacifist Counter Old Testament Continuation

Pacifists counter that Christ’s peaceful death at Calvary and his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount constitute a repudiation of violence and war. Pacifist author Gene Davenport supports this argument in his book ‘Into the Darkness:’

“when the first hearers of Matthew’s Gospel heard Jesus’ call to suffer rather than to inflict suffering, to accept death rather than to inflict death, to reject all efforts to save themselves from their plight by military action and to leave their deliverance to God, they knew that the one who gave such scandalous instruction had himself lived and died in accord with that call.” [5]

Pacifists quote Matt 5:38-39: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for
an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”

Pacifists argue the Old Testament contains clues indicating that future followers of God would one day renounce violence and end participation in war.

Isa 2:4 seems to have predicted a future in which God enlightens mankind into ending war: “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

In 1 Chr 22:8 God told King David he could not build God’s temple because he had waged too much war: “this word of the LORD came to me: ‘You have shed much blood and have fought many wars. You are not to build a house for my Name, because you have shed much blood on the earth in my sight.” Pacifists contend this passage demonstrates God opposed warfare even in the Old Testament.

Pacifists object to the just war advocates use of the New Testament centurion and soldier interactions as arguments from silence. Pacifist author Cecil Cadoux:

“The attempt to draw such a conclusion is at best an argument from silence. Considering the number of things Jesus must have said of which no record has been left, we cannot be at all sure that he said nothing on this occasion about the illegitimacy of military service for his own followers. And even supposing he did not, is it reasonable to demand that his views on this point should be publicly stated every time he comes across a soldier?” [6]

However, the pacifist’s assumption that post-conversion soldiers were told to change their profession is also a speculation from silence.

New Testament Passages Supporting Just War

Just war theorists lean heavily on two New Testament passages they claim legitimize Christian use of deadly force.

The first of these passages is Rom 13:3-4: “For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Just war proponents say God has given governments the obligation as his ministers to execute justice using the death penalty.

Rom 13:3-4 does not directly address the issue of war, but just war proponents argue that if governments can wage mortal war against criminals in the name of preserving justice and order then the government’s right to wage war against other governments or nations can be easily extrapolated. Rom 13:3-4 grants governments the right to take human life.

Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll claimed Jesus was not a pacifist, and that Christians should not be either. Driscoll used Rev 19, and claimed peace can only arise from utilizing the sword: “One of the defining attributes of God’s coming kingdom is shalom—perfect peace untainted by sin, violence, or bloodshed of any sort. Such a kingdom is only possible if an all-powerful, benevolent Authority vanquishes his enemies. In other words, the Prince of Peace is not a pacifist.” [7] Driscoll is typical of just war supporters in his use of Rev 19:11-21:

“I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. ‘He will rule them with an iron scepter.’ He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS. And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, ‘Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.’ Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.”

In 1 Cor 11:1 Paul said: “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ.” If Christ and his followers will eventually wage war on the wicked inhabitants of the world should Christians also wage just war in everyday life?

These two passages (Rom 13:3-4 and Rev 19:11-21) appear to suggest violence and warfare have not been eliminated by the coming of the messiah.

Pacifist Counter New Testament Passages

The pacifist rebuttal to Rom 13:3-4 circulates around the idea that God creates justice by using institutions which Christians should not participate in.

Pacifists argue that Rom 13 was written in the same spirit as Habakkuk; God told the prophet he would use the Babylonians to enact judgment upon the Israelites even as he planned to destroy the Babylonians for their own wickedness. The pacifist believes governments are wicked, but God can and does use them for his own purposes.

Another common pacifist argument is that Rom 13 must be tempered with Rom 12. This is the position taken by prominent theologian Stanley Hauerwas: “As a pacifist, people always ask about Romans 13. [‘Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.’] But the answer is in Romans 12, which says to do good to your enemy and to overcome evil with good.” [8]

Some pacifists admit Rev 19 seems to contradict their image of the peace loving Jesus, but one writer warned: “It is important to try to interpret this passage consistently with what we know of Jesus already. He does not suddenly completely change character, coming first as a suffering servant and then as a vicious, all-powerful warrior judge.” [9]

Some Pacifists suggest the Rev 19 image of a militaristic messiah has been interpreted in the opposite way John intended it. John, they claim, used violent symbolism for the purpose of flipping its meaning and showing Christ as the opposite of violent and militaristic. One pacifist wrote a rebuttal of Driscoll:

“A third important symbol that John transforms in a non-violent direction is the sword. Driscoll was right to claim that the Jesus of Revelation carries a sword, but he was very mistaken in claiming he carried it in his hand. The sword that the slain Lamb carries as he rides into battle on a horse is one that comes out of his mouth (19:15, 21; cf. 1:16; 2:12,16;). Taken literally, the image is of course comical. (One would also wonder why Jesus and his army would fight a 21st [or later] century battle on horses instead of (say) military Hummers.) If we embrace the image in all of its symbolism, however, the meaning is profound. By placing the sword in the mouth of the slain Lamb, John is reversing its violent meaning. He is signifying that the Lamb warrior fights not by shedding blood, but simply by speaking the truth of God, thereby slaying the lies of the “deceiver” who had held these nations in bondage (19:20). This is why John states that the name of this warrior was “the Word of God” (19:13). Along similar lines, it’s obvious that Jesus didn’t kill anyone with his sword, for immediately after saying Jesus struck down the nations, John proclaims that Jesus was now going to “rule them with an iron scepter” (Rev. 19: 15). Moreover, we later find these “slain nations” walking by the light of the Lamb, with their kings bringing the splendor of their nations into the heavenly city (Rev 21:24). Having slain the nations that were deceived by Satan’s lies, the Lamb had set them free to see the truth. This is the kind of warfare the Lamb engages in.” [10]

Pacifism is Harmful Argument

Among the moral arguments for just war theory is that complete non-violence is irresponsible and harmful. Just war theorists claim that evil will ruin man and earth without the threat and use of violent force: “all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothing.” Christians cannot refuse to violently protect others because doing so would violate the Golden Rule. For example, a refusal to protect one’s family would leave one guilty of not caring for what God gave one charge over.

In the parable of the talents, the master expected his servants to utilize the talents he had given them. Allowing one’s family to be killed or brutalized would be shirking from a servant’s duties. In 1 Tim 5:8 Paul said those who do not provide for the members of their household, and especially those of their family, are worse than infidels. Does a refusal to protect one’s family amount to a lack of provision?

In an article entitled ‘Was Jesus a Pacifist?,’ popular theologian John Piper argued pacifism is harmful.

“To let someone murder when it is in your power to stop them is completely contrary to our moral sentiments. If a Hitler is on the move and seeking to bind the world in tyranny and destroy entire ethnic groups, it would seem very clearly wrong not to oppose him with force (which sometimes is the only effective method). It is true that war itself is harmful and tragic; but pacifism would result in even more harm to the world because it would give wicked people virtually free reign. We of course must be open to letting the Bible transform our moral sentiments, but this observation should at least cause us to pause and reflect more deeply before concluding that Jesus is intending to teach pacifism.” [11]

Pacifist Counter the Claim that Pacifism is Harmful

Pacifists argue love can overcome all evil, therefore pacifism can transform the world for the better. The pacifist anti-nuclear group Plowshare Movement’s official statement reads: “A loving and compassionate Creator invites us to take the urgent and decisive steps to transform the U.S. empire, and this facility [nuclear base], into life-giving alternatives which resolve real problems of poverty and environmental degradation for all.” [12]

Like many other pacifists, the Plowshare Movement believes humanity can resolve the world’s problems if it unites to stop violence, end poverty, and alleviate misfortune. According to the pacifists, just war theorists have too little faith in God’s ability to work in humanity.


Christian pacifism should be viewed as non-violence practiced as a result of a Christian ethic. The Encyclopedia of Britannica summarizes the tradition:

“Christianity, with its evangelical message, offered considerations in support of individual nonviolence as well as of collective peacefulness. Jesus’ spoken words as recorded in the New Testament could be interpreted as a kind of pacifism and in fact were so interpreted by many of Jesus’ early radical followers… while the Christian church itself had to compromise with worldly necessities. ‘The question of soldiers’—the inconsistency between the pursuit of peace and fighting in wars—was disturbing to Christians from the time of Jesus.” [13]

As just war theorists have developed arguments supporting their position so pacifists have also accumulated an impressive number of arguments supporting their own. Most pacifists focus on the example and words of Jesus.

Pacifist New Testament Passages

Pacifists typically use four Bible passages as proof texts. While this list of four is not exhaustive, most would agree they represent pacifism’s strongest Biblical support.

The first passage is found at the end of Matthew’s gospel. In Matt 26:52 Jesus was being arrested in the garden of Gethsemane. In an effort to defend him, Peter drew his sword and cut off Malchus’ ear. Jesus told Peter: “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”

Early church father Tertullian argued Christ’s words applied to all Christians, and that no disciple of Jesus can participate in armed conflict. As he wrote: “For even if soldiers came to John and received advice on how to act, and even if a centurion became a believer, the Lord, in subsequently disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” [14]

The second passage often used to argue Biblical support for pacifism is within the Sermon on the Mount. Matt 5:38-40: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.”

One pacifist commentator claimed Jesus’ admonition to let a person strike one without retaliation is a call beyond a commonsense ethic:

“Jesus structured his social ethic around the call to imitate God’s expansive love. Break free from the conventional ‘commonsense’ ethics of mainstream society. ‘I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you, and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask them again.’” [15]

The third passage is Rom 12:19: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” Pacifists claim this verse represents an eschatological hope for Christians who avoid avenging themselves in this life. Ultimately, God will create a just world, and vindicate those who did not vindicate themselves. God alone is given authority over history. Man has no authority to end life.

The fourth passage is found in Isa 2:4. It suggests that when the messiah comes he will end warfare on earth and bring peace between ethnic groups: “He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; 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.”

Isaiah’s prophesy seems to suggest that following the messiah’s appearance a new social order would be introduced abolishing violence and inaugurating a new age of peace. Many pacifists believe Christians should bring the prophesy to fruition, and that humanity should destroy our weapons and enter/create a prophetic epoch.

In 2012, three catholic peace activists inspired by Isa 2:4 and calling themselves “Transform Now Plowshares” broke into the Oak Ridge, TN nuclear facility and protested weapon production. The group carried hammers inscribed with Bible verses as symbolic representations that nuclear weapons could be converted into productive tools. [16]

Transform Now Plowshares is just one of many Christian pacifist groups who see Isa 2:4 as a crucial text for their movement. In their Y-12 nuclear facility statement the group said:

“Brothers and sisters, powers that be, we come to you today as friends, in love. We, like many of you, are people of faith, inspired by many who have gone before us, people like the prophets, Isaiah and Micah, Jesus… and the countless who call us ‘to beat swords into plowshares.’ May we now transform weapons into real, life-giving alternatives, to build true peace.” [17]

Just war Counter New Testament Passages

Just war advocates argue pacifists misinterpret Jesus words in Matt 26:52. Christ was not intending to denounce all future use of the sword, they argue, he was merely stopping its use in that particular incident.

While the scenario of Christ’s arrest, and Peter’s subsequent attempt to defend him, is recorded in all four gospels only in Matthew’s account does Christ appear to endorse pacifism. In the other three gospels, Jesus’ response seems to have been limited to the immediate scenario.

In Mark: “And they laid hands on him and seized him. But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. And Jesus said to them, ‘Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?'”

In Luke: “And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, ‘Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.”

In John: “Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, ‘Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?'”

If one interprets Matt 26:52 using the parallel accounts it appears Christ is stopping the immediate violence rather than delivering a sweeping declaration against armed conflict.

On the surface, Matt 5:39 (“turn to him the other also”) appears to be a clear admonition against self defense and violence. However, just war theorists argue this verse does not address the primary argument for just war. While Matt 5:39 might deal with personal violent self defense, it does not address the issue of violence while protecting others. As Richard Bauckham commentated: “The individual is obliged to forgive personal injuries against himself, but this principle will not be enough to guide him in situations where the interests of several people are involved, where other people have been injured or need protection.” [18]

Another common argument against the use of Matt 5:39 as a pacifist proof text is that the passage deals only with retributive legal contexts. John Howard Yoder was one of the twenty-first centuries leading pacifists, but he admitted that there was: “serious scholarly opinion to the effect that ‘resistance in kind’ [in Matt 5:39] is meant specifically in reference to legal recourse against an evil which one has suffered.” [19] It is likely, just war theorists argue, that Matt 5:39 has nothing to tell Christians about war and violence.

Just warriors claim pacifist interpretations of the Sermon on the Mount are inconsistent. As Jeffrey Peterson wrote: “we may note that if the Sermon on the Mount as a whole were interpreted as pacifist exegetes interpret the command not to resist evil, then we would have to conclude that in Matt 6:5-6 Jesus prohibits all public prayer by his disciples and confines worship to the individuals prayer closet.” [20]

The just war rebuttal to Rom 12:19 contends that the quoted support verse, “vengeance is Mine sayeth the Lord,” comes from Deut 32:35. The Deuteronomy passage describes Moses preparing to die and Joshua preparing to lead the Israelites across the Jordan to violently conquer the Holy Land. In this context, it becomes difficult to argue Rom 12:19 is a command to pacifism.

Just war supporters admit that Isa 2:4 is an inspiring verse, and that it foresees a day when nations will live at peace under Christ. However, just war theorists suggest the chronology of this prophesy’s fulfillment is uncertain. It appears to relate to the coming of the messiah, but not all of the messianic prophesies have been fulfilled. Some will be fulfilled with the second coming. Since the nations have obviously not ceased participating in war, this particular prophesy might come to pass at Christ’s return.

“Thou Shalt Not Kill” Argument

The Ten Commandments provide pacifists with one of their most common proof texts. The command “thou shalt not kill” is often shouted passionately during anti-war rallies and other emotionally charged events.

One such advocate of a pacifist interpretation of the sixth commandment is Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted. In an article published in the ‘Catholic Sun’ the Bishop applied the commandment to domestic just war: “Reasons why the death penalty is not right today. Because God commanded us, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and because every human life is precious in God’s eyes (even the lives of persons who have committed terrible crimes) it is wrong for the state to kill even criminals who have committed terrible crimes unless such an execution is necessary to protect society from even more killing.” [21]

While many pacifists admit the passage cannot be used in simplistic ways, even the most intellectual will often interpret it into something eventually supportive of their argument. As one pacifist wrote: “The sixth commandment, then, ‘thou shalt not kill,’ essentially tells us that life is God’s. This loving, delivering God is the giver of life and the ultimate determiner of the outcome of life. It is not for human beings to usurp God’s dominion over life. It is not for human beings to name the time and season for life or death.” [22]

Just war Counter “Thou Shalt Not Kill”

The “thou shalt not kill” argument is so commonly used that just war theorists have faced it for centuries, and they argue against the pacifist interpretation by suggesting the command only applies to lawless murder (not war or capital punishment).

Just warriors point out that the Mosaic Law mandates capital punishment for thirty six different offenses, and warfare was used as a means to drive out the original inhabitants of the Promised Land. To argue that God forbade all killing with the sixth commandment is to claim God was inconsistent.

Just war theorists argue that in the early English King James Version “kill” was understood to be homicide by contemporary readers. Over time, however, English evolved to the point that “kill” now implies the taking of life for any reason. A University of Wisconsin professor wrote:

“But what about ‘Thou shalt not kill?’ Notice that it’s ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but David slew Goliath? Why two different words? Because the original meaning of kill was more nearly that of murder, whereas slay meant homicide in general. Although there’s some overlap in usage in the Bible, generally actions like killing in battle are translated with slay. The distinction was clear in the 1600’s when the King James Bible was published. It’s only when we became intellectually sloppy that we blurred the distinction between the two words. This is a pons asinorum (bridge of asses) – an initial first step that has to be made before any productive discussion can begin. People who trot out ‘thou shalt not kill’ as a basis for pacifism are revealing only their illiteracy.” [23]

 Early Church History Argument

One of the most persistent arguments made by pacifists is that the Christian church was completely non-violent for the first three centuries of its existence. Roland Bainton in ‘Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace’ stated, “All of the outstanding writers of the east and of the west repudiated participation in warfare for Christians.” [24]

The ‘Encyclopedia of Christianity’ says: “Early Christian pacifism is grounded in the example and teachings of Jesus… Christian practice up to the fourth century included rejection of the bearing of arms and military service, even at the cost of martyrdom. No known Christian author from the first centuries approved of Christian participation in battle.” [25]

David A. Hoekema director of the American Philosophical Association represents the pacifist argument concerning the early church and its alleged Constantinian apostasy to violence:

“The early Christian community understood Jesus’ commands to prohibit the bearing of arms. Christians refused to join the military, even though the Roman army of the period was as much a police force as a conquering army. Those who converted to Christianity while in military service were instructed to refrain from killing, to pray for forgiveness for past acts of violence, and to seek release from their military obligations. A striking example of the pervasiveness of pacifism in the early church is the fact that Tertullian and Origen—church fathers who stood at opposite poles regarding the relation of faith to philosophical reasoning—each wrote a tract supporting Christians’ refusal to join the military. A profound change in the Christian attitude toward war occurred at the time of the emperor Constantine, whose conversion to Christianity helped bring the Christian community from the fringes to the center of Western society. From the time of Constantine to the present, pacifism has been a minority view in the Christian church.” [26]

Just war Counter Early Church History

Just war theorists often outright reject the historical claims made by pacifist Christians. They point to known Christian soldiers and historical writings.

Among the most apparent historical facts invalidating the pacifist claim is the existence of an entire Christian legion under Marcus Aurelius in A.D. 174. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes:

“When the Emperor Marcus Aurelius led an expedition against the Quadi in 174, his army, exhausted by thirst, was on the point of falling an easy prey to the enemy. It was then that the soldiers of the Twelfth Legion, which was composed of Christians, prayed to their God for help. Forthwith a heavy thunderstorm arose, bringing the desired relief to the Romans, but terrifying and dispersing the barbarians. Hereupon the emperor issued a decree forbidding the persecution of the Christians and to the Twelfth Legion he gave the surname of fulminata, or fulminea, that is, ‘thundering.’”[27]

Recently, archeologists uncovered the earliest known Christian meeting place in the Holy Land. The ancient congregation was being funded by members who served as centurions and Roman soldiers. One of the inscriptions read: “Gaianus, also called Porphyrius, centurion, our brother, has made the pavement at his own expense as an act of liberality. Brutius carried out the work.” [28] Furthermore, the church was located in the Roman garrison outpost of Megiddo.

Pacifists claim all early church leaders who wrote about the subject of military service rejected it as anti-Christian. However, just war theorists rebut that there are too few references to the issue among the early church fathers to make the pacifist’s observation convincing. Historian John Hedgland sums up the just war rebuttal:

“The first striking fact about the Fathers’ writing on Christians participating in the Roman army is how infrequently the subject appears. Obviously there was no controversy calling forth angry exchanges of letters on the problem; in most cases only random comments appear regarding war in general. Only Tertullian, Origen and Hippolytus mention the problem explicitly, and Hippolytus devotes one sentence to it. Pacifist historians have tried to argue that, since the early church said so little about enlisting, it was a tacit understanding among the Christians that one did not even consider such an occupation. However, the lack of references to enlistment proves that there is a lack of references to enlistment — nothing more.” [29]

In addition, there are early Christian writings that address the warfare issue secondarily. Many of these appear to support Christian’s fighting in the military.

Clement of Alexandria explicitly stated Christians allow converted soldiers to stay in the military: “We invite him—born, as he is, for the contemplation of heaven… Practice husbandry, we say, if you are a husbandman; but while you till your fields, know God. Sail the sea, you who are devoted to navigation, yet call the whilst on the heavenly Pilot. Has knowledge taken hold of you while engaged in military service? Listen to the commander, who orders what is right.” [30]

Tertullian is known among pacifists for being a strong anti-military voice in the early centuries, but just war advocates point to some of his earlier writings to make the case that he accepted Christian participation in the military as fairly common. Tertullian wrote: “So we sojourn with you in the world, abjuring neither forum, nor shambles, nor bath, nor booth, nor workshop, nor inn, nor weekly market, nor any other places of commerce. We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you; and in like manner we unite with you in your traffickings—even in the various arts we make public property of our works for your benefit.” [31]

Beyond the direct historical evidence is the question of why some early Christian leaders appear to have discouraged participation in the military. The most likely reason seems to be that the Roman military was so saturated with idolatry that almost no one could participate without being associated with it. One just war advocate wrote:

“Even if Christian writers were ‘pacifists’ in the minimal sense that they opposed Christian participation in war through military service, their grounds for ‘pacifism’ included such diverse reasons as hatred of Rome as a persecutor, anticipation of a speedy end to earthly society, fear of idolatry and divided loyalties in military service (especially the sacramentum), immoral practices of soldiers, and aversion to bloodshed.” [32]

Jonathan Koscheski argued in his paper ‘The Earliest Christian War: Second and Third Century Martyrdom and the Creation of Cosmic Warriors’ that the early church was not pacifist at all. He claimed it embraced a new vision of the spiritual martyr warrior whose blood had to be shed to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth. Koscheski claimed this alone explains why the Church universally abandoned pacifism upon Constantine’s ascension. Christians believed Christ’s kingdom had come: “With the conquest of an emperor who showered Imperial favor upon Christianity… the thousand year reign of the saints had dawned and the kingdom of God in fact came to be closely identified directly with an earthly and political institution either Rome in Eusebius’ case or from Augustine’s perspective the church itself.” [33]

Koscheski wrote that the sense of the dawning of the Kingdom of God complimented the cosmic warrior view of the early church, and Christians smoothly transitioned from spiritual warriors to physical warriors for a new kingdom.

Example of Jesus Argument

The example of Jesus argument asserts that Jesus’ life was a living lesson to his followers to renounce violence and accept martyrdom in protest against an evil world. Pacifists maintain that while Christ did not expressly forbid war, to think that he did not endorse nonviolence is to fundamentally miss the point of his life and ministry. One advocate of this theory is Ted Grimsrud of Eastern Mennonite University:

“The social ethics of the New Testament have at their heart a call to follow the way of Jesus. This motif of imitation, though, focuses on specific aspects of Jesus’ life and teaching, not a general sense of seeing him as a model in all areas of life. The specific point of imitation has to do with the aspects of Jesus’ ministry that led him into conflict with the powers that be. The New Testament presents Jesus’ cross as the norm for his followers. This cross is understood in its historical concreteness as the consequence of standing against the status quo of power politics and social hierarchicalism. Jesus’ cross represents his social nonconformity, his counter-cultural sensibility, his renouncing of noninvolvement in the needed social transformation, and his refusal to take up the sword even for seemingly legitimate purposes.” [34]

Through this view of Jesus’ life and ministry, pacifist advocates claim just warriors misunderstand the purpose of Christ’s life.

Just war Counter Example of Jesus

Just warriors respond that Christ’s actions were not as peaceful as pacifists suggest. Christ often verbally spared with the Pharisees. In Matt 21:12 Jesus violently drove animals and people from the temple with a whip, turned over tables, and caused a massive discomfiting commotion in the process.

Jesus said he was not a peaceful person in Matt 10:38: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

In Luke 12:49-53 Jesus said he intended to bring fire upon the earth:

“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

It is difficult for pacifists to argue Christ’s ministry was about peace when Christ himself explicitly said he did not come to bring peace.


After surveying some of the strongest arguments for both pacifism and just war theory it is the conclusion of this paper that the evidence leans in favor of the just war tradition.

The “Old Testament continuation argument” (the first just war argument evaluated in this paper) is probably the strongest argument put forward by either side.

The pacifist’s inability to produce any definitive evidence in either the New Testament or early church history to overturn the Old Testament precedent that “there is a time for war and a time for peace” renders the pacifist argument a weak one.

Even the preeminent pacifist of the twentieth century, John Howard Yoder, admitted that more than exegesis is needed to commend a pacifist Christian ethic. [35]

While the Bible leaves little doubt that peace is preferable to violence, it also leaves the impression that war is better than unjust peace.


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