The early church had difficult moral and ethical decisions to make in relationship to the government and military service.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1993. 3 pages.

Thorny Problems Faced by Early Christians

Every generation of Christians has to work out before God its attitude to the prevailing ethical and social issues of its day. We are apt to think in our generation, when we are witnessing the steady degrading of Christian standards, that other ages had it easier than we do. Though that is in some senses true of certain generations of God's people in days gone by, it is far from being the whole truth. In the following article we are reminded that the early Christians had a host of thorny spiritual and ethical questions to resolve. At times too the price they had to pay for faithfulness to Christ was very high.

As regards politics, early Christians generally took their attitude to the state from such passages as Romans 13:1-5. 'The powers that be' were ordained of God and were therefore to be obeyed. Eastern writers saw state and church as joint agents under God for man's salvation. The state was 'the power that restraineth' of 2 Thessalonians 2, God's instrument for keeping sin in bounds. 'Since man,' wrote Irenaeus, 'in his departure from God, reached such a pitch of fury that he regarded his own brother as an enemy and engaged in all kinds of restless conduct without fear, God imposed upon man the fear of man.' The Roman Empire fulfilled its divine mission by sweeping the Mediterranean clear of pirates and the land of bandits, so facilitating the church's task of evangelism.

This did not mean that Christians readily entered politics. Origen, while conceding that the state served God's purpose, thought that it was ordained for non-Christians. Its use of force rather than love marked it out as sub-Christian. (He compared it to a chain gang, which did good work, though composed of criminals!) No Christian would dream of taking political office. He was called to the higher service of prayer. Tertullian too agreed that 'nothing is more alien to Christians than politics'. But he insisted that Christians were loyal citizens.

It was the Emperor's claim to deity which caused the trouble. Any Emperor who made such a claim — one thinks of Diocletian — ipso facto proclaimed himself 'the man of sin' of 2 Thessalonians 2, the abomination of desolation, the Anti-Christ. Loyal Christian subjects had to draw the line at such patent blasphemy. A government that restrained evil they would gladly obey; an emperor who arrogated to himself divine honours they would resist to the death.

But what of a persecuting government? This raised acutely the problem of obedience. When secular Rome persecuted, she looked suspiciously like the Whore of Revelation, drunk with the blood of saints. In such cases Christians normally invoked Acts 5:29. It was better to obey God rather than men. This did not mean, however, that the Christian had the right to revolt. God would deal with recalcitrant governments. Hippolytus rated sedition with fornica­tion and astrology, activities which excluded from baptism. Non-Christians, however, were required to act, and when the Goths invaded the empire during the Decian persecution, Commodianus promptly wrote a poem welcoming them.

This must not be construed as implying that all Christians before Constantine were pacifists. There were Christians in the Roman Army. One thinks, for example, of the 'Thundering Legion' in the time of Marcus Aurelius. At least six graves of Christian soldiers date from before Constantine — admittedly a very small number. Most Christians probably were pacifists. But Christian writers had difficulty defending their pacifism biblically. The Old Testament wars constituted a problem. These were usually explained either as belonging to an outdated dispensation or simply as allegories. Marcion went further. Like his modern heretical counterparts, he rejected the Old Testament completely as 'immoral'. He contrasted Joshua holding up Moses' arms for slaughter with the Jesus of the New Testament holding out His arms to save. Origen cut the Gordian Knot by asserting the absurd notion that the Old Testament wars were not real wars, just pictures of God's war with sin!

The New Testament also posed difficulties. It spoke, for example, of Christian centurions. Some writers therefore sought to resolve the problem by drawing a distinction between being in the army (an acceptable vocation) and actually killing (a 'mortal sin', so called). This was not an academic distinction. Roman soldiers might spend a lifetime in the army and never see war. They might spend their time mending roads, policing the streets, fighting fires and the like.

Tertullian took up an uncompromisingly pacifist position: There can be no agreement between the human and divine sacramentum, the standard of Christ and the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. A Christian cannot serve two masters. People ask whether a baptized Christian can become a soldier, or whether a soldier may be admitted to the faith... One might suggest in jest that Moses carried a rod and Aaron wore a buckle, John had a leather belt, Joshua led an army, and Peter made war. But you tell me how Peter could have served in war, indeed even in peacetime, without a sword? Even if soldiers did come to John, and the centurion did believe, the Lord himself unbelted every soldier when he took the sword from Peter.

Origen argued for Christian exemption from military service. Not even the Emperor could make Christians fight. They would form an 'army of piety', prayer warriors supporting the Government's efforts by intercession.

Any Christian in the Army certainly faced grave problems, not simply that of taking life. He would have to attend pagan sacrifices, perhaps even offer sacrifice; and he would wear the objectionable lead seal with its pagan symbol. Rejection of these elements sometimes led to martyrdom. The story is told of Marcellus, a Christian centurion in Tangiers. Incensed at the paganism surrounding Maximian's birthday celebrations, he threw away his belt and stick, crying: 'I am a soldier of Jesus Christ, the eternal King. I have done with fighting for your emperors. I despise the worship of deaf and dumb gods of wood and stone. If the terms of service are such that one is bound to sacrifice to gods and emperors, then I refuse to be a soldier!'

The prefect remonstrated with him: 'How did you come to be so mad as to renounce your oath and speak like that?' To that there was but one answer: 'There is no madness in those who serve the Lord.' Undaunted and unembittered by the sentence of death shortly afterwards passed on him, Marcellus simply said to his judge, 'God bless you!' It was, as the chronicler added, 'the proper way for a Christian to take leave of this world.'

Christian soldiers were naturally offended by the periodic bacchanalia which they sometimes witnessed. The winter solstice provided the oppor­tunity for one such orgy. It was the feast of Saturn, now supplanted by Christmas. Soldiers would then elect one of their own number 'King'. After thirty days' carousal in the robes of Saturn, the 'King' would be sacrificed. A Christian, Dasius, was elected to this office, but steadfastly refused it. 'It is better,' he said, 'for me to be a sacrifice of my own free decision for our Lord Jesus Christ, than to be sacrificed for your idol Saturn.'

The Governor tried persuasion. Pray to the emblem of our lords the emperors, who maintain peace and give us our pay, and day by day in all things consider our good.

I repent. I am a Christian and my warlord is no emperor of flesh and blood, but the Emperor of Heaven. I am paid and fed by him and his ineffable generosity makes me rich.

Fall down, Dasius, before the sacred images of our emperors, which even the barbarian tribes know and serve.

I owe allegiance to none save one, undefiled and eternal God, who will arm me with the strength to overcome and destroy speedily the raging of the devil.

Under sentence of death, he spurned last-minute efforts to induce him to offer incense to the Emperor. Seizing the incense vessel, 'he scattered the incense to the winds, trampled on the shameful and sacrilegious images of the blasphemous emperors and made the battle sign of the adorable cross of Christ on his brow, through whose power he stood firm against the tyrants.'

The case of Maximillian of Theveste is of interest because he was one of the few actually pressed into service by the powers-that-be.

Put on the uniform, said the governor.

I cannot become a soldier. I cannot commit blasphemy. I am a Christian. The governor tried to hang the lead seal round Maximilian's neck, but he refused. Be a soldier or you die.

Strike off my head. I am no soldier of this world, but a soldier of God.

Be a soldier and accept the token.

I will not take this sign. I am already signed with the sign of my God, Jesus Christ.

I will send you speedily to your Christ.

I wish you would do it at once.

Put on the token.

I will not put on the sign of this world and if you put it on me, I shall tear it off, for it has no meaning for me. I am a Christian and may not wear this piece of lead, now that the saving sign of my Lord Jesus Christ has come, the Son of the Living God, of whom you refuse to hear, who has suffered for our salvation, whom God gave for our sins. All we who are called Christians serve him and follow him, as the Prince of life and the Giver of salvation.

Let it be put on or you are a lost man.

I will not be lost. My name is written with my Lord.

Think how young you are, and become a soldier. It suits a young man.

When Maximillian refused, the governor tried a different argument: In the holy service of our Lord Diocletian and Maximian, Christian soldiers also perform their service.

They must know for themselves what is right. I am a Christian and I cannot do anything blasphemous.

What blasphemies do soldiers have to perform?You know yourself what they have to do.

So the tyrant's sword dispatched Maximillian to the presence of the Lord whom he had so courageously refused to deny.

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