5 Reasons to Listen to the Early Christian Teaching on Violence
This post is the second in a series of reflections that seek to familiarize you with the early Church’s teaching on the impermissibility of Christians using violence. But before we start immersing ourselves in the direct teaching of the early Church, I want to list five reasons we would be wise to place significant weight on what they have to say:
Reason #1: Listening to the voices of Christians throughout time and place protects us from being enamored by every passing theological fad. In other words, it is unwise to only listen to contemporary Christian leaders. To do this is to ignore the teachings and writings of Christians throughout the centuries. This neglects the wisdom the Holy Spirit has been imparting to Christians since the Church began. It also produces major spiritual blind spots and makes one susceptible to foolishly fixating on the plethora of theological trends that come and go. Knowing this, John Stott once warned his readers, “One cannot ignore the great works of the past. To be disrespectful of tradition and of historical theology is to be disrespectful of the Holy Spirit who has been actively enlightening the church in every century.”
Reason #2: Many of the quotes we will be looking at are from Christians who were taught directly by the apostles or the immediate disciples of an apostle. My friend Eddy Hall once wrote:
When we want to better understand the teachings of Jesus, it can help to look at the lives of the early Christians. The apostles learned much more from watching and listening to Jesus than could be included in the Gospels. While the writings of these early Christians don’t have the authority of Scripture, they give us valuable insight into how the apostles, and those who learned directly from the apostles, understood and practiced Jesus’ teachings.
Though we certainly want to avoid giving early Christian teaching the same authority as Scripture, we’d better have strong evidence before we conclude that we more accurately understand the teachings of Jesus and His apostles than those who were taught directly by them. In fact, one of the oldest texts to denounce Christians using violence, the Didache, is widely considered to be directly from the twelve apostles!
Reason #3: The usual vantage point from which we observe injustice is not the same as that of the early Church. Let me explain. For the first 300 years of her existence, the Church ardently strove to follow Jesus’ clear teaching about being in solidarity with the oppressed, poor, and marginalized. In fact, they went so far as to refuse positions of power and authority. As these early Christians stood next to the powerless, marginalized, and voiceless they saw violence from a different perspective.
Yet, the perspective of the Church today, especially in Western contexts, is usually formed from the exact opposite vantage point. For you see, by and large, we have moved:
- From the margins to the center of society.
- From being amongst the powerless to being amongst the powerful.
- And from speaking up on behalf of the voiceless to understanding the world through the perspective of those with a voice.
Now here is why this shift in the Church’s vantage point is so important and why it has caused massive ramifications: Where you stand determines what you see, and whose voice you listen to determines what you think. In the words of Richard Rohr:
Once we moved from the bottom of society to the top, we developed a new film over our eyes, and we couldn’t read anything that showed Jesus in confrontation with the establishment. We became the establishment. Clear teachings on issues of greed, powerlessness, nonviolence, non-control and simplicity were moved to the sidelines, if not actually countermanded.
For the past 1700 years, the Church’s perspective has largely come from a position (or desire to attain a position) of power, centrality, and popularity. From this point of view, it comes as no surprise that the Church has chosen to forsake her original stance on non-violence. In fact, I personally have little hope in seeing Christians or churches today embrace what I see to be Jesus’ clear call to nonviolently work for peace unless they first choose to be in solidarity with the poor, marginalized and oppressed.
This is an observation I’ll pick back up in a future post, as we’ll eventually come to discover that there has been a consistent pattern throughout Church history of many Christians denouncing the use of violence soon after they began to interact with the poor. As we’ve already seen, such was the case for St. Martin of Tours.
So to summarize this lengthy yet crucial third reason for taking seriously the early Christian teaching on violence: If we truly believe that Jesus calls His followers to be in solidarity with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed, then we ought to place significant weight on the perspective of those who have faithfully stood with them.
Reason #4: Though their stance is certainly in the minority today, leaders in the early Church were in strong agreement that Jesus called His followers to never use violence. In fact, before Constantine’s legendary conversion in 313AD, all extant Christian writings that touched on the subject, disapproved of Christian participation in war. This fact alone hopefully inspires all of us to listen and consider what these early Christians had to say on the subject.
Reason #5: Tertullian, a prolific Christian writer who lived from 160AD—220AD, once wrote, “Learn about the incorruptible King, and know his heroes who never inflict slaughter on the peoples.” Let’s take Tertullian’s advice and learn from some of the earliest heroes of our faith who never inflicted violence on people. May their faith and example inspire us to live similarly for the sake of Jesus and all those who are oppressed in our world.
For the past 1700 years, the voice of the early Church on this topic of violence has seldom been heard. In future posts, let’s rediscover what the early Christians have to say!