No more striking contrast between the words of Christ and His apostles, and the deeds of Christians exists than on the subject of war. From Constantine to the present day, the might of Christendom on the battlefield has been awesome and with a few notable exceptions, unstoppable. It is history’s premier warrior religion, surpassing by far militant Islam in the number of her slain and the vast nature of her wars and conquests. There has never been anything like it.
Yet, unlike Islam, whose foundational teachings regarding war and society have changed very little over time, everyone actually knows that Christianity did not begin this way. The acceptance by Christians of this contradiction, and others like it, defines in a peculiar way how the rest of the world sees Christianity.
One could even say, in comparison with the origins of each, that Christianity has degenerated and Islam has not. For when Muslims wage war, they follow the example of their prophet and expect the rewards he promised them for doing so. When Christians wage war, they directly contradict the teachings and examples of their Savior and His apostles.
But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. (Matthew 5:39)
But Jesus said to him, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19)
In regards to Christians taking up the sword, Western history may be divided into three great periods. First, from the Day of Pentecost to the day of Constantine’s favor, believers did not wield the sword, amass great wealth, or participate in the secular government that ruled over them.1 Second, there was a time of transition, best characterized by the contrast between the beginning and end of the fourth century AD. In the early 300s, almost no soldiers were Christians. By the early 400s, almost all soldiers were Christians. The third and longest period continues to this day, characterized by complete participation by Christians in every sphere of society. Wars were waged for the glory and at the command of God, just as they had been in the Old Testament.
The time of transition, when new ideas were accepted — and even enforced upon Christians reluctant to go along with them — is when Christianity became the world religion it now is. In terms of the day-to-day life of the believer in the world, by the end of this transition, the New Testament church had changed beyond recognition2 — not as a source for religious instruction, but as a way of life. The message of the Savior was still there, but His many commands about war, wealth and possessions, and His Kingdom — His principle teaching — were not.3 They had essentially evaporated.
The relationship between the believer, the state, and the world, had reverted to the Old Testament. The chief architect of this transformation was Augustine, bishop of the Catholic Church in the North African city of Hippo, who lived from AD 354 to 430.4 By the end of his life not only were Christians waging just or unjust war at the command of their sovereign, they were being persecuted for refusing to wage war. Indeed, a Christian historian can write that Augustine’s justification of Christian participation in war was doubly dangerous:
Not only did it allow the existence of the ’just’ war, which became a commonplace of Christian moral theology; but it discredited the pacifist, whose refusal to fight a war defined as ’just’ by the ecclesiastical authorities became a defiance of divine commands. Thus the modern imprisonment of the conscientious objector is deeply rooted in standard Christian dogma. So is the anomaly of two Christian states fighting a ’just’ war against each other.5
Augustine is frequently given credit (or blame) for the ’just war theory’ of Christian theology. He is certainly the most influential of the Church Fathers to teach upon it. He is not given credit for what he actually taught, which was that Christians can participate in any war their sovereign orders, by which he means their secular ruler:
Since, therefore, a righteous man, serving it may be under an ungodly king, may do the duty belonging to his position in the State in fighting by the order of his sovereign, — for in some cases it is plainly the will of God that he should fight, and in others, where this is not so plain, it may be an unrighteous command on the part of the king, while the soldier is innocent, because his position makes obedience a duty, — how much more must the man be blameless who carries on war on the authority of God, of whom every one who serves Him knows that He can never require what is wrong?6
The Christian soldier is innocent in waging an unrighteous war, and blameless in waging a war “on the authority of God,” which, as the historian Johnson noted in the quote above, is determined by the clergy and their theologians. However rarely it has happened that religious leaders have declared a war unjust, the Christian soldiers may, and indeed must , according to Augustine, still wage that unjust war, for “his position [as a soldier] makes obedience a duty.”
If Christian soldiers were continually judging the directions of their commanders and political leaders as just or unjust, and refusing to uphold what was unjust by the lethal force in their power, then those seeking to wield power in this world would have little use for them. Christian history would be far different if Augustine had not directed Christians to fight any war called by their leaders. Of course, this is what leads to the appalling reality of Christian nations fighting one another while, presumably, praying to the same God. On the other hand, applied consistently, such a teaching would render invalid many of the convictions of Nazis at the Nurnberg Trials:
[The International Military Tribunal’s judgments of September 30-October 1, 1946] rejected the contention of a number of the defendants that they were not legally responsible for their acts because they performed the acts under the orders of superior authority. According to the tribunal, “the true test ... is not the existence of the order but whether moral choice (in executing it) was in fact possible.”7
For the soldier, that moral choice is removed by Augustine’s and Aquinas’ just war theories. Can we justly accuse the Tribunal of heresy?
The New Testament Scriptures, such as the three quoted at the beginning of this article, would seem to militate against violence done by believers, either individually or as part of a nation state.8 To deal with it, Augustine laid the cornerstone of Christian theology and life — one’s inward disposition is all that matters, not one’s outward actions.
“I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but if any one strike thee on the right cheek, turn to him the left also,” the answer is, that what is here required is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition.9
If he could have known how many millions of Christians would say this to justify ignoring so many portions of Scripture, perhaps Augustine would have hesitated to teach this. Millions, if not billions have used this rationale to justify not giving up all of their own possessions, not turning the other cheek, not taking oaths, to name just a few, as well as taking up the sword their Savior commanded them to lay down.10 Augustine, in fact, was preaching the heresy of antinomianism here.
Antinomianism is defined in the dictionary as the theological doctrine that by faith and God’s grace a Christian is freed from all laws (including the moral standards of the culture). Where an authoritarian society and church exist, the people’s inclinations to ignore certain scriptures or laws can be restrained — by force. In more liberal societies, this approach to Scriptures leads to a free-for-all of personal interpretations, destroying any semblance of unity among those who claim to believe.
It is striking to find such spiritual anarchism in Augustine, but to transform the command to lay down the sword to its exact, unconditional opposite, required extreme measures. Others after him have made the logical connection between his teaching about war — that waging war was permissible to the Christian, if he has the right attitude about it — and every other command or restraint of the New Testament.
Augustine’s use of Old Testament passages to justify waging war, and to condemn those who refused on grounds of conscience, was highly selective. He chose verses which supported his argument while ignoring the Old Covenant teaching on it. For the Law makes provision for those unwilling or afraid to fight. The list is extensive in Deuteronomy 20:1-8. The man who has planted a vineyard and not eaten its fruit, built a house and not lived in it, become engaged to a woman and not married her, or who is just plain afraid, “ Let him go and return to his house, lest the heart of his brethren faint like his heart.”11
By implication virtually any reason or excuse a man might care to offer to avoid battle is covered in these verses. The remaining Israelites, however few they were, were to go into battle knowing that, “ the LORD your God is He who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you .” The story of Gideon’s army in Judges 7 is a prime example of obedience to this teaching. The God of Israel would only fight for those who had the faith to go in weakness, knowing that He was going before them.
So, where is compulsion? It is justified neither in the Old Covenant nor in the New. Augustine’s “just war” theology is not supported by the Bible, but is merely the creation of his fertile mind to suit the needs of empire, not those of the King of Kings, who went to the cross with these words on His lips:
My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm. (John 18:36)