Pacifism in church history

What began as the norm became a fringe belief — and then had a revival

Jan 9, 2020 by

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There is not a single extant Christian author before Constantine (in the fourth century) who said killing or joining the military by Christians is ever legitimate. Whenever the surviving Christian texts mention killing — whether in abortion, capital punishment or war — they always say Christians must not do it.

When the Roman emperor Constantine issued the decree in 313 that ended persecution and made it legal to be a Christian, Christians entered a dramatically new era. In spite of the teaching of Christian authors, a substantial number of Christians had joined the Roman army in the two decades before 313. After Constantine’s conversion, vastly more Christians joined the Roman army. Within 100 years, only Christians could serve in the Roman army.

In the 100 years after Constantine, leading Christian theologians — especially Ambrose and Augustine — developed the basic framework of the just-war tradition. In the subsequent centuries, Christian thinkers refined and developed the just-war criteria: (the goal must be peace, not revenge; war must be a last resort; aiming at noncombatants is forbidden; and more).

From the fifth century to the present, the just-war tradition has been the “official” position of most Christians. Tragically, that history has witnessed the church-sanctioned Crusades and the slaughter of Christians by Christians.

There was a small pacifist ­tradition in the Middle Ages, but it existed only among fringe Christian groups.

Anabaptists, Quakers

The mainstream Protestant Reformers — Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican — reaffirmed the just-war tradition. But the Anabaptists insisted Jesus taught his disciples never to kill.

The Anabaptists abandoned two central pieces of Christian life — the state church and the just-war tradition — that had prevailed for more than 1,000 years. Other Christians executed the “heretics” by the thousands. They survived by fleeing to places where rulers tolerated their refusal to go to war.

The Quakers became a pacifist voice in 17th-century England. When a Quaker nobleman, William Penn (1644-1718), received a large tract of land in America, his peaceful approach produced the best historical example of fair treatment of Native Americans by Europeans. Peace with the Native Americans lasted for about 75 years (1682-1756).

Pentecostals

Several evangelical denominations and a majority of Pentecostal denominations embraced pacifism in their early years. In fact, 13 of 21 Pentecostal groups formed by 1917 give evidence of being pacifist at some point. In these early years, the Wesleyan Methodists, the Church of God (Anderson), the Churches of Christ, the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) and the Assemblies of God were all initially pacifist. In fact, the Assemblies of God — today the largest Pentecostal denomination, with about 50 million members worldwide — was officially pacifist until 1967.

The Church of God in Christ — the largest African-American denomination, with more than 6 million members — has been officially pacifist since it began.

Prominent pacifists

There have been famous pacifists (Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu, Dom Helder Camara) in the past 100 years or so. But other famous Christians, like Dwight L. Moody and Charles Spurgeon, were also pacifists. Moody, one of the leading evangelists in the late 19th century and founder of Moody Bible Institute, was a lifelong pacifist. Catherine Booth, cofounder of the Salvation Army, and her son Herbert Booth were pacifists. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-92), a theological conservative and one of the most popular preachers of his day, was a pacifist.

John Stott, perhaps the second most influential evangelical after Billy Graham in the second half of the 20th century, became a pacifist as a young Christian (but later changed his mind). Today prominent evangelical scholars like Ben Witherington and Scot McKnight are pacifists. So is Stanley Hauerwas, one of the most influential living Christian ethicists.

Nuclear pacifists

As the Soviet Union and the United States developed nuclear arsenals in the decades after World War II, a number of prom­inent evangelical just-war Christians became nuclear pacifists: John Stott; Jay Kesler, president of Youth for Christ; Frank Gaebelein, former coeditor of Christianity Today; and Vernon Grounds, longtime president of Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary.

Catholic endorsement

One of the more surprising developments is the Catholic affirmation of pacifism since World War II.

As recently as 1956, Pope Pius XII said pacifism was unacceptable. But in the next few dec­ades, the pope and bishops endorsed pacifism as an equally valid Catholic stance alongside the just-war position.

In 1965, the papal encyclical Gaudium et Spes stated its intention “to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude.” The result was praise for pacifism. This was an official recognition of the legitimacy of pacifism at the highest level of the Catholic Church.

In 1983 the U.S. Catholic bishops recognized the validity of two Catholic positions on war: pacifism and just war.

The official catechism of the Catholic Church affirms pacifism. Contemporary Cath­olic teaching not only encourages much greater use of nonviolent methods but also affirms, in ways that it did not for 1,500 years, that pacifism is a valid Christian stance.

Today, more than at any time since the fourth century, significant numbers of Christians believe Jesus calls them to refuse to kill their enemies.

Growth of nonviolence

In recent decades, Christians who are not pacifists have called for much greater use of nonviolent intervention to promote justice and peace. The official public policy document of the National Association of Evangelicals (“For the Health of the Nation”) calls evangelicals “to reduce conflict by . . . engaging in nonviolent conflict resolution.”

In 2007, a joint statement by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and Mennonite World Conference affirmed “Jesus’ teaching and example of nonviolence as normative for Christians.” They called for much greater exploration of activist nonviolence.

Recent documents by the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have made similar statements. More Christians today are embracing nonviolent action for peace and justice.

Ronald J. Sider is the founder and president emeritus of Evangelicals for Social Action and the author of more than 40 books, including If Jesus Is Lord: Loving Our Enemies in an Age of Violence (Baker, 2019), which discusses these issues in more detail, and Speak Your Peace: What the Bible Says About Loving Your Enemies, coming in February from Herald Press. He blogs at ronsiderblog.substack.com.


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