Another lesson from Church history.

Church History, Non Violence

One of the more interesting developments surrounding the formulation of Just War Theory (e.g. the perimeters that outline when warfare and the killing of one’s enemies is justifiable) was how it was also used cement the divide that had been growing between clergy and laity throughout the first 300 years of the Church. 

From Genesis to Revelation the people of God are called a “kingdom of priests.” The day of Pentecost in Acts 2 magnifies this reality with the anointing of the Holy Spirit being poured out on all believers; young and old, male and female, slave and free (not merely kings, high priests, and prophets). The Church community is a priesthood of believers. Yet, this does not mean that all believers are leaders. The New Testament writings acknowledge several different leadership roles that existed in the Church (i.e. Apostle, Elder, Deacon) and outline that these leaders, must among other qualities, be people of exemplary character. How each of these different leadership roles functioned is an issue of great debate throughout Church history. Not to mention that as changes in culture have introduced new forms of social orders and political governance the conversation concerning the structure of Church leadership and forms of Church governance have continued. (This is a topic for further conversation elsewhere.)

The vocational demands of ministry, the call of exemplary character among Church leaders, and the culturally influenced structures of Church governance were all sources of the fracture that was forming between clergy and laity. Then Just War Theory was introduced. It is a theory that began with Ambrose and would ultimately be clarified by Augustine in the 4th century. The theory framed warfare and killing justifiable under particular circumstances and held participants in a military conflict to certain standards of conduct. Just War Theory stood in opposition to the Church’s founding ethical convictions outlined by the words of the Church fathers and exhibited by the martyrs who both clung to Jesus’ teaching on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Jesus taught, and the early Church strongly defended, the uncompromising command to abstain from violence and the call to love one’s enemies. Just War Theory’s introduction, therefore, not only served to establish an alien practice within the Church, it also served as one of the critical defining points that mark the division of clergy and laity into two classes of Christians, each with distinct expectations as disciples.

As the cultural pressure to accept the necessity of war mounting with foreign armies threatening Rome, the Church leveraged the growing divide between clergy and laity to adopt and implement the framework of Just War. The Church concluded that laypersons were allowed to participate in military service and bloodshed, as they were deemed unable to uphold the high moral standard of the Sermon on the Mount. Clergy, however, would remain forbidden to participate in warfare or to bear arms at all. Clergy and laity had undeniably fissured into two distinct classes of Christians.

Then, centuries later as the Protestant Reformation was igniting debates and fracturing the Church—by addressing many of the abuses of the Church—the concept of the priesthood of all believers was refreshed and given new life. In spite of this, the Church as a whole never returned to Jesus’ teaching on non-violence as a standard for all Christians. At best, different groups left the matter of non-violence and participation in wars up to the conscience of individual believers. Although, it is interesting to note that the Orthodox Church still retains the policy that forbids the bearing of arms to its clergy and does not allow a man to continue in the ministry who has shed blood.



The following is an excerpt from Walter Wink’s book, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium. (emphasis mine)


Why carry the soldier’s pack a second mile? Does this not go to the opposite extreme by aiding and abetting the enemy? Not at all. The question here, as in the two previous instances, is how the oppressed can recover the initiative and assert their human dignity in a situation that cannot for the time being be changed. The rules are Caesar’s, but how one responds to the rules is God’s, and Caesar has no power over that.

Imagine, then, the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack, and the civilian says, “Oh, no, let me carry it another mile.” Why would he want to do that? What is he up to? Normally, soldiers have to coerce people to carry their packs, but this Jew does so cheerfully, and will not stop’. Is this a provocation? Is he insulting the legionnaire’s strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to violate the rules of impressment? Will this civilian file a complaint? Create trouble? From a situation of servile impressment, the oppressed have once more seized the initiative. They have taken back the power of choice. They have thrown the soldier off balance by depriving him of the predictability of his victim’s response. He has never dealt with such a problem before. Now he must make a decision for which nothing in his previous experience has prepared him. If he has enjoyed feeling superior to the vanquished, he will not enjoy it today. Imagine a Roman infantryman pleading with a Jew to give back his pack! The humor of this scene may have escaped us, but it could scarcely have been lost on Jesus’ hearers, who must have been delighted at the prospect of thus discomfiting their oppressors.

Jesus does not encourage Jews to walk a second mile in order to build up merit in heaven, or to be pious, or to kill the soldier with kindness. He is helping an oppressed people find a way to protest and neutralize an onerous practice despised throughout the empire. He is not giving a nonpolitical message of spiritual world transcendence. He is formulating a worldly spirituality in which the people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of imperial power learn to recover their humanity.

A lesson from Church history.

“Therefore, we as a body of Christians, while proposing to fulfill all obligations of loyal citizenship, are nevertheless constrained to declare we cannot conscientiously participate in war and armed resistance which involves the actual destruction of human life since this is contrary to our view of the clear teaching of the inspired Word of God, which is the sole basis of our faith.”
The Assemblies of God made this resolution to their bylaws on April 28, 1917. In 1967 they reversed their position, adopting a position of personal freedom and conscience. The ‘clear teaching’ of scripture was given a backseat to human reason and the desire of individual persons.
This is not to pick on the Assemblies of God. To be fair, many other American denominations also observed seismic changes in their doctrine and bylaws following WWII. Many factors contributed to these changes, but none greater than the fear of the great evil witnessed in WWII and the roaring nationalism that followed the war.
It could be said, that when the church looked up and saw world erupting in evil, they looked not to God, but to the Empire for answers. I don’t think this is entirely true. I don’t think the church failed to look to God. I believe the church misjudged the call to love their enemies as simply a strategy of getting what they wanted by other means. It failed. Whereas, the Empires’ solution, as old as Cain, proved effective. In fact, it is the effectiveness of war and murder that makes their offer so intoxicating. The ends, thus, justified the means, as the church forgot that its mission is not judged on the ability or swiftness to procure justice or peace. The church has been called to participate and bear witness to the work of God.
You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” Matthew 5:43-48

What Nonresistance Is and Is Not


“[Nonresistance] has been interpreted – by those who reject the idea – to mean a weak acceptance of the intentions of the evil one, resignation to his evil goals. This the text does not call for. The services to be rendered to the one who coerces us – carrying his burden a second mile, giving beyond the coat and cloak – are to his person, not to his purposes. The “resistance” which we renounce is a response in kind, returning evil for evil. But the alternative is not complicity in his designs. The alternative is creative concern for the person who is bent on evil, coupled with the refusal of his goals.”

John Howard Yoder