Today Christian families are often also military families but at the beginnings of our religion that was definitely not the case. Up until about the time Constantine made Christianity a State religion (about 350 CE) to be a Christian meant you refused military service. Of course Augustine in the fifth century disavowed this belief and put forth the first rationalization of a “just war”. After that this belief, like so many others, was all but thrown out the window by many future church leaders.
Here is a story by Diana Butler Bass from her book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story —
Martin of Tours (ca. 316–397) was born into a pagan family, but as a young man he expressed interest in Christianity. His father, however, was appalled by the religion and forced Martin to join the Roman army. While he served as a soldier, Martin’s curiosity about Christianity grew, as did his strong sense of morality, until he became a catechumen. The cloak episode supposedly occurred when he was still an inquirer. The cloak is most likely the stuff of pious legend, a story told to make a point. But the point was clear: Martin was devout, even before baptism, and followed the way of hospitality and sharing. When he was baptized, Martin demonstrated yet another early Christian practice by asking to be released from the army. “I am Christ’s soldier,” he maintained; “I am not allowed to fight.” Martin was not a conscientious objector in the modern sense; he was merely stating early Christian practice.
Before theologians Ambrose and Augustine in later decades made a case for just war, Christians were not allowed to fight. No record exists that Christians served in the Roman army before the year 170. The strong consensus of the early church teachers was that war meant killing, killing was murder, and murder was wrong. In the third century Cyprian of Carthage noted, “The world is going mad in mutual bloodshed. And murder, which is considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.” Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Origen all specifically condemned participation in war. “The Christian fathers of the first three centuries,” states theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill, “were generally adamant that discipleship requires close adherence to the nonviolent and countercultural example of Jesus’s own life and his sayings about the nature of the kingdom.”
About the only current day Christian denomination to continue following this practice is the Quakers and lately even they have been lax in forwarding this principle. There are even some churches today that put a sword in Jesus’ hands and proudly announce that he will kill our enemies. That brings back dreadful thoughts of the Crusades where millions were killed in the name of Jesus. I think Jesus is totally shocked by all of this.
I think the words of Cyprian are as applicable today as they were eighteen hundred years ago when he wrote them:
“The world is going mad in mutual bloodshed. And murder, which is considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.”