Ancient Christianity and the Consistent Life Ethic


BY ROB ARNER

When measured against the standard of the ancient Christian church, contemporary American Christianity is in a moral mess. When it comes to what have been called the "life issues," Christians are today no less sharply divided than are members of secular society. Some Christians, who have been called "conservative" by the conventional narratives, believe that abortion is a grave moral evil. Yet often these same Christians will readily fall in line to support the latest war proposed by the nation's chief executive. Other Christians tend not to view abortion as such an intrinsic evil, but rather a tragic "choice" for mothers in difficult circumstances. These Christians, who are sometimes called "liberal," are more concerned with systemic and social evils, such as poverty, and are critical of the ready recourse to war to solve international disputes. [1] These two groups far too often find themselves talking past one another at best and actively working against one another at worst, so that significant progress is not made toward addressing either group's moral concerns. There is thus a profound disagreement over right and wrong, good and evil in the contemporary American church. And for a people who are supposed to be conformed in their lives and witness to the image of Jesus Christ, not to mention united to one another in his death and resurrection, this moral muddle is a scandal indeed.

But imagine if this were not so. Imagine the impact if, instead of moral confusion and ethical chaos within the church, there was a united witness, an ecumenical consensus surrounding the thorny question of whether and in what circumstances a disciple of Jesus might take a human life. Such a consensus actually existed in the ancient Christian church, stretching from the time of the apostles until the Christianization of the Roman Empire following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, early in the second decade of the fourth century C.E. In my investigation into the ethics of the ancient Christian church, I read every surviving orthodox Christian sermon, treatise, letter, and apology from that period (about 90-314 C.E.) and discovered a startling consensus on this issue. As diverse as the ancient Christian church may have been on wealth and poverty, sexuality, church governance, theology, and a host of other issues, when it comes to the subject of killing other human persons, the ancient Christian writers and teachings were startlingly in accord with one another. Without exception, the church strongly condemned the taking of human life in any form whatsoever. Neither homicide, nor feticide, nor infanticide, nor suicide, nor capital punishment, nor killing in war were considered acceptable to a church fiercely committed to following the teaching and moral example of the incarnate Lord. Put more precisely, no surviving orthodox Christian writing dating from before Constantine ever approves of Christian participation in human bloodshed.

This is of course an audacious claim, and I do not make it lightly. It is only after considered study of the surviving Christian sources from this period that I can make this conclusion. In what follows, I will offer some representative samples of the moral convictions of the ancient Christians, showing that in all circumstances, from abortion to war and everything in between, the ancient church was steadfastly opposed to killing a human person. Because of the limitations of space, these samples and my comments must necessarily be brief. [2] However the theological conviction underlying this startlingly clear moral stance will become readily apparent, namely that human life belongs ultimately to God who gave it and only God may legitimately take it. The ancient church believed that when Christians kill, they usurp the divine prerogative that belongs to God alone (cf. Romans 12:19). From this conviction, they disavowed all killing of human persons, no matter the circumstances.

Image by fusion-of-horizons; some rights reserved.

The Setting

In the Roman Empire, life was cheap. Not only was the "peace" of the empire secured and maintained through brutal conquest and the subjugation of neighboring peoples, but everyday life for Roman citizens, even during times of peace, was filled with violence. [3] Killing was sport in the gladiatorial conquests and chariot races that thrilled the crowds, and the value of individual human persons was deemed to be subordinate to the good of Rome. This was true at both the upper levels of society -- witness just how many Roman emperors met with violent deaths at the hands of their rivals (or loved ones!) -- and at the bottom strata, where the life of a slave was all but worthless to his or her master and unwanted children of the poor were either aborted or abandoned in the countryside to die of exposure. [4] The glory of Rome was built on the broken backs of enslaved peoples and the blood of those deemed to be expendable. It is into this milieu that the ancient Christian church brought its message that was decidedly on the side of life -- in every case.

Abortion and Infanticide

Both abortions of unborn children and the killings of unwanted or deformed children who had already been born were widely practiced in ancient Rome. [5] The early Christians, however, operating under the conviction that life is a precious gift from God, stood forcefully against these practices. In stark contrast to this culture of disposability, the early Christians asserted that the God-given inviolability of human life forbade them from taking the life of a child, either while still in the womb or after birth. This prohibition is present from the earliest days of the Christian moral tradition. For instance, the ancient discipleship manual commonly known as the Didache, or more formally as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles to the Nations, which dates from either the last decade of the first century or the first decade of the second century (and therefore may actually have been written at the same time as some of the writings that made it into the New Testament), contains an explicit prohibition of infanticide and abortion. As part of a section entitled the "way of life," we discover: "A further commandment of the Teaching: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not practice pederasty; do not fornicate; do not steal; do not deal in magic; do not practice sorcery; do not kill a fetus by abortion, or commit infanticide" (Didache, 2.1-2). [6]

This explicit prohibition was necessary in an era when such killings of born and unborn children were common. The Christian character Octavian, in Minicius Felix's early third-century dialogue of the same name, was one of many apologists who responded to the common charge leveled against Christians by their pagan critics that Christians kill and eat their offspring in their secretive worship services. He turns this charge against his accusers and points out the larger pagan culture's hypocrisy in doing what it suspected Christians of doing. "And in fact," he retorts, "it is a practice of yours, I observe, to expose your very own children to birds and wild beasts, or at times to smother and strangle them -- a pitiful way to die; and there are women who swallow drugs to stifle in their own womb the beginnings of a man to be -- committing infanticide before they give birth to their infant" (Octavius, 30). The great second-century apologist Justin Martyr likewise reflects the Christian condemnation of this practice, saying that "we have been taught that to expose newly born infants is the work of wicked people" (First Apology, 27), while Clement of Alexandria laments that "women who resort to some sort of deadly abortion drug kill not only the embryo but, along with it, human kindness" (Christ the Educator, 2.10).

The early Christian condemnation of killing children (either before or after birth) as a means of dealing with the difficult problems posed by unintended or unwanted pregnancies was a stark contrast with the social norms of Roman society. That the early Christians did not make a distinction between the killing of born and unborn children may sound scandalous to sensitive modern ears, but for the ancient church, abortion and infanticide were two sides of the same coin, as Tertullian's brilliant apology from the end of the second century makes clear:

But with us, murder is forbidden once for all. We are not permitted to destroy even the fetus in the womb, as long as blood is still being drawn to form a human being. To prevent the birth of a child is a quicker way to murder. It makes no difference whether one destroys a soul already born or interferes with its coming to birth. It is a human being and one who is to be a man, for the whole fruit is already present in the seed (Tertullian, Apology, 9).

Indeed, the whole focus of the church's work in the world was on saving life and working for peace with justice as Jesus had done in his life, culminating with the cross. What could be further from that mission than the devaluing and destruction of the human person in utero? The witness of the ancient church on this issue could not be clearer. Indeed, as Richard Hays has remarked, "the recent shift in some branches of liberal Protestantism to advocacy for abortion rights is a major departure from the church's historic teaching." [7] But as we shall see, this was only one facet of the ancient church's consistently pro-life ethic.

Killing in War and Military Service

Just as on abortion and infanticide, those most "private" of violence issues, the early church offered an adamant "no," so too on the most "public" kinds of killing the church drew a firm line. The early Christian discussions on killing in war, and on military service more broadly, are so numerous and multifaceted that I can only scratch the surface in this brief overview. [8] It is widely recognized by church historians and ethicists that ancient Christian writers, such as Origen and Tertullian, had moral scruples against Christians serving in the Roman legions, even though it is well-documented that many Christians were serving in the military, even prior to Constantine. What is less well-known is precisely why. To what did the church object? Was it the idolatry of the Roman legions, who were often compelled to offer sacrifices to pagan gods and to the person of the emperor himself? To be sure. But there was another significant factor that many commentators miss out on: the church's broad condemnation of killing made the military profession deeply problematic.

The best angle from which to approach this issue is by examining a document known as the Apostolic Tradition, which was probably written in Rome by the church elder Hippolytus or his immediate circle around the year 215. [9] The Apostolic Tradition is of a genre known as a "church order," a prescriptive document detailing the liturgy and worship life, as well as the polity, of the church at the time it was written. It is clearly authoritative, since numerous later church orders were based on its framework and preserve large portions of its content intact. It has been called "a kind of early Church consensus" for its descriptive narration of widely practiced church life at the time and for its authoritative nature in shaping later church orders. [10]

A crucial text for our purposes, Chapter 16 of the Apostolic Tradition describes how the church prepared new initiates for baptism. One important factor was that all facets of the initiate's life came under close scrutiny in order to determine whether or not the candidate would be accepted into the catechumenate, a kind of training period before baptism in which the candidate learns the ways and faith of the church. This scrutiny included the candidate's occupation. Some of those engaged in questionable professions were permitted to remain in their profession, so long as they modified their behavior to conform it to church discipline. For example, one who was a sculptor by trade was permitted to continue practicing his or her profession, provided that he or she did not craft idols for pagan customers. Others were required to quit their profession entirely: this requirement applied to those in such objectionable professions as sorcery and prostitution. If the individual under scrutiny failed to meet the requirements for entry into the catechumenate or refused to quit or alter their profession as necessitated by the church order, they were simply rejected from consideration for church membership and would never be permitted to receive baptism until their lives conformed to the church's rigorous discipline.

Three canons from chapter 16 are crucial for understanding the early church's scruples on killing in war and how those scruples were enforced in the life of ancient Christianity:

(9.) A soldier in command must be told not to kill people; if he is ordered so to do, he shall not carry it out. Nor shall he take the oath. If he will not agree, he should be rejected [from the catechumenate]. (10.) Anyone who has the power of the sword, or who is a civil magistrate wearing the purple, should desist, or he should be rejected. (11.) If a catechumen or a believer wishes to become a soldier they should be rejected, for they have despised God (Apostolic Tradition, 16.9-11).

First, in canon 9, the "soldier in command" who seeks entry into the catechumenate in hopes of ultimate baptism is included among those who must modify their behavior before acceptance. [11] The soldier who wants to become a Christian must refuse to kill anyone, even if ordered to do so; likewise he shall not take the (idolatrous) military oath. Violating either of these two conditions would mean automatic exclusion or expulsion from the catechumenate. Yet it is significant to note that the soldier is not explicitly ordered to quit soldiering. For many soldiers, quitting the army before their terms of service had expired would have entailed an almost certain death sentence. This is an extension of grace from the church to those soldiers who had been evangelized as the gospel message penetrated deeper into the Roman Empire. Those who were already soldiers at the time of their conversion could stay in their posts as long as they did not swear the military oath or, more importantly for our purposes here, kill anyone.

The next canon speaks to those who are higher up in the chain of military authority. Those with "the power of the sword" (military officials) or "civil magistrates wearing the purple" (a symbol of the authority of the Empire) are not extended the same grace which is given to lower-ranking soldiers. They are told in no uncertain terms that if they wish to join the church, they must resign their posts or else face rejection from the catechumenate. Was it service to the empire that was in and of itself objectionable? The phrasing that anyone who has "the power of the sword" must quit strongly suggests otherwise. In fact, the sword itself was the cause of the objection in this case. This was something fundamentally incompatible with the gospel of life that gave the church its significant moral scruples in this area.

The third and final canon from the Apostolic Tradition that bears scrutiny for our purposes tells us that the catechumen or believer (i.e., a full baptized member of the church) who wishes to become a soldier must be rejected, "for they have despised God." This canon is not addressing those who are already soldiers, as was canon 9, but those within the church (or desirous of being in the church) who also wish to become soldiers in Caesar's legions. The answer the church gave to this desire is an unambiguous "no."

In sum, according to the Apostolic Tradition, soldiers who seek to become Christians may for pragmatic reasons remain in their current occupation provided they do not kill anyone. However, Christians or catechumens who seek to take up a profession of arms are forbidden from doing so, under penalty of excommunication. The tolerance of converts who were already in the army strongly indicates that it was not military service as such to which the church objected, but it was the killing that is so frequently inherent in the occupation of a soldier that was unacceptable to church discipline. Hornus sums up the evidence well when he says that chapter 16 of the Apostolic Tradition "proves that the Church expressed itself officially on this subject, and that it clearly condemned in the army the homicidal violence which is its fundamental characteristic." [12] It was therefore not military service per se to which the early church objected, but the specific activities that can characterize service in the military, especially idolatry and killing.

This point is underscored by the frequency with which the early Christians employed military metaphors, known by scholars as militia Christi imagery, to describe the church. [13] Ancient Christian literature is replete with militaristic imagery and metaphors, which is curious considering the church's ambivalence toward the Roman military machine. The church is continually likened to an army, but an army unlike any the world has ever seen. In the early fourth century, the rhetorician Lactantius declared that worship of God is "a kind of heavenly military service" (On Prayer, 19.5). And in his Apology, with more than a little twist of irony and humor considering the Christian church's stance against violence, he writes, "We come together for a meeting and a congregation, in order to besiege God with prayers, like an army in battle formation. Such violence is pleasing to God" (Apology, 39.2).

Military metaphors were useful for the church, because the Roman legions were famous for their discipline and order, and it was these characteristics, rather than the Roman military's infamous brutality and conquest, that the church sought in its own ranks. In fact, one unique facet of this military imagery is the early church's insistence that despite the fact that Christians were an "army" of sorts, they did not shed blood as the armies of the world did nor wield worldly weapons (cf. 2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Clement of Alexandria illustrates this point well:

But when the shrilling trumpet blows, it assembles the soldiers and proclaims war; and shall not Christ, think you, having breathed to the ends of the earth a song of peace, assemble the soldiers of peace that are his? Yes, and He did assemble, O man, by blood and by word His bloodless army, and to them He entrusted the kingdom of heaven. The trumpet of Christ is his gospel. He sounded it, and we heard. Let us gird ourselves with the armour of peace, "putting on the breastplate of righteousness," and taking up the shield of faith and placing on our head the helmet of salvation, and let us sharpen "the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God." Thus does the apostle marshal us in the ranks of peace (Exhortation to the Greeks, 11).

In this powerful passage, Clement calls Christians "soldiers of peace" and Christ's "bloodless army," leaving no doubt as to what sort of militia the Christians constitute. The early Christian witness against war and killing did not prevent them from employing militaristic metaphors to describe themselves, yet they were also explicit that theirs was an army that sheds no blood.

Image by Ruslan; some rights reserved.

Categorical Statements against Killing

As if their moral stance against the violence of war and abortion is not enough, numerous ancient Christian writers go on record as opposing all killing, period, as incompatible with the life of Christian discipleship. Their words express a strict ethic that was pervasive across the church of that era, not just isolated to one city or region. Tertullian, a Latin-speaking lawyer writing in northern Africa at the start of the third century, wrote against Christian participation in -- and even attendance at -- the bloody Roman "spectacles," the gladiatorial combat and other events at which people were killed for "sport." Tertullian does not merely condemn the violence he finds there but casts aspersions on all other violence against human beings, since God did not intend for any of his creations to be used in the slaying of human beings: "You see murder committed by iron dagger, poison, or magic incantation: but iron, poisonous herbs, demons are all equally creatures of God. Yet did not the Creator design those creatures of His for man's destruction? Certainly not. He forbids man-slaying by one summary commandment: 'Thou shalt not kill'" (The Spectacles, 2.8).

In another part of the empire, Origen, a third-century Greek-speaking theologian based in Alexandria in Egypt, wrote a powerful response to a pagan critic of the Christian faith named Celsus, in which Origen both deftly responds to Celsus' accusations and makes the rationale of the early Christian ethic clear. Celsus had alleged that the Christian faith had its historical origins in a violent "revolt against the community" -- basically charging that Christians were unpatriotic traitors and insurrectionists from their very founding. In reply, Origen observes that Celsus' charges cannot be true, because Christians are forbidden by their Lord from killing anyone:

If a revolt had been the cause of the Christians existing as a separate group . . . the lawgiver of the Christians would not have forbidden entirely the taking of human life. He taught that it was never right for his disciples to go so far against a man, even if he should be very wicked; for he did not consider it compatible with his inspired legislation to allow the taking of human life in any form at all (Against Celsus, 3.7).

The Christians' divine lawgiver (i.e., Christ) makes it quite clear to his disciples that killing a human person is never an acceptable option, and this makes Celsus' slanderous charge false on the face of it. It was both a crystal-clear expression of the church's ethic and a supremely deft apologetic strategy.

Back in the northern part of the empire, in the first decade of the fourth century (shortly before Emperor Constantine's conversion brought about the church's acceptance of the just war theory), Christian rhetoric teacher Lactantius wrote what is perhaps the clearest and most categorical statement from this era against killing:

For when God forbids killing, He not only prohibits us from freebooting, which is not permitted even by public laws, but He also advises that those things also, which are regarded as lawful among men, should not be done. So, neither will it be permitted a just man, whose service is justice herself, to enter military service, nor can he accuse anyone of a capital crime, because there is no difference whether you kill a man with a sword or a word, since the killing itself is prohibited. Therefore, in this command of God, no exception whatsoever must be made. It is always wrong to kill a man whom God has intended to be a sacrosanct creature (Divine Institutes, 6.20).

Lactantius' statement is explicitly theological, grounding the prohibition against all killing in the command of God and in God's will for the protection of and reverence for the human person. In this light, even socially approved forms of killing are forbidden, Lactantius says, because right and wrong are not determined by human society, but by the expressed will of God.

Conclusion

We have seen here only a brief sampling of the rich early Christian ethic of peace and life. Yet it has been more than enough to demonstrate that the ancient Christian church forbade the killing of human beings for any reason, under any circumstances. Christians who followed the way of Jesus simply did not kill. Rather than confining the term "pro-life" to the narrow issue of abortion as we do today, the church before Constantine consistently rejected killing -- whether in the womb, in the arena, on the battlefield, or anywhere else. While the early Christians were more than willing to shed their own blood in the numerous persecutions of that era as a witness to their faith and in imitation of Christ's passion, early church teaching forbade the killing of other people by catechumens and baptized believers, and all the evidence indicates that this teaching was widely followed. Their startling conviction to never kill another human being, coupled with their readiness to bleed and die in witness to the kingdom of God, marked the church off as radically different from their pagan neighbors and witnessed to the transformed reality that is possible through Jesus Christ.

Might this ethical and moral clarity be relevant today, in our time of polarizing culture wars? Might it have the power to bridge the gap between "conservatives" and the life issues dear to their hearts and "liberal/progressives" and the peace and justice issues dear to theirs? I submit that the way of Jesus Christ as lived by the early Christian church is decidedly a "third way" that defies these two conventional categories and has tremendous potential for healing a broken world by uniting ideological opponents to work alongside, rather than against, one another in a common cause. At this hour of history, it may be the most effective and necessary means by which we can become ambassadors of reconciliation and protect the vulnerable persons in our world today.

Rob Arner (contact: rarner@ltsp.edu) is Adjunct Professor of Religion at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. This article is adapted from his book Consistently Pro-Life: The Ethics of Bloodshed in Ancient Christianity (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010). The book is available from the publisher at http://www.wipfandstock.com, from amazon.com, or directly from the author via the e-mail address above.

REFERENCES

[1] As deeply inadequate as this standard liberal/conservative dichotomy is at describing the ideological and moral orientation of particular groups, it nevertheless serves as a helpful if overly-generalized categorization of two ideologically opposed groups, which Lutheran bishop Lowell Erdahl has called “Pro-life” and “Pro-peace.” See his Pro-Life/Pro-Peace: Life-Affirming Alternatives to Abortion, War, Mercy Killing, and the Death Penalty (Minneapolis: Augusburg Publishing House, 1986). While recognizing the fluidity of these categories, and the fact that few if any people fit consistently into “conservative” and “liberal” Christian stereotypes with any real regularity, I have found that these two overly broad generalizations actually do significantly describe two major constituencies of American Christians, both of whom are largely ignorant of, or outright deny, the connection between major “life issues.” Sociologist Edith Bogue has found in her research that among the American public there is “a division between respect-for-life issues in the domains of private morality and personal behavior (passive euthanasia, suicide, physical and social reasons for abortion) and those that involve social policies (capital punishment, military spending, welfare spending, and environmental spending).” See Bogue’s “Does the Seamless Garment Fit? American Public Opinion,” in Consistently Opposing Killing: From Abortion to Assisted Suicide, the Death Penalty, and War, edited by Rachel M. MacNair and Stephen Zunes (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008), 81. That is, “conservative” or “pro-life” Christians are usually chiefly concerned with the life issues in the private sphere, while “liberal” or “pro-peace” Christians are mainly focused on the life issues in the social sphere.

[2] Readers who seek fuller documentation and contextualization may find it in my book, Consistently Pro-Life: The Ethics of Bloodshed in Ancient Christianity (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), or in a more recent title by Ron Sider, The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), which reaches substantively the same conclusions I do about the moral convictions of the ancient church.

[3] For an excellent exploration of the character of this Pax Romana or “Roman Peace,” see the work of John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan D. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004).

[4] This latter practice is well attested both historically and culturally. The Greek dramatist Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex, for example, is premised on the case of mistaken identity that occurs when one such infant who has been left to die of exposure is rescued and returns to the society and family that had abandoned him. Few in Sophocles’ audience would have batted an eyelash at the morality of this common cultural practice.

[5] The definitive work on abortion in antiquity is Michael Gorman’s Abortion & the Early Church: Christian, Jewish, and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982). Gorman documents the reasons and prevalence of abortions in ancient Greece and Rome and highlights how the early Christian and Jewish communities resisted it because of their convictions about the value of human life and their adherence to the Sixth Commandment.

[6] The “Two Ways” section of the Didache is closely mirrored in the early second-century Epistle of Barnabas, where a nearly identical prohibition of abortion and infanticide is present in chapter 19.

[7] Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 453.

[8] If this topic is of interest, I direct the reader to my much fuller discussion in my book, as well as to Jean-Michel Hornus, It is Not Lawful for Me to Fight: Early Christian Attitudes toward War, Violence, and the State (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980).

[9] The best edition of the Apostolic Tradition in print is that of Alistair Stewart-Sykes, from the Popular Patristics series published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press in 2001. Stewart-Sykes holds that while the historical figure of Hippolytus may not have been directly responsible for the current text of the Apostolic Tradition as it stands, his school was critical in the document’s development. He contends that, contrary to some recent scholars, the Apostolic Tradition must be regarded as Roman in origin, a fact that heightens its significance as an influential, widely followed church order.

[10] Hornus, It Is Not Lawful for Me to Fight, 161.

[11] Stewart-Sykes is emphatic in his commentary on this passage that, despite the “in command,” the context makes clear that what is referred to here is not a commander, but a soldier of inferior rank: a lowly grunt or private in today’s terminology.

[12] Hornus, It Is Not Lawful for Me To Fight, 161.

[13] The phrase Militia Christi, Latin for “army of Christ,” was made famous by Adolph von Harnack’s now-classic study of the early church and war, Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981).

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