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Ancient Christianity and the Consistent Life Ethic


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