Chapter 10: The Church: Part of a Violent World

Ain’t Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War
by Albert C. Winn

Chapter 10: The Church: Part of a Violent World

Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.

(Rev. 19;11)

Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. .. . When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.

(1 Peter 2:21, 23)

We have already been in touch with the apostolic church to an undetermined extent. As we have said before, the picture of Jesus we find in the Gospels is the product of that church, touched by the faith of that church and by its immediate concerns. There is no foolproof way of separating out the Jesus of history from the Christ of the church’s faith.

Acknowledging that, we move on to the letters of the church, most of them earlier than the Gospels, to the Acts of the Apostles, and to those parts of the Gospels where Jesus does not speak, notably the infancy narratives. (We shall delay a consideration of the Revelation until chapter 12.) Here we can test whether the understanding of Jesus as a peacemaker we have developed thus far accords with the understanding of his contemporaries and the next succeeding generation. Here we can try to see, as honestly as we can, how far the biblical ambiguity regarding war and peace continued in the life and writings of the early Christian community. We look first at the church’s involvement with violence.

Compromise with Roman Violence

As we began our study of Jesus by examining those parts of the record that showed him as situated in a highly conflicted situation and making certain adaptations to it, so we begin here with a look at the church as situated in the Roman Empire, founded on violence, and making certain adaptations to that.

The Pax Romana

When Paul had his hearing before the governor Felix, the attorney for his accusers, one Tertullus, began his speech with this piece of calculated flattery: "Your Excellency, because of you we have long enjoyed peace" (Acts 24:2). This is a clear reference to the Pax Romana, the "peace" in which Roman writers and rulers took great pride.1 The Pax Romana (the peace of Rome) has often been hailed as a uniquely peaceful period in world history. For example, Paul was able to travel the Mediterranean world on good roads, without changing language, without changing currency, without showing his passport at a single border crossing -- something that has been impossible ever since the Roman peace collapsed. There was indeed eirene in the Greek sense: the absence of large-scale war (except far away on the empire’s borders). But there was no shalom. There was no absence of violence, We have seen the presence of violence in the story of Jesus’ life and death. The Roman Empire was an example of institutionalized violence, held in place by military might, legions stationed everywhere, and met by outbreaks of violent resistance year after year after year. Several are mentioned in the book of Acts (5:36, 37; 21:38).

Loyalty to the State

The early church practiced and urged loyal obedience to this tyrannical military state.

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. (1 Tim. 2:1-2)

Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. (Titus 3:1)

For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish. As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor. (1 Peter 2:13-17)

The most famous passage, which has had an enormous impact on European history, is in Romans:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them-taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (Rom. 13:1-7)2

Early Christians clearly resisted Jewish authorities who sought to prevent them from preaching about Jesus:

Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard. (Acts 4:19-20)

We must obey God rather than any human authority. (Acts 5:29)

But at first there was no recorded resistance to the Roman state. For one thing, Rome did not prevent preaching. For another, it did not draft Christians to fight in its wars.

The church was, however, confronted with new converts from the Roman military who did fight wars for Rome. Cornelius (Acts 10) was a case in point. Apparently no question was ever raised regarding a possible conflict between his daily occupation and his profession as a Christian.

Accepting the State’s Protection

Paul, who was a Roman citizen, asserted his rights when he had been beaten at Philippi (Acts 16:35-39), when he was about to be beaten in Jerusalem (22:25-29), and when he appealed to Caesar (25:10-12; 26:32). He accepted military protection when the Jerusalem mob was trying to kill him (21:30-32), when the dissension in the Sanhedrin became violent (23:10), and when a band of sworn assassins planned to ambush him (23:12-35). In the latter case the force was massive: two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen!3

Internal Strife

The apostolic church was not free from the internal tension, dissension, and strife that seem to mark all human communities. Although the descriptions of Christian unity and harmony in Acts 2:41-47 and 4:32-37 are almost lyrical, trouble soon emerged. There was difficulty between the Creek-speaking Hellenists and the Aramaic-speaking Hebrews (Acts 6:1). The long struggle over table fellowship with Gentiles and whether to require circumcision of them began early and lasted late.

The church at Corinth was a microcosm of the tensions in the larger church. There were factions: "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ" (1 Cor. 1:10-13). There were lawsuits between members (6:1). There was friction between "the strong" who exercised their freedom from superstition by eating meat that had been offered to idols and "the weak" who felt compromised in their faith by eating (8:1-13). Even at the Lord’s Supper people gathered in little cliques and the rich did not share with the poor (11:17-22). Those who had certain "spiritual gifts" looked down on others whose gifts were different (chs. 12-14).

Violent Language

Use of Military Expressions and Metaphors

Early Christian writers did not hesitate to use expressions and metaphors drawn from warfare. Two passages picture Christ at the head of a typical Roman triumph, in which Roman commanders would display prisoners taken captive in war, while crowds cheered and incense wafted over the procession:

But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him, (2 Cor. 2:14)

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross]. (Col. 2:15)

"Fighting the good fight" is a frequent expression in the pastoral epistles (1 Tim. 1:18; 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7). Service in the church is compared with service in the army:

Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No one serving in the army gets entangled in everyday affairs; the soldier’s aim is to please the enlisting officer. (2Tim. 2:3-4;seealso 1 Cor. 9:7; Phil. 2:25; Philemon 2)

The weapons of Christian warfare are described in several passages: 2 Corinthians 6:6-7; 10:3-6; I Thessalonians 5:8; and the famous passage about the whole armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-17. We shall be discussing the Ephesians passage in detail in chapter 11.

Condemnation of False Teachers

Just as the prophets condemned the false prophets in scathing diatribes, just as Jesus condemned the hypocritical religious leaders of his people in unsparing language, so the early church condemned false teachers that arose in its midst.

It is clear that Paul expended considerable energy in condemning those whom he calls false apostles, ministers of Satan. He says that their end will match their deeds (2 Cor. 11:1-15), He wishes they would castrate themselves (Gal. 5:12). They are "enemies of the cross. . . . Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; . . . their minds are set on earthly things" (Phil. 3:18-19).

The pastoral epistles declare that the false teachers’ teaching is meaningless talk because they do not understand what they are talking about (I Tim. 1:6-7). They are deceitful spirits, demons, liars whose consciences are seared with a hot inn (1 Tim. 4:1-2). They are conceited, understanding nothing, having a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words (1 Tim, 6:3-6). They are people of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, who oppose the truth (2 Tim. 3:1-8). They am "idle talkers and deceivers,. . . teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach. . . . Their very minds and consciences are corrupted. They profess to know God, but they deny God by their actions. They are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good work" (Titus 1:10-11,15-16).

Later writers warm to the invective:

These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm; for them the deepest darkness has been reserved. For they speak bombastic nonsense, and with licentious desires of the flesh they entice people who have just escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for people are slaves to whatever masters them. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb,

"The dog turns back to its own vomit"


"The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud."

(2 Peter2:17-22;cf. 2:1-16 and Jude 5-16.)

This is hardly language that makes for peace or illustrates love for enemies.

The Wrath of God

Again, like the prophets and like Jesus, the early church preserves the ancient idea of Cod’s antagonistic warfare against his own rebellious people and against all who are sinful.

"For the wrath of Cod is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth" (Rom. 1:18). With those words Paul opens a lengthy discussion of God’s wrath that runs all the way to Romans 3:20. The objects of God’s wrath have no excuse (1:20; 2:1). Both Jews and Gentiles are included in this condemnation (2:9-24). God’s way of punishing is simply to give them up to their lusts, passions, and debased minds (1:24,26,28).

Briefer statements are found all through the New Testament: "The wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient" (Col. 3:6; cf. I Thess. 1:10). "Our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:29). "For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy" (James 2:13).

Who can forget the passage made famous by Jonathan Edwards?

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy "on the testimony of two or three witnesses." How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:26-31)

The New Testament even dares to picture Jesus as the executor of God’s vengeance. The Lord Jesus will be

revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. (2 Thess. 1:7-9)

We shall see more of this when we come to the book of Revelation, but this is enough to show that to the early church God is not unambiguous love and mercy, nor is Jesus "gentle Jesus, meek and mild."

Looking at this side of the ambiguity, we see a church in which many first-world Christians of our day could feel comfortable and undisturbed: a church that lives without question or resistance in a state founded on violence and made prosperous by the exploitation of less fortunate nations; a church that accepts various perquisites from that state as its due; a church where changing jobs for the sake of peace and justice is seldom considered; a church that constantly speaks in the language of war; a church given to eloquent invective in its internal disputes and against outside opponents; a church quite sure that God will punish the wicked.

But there is another side of the ambiguity, which we shall find quite uncomfortable and disturbing.




1. Ulrich Mauser find another reference in the word of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16:36. Indeed, "the concept of peace in the book of Acts is engaged in silent dialogue with the ideal of Roman Peace." The Gospel of Peace (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), pp. 84-85. For a fuller study, see Klaus Wengst, Pax Romana and the Peace of Jesus Christ (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987).

2. Romans 13:1-7 is not as simple as its translation in the NRSV might lead readers to believe. There has been voluminous debate as to whether the word exousIai in verse 1 means "governing authorities," or the cosmic powers that were widely understood in the Greco-Roman world to stand behind various human authorities. See the thorough discussion in Clinton D. Morrison, The Powers That Be (Naperville, Ill.: Alec B. Allenson, 1960). The practical import-that Christians should be respectful of, and subject to the state-remains, no matter how the exegetical question is resolved. There are, however, limits on that respect and subjection. The power of earthly rulers is not inherent in their position. It is derived from God, whether directly or through angelic "authorities" that stand behind them. If they forget the source of their power, if they rebel against God, if they no longer act as God’s deputies, if instead of rewarding good conduct and punishing evil conduct they do the reverse, they must be resisted. We shall see in chapter 12 how the church came to that position regarding Rome. For a thorough discussion of this passage from a pacifist point of view, see John Howard Yoder, The Polities of Jesus (Grand Rapids. Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972), ch. 10.

3. Howard Thurman has written movingly of the way in which Jesus had an appeal for his ex-slave grandmother that Paul could never have. Jesus was totally marginal; Paul had a foothold in the structures of power, and he exercised it. See Jesus and the Disinherited (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1949; repr. Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1976). pp. 30-34.