Posted by: sean | September 1, 2007

Why Didn’t They Tell the Centurions To Leave the Military? (1)

the following is taken from  page 42 of War Inconsistent with the Religion of Jesus Christ by David Low Dodge (published in 1815).  Mr. Dodge founded the first peace society ever organized in America or in the world and was its first president (The New York Peace Society).  His book in its entirety can be read in .pdf or .html formats on the nonresistance.org website.

The Centurion and Cornelius Were Not Rebuked

by David Low Dodge

Objection.  The Centurion and Cornelius were Christians and soldiers and highly approved of God for their faith and piety, nor were they directed by Christ or his apostles to renounce their profession.  Therefore, the profession of arms is not inconsistent with Christian duty.

Answer.  They were first soldiers and then Christians, and we have no evidence that they continued in the profession of arms.  Nor are we warranted to say that they were not directed to renounce that profession, as the Scriptures are silent on the subject.  Peter, it appears, tarried a number of days with Cornelius, and he doubtless explained to him the spirit and precepts of the gospel.  It is very probable that neither Cornelius nor the Centurion continued as soldiers in any other sense than they were soldiers of Christ, as the idolatrous rites enjoined on the Roman soldiers were totally inconsistent with the Christian character, aside from the unlawfulness of war itself.  Besides, the Roman soldiers were as often engaged in offensive as in defensive war.  Therefore, if the argument has any force on the question, it will tolerate not only defensive but also offensive war, and also the idolatrous rites of the Roman armies.

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Responses

  1. Acts 10:1   In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.

    Cornelius is described as a devout God-fearing man before his conversion to Christ. His service in the military seems to be in no way held against him. The ‘idolatrous rites” of the Roman soldiers never appear to be raised as an issue in scripture.

  2. Greg! What an honor to have you on the site. I’m a bit confused about what you actually saying. Please help me clarify. I hear you saying:

    Fact #1
    Cornelius is described as a devout God-fearing man before his conversion to Christ

    Fact #2
    His service in the military seems to be in no way held against him

    Fact #3
    The ‘idolatrous rites” of the Roman soldiers never appear to be raised as an issue in scripture.

    These three facts are begging for a conclusion. What is yours? Is your conclusion that 21st century Americans should sign up to kill whoever the USA determines is the enemy (for pay) in direct defiance to Jesus’ clear command to love our enemies? Or are you merely bringing out the beautiful fact that not only prostitutes and tax collectors were admitted into the Christian community, but even a Gentile centurion? Please clarify.

  3. We don’t have a record on what Cornelius does after this account – either for or against the issue of him leaving his position.

    However, do you suggest we hold this up as a reason why it is honorable or acceptable to use violence towards another person? That seems odd. If Cornelius does follow Christ – wouldn’t he know that it is the gentle that will inherit the earth? That it is the peacemakers who are the children of God? It seems odd for a man to be involved in violence and war for a lifetime and then be a part of God’s plan to end that very same thing in the next age….

    Some interesting quotes from the early church fathers I found Saturday from Shane Claiborne’s book “Jesus For President”:

    “The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established…brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator…give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kil, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.” – Hippolytus, 218AD

    Something I’ve thought about – If I’m a stripper and you preach the gospel to me, I have some decisions to make about how I’m going to follow Jesus and make a living, because I don’t want to do that anymore…And likewise, I can go to a stripclub to preach the gospel to the people there and don’t have to sin….but guess what…I’m not going to do it because I will. Lets reach out to the stripper community another way….

  4. Hi Sean,
    The honor is mine. Very nice looking site.

    My conclusion is simply that in the New Testament military service is not equated with what Jesus is talking about in not using violence and other such values of the Kingdom of God. Saying that we don’t know what they did afterwards seems weak to me. If it were a requirement to leave the military, it seems odd that isn’t even hinted at.

    In regards to writing about Cornelius’ reputation prior to conversion, I think the idea that all Roman soldiers were idolatrous is a red herring. He would have had to consider the consequences of the emperor salute as a God-fearer and might have the same understanding afterwards.

  5. Hi Victor,
    I don’t know if we’ve met but thanks for your response which raises two good issues.

    Regarding the later writings of the church fathers, I think we are reading only one side of the conversation. It seems to me that wasn’t the only practice. Your quote seems fairly didactic, but some seem to me to be polemical.

    In regards to the stripper illustration. I think I agree with your perspective. I read once of a man who had a ministry to strippers. Unfortunately, the news story was about him being arrested for solicitation.

    But in the military we don’t find the military ever spoken of as an illicit profession. And we don’t have John the Baptist telling prostitutes how to honorably engage in their profession.

  6. that last paragraph should have been

    But in the New Testament we don’t find the military…

  7. Greg,

    Saying that we don’t know what they did afterwards seems weak to me. If it were a requirement to leave the military, it seems odd that isn’t even hinted at.

    The fact of the matter is that we do know exactly what every Christian, who was in the Roman army, did about it. And we’ve outlined on this site in the many many patristic quotes and history books. The lack of a hint might be the sheer obviousness of what is required – if every single instance was handled in the same manner. It’s an argument from silence in either of our hands, but the history is clearly on the side that he left the military after his conversion.

    He would have had to consider the consequences of the emperor salute as a God-fearer and might have the same understanding afterwards

    I haven’t been able to locate much historical work on the greek ‘God-fearers’ that were able in some way to participate in Judaism. However, all Christians were commanded to refuse, and did refuse to participate in the emperor cult – and that is heavily supported by Scripture. If you have access ‘How On Earth Did Jesus Become a God’ by Larry Hurtado, Chapter 3, specifically pg 74-82

  8. We could be fair and say that the NT does not encourage at all the joining of the military. No blanket statement on either side. I can accept that.

    We are left with ethical passages to determine what the right course of action is for 21st century believers. I think that;

    “never pay back evil for evil” in Romans 12 does not mean;

    “never pay back evil for evil….unless you are in the military, police squad, or work as a bodyguard, then it is permissable.” I guess I see that as ‘never’ meaning ‘never’.

    Good discussion.
    Dustin Smith

  9. Dustin, I think you’re bringing up the right point – certainly there are no passages on the strippers or members of the military – but we do have the teaching of Jesus and the apostles who followed – and we must take those teachings and interpret them in the situation. Jesus clearly is for peace, love, kindness, gentleness, not returning evil for evil, forgiveness, redemption and more…Christians should not put themselves in situations where their profession leads them to directly contradict the one they are calling their “Master.”

    Greg, as to your point on the early church writings, from my study it seems that the early church was pretty consistent with this view and in agreement for the first few centuries – do you have some info that contradicts this?
    Thanks
    -Victor

  10. Would it be possible that some concepts would be so far removed from Christian Living that they were never even thought of being necessary to be specifically addressed?

    examples: abortion, recreational dating, going to the circus (not talking about the 3 ring kind.)

  11. Hi Victor,
    No I don’t have contrary information — just that the polemical nature of some of the discussion seems to indicate some disagreement. It’s been several years since I’ve read the quotes. I’ll see if I can find them tomorrow.

  12. Hi Dustin
    I think you are correct in terms of what it means to seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. But I don’t see anything inherently virtuous in staying out of the military. I think for those not seeking the Kingdom, military service can be an opportunity to find some much needed maturity that might lead them toward being open to spiritual values at a later time. I don’t think they’ll be worse.

    In regards to repaying evil for evil, most U.S. military strategist would say that is a poor way to run a war. I’ll agree that some seem to be motivated that way in joining the military after a terrorist attack, but I don’t think that most are motivated by payback.

    I think there is a danger of creating another legalistic system in which the virtuous don’t vote or participate in the military but don’t actually experience the life of the kingdom of God either.

  13. Hi John O
    I don’t know that we have much information at all about what Christians did in regard to military service for the first 100 years of the church. Certainly it did develop toward a position of non-involvement.

    But that eventually changed, didn’t it.

  14. Hi Greg.

    One of the ways I see that one can ‘Seek first the kingdom of God’, would be to inact the ethics of the future kingdom in the here and now. One of the clearest visions from the prophets (Isa 2, Micah 4, etc) is the portrait of beating swords into plowshares. Certainly the current military would not fit into this picture. If living in light of the kingdom means seeking peace via swords to plowshares, I can’t seem to justify the participation of a military force who seems to achieve peace via destruction of their enemies. I really dont see Christ involved in that at all.

    I’m not making dogmatic statements concerning war (or voting for that matter), but if i stick my finger in the air, the wind seems to be blowing in one clear direction.

    Again, good dialogue from all who are involved.

    Dustin Smith

  15. Hi Dustin,
    Thanks. I don’t see a point in being dogmatic about this either.
    One of the drawbacks to the anabaptist position is it has to position itself as the minority. Another issue is that it was rebelling against a system that didn’t separate church and state. How do we live out our faith in this country which is has a government based on freedom and individual responsibility. While politicians have no problem draping themselves in the flag and holding the Bible, our responses are supposed to be based out of responsibility and not ideology.
    I realize that it usually isn’t.

  16. Greg,

    Some thoughts on what you’ve said:

    I think you are correct in terms of what it means to seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness. But I don’t see anything inherently virtuous in staying out of the military. I think for those not seeking the Kingdom, military service can be an opportunity to find some much needed maturity that might lead them toward being open to spiritual values at a later time. I don’t think they’ll be worse.

    The virtue is in loving the enemy. If you are oath bound (and legally bound) to an organization which drops you off in the middle of gunfire with an M-16 then it is either kill or be killed. It is not virtuous to intentionally place oneself in a position like that. One may find maturity or binge drinking & prostitutes (it’s about 50/50 with those whom I have seen), but either way they are killing people in the name of Christ. As Christians we cannot put down Christ when we go on the job, we bear his name wherever we go. We do all things in the name of Christ. And now we have perverted the message of the cross, from self-sacrificial love to my kingdom of this world is bigger than yours and we have bigger guns. Furthermore, there is the psychological damage that is done when killing someone…and then there is the fact of retributive violence,…lurking somewhere out there (i.e. WW2 by virtue of WW1, etc.).

    In regards to repaying evil for evil, most U.S. military strategist would say that is a poor way to run a war. I’ll agree that some seem to be motivated that way in joining the military after a terrorist attack, but I don’t think that most are motivated by payback.

    I think he is speaking of in the actual battle. You are shooting at me to kill me so I’ll kill you with my gun. This is repaying evil for evil.

    I don’t know that we have much information at all about what Christians did in regard to military service for the first 100 years of the church. Certainly it did develop toward a position of non-involvement.

    We must remember that Jewish Christians had no issue with military service because Jews were exempted from the Roman military. Furthermore, despite what one might expect from the revolts in a.d.70 and a.d.135, this was the Pax Romana and the military wasn’t engaged in that many battles.

    BTW, did you ever apply to Harvard?

  17. oh, and for a bunch of quotes from the Ante-Nicene Fathers, click here

  18. I agree with your observation that military service doesn’t necessarily bring out the best in people. Those who have lacked structure but who are willing to take it usually do well. But people from well-adjusted families often find the military extremely oppressive and some of them fall into escapes.

    I wouldn’t encourage someone whose passion is the Kingdom of God to enter the military. But there are plenty of people without that passion, including those in our churches. Since I don’t find the military to be inherently wrong, and I don’t think you’ve shown me any NT evidence to the contrary, I think it is a valid option for people.

    Again, by evidence I mean specific statements that one must leave the military. I see the opposite in the NT — the military appears to be a respected vocation.

    I haven’t yet applied to Harvard. I’m probably two years away from that being practical.

  19. Greg,

    A person who seeks the Kingdom is a Christian. A person who does not seek the Kingdom is not a Christian, even if they go to church. As towards your statement of structure – perhaps the church should be fulfilling its role?

    As for a supposed “development” of this doctrine, the first century of the church was heavily populated by Jewish Christians. And Jews were already precluded from joining the Roman army. Therefore it would not have been an issue early on. Yet as the church grows to encompass more Gentiles it would have to be addressed. However the foundations of this doctrine are with Jesus pure and simple. We’ve addressed the many passages in which Jesus supports a non-violent stance. Even his messianic office, by denying the common route of violence taken by nearly all other messiah claimants, makes a huge statement to that affect. This site is full of texts from the NT that make this statement. Sorry we don’t reproduce them in the comments of one thread for you.

  20. Greg,

    I have a couple of comments on what you said:

    Since I don’t find the military to be inherently wrong, and I don’t think you’ve shown me any NT evidence to the contrary, I think it is a valid option for people.

    Whoa, this conversation was not about me giving you NT evidence that Christians should not be in the military, it was about you convincing me that Cornelius is the example of a Christian soldier or something. Actually, I’m still not sure what you were trying to infer from the initial comment you made. But anyhow, can we say that Jesus was serious when he said to love your enemies? Is it loving to call someone names? Is it loving to punch them in the head? Is it loving to paralyze them with a bat? Is it loving to end their life with a gun? Obviously it is not loving to kill people. Is this really that difficult. Let the pagans kill the pagans, you go preach the gospel of peace.

    Again, by evidence I mean specific statements that one must leave the military. I see the opposite in the NT — the military appears to be a respected vocation.

    I’m interested in this evidence. Where in the NT does it ever say that the military is a respected vocation. JohnO has already said, as have I, that it was largely a non-issue in the 1st century. Perhaps a question you might ask yourself is this: what was the Christian response to defending the holy land from Romans in a.d. 70?

    In Jesus we see radical pacifism (both taught and exemplified), we see it in the apostles, we see it in the 2nd century, 3rd century, and even in a good amount of the 4th (at least until Augustine adapted the “Just War Theory” from the pagans). Maybe it is time to switch sides on this issue? at least pastorally. Perhaps we need to steer our kids towards getting vocations that make peace and not participating in living militaristic consumerism of the present evil age?

  21. Wow…yes Sean good points. It is sad that we are the place in our culture and the church where to kill or injure another human being is something that is looked at as honorable.

    As you proposed, we should be proactive in our peace-making – doing things & saying things that are redemptive and healing. The church of Christ should look like its leader – who came serving, healing, lowly, and gentle…sadly the American church has flipped it upside down.

  22. Without having any documentation to substantiate this, I recall having a discussion with an Eastern Orthodox friend, and according to her knowledge, Tradition apparently says that Cornelius and the centurion whose servant Christ healed gave up soldiering after their conversions to the Faith.

    I would have to spend more time looking this up to substantiate it, but that is how I was informed.

  23. Here is a quote about the Centurion from the Matt. 8 passage in Ben Witherington’s [i]Matthew[/i] commentary, p182:

    [b]”Part of the required practices of such soldiers was participating in pagan religious rites, specifically worshiping the patron deity or deities of the legion, and also participating in emperor worship. For this reason, neither observant Jew nor later Christians were able to be full participabnts in the Roman army.”[/b]

    Dustin

  24. Sean wrote:
    I’m interested in this evidence. Where in the NT does it ever say that the military is a respected vocation. JohnO has already said, as have I, that it was largely a non-issue in the 1st century. Perhaps a question you might ask yourself is this: what was the Christian response to defending the holy land from Romans in a.d. 70?

    Sorry, I don’t know how to do the quote indent that you’ve used.

    As to respect shown toward the military:
    1. The honoring of the two centurions without a hint of prejudice toward them.

    2. Romans 13 — The government doesn’t use the sword in vain.

    3. Paul uses a soldier as an example of how to serve as a Christian. Can you imagine him speaking of the professional expertise of a prostitute or drug dealer?

    I’m not saying that the NT ever gives Christians permission to join the military. But much of the rhetoric as to why Christians can’t join the military tends to equate soldiers as being vicious murderers intent on revenge. This certainly does not line up with the NT portrayal of military personnel.

    I understand Romans 13 to say that government and military are necessary in this fallen world and are in fact instituted by God. To denigrate these institutions, putting them on a par with social evils, does not IMHO give a good witness to the Kingdom of God. To me it sends a message that we aren’t very concerned about those who have hope only in this life.

  25. According to Eusebius the Christians of Jerusalem fled the city when they saw the armies of Titus, as per the warning/prophecy Jesus had given.

    But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella.” – Church History III.5.3

  26. Greg,

    To denigrate these institutions, putting them on a par with social evils, does not IMHO give a good witness to the Kingdom of God.

    While God does ordain governments – he himself calls them social evils (I also understand Paul to be doing the same thing when he talks about the powers of this age – he is talking about the political/social construction through which Satan exerts his influence). God’s prophets routinely denounced Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome as not living up to God’s ordination, as wicked, evil, in-human, and worthy of judgment, which God has executed upon those nations.

    As to your three points:
    1) We suggest the prejudice is implicit based on the first two centuries of Christian practice (keep in mind these gospels and epistles were written to Christians with the necessary context to understand and handle them)

    2) As I outlined above – God judges those governments that *do* use the sword in vain. Furthermore at the time of the writing, there is a de facto understanding that no Christians ever participated in the government. While that can be true now, we cannot wholly import Paul’s phrase without realizing the situation is different today.

    3) Paul however does use the image of a slave, an image we as a society and culture deem irreverant and culturally insensitive (especially in America). The point is not to use Paul’s metaphor as *entirely legitimizing* of soldiering – *but rather* to find the point – obedience to the orders that come down. Which is the same point of the slave metaphor.


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