America has been engaged in near constant undeclared war essentially since the Korean Conflict (1950-1953). Currently the United States is involved in a proxy war in Eurasia. Things also seem to be heating up in Asia around the island of Taiwan now as well. It seems fitting for Christians to begin to re-explore the Christian doctrine known as “Just War.” Over the next several Fridays we will release in parts an essay on the that subject. This is the first installment. We intend to add an occasional testimony to our Church’s constitutional work in the near future on this subject.
Early Christian Theological Development
The Church that came into existence in the First Century was, in the beginning, a small undeveloped work. Her theology was small as was her influence. As it met challenges within she overcame them through debate and council. For the first 275 years she would be a constant underdog enduring at every turn persecution. At the turn of the Fourth Century the Church of Jesus Christ came under what has been called “The Great Persecution” incited by Emperor Diocletian. That persecution lasted for ten years beginning in 303 AD and ending in 313 AD. Constantine and his brother-in-law Licinius both ended the persecution at different times in the Eastern (Licinius) and Western (Constantine) Roman Empire. Constantine would defeat Licinius at the Battle of Adrianople in 324 AD. It was before that battle where Constantine had his famous vision of the cross of Christ in the sky and where claimed to have heard a voice say to him, “In this conquer.” His men painted the cross on their shields. After this time Constantine was always favorable to the Christian Faith, himself being baptized on his deathbed by Eusibius of Nicomedia.
Why would we find the need to recount this historical narrative? Because it is at this point that Christianity faced a new theological challenge. For all the long years between Christ’s ascension and Constantine’s conversion the Church was at odds with the State. Christians had tried to be the best citizens that they could be, paying “taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” (Romans 13:7b) But they would not worship the Roman gods. They would not bow to the Caesars as gods. For this reason the Romans hated them, considered them atheists, and tried to eliminate them. Christians for their part did not resist persecution, again following Paul’s injunction to,
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
The rule for Christians had been non-violent resistance to the Romans authorities. They could not obey their commands to worship false gods and thereby commit idolatry but they would not use violence to resist them either. In other words for 275 years they had been engaged in a program of non-violence. But when Constantine is converted to faith in Christ and the empire becomes Christian for the first time the Church has to step back and ask, “Can a Christian engage in war?” After all Constantine was in charge of the Roman armies. As Christianity became more and more dominant senators and generals began to convert to Christ as well. If a program of non-violence is instituted at the level of the State then the Empire would be overrun by the barbarians who had a mixed relationship with Rome. So the church had to press into this question of warfare. How did they answer it?