America has engaged in constant undeclared war 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 Taiwan. It seems fitting for Christians to re-examine the Christian doctrine known as “Just War.”
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 the Church met challenges, she overcame them through debate and council. For the first 275 years, she would be a constant underdog enduring persecution at every turn. In the Fourth Century, the Church of Jesus Christ came under what is 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 ended the persecution in the Eastern (Licinius) and Western (Constantine) Roman Empires. Constantine would defeat Licinius at the Battle of Adrianople in 324 AD. Before that battle, Constantine had his famous vision of a cross in the sky. He claimed to have heard a voice say to him, “In this conquer.” His men painted the cross on their shields. After this, Constantine was invariably favorable to the Christian Faith, himself being baptized on his deathbed by Eusebius of Nicomedia.
Why would we find the need to recount this historical narrative? Because it was 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 Roman authorities. They could not obey their commands to worship false gods and thereby commit idolatry, but they would not use violence to resist them. In other words, for 275 years, they had been engaged in a program of non-violence. However, when Constantine is converted to Christ, the Empire came under the control of a Christian. For the first time in history, Christianity conquers a nation. Christian leaders now must 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. The state cannot institute a program of non-violence. The barbarians would immediately overrun the Empire. The church, therefore, has to press into the question of Christianity and warfare. How did they answer it?