The earliest Christians knew how to respond to a violent world - but we've lost our way

There was one moment of tragic beauty in the Christchurch mosque shooting, that hit a lot of us hard.

This man died with words of peace on his lips

This man died with words of peace on his lips

As the terrorist live-streamed his deadly ambush on Facebook, 71 year old Haji-Daoud Nabi - an Afghan refugee - stood at the door of the mosque and offered his final words to a man with murder in his eyes:

“Hello Brother. Welcome!”

Nabi died in the moments following those words.

I doubt I would have the courage to speak words of love in the face of a killer.

But I know who did - the very first followers of Jesus…

The earliest Christians, those who sat at Jesus’ feet, listened to His radical teachings, and then passed on His message directly to the early church, had a CRAZY stance in a world filled with violence. One that resonates much more closely with this elderly refugee’s welcome, than our modern day notions of violence and blood-lust.

From the earliest writings of Christians we know how they responded to a world where violence was the norm. Consider these radical words of Theophilus, the Bishop of Antioch (in modern day Turkey) who died around 185AD:

“Say to those that hate and curse you, You are our brothers!

This saying is pregnant with the enemy-love of Jesus towards those who seek to harm us (Mt 5:44).

It’s worth considering now, in this moment where our hearts are tender - if Jesus was the Prince of Peace, the One who called us to lay down our weapons and love our enemies - why are we Christians no longer a strong voice for peace and non-violence in the world?


In this post, I’d like to suggest to you that the early church was very clear on the way of peace. It is our modern day churches and Christians who have lost the way.

But perhaps in the midst of this awful tragedy we can rediscover the Spirit of Jesus the peacemaker all over again…

On loving our enemies - even a terrorist

We’re gonna call it the Dida-what?

We’re gonna call it the Dida-what?

The Didache, also known as The Teachings of the 12 Apostles, is a very early Christian document written around 85AD. The words don’t sound too different from what Jesus himself taught:

Bless those who curse you, pray for your enemies, and fast on behalf of those who persecute you… But love ye those who hate you, and ye shall not have an enemy.”

A few years later, one of the foremost defenders of the faith, Justin the Martyr, said this:

“We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.”

Aristides, in explaining the non-violent actions of Christians to the Emperor wrote these words around 137 AD:

“It has become their passion to do good to their enemies…. This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.”

Tertullian (160–220AD), the founder of Western theology, taught that Christians refused to harm others:

“The Christian
does not hurt even his enemy.

Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage who died in 258, shows that these teachings continued well into the second century after Christ:

“None of us offers resistance when he is seized, or avenges himself for your unjust violence, although our people are numerous and plentiful…it is not lawful for us to hate, and so we please God more when we render no requital for injury…
we repay your hatred with kindness.”

In the light of this radical enemy-love, could we dare to pray for the man who carried out this act of terrorism? Could we dare to imagine that even he, could be transformed by the love of Christ?

Could we also pray for our Muslim brothers and sisters? Traditionally there has been too much animosity towards them from Christians. Even in the aftermath of this tragedy there has been a rush to proclaim that Christians killed in Nigeria are being ignored - as if grief is a competition between religious groups (and as if these folks have ever been too worried about Christians being killed in Nigeria before now).

On abolishing the death penalty - even for murderers

As we consider our legal response to acts of terrorism and violence, are we willing to consider whether returning violence with violence is consistent with the teachings of Jesus? As Jesus said, “you USED to say an eye for an eye… but I say to you, love your enemies.” (Mt 5:38-44). Certainly the early church did not allow the death penalty, because they did not allow any killing:

“We Christians cannot endure to see a man being put to death, even justly.

~ Athenagoras (133AD – 190AD)

“Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings.”

~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

Shane Claiborne - known for wearing weird clothes and writing weird books - a holy trouble-maker for Christ

Shane Claiborne - known for wearing weird clothes and writing weird books - a holy trouble-maker for Christ

“It is absolutely forbidden to repay evil with evil.”

~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

“It is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.”

~ Lactantius, instructor of Constantine’s son (240AD – 320AD)

There is a remarkable consistency in the teaching of our early church leaders - that killing is wrong and that Christians should never support such an act, even when acceptable under the law.

This is a stance that Shane Claiborne has been promoting with his excellent book, Executing Grace. He shows how the modern death penalty has succeeded in America not in spite of Christians, but BECAUSE of Christians. He looks at history because it is impossible to separate the contemporary practice of the death penalty from the historic terror of lynching.

On leaving the military - and laying down our weapons

It’s almost impossible for us to imagine today that early Christians took a strong stance against joining the military. And yet, these early writing demonstrate clearly that this was the case. Though you may not agree, you at least have to consider that this was the clear belief of the first followers of Jesus:

“Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?”

~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

“We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”

~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

Murder, considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.”

~ St. Cyprian (200AD – 258AD)

“Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.”

~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

I refuse offices connected with military command.”

~ Tatian of Assyria (died around 185AD)

“I am a soldier of Christ; it is not permissible for me to fight.”

~ Martin of Tours (315AD – 397AD)

“For we no longer take ‘sword against a nation,’ nor do we learn ‘any more to make war,’ having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus”

~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)

You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.”

~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)

“Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.”

~ Hippolytus (170AD – 236AD)

“Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”

~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

“First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts.”

~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

“But if they wish to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service or from the [post of] authority, and if not let them not be received.”

~ The Testament of Our Lord (4th or 5th Century AD)

“I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors…It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.”

~ Mercellus the Centurion, spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD.

Who would Jesus shoot? Ummmm… no-one?

Who would Jesus shoot? Ummmm… no-one?

For me to make these statements today would be seen as overly political, radical, subversive and naive. And yet these were the leading theologians, bishops and leaders of the early church. So why should we dismiss them so easily? They are simply expounding on the radical teaching of Jesus to love our enemies - a posture that is incompatible with killing them.

On rejecting patriotism - and pledging allegience only to God

So much of our justification for killing and war flows out of our allegience to a nation, instead of the Kingdom of God. We are willing to hold one rule for our nation state and one for ourselves. But in Christ there can be no such inconsistency. The first Christians spoke out clearly against this as well:

Shall we carry a flag? It is a rival to Christ.

~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

“If you enroll as one of God’s people, then
heaven is your country and God your lawgiver.”

~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

I recognize no empire of this present age.”

~ Speratus (martyred 180AD)

These things do not go together

These things do not go together

“I am a Christian. He who answers thus has declared everything at once—his country, profession, family; the believer belongs to no city on earth but to the heavenly Jerusalem.”

~ St. John Chrysostom (347AD – 407AD)

“God called Abraham and commanded him to go out from the country where he was living. With this call God has roused us all, and
now we have left the state. We have renounced all the things the world offers…. The gods of the nations are demons.”

~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

I recognize these teachings go against EVERYTHING we are brought up to believe. But we must give those closest to Jesus’ teachings room to speak and then examine our commitments and allegiences in the light of the teaching of Jesus and the early church.

Jesus wept over the people of Jerusalem, “If you only knew today what is needed for peace! But for now it is hidden from your sight.” (Lk 19:42)

I believe he weeps today.

As Christians we have turned away from the way of peace (shalom). We have turned from the teachings of Jesus on enemy-love and peace-making. And we have embraced the ways of the world.

That is why we no longer have anything of importance to say in a world filled with violence and terrorism. We are no different from our neighbours. And sadly often, we are worse!

I acknowledge the violence in my own heart.

And I invite you to do the same.

Come Jesus come. Change our hearts we pray.

Craig Greenfield