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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Tertullian on Military Service & Weapons

Tertullian (160-225 AD) is an early Christian church father from Carthage. He wrote many great works that were embraced by the Church. He is most known for being the first Christian to create a plethora of Christian writings in Latin and was given the title Father of Latin Christianity as a result. He is also well known for his apologies, writings against heresies, and his teachings on the trinity. As a result of all this he was given the title Founder of Western Theology. Though he was first rejected as a heretic the church later admitted his teachings to be orthodox.

In his writing entitled On Idolatry, Tertullian spends time discussing what type of clothing is appropriate for Christians. He teaches that certain adornments (or uniforms) that are connected to the state authorities are not appropriate for Christians because of their connection with idolatry. From this discussion he moves into the subject of military service. 

"But now inquiry is made about this point, whether a believer may turn himself unto military service, and whether the military may be admitted unto the faith, even the rank and file, or each inferior grade, to whom there is no necessity for taking part in sacrifices or capital punishments. There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters--God and Caesar. And yet Moses carried a rod, and Aaron wore a buckle, and John (Baptist) is girt with leather and Joshua the son of Nun leads a line of march; and the People warred: if it pleases you to sport with the subject. But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For albeit soldiers had come unto John, and had received the formula of their rule; albeit, likewise, a centurion had believed; still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier. No dress is lawful among us, if assigned to any unlawful action."

What is most interesting about this quote is not the disapproval of military service for Christians, for this was a position shared by several influential early church leaders, but the reasoning for such a position. It is often taught that these leaders did not approve of military service for only two reasons. The first is it's connection to idolatry (sacrifices). The second is the demand for murderous action (capital punishments). However, Tertullian mentions that military service is forbidden for Christians even if they are serving in the military in such a way as to be disconnected from the idolatrous practices and the commands for killing. Tertullian does not allow these two factors to be his sole foundation for the teaching that military service is off limits to Christ followers.

Instead, the Founder of Western Theology states that there is more reason to abstain from military service. His central point in this exert is that a person must serve God and not Caesar. A result of this siding with God over Caesar is that a Christian can not pick up the sword for Caesar and thus military service is not appropriate. More interesting is that he assumes the arguments against his case and points them out. 

Tertullian points out the argument that Moses carried a rod, Aaron wore a buckle, John the Baptizer wore leather, Joshua led a military command, and Israel went to war several times. In other words, there is violence and military action by God's people throughout the Old Testament. Tertullian admits this is true and says it's a line of argument if one really wants it to be but then he goes on to make little of it by stating that a Christian can not war or serve in military, even for the sake of peace, because Christians are not allowed weapons according to Christ. This is the third reasoning for Tertullian; Christians can't use weapons. 

At this point in his argument Tertullian has not yet made clear how the Lord has taken away weapons from the Christians. He shall revisit this with detailed support momentarily. 

Having entertained the argument that God's people have taken up arms before, Tertullian then enters the second argument that is often given in such a discussion. He points out the argument that John and Jesus both encountered military personnel and did not command them to step down from their office. To conquer this argument he states, while this is a true historic fact, another true historic fact is that Christ disarmed Peter after those encounters and in so doing he disarmed all believers. One could say that this argument could be teaching that it wasn't yet time for such disarming commands when all of these above mentioned things occurred in scripture. This is why violence existed in the Old Testament; the time had not yet come for God's followers to be fully disarmed outright.

While Tertullian is not necessarily arguing what I've presented above, that there was an appointed time for God's people to lay down arms, he has unmistakably argued that the rebuke of Peter came about after the interactions with the military personnel and thus there is more merit in this rebuke than in the lack thereof in the previous interactions and Christians would be wise to follow under this rebuke. 

Though there are many arguments in this discussion as to why the lack of such a command to step down from military office exists, Tertullian simply rests upon the fact that Jesus' words to Peter are to be held higher than the instances in scripture which show a different attitude or strategy, for they came after the other interactions. Perhaps, within this reasoning  exists the notion that Jesus is speaking to one of his followers and not a Gentile or someone who was not a serious disciple of Christ. If this is the case then Tertullian's argument gains weight.

Regardless, Tertullian is arguing , it would seem, that the later the teaching from God, the more relevant it is to the believer. This line of argument would say that if something is commanded in the Old Testament but is taught differently by Jesus then one must side with Jesus since he is the most recent revelation of God. Perhaps Tertullian is working in this vein and if this is true then it is also possible he is attempting to argue that if Jesus seems to have made room for a certain action at one point in his ministry and then taken away the room for that action later in his ministry, due to a late teaching, then one must side with the result of the later teaching.

In the mentioning of Peter being rebuked by Jesus, Tertullian has given evidence to when the Lord took the weapons away from his people. Weapons were removed from God's people in the very rebuke of Peter upon the arrest of Jesus. Tertullian writes, ". . .still the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier." Clearly, Tertullian believes that this is a command not only aimed at Peter but at all believers.  This is not a time or situation locked rebuke in the eyes of Tertullian but an instruction to be lived out from this moment forward by Peter and all who seek to follow the Christ who allows himself to be taken to the cross.

Even though the Father of Latin Christianity does not refer to any other scripture in this argument for his position it is difficult to see his argument clearly and not simultaneously connect it to the scriptures John 18:36 and  2 Corinthians 10:3-4. 

In John 18:36 it is written, "Jesus answered, 'My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.'” This scripture seems like a strong connection solely because it, like the passage out of the Gospels being referenced by Tertullian, is also within the context of Jesus needing to be arrested. Jesus' rebuke of Peter is largely existent because Peter was stopping Jesus from drinking the cup that had been given him by the Father.

Both of these passages can be viewed in the light that shows the purpose in the original context as well as the purpose for future context. Both can be read as true in there initial and limited context and meaning as well as in their ongoing and permanent context and meaning. In other words, what was true for Peter in that moment is also true for all believers for the rest of time. All this is grounded in the power of Christ's revelation.This is not an uncommon practice to see Old Testament scriptures used in a new light, taken from their original context and applied to an ongoing context, by the New Testament authors. It makes sense then that other early church leaders would point to teachings of Jesus and his Apostles and do the same. It seems that Tertullian may be employing this very practice.

The passage in John is worthwhile, as shall be mentioned later, but it is more plausible that Tertullian is referencing the account given in Luke's Gospel which shows Jesus boldly rebuking Peter without mention of the cup out of which he must drink. Luke 22:49-51 states, "And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, 'Lord, shall we strike with the sword?' And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, 'No more of this!' And he touched his ear and healed him." This is a high possibility since Tertullian says the Lord disarmed Peter and this passage reveals Jesus vehemently stating "No more of this!" 

For Tertullian, it seems, this statement is not a command that is only momentarily relevant or applicable to Peter alone but rather a cosmic declaration for all believers. This church father is making the case that such a rebuke is for any person who would seek to arm themselves with a weapon in order to come against another person. It may be that Tertullian also had the account found in Matthew in his mind when writing these words since it records the same happening.

Matthew 26:51-53 states, "And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear.Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?" This account also contains within it a rebuke in the form of a teaching. Jesus tells Peter to put his sword back in it's sheath because everyone who takes up the sword will perish by it. This sounds close to what Tertullian is communicating. 

The notion that Jesus' statement "No more of this" is a cosmic command gains legitimacy with this account from Matthew for this account contains within it a teaching that is specifically against the use of weapons. It can be debated whether Jesus is delivering a mere proverb (words of wisdom) or an actual reasoning for a cosmic command but both are plausible. This helps Tertullian's position a great, deal for now Jesus is seen to rebuke Peter's violent action by healing the enemy, saying "no more of this!", and teaching that those who take up the sword shall perish by it. By adding this final teaching, which is aimed at all humanity and not Peter and his situation alone, the Gospel's provide fertile ground for a position such as Tertullian's.

The final words of this passage are intriguing for in them Jesus mentions his lack of need for earthly weapons due to the fact that he has at his disposal a heavenly legion of angels. If it is true that Jesus has no need for earthly weapons then perhaps it is true that his followers have no true need for earthly weapons. It is possible that this is a part of Tertullian's thinking as well even though he never makes it a part of his short argument.

Tertullian makes the case that the kingdom of Caesar and the Kingdom of Christ are in opposition. In the Gospel accounts of Jesus' arrest it can be seen that the Roman soldiers who have come for Jesus came with earthly weapons in hand, to which Jesus rebukes them as well since the weapons are unnecessary.

It may be that Tertullian is trying to create a contrast in his argument that is seen in the gospel narrative but never given an explanation. In the narratives, Jesus rebukes weapons and heals while Caesar's men bring weapons. The contrast is present though not pointed out. The way of Jesus seems to be one that is weapon free while the way of Caesar seems to be to carry weapons even if they are not needed. Tertullian seems to be using this unspoken contrast in his argument. This leads to the conclusion that the entire episode of Jesus' arrest is vital to Tertullian's line of thinking, as opposed to Jesus' short rebukes alone being important to Tertullian's reasoning.

Along with this line of thinking which comes out of the gGospel witness is a statement made by Paul. 2 Corinthians 10:3-4 states, "For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds" 

Just as Jesus mentions his lack of need for earthly weapons due to his legion of angels, ready to fight for his cause, so now Paul makes a similar contrast by teaching that the war being fought by Christians is not a fleshly one. Since the war is not fleshly the weapons are also not fleshly but rather they are divine. The parallelism is nigh impossible to miss, which is why it seems possible that Tertullian had this type of teaching in mind when penning his words.

It would make sense for Tertullian to say that Jesus disarmed Peter, in part, because Peter's mind was unable to grasp what the real war looked like and thus found himself using the wrong weapons in his ignorance. Jesus had previously commanded him to pray in the garden so that he would not be seduced by temptation later. Paul goes on to mention prayer as a spiritual weapon. It's not at all far fetched to think that Peter should have been waging war in the garden with prayer as opposed to against the soldiers with his blade. Tertullian never gives this explanation for his position but it seems highly likely that, had he desired to give a more in depth teaching on the matter of disarmament, he would have included this sort of thought-train since it matches his contrasts.

These scripture (Matthew 26:53 and 2 Corinthians 10:3-4) match up well with John 18:36 which was mentioned earlier. John records Jesus claiming, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world." While this speaks volumes to the fact that Jesus needed to be arrested it also speaks volumes to the fact that there is a deep contrast between the ways of the world and the ways of Christ's kingdom and the way that both engage in battle. This theme of contrast in regards to war, weapons, and kingdoms is hard to overlook when one takes a strong look at Tertullian's argument and the thread in the Gospels which contain the rebuke he references for his argument.

In conclusion, for Tertullian, it seems that military office is not off limits solely because of idolatry and murderous action but because it is an organization that supports armed service and Christ has commanded his people to fall into a disarmed service of love. The two are therefore in opposition to one another for one is fighting a fleshly war with fleshly weapons and one recognizes that such a war and such means are misguided. This makes sense as to why Tertullian uses such strong contrasts in his writing between Caesar's kingdom and Christ's kingdom; the two are truly opposites. 

To even be involved in an organization such as the military is not acceptable for that ties a person to Caesar's kingdom and Caesar's ways instead of Christ's kingdom and ways. In the eyes of the founder of Western Theology, either one is supporting Christ's kingdom or one is supporting Caesar's kingdom in their decision to align or abstain from aligning themselves with armed state organizations such as the military. 


  1. I hope I did not offend you by re-posting your article in my manner. I try to use humour and oftentimes I'm misinterpreted. I sincerely do find your posts to be enlightening.

    P.S.- I'll have the pint of blood for you in an hour! ;)

  2. I apologize for taking so long to reply, but I didn't want to do so until after I had time to find this passage:

    Luke 22:36

    New International Version (NIV)

    36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.

    If you understand how important a cloak was in this society, you understand how strong the imperative to buy a sword here is. And there is but one reason to buy a sword: defense of one's life. So, again, with respect to all involved, I have to disagree with the notion that Christ ever spoke against self-defense: He did not. Others may know better than I, but I am not aware of a single example of Christ telling us we do not have a right to defend our lives, yet here, He clearly suggests we do - so much so that He tells His disciples to go buy weapons, even at the expense of their cloaks.

    I think, if a nation is dedicated to the Lord, then its soldiers are not in contradiction to any teaching of Christ or the Old Testament. To me, this seems to be the model presented in the OT, and paralleled by the founders of this nation and their reliance on citizen soldiers (militia). So I do not see the imperative against any and all soldiers. It simply isn't there.

    At the same time, I do agree with the belief that, once the soldier's service goes from that of a nation dedicated to God to that of a nation or ruler unto itself or himself, then yes, it would seem to me soldiering does contradict what we are taught by God's word.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I think we'd be hard pressed to find Jesus speaking about the right to self defense because he didn't use that kind of language. That's a more recent western way of talking about life. He spoke more about gifts than rights. A lot of early church fathers would probably react to this idea that violent self-defense is permissible by pointing to the sermon on the mount and say they can't strike others back but must endure all sufferings with patience and kindness (Origen, Lactantius, Tertullian, Justin are all good resources for this). Here are some links to quotes like those: (1) (2)

      I plan to add another blog like these that is strictly concerned with war itself.

      I don't think we can call the command to buy swords an endorsement for self-defense. That requires a lot of reading into the text. Better we observe how swords are talked about in scripture, how Jesus taught, what else happened in this sequence of Jesus' arrest, etc. than to ask what WE do with swords. I wrote an exploration piece on this matter once (which probably needs to be rewritten in all honesty since I slightly altered my view on the matter. However, you can see that correction in the comment section by looking at my interactions with "sirnickdon"). You can find it here:

      There are large differences between the Theocratic Israel nation in the Old Testament and the United States of today. One was the chosen people of God. One isn't. One exists before Christ and one doesn't. The Untied States doesn't get to operate on earth the way ancient Israel did. Simply because a nation calls itself "dedicated to the Lord" (which you'd be hardpressed to get a clear and sincere declaration of that from the nation nowadays) doesn't mean God uses that nation in a way he used Israel. Scripture would suggest God uses his church now in a similar way as he once used Israel (a blessing to bless all families), and even in that there are still a myriad of differences between how the two function on earth because of the change in covenants. And we must remember that even Israel's soldiers were not always honored or doing the will of God in their endeavors, and they even paid penalties for the blood on their hands. Fighting in the name of God isn't the sort of fighting we see God supporting in scripture. Rather, we see God fighting for others more commonly. A great book on Old Testament warfare is Mitchell Lind's "Yahweh is A Warrior." I highly suggest it.

  3. Thanks for the spotlight on Tertullian.

    Every time I come across people pushing forward the pacifist view, I have to wonder why they don't provide any moral basis for their position. At best, it seems to be "we love peace because God loves peace" or "because God commanded it", with precious little thought going to those hundreds of thousands whom God poured out violence upon and sent to early deaths. Some died by flood; some by fire; some by earth; some by the sword of His agents.

    And some died simply because they had the temerity to attack and kidnap righteous people. I'm speaking of Lot. His attackers were hunted down and killed by Uncle Abraham (Gen 14). Abe was praised by God for his military defeat of the 4 kings of the east (Cf Ps 110 and Heb 9). Abe was not operating under the Mosaic Law or the theocratic kingdom of God. He lived 430+years prior to Moses.

    If the underlying morality behind such violence in the OT changed, and if morality flows from the character of an unchanging God (which is what I believe), can someone please explain *why* it is now moral to not defend oneself or those that God has entrusted to our care? What is the moral *basis* of this claim, and why did that moral *basis* not exist in the OT?

    (I wasn't born in the USA. How the USA behaves in wartime is another matter entirely, and not relevant to the basic question of self-defense and just war.)


    1. I completely agree with you. That's an excellent and vital question for Christian peacemakers who take their stance seriously. I think it's a discussion so let's discuss it! Shoot me an e-mail at with your name (or an alias) and copy/paste this comment. I'd be happy to give you some thoughts.