Jesus knew that people of faith would run into governments and societies that would not appreciate them. He said, “Pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Follow this link to read all of Matthew 5.
“If we believe in the final victory of God over evil forces, then we should be willing to wait for it. We do not have to try to hurry up God’s victory by causing suffering to our present enemies, or by killing them.”
–Lois Barrett, Mennonite theologian, in The Way God Fights,
Herald Press, 1987
Early Anabaptists in the 16th century were frequently persecuted for their beliefs. They often asked to dialogue or debate on issues of faith, but they were usually denied. They advocated a freedom of religion, the right for each person to choose on his or her own, that seemed unheard of at the time. They frequently went to their deaths literally praying for those who were torturing and killing them.
Some of the worst wars that have been fought through the ages have been religious wars, and those fought in the name of Jesus. How can this be?
For the first 300 years after Jesus, though the early Christians were subject to martyrdom and suffering at the hands of the government, they remained nonviolent. Most followers of Jesus did not serve in the armies. The following are some of the key teachings of early Christians, according to Jean-Michel Hornus (It Is Not Lawful For Me To Fight, Herald Press, 1980):
- They understood that God was their protector, rather than the state.
- The military was not considered an acceptable vocation by the early Christians.
- They opposed, as idolatrous, the path of loyalty to the emperor-god which soldiers were required to take.
- They were against murder of any kind whether it was in gladiator games, homicide, war, capital punishment or abortion.
- Anyone who was a Christian or was in the process of being baptized was forbidden to join the army.
In 313 A.D the Roman emperor Constantine championed Christianity. (Pagan religions were still tolerated, too.) Walter Wink says of this reversal, “… the church that had stood up nonviolently to the brutal repression of the Roman Empire found itself strangely victorious … The price the church paid, however, was embracing violence as a means of preserving empire. But the removal of nonviolence from the gospel blasted the keystone from the arch, and Christianity collapsed into a religion of personal salvation and an afterlife jealously guarded by a wrathful and terrifying God–the whole system carefully managed by an elite corps of priests with direct backing from secular rulers now regarded as the elect agents of God’s working in history” (Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, p. 217).
While Constantine’s “conversion” meant the end of early persecution of Christians, it also resulted in less separation between church and state. Believers began to participate in armies. Leaders began to endorse participation in war. Constantine presided over church councils, and used force to suppress those deemed heretics. Instead of being persecuted the church began to persecute.
Teachings regarding nonparticipation in armies and war were some of the early Christian beliefs recovered by the Anabaptists, beginning in about 1525 and the years following.