That Time Wright Was Wrong: On Christians in the Military

Anyone who knows my theological steeze knows that I dig me some N. T. Wrizzle. I’ve lost track of how many books I’ve read by him—both his tomes and his popular-level work. And when he was in town (at Harvard), I got the perfunctory theogeek/fanboy selfie with the Bishop himself:


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So, naturally, on 99% of theological issues, I’m going to see eye-to-eye with Dr. Wright. But, it’s important to realize that even the theologians you admire most aren’t perfect. Everyone has their blind spots—even the Bishop!

Yesterday, my friend Erik (“Merks!”), hipped me to a Q&A response from Dr. Wright on “civil disobedience” and “Christians in the military.” Given that Dr. Wright is unabashedly Anglican, his responses shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to anyone. Nevertheless, I find them too far flung to give him a pass on “tradition” alone.

Therefore, here, I will make three points in rebuttal to his second answer. But first, Dr. Wright’s answer to the question, “What would Paul say to a Christian serving in the military?”

look at this site Dr. N. T. Wright:

“This is a good question because the issues are I think finely balanced. First, let’s be clear that for the Jew and for the early Christian it is part of creational monotheism that the One God wants and intends that there should be human authorities. This is part of God’s making humans in his own image. He wants to run the world through human beings. Ultimately, anarchy is an unmaking of Genesis 1 and 2 – letting the monsters run the garden. (Hence Daniel 7 where the human figure is finally exalted over the monsters . . . but that’s another story.) However, granted universal sin, those to whom authority is given routinely abuse it and try to become tyrants. The answer to that is not anarchy, but fresh reassertion of order, holding rulers to account. (The failure of western democracies to do this is a major flaw in our present systems.) This is again straight Romans 13: God wants there to be human authorities, but they are answerable to him.

I assume that if there are authorities they sometimes have to use force to keep the peace, to protect the vulnerable from the bullies, to see that justice is done, etc etc. Of course this can be, and regularly was and is, abused in all sorts of ways. However, some kind of military force seems to me necessary precisely to back up the appropriate rule of law (which is there, to say it again, to protect the weak and the vulnerable – see Psalm 72!). It is therefore appropriate in principle for a Christian to serve in such a force, basically an extension of police work. HOWEVER, in the ancient world this caused all kinds of problems because Roman armies were routinely and substantially shaped by pagan belief and practice: worshipping their standards, offering sacrifices, inspecting auspices and so on, all things which a Christian couldn’t do (and if you didn’t do them you’d be suspected of subversive plotting or whatever)…. never mind the actions which the military would be required to undertake as part of the normal Roman style!

I don’t know enough about the second and third century to know at what point this became a major issue but it must have done quite soon. I think Paul would say to a soldier newly converted what he says to slaves in 1 Corinthians 7: OK, that’s where you are right now, but if you get a chance to get out, take it. Paul knew very well – this is what 1 Corinthians 8-10 is all about – that there are many ambiguities in Christian living within a pagan world and it’s best not to draw the lines too sharply at certain points, but to work at educating consciences, and not to judge one another while that’s going on.” [ Tadalafil Oral Strips Buy 20 MG No Prescription 1]

1. The Early Church and Violence

In this brief response, Wright certainly doesn’t have space to rehearse a lengthy history of the early church’s engagement with violence and its relationship to the Roman military. That much is granted. Still, I find it entirely unacceptible to therefore summarize with:

“…Roman armies were routinely and substantially shaped by pagan belief and practice: worshipping their standards, offering sacrifices, inspecting auspices and so on, all things which a Christian couldn’t do (and if you didn’t do them you’d be suspected of subversive plotting or whatever)…. never mind the actions which the military would be required to undertake as part of the normal Roman style! I don’t know enough about the second and third century to know at what point this became a major issue but it must have done quite soon.”

The early church (pre-Constantine) most certainly did reject military service, but they did not do so exclusively on the grounds of Roman idolatry. Tertullian (c.160–225), who had the most to say about the incompatibility of the Roman military’s paganism with following Christ, also rejected military service on the grounds that followers of the Prince of Peace no longer practice war, and do not participate in “capital punishments.” He had as much to say about the violence of military service as its idolatry (as if the two did not share a symbiotic relationship).

“But now the question is whether a believer can become a soldier and whether a soldier can be admitted into the faith, even if he is a member only of the rank and file who are not required to take part in sacrifices or capital punishments. There can be no compatibility between the divine and the human sacrament (= military oath), the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters—God and Caesar.”

“Moses, to be sure, carried a rod; Aaron wore a military belt, and John (the Baptist) is girt with leather (i.e., like a soldier); and, if you really want to play around with the subject, Joshua the son of Nun led an army and the people waged war. But how will a Christian man go to war? Indeed how will he serve even in peacetime without a sword which the Lord has taken away? For even if soldiers came to John and received advice on how to act, and even if a centurion became a believer, the Lord, in subsequently disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier. No uniform is lawful among us if it is designated for an unlawful action.” [2]

Origen (c.185—251) too rejects military service on the grounds that a Christian’s role is pure and priestly, fighting in a spiritual battle against the demons that stir up war, which is ultimately of greater service to nations than those who physically fight!

“How much more so, that while others are engaged in battle, these tooshould engage as the priests and the ministers of God, keeping their hands pure,and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting… And as we by our prayers vanquish all demons who stir up war, and lead us to the violationof oaths, and disturb the peace, we in this way are much more helpful to the kingsthan those who go into the field to fight for them.” [3]

Tertullian and Origen are two prominent voices from the pre-Constantinian Church. But what amplifies their voices even more is the deafening silence of any record of Christian soldiers from the time of the Cornelius, the centurian in Acts 10, and Marcus Aurelius (c.170), until Constantine’s reign in the Fourth century. Their voices echo loudly when you think of how rapidly and powerfully Christianity spread during this period, and yet…

…military service was expressly forbidden!

Saint Maximillian-760374

Maybe the Bishop should revisit the testimony of early church martyr, St. Maximilian (295 AD).

In the consulate of Tuscus and Anulinus, on March 12, at Theveste in Numidia, Fabius Victor was brought before the court, together with Maximilian. The public prosecutor, Pompeian, opened the case, and said, ‘Fabius Victor is here with Caesar’s commissary, Valerian Quintian. I demand that Maximilian, son of Victor, a conscript suitable for service, be measured.’ The proconsul Dion asked the young man his name, and he answered, ‘What is the good of replying? I cannot enlist, for I am a Christian’; and added when the proconsul told the usher to take his height, ‘I cannot serve, I cannot do evil. I am a Christian.’ The proconsul repeated his order, and the usher reported that Maximilian measured five feet teninches. Then the proconsul said he was to be given the military badge, but Maximilian persisted, ‘Never! I cannot be a soldier.’

DION: You must serve or die.

MAXIMILIAN: I will never serve. You can cut off my head, but I will not be a soldier of this world, for I am a soldier of Christ.

DION: What has put these ideas into your head?

MAXIMILIAN: My conscience and He who has called me.

DION (to Fabius Victor): Put your son right.

VICTOR: He knows what he believes, and he will not change.

DION (to Maximilian): Be a soldier and accept the emperor’s badge.

MAXIMILIAN: Not at all. I carry the mark of Christ my God already.

DION: I shall send you to your Christ at once.

MAXIMILIAN: I ask nothing better. Do it quickly, for there is my glory.

DION (to the recruiting-officer): Give him his badge.

MAXIMILIAN: I will not take the badge. If you insist, I will deface it. I am a Christian, and I am not allowed to wear that leaden seal around my neck. For I already carry the sacred sign of the Christ, the Son of the living God, whom you know not, the Christ who suffered for our salvation, whom God gave to die for our sins. It is He whom all we Christians serve, it is He whom we follow, for He is the Lord of life, the Author of our salvation.

DION: Join the service and accept the sear, or else you will perish miserably.

MAXIMILIAN: I shall not perish: my name is even now before God. I refuse to serve.

DION: You are a young man and the profession of arms befits your years. Be a soldier.

MAXIMILIAN: My army is the army of God, and I cannot fight for this world. I tell you, I am a Christian.

DION: There are Christian soldiers serving our rulers Diocletian and Maximian, Constantius and Galerius.

MAXIMILIAN: That is their business. I also am a Christian, and I cannot serve.

DION: But what harm do soldiers do?

MAXIMILIAN: You know well enough.

DION: If you will not do your service I shall condemn you to death for contempt of the army.

MAXIMILIAN: I shall not die. If I go from this earth my soul will live with Christ my lord.

DION: Write his name down….Your impiety makes you refuse military service, and you shall be punished accordingly as a warning to others.

He then read the sentence: ‘Maximilian has refused the military oath through impiety. He is to be beheaded.’

MAXIMILIAN: God liveth!

Maximilian’s age was twenty-one years, three months and eighteen days. On his way to death he said to the assembled Christians, ‘Beloved brethren, make haste to attain the vision of God and to deserve a crown like mine with all your strength and with the deepest longing.’ He was radiant; and, turning to his father, he said, ‘That cloak you got ready for when I was a soldier, give it to the lictor. The fruits of this good work will be multiplied an hundredfold. May I welcome you in Heaven and glorify God with you!’

Almost at once his head was cut off.

A matron named Pompeiana obtained Maximilian’s body and had it carried in her litter to Carthage, where she buried it close to the holy Cyprian, not far from the palace. Victor went home joyfully, thanking God for having allowed him to send such a gift to Heaven, whither he was not long in following his son. Amen. [4]

2. Romans 13 Cannot be Divorced from Romans 12

The Bishop is certainly correct that God desires the world to have order, and rulers to rule justly, and the church to hold rulers to account. However, making a case for this on the grounds of Romans 13 without addressing the dependancy of that passage on the flow of Paul’s thought from Romans 12 is nearly inexcusable.

In Romans 12, Paul is empathic that Christians are not to be those who wield the sword of the rulers’ justice.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. [5]

It’s difficult to ignore how directly Paul cites Jesus’s teaching from the Sermon on the Mount in this passage—and this is the passage which directly precedes chapter 13. Dr. Wright knows as well or better than anyone that the flow of Paul’s thought does not begin in chapter 13, but begins in chapter 12.

Romans 13 without Romans 12 creates Constantinianism, not Christian discipleship!

3. Jesus’s Church Breathes Kingdom Air

Yes the Creator God wants creation to have order. That much is clear, and on that much the Bishop and I are in full agreement! But the New Testament teaches that the community formed by Christ and the Spirit is an alternative polis to the present “order” of the world. While God certainly does desire his world to have order, he has created a special microcosm of the order that will one day characterize the whole world. That special order is the body of Christ, the Church.

In this order, God’s people will ”train for war no more”!

(Isaiah 2.4)

In this order, Jesus-disciples breath the Kingdom air of the eschaton, the already Shalom of the not-yet consummation!

(Romans 8)

In this order, justice looks like a Jewish preacher of righteousness dying on the Cross, not a military general waging war!

(Revelation 5)

In this order, triumph is achieved through weapons of mass reconciliation, not weapons of mass destruction!

(Colosians 2.13-15)

In this order, tanks are transformed into tractors! 

(Micah 4.3)

 [PS — For more on this subject, feel free to read an academic paper I wrote on the subject of violence, military service, and pacifism in the early church on Academia.edu titled “Christ, the Church & the Sword: Evidence for a Consistent Nonviolent Kingdom Ethic in the New Testament and the Early Church”

I also critique C. S. Lewis’s essay “Why I am Not a Pacifist” in The Weight of Glory in an essay titled “Why C. S. Lewis was Wrong about Pacifism”]


  1. N. T. Wright, “Ask N. T. Wright: January Q & A Response” [www.facebook.com/notes/n-t-wright/ask-n-t-wright-january-q-a-response/606986489354412]
  2. Tertullian, Treatise on Idolatry 19; ANF 3:73.
  3. Origen, Against Celsus 8.73, as quoted in Christians in the Military: The Early Experience by Helgeland, Daly, and Burns, p. 142. [http://amzn.com/080061836X]
  4. The text of the passio is in Acta Sanctorum, March, vol. ii., and Ruinart, Acta sincera.*See Allard, Histoire des Persecutions, vol. iv; Delehaye, Les Passions des martyrs… pp. 104-110. In the third century the Roman army was recruited chiefly from volunteers, but the sons of veterans were under obligation to serve. In the Roman Martyrology, St Maximilian is called Mamilianus, and the place of his martyrdom is erroneously given as Rome.
  5. Romans 12.9-21 NIV