Summary: This is a review of nonviolence in early Christian thought through the fourth century.
If nonviolence is indeed the teaching of Jesus in the New Testament, we would expect to find it in the earliest writings of Christians including and after the apostles and prophets of the Lord. What do we find?
There is no example or teaching in the New Testament that Christians can or should make a violent defense. Rather Christians were always victims of violence and never employed violence in defense against wrong-doing or to address evil.
Love your enemies – Luke 6:27-28 do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. – Matthew 5:38-39 If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.
Stephen stoned – Acts 7:54-60 when stoned to death, Stephen says “forgive them.”
James killed – Acts 12:1-3 was killed with the sword.
Paul threatened and arrested – Acts 28:19 had no charge to bring against those who conspired to kill him.
Christians treated violently – Romans 12:17- 21 overcome evil with good.
Christian slaves beaten for doing what is right – 1 Peter 2:18-25 suffer patiently as Christ did.
Do not fear suffering violent attack – 1 Peter 3:14-15, Rev.2:10 be faithful unto death.
Christians facing opposition were called to have their own blood shed. – Heb.12:3-4.
Do not war as the world does but use your spiritual weapons. – 2 Cor. 10:3-6, Eph.6:12-18.
The death of Jesus for His enemies (when He could have destroyed them) defines a new kind of love. “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” – 1 John 4:10
Christian Gnosticism emerged in part because of the inability of some early Christians to reconcile the violent God portrayed in the Old Testament with the nonviolent God of Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament, so they concluded there were two gods: an evil violent creator god who created the material world, and a good nonviolent loving god.
The rationale for nonviolence in second century writings was not fear of persecution but the fulfillment of messianic expectations and obedience to the teachings of Jesus passed on by the apostles and prophets of the Lord.
Ignatius of Antioch (80-140 AD) in Epistle to the Ephesians: “And let us imitate the Lord, who, when He was reviled, reviled not again ; when He was crucified, He answered not; when He suffered, He threatened not ; but prayed for His enemies, Father, forgive them; they know not what they do. If any one, the more he is injured, displays the more patience, blessed is he.”
Justin Martyr (110-165 AD) in Dialogue with Trypho: “…we who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons,- our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage, - and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope…”
Irenaeus (120-202 AD) in Against Heresies: “But if the law of liberty, that is, the word of God, preached by the apostles (who went forth from Jerusalem) throughout all the earth, caused such a change in the state of things, that these [nations] did form the swords and war-lances into ploughshares, and changed them into pruning-hooks for reaping the grain, [that is], into instruments used for peaceful purposes, and that they are now unaccustomed to fighting, but when smitten, offer also the other cheek…”
Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) in Justin Martyr (100-165 AD), First Apology, Ante-Nicene Fathers: “The Emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius, to the People of Rome, and to the sacred Senate… I was surrounded by the enemy; and the enemy being at hand... there was close on us a mass of a mixed multitude of 977,000 men, which indeed we saw… Having then examined my own position, and my host, with respect to… the enemy, I quickly betook myself to prayer to the gods of my country. But being disregarded by them, I summoned those who among us go by the name of Christians. And having made inquiry, I discovered a great number and vast host of them, and raged against them, which was by no means becoming; for afterwards I learned their power. Wherefore they began the battle, not by preparing weapons, nor arms, nor bugles; for such preparation is hateful to them, on account of the God they bear about in their conscience.” (Note: While the authenticity of the letter is disputed, scholars accept that even if it is a forgery, it was written in the latter part of the second century and reflects the values and beliefs of Christians at that early stage. Later Christians would embrace the just war theory of Augustine who also advocated force by the church to correct heretical Christians.)