The Consistent Life Consensus in Ancient Christianity
by Rob Arner, CL Board member
Adjunct Professor of Religion at Reformed Episcopal Seminary and Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia, PA
When measured against the standard of the ancient Christian church, contemporary American and European Christianity is in a moral mess. When it comes to what have been called the “life issues,” Christians are no less sharply divided than members of secular society. Some Christians, called “conservative” by conventional narratives, believe abortion is a grave moral evil. Yet often these same Christians will fall in line to support the latest war proposed by the nation’s chief executive. Other Christians tend not to view abortion as such an intrinsic evil, but rather a tragic “choice” for mothers in difficult circumstances. These Christians, sometimes called “liberal,” are more concerned with systemic and social evils, such as poverty, and are critical of the ready recourse to war. These two groups far too often find themselves talking past one another at best, and actively working against one another at worst, so significant progress isn’t made toward addressing either group’s moral concerns.
But imagine if this were not so. Imagine the impact if there were instead a united witness, an ecumenical consensus surrounding the thorny question of whether and in what circumstances a disciple of Jesus might take a human life.
Such a consensus actually existed in the ancient Christian church, stretching from the time of the apostles until the Christianization of the Roman Empire with the conversion of the emperor Constantine.
In my investigation into the ethics of the ancient Christian church, I read every surviving orthodox Christian sermon, treatise, letter, and apology from that period (about 90-314 C.E.) and discovered a startling consensus on this issue. As diverse as the ancient Christian church may have been on wealth and poverty, sexuality, church governance, theology, and a host of other issues, when it comes to the subject of killing other human persons, the ancient Christian writers were startlingly in accord with one another. Without exception, the church strongly condemned the taking of human life in any form whatsoever.
Neither homicide, nor feticide, nor infanticide, nor suicide, nor capital punishment, nor killing in war were considered acceptable. Put more precisely, no surviving orthodox Christian writing dating from before Constantine ever approves of Christian participation in human bloodshed.
In the Roman Empire, life was cheap. Not only was the “peace” of the empire secured and maintained through brutal conquest, but everyday life for Roman citizens, even during times of “peace,” was filled with violence. Killing was sport in the gladiatorial conquests and chariot races.
The value of individual human persons was deemed subordinate to the good of Rome. This was true at both the upper levels of society — witness how many Roman emperors met with violent deaths at the hands of their rivals (or loved ones!) — as well as at the bottom strata, as the life of a slave was all but worthless to his or her master, and unwanted children of the poor were either aborted or abandoned in the countryside to die of exposure. The glory of Rome was built on the broken backs of enslaved peoples and the blood of those deemed expendable. It’s into this milieu the ancient church brought its message that was decidedly on the side of life— in every case.
Both abortions of unborn children and the killings of unwanted or disabled born children were widely practiced in ancient Rome. The early Christians stood forcefully against these practices. For instance, the ancient discipleship manual commonly known as the Didache, which dates from around the turn of the second century CE, and therefore may actually have been written at the same time as some of the New Testament, contains an explicit prohibition of infanticide and abortion: “A further commandment of the Teaching: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not practice pederasty; do not fornicate; do not steal; do not deal in magic; do not practice sorcery; do not kill a fetus by abortion, or commit infanticide” (Didache 2.1–2).
Another explicit statement:
But with us, murder is forbidden once for all. We are not permitted to destroy even the fetus in the womb, as long as blood is still being drawn to form a human being. To prevent the birth of a child is a quicker way to murder. It makes no difference whether one destroys a soul already born or interferes with its coming to birth. It is a human being and one who is to be [an adult], for the whole fruit is already present in the seed. (Tertullian, Apology, 9)
Just as with “private” issues of abortion and infanticide, the early church offered an adamant “no” on the most “public” kinds of killing. The early Christian discussions on killing in war, and on military service more broadly, are so numerous and multifaceted that I can only scratch the surface.
The church’s broad condemnation of killing made the military profession deeply problematic. In the Apostolic Tradition, how the church prepared new initiates for baptism:
(9.) A soldier in command must be told not to kill people; if he is ordered so to do, he shall not carry it out. Nor shall he take the oath. If he will not agree, he should be rejected [from the baptism preparation].
(10.) Anyone who has the power of the sword, or who is a civil magistrate wearing the purple, should desist, or he should be rejected.
(11.) If a catechumen or a believer wishes to become a soldier they should be rejected, for they have despised God. (Apostolic Tradition, 16.9–11)
For many soldiers, quitting the army before their terms expired would entail an almost certain death sentence. Therefore, those who were already soldiers at the time of their conversion could stay in their posts as long as they did not swear the military oath or kill anyone.
Military imagery of discipline and order was converted to positive imagery of peace, as in this example:
But when the shrilling trumpet blows, it assembles the soldiers and proclaims war; and shall not Christ, think you, having breathed to the ends of the earth a song of peace, assemble the soldiers of peace that are his? Yes, and He did assemble, O man, by blood and by word His bloodless army, and to them He entrusted the kingdom of heaven. (Exhortation to the Greeks, 11)
Numerous ancient Christian writers go on record as opposing all killing period. Their words express a strict ethic that was pervasive across the church of that era, not just isolated to one city or region. Origen, for example, said of Jesus:
He taught that it was never right for his disciples to go so far against a man, even if he should be very wicked; for he did not consider it compatible with his inspired legislation to allow the taking of human life in any form at all. (Against Celsus, 3.7)
So, neither will it be permitted a just man, whose service is justice herself, to enter military service, nor can he accuse anyone of a capital crime, because there is no difference whether you kill a man with a sword or a word, since the killing itself is prohibited. Therefore, in this command of God, no exception whatsoever must be made. It is always wrong to kill a man whom God has intended to be a sacrosanct creature. (Lactantius, Divine Institutes 6.20)
The church before Constantine consistently rejected killing—whether in the womb, in the arena, on the battlefield, or anywhere else.
Might this ethical and moral clarity be relevant today, in our time of polarizing culture wars? Might it have the power to bridge the gap between “conservatives” and the life-issues dear to their hearts, and “liberal/progressives” and the peace and justice issues dear to theirs?
I submit that the way of Jesus Christ as lived by the early Christian church is decidedly a “third-way” that defies these two conventional categories and has tremendous potential for healing a broken world by uniting ideological opponents in common cause with one another— to work alongside, rather than against one another. At this hour of history, it may be the most effective and necessary means by which we can become ambassadors of reconciliation and protect the vulnerable persons in our world today.
Editor’s note: For a book-length version and extensive documentation of this thesis, see
Consistently Pro-Life: The Ethics of Bloodshed in Ancient Christianity.