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Military Service in the Church Orders

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The debate concerning the approach of the early Christians to the military can be advanced by paying attention to a genre of literature that scholars have largely ignored: the church orders. These documents—the Apostolic Tradition, Canons of Hippolytus, Testament of Our Lord, and Apostolic Constitutions—are illuminating in that they deal with ethics within comprehensive treatments of worship, catechesis and pastoral life. They also are useful in that they, as variations upon a common original, are means of monitoring change across the third and fourth centuries. This article uses the church orders to assess four elements of a “new consensus” (David Hunter) on Christians in the military. By and large it confirms these, but at times it alters emphases and adds nuances. It argues that: (1) the church orders viewed killing as the big problem for Christians in the legions, not idolatry; (2) the church orders confirm that the pre-Christendom church was divided on Christian participation in the legions; (3) the church orders provide evidence for both discontinuity and continuity on the issue across the centuries, although the deepest continuity, based on John the Baptist's “rule” of Luke 3.14, is between the pre-Constantinian laity and later theologians; (4) the church orders confirm a regional variation in attitude and practice. The church orders' authority in practice is never clear.

Keywords: church orders; early church; military service; peace; war

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: The Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary

Publication date: 2003-12-01

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