Sunday, July 19, 2009

JESUS: The Prince of Peace (2 of 4)

One of the more creative arguments in favor of Christian violence has been the suggestion that the conversion of Cornelius the Centurion to the Christian faith is an indication that Christians accepted violence and even professional soldiers among their ranks. If there is any real instruction to be found here (in Acts 10) regarding the attitude of the early Christians towards violence it is mostly from silence. The point of the passage is that Cornelius, a Gentile, is miraculously converted to the faith in Christ as the Messiah. The inference in this passage is that Cornelius was a practicing Jew who cared for the poor and loved God. He did not, however, know about Jesus and it was only through an angelic vision that he was told how to seek out Peter in order to receive the Gospel and be saved.

The argument in support of Christians who practice violence seems to be that, since it says Cornelius was a Centurion then it must be an endorsement of his violent lifestyle. However, we do not know what happened to Cornelius after his conversion to Christ. Did he continue to serve the Roman Empire and engage in war? Maybe he did, we don't know. But even if he did the question remains: "Does the New Testament endorse such behavior in any way?" No, it doesn't. At least, not for a follower of Jesus.

We could ask, “Did Cornelius resign his commission in the Roman Army and face martyrdom?” Again, we just do not know. Although we do know that many other Roman soldiers who came to Christ did just that and were put to death for it, as in the example of Martin of Tours.

Martin of Tours was a soldier in the Roman army under Constantine. After the Emperor “converted” to Christianity in 312 A.D. and began to re-define the faith it became acceptable in the church for followers of Jesus to define their faith by a set of beliefs rather than by a practice of values and principles embodied by Christ. As Christianity and the Empire became entangled, the line between following Jesus and being loyal to the State became blurred. Much like it is today.

One Roman soldier, Martin of Tours, upon converting to faith in Christ dared to defy the status quo. Even though it would have been completely acceptable to many within the State-sponsored Christian Church of his day and age, Martin instead took a bold step to follow Christ and not bow his knee to the Emperor. So, at a ceremony in which soldiers were given a monetary reward for their service, Martin of Tours stood up and explained to his commanding officer that he could no longer remain a soldier in the army of Rome, saying:

“Up to the present I have served you as a soldier. Allow me now to become a soldier of God. Let the man who is to serve you receive your donation. I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight.”

For this act of disobedience, Martin was condemned and he volunteered to be sent to the front lines of the next battle without weapons to show that he was not a coward, choosing to remain loyal to Jesus rather than to compromise his faith in submission to the State.

Did Cornelius do the same? We’re not sure. Perhaps yes, or maybe no. The point is that the scriptures do not tell us what Cornelius did after his conversion to faith in Christ. All we know is that Jesus clearly teaches us to love our enemies and to refrain from violence. What Cornelius did is less important to us than what Jesus expected, and of that we are well-informed and accountable.

At any rate, the story of Cornelius’ conversion is not meant to teach us anything about violence, it is meant to teach us how much God loves the Gentiles and how Peter was obedient to God and allowed them to receive the Gospel of the Kingdom and enter the Body of Christ.


NOTE: The original version of this article mistakenly stated that Martin of Tours was executed for defying the Roman military. This version has been corrected.


Mike said...


This portion of your current series presents a view of the conversion of Cornelius that I have never heard of and I consider myself well read.

To see the conversion of Cornelius as anything other than a Gentile coming to saving faith in a Jewish Messiah is to completely miss the point.

I can't imagine someone using this wonderful story to support the idea of the "Christian soldier" as it were.

The Bible needs read like any other piece of literature in that you apply a basic common sense approach to the text like any other book. I am not minimizing it by any means however, when you read into it something that isn't there you are no longer bound by rules of context, grammar, etc...instead you are limited only by you imagination.


Keith Giles said...

Well, I must confess I'd never hear of it either but in a recent debate this guy threw it out there and so I felt it necessary to address it...however strange it may be.

Mike said...

And as always, your posts engage the mind and present a perspective that is sorely lacking today. Say on brother.