Tuesday, September 20, 2011


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 go to the front lines in the upcoming battle 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 previous version of this article erroneously mentioned that Martin of Tours was executed for defying the Roman Military. This mistake has been corrected. This series was originally published here in July of 2009.

1 comment:

Norma Hill - aka penandpapermama said...

Thank you so much for this series. This is an issue that I have struggled with for a long time. My dad was a World War 2 vet and we were brought up to honour those who "fought for freedom" - and to believe in "just war." I accepted it pretty easily until I studied history in university, and at the same time started reading scripture seriously. I always felt constrained from expressing freely what I was coming to understand as it really hurt my dad - he felt, I think, that I was becoming too "liberal" and that I didn't appreciate the sacrifice he and his fellow soldiers made.

I am so glad to see these viewpoints being discussed more freely now! Thank you for the solid background this series provides.