Sanctifying Life in the Early Church



Evidence from both Christian and pagan sources reveals that the pre-Constantinian Christian churches practiced a broad and holistic sanctity-of-life ethic. A review of the documents can only deepen our confidence that a sanctity-of-life ethic is neither a modern nor merely a political innovation but instead goes back to the very origins of our tradition. But the very comprehensive nature of that ethic challenges our truncated contemporary versions, in which conservatives tend to pick out birth and end-of-life concerns and liberals focus on issues like hunger, war, and racism.

Christians are instructed repeatedly by numerous key leaders that all killing is forbidden to followers of Christ, and these instructions had their effect. Christian nonparticipation in the Roman military and resistance to the evils of war was one result. Philip Wogaman reflects the scholarly consensus when he claims that “no Christian is known to have served in the imperial armies until about AD 170,”[1] though after that the situation was more mixed, as were the pastoral responses.[2] We know that there were at least a small number of Christians participating tenuously in branches of the Roman military after 250; we know this mainly because some began to be martyred in persecutions during and after that time.[3] Still, no early church leader rested easy with Christian involvement in government, military service, and especially warfare, and for most of early church history all three were forbidden to Christians.

Loyalty to Jesus requires abstaining not only from war but also from abortion, abandonment of infants (“exposure”), and direct infanticide.[4] These were quite common practices in the Greco-Roman world, and had especially devastating effects on women and female children.[5] Under Roman law, the father was granted the power to kill, abandon, or sell his child or to order any female in his household to abort, which involved primitive methods that often ended women’s lives or ruined their health.[6] But for Christians, the child’s life too, was sacred, even in the womb and in infancy, as was the life of the woman carrying the child. For both Jews and Christians, abortion and infanticide were absolutely banned.[7]

This opposition to bloodshed was comprehensive in the early church. It extended to all forms of killing, even capital punishment, which was one reason for opposition to service in the military and in the government, both of which employed the death penalty. Thus Athenagoras:

We cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly. –Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, ANF 2:147.

Note the mention of other horrendous features of the criminal “justice” system—including torture—in this statement by Tertullian:

Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not an avenger even of his own wrongs? –Tertullian (160-225), The Chaplet, ANF 3:99.

Early Christian writings also took aim at the bloody spectacle of the gladiator games, and at eating the meat of slaughtered animals:

Do such exhibitions as these redound to your credit? He who is chief among you collects a legion of blood-stained murderers, engaging to maintain them; and these ruffians are sent forth by him, and you assemble at the spectacle to be judges…and he who misses the murderous exhibition is grieved, because he was not doomed to be a spectator of wicked and impious and abominable deeds. You slaughter animals for the purpose of eating their flesh, and you purchase men to supply a cannibal banquet for the soul, nourishing it by the most impious bloodshedding. –Tatian (110-172), To the Greeks, ANF 2:75.

The chaos and misery of humanity’s constant bloodshed is often decried by early Christian leaders:

The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. –Cyprian of Carthage (c. 250), Epistle, ANF 5:277.

But Christians take a different path, because of the value they place on human life, a value itself derived from God’s high valuing of all people. Consider the following two important texts, which explicitly use the language of sacredness.

Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare…nor to accuse any one of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all; but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal. –Lactantius (240–317), Institutes 6.20, ANF 7:187, italics added.

For think not that stones, and stocks, and birds, and serpents are sacred things, and men are not; but, on the contrary, regard men as truly sacred, and take beasts and stones for what they are. –Clement of Alexandria (150-211), Exhortation to the Heathen ANF 2:201, italics added.

Christian leaders instruct their followers not only to refrain from killing, but in humility[8] to love all without partiality, as God is without partiality, and as Jesus was recognized even by his critics to be one who “shows deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality” (Mt. 22:16).[9] In a society riven by social status distinctions, here was the germ of a Christian social revolution which elevated the status of the poor, enemies, women, children, the sick, those considered ugly, the enslaved, and all who stood at the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Robin Lane Fox considers this Christian conviction a key reason for the spread of Christianity in a Greco-Roman world increasingly weary of status hierarchies.[10] Even if at the time Christians did not (and could not) destroy such entrenched social structures as slavery and patriarchy, primal Christian norms such as the demand to treat all without partiality, and the experience of congregations in which women and men, high-born and low-born, slave and free, worshipped and served one another side by side, were at least a “first step”[11] toward undercutting these structures at their foundations.

Rodney Stark offers an apt summary of the picture available from these Christian documents. “Perhaps above all else, Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death…Christians effectively promulgated a moral vision utterly incompatible with the casual cruelty of pagan custom…[W]hat Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity.”[12]

The question that must next be considered is whether the acquisition of political power after Constantine altered this moral vision. That will be the subject of my next chapter, and next essay in this series.



[1] J. Philip Wogaman, Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993), p. 32.

[2] Summarizing recent research, Kirk MacGregor argues that it is “relatively noncontroversial” to now assert that “no Christians served in the military or assumed government offices” from the close of the New Testament era until 174 C.E, and that after 174, “the ancient church treated those Christians who played such roles, including previous office-holders who converted, with great suspicion.” Kirk R. MacGregor, “Nonviolence in the Ancient Church and Christian Obedience,” Themelios 33.1 (2008), pp. 16–17.

[3] Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1960), p. 68. Some of the instructions in this section are clearly directed to Christians attempting to serve in the Roman military without violating their faith and its commitments.

[4] Robin Lane Fox has written, “Like the Jews, Christians opposed much in the accepted practice of the pagan world. They vigorously attacked infanticide and the exposure of children.” Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 351.

[5] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 97.

[6] Stark, p. 120.

[7] Josephus, quoted in Stark, p. 124.

[8] Robin Lane Fox points out the revolutionary nature of the early Christian emphasis on voluntary humility in a pagan culture which heretofore had never considered humility a virtue, but instead an aspect of being ignoble, low, or unworthy. See Fox, p. 324.

[9] Note the link between humility and being “no respecters of persons.” Christians were to view neither themselves nor anyone else as “higher” or “lower” than others. See Robert Bruce Mullin, A Short World History of Christianity (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), p. 39.

[10] Fox, Pagans and Christians, pp. 334–335.

[11] Wogaman, Christian Ethics, p. 29.

[12] Stark, Rise of Christianity, pp. 214–215.


Editor’s Note: CBHD is committed to promoting scholarship within the Judeo-Christian Hippocratic tradition. Since this essay represents ongoing research by Dr. Gushee for his volume on Sanctifying Life in the CBHD series Critical Issues in Bioethics, he retains exclusive rights to the material included. This essay should not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Dr. Gushee. Recognizing that there exists a diversity of interpretations within Judeo-Christian Hippocratism, the Center invites you to comment on this article by emailing us at, and we will pass your thoughts along to the author.


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