In a recent post for The Foundry Community, Eric Paul offered a thoughtful reflection on whether nonviolence should be considered an essential moral position of the Church of the Nazarene. His reflection was prompted by a phrase that is often quoted in Nazarene circles: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.” Eric argued that nonviolence emerges directly from our holiness identity and thus should be deemed essential moral conduct in the church. He wrote: “Our doctrine of holiness precisely requires a practice of Christian nonviolence as essential for the life of faith.” According to Eric, “Jesus embodied a life of nonviolence, and those who are called to be like him (holy) embody the same ethic.”

I am grateful for Eric’s willingness to write on this important issue. I especially appreciate his attempt to ground this issue in the doctrine of holiness. I hope his reflection will open up further conversation as we seek to bear faithful witness to the kingdom of God. Thankfully, the great tradition of the church provides us with many dialogue partners who have weighed carefully the theological and pastoral issues involved. One of those dialogue partners is Augustine of Hippo, a significant voice from the early church who has challenged my own thinking. Augustine represents a significant strand in the church’s tradition that regards holiness as compatible with taking up arms in certain cases.

Augustine’s specific voice is helpful for two reasons. First, there is considerable distance between our context and his. Augustine served as a bishop in North Africa during the late Roman Empire (354–430). He occupied a different cultural, political, philosophical, and ecclesial setting than we do. Eric writes that “our reasons for resisting a form of Christian pacifism may have more to do with our theological assumptions and ingrained cultural stories than they do with actually discerning what is essential.” Considering the perspective of a past Christian thinker like Augustine helps us examine more critically our current assumptions. As C. S. Lewis once remarked, “We all . . . need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”[1]

At the same time, Augustine lived in a time not entirely unlike our own. In the pre-Constantinian era, Christians occupied a minority position in the Roman Empire. By the time of Augustine, however, Christians could be found at every level of society, occupying both political and military stations. As a bishop, Augustine provided pastoral guidance and care to government officials as well as soldiers. The question of whether Christians are ever justified in taking up arms was not merely theoretical for Augustine; it was practical, just as it is for many pastors and laypeople in the church today.

For Augustine, love is the defining feature of the holy life. It is the distinguishing mark of the church. It is at the center of every Christian virtue. It is, in short, what it means to be like Christ.

Second, and more importantly, Augustine’s voice is helpful to Nazarenes because he has a robust doctrine of holiness that centers on the notion of love. Key theological differences notwithstanding, Augustine is united with John Wesley on the primacy of love in the holy life. For Augustine, the Holy Spirit is the mutual love of the Father and the Son. When the Spirit comes to dwell in the believer, the Spirit pours out love in the heart for God and neighbor (Romans 5:5). For Augustine, love is the defining feature of the holy life. It is the distinguishing mark of the church. It is at the center of every Christian virtue. It is, in short, what it means to be like Christ.

Augustine’s perspective on war is complex, but it can be summarized as follows. War is a tragic necessity that some Christians are compelled to assume for the sake of the temporal order. But it is a necessity that can be assumed in love. Augustine, like those church fathers who came before him, never wrote a treatise on war. However, there are two key passages in his writings that I would like to highlight.

The first is from City of God, a book Augustine wrote after Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410. Throughout the book, Augustine offers many critiques of Roman society. In particular, he criticizes the violence that Rome has inflicted both within and beyond its borders. Augustine points out that the unity the Roman Empire has achieved over its long history has come at an incredible price. “But at what cost this [unity] was achieved: all those terrible wars, all that human slaughter, all that human bloodshed!”[2] He observes that Rome waged its wars with the desire of attaining peace, but underneath the desire for peace was the lust for domination—the libido dominandi—that characterizes fallen humanity. He writes: “All men desire, then, to have peace with their own subjects . . . And, if they can, they want to make those on whom they wage war their subjects and to impose on them the laws of their own peace.”[3]

Augustine sees the peace of Rome as a shallow and disordered peace, built on the lust for domination. Rome’s peace stands in stark contrast to the perfect peace that is present in the eternal city of God, which is foreshadowed in the church. In the midst of this strong criticism of Roman wars, however, Augustine acknowledges the possibility of a just war.[4] But even when he speaks of this, his tone is deeply somber. Augustine writes:

But the wise man, they say, will wage just wars. Surely, however, if he remembers that he is a human being, it is far more true that he will grieve at being faced with the necessity of waging just wars. If they were not just, he would not have to wage them, and so there would be no wars for the wise man. For it is the iniquity of the opposing side that imposes on the wise man the obligation of waging just wars; and this iniquity should certainly be lamented by human beings, even if no necessity of waging wars arises from it, for the very reason that it is the iniquity of human beings. Let everyone, therefore, who reflects with sorrow on such vast, such horrendous, such savage evils as these, acknowledge our misery.[5]

For Augustine, war—even when it is just—is to be lamented. It is to be lamented not only because it is war but also because of the human sin that made war necessary.[6] There is no glorification of violence or war here. For Augustine, war may be necessary at times in order to defend the temporal order from wrongdoing, but it is always a tragic necessity, something that should be grieved rather than celebrated, and it is a tragic necessity that may fall upon some Christians.

In the year 418, a Roman soldier named Boniface wrote a letter to Augustine, asking whether his service in the military was compatible with his Christian faith. Boniface was thinking about leaving his position in the army in order to enter the monastery. Augustine pointed Boniface to examples of virtuous soldiers in Scripture: David from the Old Testament; the centurion of great faith from the Gospels; Cornelius from Acts; and the soldiers who came to John for baptism.[7] On the basis of these examples, Augustine assures him: “Do not imagine that no one can please God while he is engaged in military service.”[8]

In most of the letter, Augustine instructs Boniface on how he can engage in military service as a Christian. His counsel centers on love: “All that I can say, then, in brief is this: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul and with thy whole strength’ and ‘thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’[9] Although Augustine acknowledges that the monastic life is superior to the military life, he urges Boniface to remain where he is and focus on growing daily in love for God and neighbor. Augustine reminds him that the Holy Spirit has poured out love in his heart. His responsibility, therefore, is to cultivate that love in his vocation as a soldier. “With the help of Him who endows and bestows [love] on you, love may be fostered and increased until, being perfected, it may perfect you.”[10]

For Augustine, love for God and neighbor will manifest itself in particular virtues. He urges Boniface to exhibit humility by recognizing that his strength comes from God; honesty by keeping promises to allies and enemies; mercy in his treatment of prisoners; chastity in his marriage; detachment from his earthly goods; and forgiveness of those who sin against him. More, Boniface is to exhibit the virtue of peacefulness. “Your will ought to hold fast to peace, with war as the result of necessity.”[11] Augustine knew that Boniface’s vocation presented an occasion for all sorts of evils, like revenge, hatred, and lust for domination. Thus, he urges him to follow Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and strive for the goal of peace, even when he is compelled to use force. Augustine, thus, counsels Boniface not to escape his military service for a life of religious solitude; rather, he urges him to remain in the world and carry out his service in a distinctively Christian manner, with a heart that is filled with love. This love includes not only love for God but also love for the neighbors he is defending. Paradoxically, it also includes love for the enemies against whom he is fighting.

The church should be a place where this misery is acknowledged, lamented, and dealt with in redemptive ways.

As a Christian bishop, Augustine maintained a critical posture toward the violence of the Roman Empire. He understood that, often, wars waged in the name of peace and unity are thinly veiled attempts at domination. He described war as a grievous tragedy. It is not only a consequence of sin; it is also an occasion for great evils. Even so, war is a tragedy that is at times necessary for the good of others. And for those Christians upon whom this necessity falls, it is possible for them to avoid the great evils of war and carry out their duties with a holy character transformed by the Holy Spirit and marked by Christian virtues, the center of which is love.

Augustine stands for many Christians in the historic and contemporary church who would say that holiness and armed force are not always incompatible. In light of his perspective, I believe the conversation initiated by Eric Paul should be reframed as follows. Rather than asking whether nonviolence should be an essential position of the church, we would do well to ask how the church might care for and shape those who will assume the tragic necessity of war. To be sure, this necessity does not fall upon everyone. There will be some who abstain from it altogether. In doing so, they bear witness on earth to the perfect peace of the heavenly city. The Church of the Nazarene has supported this nonviolent witness with its statement on conscientious objection to war. Yet the tragic necessity of war no doubt falls upon some in our midst. And to those, we as the church have an important responsibility.

First, our responsibility is to provide spiritual resources that can aid in the healing of the trauma, confusion, and even shame that may have resulted from one’s experience in war. Augustine is realistic about the misery of war. The church should be a place where this misery is acknowledged, lamented, and dealt with in redemptive ways.

Second, our responsibility is to form those in military service in the distinctively Christian virtues like humility, mercy, forgiveness, peacefulness, and love. These women and men must be shaped by the practices of the church to be disciples of Jesus whose hearts are filled with the charity of the Holy Spirit. In other words, they must be challenged and equipped to carry out their vocation precisely as a holy people whose motives and conduct are governed by love.

On this side of the eschaton, as we await the coming of the perfect peace of the heavenly city, we must not neglect our responsibility to those who face the tragic necessity of war.


[1] C. S. Lewis, “Introduction,” in St. Athanasius: On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1996), 4–5.

[2] Augustine, City of God 19.7, trans. William Babcock, Works of Saint Augustine, pt. 1, vol. 7 (Hyde Park: New City Press, 2013), 361.

[3] Ibid., 366.

[4] Augustine is often mistakenly assumed to be the inventor of the just war tradition, which was actually a Roman tradition that Augustine both critiqued and developed. See Phillip Wynn, Augustine on War and Military Service (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).

[5] Augustine, City of God, 362.

[6] There are three criteria for a just war in Augustine’s writings: legitimate authority, just cause (i.e., avenging injuries), and right intention. See Frederick H. Russell, “War,” in Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia, ed. Allan D. Fitzgerald (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 875–6. For a later, more systematic treatment of just wars, see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2.40.

[7] New Testament scholar Richard Hays, who affirms Christian pacifism, concedes that “those narratives about soldiers provide the one possible legitimate basis for arguing that Christian discipleship does not necessarily preclude the exercise of violence in defense of social order or justice.” See The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 335–6.

[8] Augustine, “Letter 189,” trans. Wilfrid Parsons, Fathers of the Church, vol. 12 (New York: Catholic University of American, 1955), 268.

[9] Ibid., 266.

[10] Ibid., 266–7.

[11] Ibid., 269.