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Were the Church Fathers Consistently Pro-Life?

Ron Sider is best known as an advocate for the poor. His 1977 book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger sold over 400,000 copies and was ranked by this magazine right below the Living Bible and Knowing God as one of the 50 most influential books on 20th-century evangelicalism. Sider, who founded Evangelicals for Social Action, has written on a variety of ethical issues: poverty, hunger, abortion, creative nonviolence, nuclear arms, and generosity. He has been a crucial force in shaping Christian consciences.

But Sider's academic training was not in ethics or public policy, but in history. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Yale. In The Early Church on Killing(Baker Academic, 2012), Sider turns from advocacy to scholarship, compiling every extant extrabiblical passage on killing from Christian writers in the centuries leading up to Constantine, the time when Christianity began its shift from minority religion for outcasts to majority religion for Roman society.

CT's former editor in chief David Neff recently talked with Sider about the importance of this historical material for our understanding of Christian ethics.

Why has no one compiled all the patristic writing on killing before this?

Given the degree of interest on both sides and the extent of the disagreement about the Christian ethics of war, I think it is astonishing and puzzling. There are works with extensive quotations, but as far as I know nobody has ever tried to collect everything we have extant in one volume.

It is overdue given that even the best, most careful just-war historians, like John Helgeland, make sweeping statements that are simply inaccurate when you take the whole body of data together. I'm glad I had the privilege of finally doing it.

It's not just just-war theory versus pacifism. The book covers war, capital punishment, gladiatorial games, infanticide, abortion, and so forth. Did the early Christian writers tie those together, or did they treat them as separate ethical issues?

They definitely tied them together. A number of times different authors—like Lactantius writing at the time of the Diocletian persecution, and earlier writers—are very clear. They explicitly say we don't kill, and that means we don't go to gladiatorial games, we're opposed to abortion, capital punishment is not acceptable, and we don't kill in war.

Did the early Christians oppose capital punishment as a social institution? Or did they just say that a Christian couldn't be an executioner or a magistrate who might give someone a death sentence?

For early church fathers, a Christian could not have a political or judicial office where he would have the authority to pronounce a judgment of capital punishment.

They clearly stated the latter. They said Christians cannot participate in capital punishment. For them, a Christian could not have a political or judicial office where he would have the authority to pronounce a judgment of capital punishment.

Then they weren't out of step with Paul when he wrote that rulers bear the sword as God's agent.

They were not. To my knowledge there's no extant comment on that text and no substantial comment on whether government in their time ought to do that. Origen talks about how in an earlier dispensation it was legitimate for Jews to have an army and to engage in capital punishment, but now under the new dispensation Christians don't do that.

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Were the Church Fathers Consistently Pro-Life?