Thursday, February 7, 2013

Is Pacifism Christian?

My post from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Pacifism:

Q:  Is strict Pacifism a stance that Christians are required to take by the Bible?  If not, when is it acceptable for a Christian to use force—even lethal force—against another person?

The question of pacifism—if and when Christians may use violent resistance in defense of themselves or another has been debated throughout the history of Christianity.  On very rare occasions, small groups of Christians have claimed a case for strict pacifism:  that Christians ought not resort to force under any circumstances.  The majority of Christians throughout history, however, have maintained the propriety of the use of force by Christians in certain circumstances. 

There are very clear verses in Scripture which prohibit violent revenge, vigilantism, and rebellion against lawful government.  Beyond this, further clarity on the issue revolves around the meaning of certain passages such as Jesus’ admonitions to “Love your neighbor,” “turn the other cheek,” and that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” 

On the surface, these verses might appear to advocate that Christians passively suffer any violence and injustice brought against them, but there are others where Jesus Himself uses a whip to cleanse the temple of greedy merchants, and allows and instructs His disciples to carry swords (although on one occasion correcting Peter for his overzealous use of it).  Both Peter and John the Baptizer preside over the conversion of soldiers and centurions without instructing them to leave their vocations, which Jesus did instruct in the case of dishonest or immoral professions like prostitution and tax-collecting. 

So, if those words of Jesus demand strict pacifism, then the Bible contradicts itself.  On the other hand, when these passages are viewed within their context and when the reader takes the time to ensure he is not reading his personal biases into the text, we find that the Bible prohibits the use of force as a response to non-dangerous offenses (such as a slap on the cheek), as acts of revenge after danger has passed, or when the matter could be handled by the proper authorities.  On the other hand, it has nothing to say prohibiting the use of force in defense of oneself or others from immediate danger. 

In fact, even the strict Old Testament law excuses from punishment those who kill in defending against murder, rape, and robbery.  When ancient church fathers prohibited military service, it was because it required idolatry by worshipping and sacrificing to Caesar, not because it involved the use of force.  Later on, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and an assortment of popes all wrote affirming that Christians may be soldiers in good conscience and that not only may they use force in self-defense, but even that they have the duty to use force in the defense of their wives and children if it becomes necessary. 
The question then, is not whether one is to love one’s neighbor, but which neighbor they are to love.  Does a man who is confronted by another who seeks to harm his daughter “love” the attacker while allowing his daughter to be kidnapped, killed, or raped, or does he love his daughter precisely by the act of slaying the attacker?  Likewise, does a man love the thief who seeks to steal from him while his children starve and suffer, or does he love his children by dispatching the robber?  Does he allow himself to be beaten into disability so that his family loses their support, or does he love them by preserving through self-defense his ability to provide for them?  The same principle would apply similarly to Christian soldiers or police officers, whose authority flows from the Biblical command to obey father and mother. 

God desires that all people would live peaceably with one another.  He institutes government to punish those who would interfere with this intention, and warns Christians about the dangers of rebellion, revenge, and the offensive use of force.  But on occasions when these all break down, he authorizes the use of force in defense of self, wife, children, neighbors, or property, precisely as an act of love for those under our care and in keeping with the justice of His own character.


  1. Good article. I spent 7 years part of a Mennonite church. It never seem right to me that other peoples sons and daughters had to spill their blood so they could enjoy their religious freedom.

  2. So the Mennonites, Amish and Quakers don't do their fair share? Perhaps they would simply accept death in the context of religious persecution like the early Christians - without resistance from what I understand. Rather than fighting for religious freedom in this vale of tears, is it possible they might prefer to go straight to Jesus? After all, isn''t it just a matter of sooner or later?

  3. The question isn't so much about fair shares or other similar evaluations, but simply that strict pacifism has no precedent in Christian history prior to its introduction by the radical wing of the Reformation in the 16th century and has no Biblical support when the passages are taken in context and in the light of Scripture. If a Christian adopts pacifism as a personal choice, that is their decision - although a selfish one, as they promote their own escape from this world ahead of preserving the opportunity for their neighbors to hear the Gospel - but they simply have no authority or Biblical mandate to impose such a requirement on others.