So You’re a Pacifist: What about this…?

So You’re a Pacifist: What about this…? September 6, 2019

If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a hundred times. When someone says “I’m a pacifist” (or something remotely close), the hands go up with a series of “What abouts.” Ron Sider, in If Jesus is Lord , has heard them all and responds to many of them.

What about Jesus’s statement that he came to bring a sword? Or the fact that there are several stories about devout soldiers and none were told to stop being soldiers? Jesus used a whip to cleanse the temple. He even told his disciples to buy a sword. In places, the New Testament seems to praise Israelite warriors and endorse the destruction of the Canaanites. Does not the use of military symbols endorse military action? Jesus warned about wars and rumors of wars. Does Matthew 15:4 mean Jesus endorses capital punishment? Romans 13 certainly says that government uses the sword to execute divine vengeance on evildoers. In fact, the New Testament says that God punishes evil, and the book of Revelation uses violent, bloody imagery to describe the final victory over evil.

Do not all these things add up to a clear endorsement of the legitimate use of killing to overcome evil? Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan put it bluntly: “To proclaim an absolute pacifism . . . requires dismissing or ignoring Jesus’s own authoritative statements, vast tracts of Scripture pertaining to divine judgment. . . and the book of Revelation.”

I offer his brief summaries for some of his questions, and none omitted are at the top of “gotcha lists.”

When we read Matthew 10:34 in context, it becomes quite clear that Jesus’s words have nothing to do with his disciples using the sword. Rather, Jesus uses metaphorical language to warn that his followers will experience rejection by family and severe persecution from those who reject his message.

The subsequent statements of Christian authors (after the New Testament and before Constantine) further undermine the view that the silence about whether the soldiers who met or believed in Christ should continue as soldiers means that Jesus and the New Testament authors thought that the military profession is legitimate. As the section in chapter 13 titled “Pre-Constantinian Christianity” shows, every single Christian author in this period who raises the question of killing says Christians should not do that. Every Christian author who discusses whether Christians should join the Roman army says they should not. And the Apostolic Tradition (a church order probably dating from the mid-second century to the first part of the third) specifically deals with how to treat Roman soldiers who become interested in Christian faith and request preparation for baptism. They can be prepared for baptism—but only if they agree never to kill! And baptized Christians who join the army must be excluded from the church.

[Temple cleansing] is story demonstrates the coercive power of moral authority. But it in no way supports the use of violence, much less killing.

[Buy a sword] Preston Sprinkle has examined ten highly respected commentators on this passage. Many were not pacifists, but nine of the ten understood Jesus’s words in a figurative way, not a call to armed defense. Darrell Bock says Jesus’s words about buying a sword are to be understood in a symbolic way. Reformed commentator William Hendriksen says clearly, “The term sword must be interpreted figuratively.” British New Testament scholar I. Howard Marshall comments, “The saying can be regarded only as grimly ironical, expressing the intensity of the opposition which Jesus and the disciples will experience.” Most commentators agree with Hays that in this passage, “the reference to a sword has a figurative purpose.

[Military leaders] b argue that Stephen’s and Paul’s sermons justify Christian participation in war is simply to read into the text what the text does not say.

[Military symbols] A quick explanation of Paul’s use of military symbols shows that he explicitly says that Christians do not fight the way the world does.

[Romans 13] Paul embraces the typical Jewish understanding that all governmental power comes ultimately from God, who works in history to achieve God’s purposes. But that does not mean that God wills or approves of all that political rulers do. Jesus told Pilate that Pilate’s power comes from God (John 19:11), but that does not mean that God approves of Pilate’s unjust decision about Jesus. Again and again the Old Testament says God uses pagan rulers (e.g., Isa. 10:5-11; 13:3-5), but God clearly disapproves of some of their actions (10:12). Nor does Paul think God approves when the Roman authorities persecute Christians. Nothing in the text suggests that Paul means that God approves of all the actions of the governing authorities that God somehow ‘establishes.” The text does not even say God wants government to execute vengeance via the sword. It simply says that government does that and God uses that to restrain evil.

[What about God’s violence?] To say that in the end some people depart eternally from God is not to claim that God preserves some people in conscious existence in order to punish them eternally. I am inclined to understand eternal separation from God as the result of God taking our freedom so seriously that God (with immeasurable sorrow) allows people to reject God’s offer of loving forgiveness so long that they cease to exist. It would be unloving for God to force them to embrace God’s love. If some people experience eternal separation from God, it will be “because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah.’

[Revelation’s violence] he central point is that God finally conquers evil. We should not try to decipher the symbolic imagery to decide how exactly God in Christ does that. Even more important is the fact that nowhere does Revelation say that the saints fight in this final battle. Hays is right: “A work that places the Lamb that was slaughtered at the center of its praise and worship can hardly be used to validate violence and coercion. God’s ultimate judgment of the wicked is, to be sure, inexorable. Those who destroy the earth will be destroyed (11:18);… but these events are in the hands of God; they do not constitute a program for human military action.’

Careful examination of these passages confirms the view that the New Testament consistently teaches that Christians should never kill.

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  • Tim

    I appreciate the thoughts Scot. My objection to pacifism isn’t that it isn’t consonant with the best understanding we have of the NT, but rather that it fails to live up to the necessities of the real world. Rather than a theological one. If no Christian should serve as a soldier in our country, you’re relying on non-Christian soldiers to keep you safe. If no Christian should ever use a firearm, you’re relying on non-Christian police officers to keep you safe. If no Christian should serve as secret service, you’re relying on non-Christians to keep our President safe. And so on.

    There’s an aspect of freeloading here. That’s a little unseemly. Where Christians of such righteous pacifism rely on the less righteous to keep them and their families safe. And if those supposedly less “righteous” brave men and women who actually do keep us safe converted to your theology, we’d be sitting ducks for any authoritarian regime to take over our country. Or any criminal gangs to take over our neighborhoods. So pacifists enjoy the life and safety afforded them by non-pacifists. And there’s something that doesn’t sit quite right about that I think.

  • Mark Quinn

    I appreciate your push-back and it is something that I have wrestled with as someone who is convinced by Ron’s assessment of both the N.T teachings and the early church witness. So theologically I agree that Christians should not kill. You could see that as freeloading but I think that is partially because of the premium that Christians in America at present put on safety. Christian pacifists really want their safety and their ability to not use violence and thus rely (as you said) on the less righteous to protect that “freedom”. On the other hand if Christians said bearing witness to the Lordship of Jesus and the alternative Kingdom we are part of by virtue of belonging to him occupies the place of supreme value and we accept any consequences (such as risk of victimization) then I fail to see how it is freeloading. It would be circumstantial that one lives in a more safe or less safe community (as this is something non-Christians would presumably value).
    Secondly I don’t think we can overlook the fact that since much of the large scale violence committed in Western civilization was committed by armies made of both Christians and non Christians from the Orthodox church in Russia to the Lutherans in Germany to Catholics in Europe and Evangelicals in America. How would that violent history have been different had the significant Christian populations in all those lands been committed to the non-violent ways of Jesus.

    Sider has another book that teases the possibilities based on examples from history.

  • I agree with the conclusion here. The Apostle Paul is the greatest example of converting from using violence in the name of God and then, even when attacked, never used violence again. It takes a real man to live as Jesus did. I have lived in dangerous places (ex. Yemen, Russia, Detroit) and trusted God to protect myself, my family and my staff. And if we should suffer or die, and we are serving God, there is no greater honor.

  • Samuel Conner

    I’m not entirely sure one should try to draw individual ethics principles, timelessly abstracted from the exigencies of the situation Jesus was facing, from these narratives.

    OTOH, I do think that Jesus’ example sets a high bar for earthly kings. What a world it would be if political leaders preferred to die in order to save their subjects from the horrors of war, rather than asking them to go to war and risk death in order to accomplish the leaders’ objectives.

    How blessed are the peace-makers.

  • David Rogers

    To live consistently as a pacifist, to me, then one should never, and I mean never, rely upon or require others to commit violence on one’s own or one’s own family’s behalf. This would extend even to police officers arresting alleged perpetrators. The act of handcuffing is a violent act. A consistent pacifist should never alert the police regarding any crime because there is a reasonable possibility that the suspect will be arrested using possible violent means. A consistent pacifist should just take the crime as it comes and not require any person to act violent on behalf of the pacifist. To me, that is consistency of pacifism. I would like to know of an argumentation that can explain how arrest of suspects is not violent and how requesting others (namely, police officers) to perform such duties does not violate the principles of pacifism.

  • Alan Rutherford

    When I read Jesus and Paul’s commands, I don’t come away with an image of freeloaders, because they are calling followers to sacrifice rather than a safe life. We don’t want to change our understanding of the Bible’s teaching in order to be seemly or to keep ourselves safe.

  • Barb

    I’m not sure, but as I understand the political/civil world of the NT there wasn’t a police force with the charge of protecting ordinary people. Armies existed to control the population and to conquer other people. I’ve always thought that a pacifist refused to take up arms in the military, therefore some became medics, ambulance drivers, etc. I agree with Alan below that Christians are called to service and sacrifice, not a life of getting without giving.

  • James Lorence

    Perhaps all the pacifists should live in pacifist designated communities (gun free of course) and refuse police protection (cost saving to their cities). And when the criminals break down their doors to rape,kill, and pillage, these pacifist get on their knees. What a joke. As for me and my house, we will depend on our Glocks.

  • Alan Rutherford

    That’s a bold alternative to Joshua’s allegiance to the Lord.

  • Tim


    That’s a totally fine perspective to take. Provided you’re actually willing to follow-through with it.

    Meaning, for starters, don’t call the police if there’s a decent likelihood they may have to even pull their firearms to protect you or the ones you love from those who may do you harm. And don’t even call for the help of anyone nearby if someone you love is being assaulted or raped, as, after all, someone may well have to use the violence you refuse to to stop the perpetrator.

    And let’s face it, Christians benefit from law and order day to day, outside any dramatic crises. So I’d like to see Christian pacifists assisting in such law and order across every field such that they’re not relying on the “less righteous” to do their work for them. So let’s see Christian pacifist police officers. Trained in non-violent restraint and conflict resolution. And they can venture into gang overrun territory, robberies, mass shootings, hostage situations, etc, unarmed & through non-violent means. Let us see that.

    So, if you don’t want to freeload, and you truly mean it, then more power to you. But, honestly, I haven’t seen that type of follow-through.

  • Tim

    Mark, I’d ask you to take a look at my response to Alan (so as not to be redundant here). When Christians no longer rely on those (less righteous) others for help and truly accept unfettered the consequences for their pacifism, then I’d be less inclined to see this as freeloading. However, since I haven’t seen that…

  • Alan Rutherford

    God chooses to use governing authorities and the church to restrain evil in distinct ways. I’m sorry you haven’t gotten to see the church follow through its call to do good in the world.

  • Tim

    Alan, well that’s just so very convenient for you. Reaping the benefits of law and order and police protection that you yourself cannot provide due to your righteous calling. But that’s not freeloading…

  • Jim Dekker

    Thanks for a good conversation about the history of interpretation. It is a critical piece in the dialogue. But… I wonder what these authors experienced in their day?…The space between a persons conviction (passivism) and evidence in the text is large. Such space fosters all kinds of ‘hunting’ expeditions which leads to all kinds of logical gymnastics forgetting a more critical component: The journey of the one making the claim. (same for the ‘activist'(?)). Before we go ‘all Biblical’ for either direction, let’s remember that the one holding the position, likely has more conviction in their journey than awareness of the text. I know people with physically abusive upbringings, who have deep convictions in both directions and both are reactions to their childhood – all the while they are striving to find a text to justify their positions. Let’s pay attention to exegeting our history with aggression as much as evidence for ‘it’ in the text. IMHO Making claims on this issue is truly more about ourselves than it is about God mandating some kind of justification (or not) for what we are interested in doing (or not) to another in judgment. Just a call to caution about making ‘biblical’ claims so tied to a personal conviction. We rarely start with the text.

  • James Lorence

    Alan: I don’t know if it is a bold statement but it is certainly practical. Although I am reasonably proficient with firearms, I hope and pray I am never in a position to have to have to defend myself or my family by discharging a firearm. But we live in a world where there is a growing number of people that have no respect for the law. Even in my small town there has been an increase in daytime assaults and robberies. A close friend of mine and former police chief told me that if the public knew how few times a police officer arrived in time to prevent an assailant’s attack or robber’s entry they would be shocked. It was he who convinced me to become proficient with a handgun and to carry it often. If defending myself and family rather putting my faith in God’s protection at such a critical moment is seen as a secular or sinful by other Christians, so be it. It is the “man in the mirror” that I face each day that concerns me.