Where I disagree with N.T. Wright: Paul, Soldiers, & Leaving Violent Professions Behind

Where I disagree with N.T. Wright: Paul, Soldiers, & Leaving Violent Professions Behind January 23, 2014

Recently, an edition of “Ask N.T. Wright” was release via his Facebook Page. One of the questions that got asked had to do with Paul’ approach to Christian converts in the military. The question was:

Question 2 from Joshua Gillies:

“What would Paul say to a Christian serving in the military?”

I’ve always known that N.T. Wright wasn’t a full blown pacifist. On a personal level, it seems he is. His interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount lines up almost exactly with Walter Wink, for instance. I’ve also heard him refer to former Arch-bishop Rowan Williams as having even “greater pacifist tendencies than even me” (paraphrased quote), which makes me think he sees violence and necessary in quite limited and restrained circumstances. The only point of divergence with pacifism is with those who set apart for maintaining order within the policing state. This come through in his response…

This is a good question because the issues are I think finely balanced. First, let’s be clear that for the Jew and for the early Christian it is part of creational monotheism that the One God wants and intends that there should be human authorities. This is part of God’s making humans in his own image. He wants to run the world through human beings. Ultimately, anarchy is an unmaking of Genesis 1 and 2 – letting the monsters run the garden. (Hence Daniel 7 where the human figure is finally exalted over the monsters . . . but that’s another story.) However, granted universal sin, those to whom authority is given routinely abuse it and try to become tyrants. The answer to that is not anarchy, but fresh reassertion of order, holding rulers to account. (The failure of western democracies to do this is a major flaw in our present systems.) This is again straight Romans 13: God wants there to be human authorities, but they are answerable to him.

I assume that if there are authorities they sometimes have to use force to keep the peace, to protect the vulnerable from the bullies, to see that justice is done, etc etc. Of course this can be, and regularly was and is, abused in all sorts of ways. However, some kind of military force seems to me necessary precisely to back up the appropriate rule of law (which is there, to say it again, to protect the weak and the vulnerable – see Psalm 72!). It is therefore appropriate in principle for a Christian to serve in such a force, basically an extension of police work. HOWEVER, in the ancient world this caused all kinds of problems because Roman armies were routinely and substantially shaped by pagan belief and practice: worshipping their standards, offering sacrifices, inspecting auspices and so on, all things which a Christian couldn’t do (and if you didn’t do them you’d be suspected of subversive plotting or whatever)…. never mind the actions which the military would be required to undertake as part of the normal Roman style!

I don’t know enough about the second and third century to know at what point this became a major issue but it must have done quite soon. I think Paul would say to a soldier newly converted what he says to slaves in 1 Corinthians 7: OK, that’s where you are right now, but if you get a chance to get out, take it. Paul knew very well – this is what 1 Corinthians 8-10 is all about – that there are many ambiguities in Christian living within a pagan world and it’s best not to draw the lines too sharply at certain points, but to work at educating consciences, and not to judge one another while that’s going on.

Here’s why I disagree with N.T. Wright, at least to an extent.

Personally, I disagree with Wright on this in a few ways. I think there are some very helpful nuggets in there, especially the ones that involve the idea of “remain where you are” until you receive further grace to make the next move. With that said, the fundamental difference between Wright and myself involves our view of the State. He wants to have Christians involved at every level, it seems, because he does not believe in the separation of church and state. He’s a good [English] Anglican in that way. The separation of the church and the state is foundational to Anabaptist practice.

My view would be that we still live in a world that may require limited force in various forms to restrain evil. I do not believe in a pacifistic government, outside of God’s kingdom of course. Therefore, it seems to me that all who are in Christ ought not participate in any violent professions. Of course, I have lots of good Christian friends who have chosen a different perspective by taking on vocations as police officers or soldiers. I love them and do not see them as UnChristian, just operating out of a fallen framework in this area.

So, in regards to Paul: it seems to me that Romans 12 and 13 assumes a separation from the state. In other words Paul continually talks about the church and the governing authorities as two separate entities – never one in the same. Paul, in my opinion, would invite converted soldiers to ask hard questions about their vocation. I don’t think he would have a hard and fast law about how they should respond to Christ, but I am pretty sure that Paul would say vengeance belongs to God (and in limited ways to the pagan State as God attempts to keep evil at bay) and not to the Christian-wielded sword. Solid discipleship in a peer-to-peer fashion involves helping people come to these conclusions on their own.

In my series, Nonviolence 101 (“Submit to the Sword but do not carry one” – based on the unity of Romans 12-13), I state the following:

Finally, we need to address the issue of government and its distinctness from the church.  It seems that American readers have a tendency to blur the lines between who can “bear the sword.”  Can Christians carry out the work of sword-bearing since this passage clearly justifies the need for such?  My answer to this question echoes what seems to be the witness of the New Testament as a whole and this text in particular: no!  This is because “it is quite plain that Paul envisages two quite distinct spheres of ‘service’ to God.”[7] The idea that Christ-followers would also be the ones carrying the sword goes against the logic of this literary unit.  John Howard Yoder describes it best:

Christians are told (12:19) never to exercise vengeance but to leave it to God and to wrath.  Then the authorities are recognized (13:4) as executing the particular function which the Christian was to leave to God.  It is inconceivable that these two verses, using such similar language, should be meant to be read independently of one another.  This makes it clear that the function exercised by government is not the function to be exercised by Christians.  However able an infinite God may be to work at the same time through the sufferings of his believing disciples who return good for evil and through the wrathful violence of the authorities who punish evil for evil, such behavior is for men not complementary but in disjunction… it is a most likely interpretation that the “vengeance” or “wrath” that is recognized as being within providential control is the same as that which Christians are told not to exercise.[8]

Based on this reading of Romans 12-13, it is clear that Christians are called to be separate from the violent roles of the state and to avoid putting one’s self in a compromised scenario where violence could be employed.  “There is not even a syllable in the Pauline letters that can be cited in support of Christians employing violence.”[9]

So, there you have it: an instance in which I disagree with my theological hero N.T. Wright. I think his conclusions move in a healthy direction (from modern formulations of “just war”) but could be pushed a little further. What do you think?

Finally, let me conclude by pointing to a close friend who decided what to do when confronted with the peaceable Kingdom of God as a soldier. Matt Young walked away – honorably. He states (in Confronted by Peace: the surprise of nonviolence is leading my friend out of the army):

I strove to be the best soldier I could be. I gained early promotion waivers, and received several awards from my unit over the last several years. After being confronted with nonviolence, there was a huge battle that begun inside of me. I was proud of the good I had done and would do in further service to my country. I wanted to follow Jesus, but continuing to serve in the Army seemed further and further away from the life that Jesus was calling me to….

After that vacation (where I was re-confronted with the nonviolence of Jesus) my Army unit headed to the National Training Center (NTC) in California. This is a month-long training exercise that all units go through in preparation for deployment. You (KURT) had pointed me towards two resources to further my study of the way of peace.

The first was a sermon series by Pastor Bruxy Cavey of The Meeting House called:Inglorious Pastors – Waging Peace in a World of War. I downloaded this series to my phone and listened to the entire series on the bus ride to NTC. This series spoke to me in a huge way. I left El Paso in a searching mindset. When I left, I still wasn’t fully convinced that the way of peace was really what Jesus taught. After listening to this series, I arrived in California firmly convinced that the way of peace is the way of Jesus.

The second resource was the book Jesus For President, by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. I took that book with me to NTC and read it in my downtime every night. This book further strengthened and affirmed my new conviction that nonviolence is essential to the way of Jesus. I returned from California a changed man. I knew that peace was the way, and that serving in the Army definitely did not fit with this new conviction. It was at this point that I decided to pursue a Conscientious Objector Discharge from the Army. [KURT: I followed these up with Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation.]

Amen! The Kingdom of God looks like a young man, confronted by peace, who takes the risk of radically following Jesus by forsaking the sword – when it’s not popular to do so.

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  • Nice post, Kurt. I’ll never forget listening to a plenary address from Wright on the Kingdom at SBL Atlanta. During the Q&A there was a pacifist man that asked about this very thing. As much respect that I have for Wright (I’m a HUGE fan!), I was so disappointed in his response, but wasn’t surprised to hear it from an Anglican. Everything before his comments were, I thought, Spirit-filled and intellectually flawless. It seemed so obvious to me that the Spirit was not speaking through the replies (from both Wright & Michael Bird) as they sort of spoke through the grit of their teeth, almost annoyed by the pacifist suggestion to follow Christ with a clear distinction between the church and state.

  • David

    I really like this article.

    So, as an Anglican, I on the one hand see where Wright is coming from (and agree) that there is a sense in which human government is a good, God created and intended thing. Of course, we live in a currently fallen world, where that good and God created thing must resort to the lesser of two evils (violent force when necessary to restrain and prevent evil). We are promised, of course, that the Kingdom will not be defined by the same problem, and we live now in anticipation of that.

    The question then becomes: what does it mean to live as a people in anticipation of the Kingdom, who are both a.) seeking to build for the Kingdom in the present on social and political levels and b.) trying to remain faithful to Christ as our King and the way of life He promotes? This is where we might turn to Daniel, who, as a civil servant in the empire, was nevertheless able to somehow both pray for Babylon/Persia and at the same time anticipate its judgment.

    I think it could be something like this: where it is possible for Christians to work for the common good through the State without compromising their Christian witness and allegiance, they can. For example, if a State-ordained position requires that we be violent, we should reject it. If, alternatively, the State Religion–Patriotism–is required for our service, we should reject it. Perhaps there is a Daniel position that would allow us to have public influence without necessarily identifying with the State itself.

    Of course, while this may be true for individual Christians, Christian communities need to be actively creating alternative cultures and communities of life. These communities need to be alternative societies that nevertheless infect and transform society around them. In underdeveloped countries, regardless of their faith, people are depending on the church for medicine, education, food, etc. We have the opportunity as churches to become that sort of provider for our neighbors. When we do that, we a.) show the attractiveness of Jesus in the Gospel and b.) reveal the hollow nature of the Empire’s promises.

    This is a tweak on the Anabaptist view of the interaction between church and state, which I by no means am interested in totally abandoning. Rather, I’m thinking out loud about how to bridge the gap between the Anabaptist and the Anglican views here.

    • Ken Steckert

      David – You have some interesting thoughts. You mention Daniel; I also
      think of Joseph in Egypt, as he considered his presence in Egypt to be of God “for such a time as this” (I know that phrase is in Esther, but seems to fit for Joseph as well).

      Being in a position of power and walking humbly before God and humanity is difficult. That position of power does not necessarily have to be in the State. It could be that of supervisor, CEO, parent, or even a leadership position in a church.

      I do not see where Jesus makes it clear that one cannot serve in the military or police. Actually, I do not see where Jesus even addresses it … which is probably one reason there are various views about it.

      A couple of questions I have: If followers of Jesus cannot serve in the military or police, does that mean only non-followers of Jesus should
      serve in these positions? Who would you rather make the decision of when to use force – someone who has the values of Jesus or one who does not?

      Another thought and question: “Vengeance is mine says the Lord” I understand interpreted by pacifists as meaning followers of Jesus (God) cannot be used to carry out this vengeance. But in Ezekiel 25:12-14 God says he will have vengeance upon Edom “by the hand of My people Israel.” Why cannot God use My people today? It seems to me that God using My people is the norm for how God works.

      Trusting God is always challenging. I am not a pacifist in the full sense of the word, but to those in the church who claim the first amendment as their right, my challenging of where their trust lies has them believing I am a pacifist. It is our heart God wants, and we need to encourage and challenge each other – both pacifists and non-pacifists – to live humbly before God and humanity!

  • Chris Jones

    I too am part of the Wright cult, so I like the fact that I disagree with my hero. It keeps him human since he is absolutely wrong and not (w)right on this one. Great post Kurt.

    • Ken Steckert

      Absolutely wrong? Really? So you are absolutely right?

      I am not seeking to convince anyone who is right, as I am not convinced there is a “right” belief regarding this issue. From what I read of Jesus, he rarely gave straight-forward answers as he spoke in parables – telling a story – in many instances. Interestingly, one time when Jesus did explain a parable – the sower, seed, and soil; he really did not clarify too much as is obvious by the fact that there continue to be various interpretations of this parable. What I understand from the gospel records of Jesus is that Jesus addressed each person where they were regarding their heart.

      If Jesus came in the flesh to us and was asked “Is violence always wrong?” there is nothing from how Jesus responded to questions when on earth 2000 years ago that indicate to me he would give an unequivocal “yes” or “no” but would tell a story that would be interpreted numerous ways. Instead of simply looking at our own heart, we want an absolute so we can be the judge for everyone.

      I do not know Wright’s heart or yours, but I think you could both be “absolutely right” on this issue if the heart is towards God. From what I have read of Wright I have no reason to think my heart is any more inclined to God than him, and that I cannot be the judge of him … or you, or Kurt, though my understanding on this issue cannot be same as all three of you.

      • Chris Jones

        Ken. I should not have used absolutely. We do know in part and we should always be cautious about our understanding of Jesus. Thanks for pushing back.

  • Paul Tassler

    Kurt, you will certainly enjoy Brian Zahnd’s forthcoming book Farewell to Mars, soon to be published by the David C. Cooke organization.

  • Hey Kurt, Great post. A friend sent me the same Q&A answers yesterday and I responded with a lengthy comment. Your post inspired me to transform that comment into a post of my own. Thanks!


  • It’s unfortunate that the term “anarchy” is used uncritically in this article, as in much political discourse, as virtually synonymous with “unrestricted violence and disorder”. In fact, the 160 million people who have died in wars in the last 100 years were overwhelmingly the victims of *state* violence, not of *anarchy*. The United States government alone has killed well over 8 million people in 20 wars and 200 incursions since the end of World War 2. Do we not need a more thorough conversation about the extent to which the state itself as an institution is not merely a main agent of “unrestricted violence and disorder” but is in fact the major driving force of it?

    Perhaps we need to disentangle the two things that Wright conflates: namely, “creational monotheism” on the one hand and the institution of the state on the other, as if the former necessarily requires the latter.

    • Ken Steckert

      Good point about anarchy. Recently teaching a class on Judges, I asked the question if anarchy was God’s intended plan as when Israel desired a king, God’s word to Samuel was that they were rejecting God. But from Judges we also see that there is understandable reason why anarchy is virtually synonymous with “unrestricted violence and disorder.” America’s history of the Wild West is a more recent closer to home example of this.

      I did not realize the US government had killed over 8 million people since WWII, but there is not a “just war” from my perspective by America in my lifetime (born 1955). I am not sure if WWII was a just war or not. I have tended to think it was, but what our government has become since has me unsure about WWII.

      Have you read Jacques Ellul’s “The Meaning of the City”? I will be reading it soon; I think one of the points of the book is that the city (state) is the work of man representing man’s rejection of God.

  • tjamison

    ‘Anglican’ is used in a sweeping way in this conversation. Different Anglican churches around the world have different relationships with governments e.g. the Church of England from which he comes has a much closer relationship with the state than the Episcopal Church of Scotland, where he lives

  • NathanMichael

    As a ‘mostly pacifist’, I would have to side with Wright on this one. I believe the idea of separation of church and state in the sense that it is being discussed here entertains a gnostic sort of dualism. I don’t see this type of separation of church and state as a biblical idea per se, but rather an idea born out of a philosophical school of thought. This is one area where I see Anabaptist theology and bias emphasizing one truth at the expense of others. (Don’t get me wrong, I love and identify with Anabaptists in many areas – especially after having married into a Mennonite family.)

    We see since the beginning in Genesis that a creational intent for mankind is to have authority and rule over the earth. We see continuing in scripture that this is an eschatological intent as well. Mankind will continue to exercise authority over the earth in it’s renewed / new creation state. Of course the authority of man is to be employed under submission to God our King. The Kingdom of God is all about power and authority. It is about the rule and reign of God on the earth as it is in heaven. It is about the rule and reign of God in every area of earthly existence and is not compartmentalized into places where it is and where it is not.

    The Old Testament is filled with God’s people in positions on governmental authority. Broken? Yes. But also blessed by God? Yes. King Jesus was promised out of the line of King David. It’s difficult at best to divorce ourselves from our Old Testament history. I’m not at all saying that I think a theocracy of this style is the way to go, but we shouldn’t ignore it either and an integral part of our biblical history.

    In the New Testament as well, we encounter individuals who are identified as believers who hold positions of governmental authority – including those who serve in military capacity. They are not spoken ill against for holding such roles.

    We also have a puzzling tension in the NT where in Romans 13:4 we read that “…authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God [**instituted by God (v.1)**] to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.” Despite the teachings of Jesus on interpersonal relations, I see no valid passages stating that a believer could not carry out the necessary occupations of governance / police / military.

    I believe there is a hermeneutical error where the interpersonal ethics of Jesus are transported into civil ethics. In our broken world, it is necessary for the sake of peace, love, justice, and order that the sword be present. I see a faulty attempt to resolve a tension that cannot be resolved on this side of the consummated Kingdom. While I understand the way of living in the Kingdom as taught by Jesus, we still must deal with those who do violent evil against others. In the midst of that tension, I believe we still can exercise those civil necessities with as much Kingdom living as possible. But sadly since we’re not in the consummated Kingdom, in many (if not all) spheres of life we still have to operate within broken frames. Who here does not use products or services that do not have an element of injustice, environmental harm, etc? We all do and we can’t separate ourselves from the earth in which we live in it’s current state. We must wrestle with this unresolvable tension and not use a dualistic escape route (which actually doesn’t provide the escape it promises).

    While I believe that the Kingdom of God (the rule and reign of God on the earth) is not extended by political or military means, that does not mean that Christ followers cannot play a significant and necessary role in those capacities. That does not mean that the Kingdom will not positively influence our broken human systems of governance. Our broken systems of governance need Kingdom influence. To separate ourselves as men and women who carry some portion of the wisdom and council of God from our earthly systems is foolish at best. I don’t believe this kind of separation is Christian. Based on the words of Jesus and the apostles, I believe that the nature of the Kingdom is infiltration, subversion, permeation. A gnostic / dualistic separation works against the nature of the Kingdom.

  • Michael Snow

    Yes, it is clear that in Romans Paul sees the role of Christians and of the state as two distinct realms. http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/2012/05/31/romans-13-in-context-sword-pacifism/

    On a converted Christian in the military, the early church teaching:

    The soldier of the government must be taught not to kill men. If ordered
    to, he shall not carry out the order, nor shall he take the military
    oath. If he does not accept this, he must be rejected for baptism.—Tertullian (wrote between A.D. 195-212)

    If a soldier or one in authority wishes to be baptized in the Lord, let
    them cease from military service or from the post of authority. And if
    not, let them not be received.


  • Nice post, brings up some interesting points. I have a son that is in the U.S. Marine’s and I am a pacifist. The only thing that brings me peace is two things: I am not to judge the calling God puts on anyone else, especially my son. And, man, oh, man, do I hope God has put some very good Christian ‘pacifist’ in the military as be the salt and the light and to do everything possible as NOT to wield the sword. I don’t know, ain’t no theologian and simply looking for a peaceful path in which to love all people:)

  • Karen Searcey

    If someone broke into my home and came after my baby niece, I’d shoot him. I don’t care what anyone thinks. The world you’re striving for will come when Jesus comes and takes control

  • disqus_Yay8KTIIt6

    In a class I am taking we are discussing a book titled, “Hidden Worldviews”. Sometimes those in the military run the risk of having the worldview of nationalism creep up on them. Not only do they have to deal with the knowledge that they might have to kill someone because they are on the opposite side, but they have to have a balanced mindset on the difference between patriotism and nationalism as Christians.

    The foundation I have as a Christian is that no, we should not participate in these types of careers. We leave this kingdom to the owner of this kingdom and follow the Kingdom that Jesus said was His. We do, as is found in Romans 13:1 submit to the rules and laws incepted by government and respect those in authority, but we should not be participants in being those that have to carry the judgment, for a lack of better words.

    We were left with one example, Jesus. He personified the Fruits of the Spirit and advocated for those in need and those that were viewed as the lowest in His society. That is who we should follow and listen to first and foremost. Ultimately though, each individual needs to make their choice based on their conscious and like the book said, just do not justify your choice.

  • Cameron

    I think this is well done, NT. Wright is one of my Theologian heros as well. Great article.

    Obviously, my thoughts are being placed into a smaller sphere because I would not be able to account for all scenarios that this may exist in. For that reason I think that we recognize the attitude that we should not judge anyone – this is a sticky situation.

    We could take two scenarios:
    1) The Christian Convert that is serving currently – the soldier that is caught in the middle of a battle he never was aware was being fought. One being waged over his soul. Now, it is raging – to continue to fight or to relinquish the fight? Does he stay in the position he is in and be faithful to that or does he have a rise in compassion and his decision is made for him (in the way of a clear conscience)?


    2) The Christian man that sees a great wickedness and evil rise up against his people. Someone that has witnessed the tragedies of so many people. He is being called by human authority, and his heart, to serve the innocent and the defenceless. To bring order to this world again. He thinks to himself, quietly – not about himself or for himself but about those that are in need and that he has never met. Does his love reveal itself in the form of a warrior or in the form of a martyr? Either way we can say it is that of a Saint.

    Who is to judge such things? None but Christ who will expose the counsels of the heart and all men will have praise of God.

  • Daniel

    The logic here doesn’t make sense. God uses violent institutions to keep order, but Christians must never be part of those institutions. By that logic it would be very bad if our police and military men/women converted at a faster rate than criminals because our society would then be overrun by evil.