Can a Christian be a pacifist?

Pacifism means different things to different people. Its dictionary definition is ‘the opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes'. To some it means demonstrations which try to stop the nuclear subs or the trains carrying nuclear weapons. Many tend to ignore the subject (perhaps fearful of what changes it would bring to their lives if they were to carefully investigate it).

Can a Christian be a pacifist in this modern world? Can one completely reject the use of violence on both a personal level and on a national level? If someone wants to take what is ours, can we use force to stop him? Does our position on this issue, the use of force in order to have our own way, reflect our relationship with God? Does it indicate our faith in God and in His control of events in our lives? Let us explore this subject, trusting that God will guide us on this path.

If pacifism is of God then, like all things of God, it does not stand alone. In the great wisdom of God, it has to be deeply mixed with the other areas of the Christian walk such as love for others, rejection of the world, and trusting God in all matters concerning our lives.

Jesus appears to teach pacifism when he told his disciples: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God... Do not resist the evil man but whoever slaps you on the right cheek turn to him the other also. And if anyone wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. Love your enemies. Give to everyone who asks you; when a man takes what is yours, do not demand it back’ (Luke 6:30 and Matt. 5:9-44).

These are hard sayings of Jesus and we might say, as some of his listeners did elsewhere 'Who can follow them?'

Jesus declared that the life of the Christian will be different than the life of the Old Testament Jew. One of the areas of change is in the Christian’s relations with other people. Love is now to be the overriding concern. He said, ‘You have learned that our forefathers were told, 'Do not commit murder; anyone who commits murder must be brought to judgement.’ But what I tell you is this: Anyone who nurses anger against his brother must be brought to Judgement. if he abuses his brother he must answer for it to the court; if he sneers at him he will have to answer for it in the fires of hell.’ Jesus does not even allow a Christian to be angry with someone! (Mt 5:21-24) What then will He do with those who kill?

Jesus taught, ‘You have learned that they were told, ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.' But what I tell you is this: Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you.’ (Mt 5:38-39) What a strong statement! Only the Son of God could call for such faith in God’s control of the situation. Is He telling us that the Christian life is to be lived in the Kingdom of God and not in this world?

The apostle Paul spoke on the subject of peace, ‘Let us pursue the things that make for peace and build up the common life.’ (Rom 14:19) And ‘The Kingdom of God is justice, peace and joy, inspired by the Holy Spirit.’ (Rom 14:17) The disciple James said, ‘The wisdom from above is in the first place pure; and then peace-loving, considerate, and open to reason; it is straightforward and sincere, rich in mercy and in the kindly deeds that are its fruit. True justice is the harvest reaped by peace-makers from seed sown in a spirit of peace. What causes conflicts and quarrels among you? Do they not spring from the aggressiveness of your bodily desires? You want something which you can not have, and so you are bent on murder; you are envious, and cannot attain your ambition, and so you quarrel and fight.’ (James 3:17-4:2)


Early Church Practice

The early church took these teachings of Jesus and the apostles very seriously. Guided by the Holy Spirit, they were strong pacifists. They did not identify with any earthly nation but rather claimed citizenship in heaven, considering themselves as strangers and aliens on the earth (Heb 11:13-16 and I Peter 2:11). They believed that the governments were given by God and therefore to be obeyed when it did not conflict with obeying God (Acts 4:19; Rom 13:1-6 and I Peter 2:13-14). However, Christians could not be judges nor soldiers as this would place them in positions where they may be responsible for taking someone’s life.

Most serious scholars of church history today agree that for the first three centuries of the Christian church, Christians rejected not only emperor worship and idolatry but also participation in the military. Obedience to the gospel, the early church held, was consistent only with a position of nonresistance and not serving in the military.

Yale church historian Roland Bainton writes, 'From the end of the New Testament period to the decade 170-180 there is no evidence whatever of Christians in the army. All of the East and West repudiated participation in warfare for Christians.' Guy F. Hershberger adds, ‘It is quite clear that prior to about AD 174 it is impossible to speak of Christian soldiers.' None of the Christian leaders in the pre-Constantinian era (313 AD) approved of a military career for disciples of Jesus Christ.

Many early writers spoke of this pacifism. Such as Tertullian who wrote, ‘the divine banner and the human banner do not go together, nor the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil. Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: for the Lord has abolished the sword.’ (On the Chaplet 11-12) Origen wrote, ‘You can not demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers.' (Against Celsus VIII.7.3 about 240 AD)

Justin wrote ‘We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for ploughshares, our spears for farm tools. Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness to men, faith, and the expectation of the future given to us by the Father himself through the Crucified One.' (Dialogue with Trypho 110.3.4 about 160 AD)

Athenagoras wrote (about 180 AD), 'How can we possibly kill anyone, we who call those women murderers who take drugs to induce an abortion, we who say they will have to give an account before God one day! We are convinced that with God nothing goes unexamined, and that the body, after serving the irrational urges and lusts of the soul, will have its share in punishment. We have, therefore, every reason to detest even the slightest sin.' (A Plea Regarding Christians 32-35).

Hippolytus (218 A.D) states that soldiers who become Christians are not allowed to kill and must refuse to obey orders to kill. He also says that judges who want to become followers of the Christ must resign or be rejected by the church. (‘The Apostolic Tradition’ 16).

This pacifism did not survive the Constantine change. By the year 314 A.D., the church was excommunicating military deserters without any consideration of the motives for desertion.


Modern Practice

Governments recognize that most young people can not aroused to kill unless they first hate those that they kill. Therefore, before a government leads its people into war, great propaganda efforts must be made to bring people to the point where they can believe it is right to kill other human beings. They often, in the guise of religion, declare that the enemy is evil and under the control of the devil. At the same time they may state that God is with them. These propaganda efforts to bring forth hatred should alert the Christian immediately that something is wrong. Hatred should be obviously identified as the work of Satan and not of Jesus Christ.

Supporting the military activities of a government seems to be in opposition to the call of the New Testament to reject the world. John tells us to love not the world nor the things of the world. Jesus said that his disciples are in the world but not of the world. Rejection of the worldly system means rejection of selfishness which is what nationalism boils down to. When a country says ‘This is mine’ and fights to get it or keep it, then those who support it are following a spirit other than the Spirit of Christ.

The faith required to be a pacifist must provide the Christian with the assurance that God is in charge of all that happens to the Christian. Just as Jesus said that we should look to the Father for our daily needs, we can be confident that He loves us and is leading us into His kingdom. If we can not trust God then we need to trust in our own power. But we, who call ourselves followers of Christ, have placed our complete trust in God.


The Principle of Nonresistance

The Christian Church in general has in all ages of its history recognized the fact that our Lord taught the principle of nonresistance, and yet, excepting the earliest Christian centuries, the great majority of Christian professors have always found a way to circumvent the practical requirements of this principle. The Roman Catholic Church has always held that Christ taught nonresistance, not however as a commandment but as an advice; hence, according to the doctrine of this church, those engaging in war do not transgress a divine command and do not become guilty of sin. Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, defended a peculiar view on this question, a view which is even today held by many Protestant theologians. He taught that a Christian is to be strictly nonresistant and that no one can as a Christian have a part in violence and bloodshed, be it in self-defense or in war. No one can do so as a Christian. But a Christian, he says, is also a "world person," or a citizen, and as such he is under duty to use violence in the service of the government, as a magistrate, officer, or soldier. when in such capacity he acts contrary to the precept and example of Christ, it is not a sin to him but is his duty. He does this as a citizen, not as a Christian. Luther divided the Christian into two personalities, the duty of the one being the opposite to that of the other. The fact will bear repetition that he in theory defended the principle of strict nonresistance of the Christian.

Many fundamental Christians believe that the Old Testament commands, except the ceremonial law, are binding for the Christian Church, the same as the Scriptures of the Old Testament. In plain fact, however, there are many portions of the Mosaic law, besides those containing the ceremonial law, that are not binding in the New Covenant.

Our Lord, after quoting literally from the Old Testament law: "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21), goes on to say: 'But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil. . . . Love your enemies," etc. (Matt. 5:38-48). On such points as war, the oath, and divorce, Christ's teaching is at variance with the Old Testament law. He is pre-eminently the Lord and Lawgiver, as well as the Saviour of men. In the light of His teaching, the law of the Old Covenant is not faultless. Heb. 8:7. War, being contrary to His teaching, is sin.

It has been supposed by various writers that Jesus in the words, "I came not to send peace, but a sword" (Matt. 10:34), spoke of the material sword and declared Himself against the principle of nonresistance. The supposition, however, that He came into the world to send the material sword is simply contrary to fact. He did not come for any such purpose. That He should have made a statement to that effect is unthinkable and impossible. If the purpose of His coming had been to send the carnal sword, Christianity would necessarily be a "religion of the sword," somewhat of the order of Mohammedanism, possibly. The parallel reference in Luke (12:51) has "division" (separation) instead of "sword," and this is undoubtedly the meaning, as the context in both Matthew and Luke clearly indicates. The conflict which resulted from Christ's coming into the world is not one that is to be decided by the carnal sword. "The weapons of our warfare are not carnal" (II Cor. 10:4). The conflict with evil is of a spiritual nature, as fully described in Eph. 6:10-18. The sword to be used by the Christian is "the sword of the Spirit."

As an argument against nonresistance, the passage in Luke 22:36 has also been quoted, "He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one." Opinions may differ as to our Lord's intended purpose in uttering these words. The question which concerns us here is, whether He intended to say that the disciples should make practical use of the material sword. As we may directly see, this was by no means the case. Yet the disciples may have understood Him so. Just a few moments later, when the multitude came on the scene to arrest Jesus, one of the disciples asked, "Lord, shall we smite with the sword?" Peter, without waiting for a reply, drew the sword and injured the high priest's servant, Malchus. Christ, then, while healing the injury Peter had done, addressed him with the solemn words, "Put up . . . thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword."

Peter, as well as the rest of the disciples, evidently took these words of Christ to heart. Apparently none of them ever transgressed again by using the sword for self-defense. Peter, in his first epistle, points out with emphasis that Christ gave us the example of meekness and nonresistance, and that upon His followers devolves the solemn duty to "follow his steps." I Pet. 2:20-23.

Evidently the context of the passage under consideration (Luke 22:36) must be taken into account to understand the meaning of these words. Verse 38 reads, "And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough." Do not the words of Jesus, "It is enough," indicate that the two swords were not to be used by the disciples against their antagonists? Or was it Jesus' thought, as some have supposed, that, since He was about to return to the Father, the disciples needed the material sword for self-defense? Did Jesus mean to indicate that they should use the sword against the persecuting governments? Would they not have proved themselves transgressors by becoming insurrectionists against constituted authority? Or was it His thought that they should use the material sword in defense against their neighbors who would antagonize them? Would not the disciples, by taking in such a way the civil law into their own hands, have become guilty of glaring transgression?

Again, could it be supposed that Jesus meant to say that the disciples should have swords ready to be used against the multitude armed "with swords and staves" which was just then drawing near to take Him? Was it His thought that the disciples should engage in an armed struggle with the multitude? Would in this case two swords have been enough for the eleven disciples? Would eleven disciples, even if they all had swords, have been enough to defend themselves with the sword against the multitude? Would not the disciples, by making Gethsemane the scene of carnal struggle and bloodshed, have made our Lord the head of a band of wrongdoers, if He had permitted it? Think of the defeat which His cause would have suffered, had the disciples made such use of the carnal sword. Such is the absurdity of the opinion that they were to use the two swords for self-defense and that Jesus here taught against peace and nonresistance.

Clearly, Jesus' words, "It is enough," could not have meant that the two swords were "enough" for self-defense, or were to be used for such a purpose. But they were enough to give occasion for an impressive object lesson to the disciples concerning the use of the sword: "Put up . . . thy sword." Besides, the two swords may have had some symbolic significance as is the opinion of various commentators.

The crucial question, of course, is not how later churchmen evaluated participation in the military. The normative question is, What did Christ teach about resistance and retaliation? It is not a question of taking an occasional word out of context, or of making a wooden legalism out of a few phrases. Rather, exegetical honesty requires us to test the intent of our Lord's words by His own example in actual life. Did He mean literally that Christians should not resist an evildoer? That the love of His disciples should be so great that they were willing to offer the other cheek when smitten? Matthew 5:38-48. Did He actually mean that He was sending out His disciples as harmless and defenseless lambs in the midst of wolves? Luke 10:3. Was Paul truly reflecting the spirit of his Lord when he reminded Christians that although they walked in the flesh, they do not war according to the flesh? 2 Corinthians 10:3. Also, when he reminded the young church in Thessalonica not to render evil for evil to anyone? 1 Thessalonians 5:15. Also, that the Lord's servant must not strive, but be gentle toward all? 2 Timothy 2:24. Was Peter led of the Holy Spirit when he grounded the nonresistant spirit of his Christian readers in the nonresistant example of Jesus Christ who suffered unjustly -- even to crucifixion on a felon's cross? I Peter 2:21-24. Was Peter right in twice asserting that Christians are called to a ministry of nonresistant suffering? 1 Peter 2:21; 3:9. Is it correct that just as the Lord Jesus suffered in the flesh, so the Christian ought to "arm himself" with the same readiness to suffer meekly? 1 Peter 4:1. The witness of history is that the primitive church understood these many injunctions to mean literally what they said. And this witness did not die out until the fourth or fifth century.

It is of interest to note that in recent decades various prominent theological writers have admitted that war is sin, that it is indeed the most appalling outbreak and manifestation of sin in the world.

If participation in warfare were consistent with Christian principles, war could not be so great an evil as it is generally recognized to be. Without question anything one may do that is consistent with true Christianity cannot be an evil. As already stated, the causes of war are ever present among the nations of the world. It is not within the power of the Christian Church to change the nature of the world and to remove the causes of war. The practical and highly important question is, What is the Christian to do in case of war, when he is bidden to have a part in it? It is an easy way out to say, as some do, that the Sermon on the Mount was not intended for this age. Any one reading this sermon carefully must realize that Christ asked His hearers to make it the rule of their lives. And the plain fact remains that war is absolutely and intrinsically contrary to Christian principles. It is the very opposite of what Jesus taught concerning practical Christian duty. If He had never preached the Sermon on the Mount, this would not change the fact of the anti-Christian character of war. The unsophisticated Christian conscience revolts against participation in war.

To say that war is consistent with Christian principles means that the Christian Church of the first three centuries misunderstood Christ's teaching. It is an established historical fact that the early church did not permit participation in war.

As early as A.D. 380 the two emperors, Theodosius of the Eastern Empire, and Gratianus of the Western Empire, in a joint edict made Christianity the official arid obligatory religion of state. The total reversal of attitude on nonresistance came in A.D. 416 when the empire required that all soldiers must be Christians. It, therefore, required only about a century for a remarkable change of climate-from the time when Constantine had nails purporting to come from the cross of Christ made into a helmet for himself, and into a bit for his horse, until the time when it was required of all soldiers that they be Christians. This reversal of attitude from primitive Christianity's nonresistance to a full-orbed acceptance of warfare was a major aspect of what Heering calls the "Fall" of Christianity.

Peter Chelchitzki, a farmer of Chelchitz in Bohemia, was born about 1395. Little is known of his life and his religious connections. He was probably connected with one of the Hussite groups, the followers of John Huss who was burned at the stake at Constance, Germany, in 1415. That Chelchitzki was a consistent defender of the principle of nonresistance is evident from a number of his extant books.

Chelchitzki says: “Worldly rulers have contentions for the sake of material wealth and worldly honor. Let some one threaten their sovereignty, and at once they engage in war. They seize the men and bring them together like a herd and drive them into the conflict where those on the one side kill and rob those on the other. . . And the worst is that they undertake to compel Christians to engage in such conflicts, for on both sides there may be a few who cannot with a good, clear conscience kill and rob others. Yea, brother goes against brother to harm him, when according to the Christian faith he should be ready to die for him. Compelled by self-seeking authorities he goes out to kill and rob his brother, and does not have the conviction and the love to follow the Lord unto death rather than become guilty of such evil deeds. The one party is praying for their armies and the other party for theirs that they may he victorious. Each party prays for victory against the other. And both are named Christians though each one is wishing well only to his own party. The Christians on both sides engage wrongfully in the bloody strife and pray that they may be victorious over the other side. Whom, now, will God hear? Since on both sides there are Christians, they combat unlawfully with each other and theirs is not a prayer of faith. God does not hear them. The faith of these Christians is as if tom to shreds and their prayer is powerless since it is aimed at shedding the blood of brethren. And if those with whom they are engaged in such conflict are not brothers, they may be enemies and God has commanded to pray for such and to do them good. The whole rabble of these divided multitudes are called Christians and together they pray: Our Father which art in heaven. They approach God in this way while each party has in mind the destruction of the other. They think they are serving God by shedding others' blood. And on both sides they say: Forgive us as we forgive. And every party seeks to increase its military force and never thinks of forgiving the other so long as they can hope to overcome them. Therefore their prayers are blasphemies against God.”

It is interesting to notice that both Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli (the founder of the Reformed Church), in the earliest period of their labors as reformers, were advocates of the principle of nonresistance. This was the period before they consented to the compromise of a union of the church with the state, or in other words to the establishment of all-inclusive state churches.

Johannes Oekolampad, the Zwinglian reformer of Basel, who, like Zwingli, in a later period renounced pacifism, wrote in 1524: “ How can a Christian approve of lawsuits and war? The approval of war among Christians is a doctrine of devils. Christians abhor hatred and war. Or show me a war that is waged in love! .. . What shall we say about those whose lifework consists of shedding blood? We are bidden to give our life for the brethren, and to consider even our enemies as brothers. But we go to war and wound and kill those whom we have never known, yea, who may have done us some good service. How is it that there are so many who make less of taking the life of a man than of killing a goose!”

Felix Manz, one of the most influential leaders of the early Swiss Brethren, said: "No Christian smites with the sword nor resists evil." In the death sentence pronounced over him on January 5, 1527, it was charged that Manz held that no Christian can carry out the death sentence on any person, nor put to death any one.

Paul exhorts and says: "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath; for it is written: Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord" (Dent. 32:35; Rom. 12:19-21). Since vengeance is the Lord's and not ours, it should be committed to Him and is not to be exercised by us. Being followers of Christ we must manifest His nature who, though He had all power over His enemies, did not recompense evil for evil (I Pet. 2:21-23). He did not use His power against His enemies nor did He permit others to defend Him. He said to Peter: "Put up thy sword" (Matt. 26:52; John 18:10, 11). Here is seen with what sort of a mighty army our King met His enemies and in what manner He slays His adversaries and executes vengeance. He heals the high priest's servant's ear which Peter had cut off. Now He who has done this says: "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me" (Matt. 16:24; Mark 8:32; Luke 9:23).

Christ wills that we should do as He has done, hence He commands us and says: "But I say unto you that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:39). This shows clearly that we should not avenge ourselves nor engage in war.

But if it be said that David who was loved of God, and other saints, have waged war, therefore it is right now, if there be occasion or authorization for it; our answer is: No. That we should not do such things, although David and other saints engaged in them, is clear from the above quoted words of Christ: "Resist not evil," though "to them of old time it was said: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" (Matt. 5:38). Here Christ Himself points out the difference, therefore there is no need of using many words. Christ's words indicate that a Christian must not go to war nor use vengeance. But he who notwithstanding does these things has denied Christ's nature and forsaken His ways.

Since, as said above, Christians should make their swords into useful tools, or lay them down, they can much less make swords, for such weapons serve for nothing but to kill, for the wounding and destruction of men; and Christ came not to destroy men, therefore He rebuked His disciples and said: "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of" (Luke 9:55). As if to say: Does the spirit of grace teach you to destroy others, and would you act in a carnal way? (Gal. 8:3). If you would be my disciples, you must be led by my Spirit and not walk after the flesh; "for they that are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom. 8:8).

Now, since Christians should not use or exercise vengeance, they must not make the weapons by which such vengeance and destruction may be exercised, lest they make themselves partakers of others' sins. Therefore we make neither swords, spears, guns nor other similar weapons. But whatever is made in the interest and for the daily use of men, such as bread knives, axes, hoes, and the like, we may consistently make and do make. But if someone would say that it is possible even with such tools to injure or kill a man, our reply is that these things are not made for such purposes; therefore we are free to make them. But if some one would use these tools to any one's injury, this is not our responsibility; let him answer for his own deeds.

Menno Simons' writings contain many expressions on nonresistance: “Again, our fortress is Christ, our defense is patience, our sword is the word of God, and our victory is the sincere, firm, unfeigned faith in Jesus Christ. Spears and swords of iron we leave to those who, alas, consider human blood and swine's blood of well-nigh equal value. He that is wise, let him judge what I mean.” (Part I, p. 81b).

“I am well aware that the tyrants who boast themselves Christians attempt to justify their horrible wars and shedding of blood, and would present it as a good work by referring us to Moses, Joshua, etc. But they do not reflect that Moses and his successors, with their iron sword, have served out their time and that Jesus Christ has now given us a new commandment and has girded our loins with another sword. . . . The defenders of war and bloodshed do not consider that they use the sword of war contrary to all evangelical Scripture against their own brethren, namely those of like faith with them who have received the same baptism and have broken the same bread with them and are thus members of the same body.” (Part I, p.198).

Jesus Christ lived in a land which was occupied by a foreign government. That government was arrogant, thinking to bring peace and security to the world by being the 'benign ruler" of as much of it as it could conquer! Rome's domains stretched from North Africa to England. Some of the Jews, the Zealots, thought it advisable to advocate the overthrow of the Roman occupation of Palestine by force. The Lord Jesus showed no interest whatever in joining forces with the Zealots. Rather, He seems to have taken one of them, given his zeal a new turn -- that of building the kingdom of God by spiritual means and methods-and made of him an apostle, one of the Twelve, Simon the Zealot by name. How it must have hurt Simon-and many other good Jews -- to pay taxes to the hated Romans, and thereby to help support the exasperating army of occupation! No doubt the Twelve discussed and debated this subject on many an occasion.

Finally, the question was taken by the Pharisees and Herodians to a good Source for answer, the Lord Jesus Himself. And although the motive in asking the question may not have been pure, the reply of Jesus in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 22, Mark 12, and Luke 20) was sincere and abundantly clear. The Lord argued from the fact that money is a means created by the state for the use of its citizens that the state in turn has the power and the right to demand the payment of taxes from its citizens. He said plainly, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." Is not this directive of our Lord normative for this painful and vexatious question today? Needless to say, one can but have high admiration and respect for those who for conscience's sake do not so understand the matter. But it does seem that a nonresistant Christian may both (1) protest to the government its evil course on any issue, and at the same time (2) continue to pray for the government and to pay all taxes in full.