Every major Christian denomination I can think of aproves of military service, Christians serving in law enforcement, and deadly force (by law enforcement, and perhaps even in defense of our own individual lives.)
But wasJesus saying something the Church has forgotten in the sermon on the mount?
He died praying for His killers, Stephen died the same way, and the early Chritians seem to have followed their example when under persecution.
No early Christian martyr I’m aware of died resisting arest, trying to defend his own life, or trying to escape
What is the proper Christian attitude toward military service, self defense, and the use of deadly force?
Well, that’s kind of a tricky one to be honest. The Israelites did obviously use warfare in the OT, and it’s said that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. But what was going on back then? The only time they didn’t employ warfare in self-defense (to my recollection) is when they overtook Canaan. Michael Heiser argues that this is because of the sons of God (supernatural beings) mixing with humans creating a hybrid race of giants who were a threat to human existence on various levels. (There’s one event where disease spreads among the Israelite camp because some of them were taking foreigners as wives.)
So it’s possible that, aside from self-defense, the only justification for warfare is some kind of supernatural one (that is, against beings of supernatural origin in some sense). And perhaps even all of the self-defense episodes were against these same races (haven’t done all the research on that).
Jesus did say, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” This doesn’t necessarily indicate that it’s morally wrong to engage in warfare, just that you have to be ready to die by the same means.
Also, why didn’t Jesus engage in warfare to overthrow the Romans as everyone thought he would? Well, we know that wasn’t His purpose, but also it seems that God was once again using foreign nations to discipline Israel for her wayward behavior as proclaimed by the previous OT prophets. Jesus was in the line of those prophets who called for repentance from oppression and murder lest they be destroyed by their enemies. God does seem to indirectly engage in death as a tactic for discipline. But generally He calls us to peace just as He is peace. Again, those tactics are indirect - that’s not to say that His own hands are actually bloodied in the process.
The Gospels and Acts never told a Roman soldier or centurion that they needed to quit their position. Governments should support just defense against violence, which I believe is supported by the Bible. I also believe that missionaries shouldn’t shoot back, which is a line of tension between just defense and martyrdom. I don’t have all the answers on this, but I try to balance these points.
Some of you may be interested in reading Leo Tolstoy’s book The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Tolstoy dealt with the question of non-resistance. If you want to read what he wrote, you can do so by clicking on the following Link:
The question of violence and how the Christian is to relate to it (both in his theology of God’s involvement with violence as well as the proper place – if any – for violence by Christians) is a great one. In fact it was one of the very first questions I struggled with when I joined this site just over 2 years ago!
Back when Tom Talbott engaged our questions in his section called “Questions and Critical comments” I titled a question/challenge:
Problem: Universalism “shrugs”at God’s violence
Tom never chose to tackle this question (am still curious why) but nonetheless we had an interesting discussion. I think you would find it interesting.
Later, I posed a similar question to Jason P (at his invitation) and another discussion followed which I thought was very useful and informative. My question was:
Can UR trump the Myth of Redemptive Violence?
For me it remains a lingering and only partially answered question/problem and thus one which necessarily must be engaged and visited from time to time.
–Does God use violence to accomplish His purposes?
–Should we not expect human reactions to God’s violence to arouse fear - NOT love? (a problem for the idea that perfect love casts out all fear…)
–If violence and force ARE part of God’s design and plan, doesn’t it seem that this logically leads to rebellion – not devotion and adoration?
–If Christians really ARE to engage in “good violence”, how can we possibly know when to stop?
–Can God’s gospel message really be summed by the phrase “Love Me, or I’ll have to kill you…”?
–If I can point to a “good” outcome of violence, does that mean the violence was “good violence”?
–Does God Himself solve the sin problem with Violence against His Son at the Cross??
Obviously these sorts of questions can be asked ad infinitum. You may well enjoy reading these two threads!
Good questions, Michael and Bobx3. The more I study what the Bible actually says (and not automatically apply the hermeneutics I grew up with), the more I’m coming to be a pretty committed pacifist. I’m working on a biblical defense/explanation for pacifism, but I kinda got slowed down by my UR revelations!
Anyway, here’s a little something I wrote up about Romans 13 (one of the most popular proof-texts against biblical pacifism)(be warned: somewhat lengthy):
An apostolic call to return to a New Testament understanding of Romans 13
Introduction and background: I love the USA, and I am grateful to be a citizen of it. I am grateful for my worldly citizenship in it as I am grateful for air conditioning on a hot summer day—in other words, there are physical comforts and temporal benefits associated with it, but no inherent spiritual value. From an eternal perspective, it’s not any better to be born American than it is to be born Venezuelan, or Iranian, or Palestinian Arab. In fact, being American (and thus surrounded by temporal comfort and privilege) has actually been a hindrance in my life, for I have had to work through serious issues that taint my understanding of Scripture and the spiritual life. In US conservative Christian circles, Jesus is treated as an American flag-waving, gun-toting, free speech-protecting crusader. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of those things, but at this point in my life I have trouble seeing how those things are connected to the Kingdom of God introduced by Jesus. My journey as a Jesus-follower has taken me from seeing Jesus as a conservative Republican to, well, I’m not sure how I would describe my understanding of his political views now—theocratic anarcho-pacifist? As I have become increasingly obsessed with Jesus (for that is, after all, what being a “Christian,” or “Christ-follower,” or “follower of Jesus” means—you are one whose life is becoming more and more like Jesus’ in word, thought, and deed), I have become persuaded of the absolute primacy of Jesus’ sublime teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount. As the impact of the Sermon on the Mount has increased in my journey as a Christ-follower, I have become more and more aware of my responsibility to let Kingdom-life flow out of my heart in the manner of Jesus’ commands here—in every area of my life. Becoming more of a Jesus-follower has made me now (theoretically, at least) a thoroughgoing pacifist—not PASSIVIST, but PACIFIST. I will not stand by while injustice is done, but my methods to counter it will be congruent to Jesus’ life and example. This always involves humble, serving love and identification with the sufferer. Anything different than this is not part of the Kingdom of God. I want to mention my background as a conservative, military-worshiping David Barton-believing hyper-patriot (which I’ve come to understand was idolatrous for me, plain and simple), so that no one can accuse me of growing up Mennonite or Anabaptist and reading my tradition into the Bible. What I’m about to say are my honest, best shots at a good hermeneutic. At least, for where I am in life right now.
Now, am I saying that this reading of Romans 13 is the only possible Christian one? No, but I am saying that it’s pretty near impossible for me in my current walk with Jesus to believe that Romans 13 is meant to communicate anything other than what I’m about to say.
Question: Doesn’t Romans 13 make a break between our PERSONAL responsibility for loving our enemies (which was what Jesus emphasized in his teachings) and the duty the government has, as an agent of God? Isn’t Paul describing the responsibility and purpose of the government? If he is, then Christians who serve in government must consider and act according to such God-given purpose outlined in Romans 13, as opposed to how Jesus said we must respond to, say, personal persecution.
(This is what I used to believe, because this is what I was taught in my conservative Christian background)
(Passage in question) Romans
My answer: First of all, let’s look at it in context (because chapters and verses were added later by a “scribe on the back of a donkey riding to Rome in the rain,” as my Greek professor liked to say):
Romans 12, 13
To summarize chapter 12 (which repeats much of Jesus’ teaching on loving your enemies! Interesting!), especially in its proximity to the statements in chapter 13, it’s precisely when the government becomes our enemy that we as Christians must submit to/ serve/ love/ bless this perfect example of “evildoers.” We do this, in part, because we recognize our “enemy” government as a specific example of Romans 8:28-29—although government powers act selfishly, for the benefit of themselves (and simple perpetuation of the state), God is using them for our good, to ultimately conform us more to the image of Christ. Nothing in this passage is favorable towards government, neither does this passage justify anything about the government, nor does it say that government is even necessary—it just says that even when a government gets really tyrannical and corrupt, you need to obey it and not to cause trouble for yourself unless, for some reason, loving people gets to be against the law. There is a similar discussion in 1 Peter 2 and 3.
(On a side note, there is nothing here about abolishing or reforming a government when it gets its “right” and “wrong” twisted. No, we need to recognize that God in his sovereignty is using even the vilest government as an agent to work righteousness in you through your suffering. As a citizen of the Kingdom of God, organized rebellion and overthrow of the government is simply not an option for you. Yes, you must disobey sometimes (Acts 5:29), but only when it’s a crime to share the love and truth of Jesus.)
Now, we must recognize that we’re on dangerous territory when we use an oblique passing reference to government (in a culturally-conditioned exhortation, no less) to limit and define Jesus’ plain teachings. Let’s get an historical overview here:
–Moses gave the law from God, which includes “eye for an eye,” as a way to limit and define recompense and retribution.
–This evolved, in the minds of humans, into “love your neighbor and hate your enemy”
–Which is what Jesus quotes (Matt 5:43). But then he totally throws that out and says to love your enemies, globally, with no restrictions or conditions whatsoever.
–Then Paul came along and (by the Holy Spirit) wrote a letter to a persecuted minority, almost an underground movement (at the time), and gives them explicit advice on how to relate to the government which is persecuting them. Now, is Paul contradicting what Jesus said, or is he trying to apply it to the Roman Christians’ context? Is he giving the Roman Christians permission to join the army and slay your enemies, because if you do that then you’re part of the sword the government bears “to administer retribution on the wrongdoer”? Like, hey guys just join the government then you get to run around distributing Old-Testament style justice to badguys! Well, look at the context, and you find all these crazy verses lying around:
So Paul goes right back to what Jesus said, reminding the Roman Christians that they are defined as people who love their neighbors (including enemies—Luke 10). In fact, according to this passage, Christians are to have nothing to do with taking revenge or punishing evil—that’s the tyrannical Roman government’s job. The only attitude that fits Christians is to bless, love, do good, serve, and honor others—never never never take revenge or retribution. (hmmm, that’s an idea for a future post—to show how believing in the work of Christ frees us from wanting to have punishment or retribution done to evildoers) This seems to go against the idea that Christians in government are excused from literally obeying the command to “resist not the evildoer” and to “turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39). In fact, everything in this passage draws a sharp distinction between Christians and any sort of government service. The rulers of the kingdoms of this world, even as much as they oppose God’s Kingdom, are not outside the sovereignty of God. And oppose God’s Kingdom they will, for it is impossible for God’s Kingdom to mix with or ultimately to condone any worldly kingdom. This passage is absolutely not promoting government service as something Christians should aspire to, or telling Christians that we have some kind of “holy duty to vote” (as I’ve heard conservatives say). No, in this passage, the government is evil and oppressing and persecuting the Christians. This word used in 13:1, “authorities,” is the exact same later used to say what we’re at war against—Eph 6:12! Indeed, Christ shamed and beat them at the cross (Col 2:15)—part of Jesus’ whole purpose in coming to earth was to defeat these earthly powers! How can anyone come to the conclusion that this passage justifies government service as a noble purpose for a Christian! Bottom line: if you belong to the Heavenly Kingdom, you are not allowed to act as if you belong to a worldly kingdom. If living like Jesus gets in the way of being successful in your job/career, then maybe that’s a job/career you shouldn’t have? Jesus determines our behavior—or, more accurately, his eternal abundant life in us has only one true expression: laying down our life in love for our enemies. We’re simply not allowed to choose how we’re going to obey Jesus, based on what our job/career demands. (Am I saying that it’s absolutely wrong for a Christian to be involved in government? No, not at all, but I am saying that this passage, with its characterization of the government as evil yet in God’s sovereign control (cf John 19:10-11) doesn’t encourage Christians to be ambitious for political power. Justification for Christians’ involvement in government must have other grounds than this passage, and must be strongly weighed in the light of the overall thrust of Jesus’ commands—especially those found in Mark 10:42-44 and Matthew 23:8-12)
We must remember, as well, that Paul was not talking to senators or bureaucrats—he was talking to a persecuted minority. This is not to say that none of the Roman Christians were influential or in positions of power, but Paul’s intent in writing this, when looked at in the context of the whole chapter, seems to be to remind the Romans that a government who is persecuting you remains in the realm of neighbors/enemies whom you are called to love. “Additionally, guys,” he seems to be saying, “don’t cause trouble for yourselves by being needlessly rebellious and stupid. The government will be God’s tool to discipline you and get you back in the mindset of loving neighbors/enemies if you start making trouble instead of living out your calling of being ministers of reconciliation and peacemakers. Have some sense.” (hahaha, reminds me of my dad. He liked commanding me to have sense, when I was a teenager)
This also calls to mind Jesus’ words to Pilate. “As evil as you are, jack, the only power you have is from God.” (Neal paraphrase of John 19:10-11) He’d already told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
So, to sum, we are citizens of the kingdom “from another place.” Therefore we renounce any “responsibility” we have as “citizens” of any worldly empire which tempts us to believe that it’s okay not to follow Jesus’ example and commands. This includes having ambition to “rule” over others politically or governmentally. Jesus clearly told us that as his followers we “rule” by serving (Mark 10:42-44). That is the only “ruling” that is an expression of the kingdom of God and the Holy Spirit in our lives. I feel like our default attitude, when faced with any opportunity or situation, needs to be, “How can we use this as ministers of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:14-21) to spread the gospel of love and forgiveness God offers through Jesus?!” We should assume, from Jesus’ example and words, that it will involve suffering and giving up our privileges, comforts, and rights to love others—including our enemies. But this is what the Kingdom of God consists of, and Jesus promises to serve us in it (Mark 10:45)! What joy to follow our king!
Neal, Thanks for your piece about pacifism and Romans 13. I found it really helpful. Gandhi is one of my heroes, especially through E. Stanley Jones’s “Mahatma Gandhi: an interpretation”. I have also found Walter Wink’s books helpful on this topic.
We should remember though, that it would be poor stewardship of ourselves and our family if we let ourselves be abused.
Christ was abused for the greater good - but if someone were to say, attempt to rape your daughter or cut off your wife’s arms and legs; I personally would not hesitate to kill the person (if I can, and if only out of sheer defense of my family) send the person as quickly to the remedial fire of the loving Father as possible. Of course it is common sense that on the same token it is poor stewardship and just plain sin to go out and kill people for no good reason at all.