Monday, 4 August 2014

Does the Bible teach Pacifism?

The answer is seemingly clear from Scripture – God advocates capital punishment in Genesis 9:6 and Romans 13:4 and therefore, at least for civil authority, there cannot be an absolute Pacifism.  But many would disagree for the individual Christian.  So, let us thoroughly refute this notion from Scripture.  We must decide whether it is even acceptable in God’s eyes for an individual to take up arms.  Is it ungodly to serve in the military, for instance, or to be called to arms by national authority?    

This is not a novel contention; the early church had some debate on the matter, with some writings by Tertullian and Origen being against military service.  However this view was based on the fact that the Roman army conducted many Pagan ceremonies which were unfitting for Christians, not that personal or civil defence are ungodly. 

The Christian Pacifist’s contention, however, lies in one verse of the New Testament:

Matthew 5:39  But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Now, this does not mean we are not to resist any sort of evil.  We are of course called to resist the devil (James 4:7), false doctrine (Romans 16:17) etc.  But, when we look at the context, we see that this is regarding sins committed against one personally.

Matthew 5:38-39  You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  (NASB)

The primary meaning of this verse is in reference to a Jewish custom; such a slap was symbolic of an insult.  This direction from the Lord Jesus calls us not to answer an insult with insult and get caught up in fleshly argument.  More deeply, however, Christ is calling us to not to feel vengeful at all.  These thoughts are echoed by the Holy Spirit in Romans 12:17-21.

So, seeing as Matthew 5:39 is clearly regarding personal insults, what warrant is there from Scripture to believe that we should not defend ourselves from physical attack?  The Lord does not condemn the disciples carrying swords and in fact requests that they should carry them at night, when it would have been commonplace to travel armed for self-defence:

Luke 22:36 & 38  He said to them…“And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one…
And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”

Furthermore, the Scriptures are clear that defending your home and family with weapons is perfectly acceptable:

Exodus 22:2  If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him…  (ESV)

Defending others
On that note, what does the Bible say about defending
another person?  There is nothing in the context here to assume that we should not defend someone else who is being attacked, assaulted or caused harm of any kind.  In fact, from the context of some the verses we have read, we are called to show love towards others.  Our very conscience declares that the loving thing to do would be to defend an old lady if we saw her being mugged in the street?  Indeed, we must overcome evil with good.  And it is good to defend those who are vulnerable from sins which might be committed against them.  It cannot be justified from the New Testament, and certainly not from Christ’s words in Matthew, that we should ignore that old lady being mugged.  We do not believe in Karma, like the Hindus, so we must not assume that it is God’s will for that old lady to suffer unaided.  God allows death, suffering and poverty to exist too but commands us to resist them with love, care and charity, like the Good Samaritan.
Look at Christ - He is our High Priest after the order of Melchizedek.  But who was Melchizedek?  In Genesis 14, we see that certain kings began warring through the land, taking Abraham’s nephew, Lot, and others as slaves.  When Abraham heard of this, what did he do?

Genesis 14:14-16  And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan.
And he divided himself against them, he and his servants, by night, and smote them, and pursued them unto Hobah, which is on the left hand of Damascus.
And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people.

And what was the Lord’s reaction to this?

Genesis 14:18-20  And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.
And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth:
And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.  (KJV)

So, as Christ is a priest of the order of Melchizedek, who blessed Abraham and received a tithe after he had slaughtered these kings and returned the captives, should we assume that it is un-Christian to take up arms in defence of loved ones, indeed of anyone we are called to love?  By no means.  We should bear a good witness in defending our fellow-citizens from any acts of violence which (God forbid) we might encounter. 

But doesn’t the Bible teach that if we live by the sword, we shall die by the sword?  Not at all, the context of the verse is important to understand.

Matthew 26:52-56  Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? …But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled.

Zechariah 13:7  Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who stands next to me,” declares the LORD of hosts. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered; I will turn my hand against the little ones.”  (KJV)

Here, we not only see that Jesus actually affirms that He could destroy the Pharisees with a supernatural army of His own if He wanted to, but also that the disciples should not bring swords out at this particular point in time because they were resisting His will.  Jesus declares that He is fulfilling Scripture by voluntarily laying down His life.  The fact is that the Jews were expecting a conquering Messiah who would overthrow the Roman Empire; the spiritual kingdom of Christ was beyond their carnal understanding.  By resisting the arrest, the disciples were actually trying to prevent Christ from finishing His work at the cross and so were stuck in that same carnal mindset.  It must be noted - Jesus points to the swords brought by those who were coming to arrest Him and calls His disciples to put away their own swords.  This is the immediate context surrounding those who are taking the sword and consequently perishing by the sword.  Furthermore, this event is a fulfilment of prophecy, both of Zechariah and of Christ’s own words:

John 18:9  This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one.”  (ESV)

The disciples were scattered to spare their lives temporarily for God’s specific purposes.  As for the Jews, they brought the sword of the state against the Lord Jesus, calling out to Pilate for Jesus’ blood to be on their hands (Matthew 27:25) and in 70 A.D. the sword of Rome was brought against Jerusalem as the city fell under siege.  As Jesus explicitly states, this verse refers to the fulfilment of Scripture and is not a universal command for Pacifism.

Christians in the armed forces
We also see in the New Testament that it is acceptable for Christians to continue serving in the army.  Indeed, the first Gentile convert we see in the Scriptures was a soldier and we are nowhere told that he was to cease from his duty to his nation.  Roman soldiers even came to inquire about repentance to John the Baptist and what did he say?

Luke 3:14  Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”  (NASB)

The Greek word for extort, ‘diaseio’, literally means to intimidate or bully with the sword as often happens when certain men are allowed to abuse whatever authority they have to police and protect.  But, returning to the soldiers’ occupation, John the Baptist calls them to uphold their duties to police and soldier as ministers for good and, rather than leave their occupation, he tells them to be content with their wages.

So, here we see both the refutation of ‘conscientious objection’ from military service and, also, we have a good example of those in a position of civil authority being commanded to minister for the good of those they are responsible for.

Some Christian Pacifists would quote John 18:36 to prove that Christians should not fight in the military:

John 18:36  Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm."  (NASB)

We see here that Jesus was not addressing whether Christians are permitted to be employed in the military of nation states.  Jesus was telling Pilate that His kingdom is a spiritual one, existing in the hearts of believers; His victory of course would be won at the cross.  For the same reasons He told Peter to put away his sword, when being arrested, He now tells Pilate that His kingdom surpasses the physical realm. 

As citizens of Christ’s kingdom we are in a spiritual battle for the furtherance of the Gospel and the salvation of souls; the earthly kingdoms, however, have other objectives, all within the providence of God.  We must retain the simple doctrine that the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world are separate things.  So long as we do not confuse the two, as sadly the Roman Catholics did during the Crusades, we cannot conclude from this verse that Christians are excluded from serving in national or private armed forces.

Just War
If it is loving to defend our neighbours from attack, can there be a just war?  Numerous early church writers and the Reformers seemed to think so ‘upon just and necessary occasions’[1], but what was their biblical justification for believing so?  Certainly, the Law taught Israel to love their neighbours and yet also gave commands for conduct during war.  But we are not under the Law; what does the New Testament teach us on this point?  The ESV Study Bible notes explain this systematically:

Over time, the just war ethic has developed a common set of criteria that can be used to decide if going to war in a specific situation is right. These include the following:
(1) just cause (is the reason for going to war a morally right cause, such as defense of a nation? cf. Rev. 19:11);
(2) competent authority (has the war been declared not simply by a renegade band within a nation but by a recognized, competent authority within the nation? cf. Rom. 13:1);
(3) comparative justice (it should be clear that the actions of the enemy are morally wrong, and the motives and actions of one’s own nation in going to war are, in comparison, morally right; cf. Rom. 13:3);
(4) right intention (is the purpose of going to war to protect justice and righteousness rather than simply to rob and pillage and destroy another nation? cf. Prov. 21:2);
(5) last resort (have all other reasonable means of resolving the conflict been exhausted? cf. Matt. 5:9; Rom. 12:18);
(6) probability of success (is there a reasonable expectation that the war can be won? cf. Luke 14:31);
(7) proportionality of projected results (will the good results that come from a victory in a war be significantly greater than the harm and loss that will inevitably come with pursuing the war? cf. Rom. 12:21 with 13:4); and
(8) right spirit (is the war undertaken with great reluctance and sorrow at the harm that will come rather than simply with a “delight in war,” as in Ps. 68:30?).’

Therefore, we can conclude that the Bible certainly does not teach a strict Pacifism at all.  We can and should defend ourselves, our families and neighbours and we are permitted to serve in the military.

[1] London Baptist Confession (1689), chapter XXIV