Christian Living,  Ethics

Does Jesus Want Christians to be Pacifists?

A pacifist believes that a Christian should not engage in violence. To the pacifist, Christ’s command to love one’s enemy prohibits them from acting in violence toward them (cf. Matt 5:44). After all, it is kind of hard to love your enemy while you are beating him up or killing him. To the consistent pacifist then, there is never any justification for aggressive self-defense or for fighting in wars.

image of peace sign for pacifism

There are many modern examples of pacifism, some of them very extended in their treatment. Certain theological movements are marked by pacifism, such as Seventh Day Adventists. There are also variations, where some Christians are against forms of personal defense, while at the same time allowing for police or military involvement.

As is typical of these articles, I don’t wish to write an exhaustive examination of the issue as much as I want to present a few considerations on the issue based on biblical texts. I believe the Bible clearly allows for self defense, police, and military involvement for the Christian.

The government is ordained by God to use violence to ensure law and order.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

Rom 13:1–4, emphasis added

The sword is a symbol of violence and aggressive enforcement of law. This has application both to capital punishment as well as engaging in what is called “just war” to defend its citizens or other innocent individuals from hateful aggressors.

There are multiple texts which indicate that God-fearers and Christians were involved with the governmental operation of the army (cf. Acts 10:1-8; Luke 3:14, etc.). There is never any indication that Christians should not be involved with the government or with the military or police force. Rather, the assumption is that Christians will be involved.

John the Baptist was not a pacifist.

I referred to Luke 3:14 above, but it is worth quoting in full. The context is John the Baptist preaching the need for repentance. The crowd asks for guidance from John (Luke 3:10-11), the tax collectors ask (3:12-13). Then we are told that soldiers also asked him.

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.”

Luke 3:14

If engaging in military conflict were problematic, it seems that John could have simply told the soldiers to find a different job. In addition, it is interesting that when Jesus interacts with the centurion in Matt 8:5-13, Jesus does not condemn his profession as being a military commander. Although Jesus was never shy about condemning sin, he is silent about challenging the call to military involvement.

In the Old Testament, God’s law clearly allows for aggressive and violent self-defense.

If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, but if the sun has risen on him, there shall be bloodguilt for him. He shall surely pay. If he has nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.

Exod 22:2-3

Notice that there are two alternative situations described here. Although a thief breaks in during both cases, if the homeowner kills the man in the night, he won’t be guilty whereas if he kills him during the day, he will be guilty of unlawful killing. The thinking behind this law is that at nighttime it is not as easy to determine someone’s intent. Are they armed? Are they coming to kill me, or are they trying to rob me? By the time you figure it out, you might be dead. In addition, during a struggle at night, it is harder to determine how much force is necessary to subdue a trespasser. So, the law allows for violent self-defense in situations like this at night.

Alternatively, during the day, if there is a thief caught in the house, one is more easily able to determine that it is not necessarily a life-threatening situation. Furthermore, during the day time it is far more likely that others may be able to come quickly in response to cries for help and be able to subdue the thief with non-lethal force.

In sum, thinking through these Scriptures briefly allows us to see that Christians are not obligated to accept a pacifist idealism. A Christian certainly could make the choice to be a pacifist, but there is no biblical obligation to do so. Rather, we see that there may be situations and times where it is acceptable for a Christian to defend themselves or to engage in violent action on behalf of themselves or of innocent parties. In many cases, protecting one’s home or country with violence against an evil aggressor is an honorable and biblical response.

photo credit: Peace Grunge Sign – Sepia via photopin (license)

Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs The Bible Sojourner podcast and Youtube channel.

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