Absolute Pacifism (Unbiblical) vs. Limited Pacifism (Biblical)
Should true believers never resort to violence under any circumstances whatsoever, as hardcore pacifists advocate? Did Jesus Christ support this position as these people claim? What’s the Bible say, particularly the New Testament?
Two Kinds of Pacifism
First, consider the two forms of pacifism:
- Absolute Pacifism: A peaceable attitude that refuses to ever turn to violence in response to evil.
- Limited Pacifism: A peaceable attitude that only resorts to violence when necessary.
Absolute pacifism sounds nice in theory, but it doesn’t work in a fallen world where people are sometimes a threat to the well-being of others because they choose to live according their sinful nature and/or they adopt intolerant, violent ideologies that severely threaten others. Consider the example of thugs breaking into your home and threatening you & your loved ones with death or rape. Should you just kick back and let it happen in the name of absolute pacifism? Of course not.
Limited Pacifism is What Christ and the New Testament Advocate
Limited pacifism is the balanced position on violence advocated by the New Testament. Of course some people think that the New Testament supports the idea of absolute pacifism, but it doesn’t. Jesus’ ministry team had a treasury box with loads of money and some of his workers carried swords for protection from thieves and murderers (Luke 22:49-50). They had ministered with Jesus for over three years by this point, which indicates that they carried swords because Jesus permitted it. Why did he permit it? Because they traveled with a money box that contained all their ministry earnings as they journeyed from town to town. The swords were obviously for protection from potential thieves, particularly in the many desolate regions they had to travel.
Furthermore, if Christ meant we should be doormats to every thief and criminal that comes down the pike why did he radically chase the “robbers” from the Temple twice during his three-and-a-half-year ministry, as depicted in John 2:13-17 and Mark 11:15-18? Jesus got a whip and chased all the greedy fools out of the Temple — throwing over tables, swinging the whip and yelling. Read those passages yourself. These are plainly not the actions of an absolute pacifist. What the Messiah did was so radical it caused the legalistic religious leaders to fear him and plot murder (Mark 11:18). Harmless ultra-pacifists don’t inspire fear and provoke murder plots.
Moreover, Christ refused to allow murderers to apprehend and kill him on multiple occasions, as illustrated in Luke 4:28-30, John 7:30,44, 8:59 and 10:31,39? The only time the Messiah submitted his life to the hands of people with ill-intent was when he was arrested in Gethsemane because it was God’s will that he suffer and die for the salvation of humanity. It goes without saying that we have to be balanced with Jesus’ teachings and example in the Bible, otherwise we’ll fall into error and embrace ideas he never actually taught.
Human Governments are God-Ordained to Punish Criminals
The New Testament clearly states that the righteous laws of human governments are God-ordained for the purpose of punishing criminals, including the right to execute when appropriate. Observe for yourself:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.
The passage conveys four important points:
First, verses 1-2 show that human governments are established by God and, therefore, those who rebel against them are rebelling against what the Almighty has instituted, consequently bringing judgment on themselves, not from God directly but from the civil authorities he has established.*
* God has established four authorities on Earth: (1.) Governmental authorities over citizens, (2.) Church authorities over believers, (3.) parental authorities over children, and (4.) labor authorities over employees. Individuals are only under these authorities while functioning within their sphere of power. ‘Abuse’ is the misuse of power. It goes without saying that if any of these authorities overstep their bounds by unrepentantly abusing their power individuals are freed of their obligation to submit.
Paul was obviously speaking of government in general and not only to Nero’s Roman government, which ruled the region at the time. He even goes so far as to call the rulers in question “God’s servant” or “God’s servants” whose purpose is “to do you good” (verses 4 & 6). How could rulers like Nero be called God’s servant when he persecuted Christians? Because, generally speaking, Nero and his government maintained societal order and punished criminals, which is the purpose of all governments in general. Keep in mind the subject of the passage: Paul was not addressing Christian persecution but rather Christian obedience to the laws of the land. His point is that human government – “God’s servant” – is established for the good of the people, to restrain evil and protect life and property; if any believers break the law “God’s servant” will punish them. Why? Because, as Isaiah 61:8 plainly points out, the LORD loves justice and hates crime. In fact, justice and righteousness are the very foundation of his throne (Psalm 89:14).
Secondly, human governments bear “the sword,” a figure of speech for the authority to execute wrongdoers and the right to punish lawbreakers in general. Even in our increasingly ‘progressive’ societies today we execute the most heinous criminals.
Thirdly, since civil authorities are ordained by God we should submit to them, which is clearly stated in verses 1 and 5. Submitting to the governing authorities does not mean blind obedience, but rather respecting and abiding by its laws. We must recognize this authority over us even if we don’t always agree with it. It also means we should financially support them, i.e. pay taxes, as shown in verse 6, which was something Jesus advocated as well (Matthew 22:15-22).
The only exception to this rule is if government oversteps its bounds by intruding upon the realm of God and universal morality. In such cases believers are required to obey the LORD rather than the governing authorities. Examples in the Scriptures include the Hebrew midwives who refused to obey the Pharaoh’s command to kill male infants (Exodus 1:15-21), the three Hebrew’s refusal to obey king Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship a 90’ gold idol (Daniel 3), Daniel’s refusal to obey king Darius’ wicked edict (Daniel 6), and Peter & John’s disregard of the command to not preach the gospel (Acts 4:18-20). While disobeying governing authorities is generally wrong it’s unavoidable in cases where human law supersedes God’s Word. How do we reconcile this with the fact that God established the existing authorities? Simple: Although God’s authority stands behind the governing authorities, right or wrong, it also stands over them; hence, Christians who belong to this higher authority are permitted to supersede the human authorities if there’s no other recourse.
Fourthly, since God ordains government as his servants to promote good (verse 4) we should take advantage of this divine commission by exercising our rights to obtain justice.
A good example of this is found in Acts 16:16-40 where Paul and Silas were unjustly flogged and thrown in prison after exorcizing a demon from a girl. They maintained a worshipful spirit despite their tribulations and were miraculously released whereupon they evangelized the jailer and his family. The next day the civil authorities wanted Paul and Silas to quietly leave Philippi but Paul responded: “They beat us publicly without a trial, even though we are Roman citizens, and threw us into prison. And now do they want to get rid of us quietly. No! Let them come themselves and escort us out” (verse 37). Although Paul maintained a faithful, spiritual attitude while enduring the mistreatment he was understandably angry at the injustice. And, yes, a person can be angry and not sin, it’s called righteous anger (Ephesians 4:26, Mark 3:5 & John 2:13-17). Notice that Paul didn’t just automatically forgive the Philippian authorities for their humiliating abuses. He didn’t just sweep the matter under the rug, so to speak. No, he appealed to his and Silas’ rights as Roman citizens and insisted that the magistrates come and personally escort them from the prison. How did the magistrates respond? They were “alarmed” to learn that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens with legal rights that protected them from such abuses; these believers could potentially protest to Rome and justly remove them from power, ruining their political careers. They had no choice but to humbly go to Paul & Silas and “appease” them (verse 39).
The next time Paul was wrongly apprehended and threatened to be whipped he insisted upon his rights and evaded the flogging altogether (Acts 22:22-29). You see, Paul didn’t have a martyr complex like some Christians today. He refused to allow himself to be abused if it was within his power to evade it. You could say he refused to be a doormat. Another example can be found in Acts 25:11 where Paul appealed to Caesar.
What can we derive from these four points? Christians are clearly mandated by Scripture to submit to the civil authorities, which are ordained by God to punish wrongdoers. Since this is so, it naturally follows that we should do everything in our power to see to it that criminals are apprehended and penalized by “God’s servants,” the governing authorities. If criminals commit crimes and we’re prone to just automatically forgive them, that is, dismiss the charges, we’re obviously not submitting to these authorities because we’re not respecting their laws enough to seek justice and press charges. I’m of course referring to real crimes here, not trivial infractions. It’s the spirit of the law that’s important.
For important insights on biblical forgiveness go here.
The Balanced and Biblical Position on Violence
The majority of sane Christians realize that limited pacifism is the balanced and biblical position on violence. Unfortunately, there are a minority of extremists who refuse to be balanced with the Scriptures on this topic and insist that physical conflict and especially armed conflict is never appropriate. But the simple fact is that some people are so degenerate and evil that radical opposition and even execution are sometimes just reactions. This is why the LORD ordained human governments to bear “the sword,” which is the authority to execute when justified, as explained above. It’s why God had Herod Agrippa wiped off the face of the Earth after much patience and mercy (Acts 12:1-5 & 19-23).
“What about ‘Turning the Cheek’?”
There’s gross misunderstanding concerning Christ’s teaching to “turn the cheek” (Luke 6:27-29). Jesus was referring to a backhanded slap to the face, which was an insult in that culture. In other words, we can all save ourselves a lot of trouble in life if we learn to ignore the antagonism of various fools who would like to divert our focus and ruin our day. The Old Testament teaches this as well: “A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a prudent man overlooks an insult” (Proverbs 12:16).
So Jesus was talking about giving an antagonist a break for the sake of peace in situations of personal offense; he wasn’t referring to cases of severe criminal acts. Again, the Bible maintains that governments are “God’s servants” for good in the sense that they protect citizens from criminals; they “bear the sword,” meaning they possess the power to punish and even execute criminals when justified (Romans 13:1-6).
“A Time to Kill”
Let me close by pointing out how one of the wisest persons who ever lived, Solomon, eloquently conveyed how there are justifiable occasions for killing and war in this fallen world, which should not be confused with murder (a criminal act):
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
Responding to an Absolute Pacifist Christian
This is an addendum for anyone who’s interested. I’m including it because it’s educational to observe how absolute pacifists are unbalanced with the Holy Scriptures when it comes to the topic of potential physical violence. The man’s arguments are cited in red italics, followed by my answers.
The Christian’s warfare is spiritual. (NOTE: This statement was made in response to the question “Is it Okay for Believers to Serve in the Armed Forces?”)
The question isn’t about Christian warfare, which is obviously spiritual first and foremost. The question is: Can a believer serve in the military forces of his/her country? And the answer is yes, presuming he/she is led of the Holy Spirit to do so. You can read details here.
No is the answer. Switzerland has no standing army! They renounce war. Every Christian MUST renounce war.
The reasons for these wars are mostly greed and selfishness. True Christian can’t be part of such!
Switzerland embraces neutrality, but that does not mean the Swiss have no military. The Swiss Army trains for both national self-defense and internal security.
The Swiss wisely refuse to enter military alliances unless they are attacked. They don’t take sides in international conflicts and refuse transit to foreign forces.
As detailed above, the Bible says governments are “God’s servants” in that they PROTECT CITIZENS; they “bear the sword,” i.e. they possess the power to punish & execute those who threaten them, domestic & foreign (Romans 13:1-6).
Jesus instructed that we are to love our enemies.
Jesus was talking about believers loving their enemies in their personal relations; he wasn’t referring to nations pathetically allowing a wicked nation to invade & conquer them.
And hardcore criminals must be caught & punished by the God-ordained governing authorities to protect citizens (Romans 13:1-6) because “the LORD loves justice and hates crime” (Isaiah 61:8).
Furthermore, to genuinely love others means more than just the conventional soft variety of love. The Bible plainly shows that tough love is in order sometimes. See this article for details.
If you fight the spiritual war, you won’t need the physical war. Look at how you guys have turned the USA and Europe into nations of Atheists and Sodomy. That’s the war you are fighting.
You have turned Christianity into a laughing stock because of your craving for physical things!
I agree that we should focus on the spiritual war first & foremost, but criminals – domestic & foreign – sometimes force one to physical action. Jesus said “If the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would NOT HAVE LET his house be broken into” (Luke 12:39). It’s just common sense.
Now put that statement on a national scale: “If the country’s leaders knew when & where an enemy nation was going to attack & invade they would NOT HAVE LET their country be invaded.” Again, it’s just common sense.
And the disciples had SWORDS FOR PROTECTION from thieves & murderers in their travels, which Christ PERMITTED (Luke 22:49-50). On this particular occasion Jesus instructed the disciples to put down their swords for obvious reasons explained below. The point is that Christ permitted his disciples to have swords for protection in their ministry travels.
What you say about the USA is irrelevant to this topic. And what physical things am I supposedly craving? It’s a curious point to make. People usually deviate from the subject when they’re losing the debate.
Jesus said “Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword.”
Jesus instructed Peter to put the sword back in its place, not throw it away (Matthew 26:52); and there’s a difference between living by the sword and utilizing it when necessary. It was not necessary for Peter to draw the sword on this occasion for two obvious reasons:
First, the group that came to arrest Jesus was comprised of soldiers & officials and therefore represented the governing authorities to whom we are obligated to submit. More importantly, as pointed out above, to resist on this occasion simply wasn’t in accordance with God’s will, which is why Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11). Peter was simply ignorant of Jesus’ ultimate assignment and therefore not privy to God’s will, just as on an earlier occasion when Jesus rebuked him as “Satan” (Matthew 16:21-23). Also, why would Jesus’ disciples even have swords after working for Jesus for over three years if the Lord opposed weapons and violence in the absolute sense?
In support of this is Jesus’ statement to his disciples just prior to leaving for Gethsemane and his subsequent arrest. Jesus said, “… if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:35-38). This instruction was in contrast to previous occasions where the disciples ministered without such supportive items in their travels. Possessing swords obviously pertained to protection, not aggression, as the threat of criminal persecution increased. These swords were short, dagger-like instruments commonly carried in that culture and were used for other things as well as protection. The point is that Jesus clearly authorized his disciples to carry instruments of protection, which is backed up later in the very same chapter when the disciples asked, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” (verse 49). Why did they have swords? Because Jesus authorized it.
The Bible says “The slave of the Lord does not fight.”
More accurately the verse says “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome” (2 Timothy 2:24). But this doesn’t mean that a believer cannot fight thugs if (1) threatened as a citizen or (2) working as a government servant, whether a cop or soldier.
You refuse to fight a spiritual war but you are geared up for mortal war — shame!
Even Muhammad Ali refused to fight in the Vietnam war and he was even a Christian. Why? Because he knew war was senseless.
Who says I “refuse to fight a spiritual war”? I preach on spiritual warfare in detail in this ministry; and arguably more than most. What’s really a shame are absolute pacifists who refuse to be BALANCED with the Holy Scriptures.
Meanwhile, your comment about Ali and Vietnam are irrelevant.
As far as war being senseless goes, not when an aggressing nation attacks and murders innocent people; such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. What should the USA have done on that occasion? Kick back and let an unjustly aggressive nation get away with mass murder and possibly take over Hawaii down the road? Should Americans have just loved this Japanese junta and sent them flowers? Should Americans have said “Come on over and take over our whole nation, if you want; we won’t resist. We luvvy wuvvy you so much!”
Obviously war is sometimes necessary in a fallen world.
Jesus called his followers sheep. A Christian is a sheep. Sheep don’t fight. Never!
You’re mistakenly making an absolute statement about a limited figurative description. The Bible also clearly says “the righteous are as bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1).
Meanwhile pastors are shepherds, not sheep; in other words, they lead sheep (with the understanding that Christ is the Chief Shepherd and fivefold ministers are under-shepherds — 1 Peter 5:1-4). Also keep in mind that believers are called to imitate the Lord (Ephesians 5:1). Was Jesus a sheep when he cleansed the Temple or a fearsome lion? (Mark 11:15-18).
Furthermore, Christ added important exposition on the metaphor of sheep when he instructed his disciples: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). “Shrewd” refers to skill or sly cunning in practical matters, like when Paul mischievously implemented “divide and conquer” tactics when held before the two sects of the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6-8).
Christians today are often too nice, naïve and gullible yet the Lord said we need to be shrewd while maintaining our blamelessness. He even gave an entire parable commending the shrewdness of a wasteful manager who was about to lose his job (Luke 16:1-9). Why would Christ encourage us to be skillfully cunning? He explained it himself: because we’re amongst wolves. By all means, walk innocently before your Creator but sweetness and naiveté won’t cut it when you’re dealing with arrogant, hostile, deceitful people like Joseph’s brothers who were jealous of their younger brother and sold him into slavery; and then lied about it. Such wolves will automatically regard niceness and gullibility as marks of weakness and take advantage. In short, they’ll chew you up and spit you out! This explains why Joseph—who was a type of Christ—pretended to be a stranger to his brothers, spoke harshly, and falsely accused them of being spies; he was being shrewd. Shrewdness was the only way to break his carnal brothers. See this article for details on this story.
One other thing on this topic, your argument assumes that the New Testament’s description of believers as “sheep” is a compliment. I’m sure it is in some ways, but definitely not in others. See this article for details.
You arrogate to yourself highfallutin names just like the Pharisees. I tell you, you already have your reward in full.
Apostles and other early Christians never fought war and is one of the reasons they were so persecuted.
No true Christian will engage in war.
What highfalutin name do I (supposedly) claim for myself? I just go by “Dirk,” a humble servant of the LORD.
The apostles & early Church leaders oversaw assemblies of believers within the Roman Empire. They weren’t warriors and knew it was useless to even attempt to fight the Roman Army, the largest and meanest fighting force in the ancient world, which was the main reason Rome became such a powerful empire.
If being in the military is intrinsically evil why didn’t John the Baptist rebuke the Roman Soldiers in Luke 3:14 for serving in the military? Keep in mind that John was preparing the way for the ministry of Jesus Christ by calling people to repentance (Mark 1:4). If merely being a soldier is intrinsically evil John would have said something like, “It’s wicked and sinful to be a soldier; flee from the military or you will suffer God’s wrath!” You’ll find no such statement anywhere in the New Testament, whether from Jesus, Paul or anyone else. Simply put, governing authorities need police and military personnel to fulfill their God-ordained mandate to maintain societal order, which includes protecting the country (Romans 13:1-6).
This is not to say, of course, that individual Christians don’t have the right to object to military service due to personal conscience or what have you. In such cases the military is better off without them since their hearts wouldn’t be in it, so to speak (see Deuteronomy 20:8 & Judges 7:3).
Nor am I saying that corrupt governments shouldn’t be resisted or corrected, like the Nazi-led government in Germany during WWII or the Japanese “constitutional monarchy” of the same era (which was, in effect, a military junta). A good biblical example of resisting corrupt government can be observed when Nathan made a bold stand against the gross corruption in David’s monarchy (2 Samuel 12:1-10).
Anyway, according to your dubious absolute pacifistic view all politicians, cops & militarists should be PAGANS (keeping in mind that politicians are the ones who authorize what cops & militaries do when confronting thugs, domestic & foreign). Needless to say, that’s a recipe for disaster for any nation.
(In response to the verse “the righteous are as bold as a lion”) You are twisting the Scriptures to satisfy your lust. True Christians don’t fight physical war!
Christianity became a state religion of Rome when they were under severe persecution. Jesus fought the war himself. No man did!
How am I twisting Scripture? I merely quoted Proverb 28:1. And what “lust” am I satisfying since I’m a thoroughly peaceable man?
If Christians can’t ever fight physically — when necessary as a last resort in a wicked world — WHY did Jesus permit his disciples to have swords for protection (Luke 22:49-50)? Keep in mind that this was three years into his earthly ministry. If it was sinful to possess swords for protection because violence is always evil the Messiah wouldn’t have allowed them to have weapons.
Speaking of which, Christ had the faith to receive miraculous help when he was criminally threatened (Luke 4:28-30, John 7:30,44, 8:59 and 10:31,39). Notice, by the way, that Jesus didn’t allow these thugs to abuse & murder him (he only did so in the Garden of Gethsemane because it was God’s will for him to suffer & die for humanity at that time). Since most believers don’t have the faith that Christ walked in to receive miraculous assistance in these kinds of threatening situations, they’re going to have to protect themselves & their loved ones with weapons if necessary.
If Christ meant we should be doormats to every thug that comes down the pike why did he radically chase the “robbers” from the Temple twice during his ministry, once near the beginning and 3 years later near the end (John 2:13-17 & Mark 11:15-18)? Jesus got a whip and chased the fools out of the Temple — throwing over tables, swinging the whip & yelling. These are plainly not the actions of an absolute pacifist. What the Messiah did was so radical it caused the legalistic religious leaders to fear him and plot murder (Mark 11:18). Harmless ultra-pacifists don’t inspire fear and provoke murder plots.
Secular countries like Japan and Switzerland have renounced wars.
Europe has stopped fighting wars between each member country.
Why ? They realized war is senseless. This is why the UN was formed.
Yet you think is good to be a military man. Let the dead bury the dead.
Japan isn’t legally allowed to have a military since WW2, but Japan has a military for purposes of self-defense. Go here for details.
As noted earlier, Switzerland embraces neutrality, but that does not mean the Swiss have no military. The Swiss Army trains for both national self-defense and internal security. However, due to their neutrality they don’t take sides in international conflicts and refuse transit to foreign forces. They will not enter into military alliances unless they are attacked.
Do you seriously think the modern UN is a force for good? This reveals political ignorance and naiveté.
Whether it’s good for a believer to function as a warrior in the military depends upon the leading of the Holy Spirit, the specific nation and the purpose of the conflict in question. As noted above, not all war efforts are senseless & evil. Some are noble and good, like the Allies fighting the Axis powers in WW2.
Oh, gosh, What’s this? This is waste of my time.
What’s this? It’s simply what the BALANCED Scriptures plainly teach on the topic, my brother.
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