Can a Christian be a pacifist?
By Don Murphy on 01/19/1985
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. To others it means selling out to the Russians. 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.
Leo Tolstoy, author of War and Peace, said, ‘A pacifist can not own property. For ownership requires the use or threat of force to protect it.’ When the early church gave up community living and began living as individuals with each one owning their own possessions then the church also gave up pacifism. The two go together.
Dr. Eberhard Arnold, founder of the Society of Brothers in Germany in 1930, began to question the wisdom of the Christian churches when he observed the results of the first World War. He saw the German Christian soldiers killing and being killed by the enemy soldiers who also claimed to be Christian. How could German Christian ministers and priests bless the German army and send it off to war while the enemy Christian ministers and priests were blessing their armies and sending them off to war also? How could a Christian soldier maim and kill other Christian soldiers? How can one part of the Body of Christ do evil to another part? This seemed very contrary to the teaching of the Bible to Dr Arnold. This line of reasoning lead him to become a pacifist.
The churches today, as of Dr Arnold’s time, have problems dealing with the issue of pacifism. Too many ministers of the gospel of Jesus preach nationalism, loyalty to the state and hatred of governments that oppose ours. In his book, ‘Preachers Present Arms', Ray H. Abrams documents at length the story of the involvement of the clergy in the world wars as well as the Vietnam war. One minister told his people, 'We are fighting not only for our country and for the democracy of the world but for the kingdom of God... We can not draw the line between Christianity and the military. The two go together. Every church should be a recruiting station.’
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.
Considerable human logic is used by the opponents of pacifism. The late Francis A. Schaeffer, author of A Christian Manifesto, stated, ‘I am not a pacifist because pacifism in this fallen world in which we live means to desert the people who need our greatest help. Consider the following illustration: I am walking down the street. I see a great big, burly man who is beating a helpless little girl to death. I come up and I plead with him to stop. If he won’t stop, what does love mean? Love means I stop him in any way I can including, quite frankly, hitting him. To me this is necessary Christian love in a fallen world. What about the little girl? If I desert the little girl to the bully, I have deserted the true meaning of Christian love and responsibility to my neighbor. Now extend this illustration to violence at a national level. We have in World War 11 the clearest possible illustration with Hitler’s terrorism. There was no possible way to stop the awful terror that was occurring in Hitler’s Germany except by the use of force. As far as I'm concerned, this is the necessary outworking of Christian love. The world is an abnormal world. Because of the fall it is not the way God meant it to be.’ (speech given in Washington D.C. in 1982). Schaeffer seemed to want to combat violence with violence ('an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth').
Where does the hand of God fit in his reasoning? Isn’t God in charge of what happens to His children? Yet Schaeffer seems to say that, since we live in a 'fallen world', we must use the world’s method of survival. Shouldn’t we be living in the kingdom of God, accepting whatever God sends us as for our good?
When Jesus was questioned by Pilate, he said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my disciples would be fighting that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, my kingdom is not of this world.' (John 18:36)
Jesus is truly king and members of his kingdom do not fight as members of the devil’s kingdom do, killing and maiming, but they fight a spiritual battle. Pacifism can not be separated from other areas of the life of a disciple. How can one be a pacifist, for example, if he has great wealth that needs to be protected? How can one be a pacifist if he has no love for the needy, if he is not willing to share with those in need? As we know, Jesus will judge us not on what doctrines that we believe but on what actions we take to help his brothers who are in need. Perhaps a Christian should be a pacifist...
(This writing appeared in the Spring 1986 issue of Spirituality Today. See www.spiritualitytoday.org/spir2day/863821murphy.html)
Last updated 03/02/2005