A Defense of Christian Pacifism

In a recent Briefing interview, Phillip Jensen said:

I was a pacifist for some years, and again that’s a hopeless position, because you can’t really be a Christian pacifist and worship the ‘God of armies’ (which is what ‘Lord of hosts’ means). And you can’t make sense of punishment or of the cross if you’re a pacifist, but for years I was a pacifist and it took me a while to work that out.

I have the greatest respect for Phillip Jensen, and massive gratitude for the service that he has done for the Diocese and the Kingdom. However, I think he has been a bit broad in his criticism. Not all pacifisms are the same, and I would like to suggest that there is a form of pacifism that makes perfect sense of the whole Bible.

I actually followed the opposite experience of Phillip. I grew up believing in Christian just war theory; that God allowed, and even commanded, Christians to do violence in defence of others. At one point, I intended to join the Army, but was knocked back because of my asthma. For most of my time at Moore College, I was investigating the possibility of being an Army Chaplain. But then I started reading some people who questioned my position, and started wondering if my assumptions were correct. As my honours thesis, I did a biblical theology of war, and finally concluded that there were some serious flaws in the just war argument. I cannot outline all these flaws here, nor can I give conclusive evidence for my particular pacifist position, but I would like to give enough to suggest that there is a form of pacifism that makes sense of the whole Bible – including the cross and judgment.

I admit, there are many forms of “Christian” pacifism that don’t do this. The most common form is the belief that violence is evil. If, indeed, violence is evil, then it is ridiculous to think that God used it as the very heart of his salvation plan, and it makes him – as the God of armies – the lord of evil. This truly is a hopeless position – one that rejects large swathes of the Bible because it does not fit with a certain presupposition. However, that is not the only kind of pacifism.

Evangelical pacifism does not – and cannot – believe that violence or war are evil. Evangelical pacifism believes that violence and war, just like judgment and condemnation, belong to God and do not belong to his servants. Our job, as God’s servants, is to do what he told us to do; preach the word, live godly lives, and generally be the people of God to the glory of his Holy Name. In that process, we can trust God’s providential care to control the world for the good of his people without us having to resort to doing his job for him. But more on providence later.

An argument for pacifism

I have four simple(istic) arguments for being a pacifist:

Firstly, the New Testament tells us to:

Matt 5:39-48:

38 “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. 39 But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … “

Rom 12:14, 17-21:

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse […]

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18 If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19 Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. 20 But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head. 21 Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.

Yeah, I know its proof texting, and I am not spending pages on close Greek exegesis. But there are a number of passages, in different books, from different authors, that teach similar things. Having done quite a bit of close exegesis, I am reasonably convinced that the apparent meaning of these texts stands. In contrast to these fairly clear passages, there are no New Testament commands for Christians to fight to defend ourselves or others. This is not a knock-out blow, I agree, but it is an important starting point.

Secondly, God is in control. The doctrine of providence expands far beyond predestination of salvation – it covers each event from the falling of a sparrow (Matt 10:29) to the conquest of a nation (2 Kings 24, Isa 45). God does not need our help to keep the peace or to protect the innocent against the violent. “Of course”, comes the reply, “he doesn’t need our help to preach the word or care for the poor, but he tells us to do those things.” And that’s the point: he tells us to do them. In the Old Testament, God commanded his people to specific wars against specific people, and that was part of his plan. However, such commands are absent from the New Testament. In light of the general passages I outlined above, and the commands that Jesus does give to preach, serve and self-sacrificially love, I would want to see a reasonably clear command before I took up arms. In the mean-time, our job is to do what we were told to do, and leave the control of the nations to the One who actually knows what he is doing.

Thirdly, prayer is powerful. It really, really is. This is a simple biblical truth that we all agree to, but then find so hard to live by. We experience this in that oh-so western and masculine reaction to do first and pray later, like when I skipped my quiet time to finish my sermon. We forget that “the prayer of the righteous person is powerful and effective” (Jas 5:16).

When we are faced with evil and violence in the world, our first reaction is to do something about it. That is a right and proper reaction. The problem comes when deciding what to do. Prayer is the act of coming before the sovereign God of the Universe who holds all the nations in his hands – the God who loves his children, hears their cries and answers them. In comparison to such a supremely powerful option, human fighting power is simply pathetic.

Finally, the only force short of the Holy Spirit that will change the world is the proclamation of the gospel. It is the thing that changes hearts, that brings evil men to repent, and that rescues souls. We are never going to solve the problems of the world by subduing all the bad guys. We can, however, make a powerful difference by proclaiming the gospel and calling sinners to return to God. As they hear the Spirit empowered message, some will fall to their knees and repent of their evil deeds. In the powerful example of Paul, we see a man on his way to kill Christians stopped in his tracks – not by violence – but by the grace of Christ.

In light of the fact that we have such powerful tools in our grasp, Evangelical pacifism realises that time spent fighting is time wasted, when we could instead be praying and proclaiming the word.

Objections to pacifism

Apart from the theological points made by Phillip (which I hope I have shown do not apply to what I am proposing here), there are three common arguments against pacifism in general:

The first is love. “Surely”, the just war theorist argues, “it is simply unloving to stand idly by and watch people being killed when we could do something about it.” They may even quote Michael Hill’s retrieval ethic and argue that such defensive violence maximises the potential for mutually loving relationships.(*) However, Hill himself argues against the idea of performing a wrong action with the hope that it results in greater love.(Hill 133) An action is not made good simply if it probably results in a better outcome – that’s consequentialism. Rather, a loving action still has to be loving in itself. And what does love look like?

1 John 3:16: This is how we have come to know love: He laid down His life for us.

1 John 4:10: Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.

Rom 5:8: But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us!

Love is self-sacrificial. The fundamental aspect of violent defence is that is it other person sacrificial. To paraphrase George S. Patton (or at least the movie version of him), the point of war is not dying for your cause; the point of war is to make the other guy die for his. This is not what biblical love looks like. A biblical response to suffering is to suffer with, or suffer for, the victim – not to make others suffer.

It is important to remember that the once-and-for-all substitutionary atoning nature of the Cross does not negate the fact that it is also an example for us to follow: “Therefore, be imitators of God, as dearly loved children.  And walk in love, as the Messiah also loved us and gave Himself for us, a sacrificial and fragrant offering to God” (Eph 5:1-2). As followers of Jesus, we are called to follow his footsteps – to take up our cross daily and follow him (Matt 16:24). Phillip Jensen has helpfully pointed out that one form of pacifism has problems with the Cross. However, I believe that just war also has a problem with the Cross because, on it, Jesus did not respond to evil with violence, but with self-sacrifice. The Cross is the very antithesis of just war.

As for the issue of “standing by and doing nothing”, that sentiment reveals a deficient doctrine of providence, proclamation and prayer. Prayer and proclamation is not “doing nothing”. Quite the opposite, it is bringing to bear the most powerful forces in the universe – the sovereignty of God and his transforming gospel – against the problem. In light of these powerful options, time spent in violence is time wasted.

The second argument is the Old Testament. “God commanded Israel to go to war; they destroyed whole nations and defended themselves. Surely then, you cannot say that God’s people should not go to war now?”

If you read through the Old Testament in roughly chronological order, especially paying attention to the way that the Prophets and Psalms develop the theology of God’s providence amongst the nations, then you will see a movement in the position and role of war. It starts with war as the role of Israel as they conquer and then defend the land. As the land is secured and the history of the nation progresses, Israel is no longer commanded to war. Instead God protects (or punishes) them by his sovereign control of the nations to achieve his purposes – regardless of Israel’s military strength or weakness at the time. Finally, in the later prophets, the theme of war is transformed completely into the future, looking towards God’s eschatological defeat of his enemies. In fact, this shift in theological focus looks fairly similar to the developing theology of the Temple throughout the Old Testament. As a gross simplification, I would argue that Christians do not go to war for the same reason that we do not sacrifice sheep in a Temple: because Jesus has fulfilled all the major Old Testament themes in his life, death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus is the true Temple and was the final sacrifice, so we do not sacrifice in a Temple any more. In the same way, Jesus fought the final battle. As the book of Revelation declares, the lamb has already won against the greatest of enemies (Rev 5:5-6). We can now lay down our weapons.

The fulfilment of the Old Testament theme of war can be seen in Ephesians, where Paul declares: “Our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens” (Eph 5:1). As a result, he calls on Christians to fight this battle with the armour of truth and the sword of God’s word, and concludes with a command to pray (Eph 5:18).

The third argument is judgment. This is a much more sophisticated argument, promoted by Oliver O’Donovan and (last time I asked him) Moore College’s Andrew Cameron. Highly summarised; O’Donovan argues from Romans 13 that God has delegated the role of judgment to the nations. One extraordinary aspect of that judgment is the right for police to kill in defence of the innocent and, by extension, for nations to go to war to prevent evil when all other options are exhausted. Since, O’Donovan argues, this is a God-ordained role for nations, then it follows that Christians can participate in it.

This is the argument that I engaged with the most in my study. It is impossible to outline my whole argument in a short article, but my basic premise is that God has indeed delegated a level of judgment to the nations, and Christians are to submit to them because of that. However, as scholars such as Ben Witherington and Miroslav Volf argue, Romans 13 follows Romans 12 in such a way as to state that this delegation exists for the very purpose of allowing Christians to “bless those who persecute you” (Rom 12:14) and “leave room for God’s wrath” (Rom 12:19). Romans 12-13 show us that we can get on with the job of loving others, praying and proclaiming God’s word, and can do this in the faith that God has the greater issue of justice in hand.

I do not pretend that I have argued my point comprehensively, or have fully countered all the arguments marshalled in favour of just war. However, I hope I have demonstrated that there is a form of pacifism that makes sense of the biblical narrative and especially of the life, teaching, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The core of this position is the recognition that God has claimed the realm of violence as his own, and does not call on his people to enact it for him. As Miroslav Volf argues: “There is a duty prior to the duty of imitating God, and that is the duty of not wanting to be God, of letting God be God and humans be humans.” (Exclusion & Embrace p301)

Violence belongs to God.

Let’s leave it to him and get on with our job.

The full project can be downloaded at https://constantlyreforming.files.wordpress.com/2020/01/10013794_ct499_biblical_theology_of_war.pdf

8 thoughts on “A Defense of Christian Pacifism

  1. Some confuse Pacifism with the nature of God and therefore reject the idea of a future judgment etc… Our Pacifism is rooted in our pilgrim/exile status and our cross-bearing. We’re here to evangelise the lost, not slay them or threaten them. This world is destined for the fires of judgment and saved by grace we have no right to take vengeance. We leave that in God’s hands.

    There’s a lot of confusion regarding this issue. It’s very frustrating. The Constantinian tradition theologizes war, plunder, wealth accumulation, celebrating and glorying in these things.

    Liberal Theology professedly loves the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount but it’s a false Christ that they love, a Gandhi figure not the Incarnate God who is both Saviour and Judge.

    It’s encouraging to read a sober article on this topic.

    • Thanks for the encouragement. I think one of the errors is failing to distinguish between God’s role and ours. I really want to get back to this question and put more work into it, but my job keeps getting in my way.

  2. Hi Mike,
    I’ve been reading some of your work on war/pacifism today and wanted to raise a few counterpoints for your consideration. First, though, I should say that I appreciate the humility and careful scholarship of your work, and it has been helpful to me as I think through these same issues. Keep up the good work!
    If I understand you correctly, you suggest that war is only just if it has been directly commanded by God. In other words, the OT wars which God commanded were justified, but since the NT contains no commands to go to war there is no justification for God’s people to go to war today. However, this doesn’t seem to fit the entirety of the biblical evidence. For example, in another article you mention Abram’s battle in Genesis 14, in which God delivered Abram’s enemies into his hand. There is nothing in the text to suggest that God commanded Abram to take military action, though he clearly gave him success in that action. I don’t see a connection to a previous command or promise, either, as Lot was not included in the promises (he was not to inherit the land, etc.). The only justification for Abram going to war seems to be his concern for the welfare of his relative: “When Abram heard that his kinsman had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men …” (Gen 14:14, ESV). To me this seems to suggest that there are generally acceptable reasons to go to war without the need for a direct command from God. What do you think? Am I missing something?
    If you would say that Genesis 14 is OT and the coming of Jesus has changed all that, I don’t understand why. Why would the death and resurrection of Jesus nullify previously good reasons to go to war? His death makes the old sacrificial system obsolete, and we agree on this. That is because Christ’s sacrifice was complete, once for all time (Hebrews 10:12). Christ’s defeat of his enemies, on the other hand, is assured but not yet complete (1 Corinthians 15:25). Wouldn’t there still be a place for just war until that victory is complete?
    I hope you’ll be able to reply, though I understand that you’re busy. I’m busy, too, but this seemed like a worthwhile discussion. I hope we can sharpen each other’s thinking, even if we may disagree.

    • Hi Jeremy. Thanks for your post and sorry for the long delay. I keep planning to reply to this, but running out of time. Very quickly, the answer is that many many things in the OT have been fulfilled by/repurposed/replaced (depending on your theology of continuity) by Jesus: the temple, sacrifices, Jerusalem and the land, God’s-people-as-12-tribes, kosher food laws, etc. The signs that something is fulfilled/reporposed/replaced is if we find NT references contradicting the OT use of the thing and other passages re-using that thing.

      EG, Jesus saying it doesn’t matter what you eat, and then Paul re-purposes food laws to be about loving the weaker brother.
      Or sacrifices in the temple being stopped, and then Jesus is the sacrifice and we are the temple.

      (I’m not explaining it enough, because I’m typing quickly in a break)

      So in the sermon on the mount and in Romans we see teaching telling us to turn the other cheek, and not resist the evil person, followed by Paul re-purposing war language as spiritual warfare in Ephesians.
      I think that’s a pretty good case to say that the logic of Gen 14 (or of any wars in the OT) continues into the NT

      • So if a elderly woman is getting beat to death or raped, do you just say stop, pray, or would you try to defend?

      • There are many ways of responding and intervening that do not involve lethal force, from restraining the attacked to standing in-between, and many more. Praying at the same time would be a very good option too. Please note that my argument is about war (and by extension lethal force), not all things that could be defined as “violence”.

  3. Hello, I’m really interested in downloading and reading your full project but the link appears to be broken or it’s not hosted in the same destination anymore….are you able to fix this?



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