Two Kinds of Pacifism: Absolute Pacifism (Unbiblical) and 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, which is a peaceable attitude that refuses to ever turn to violence in response to evil.
- Limited Pacifism, which is 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 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.
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