Christians, Pacifism and the Sword
Are Christians permitted to carry the sword (or modern weapons)? What should the Church's policy be on war and peace? Should it counsel the State to turn the other cheek? Are Christians permitted to join the police force and the military? How can they 'love their enemies' and have to kill some of them?
The Scriptural truth that answers those questions divides the world into two realms. On the one hand, we have the kingdom of Caesar, and on the other the kingdom of God. A failure to distinguish between the two will produce confusion about the New Testament's teaching on the sword and peace—confusion that is rampant throughout the Church and the larger society in this time of global conflicts that are continuing, regardless of who wins political elections
This article is the first in a series on pacifism and the sword in the New Testament. I hope it clarifies the issues and encourages all the military and law enforcement personnel who fight for freedom and security and who still take the Bible as the foundation of their lives.
Old Testament Background
To analyze the New Testament properly, it is imperative to understand the Old Testament. The New Testament grows organically out of the older sacred text, but also transforms some main themes.
This revered ancient source teaches a theocracy, merging religion and politics. The Law of Moses was thundered from on high, shaking Mt. Sinai and echoing across the Middle East and eventually around the world. The plan was for the ancient Hebrews, the people of God, to separate from surrounding kingdoms and their pagan religions, and to worship the true and living God, following carefully prescribed laws. These laws were designed to guide them towards righteousness.
Further, God permitted ancient Israel to wage war on pagan inhabitants that were polluting a small and specific land called Canaan. (He did not command his people to wage wars of worldwide conquests.) The Israelites alternated between success and failure in cleansing the land. But this bedrock principle can be learned from these (admittedly) severe decrees: God is not opposed, in principle, to warfare, if necessary.
However, the people were unable or unwilling to follow God's decrees, except a remnant. So God ordained a new path of following his righteousness, the gift of the Spirit. The prophet Joel predicted, as follows:
28 I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. 29 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:28—29, emphasis added)
God expands the horizon to involve all peoples.
The following questions from the short Bible survey are relevant to the New Testament. Should the wars in the Old Testament be transferred forward to the ministry of Jesus and the Church? If so, how? What about to secular governments? Jesus, a Jew, lived in a theocracy, though under Roman occupation, prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 by the Roman general Titus, son of the Emperor Vespasian (ruled 69—79, and Titus later ruled 79—81).Would Jesus carry on the earthly theocratic kingdom established by God in ancient Israel?
A hint of the answer, discussed shortly: if Jesus were to reestablish another religious—political theocracy in a small land, it would not succeed, for God ordained something new that relates to all peoples. Joel 2:28—29 prophesies, and Peter the lead Apostle applies the prophecy to the birth of the Church in Acts 2.
For more articles on the complex and rich interrelations between the Old and New Testaments, please see these articles:
In his teachings and pronouncements, Jesus divides the kingdom of Caesar from the kingdom of God. Though the phrases 'kingdom of heaven' or 'kingdom of God' are used well over a hundred times in the Four Gospels, we look at three examples that put the kingdom in action.
First, at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, he was tempted or tested (the Greek word can be translated either way) by Satan to take all of the kingdoms of the world. Matthew 4:5—8 says:
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instance all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, "I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 So if you worship me, it will be yours." 8 Jesus answered, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'" (Luke 4:5—7; cf. Deuteronomy. 6:13)
In divine cooperation between Jesus and the Spirit, they allowed Satan to lead Jesus up to a high place and show him all the kingdoms of this world—their glory and political authority (exousia in Greek means political authority; cf. Luke 4:6 and 12:11, 20:20, 23:7). In addition, kingdom at the time of Christ includes material resources, backed by a strong military. However, Jesus raises his followers' vision to a spiritual transformation of the world, one soul at a time, without robbing people by bloodshed or killing them. Then, following his example, his disciples went north, south, east, and west, transforming the world only by preaching a simple message and by praying.
Second, Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Luke 19:18—44). He had predicted his own death—he was sent to die, after all (Luke 9:22, 43—45; 12:50; 13:32—33; 18:31—34). Now the hostility of the Jewish leadership heats up against him. It is in this context that the teachers of the law and the chief priests keep a close watch on him to catch him in committing treason against Rome or in breaking the law, so they could arrest him and turn him over to "the power and authority of the governor" (Luke 20:20).
Some leaders ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. Apparently, they saw him as a political revolutionary who opposed Roman occupation. Would he endorse the taxation of his fellow Jews for the benefit of unclean Gentiles? He replied with famous words that are often quoted, though people may not know the exact reference and context. He speaks first in this passage.
24 "Show me a denarius. Whose portrait and inscription are on it?" 25 "Caesar's," they replied. He said to them, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." 26 They were unable to trap him in what he said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent. (Luke 20:20—26; cf. Matthew 22:15—22; Mark 12:13—17).
In that passage, the distinction between the kingdom of Caesar and the kingdom of God is clear. If Caesar asks for taxes, then keep your focus on the kingdom of God, but pay them. Incidentally, Jesus paid his taxes (Matthew 17:24—27). He even called a tax collector to become one of his disciples (Matthew 9:9) and befriended them and other sinners (Luke 5:29—32).
Third and finally, during his arrest, he said to Pontius Pilate, a Roman authority:
My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place. (John 18:36)
Upon this reply, Pilate exclaims that Jesus is a king. But Jesus spiritualizes the description of a king. Pontius Pilate speaks first in the following verse:
'You are a king, then!' Jesus answered: 'You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason, I was born, and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is on the side of the truth listens to me.' (John 18:37)
At the birth of Jesus, the wise men call him 'king of the Jews' (Matthew 2:2). In John 18:37 he says that the purpose of his birth—as a king—is to testify to the truth. That means his kingdom is heavenly and nonmaterial. He leads by the power of truth alone, not by worldly pomp and glory, followed by a mighty military.
Thus, Jesus lifts his vision, and that of his disciples and ours, to a heavenly kingdom. He separated off an earthly and theocratic kingdom—albeit established by God in ancient Israel—from a spiritual kingdom about to be established beyond the borders of Israel to the farthest parts of the globe, wherever the gospel of the kingdom is preached. In his ministry and actions he never carried a sword or raised a militia to attack opponents, for he was preoccupied with fighting spiritual beings and diseases, and clarifying the best possible image of God in kingdom theology. But he permits the State to carry a sword—at least he does not condemn soldiers as such, as we shall see in a future article.
The Old Testament background brings us to the ministry and teaching of Jesus, but he wages spiritual warfare, not a military one. Three examples represent other passages in the New Testament.
First, one of the striking features of the four Gospels is the presence of demonic beings that attack hapless people. The Gospels take them seriously, as if they are not myths, and so does Jesus (and so should we). He waged spiritual warfare against demons, wherever he went. After the great test (Matt. 4:1—11; Luke 4:1—13), many passages describe his confrontation with them, such as Matthew 12:28 and 43; Mark 1:23—26, 5:2, 7:25, 9:25—26; Luke 4:33, 8:29 and 55, 9:42, 11:24, and 13:11. It would be most unwise if rationalists believed that these verses were ancient descriptions of mental illness.
Second, he waged spiritual warfare against sickness. This passage, representing other summaries, encapsulates in a few words the healing ministry of Jesus in Israel, four decades prior to the Roman destruction of the Temple in AD 70:
30 Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. 31 The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. (Matt. 15:30—31)
Third and finally, he waged spiritual warfare against false ideas by teaching true ones. In the famous Sermon on the Mount he explains what the kingdom of God really is. It is the 'new thing' prophesied by Isaiah (42:9, 43:19, and 48:6). After he finished the long discourse, the people respond thus:
28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, 29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. (Matthew 7:28—29; see 13:54 and 22:33)
These and many other passages in the Gospels demonstrate that Jesus is waging spiritual warfare, not a military one. He is about to call his Church to do the same. He raises its vision higher than conquering earthly kingdoms and regions. However, no Bible—educated Christian should ever believe that the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament are different. They are not. The same God who purified the small and specific land of Canaan through Joshua by military warfare is now purifying the whole world through Jesus (the Hebrew name is Joshua) by spiritual warfare, that is, only by preaching the gospel and only by praying, not by hitting the stubborn with swords.
An objector may ask: Separating off the kingdom of God from the kingdom of Caesar is all well and good for the 'heavenly minded,' but what about us here on earth? Wars and conflicts erupt. How do we handle them? What about the verses in the New Testament that talk about the sword? Or is the New Testament so spiritual that we should retreat from the world, not to mention from conflicts?
These are excellent questions, reflecting earth—bound realities. And these questions will be answered in the next articles in the series. Suffice it say here that the inspired New Testament does not leave us without guidance. God ordains that the State—law enforcement and the military—may wield the sword. And individual Christians may gladly join these honorable institutions, thus becoming servants of God. But publicly and officially, they serve the State. Privately, they serve God. The Church as an institution (also distinct from the kingdom of God, which creates the Church) is 'pacifist' in its own actions and internal policies because it follows the dictates of the kingdom of God, his active rule and dynamic reign. That is, it wages only spiritual warfare. Church leaders in the name of the Church or of God should never convene a council or general assembly in order to raise an army to fight battles and to coerce heretics and opponents to conform.
Further, understanding the separate kingdoms of God and Caesar (the State) and the fact that Jesus never set out to rebuild the theocratic kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6—7) is essential for grasping all of the verses in the New Testament about peace and the sword. Such verses will fall into place once the division of kingdoms is elaborated on. But if we merge the two realms, we will witness religious atrocities that the Church committed sometimes (not always) in its history. May we never again see the Church raise an army or militia to attack heretics and false doctrines (as the church with the army defines them)!
The mission of the Church, rather, is to save souls, teach believers, and help the needy in practical ways. That is the essence of the kingdom message. Being salt and light, the Church may also counsel the State. However, since God ordains that the State may wield the sword, the Church should not teach only pacifism to the State, or else the Church risks plunging the nation into chaos and even national harm from internal criminals and external foes. Also, teaching only pacifism contradicts Scripture, as we shall see in the next articles in the series.
The New International Version of the Bible has been used throughout this article, but other translations may be read here.
Contact James Arlandson