Questions and answers on pacifism and the sword

James M. Arlandson

Christians are commanded to love their enemies, so are Christian soldiers and police officers permitted to kill them? How can they maintain their witness about God when they may have to pull the trigger? Wasn’t Jesus a pacifist? Wouldn’t revelations guide the State better than reason?

This is Part Six in a series on pacifism and the sword in the New Testament, asking and answering questions that were not covered in the earlier articles.

1. Are the Church and the kingdom of God the same?

Basic New Testament theology says they are different. I cannot improve on George Eldon Ladd’s book A Theology of the New Testament, rev. ed. (Eerdmans, 1974, 1993). He writes:

The Kingdom is primarily the dynamic reign or kingly rule of God, and derivatively, the sphere in which the rule is experienced. In biblical idiom, the Kingdom is not identified with its subjects. They are the people of God’s rule who enter it, live under it, and are governed by it. The church is the community of the Kingdom but never the Kingdom itself. Jesus’ disciples belong to the Kingdom as the Kingdom belongs to them; but they are not the Kingdom. The Kingdom is the rule of God; the church is a society of women and men. (p. 109)

Explaining Scripture, Ladd goes on to say that the kingdom creates the Church, not the other way round. The Church testifies about the kingdom. The Church is the instrument of the kingdom. And the Church is the custodian of the kingdom (pp. 109-17).

I have been careful in this series not to fuse the Church and the kingdom of God together. However, if a church denomination were to teach that the kingdom and the Church are identical, then the New Testament still does not permit the two (fused as one) to wage military war. Jesus separates the kingdom of God from the kingdom of Caesar. That is the main point of the series.

2. Why did the Medieval Church wage war so often?

The words "so often" in the question reflect the popular view, but the Church enjoyed long stretches of peace. Also, Protestants attacked each other and Catholics in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), for example. So we should not see the Medieval Church as the only one that wandered off from the New Testament. Incidentally, it is simplistic and inaccurate to call the entire Medieval Age the "Dark Ages." For centuries huge cathedrals were built and many universities sprang up, so the society had to be prosperous (the birth of capitalism and the rise of the middle class), and people had to be smart to accomplish those things. It was not one day after another of violence, any more than for other societies.

With that said, we consider the ideal and the real.

Ideally, the proper response for the Church (Catholic and Protestant) throughout its history would have been to ask the State, such as the kings of Europe and the "Holy Roman Emperor," to fight the battles. Indeed the Church did this, but confusion of the two realms often won out. They were not adequately separated.

Now for the real. It is too easy to condemn every policy of the Medieval Church and later times. The Church faced hard reality. Both Protestants and Catholics had to confront, for example, the aggressive, invasive armies of Islam, which were taking vast territories. The Church was doing the best it could with the light it had, under difficult circumstances. For me to look back now and only criticize it is too easy, though there is much to criticize.

In any case, to follow the New Testament properly, the Church should fulfill its mission of saving souls, teaching believers, and helping the needy. It should not raise armies and wage wars. That’s the job of the kingdom of Caesar that is permitted to carry the sword (Rom. 13:1-7). The US (and other nations), thankfully, follows this divine order. That is why we enjoy religious tolerance and peace.

This article tracks the timeline of the Islamic invasions long before the Church declared its first Crusade. Also go here, here and here for other timelines.

Go to these two articles (What Islamic Science and Philosophy? and Islam and the Problem of Rationality) to see how Western philosophy in the Medieval Age had to refute and get away from Islamic philosophy, which was bogged down in occasionalism, which is defined in the articles. These two articles (Hyping Islam’s Role in the History of Science and The Not-So-Golden Age of Islamic Philosophy) balances out the picture that says Islam embraced the cultures it conquered. Rather, numerous Christians and Jews who did not convert to Islam are the ones who transmitted classical culture as they lived under their Islamic overlords. This article (Islam, Christianity, Classical Civilization, and Modernity) discusses how the Medieval West advanced in philosophy, and Islam got stuck in itself.

Therefore, it is inaccurate to say that Islam sustained the West during the entire Medieval Age. The full and complete story must be told.

3. What does "forcefully advancing" mean in Matthew 11:12?

One of the more difficult passages in the Gospels is Matthew 11:12, which reads, according to the most accurate translation of the Greek:

12 From the time of John the Baptist . . . until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing; and violent and rapacious men have been trying . . . to plunder it. (D. A. Carson, Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Zondervan, p. 267)

In his commentary, Carson summarizes various interpretations of the verse. But then he formulates the best one (which seems right to me and others, too). John is the forerunner of Christ, announcing repentance. Then God transfers the call of the kingdom from John to Jesus. Consequently, the reason why the kingdom is depicted as advancing forcefully is that it had never before been revealed with such energy and power. Jesus’ miracles and assaults on demonic strongholds and false ideas had never before been so striking. John the Baptist, in prison, heard of the miracles and asked Jesus if he was the Promised One. Jesus answers affirmatively, citing the miracles (Matthew 11:1-6).

In addition, "violent and rapacious men have been trying to plunder it" means, as follows:

Herod’s imprisonment of John . . . the attacks by Jewish leaders now intensifying (Matt. 9:34; 12:22-24), the materialism that craves a political Messiah and the prosperity he would bring but not righteousness (Matt. 12:2-24). Already Jesus has warned his disciples of persecution and suffering (Matt. 10:16-42); the opposition was rising and would get worse . . . . (Carson, pp. 267-68)

Thus, the kingdom was and is advancing forcefully, and it does not include swords or military holy wars. This interpretation of Matthew 11:12 fits the grammar and vocabulary of the verse as well as the entire sweep of the Gospels and even the whole New Testament. This series of articles on pacifism and the sword confirms it, as well.

4. Christians are commanded to love their enemies (Matthew 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-36). So are Christian soldiers and police officers permitted to kill them?

That is a great question, for it summarizes the objection some pacifists may have concerning Christians who join the State that God ordains to wield the sword. What if the State requires its agents—including Christians—to kill in some circumstances? The reply is fivefold.

First, the easy answer—too easy in fact—is to teach that Christians should withdraw from any "messy" involvement in the State. However, I have always thought that it is the lowest form of ingratitude when the Church asks the State to do the "dirty work" of protecting Christians, but they do not pull their fair share.

If Christians have an extra-sensitive conscience about harming anyone in any circumstance, but they still want to serve in law enforcement and the military, then it is sound advice for them to work behind the scenes. However, when an enemy mortally threatens citizens, and the Christian police officers or soldiers have no other choice than to use lethal force, then they should not feel an ounce of guilt about it, provided they follow the law. There is nothing wrong if Bible-educated Christians—who therefore do not have to suffer from an extra-sensitive conscience—fight on the frontlines with all the risks that entails. No one has to be poisoned with hatred in his heart as he pulls the trigger.

Second, in Scriptural context, the command to love our enemies requires doing good to them (see Part Five and Luke 6:27-31). It is not merely a gooey feeling. I have heard first-hand stories about soldiers who have done good to an enemy immediately after he threatened them with mortal danger. As soon as he dropped his weapon, the soldiers treated his wounds so he would not die. That is goodness in action; therefore, that is "love your enemy" in practice. True stories like that abound, but they never make the news in the mainstream media.

Third, as we saw in Part Three, Jesus and the Apostles Peter and Paul endorsed weapon-carrying soldiers and officers who did not have to leave their careers, after they encountered the kingdom of God, two of them converting. There is no Scriptural evidence that they stayed only and always behind the frontlines. This may be, strictly speaking, an argument from silence, but the logic of history requires us to assume that Roman soldiers may have to kill an enemy. It is completely certain that Jesus and the New Testament authors assumed this about the Roman military. They lived in the Empire, and Jesus predicted his own death by those authorities. And God chose to help and call military men and a law enforcement officer, and as new-born Christians they may have had to kill an enemy. So we must balance parts of Scripture with all of Scripture.

Fourth, other themes besides love are found in the Four Gospels, such as justice (Matthew 12:18, 20; 23:23; Luke 18:7-8). In fact, Jesus explicitly juxtaposes the justice and the love of God. Pronouncing woes on certain self-righteous Pharisees, he says: "But you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone" (Luke 12:42). He says love and justice complement, not oppose each other.

And sometimes justice is hard; in extreme circumstances it includes using physical force on lawbreakers and perpetrators of violence, domestic or foreign. Such protection expresses the justice of God and the love of God to peaceful citizens. Jesus helped a military officer. And the first gentile convert to Christianity was a military officer, not a civilian (see Part Three for details). Jesus assumed that the military was part of life in this world (Matt. 22:7; Luke 11:21-22, 14:31-32, 19:27). And Christians may join that part, if they feel called.

Therefore, it is misguided to impose one verse or theme ("love your enemy") on everyone who protects us, even by force, as if that one verse or theme represents the only one in the Bible. Unbalanced idealism obsessed over by utopians can lead to absurd conclusions, in at least a few difficult circumstances. Paradoxically, these extreme idealists appeal to Jesus, but they go way beyond all of his teachings. See these verses on the judgment of God on his enemies: Luke 11:50-51; 12:20, 51-53, 57-59; 13:1-9, 22-30; 16:19-31; 17:26-37.

Fifth and finally, blessed are the flexible and the teachable. As I noted in Part Four, if a Christian becomes a soldier or a police officer, then he officially and publicly serves the State. But his private faith and religion will make him a better servant because he strives to act with integrity. Ultimately, the Christian soldier or officer serves a just and loving God, so he follows and obeys justice and love (not one without the other). All of this depends on fluctuating circumstances. The soldier or officer must exercise wisdom as to when and how to apply love and justice. This is why he must stay in Christian fellowship, so he can ask for counsel from the body of believers. He must also know the law, which provides a lot of guidance in difficult situations.

5. You write that individual Christians may own a firearm. But you have concluded repeatedly that the Church is pacifist. Yet it is made up of individual Christians who may own a firearm. Would you clarify this?

That concern is easy to answer. I have written again and again:

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 sinners to conform.

It is best to distinguish between the kingdom of Caesar (the State) and the kingdom of God, which creates the Church. Christians have a dual citizenship, one foot in the world system that is doomed to perish, and one foot in the kingdom of God (1 Pet. 1:17; 2:9). To apply this essential two-kingdom theology specifically, Christians should not email each other in order to form a militia of firearm-carrying friends for the Church. None of them should proclaim, "I own my firearm in the name of my Church!" Neither should they say: "As a parachurch organization, we own our firearms in the name of the Lord!" That misguided notion is too strange for words, for it blurs the distinction between the two kingdoms. An individual Christian may own a firearm as a citizen of society, not as an official or even unofficial representative of the Church. And neither should church leaders call an assembly of its weapon-carrying members with the express purpose of "taking care" of their perceived enemies or for any purpose.

It is imperative to maintain the two-kingdom theology, and then there will be no confusion. Thus, the Church as an institution is pacifist within itself, for it follows the dictates of the kingdom of God ushered in by Jesus. And he waged only spiritual and moral warfare, not a military one. Individual Christians may own a firearm as citizens of society. To illustrate further the difference between the secular-social and the ecclesiastical, if they enter a society that forbids any kind of private ownership of a firearm, then they should not break its laws in the name of the Lord or the Church, demanding their God-given right. The very idea is repugnant, for not only are they citizens of the kingdom of God, but also of the kingdom of Caesar. If we keep the two kingdoms separate, especially in the debate over the sword, then we will enjoy clarity.

6. How can Christian soldiers or policemen maintain their witness about God (Matthew 28:18-20), when they may have to kill?

Many of the answers provided in Question Four apply here; nonetheless, I take slightly different directions in my reply now.

Ideally, we should witness about God to everyone. In America, the message of the gospel is everywhere: on television, radio, and the street corner. Even church buildings bring an awareness of the gospel. Nothing stops a criminal from repenting of his sins in one of them. In fact, through advanced media technology the gospel is penetrating into the remotest corners of the globe. Witnessing takes many forms. So who is to say that a criminal or enemy soldier against whom deadly force is used never had his chance to hear the gospel? He may have heard and rejected it.

Further, even in times of peace, average Christian citizens who do not carry weapons may never reach some people. Not everyone will convert, as the Scripture affirms everywhere. Therefore, if not everyone will convert in times of peace, then how much more will no conversions be a possibility in times of conflict? Conversely, maybe in hard times people are more open to hear the gospel. In that case, doors may open to share one’s faith. Whatever the case, Christians do not know (or rarely know) in advance who is convertible. Often the unconvertible are model citizens, but sometimes they are violent criminals and enemies. But when they threaten citizens and agents of the State with immediate, mortal danger, the Christian soldier or policeman may have to use deadly force, for he does not have time to ask whether such violent suspects and enemies have heard the gospel.

As noted in the answer to Question Four, it is misguided to impose only one theme in the Bible onto anyone, let alone Christian soldiers and officers who are God-ordained to exercise, sometimes, justice that requires lethal force. The Scriptures teach the love of God, witnessed to in the gospel, and the justice of God, also a part of the same gospel.

If pacifists believe that Christians using lethal force according to the law is a bad witness to the gospel, then the pacifists do not understand the full teaching of the New Testament.

7. What if a Christian lives under an unjust government? Should he join the military or law enforcement?

That question reflects a sad reality around the globe. If a Christian lives under an oppressive regime, such as a bloodthirsty dictatorship or communism, then he must take extra-special care about working for the State in the institutions that require weapons and killing. He may be propping up injustice in an irredeemable system. But if he is in a position to bring about reform or carry out peace and justice, purging out oppression, then in this (extremely) rare case he may stay in the institutions. He needs to pray for wisdom each day, if he is forced to remain in law enforcement or the military under an oppressive regime. Maybe he can work behind the scenes.

However, Christians living under a democracy have an easier decision in working for the State. If such a privileged Christian joins the military, but concludes that a military operation is unjust, then he has a heavy burden of proof to make his case, especially when the majority of the lawmakers supported the action (never mind later backpedaling by these same lawmakers just to score political points). Maybe a compromise can be reached for the objector. Perhaps he can work behind the scenes, but still in the military. But he may have to pay a heavy price for prematurely quitting or escaping from the military that is overseen by democratic institutions following the law.

8. You say that we can use reason to craft the State. But reason has often failed (e.g. the Nazi regime). Isn’t it better to use revelations to guide the State?

Your wall between revelation and reason is shaky. Brilliant persons like Aquinas benefited from revelation (e.g. the Bible) and did not abandon their reason. In fact, this entire series is based on the two areas, not one without the other. We have discovered reasonable truths and revelations from the New Testament that expresses the wisdom of God for society.

To reply to your main point, however, Aristotle teaches us, wisely, that extreme actions and policies are indicators that reason is not being followed (see his Nicomachean Ethics and Politics; incidentally, I do not endorse everything Aristotle says, but his wisdom far outweighs his blind spots).

In any case, it is clear that the Nazi regime went to extremes, more than any in history. The same is true of the old Soviet Union (and its story has not been finally written yet), China, North Korea, Cuba, Iraq under Saddam, and others. It is true that these extreme human rights abusers had their own internal logic that gave the appearance of reason, but they could not see that their starting point or foundation for their own logic within their heads and cadre of leaders was murderous, greedy, and bloodthirsty, as seen in Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Thus, extreme vice is no evidence of sound reason—but of the exact opposite. For people to live in maximum peace, governments must adopt moderate policies that ensure basic freedoms, in such areas as religion and speech. People must be free to worship as they want and to criticize all governments and all religions.

Plus, the answer depends on what you mean by "revelations." States that depend on them also oppress their people, such as imprisoning or killing them if they leave the State religion. It is a sad reality that "revelations" themselves maymteach violence and brutality and human rights abuses—after Jesus came and showed us a better way. Also, the Church must truly follow its sacred Scriptures; then it will not make foolish and deadly errors like starting the Reich Church in Nazi Germany. If the German Church had followed the New Testament closely, it would never have fused itself into Nazi ideology and endorsed or looked the other way as the Nazis oppressed and mass-murdered people. But the Confessing Church opposed both the Reich Church and Nazi ideology. (See the Confessing Church’s Barmen Declaration.)

Thus, the Church, interpreting its Scriptures properly, may guide the State, but the two shall not become one. If they do, we will witness a repeat of religious atrocities perpetrated by the Church sometimes in its history.

In addition to the new and revolutionary teaching of Jesus, God-given reason (apart from direct revelations) confirms that it is best to keep the kingdom of God separated from the kingdom of Caesar. Enlightenment thinkers also figured that out, as they looked back on history, especially church history. Birthed in the Enlightenment and Christian revivals, the US has learned that hard lesson of separation, and now its citizens live in religious peace. The State should never impose religion, and the Church should keep its distance from controlling the government. Power corrupts. Corrupted power may lead to violence. Religious violence is especially repugnant to all clear reasoners. Thus, anyone should be permitted to leave his religion or to worship as he likes (or not at all) and not be harassed by religious "brown shirts" or "goon squads."

9. So what’s the bottom line? Was Jesus himself a pacifist or not?

That question is direct enough, but it is framed misleadingly. Jesus never carried a sword and bloodied or killed people with it. However, the Gospels do not teach only pacifism, as the previous answers and the first three articles explain. He praises a centurion, not condemns him (Matt. 8:5-13). As noted, he assumes that the military was part of this life and this world system, again separating the kingdom of God from the kingdom of Caesar (Matt. 22:7; Luke 11:21-22, 14:31-32, 19:27).

But Jesus was involved in a special kind of warfare, a spiritual one that would solve the world’s problems if only people would open their eyes. He was ushering in the kingdom of God in an unprecedented way. He confronted the powers of darkness that actually harassed people. He was working miracles so people could be free of their ailments. He was parrying the verbal thrusts of his enemies. He was teaching his disciples who often misunderstood basic ideas. The crowds clamored so much for him that sometimes he told his disciples to go apart for some rest. But no one should see him as a retreatist. He crisscrossed Israel preaching and ministering the deeds of the kingdom of God, knowing that it would spread around the globe. The kingdom started as small as a mustard seed, and its plant grew surprisingly large, much larger than the seed would indicate. Eventually, however, he was killed for his services rendered, but then he was resurrected, vindicated. That’s the kind of warfare he waged.

May the Church follow him fully!

The complete series of articles:

Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:
Part Four:
Part Five:
Part Six:
Part Seven:    
Part Eight:
Jesus, Pacifism, and the Sword
Pacifism and the Sword in the Gospels
Soldiers, Officers, and God
Church and State—and the Sword
Should the State turn the other Cheek?
Questions and Answers on Pacifism and the Sword
Addendum—Fight or Flight?

Many translations of the Bible may be read here.

Copyright by James Malcolm Arlandson.

Articles by James Arlandson
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