Monday, January 18, 2010

Can Christians take up the sword? - The anti-sword view

I am going to turn now to the Scriptural evidence against using the sword.

I am not interested in the well established philosophy behind “just warfare”. I am trying to sidestep that and ask “What does Scripture say”? When we set aside our cultural bias as much as we can and read the Scripture, what is the conclusion we come to? Certainly the state can and does use the sword but what about God's people, redeemed new creatures in Christ?

The argument toward non-resistance comes primarily, and very strongly, from the Sermon on the Mount. It is my opinion that the Sermon on the Mount, a very lengthy and very powerful discourse from Christ, is often either misinterpreted into a call for a political liberal social agenda advanced by a secular government by means of confiscatory taxation or it is essentially ignored as being a nice thought that doesn’t apply to our life.

I am not going to reproduce the entire sermon because much of it is not as directly applicable to the question at hand, although I do think that the entire SotM paints a comprehensive picture of how Christians should live. Instead I want to look at a couple of sections in detail. The first comes in the very beginning of the SotM. In these verses we see the virtue of peacemaking, mercy, being persecuted with rejoicing because we trust that our reward is in heaven.

"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Mat 5:7-12)

The world is not going to promote these virtues. I just got my annual review at work and I was not hoping for "very meek" on my review and if it was there it probably would not have been a compliment. There is again a contrast in these verses between what the world sees as weakness and something to be avoided but Christ promotes as virtuous and leading to great rewards in heaven. It cannot be more starkly stated. If you want rewards in this world, being meek is not going to get it done. You cannot please both the world and Christ, you cannot live for the world and for Christ. You need to pick one or the other.

Later we see a section more directly applicable as it applies to non-resistance.

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mat 5:38-48)

We see something important here. "You have heard it said, but I say". If anyone else said that, it would be seen as borderline blasphemy but when the Son of God says this, we need to take note.

What of the Old Testament laws that permit defense of property and retributive justice? In Exodus 21-23 God lists out all manner of civil laws, many of which are foundational to modern Western law. In these chapters we see passages like this: If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him, (Exo 22:2). That would seem to imply that if someone breaks into your house and you shoot him, you are OK. This whole section is kind of the “eye for an eye” section, if someone does this to you, you have this right. Is Jesus affirming this? Again, look at what He said...

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. (Mat 5:38-40)

Is Jesus here only speaking of Exodus 21: 23-25? Or is He speaking more generally of not seeking restitution against those who wrong you? The overarching theme is that we are not to resist one who is evil. There doesn't seem to be an out for really evil people or if you have some really nice stuff or someone really makes you mad. Do not resist the one who is evil. This is where the rubber hits the road. When faced with evil, our natural inclination is to fight back. Jesus is saying that instead we should not resist.

This concept is hardly restricted to “merely” the Sermon on the Mount, although even if it were that should be adequate for His followers. A telling event happens in the garden of Gethsemane and is recorded in all four Gospels. In the garden, after Jesus prays, He is betrayed when Judas brings the soldiers in the dead of night to arrest Him. What happens next is very interesting…

Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant's name was Malchus.) (John 18: 10)

Good for Peter, standing up for Jesus! No wonder Jesus made sure that they had swords! How does Jesus react? Keep in mind that this is Peter defending the Messiah against a mob of men armed and seeking in the dead of night to seize Christ. The Scripture does not record Jesus praising Peter, although in 2010 his reaction to leap to the defense of Christ (even by means of violence) seems pretty reasonable. Instead we see Jesus saying something entirely different…

And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (Matt 26: 51-52)

I guess you could argue that Jesus is chastising Peter here because He is not seeking to avoid the cross. On the other hand, notice what else Jesus says. All who take the sword will perish by the sword. It is not not right now but not ever. Is the message here “violence begets violence”? It certainly sounds that way. Not only does Christ rebuke Peter for taking up the sword, He speaks more generally in remarking that those who live by the sword shall die the same way. Also, and this is really where the point comes together, Luke records that Christ heals the ear of the servant.

But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:51)

That has nothing to do with the avoiding the cross. He was still going but He made a point of healing one who came to seize Him first, showing good to those who meant Him evil. That message should resonate with His followers today. Not only does Jesus not seek retribution against the ones who were coming to arrest Him, He returned good for evil. In a world of suing for our rights, Christian legal defense funds, etc. the One we follow does something completely different.

That would be sufficient in and of itself but Paul reiterates what Christ says. I think that this is important. Let's look at what Paul writes in this matter.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:14-21)

You really cannot overemphasize this. This is Paul, post-cross, restating and reinforcing what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. I don't think it is coincidence that this comes right before Romans 13 where Paul affirms that the state can use the sword. The contrast is pretty stark between Christians and the state. Live in harmony with one another (i.e. other believers), be lowly, be humble, do not think yourself wise (hard to do when you insist on adorning your name with titles and honorifics to tell people how educated you are). Live peaceably with all people to the best of your ability. Granted some people will not be peaceable toward you, but that is on their heads. We are called to not avenge ourselves but instead to trust the justice of God to set things right. If you want to fight evil, don't take up the sword, instead overcome evil with good. The best way of fighting evil is to do good to your enemies:

If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you. (Pro 25:21-22)

What of the argument that war is sometimes necessary to ensure justice? That we as lovers of what is good and of justice have an obligation to see justice done?

First and foremost, this is a question of what Christians are to do and to be in the world. We are not called to be arbiters and dispensers of justice in the Bible. Quite the opposite. If we truly believe that God is who He says He is and that He will do what He says He will do, then we leave it to Him to dispense justice. I trust God far more than I trust myself or politicians (even Republicans!) to create a just society.

As a whole, the Scriptures paint for us a picture of Christians as a meek and lowly people, humble and placing their trust in God rather than men. We are followers of Christ, who was humbled to the point of death, going meekly to His death carrying His own cross, mocked and beaten, scourged and spat upon. Paul writes to Timothy

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. (1Ti 2:1-2)

The Christian life is one that seeks peace and quiet, humble and dignified lives. We pray for our leaders, not so that they will advance our agenda over a different agenda, but so that we may lead peaceful and quiet lives.

My final post will wrap up this series and serve as a place for discussions about this idea of non-resistance.

"The regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife. They are the children of peace who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks, and know of no war.... Since we are to be conformed to the image of Christ, how can we then fight our enemies with the sword? . . . Spears and swords of iron we leave to those who, alas, consider human blood and swine's blood of well-nigh equal value." - Menno Simons

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Les said...

Arthur, you make some interesting points. I’ll be brief as work still calls.

Your use of the NT may be a bit sketchy. Particularly Matthew 5:38ff and Romans 12. In Matthew 5 38ff, I believe that Jesus is dealing with the idea of revenge. That being the case, I would say that we are absolutely not to seek revenge. Even in war throry, that is why we have “rules” which seek to prevent soldiers from “chasing down” a fleeing enemy and shooting him, for instance, after the enemy soldier has just shot one of ours. That is revenge. That is our guy seeking justice and retribution. Rather, he is to capture the enemy combatant, if anything. Further, Jesus’ advocacy of the disciples being armed with swords in Luke 22:35-38 sure seems to say that He was against self defense.

In Romans 1217 , it seems to me that we have the Apostle being consistent with Jesus and disallowing “payback” or revenge.

More: in Deut. 22:23-27 we have a woman who is being attacked under the expectation to cry out for help. Someone should rescue her. Of course how would one rescue her but to seize the man, violently if necessary, to prevent or stop the rape.

Further, the OT is noted for its commands to defend the needy, etc.

Summary, Christians are not to seek revenge and personal justice. We have courts for justice. But Christians are absolutely to protect life..their own and the lives of others when necessary.

Just my thoughts.

Arthur Sido said...


How would you deal with the idea of being a "peacemaker" and taking up arms on behalf of one secular country to fight against another?

Les said...

Arthur, I think that taking up arms in a national effort of self protection or self preservation, is just an extension of the self defense principle. If an individual has the permission, and even the responsibility, to do whatever necessary to preserve his own life and in cases the lives of others, then surely the permission applies on a larger level (nationally).

Pastor St. John said...

I completely disagree. I believe it is good and proper for a Christian to take up arms to defend his own life, and to defend the lives of his family and neighbors. I won't write an essay here, but I have collected some links:

Arthur Sido said...


I would agree. If you have the permission and responsibility to defend yourself, then by extension you would have permission to do the same. On the other hand, and this is where I am coming down, if we are not called to defend property or stuff then we certainly should not take up arms to kill others on behalf of the state.

Arthur Sido said...

Mr. St. John,

Can you give me a single new testament verse that calls for Christians to take up arms to defend themselves?

Les said...

Arthur, glad you're apparently feeling better. Question: do you have any response to my take on some of the verses you had cited? i e my first coment above.

Unknown said...

Hey - need your wisdom and advices absolutely welcomed. If someone did something absolutely wrong to you and publicly and refuses to acknowledge his wrong, what do you do besides not avenging? Do you shake his hands the next time you meet and might that not be interpreted by others that you accede that he did you no wrong? Or should you just ignore him?

Mark said...


I can only tell you my response from being in a similar experience, where I was forced to work next to, and interact with, an individual who had done me wrong. My interactions with this individual changed the more I matured. Originally I just ignored him, in an attempt to not "hate" him. the more I have matured, and the more I understood the heart of Christ that Arthur portrayed, the more I am able to interact with him without malice, fully understanding that he is trying to stab me in the back, and loving him anyway. I am still growing in this, but at each step I've done my best to walk with the level of understanding and grace that I had at that time.

Arthur Sido said...

I would affirm what Mark said. I don't think avoiding or ignoring someone is adequate. We are to love those who hate us and bless those who persecute us, not avoid them because it is easier. It is awfully hard but then again Jesus suffered the cross on behalf of those who by nature hated Him, i.e. people like me