Friday, January 15, 2010

Can Christians take up the sword? - Intro

This is one that makes me cringe a bit. I am a big military supporter. I recognize the heroism of our men and women in uniform. I still remember Pearl Harbor. On several occasions I got deep into the process of going to officer candidate school in the Armed Forces. I like military history. I love guns. My all time favorite movie is Patton with George C. Scott. Like most Americans of my era, growing up in the aftermath of Vietnam and in the midst of the Cold War, I was inculcated with the understanding that I should be prepared to defend my country and our way of life, by dying for my country or better yet (in the immortal words of George C. Scott) by making some other guy die for his country. “God, guns and guts made America great” was the slogan and we have no qualms about using all three to defend the American way of life.

I am disquieted by this stance.

I am not asking if the state can use the sword. Clearly it can and just as clearly the state is distinct and different from the church, so it will naturally act in its own perceived self-interest. The state rarely wages war where the self-interest of the state is not at least perceived to be served. I can make a rock solid argument in favor of the United States having a powerful standing military, including a modern and credible nuclear deterrent. None of that has anything to do with the question at hand: can a Christian take up the sword?

Let me take a stab at defining that a bit, since most of us don’t own actual swords. When I ask this question, I am asking if Christians can serve in a capacity where either directly or indirectly they are engaged in actions or have the potential to be engaged in actions that will lead to the intentional death of one human at the hands of another.

This has broad implications. It would apply to Christians serving in the military and to Christians defending themselves or their property or another person by force. I don’t think it has direct application to capital punishment (see Romans 13) or to paying taxes that are legally required even if they support the military (this would be a render unto Caesar question). This is a serious question and one that get short shrift among the body of Christ. Plenty of people have no problem defending Christians wielding the sword but I am not at all certain that most Christians (including myself) have thought this question through. It is a question that has been hijacked on one side by the “Religious Right” that not only has no qualms about the sword but in many ways is awfully enthusiastic about wielding it. On the other side is the broader secular peace movement which leads to all forms of pacifism being lumped under the same big tent.

The idea of pacifism or non-resistance (not necessarily the same thing. I think based on the definitions, non-resistance is a more Biblical term.) is not an invention of the 1960’s peace movement. It runs through streams of Christian movements and sects from present day groups like the Mennonites, Amish and Hutterites through the radical Reformation all the way to the earliest days of the church and the New Testament itself.

In fact, I would argue that outside of the pacifistic aspect, Christian non-resistance and the farcical “peace movement” of the Vietnam era are philosophically and foundationally worlds apart. As the Global Menonnite Encylcopedia states in its article on non-resistance: Certain forms of pacifism or nonviolence, however, being based more upon humanitarian, philosophical, or political considerations than upon New Testament ethics, are not to be confused with nonresistance as here defined. It is my belief that the Vietnam era peace movement (and the resulting modern spawn of that same political movement) was a combination of a narcissistic cult of self gratification and the frightened reaction of a pampered and overindulged generation being faced with the notion of real sacrifice. It is the greatest of ironies that the Vietnam era peace movement has degenerated into an angry political movement that most often manifests itself in violent anarchist protests. At its root, and where it makes it gravest error, it assumes that people are basically good and rational and that they will react to peaceful overtures with peace. If we just give love a chance, bad people will become good people and everyone will live happily ever after.

Biblical non-resistance makes no such claim, not viewing humanity through rose colored glasses but the stark reality of man’s sinful state. Christians ought not make the error of assuming that reacting to violence with peace will lead to peace. In fact, just the opposite is true. Reacting to violence with peace may encourage the problem but in spite of that non-resistance is foundational to the Christian life. When we refuse to resist evil people, we don’t do so in the expectation that they will leave us alone. When the Apostles were brought before the council, falsely accused and even beaten, they did not plot their revenge. Instead…

Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5: 41)

We are not called to not resist evil in the hope that this will lead to world peace. We are called to not resist evil and indeed to return evil with good with no expectation of receiving good in return.

There is a real danger here when so-called “peace churches” lose focus on the meek, non-resistant nature of Christian life and start to focus instead on political activism. Many of the liberal “mainstream” churches have lumped concern for the poor and non-resistance in with a laundry list of liberal "social justice" causes like “climate change”, normalization of immorality within the church, anti-capitalist/globalization stances, various and sundry environmental and animal rights movements and eventually an abandonment of the Biblical Gospel to be replaced with a “social gospel” that preaches politics instead of repentance. In other words focusing on the here and now instead of the hereafter, making the world a better place to go to hell from. In this liberal “social gospel” Christians are every bit as in error as the flag waving, red, white and blue cross bearing religious Right that seeks to legislate conservative social agenda items under the guise of “making America a Christian nation again”.

Christian non-resistance is not based on advancing the workers revolution or fighting economic globalization. It is based on the Biblical teaching of not resisting the evil doer, of returning good in the face of evil. In the next two posts on this topic, I want to look at Scriptural evidence to support a, um, non-non-resistance stance and then look at some evidence in favor of non-resistance. In both cases I am talking about non-resistance in practice, not just in theory. It is easy to talk about community, fellowship, peacemaking, loving your brothers, etc. as a theological position but it is far more difficult to deal with it as a practical matter. So I will try to confine myself to what Scripture says and what it doesn’t say.

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Steve Martin said...

Non-resistance of the evil-doer is properly understood when the evil is directed personally at you.

When it is directed at the neighbor, the loving thing, the Christian thing to do is to protect the neighbor from evil.

Like I said, if Christians had taken the pacifist attitude during WWII, the civilized world would have been taken over by the fascists, and hundreds upon hundreds of millions of people would have been slaughtered or taken into a lifetime of slavery.

Thanks be to God for all the brave and faithful Christians would resisted evil, who fought evil, and defeated it.

Elroy Rankins said...

I think that you have spoken with clarity and sound judgement; regarding the issue of the christians attitude or stance in regards to participation in warfare.

The underlying pricipals that support your argument have applications on many related issues: warfare, politics, nationalism,etc.

I always tell people that both conservatism and liberalism are human philosophies. However, we have one infallible guide: the word of God. I like to quote Isa. 9 Unto us a child is born....and the government shall be upon his shoulder. This is the christians hope. We should be looking for a city whose builder and maker is God. We should be like Abraham, who lived as a pilgram.

Conservative christian rhetoric has created a mythology about America, and has actually put allegiance to this nation on equal footing with allegiance to God.

I love my nation, if for no other reason, I live here. However, my trust is in the Lord. He is the only one I should rely on.

I think that christians need to have more discussions on these kinds of issues, because our core message is being undermined by blending it with our politics.

To paraphrase the apostle paul, to be an American is not Godliness in and of itself.

Arthur Sido said...


The only things that are the "Christian" things to do are those things that can be supported from Scripture. Otherwise it is idle philosophy. Can you support from the New Testament a single passage that supports what you are asserting?

The church thrives amidst persecution. In the earliest days they crucified and martyred untold Christians and yet the church exploded. In the Reformation era, people abandoned Rome in droves even though many of them faced being burned at the stake. In countries like China today, the church thrives. The West saved the world from fascism but most people are still in a eternity of slavery.

Steve Martin said...

Youa re to hate evil (God does) and you are to love your neighbor.

That's in the Good Book.

As they say in New York...'you gotta problem wit dat?'

Fighting Christians in WWII and other wars have prevented untold misery to innocent people at the hands of evil tyrants.

It's the truth.

Steve Martin said...

If some drug crazed sniper was picking off your own children one at a time, how loving would it be to you and your kids if I could stop him, and yet did nothing?

Debbie said...


Correct me if I'm wrong, but from what I remember the only examples we have in the New Testament of Christians rejoicing in persecution are directly related to persecution for their faith. As you quoted, "Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5: 41)." (If I was better at using HTML tags, I would have put "for the name" in bold print.)

To me, this is a separate issue from Christians serving in the military.

Arthur Sido said...


So in other words you can't support your position from Scripture. I understand your point but I also am saying that you cannot support it from Scripture. I don't see where we get to decide what is loving and what is not based on our own definitions.

Arthur Sido said...


My point had to do with defending ourselves in the face of persecution. I lump taking up the sword to include both serving in the military and self-defense.

(to put something in bold type, you bracket it with <> at the beginning and the end, in the first put just the letter b and in the second /b)

Debbie said...


Yeah, I know how to do it. I'm just usually distracted when I'm typing, so I tend to mess it up. ;)

Your response confuses me. To me, serving in the military and/or protecting my home and family from a stranger (self defense) are separate issues from being persecuted for my faith. The cases in the New Testament deal specifically with being persecuted for being Christians. To say that rejoicing in suffering for the name of Christ means that Christians can't serve in the military is a huge leap.

Kaitiaki said...

Perhaps this should wait until I have seen the whole of your argument Arthur. But, there are a few points you may want to consider.
God not only allowed but also approved the death of many by the swords of his people. Two examples of many: When God brought his people into the promised land, Joshua was specifically told he was to put whole cities to the sword - in some cases men, women and children were specified. King David spent much of his reign at war with neighboring nations and yet was called "a man after God's own heart."
The teaching of both John the Baptist and of the Lord Jesus, himself never once requires of the hearer to leave the military. This would be expected if bearing the sword (= being in a profession where you could be required to kill) was inherently evil. John required his auditors not to abuse their positions and Jesus said absolutely nothing detrimental about soldiers or soldiering.
Given Jesus support for the Old Testament that would weigh pretty heavily on the side of believing soldiering was a worthy profession as long as the soldier was honorable.

Kaitiaki said...

Romans 13:1-6 and other similar places in Paul's letters (at the very least) show us that the one who bears the sword does so as a "minister of God, a revenger to execute God's wrath on him that doeth evil" (Romans 1:4 in the KJV). This is significant because it verifies the distinction made in the Old Testament between killing (as in murder - with premeditated hatred) and execution (as a measure of justice to - in OT language - remove the blood from the land). As a member of the military (or even of the police) the person acts as an agent of the Government and, since this is so the question then becomes "is it legitimate to act (as a Christian) as an agent of the Government?" And that's a different question.

Even without point three (above) it has to be remembered that Paul and the other apostles use as symbols imagery drawn from the military and they do so approvingly. That, and the fact that their stance is exactly the same as Jesus himself would tend to give me pause before I claimed that a career in the military was contrary to the word of God.

See also my articles on the sixth commandment in [the link is to the first of the series].

Arthur Sido said...


They are two aspects of the same issue. Don't get overly caught up in that, I think you are missing the bigger issue.

Debbie said...


I disagree. They are two different issues, not part of the same one. I'm not missing the "bigger" issue.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to me that serving in the military is noble when serving the America of old. However, serving in Nazi Germany perhaps not. I find that the Old Testament commands to cleanse the land (remove the blood) were directly from God, just as George Bush told us when we engaged the Iraqi's. The major difference is that Israel was a theocracy. We are not. If the LORD of Hosts commanded America to wage war, it would most likely be over justice (or the lack thereof), rather than oil or the dollar, or even terrorism. I am also dubious that God would chose to speak to/thru a man such as our former (or current) commander in chief.

It's interesting to me that serving in the military is noble when serving the America of old; however, serving in Nazi Germany perhaps not. Perhaps not even the America of today. I find that the Old Testament commands to cleanse the land (remove the blood) were directed by God himself, just as George Bush told us when we engaged the Iraqi's. The major difference is that Israel was a theocracy. We are not. If the LORD of Hosts commanded America to wage war, it would most likely be over justice (or the lack thereof), rather than oil or the dollar, or even terrorism. I am also dubious that God would choose to speak to/thru a man such as our former (or current) commander in chief.
God's call is to holiness, and not success. Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight". Right before that, he asked his disciples if they had a sword. Then, in the garden, after Peter loped off Malchus' ear, he told him to put it away—why did he ask if they had one, if not to demonstrate that his kingdom was not of this world?
The other item that the aggressors (since they tend to call me a pacifist instead of “non-resistive” and there IS a difference) or militant Christians tend to overlook in this debate is the power of prayer. Our flesh cries out for justice and righteousness, but those are the LORD’s duties, not ours. (Deut 32:35, 32:41, 32:43, Psa 58:10, Psa 94:1, Romans 12:19). Our duty is to pray for those who rule over us, to return good for evil, to bless them that persecute you, to give to him who asks -- not to separate their head from their shoulders.

I’m often asked if I think that a believer should “just pray”, as if prayer were somehow inferior to a .457. I would submit that any weapon you could brandish pales in comparison to the power of prayer – including nukes.

Just the ramblings of the recently converted.