The doctrine of pacifism is generally, though not exclusively, associated with the Anabaptists. The Anabaptists came out of the Radical Reformation and stressed adult or believer’s baptism (the prefix ana means “again”), communalism and a belief in the purity of the primitive church. Their association with pacifism came about largely as a result of their one experience with political power when in 1533 they gained temporary control of the city of Munster. They persecuted and expelled all non-Anabaptists and established what they believed was the messianic kingdom under the leadership of John of Leiden. The city was subsequently put to siege by both Catholic and Protestant armies and was captured in 1534 at which point the leaders of the movement were tortured, killed and displayed as a further deterrent against similar undertakings.
This disaster led to a revolution within the movement under the leadership of figures such as Menno Simons. From this point on most of the streams within the Anabaptist movement would be committed to some form of Christian pacifism. The original Anabaptist Confession, known as the Schleitheim Confession, did not forbid the sword to the civil magistrate, even while it did encourage all true believers to abstain from participating in potentially violent occupations. Article 6 of the Schleitheim Confession reads as follows:
“The sword is ordained of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and puts to death the wicked, and guards and protects the good. In the Law the sword was ordained for the punishment of the wicked and for their death, and the same [sword] is [now] ordained to be used by the worldly magistrates.”
In the 20th century many Anabaptists, following Stanley Haurwas and John Howard Yoder, author of the foundational text The Politics of Jesus, began to take a more radical approach. These neo-Anabaptist thinkers began to understand the crucifixion of Christ as a complete rejection of all violence – personal and societal – including police and military action by the state. Thus it is common in contemporary Anabaptist churches to forbid practicing police officers and military personnel from serving in positions of leadership.
For most other Christians in the world, this is a bridge too far.
Romans 13:1-4 seems to clearly outline the extraordinary authority that is given by God to the civil magistrate:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1–4 ESV)
This passage clearly teaches that “the king (or magistrate) does not bear the sword in vain”. It even goes so far as to say that “he is the servant of God”, a phrase normally reserved for prophets in the Old Testament and Apostles in the New. Clearly the office of magistrate was not viewed as an evil to be endured but as a gift and grace to be received with gratitude.
There should therefore be no dishonour ascribed to those who serve as the sword of the king.
John the Baptist did not tell soldiers to disavow their profession; rather he told them:
“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:14 ESV)
The New Testament contains instructions to soldiers as to how to conduct themselves honourably within their role and station. It also tells us that the first Gentile mission was directed by an angel of God to the house of Cornelius the centurion – that is Cornelius the professional officer in the army of Rome. No mention is made of a change of vocation and no word of rebuke or censure is offered.
For these and other reasons, most reformed believers, and indeed most believers in Christ generally, have rejected the neo-Anabaptist position on Christian pacifism.
But have we been diligent enough in the development and proclamation of our own position on this matter?
Now is not the time for us to be silent.
Many observers rightly point out that the more radical position adopted by the neo-Anabaptists in the 20th century was in large part a reaction to the aggressive military interventionism of the United States in the aftermath of WW2 and the ever increasing militarization of the police force. Add to that the epidemic of school shootings and the seeming unwillingness of many American politicians to adopt meaningful gun control legislation and you have all the impetus required for a wide spread interest in radical pacifism.
One wonders whether the neo-Anabaptist position would have even emerged had the reformed position been better known and more winsomely communicated. Far too often reformed evangelicals have merely assumed conservative political values – without subjecting those values to appropriate biblical reflection.
We are “the Bible people” – we are “the Christ of Scripture people” – and therefore we have all the content we need to construct and communicate a coherent position on Christian pacifism. Such a position would certainly include the following affirmations, denials and repudiations:
We affirm the inestimable dignity and worth of every human being
All human beings are created in the image and likeness of God and therefore have inestimable worthy and dignity. Genesis 1:27 says:
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27 ESV)
Human beings are known to God and loved by God even in the womb:
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13 ESV)
Therefore in affirming the worth and dignity of all human beings we instinctively recoil from all acts of violence committed against any human being from the point of conception onwards.
We affirm the duty to love and prefer one another
Love is the fulfilling of the law. The whole law exists to point us to Christ and to point us to love. The two tables of the law tell us how to love God and how to love our neighbour. The New Commandment of Christ is merely a clarification and affirmation of the old:
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” (John 13:34 ESV)
The love of Christ for his disciples was sacrificial, humble, faithful and costly. Our love for one another must endeavor, by supplies of His Spirit, to be the same. The person who loves can do no violence to his neighbour, for the Scripture says:
“Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:10 ESV)
We affirm the principle of non-retaliation
Christians have been given all things in Christ and have a dignity and an inheritance that will never tarnish or fade and therefore Christians suffer all things and love all people regardless of provocation or personal injury. Jesus said:
“But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:39–41 ESV)
The use of violence to protect personal property or to avenge personal insult is hereby forbidden.
Jesus also said:
“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13 ESV)
The Christian is friend to all and therefore would rather lay down his or her own life than to send a sinner unprepared into the presence of the Lord. Therefore the use of violence in defence of self and personal property is repudiated.
We affirm the privilege of welcoming the alien and the stranger
As Christians we are to imitate and reflect the character of our Heavenly Father of whom it is said:
“He executes justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing.” (Deuteronomy 10:18 ESV)
Christians are to hold their temporal allegiances lightly and to look forward to the city whose architect and builder is the Lord God. Therefore we affirm the privilege of opening our gates and our homes to the refugee and to the immigrant in need. We repudiate the fear and self-interest that would close our hearts to people fleeing danger and seeking freedom and opportunity. To refuse to love because of risk or personal cost is to repudiate Christ who said:
“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45 ESV)
Love always comes at a cost and therefore we will use our voices to advocate for a merciful and benevolent approach by our governments to the difficult issue of trans-national immigration. We repudiate and will decry any use of violence or any expression of hate toward the alien or sojourner in our midst.
We affirm the responsibility to pray for those who oppose us
Jesus prayed for the people who were nailing him to a Roman cross:
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 ESV)
Likewise Stephen prayed for those who were stoning him:
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60 ESV)
Knowing who we are in Christ and knowing what is ours in Christ, the Christian is merciful to all – even toward adversaries and oppressors. Jesus said:
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 ESV)
It is the duty of all true Christians to pray for those who oppose and persecute the body of Christ. We are to offer mercy to those who strike us and kindness to those who hate us. We are not to seek our own revenge nor are we to take delight should they fall under Divine chastisement.
We affirm and recognize the extraordinary authority that has been given to the state
The state has been given extraordinary authority and permission for the purpose of maintaining order and punishing the evil doer. The Bible says:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God… for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:1–4 ESV)
The magistrate is permitted to use extraordinary means, even violent means, to resist the wicked and to execute wrath upon the wrongdoer. By extension the duly constituted government of a nation has the authority to wield the sword in the defence of its own citizens and toward the end of establishing peace and justice for all. This is a trust and responsibility given by God and should be respected by true believers. The Bible says:
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good…. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:13–17 ESV)
We deny that war is always and in every case the worst available option
In a fallen world, still deeply marked by the curse and consequence of sin, the followers of Christ will need to distinguish between that which is:
“good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2 ESV)
Some things are acceptable but not good and nowhere close to perfect. War may in certain circumstances be considered such a thing. In accordance with what is commonly called “Just War Theory” we recognize that war is permissible only when certain conditions are met. The war must have a just cause – to repel invasion or to meet injustice. The war must be declared and controlled by proper authority and must be fought with the aim or restoring peace among all parties.
War is never to be desired or gloried in and must only be permitted when all other means have been exhausted. The good which is achieved by the war must be greater than the evil which was prevented.
Given the capacity of the human heart to devise evil on a massive scale and given the lessons learned in the 20th century, it ought to be clear that war is an occasional and regrettable necessity and it is therefore the duty of true Christians to participate usefully and courageously if called upon by their duly acknowledged civil leadership.
We deny that there is any dishonour is serving as an instrument of the state
If the state is sanctioned by God to resist the evildoer and if the sword is not given in vain to the lawful authorities then it cannot be dishonourable for individual believers to serve as instruments of the nation.
In Romans 13 the institution and the agent are spoken of interchangeably:
“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:3–4 ESV)
The police officer, the soldier, the judge and the magistrate are alike agents of the state’s authority and commission to restrain evil and to punish the wrongdoer. They are God’s servants for our good and worthy of all appropriate honour and respect. The Christian who fails in this duty denies the authority of Holy Scripture which says:
“Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17 ESV)
We repudiate the use of violence by the state to advance their own national interests or ideology
God gives extraordinary authority to the state and to the magistrate for the purpose of maintaining order and restraining evil doers. Given the deceitfulness of fallen human beings we readily acknowledge the potential for this authority to be abused and to be deployed for corrupt and avaricious purposes.
We deplore the use of violent means to achieve self-serving national and political ends.
War should never be initiated in order to acquire wealth or power. Nor should war be used to advance a particular ideology, theology or political philosophy – wisdom is vindicated by all her children and the cause of truth cannot be advanced by force of arms. The Gospel in particular must never go forward at the point of the sword. The Gospel is the message of peace and therefore its true meaning can only be communicated and commended by people of peace.
We affirm the right of individuals to exercise their conscience in objecting to an action of the state that they deem to be unjust
Christians are happy to honour the Emperor but not to serve him as Lord and therefore in certain few circumstances the believer must be considered free to say to the state as the Apostles said to the Sanhedrin:
“Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19–20 ESV)
Also like the Apostles, however, said believers must be prepared to endure whatever sanctions the state deems fit to apply. When the Apostles were beaten for their civil disobedience the Bible says:
“they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” (Acts 5:41 ESV)
Conscientious objection must therefore be carefully considered and prayerfully discerned. Nevertheless, should a believer be convinced in his or her spirit that an action by the state is unjust and avaricious, their right to object and to refuse to serve as an agent of that action ought to be by all affirmed.
The horrific state sponsored violence of the 20th century and the deplorable captivity of the evangelical church to the dictates and confines of contemporary culture both commend to us a return to this much neglected doctrine.
This is intended merely as a preliminary draft.
Let us together pursue a new reformed evangelical consensus with respect to our calling and commission as messengers of peace.
Even still, come Lord Jesus!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.