Should Christians participate in war? Should Christians own guns to defend themselves? Ironically enough, these questions have caused their own little war, with Christians of all stripes taking positions as varied as pacifism, nonresistance, just war, and preventative war—not to mention the myriad of variations in between.
In looking to Scripture, all parties claim Jesus on their side. Pacifists look to passages such as John 18:36, Matthew 26:52-54, and Matthew 5:39, arguing that Jesus taught that his kingdom was not of this world, so we should not use the weapons of the world. In contrast, others turn to passages such as Matthew 8:5-13, Luke 22:37-39, and Matthew 10:34-36, to argue that Jesus was not a pacifist. The issue isn’t solved by proof-texting, however.
Our worldview has a lot to do with how we view this topic. In this issue of Reflect, we will take a look at the pacifist position, following up next week with some thoughts on just war theory.
Pacifism and Nonresistance
Pacifists have varied beliefs about the acceptability of violence and warfare. Some pacifists argue that war is unacceptable in every instance and that self-defense is unchristian. Pacifists often discourage other Christians from participating in military service, sometimes going further by actively opposing their country’s military.
Our mission as Christians is to love the world, share the Gospel, and continue God’s kingdom building work on earth. Pacifists argue that by participating in warfare, we are implicit in furthering the evil methods of the world, instead of showing people the way of Jesus. Like Jesus, we should lay down our lives and not take others. We are called to live as Kingdom people, and ultimately, in God’s kingdom there will be no violence and no warfare.
Another iteration of pacifism is nonresistance. This view is similar to pacifism, but allows that nations may justly participate in war, but Christians should not—at least, not in combative roles. Christians are allowed to participate in the military as medics, doctors, or chaplains. This view is well represented by the story of Desmond Doss, as portrayed in the recent film, Hacksaw Ridge. A devout Seventh-Day Adventist, Doss refused to carry a rifle during WWII, but risked his life countless times to save his fellow soldiers.
Warning: This scene contains some graphic war images.
Doss’s story shows that Christian pacifists may actively serve their country through non-violent means that do not require killing. Doss was a true hero.
Affirmations, Questions, and Pitfalls
Certainly, there is much that we can agree with and affirm in the pacifist position. However, there are questions that must be asked about this view. No doubt, it would be ideal if every conflict could be solved through nonviolent means. This should be our hope and what we work toward, but is it realistic to assume that all conflicts can be solved this way? We would argue that it is not.
As Genesis chapter 3 clearly shows (and all of Scripture and human history affirm), our world is broken and corrupted by sin. All things will not be set to rights until Jesus returns to make all things new. While we are called to be Kingdom people and live differently than the world, we must recognize the reality of fallenness in our world. Pacifism may be in danger of seeing the world with utopian, rather than biblical, vision.
The Scriptures seem to indicate that sometimes force may be necessary in the battle against evil. In the Old Testament, God often instructs Israel to use force against certain nations to eradicate evil. In the New Testament, Jesus does not necessarily reason with the moneychangers in the temple; rather, he turns over the tables and drives them out (Mark 11:15-17). When Roman soldiers ask John the Baptist what they should do, he does not command them to lay down their weapons and quit the military, but to deal justly in all their actions (Luke 3:14).
Christians have a responsibility to look out for the oppressed, protect their families, and take a stand against injustice (Psalm 82:3, Isaiah 1:17, 1 Timothy 5:8). No doubt, this can be a tricky business, deciding if and when force may be necessary. However, some versions of pacifism seem to dodge these dilemmas by leaving the difficult work to others. Even if all Christians became pacifists, the world does not play by the pacifist rulebook. By adopting a pacifist position, might we be neglecting our God-given responsibility and leaving the weak and vulnerable defenseless?
Another potential pitfall of pacifism is its temptation to pride and superiority. In one memorable episode of the popular TV show, Dr. Who, the Doctor is warned not to walk through a door because the people on the other side have guns. He replies, “And I haven’t, which makes me the better person, don’t you think? They can shoot me dead, but the moral high ground is mine.”¹ Pacifists sometimes assume that they have the moral high ground, or are more like Christ, because they do not fight in war or own guns. No doubt, many pacifists do not hold their views with arrogance, but the temptation is there.
And yet, it is entirely unjust to portray the pacifist position as cowardly. Indeed, sometimes taking a more traditional pacifist stance may take greater courage. One thinks of Desmond Doss in the example above, Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent resistance to racial injustice, Sophie Scholl’s courageous protest against Nazi ideology during WWII, or even Jesus’ willing submission to death when he could have blasted his enemies to bits.
However, we should note that most Christians who would not identify as pacifists would also agree with the actions taken by the people in the above examples. Of course, the above examples are not passive, but active in resisting and fighting against evil; and not just fighting against evil, but standing for people.
Pacifism reminds us of the incredible importance of human life and our calling to live differently in this world. However, even though we can affirm certain principles of this view, we at Summit Ministries cannot endorse pacifism. Next week, we’ll dive deeper into the case for warfare and defense. Until then, as we seek to protect others and help them in their need, we ought to pray like Doss—“help me get one more.”
This Article Corresponds To:
- Understanding the Culture, chapter 15: “The Use of Force”
- Understanding the Culture curriculum, unit 15, pp. 399–410
Possible Discussion Starters:
- What are some different variations of pacifism that you have heard of or encountered?
- What are the pitfalls of a pacifist position?
- What other examples can you think of from the Bible and culture that portray nonviolent resistance?
- “Should Christians Go to War?” – Chuck Edwards
- “Why I’m Not a Pacifist” Part 1 / Part 2 – C. S. Lewis
- “The Just War” – J. Arthur Holmes
- “Is There a Time to Kill?” – Timothy Padgett
- “War and the Christian” – Ligonier Ministries
- “A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence” – David Cramer
- War: Four Christian Views – Robert G. Clouse
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Note: External links in this post are provided as a convenience for informational purposes only; they do not constitute an endorsement or an approval by Summit Ministries of any of the products, services, or opinions expressed.
- “The Moral Highground of the Doctor,” youtube.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gds1oFBrcW0