The Error of Pacifism

Blaine Robison, M.A.

Published 6 June 2005; Revised 28 October 2011

Original title "Does Scripture Support Pacifism?"

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The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 and its aftermath has had a profound effect on citizens in the United States. As national leadership has executed a sustained war throughout the world against Al Queda and their allies and prosecuted wars against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, those committed to pacifism have loudly opposed these policies. While pacifism is generally espoused by social and religious liberals, many Evangelicals have found themselves embroiled in a debate that hasn't occurred since the Viet Nam War, some siding with the pacifists because of believing that Messiah's command to love one's enemies cannot be reconciled with killing one's enemies.

I may be especially sensitive to the issue since I enlisted in the Army in 1972, received an officer commission from Infantry Officer Candidate School the following year and served almost nine years of active duty, including assignments in three different combat infantry divisions. In 2006 I retired from the Army Reserve with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. In order to be accepted for Infantry OCS I had to gain the approval of a board of officers. I had graduated from a Christian college the year before with a degree in Theology. Sitting in front of these serious-faced men I was intrigued by questions as to my beliefs about war. There was much opposition to the Viet Nam War on college campuses and I had the right to claim conscientious objector status. They did not understand why someone with a Christian education background would want to enlist in the Army. However, I saw no contradiction between serving God and my country. My answers satisfied them and they approved my application.

The purpose of this monograph is to explain the biblical basis for the legitimacy of waging war. Pacifism by definition is an opposition to violence as a means of solving disputes, but for the purposes of this article the focus will be on war. There are many forms of pacifism, such as economic, philosophical, political, religious, and social, and all these forms manifest varying degrees of opposition to war, from absolute to conditional and active to passive. Pacifism reflects considerable diversity among its adherents.

Christianity from the early centuries of the church fathers has generally espoused the just war theory. A just war has been defined by a criteria of seven principles: (1) just cause or defensive cause; (2) just intention; (3) last resort; (4) formal declaration by properly constituted authorities; (5) limited objectives that will secure peace; (6) proportionate means rather than total war; and (7) noncombatant immunity.

Since the sixteenth century Christian pacifism has been advocated by various groups, such as the Waldensians, Mennonites, Brethren and Quakers. To the best of my knowledge all Christian denominations, including those that have endorsed the right of national self-defense, will support a claim for conscientious objector status by any member of the church required to register with the Selective Service.

Sincere advocates from these and other churches have sought to fulfill Yeshua's (Jesus') command to love neighbor and enemy in equal measure and work for societal conditions that will enable people of different national, ethnic and cultural backgrounds to live together in peace. In my view the application of the Christian pacifist's ideology to the subject of war is flawed due to faulty assumptions about God and Scripture, as well as inadequate and unequal treatment of Scripture passages. The inescapable fact is that there is a war going on in which every disciple of Yeshua participates. Satan declared war on God in the beginning (Rev 12:7) and that war will continue until our Messiah comes (Eph 6:12).

Faulty Assumptions About God

Faulty Assumption #1: God is a nice grandfather figure who really wouldn't hurt anyone and even in Scripture demonstrates a reluctance to harm people.

The Bible reveals God as an infallible, immutable, omnipotent and holy Creator, King and Judge, one who takes life as well as gives it (Deut 32:39; 1Sam 2:6; Rev 1:18). God's nature has not changed (Num 23:19; Mal 3:6; Heb 6:17; 13:8; Jas 1:17). People die because God decreed death upon the human race as a consequence of Adam's sin (Rom 5:12; 1Cor 15:22). Without the curse in the Garden of Eden, Adam and his descendants would probably never have died.

Since God is love He purposed from the beginning to remedy the sin problem and the curse with a marvelous plan of salvation. However, to achieve this goal God planned the death of His own Son with the Son's full consent and delivered Him into the hands of wicked men (Matt 12:40; 17:12, 22; 20:18, 28; 26:42; Acts 2:23). The execution of Yeshua was clearly unlawful and constituted murder (Acts 2:23, 36; 3:14-15; 4:10; 7:51-52), yet the schemes of Satan and Yeshua's adversaries all served God's purpose.

People generally die as a result of Adam's sin, but God has a history of taking life in specific judgment. God has caused many environmental calamities, often as direct punishment for wicked behavior, and also by giving permission to Satan to cause suffering (Job 1:6-12; Ps 18:7; 46:8; Isa 10:4; 13:11ff; Luke 21:11, 25). People usually resort to the terminology of God “allowing” bad things to happen so as not to attribute meanness to God. Yet, if a human had super powers that could prevent or stop bad things and elected not to intervene, that person would be viewed as responsible and an accessory before the fact. God's most notable environmental judgment was the destruction of the earth by cataclysmic flood in response to mankind's violence (Gen 6:11-13). As many as 4 billion people may have perished. God wiped out Sodom and Gomorrah with fire from heaven for their wickedness in spite of Abraham's intercession to spare the cities (Gen 18:20; 19:24f). God has even punished His own people for disobedience by fire (Num 11:1; 16:35), by sinkhole (Num 16:32), by pestilence (2Sam 24:15-17, 25), by earthquake (2Sam 22:8; Zech 14:5) and by famine (1Kgs 17:1; 2Kgs 8:1).

God ordered the execution of specific persons, including the golden calf idolatry offenders (Ex 32:27), a man who broke the Sabbath (Num 15:32-36), idolatrous Israelites at Peor (Num 25:4), the seven tribes indigenous to Canaan (Ex 33:1-3; Deut. 7:1-2), Achan (Josh 7:10-15, 24-26), the house of Jeroboam (1Kgs 15:29-30), and the house of Ahab (2Kgs 9:6-9). God Himself killed certain persons for specific sins, including Er and Onan (Gen 38:7-10), Korah and his followers (Num 16:31-49), Ahaziah (2Kgs 1:16-17), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:5-10), and Herod (Acts 12:23).

God killed large groups because of sin or threatening His people Israel. Besides the world of Noah's day, God killed the firstborn of Egypt, including thousands of babies, for Pharaoh's rebellion against His authority (Ex 11), and perhaps to avenge the murder of Hebrew children by Pharaoh. God determined that He would destroy the seven tribes of Canaan because of their wickedness (Gen 15:16; Lev 18:24-28) and to enable Israel to take possession of the Land as He promised to Abraham (Ex 23:23, 30). God sent an angel to destroy the Assyrian army that threatened Jerusalem (2Chr 32:21). Showing no favoritism God punished His own people for disobedience by the Babylonian invasion and captivity (2Kgs 24:1-4; Jer 12:17; 13:9; 24:10; Ezra 5:12). As Moses and the writer to the Hebrews echoed, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Deut 4:24; Heb 12:29). God will use any method of destruction and death to do justice for His name, His holiness and His saints.

Faulty Assumption #2: Yeshua came to bring peace to the world.

People commonly misapply the familiar refrain of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14) to mean “peace among men of good will.” Of course, since God by definition must succeed in all His purposes, then why didn't world peace result from Yeshua coming to earth? Yeshua did not come to simply make people get along with one another, hold hands and sing “Kumbaiya.” The song of the angels asserts that mankind is at war with God, but Yeshua was sent to mediate peace with God. It is only those who make peace with God that can hope to have any kind of meaningful peace with one another. In His first coming Yeshua was presented to the world as Redeemer; in the second coming Yeshua will return as King to make war on His enemies and Judge to punish the wicked. The uncompromising edict from Yeshua was, “Repent or face destruction” (Matt 4:17; 16:27), as David prophesied, “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you be destroyed in your way” (Ps 2:12).

Faulty Assumption #3: Yeshua avoided actions and reactions that would produce conflict.

Yeshua was reputedly meek and mild and even rebuked His disciples for wanting to destroy a Samaritan village (Luke 9:54ff). He certainly came to do good, showed love to all and exhorted His disciples to love one another. He endured the unspeakable agony of being impaled on an execution stake and actually prayed that the Father would forgive His executioners. Unfortunately, this picture of the historical Yeshua is not complete. Yeshua constantly engaged in verbal combat, confronting and rebuking evil-minded men and He did not shy away from causing conflict (Matt 12:31-34; 15:3; 16:4; 21:23-27; 23:13-36; Luke 4:24-30; 13:32). This same Yeshua also possessed anger that could ignite at injustice, insensitivity, insolence or ingratitude and He often resorted to aggressive action in helping the weak and defending the holiness of His Father's name (Matt 18:34; 21:12; Mark 1:43f; 3:5; John 5:14).

Faulty Assumption #4: Yeshua rode on a donkey into Jerusalem as a symbol of peace.

This myth has been predicated on the assumption that if Yeshua had ridden a horse the Jewish crowd would have viewed the act as imitative of Caesar who conducted state visits of provinces by riding a white horse into a city. However, Roman practice had nothing to do with it. Zechariah prophesied this very event, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech 9:9).

The larger context of Zechariah's prophecy meant that Yeshua identified Himself as the son of David and one who would assume David's throne, crush the military might arrayed against Israel, do justice for His oppressed people and establish His reign over the whole earth (Zech 9:8-10; 12:1-9; 14:1-9). The Jewish crowd understood the significance of the act (as did His enemies) and shouted the blessing from the Messianic Psalm, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord; we have blessed you from the house of the Lord” (Ps 118:26). Therefore, His donkey ride was a declaration of war against both the Roman occupation of His holy land and the corrupt Jewish leadership that had compromised righteousness with expediency. What the crowd didn't understand was that the first casualty in the war would be Yeshua himself who had to die for the sins of His people.

Faulty Assumption #5: Yeshua is anti-war.

Yeshua, who had His own personal angelic army (Matt 26:53), asserted that in the present age the true Kingdom of God was to advance with the voice of the Gospel, not the force of military arms (John 18:36), as unfortunately later occurred in church history. Nevertheless, Yeshua did not come to promote accommodation with evil. He said, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). Yeshua warned the Jews of Jerusalem that war would descend on them for rejecting Him as Messiah (Matt. 23:29-38; 27:25; Luke 21:20-24). This prophecy was horrifically fulfilled in the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 A.D. and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. by the Roman army. Over one million Jews reportedly died in the rebellion, siege and final battle, and 97,000 were taken into slavery (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6:9:3).

In Matthew 24:6-7 Yeshua prophesied that wars would continue until the end of this present age, but His prophecy was not of a passive God incapable of preventing bad things happening. Before the Second Coming of our Lord, the Lamb (Yeshua) will instigate new wars (Dan 9:26; Matt. 24:6-7; Rev. 6:3f, 7f) and at the Second Coming He will personally kill billions of His enemies in a brief but devastating war and then put a final end to rebellion with fiery destruction of God's enemies at the close of the millennium (Luke 17:22-37; 19:11-27; 20:9-18; cf. 2Th 1:6-8; Rev 19:11-21; 20:9-10).

Faulty Assumption #6: Each person is created in the image of God possessing unique worth and dignity and therefore no person should be allowed to put another person to death.

It is ironic than many Christians use the same argument against executing murderers that God uses to justify it (Gen 9:5-6). God commands that human authority hold murderers accountable and impose the same sentence perpetrated on the victim precisely because man bears God's image. Capital punishment decreed by a court or a just war to destroy a murderous or terrorist regime is not merely necessary in a pragmatic sense but a moral imperative decreed by God (Rom 13:1-4). Wicked and rebellious persons do not possess the same “worth” as the innocent (Isa 40:17; Jer 2:5; Lam 4:2; Hos 12:11; Matt 25:30; Luke 15:21; Rom 3:10-12).

If all men regardless of their behavior possess unique "worth and dignity," on what basis could God sentence the unrepentant to eternal death? In Scripture, worth is not a quality that can be achieved or maintained apart from obedience to God. Only those with the gift of eternal life have the right to wear "robes of worth" (Rev 3:4) and no murderer has eternal life in him (1Jn 3:15). Failure to take God at His word reflects a callous disregard for the sufferings of the innocent.

Faulty Assumption #7: Yeshua revoked the Old Covenant so all the references about killing no longer have any relevance.

Many Christians have fallen prey to deceptive philosophies about Scripture, particularly its authority for faith, values and standard of conduct. What a person believes about the authority of Scripture is crucial to pleasing God. Many believe that the Old Covenant Scripture, the Tanakh ("Old Testament"), is not authoritative, because it has been revoked by Yeshua, and that the pronouncements of the apostles were culturally influenced and are not necessarily authoritative for today. The end result is that far too many professing Christians live by the value in the time of the Judges, "everyone did what was right in his own eyes" (Jdg 21:25).

The Old Covenant still has authority over the disciple of Yeshua on two grounds. First, God does not change (Num 23:19; Mal 3:6; Jas 1:17). His character and standards have never changed (cf. Matt 19:17-19). Second, the only one who can nullify a law is the authority that gave it. Yeshua, the Son of the Holy God who gave the Torah to Moses, plainly declared that He didn't come to destroy or abolish the Torah (Matt 5:17). The Apostle Paul declared that the Torah is holy, good, righteous and the objective standard by which we know what is sinful (Rom 7:7,12). Paul also said that the Torah was not nullified because of justification by faith (Rom 3:31).

Yeshua the Messiah only did what the Torah could not do by becoming the means of our justification so that we are no longer saved by the blood of bulls and goats (Heb 9:22-28). However, in the living out of God's salvation as His obedient children the Torah certainly remains applicable in the New Covenant era as demonstrated by the decision of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Moreover, Yeshua and his apostles quote from the Torah to enforce many moral and ecclesiastical pronouncements. The Body of the Messiah was established on the authority of the Hebrew apostles and prophets with Yeshua as the cornerstone (Eph 2:20), and, consequently, their rule and practice must be ours as well. One cannot deny the authority of the Old Covenant Scripture and apostolic pronouncements and still claim any biblical authority for pacifism.

Faulty Assumption #8: God prohibited all killing.

Even though many attempt to undermine the authority of the Old Covenant Scripture, pacifists will still quote the commandment of “you shall not kill” (Ex 20:13; Matt 19:18) as the chief justification for pacifism, as if repeating it settles the issue. Modern translations usually render the commandment, “you shall not commit murder,” which is a more accurate rendering of the Hebrew word and appropriate to the biblical context of God's Law. The fact is that God's Word authorizes killing in the following circumstances.

Killing animals for food (Gen 9:3; Deut 12:15, 20; Mark 7:19; John 21:13; Acts 10:9-15; Col 2:16; 1Tim 4:3)

Killing in self-defense (Gen 14:14-16; Ex 21:18-18; 22:2; 2Kgs 1:9-12; Luke 22:36, 38)

Killing as punishment for criminal conduct (Gen 9:5-6; Ex 21:14-16, 29; 22:18-20; 32:27; Lev 20:9-10, 27; 24:17, 21; Num 15:32-36; 35:11-14; Deut 17:8-13 19:11-13, 16-21; 21:18-21; 22:21-25; 24:7; Josh 7:10-15, 24-26; 2Sam 4:11-12; 1Kgs 18:40; 2Kgs 3:14-19, 24-25; 9:6-9; Matt 21:33-41; Luke 19:27, 43f; Rom 13:4; 1Pet 2:14).

Killing the enemy in war (Gen 14:14-16; Ex 33:1-3; Deut 2:34; 7:1-2; 20:10-17; Josh 2:9-11 6:17, 21; 8:24; 10:1, 20, 28, 35, 37, 40; 11:11-14, 20-21, 1Sam 14:6-14; 15:2-3; 2Chr 14:11-15)

The Ten Commandments stand as general categories of God's Law and the rest of the Torah contains particular instructions for implementation and in some instances exceptions. God is the only one with the authority to make exceptions to His commandments and He has clearly done so in the case of the sixth commandment.

The Teaching of Yeshua

Yeshua gave His disciples an active and a passive responsibility. In the active sense Yeshua said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). Peacemaking here does not mean serving in diplomatic service to negotiate peace between nations or necessarily to mediate between disputing parties in a legal controversy. Biblical peacemaking is first and foremost a ministry of reconciliation to help lost and dying people to make peace with God (2Cor 5:18f). Only when people are at peace with God can true biblical peace be accomplished between disparate parties. Disciples as individuals are to actively love their enemies and seek their salvation (Matt 5:44f). The biblical command to “love” does not refer to an emotional or sentimental affection, but a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel.

In the passive sense Yeshua told His disciples, “But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt 5:39). The “striking” described by Yeshua is the slap of insult, so the “non-violent” response is part of Messiah's Kingdom ethic that was meant to guide the disciple's conduct as the gospel was taken into a hostile world full of enemies. While there may be circumstances that would permit killing in self-defense, the disciple is not authorized to exercise that privilege in the matter of persecution. Those who proclaim the Gospel are not to respond to opponents in a way that will hinder the salvation of the hearers. Disciples are especially enjoined from returning evil for evil (Prov 20:22; Rom 12:17, 19; 1Th 5:15; 1Pet 3:9). In other words, the disciple cannot engage in a personal vendetta, breaking God's commandments to fight evil (1Pet 4:15f).

The active and passive responsibilities do not mean that violence is to be condoned or that remedies for injury should not be sought from the government or that governments should not wield the sword of justice against murderers, especially mass murderers. Even pacifists will call the police when they become victims of crime. The Apostle Paul repeatedly appealed to the governing authority for protection (Acts 21:30-36; 22:22-26; 25:10-12). Certainly, we are to grant forgiveness if a person wrongs us, but only if he repents (Luke 17:3; cf. 1Jn 1:9). God's Torah intends that justice be done for victims and God ordained the human government to bring His wrath and afflict appropriate suffering upon the wrongdoer (Rom 13:1-5; 1Pet 2:14; 4:5).

Important Biblical Conclusions

1. Scripture is not anti-military. Scripture, including the apostolic canon, never criticizes those in the profession of arms or the use of military power. Nowhere in the Bible is a soldier told to leave the military profession or to refuse to defend his country or to fight to bring liberty to oppressed people. The only specific advice came from John the Immerser when asked by soldiers what repentance meant for them, and John's reply was for them to refrain from extortion and abuse and to be content with their wages (Luke 3:14). John the Immerser was not a pacifist.

2. Those of God's people who excelled in military exploits were praised. “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies” (Heb 11:34; cf. 2Sam 23:8-39). Two of the most highly respected characters in the apostolic canon were soldiers (Luke 7:1-10; Acts 10:1-8) and the first person to praise God after the death of Yeshua and defend His character was a soldier (Luke 23:54). Paul made several references to the duties and equipment of soldiers to illustrate important spiritual virtues (1Cor 9:7; 14:8; Eph 6:11-17; Php 2:25; 1Tim 1:18; 6:12; 2Tim 2:3-4; 4:7; Phm 1:2). Paul encourages Timothy to be a “good soldier of the Messiah Yeshua” (2Tim 2:3 CJB), which would not be an appropriate analogy if being a soldier, with its implied duties, was evil.

3. The reality is that we are at war (Ps 120:7). It's easy to say that Yeshua is "for peace;" yet, He came to destroy the works of the devil (1Jn 3:8), not set up peaceful coexistence with evil. In response the enemy of our souls wages an unrelenting war to destroy God's people and in the final great tribulation the Antichrist will make every effort to expunge the saints from the face of the earth (Rev 11:7; 12:17; 13:7).

4. War is not criticized in the Bible and there is a time for war and a time for peace (cf. Eccl 3:8; Luke 14:31). God never imposed an ideology of peace at any price on Israel. The practical consequence of pacifism is appeasement and even accommodation of evil. Indeed, pacifism is willing to tolerate the slaughter of millions under dictatorial regimes rather than spend lives to bring liberty. If pacifism became the guiding philosophy of society there would be no law enforcement, no justice at all. As a result there would be no security, no peace of any kind, no hope of spreading the gospel.

5. War can be an instrument of justice. God used Israel to punish the seven tribes of Canaan for their wickedness (Ex 23:23; Lev 18:24-28). In Judges 9:23-24, God sent a spirit to instigate conflict between King Abimelech and the men of Shechem. In 1 Kings 22:19-23 the prophet Micaiah told how the Lord sent a spirit to entice King Ahab of Israel to engage in war against King Jehoshaphat of Judah. The activity of these spirits was to bring judgment on evildoers. Later, God demonstrated His consistency in judgment by sending the Assyrians and then the Babylonians against Israel as punishment for her sins (2Kgs 24:1-4; Jer 12:17; 13:9; 24:10; Ezra 5:12). In the first century the apostles asserted the duty of government to bring wrath on evildoers in order to do justice for victims (Rom 13:1-5; 1Pet 2:15-16). Disciples are called to "defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: free them from the hand of the wicked” (Ps 82:3-4 NKJV). Sometimes doing justice for victims and the weak requires going to war.

Copyright © 2011, 2015 by Blaine Robison. All rights reserved.