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Are Christians Called to Pacifism?

By Brian Knowles

Do Christians have the right to defend their persons, their families, and their nation – or did God call us to pacifism? As our nation commits to what may well be a long and ugly war against global terrorism and the fanatical Islam that spawns it, every believer needs to resolve this question for himself. As ambassadors for Christ, we must rightly and honorably represent our Lord while we are in this body. As evil mounts, we are called to be light in a world that is rapidly darkening. As Christians, we are enjoined to obey all the Scriptural commandments that apply to us. We don’t obey to be justified or saved by so doing; we do it to live lives that reflect our desire please God and to bless mankind.

The question is, does it glorify God for Christians to defend themselves, or to go to war to defend their nation?

In some Christian circles, the idea of pacifism has been read into Jesus’ teachings. In our opinion, this represents a serious misunderstanding. The reason it has happened is that parts of the Church have jettisoned any connection with their Hebraic roots. Consequently, they have viewed the teachings of Jesus on this subject in isolation, and apart from their natural Judaic context. To understand what Jesus said about Christians "turning the other cheek," we must view his words in light of the Old Testament (TaNaKh), and in conjunction with prevailing Judaic teaching in Jesus’ day.

Times to Kill
The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is "a time to kill, and a time to heal" (Ecclesiastes 3:3). From the same section, we also learn that there is an appropriate time to hate, and to declare war (vs. 8). According to pacifists, there is never a time to kill. They would rather seek to appease evil, or simply cave in to it, than resist it. Some well-meaning Christians believe that we should "just pray and let God protect us."

Certainly we should, in all instances of danger, pray for God’s protection (i.e. Luke 21:36). God may well shelter us from the danger, or neutralize the threat. On the other hand, he may wish us to confront the evil and then give us the victory over it. We find myriad examples of both approaches throughout the Bible – and more besides.

In light of Ecclesiastes 3:3, we must ask just when it is appropriate to kill a fellow human being, and when is it forbidden? Let us begin with a discussion of the 6th commandment.

The Sixth Commandment
The sixth commandment is often cited as the fundamental reason that Christians should never take another’s life. In the King James Version, it is worded simply, "Thou shalt not kill" (Exodus 20:13). This is an unfortunate rendering that is corrected in other translations, including the New King James, which reads, "You shall not murder." The word "murder" translated from the Hebrew ratzach, which means to murder or slay with premeditation (see BDB Lexicon). The commandment refers to homicide, not simply taking life. All killing is not homicide.

The first homicide was committed by Satan (John 8:44), the second by his servant Cain (Genesis 4, I John 3:10-12). Clearly, murder is the work of the devil.

The law against homicide preceded Moses’ day and the giving of the Decalogue (10 commandments). It was one of the Jewish sages later designated as "the seven "Noachide" laws." The commandment reads as follows: "Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man" (Genesis 9:6).

Murder is sinful because, among other things, it removes from the earth a representation of God’s image. Within this early commandment is God’s instruction that those who commit homicide should experience the death penalty. Who then should implement it? "Man." Clearly then to administer the death penalty for homicide is not itself homicide, yet it is killing. This is one of the "times to kill" referred to in Ecclesiastes 3.

When duly authorized members of a human government administer the death penalty for homicide, they have not murdered or sinned. They are simply exercising their authority as God’s servants (Exodus 21:12-15; Romans 13:1-4).

During the time of Israel’s theocracy, God also commanded the death penalty for certain crimes other than murder. Included were rape (Deuteronomy 22:25-26), kidnapping (Exodus 21:12-15), adultery (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22) and sorcery (Exodus 22:18). Both cursing and attacking one’s parents could also bring the death penalty in ancient times (Exodus 21:15,17). Consequently, the official administration of the death penalty for those crimes for which God says it is due cannot be viewed as homicide.

Members of the victim’s family (Numbers 35, Deuteronomy 13:6-11), or the witnesses themselves (Deuteronomy 17:6-7)), were often required to carry out the death penalty. This was commanded killing, not murder. Of course these laws were seldom implemented in ancient Israel.

Personal Self-Defense
Biblical law also allows for killing in personal self-defense. Notice Exodus 22:2: "If a thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed."

Jewish law also understood the right to self-defense to include the prevention of one’s own murder: "If someone comes to murder you, anticipate him and kill him first" (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72a).

Jesus seems to have had Exodus 22:2 in mind when he said in a parable about his return, "But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into" (Luke 12:39). It was taken as a given in Jesus’ day that a man had a right to defend his home and family against those who would break in and steal, or otherwise do harm.

National Self-Defense
Throughout Israel’s history, there were numerous occasions on which God not only allowed but also commanded Israel to defend herself against foreign enemies. Failure to do so would have been irresponsible and possibly fatal to the national existence.

There were times when Israel needed do nothing in the face of an enemy. God took care of it himself.

On other occasions, God had promised Israel victory in battle: "The Lord will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before your face; they shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways" (Deuteronomy 28:7).

Israel was often commanded to engage a certain enemy in battle: "Rise, take your journey, and cross over the River Arnon. Look, I have given into your hand Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and his land. Begin to possess it, and engage him in battle" (Deuteronomy 2:24).

On occasion, Israel’s soldiers were commanded by God to do things that would be highly offensive to modern sensibilities. In Deuteronomy 7:16 we read, "You must destroy all the peoples the Lord your God gives over to you. Do not look upon them with pity and do not serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you."

In Deuteronomy 20, God lays out for Israel their "rules of engagement" for warfare. At one point they are commanded to "Completely destroy them – the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites – as the Lord your God has commanded you" (verse 17).

In cases where Israel is defending itself against foreign enemies, or conquering them under God’s direct orders, no homicide is involved. This is another "time to kill."

So we see that for certain crimes, the death penalty was considered appropriate. Those authorized to carry it out were not guilty of homicide. In cases of personal self-defense and home protection, those who killed an intruder or attacker were innocent. In war and national defense, killing was not murder. These were appropriate "times to kill."

What then of Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek?

Understanding Jesus’ Teaching
Did Jesus change Torah, and replace all of the aforementioned laws with a new pacifistic teaching? Not at all. He did not come to destroy Torah through misinterpretation, but to fulfill it by correctly teaching it. Let us now consider our Lord’s teachings in light of the foregoing.

Perhaps the most commonly cited passage from the New Covenant writings that is used to justify Christian pacifism is Matthew 5:39: "But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." Let us understand this teaching of Jesus Hebraically.

The term translated as "do not resist" in the New International Version (above) is translated differently in The Good News Bible: "do not take revenge…" Synoptic scholars agree that this is translation is closer to the intent of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is saying here the same thing we read throughout both the old and new testaments – that God’s people should not be vindictive or vengeful. It appears that Jesus is quoting a well-known proverb that in our translations reads, "Do not fret because of evildoers" or "Do not be vexed by evildoers" (Psalms 37:1,8). See also Proverbs 24:19. While the Hebrew verb here seems to be correctly translated when it is rendered "vexed" or "fret," elsewhere in the Bible this verb often carries the meaning of "anger." For example, in verse 8, the NIV reads, "Refrain from anger and turn from wrath -- do not fret -- it leads only to evil" Synoptic scholar David Bivin says that the "two parallels to this verb in Psalms 37:8, both synonyms for anger, suggest that the verb in Matthew 5 must also have that meaning" (Jerusalem Perspective, July/August, 1994, p. 4).

The verb in question is the Hebrew h-r-h – "to burn." It is from this root that the word for anger is derived as in "burn with anger." Jesus is apparently talking about the hot anger that leads one to respond in kind to one’s attacker. Explains Bivin, "In idiomatic English, Matthew 5:39a might read simply, ‘Don’t try to get even with evildoers.’ Not competing with evildoers is very different than not resisting evildoers. Jesus was not teaching that one should submit to evil, but that one should not seek revenge. As Proverbs 24:29 says, ‘Do not say, "I will do to him as he has done to me. I will pay the man back for what he has done." Jesus’ statement has nothing to do with confronting a murderer or facing an enemy on the field of battle" (ibid.).

Jesus is not teaching against self-defense, but against taking vengeance. This is consistent with the teachings of the rest of the Bible in both Testaments. Compare I Thessalonians 5:15, I Peter 3:9 and Romans 12:14,17-19. A core passage in the TaNaKh (Old Testament) is Leviticus 19:18: "Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the lord." So we can see that the Old Testament taught that there are appropriate times to kill, and that not all killing is murder or homicide. There are even times to hate and go to war, but there is never a time to take revenge. That is within God’s domain. Jesus is not teaching contrary to the Old Testament, he is agreeing with it and amplifying it.

David Bivin explains, "It should be noted that loving and praying for one’s enemies in no way precludes defending oneself when one’s life is in danger. One is morally obligated to preserve life, including one’s own. Jesus never taught that it was wrong to defend oneself against a life-threatening attack. However, he consistently taught his disciples to forgive and not to seek revenge against those who had attacked them. As Proverbs 22:22 counsels, "Do not say, ‘I will repay the evil deed in kind.’"

Pacifism was never a part of Jewish belief in Jesus’ day, or at any other time. Jesus did not teach or advocate it.

To summarize, every Christian is entitled to defend his life, his family and his property against evildoers. There is no Biblical reason why a Christian cannot serve in the military and defend his country against those who attack it. David Bivin, quoted earlier, is a Christian who has served in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The IDF includes a substantial number of Christians who willingly defend Israel, which is now their chosen homeland. This is in no way contrary to our Messiah’s teaching.

©Association for Christian Development
Used with permission.

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