Christian Living: War and Vengeance in the Epistles and Revelation

No pacifists were among the Old Testament righteous. In the law, loving neighbor did not exclude all possibility of killing neighbor. Neighbors who committed certain crimes were put to death. Warfare itself was at times an expression of faith and love for God. The idea that love, faith and war are inherently in conflict and mutually exclude one another is not an Old Testament idea. The Mosaic blessings for obedience to God did not bring freedom from war, but victory in war. In the Old Testament, God is the great warrior who trains, leads and fights alongside his human servants. In the Old Testament, within certain bounds, God gave to humans the authority to take human life.

In the second article we asked, Does the New Testament teach a pacifist ethic that is by its nature radically different from the Old Testament’s approach to war? and, Has God rescinded from humans their limited authority to take human life?

To answer these questions our second article explored the Gospels. We found that the Gospels uphold some soldiers as honorable examples for Christians of faith and love. Jesus never called soldiers to leave their profession. Jesus never renounced the Old Testament perspective that in some circumstances love and killing may go together.

Though Jesus taught the turning of a cheek when struck once, he never discussed self-defense when confronted with a murderer. Though he never used deadly force, he never renounced deadly force in the defense of the poor, the weak or the widow. He never spoke against one nation coming to the defense of its citizens or the citizens of another nation. The strident antiwar rhetoric of many pacifists was not a part of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus never equated all ways of taking human life with murder. Even he could command armies, and would fully set up his kingdom with violent deadly force. His self-sacrificing and forgiving spirit did not eliminate all cases of either his or someone else’s use of deadly force.[1]

Jesus limited his ethical illustrations to person-to-person situations. His examples of how to love even our enemies did not deal with life-threatening situations, such as attempted murder or invasion. They dealt with less violent situations that one might face within a community. They said nothing about three-party or group conflicts. Jesus said nothing about a state’s responsibility to protect its citizens or maintain public order. Jesus’ examples never directly addressed the broader issues of military and police force.

The dichotomy that some Christian pacifists make between love and all forms of deadly force, including warfare, is unknown in Jesus’ ethic. The looked-for radical departure from the Old Testament’s view of war is not in the Gospels.

Beyond the Gospels

These observations remain critical for modern Christian ethics. Yet by themselves they are not complete. The New Testament witness does not end with the Gospels.

Acts tells us of the theological and evangelistic development of the newborn faith. The Epistles and Revelation give us insights into the ethical life of the church. In them Paul, Peter, James, Jude and John (and perhaps others) deal directly with the internal affairs of the church and with Christian morality. They discuss administrative, doctrinal, personal, and most important for our discussion, ethical matters.

As each year brought the believers further in time from the cross, they were asking new questions. Of concern to many was how this new way of life was to be lived in a fallen world.

As a group, the earliest Christians never had a problem with military service. Being Jews, they were exempt from service in the Roman army. Not until the mid A.D. 60s did Romans make distinctions between Jews and Christians, at which time Christians would have lost their Jewish exemption. For practical purposes, however, the situation did not change. Christians, by virtue of being considered traitorous atheists, could not have been Roman soldiers. Nor would they have wanted to, as the Roman army generally imposed a culture of paganism on its soldiers.

So, by A.D. 65 many issues we face today over military service were not yet active concerns of the church. During these early years the church did not need the apostles to write specifically about military service or pacifism. Although a rare soldier such as Cornelius came into the church, the apostles did not feel it necessary to address whether Christians might serve in a military or police force or whether in the performance of their duties they could take human life. The church was more concerned about proclaiming the risen Lord than figuring out all the details of Christian ethics for all time thereafter.

Most of the Epistles were written before A.D. 65. That is perhaps the major reason they do not directly discuss most aspects of military service and war. There was no need.

However, do the ethics of the Epistles lay a foundation for Christian pacifism? For example, is this not what the acts of the sinful nature in Galatians 5 and the love verses of 1 Corinthians 13 imply? Are these not pacifist passages? Do these not radically depart from Old Testament attitudes toward war?

We shall now examine these and other allegedly pacifist verses found in the Epistles. In doing so we will ask, Do the Epistles support absolute pacifism?

The acts of the sinful nature versus the fruit of the Spirit

In Galatians, Paul lists the acts of the sinful nature and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. He says that the acts of the sinful nature are obvious. Those that relate to warfare and bloodletting include “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” Paul tells us that “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19–21). All these acts of the sinful nature can lead to deadly violence. In war, people on all sides have these behaviors or inward desires.

In contrast, Paul says that “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (verses 22–23). We should have these. It does not seem possible for one who fights to have them. One will not win hand-to-hand combat through joy, peace, kindness and gentleness. So, these verses might seem to rule out for Christians any use of force, but especially deadly force, that society would otherwise expect to be the appropriate reaction to injustice, criminal activity, civil disorder or unjust assaults on another.

Yet, does Paul intend these verses to encompass all acts of the sinful nature and all the fruit of the Holy Spirit? Do these two lists fully explain Christian ethics? A closer examination shows they do not.

Notice that Paul does not mention here all acts of the sinful nature. For example, he says nothing about sloth or lying. Galatians 5:19–21 is not a comprehensive sin list.

Nor does he list all of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. For example, how do we fit Samson into this list, who when the Holy Spirit fell on him killed a thousand men (Judges 15:14–19)? How do we fit into this list David’s statement in Psalm 44 that it was God who fought alongside Israel to give them their victories? If the fruit of the Spirit automatically rules out all forms of warfare, how do we understand God himself, the Mighty One? Revelation shows us that even in the New Testament, God approves of some forms of war (Revelation 19:11–15). It seems that the fruit of the Spirit would have to include this side of God as well. Yet, the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5 says nothing of this. So the list is incomplete.

Examining the acts of the sinful nature more closely, we notice several other interesting points. While we would agree that “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft” are universally sinful and therefore always to be avoided, can we say the same about several other acts that Paul lists? What about hatred? Is hatred to be universally avoided? Are we not to hate sin? Romans 12:9 says we are to hate what is evil. Revelation 2:6 says we are to hate the work of the Nicolaitans. How should this observation affect our understanding of Galatians 5?

Notice also discord. Are there not some things with which we are to be in discord? Are we not to be in discord with Satan and the ways of this world? Should we not be in discord with false teachers and false prophets? Discord by itself is neither good nor bad. We could say the same of dissensions and factions.

Then there is jealousy. One of God’s names is Jealous. Jealousy characterizes him (Exodus 34:14). So some kinds of jealousy must be godly, while others are sinful acts of the flesh.

So what are we to make of these two lists? Are they fixed codes of conduct that cover every situation? Can we use them as an unshakable foundation for Christian pacifism? It does not seem so, for some of the things listed are absolutes while others are situational.

To understand how to apply these two lists, we should pay attention to two important facts. The first is the original setting of these lists — their context. The second is their literary genre — that they are characteristic of a specific literary form common in Paul’s day.

As to the first point, these two lists are part of a letter to the churches in Galatia. These churches were torn by dissent originating with troublemakers. False teachers from Jerusalem urged gentile believers to obey the law and become circumcised.

Paul’s response is bluntly corrective. Shortly before he introduces his list of sinful acts of the flesh, Paul angrily writes, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12). Considering the issues involved — the gospel of eternal salvation against an imposition of circumcision — Paul’s tone is not surprising. His purpose was to silence the heretics and restore the spiritual unity of the Galatian believers in Christ. Paul follows his harsh words with verses 13–16a:

You, my brothers, were called to be free. Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, live by the Spirit.

The Galatian heretics were not treating other people with love. They were teaching others not to treat them with love. This had to stop. Having dealt with the heresy, Paul next addressed Christian morality. Christians are to love one another.

It is in that context, of Christians loving Christians, that we should understand Paul’s vice and virtue lists of Galatians 5. Read his words carefully. He is not addressing how believers should behave toward violent unbelievers (or for that matter, toward believers who become violent). He is not addressing how believers should behave when confronted with warfare.

Paul is not telling them how they are to respond to the beating and attempted murder of a neighbor. Nor is he discussing the attempted rape of a daughter or other forms of severe violence in or out of the church. He is not writing an entire ethic that covers every situation that a Christian might face. He is simply telling Christians that they ought to get along, that they ought to love one another, that they ought to bear one another’s burdens (6:2). The whole passage specifically addresses how believers are to behave toward each other. The Holy Spirit should govern those relationships. Among themselves, Christians should be peaceful. Loving neighbor sums up the law.

People who do not treat each other properly, who relate to one another through the flesh and not the Spirit, will not inherit the kingdom of God. Believers should not provoke or envy one another (5:26).

The second fact we need to consider is that the literary genres of Galatians 5:19-23a are the genres of vice and virtue lists. Such lists of general moral principles (either negative or positive) were common in the Jewish and the Hellenistic worlds. They were never intended as comprehensive discussions of acceptable or unacceptable behaviors. As general lists, they gave their readers a general understanding of what others expected of them. Complex ethical issues required more detailed, more nuanced discussions.[2]

To apply Paul’s lists in Galatians 5 to the complex issues of military service, war, capital punishment and defense ignores both the general nature of such lists and the church context that they were specifically addressing. Civil, national and personal defense are not Paul’s concerns in Galatians 5. Internal church affairs are. We should not assume more for these passages than what Paul originally intended.

Some pacifists argue that the very nature of warfare is such that one cannot carry it out without sin. Those who look to the Bible as the ultimate standard should immediately recognize the speciousness of such an argument. God wages war in both Testaments.

In the Old Testament God ordered others to war. As we have noted, the blessings for obedience to God’s Mosaic covenant did not include freedom from war, but victory in war. In the New Testament, God continues to be portrayed as a God who wars. Those familiar with the apocalyptic portions of the New Testament know this. The Bible never portrays all warfare as inherently sinful.

I would agree, however, that sin always accompanies human war. The nature of humans is such that no activity — not even preaching the gospel — is free from sin. We taint all the good we do with sin. The motivations of the best of actions are at some level a mixture of good and bad, a mixture of sin and righteousness. To expect Christian behavior to be otherwise is unrealistic. To refuse to participate in an activity simply because some sin will be present makes no sense.

If that were to be our guiding principle, then we would accomplish nothing. No weak person would be protected. No criminal would be punished. All for fear of sin. The taint of sin is no excuse for inaction. We must base Christian ethics on something greater.

Where an action is permissible, but the motivations behind the actions are tainted, a Christian should repent of the tainted motivations. However, he or she may still perform the action.

Before moving on, we should make a few additional observations about the fruit of love. As we have discussed in previous installments and will discuss further, the responsibility to love is multidirectional. Sometimes this creates conflicts. I must love the believers and my enemy. I must love my neighbor and my community. Yet at times my enemy is at the throat of my brother or sister, or my neighbor is undermining my community. To resolve conflicts between those I must love, I must recognize a hierarchy of responsibility. That is true even within the church.

My love responsibility to my community may require that I severely deal with my neighbor, even if he or she is a professed Christian. Harsh actions do not rule out the presence of love. Just because I may need at times to act swiftly does not rule out patience. Just because I may occasionally mourn, be in conflict and be angry, does not rule out the presence of joy, peace and gentleness. Humans, like God, can be a mixture of all these simultaneously. Yet pacifists often speak as if it must be one way or the other. This is not so.

In summary, Galatians 5:19–24 is not an all-encompassing Christian ethic. Much is left out. Complex ethical issues surrounding war, military service, self-defense and the defense of others are not its concerns. Its vice and virtue lists address how the Galatian church is generally to worship God and treat fellow Christians. Some behaviors unacceptable between believers, such as strife and dissensions, should be present under other circumstances. Jesus dissented and was at strife with Satan.

Because these verses do not address how a Christian may respond to those who would murderously disturb civil order and peace, no valid reason exists to interpret these verses as pacifist.

We do not wage war as the world does

Another passage popular with Christian pacifists is 2 Corinthians 10:3, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.” Surely this verse advocates pacifism, doesn’t it?

Again, we need to carefully examine the passage’s context. When Paul says, “we do not wage war,” to whom is he referring? Some pacifists assume that Paul is referring to Christians in general, that as a whole Christians do not wage war. Is their assumption correct?

The proper interpretation of the passage hinges on understanding to whom Paul referred when he said we. Careful study of 2 Corinthians shows that Paul consistently referred to himself and his traveling companions as us and we. He did not use us or we to refer to the Corinthians or for Christians in general. The Corinthians he called you.

For example, in 10:11 “we” refers to Paul and his party who are absent from Corinth. We does not refer to the Corinthians themselves. In 10:8, Paul says that the Lord gave “us” (his party) authority to build up “you” (the Corinthian members). In the next verse (10:9) Paul writes that he did not want to frighten “you” (the Corinthians) with his letters. While in 10:16 “we” (Paul’s party) hoped to preach the gospel in regions beyond “you” (Corinth). And so forth throughout the book. (Notice especially 8:16–9:5).

The importance of these observations for understanding 2 Corinthians 10:3 is this: When Paul says: “Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world,” he is speaking of himself and those with him. He is not speaking of Christians in general. It is Paul who does not wage war as the world does. It is Paul who does not use worldly weapons but spiritual weapons.

(That all Christians wage spiritual warfare is not in question. What is at issue is whether 2 Corinthians 10:3 refers to that struggle. The context of the passage argues that it does not.)

Why are Paul’s weapons not of this world? Paul’s calling was to be an apostle, not a soldier. He was called to do battle on a spiritual level beyond that of the typical member, not on a physical level. To explain his calling, Paul used the weaponry of war as a positive metaphor for his preaching of the gospel. “The weapons we fight with,” he wrote, “are not the weapons of the world.”

Nonetheless, Paul’s weapons have “divine power to demolish strongholds” (10:4). What kind of strongholds? “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience” (verses 5–6).

In this passage Paul uses military weaponry, conquest, the taking of prisoners and the punishment of evil as positive metaphors for preaching the gospel and defending the faith. If war were inherently sinful, is this not a strange analogy? Can we imagine him using adultery or theft as metaphors for his work? I do not think we can, because in Paul’s writings they are always sinful. Yet in 2 Corinthians, warfare is a fit analogy for preaching the gospel.

Why does Paul mention this spiritual warfare? Paul had struggled with many difficulties in the Corinthian church. His letters were corrective. He knew that some would oppose him. Paul wrote: “Some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing’” (verse 10). Paul warned that “such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present” (verse 11). In other words, Paul uses the metaphor of warfare to warn his opponents that he has divine power to conquer all false doctrine and mischief. He has power to punish the disobedient.

To repeat, Paul compares his struggles against doctrinal error to warfare. That is the warfare Paul fought. It was his calling. He was not called to be a soldier. This passage addresses Paul’s circumstances not all possibilities.

Thus, a careful examination of 2 Corinthians 10:3 shows that it is not a pacifist passage. It is Paul’s description of his apostolic calling and struggles within the church. Yet his positive uses of warfare metaphors suggest that Paul was not as condemnatory of warfare as most pacifists are. If anything, the passage leans away from pacifism, not toward it.

If I have not love

One cannot complete a thorough study on whether Christians may war without prayerfully considering the “love chapter” — 1 Corinthians 13.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails…. Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Because of the way many think of love, they conclude that love must be pacifist. For how could someone bomb, or shoot or burn an enemy in love? At first glance, 1 Corinthians 13 seems to support this view. “Love is kind…. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered.”

God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), but he also uses violent force against his enemies. This must be understood in light of his loving justice. As we have mentioned before, when one examines specific cases, defining love and how to practice it becomes problematic. Love is multidirectional. Life gives us conflicting responsibilities. These may require decisions on whom to love and whom not to love, or at least how to love and whom to place first in our love obligations.

For example, Jesus says that I am to love both my enemies and my neighbors. What do I do when my enemies attack my neighbors? To whom are my duties of love owed? In such situations, it is not possible to be kind and patient with both. If I do nothing, then I am not being kind to the victims. If I intervene in some meaningful way, then I may not be able to be kind or patient with the attackers. If I understand where my priorities should lie, I will know whom to treat kindly in such circumstances and whom not to. I will know how to fulfill my love responsibilities. Kindness must be shown to the victim by stopping the attack. Later, once everything is settled down, I may show kindness to the attacker.

In the New International Version, 1 Corinthians 13:7 says that love “always protects.” If this translation is correct, then our understanding of our love responsibilities takes on a significant meaning. If love “always protects,” then surely it protects the innocent from the guilty, the weak from the strong, the poor from the rich, the powerless from the mighty. That is the thrust of many words in the Prophets.

To put it into other words, Does love always protect Hitler’s SS? Then how does it always protect the Jews? Does love always protect the child molester? Then how does it always protect the child? Does love always protect a murderer? Then how does it always protect the murderer’s potential victims? It seems that protecting everyone simultaneously is impossible. We must make distinctions. I believe love always protects the innocent, the poor, the widow, the downtrodden, the righteous, the stranger and everyone else before it protects a rapist, murderer, sadist or despot.

If love always protects, then when we use deadly force against murderous criminals and murderous nations to protect the innocent we may be doing so in love.

Let me illustrate this with a story I heard as a sermon illustration at one of our meetings in Spokane, Washington. I have no reason to doubt the story, for it would have been well known by some church members in the audience. Those who know the details of this story will forgive me if I get some details wrong. The thrust of the story was as follows.

In Montana a lady had an extremely violent husband. They lived on a plot of land isolated from their neighbors. The woman’s elderly father lived in a building next to her and her husband. The husband frequently beat her. He would often fly into a horrendous rage. One day the husband went completely out of control. He threatened to kill his wife and her elderly father. The husband poured gasoline around the base of both houses. He owned guns, and everyone was absolutely terrified that he was going to carry out his threats. No one had seen him in such a rage before. In desperation, the woman, to protect her elderly father, took her husband’s pistol and stood between her father and her husband. She pointed the pistol at him and insisted that he was not going to kill anyone. In his rage he charged them. She fired. The bullet killed him instantly. The realization of what she had done totally devastated her. She was convinced that she was a murderer. Yet was she? If love always protects, and she fired not out of malice but out of fear and concern for what would happen to innocent human beings, did she murder? Love, Paul says, always protects.

Or is this what Paul says? Almost all English translations say nothing about love always protecting. Most English translations say that love “bears all things.” Does love bear all things, or does love always protect? The margins of some translations suggest that either translation is possible. The Greek verb under question is stégo.

This verb comes from a stem meaning “to cover,” “to conceal.” It is a rare term but persists in both prose and common speech. Its basic meaning is “to keep covered,” but this gives it such senses as “to protect,” “to ward off,” “to hold back,” “to resist,” “to support.” It can also mean “to keep secret,” “to keep silent,” “to keep confidence.” (George W. Bromiley,Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990], 1073)

As one can see, several senses of stégo could be considered as types of protecting. But this is not enough to establish that “protect” was what Paul meant. While the NIV says “Love always protects,” many translators would disagree. Because translators disagree significantly as to Paul’s intended meaning for the verb in 1 Corinthians 13:7, we should not build our ethic around any one of their opinions.

On the other hand, could we say that the opposite is true? Does love never protect? That claim would be absurd. Viewed from that light, then, one attribute of love is that it does protect, whatever Paul intended to say in 1 Corinthians. The issues, of course, are who to protect, when to protect and how vigorous can such protection become? When confronted with a murderous enemy, may love use deadly force to protect?

It seems to me that one could be patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, humble, polite, not self-seeking, slow to anger and have all the other attributes of love listed in 1 Corinthians 13 and still on occasion use deadly force. God does. The use of deadly force does not automatically exclude the attributes of love.

Let us review the love attributes found in 1 Corinthians 13 from another perspective. We will use the same illustration that we used earlier, when discussing the attribute of protection. This time we will discuss the attributes of kindness and patience.

Would love always be kind to and patient with Hitler’s SS? Then how would it have always been kind to and patient with the Jews, the Gypsies and other SS victims? Is love always kind and patient with the child molester? Then how is it always kind and patient with the child? Is love always kind and patient with a murderer? Then how is it always kind and patient to the murderer’s potential victims? It seems that being kind and patient with everyone simultaneously is impossible. We must make distinctions.

I believe love is always kind and patient where God finds it is wise and morally appropriate to be kind and patient. To always be kind and patient with a child molester, a sadist or a power-hungry despot would be to turn one’s back on the cries of those they oppress and abuse. It would be to turn our backs while people rape, murder, torture, burn and destroy. Such an ethic I find morally reprehensible. Surely it is not a stretch to suggest that Paul did not intend his words to be an all-encompassing ethic that defines Christian behavior in every situation. He did not discuss every situation.

As in so many of these allegedly pacifist passages, Paul is not addressing in 1 Corinthians 13 the broader issues of justice, social stability and the defense of the innocent, the poor, the widow, the downtrodden, the righteous, the stranger and everyone else who is legally, if not morally, innocent. He is not discussing how to defend the helpless, punish the guilty or protect society from the murderous. He is simply giving the Corinthians general guidelines on how to conduct their affairs. They needed to hear this because they were not doing it, as a reading of 1 Corinthians should make clear.

The letter’s concerns are not the broader issues of how to maintain a civil and just society, or how to respond to marauding bandits or invading armies. Paul is writing about local church turmoil and how to put it to an end. You put it to an end with love.

Paul makes no claim that his general description of love should apply to how Christians always respond to the evil in this world. It is how they should live toward each other. Left unanswered is the question, What do we do if we, our families or the neighbors next door are confronted with evil? Paul does not say. His subject was not pacifism.

 James’ question

 The apostle James asked rhetorically, “From whence come wars and fightings among you?” (James 4:1, KJV). He answered:

Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?

Never a clearer statement on war’s origins has been given. Lust leads to war. Have we now found a pacifist scripture? James lays the blame for war on uncontrolled lust. With that we can all heartily agree. What James does not discuss is how a Christian, when confronted by a lust-driven war, may respond to that assault. James never suggests that Christians, when confronted with an outbreak of such horror, must never ferociously protect him or herself or others. That would be reading something into the text that is not there.

To suggest that this origin of war —lust — is also the reason people defend themselves when attacked is not logical. Such arguments do not distinguish between the criminal and the victim, between the criminal and the duly constituted authorities who exist to protect us from the criminal. Therefore, to consider James’s comments on the origin of war as a cry for pacifism is not logical. Hitler and Churchill were not moral equivalents. One started war out of lust. The other defended Europe from that lust.

The wisdom that comes from heaven

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:17–18)

These verses place the church on the side of peace. Not only should Christians be on the side of peace, they are to promote peace. Christians are to love peace. They are to be peacemakers. They are to sow in peace to raise a harvest of righteousness.

However, just as we have observed earlier, these verses do not address how we are to respond in every case to those who sow war and violence. Being a peacemaker and loving peace is not the same thing as being a pacifist. James does not call on Christians to totally renounce deadly force or warfare. Though as James says, peacemaking is part of heavenly wisdom, the Bible also teaches that God, in his heavenly wisdom, uses and will use violent deadly force. Therefore, one cannot indiscriminately claim that one who uses such force has rejected heavenly wisdom. A more nuanced understanding of each situation is required before passing judgment.

We said at the start of this paper that we would be looking to see if the Epistles call Christians to radically depart from the Old Testament’s attitude toward warfare. We asked if the Epistles ended humanity’s God-given authority to take human life under certain circumstances. We could also ask if a different ethic is required for Christians in this regard than is required of the world. While Christians are called to a higher calling, nothing in James calls on us to become total and absolute pacifists. Peacemakers, not pacifists, are what we are called to be. James does not help the pacifist cause.


1 This paper makes the ethical distinction between violence and force common to discussions of this subject.

Richard A. Horsley in Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (1993) begins chapter two by discussing the evolving understanding of force and violence in philosophical, theological and political circles. He asks: “What differentiates ‘violence’ from ‘force’?” Horsley answers: “Some might hold that ‘force is exercised by the established government in maintaining public order and national defense, whereas ‘violence’ is the proper label of physical violation of public order and security. But what of the government of a totalitarian dictatorship? In that case its use of ‘force’ is ‘illegitimate.’ Hence it should be preferable to have the legitimacy of force as a principal criterion: ‘force’ is legitimate, but ‘violence’ is illegitimate. The term ‘violence’ is thus not only descriptive but also evaluative or normative. . . . Thus a legitimate government would be using force to restrain and eliminate criminal abuse and harm to its citizenry. And similarly, citizens would be using force and not violence in acting to overthrow an illegitimate government that had been using violence and not force against its subjects.”

In a slight modification of the above, this paper uses the phrase violent force to emphasize the kind of force warriors use in battle and citizens often use when defending against a murderer. Force maintains the concept that such action is is legitimate while its potential fierceness is suggested by violent.

2 For those interested in a more detailed treatment of vice and virtue lists I recommend Literary Forms in the New Testament: A Handbook by James L. Bailey and Lyle D. Vander Broek (Westminster/John Knox, 1992). They write, “Many of the N.T. lists do appear to have been shaped relative to the situation at hand. In Gal. 5:19–23, for instance, several of the listed vices (enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy) and virtues (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.) speak directly to the problems the church is experiencing” (page 67).

Hebrews 11, these all had faith

Sometimes we hear the argument that those who defend with lethal weapons lack faith. If only they had more faith in God, he would deliver them without their need to fight. Or if they died, God would deliver them in the resurrection of the just.

This argument reminds me of those who believe that using doctors is a lack of faith. If you really trusted God, they say, God would heal you. You would not need doctors. The Bible does not teach this approach either. One can trust that God will heal in whatever way he pleases, by miracles, through doctors or through the body’s natural healing ability. To insist that healing from God comes only through what we call a miracle is to limit God. It is by limiting God that we show a lack of faith.

One could equally say that if you really trusted God to provide for your needs you would not go to work. Going to work, it could be alleged, shows a lack of faith in God’s ability to provide. Yet the people of God have always worked. They have understood that although God provides, he expects Christians to earn their daily bread. Christians go to work in faith, not without faith.

In the Old Testament the people of God fought. They picked up their swords and trusted in God to deliver them. They knew that God would fight for them either through their swords or by whatever other means he chose. Faith and fighting were not mutually exclusive behaviors.

Hebrews 11 surveys the Old Testament witness of faith.

I do not have time to tell you 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…. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. (verses 32b–38)

What fascinates me about this passage is the great variety of experiences that the people of God have been through. Some suffered for righteousness’ sake, were driven about, tortured and martyred. They were unable to defend themselves and were without others to defend them. Others found miraculous deliverance. Still others fought boldly, God working with them to bring deliverance. The New Testament does not disparage, criticize or downplay any of their faith experiences. Nor does the New Testament suggest that our faith must find its expression differently — with the one exception that the New Testament specifies that we must have faith in Jesus Christ for salvation.

Hebrews 11 covers about 2000 years of history, from Abraham to John the Baptist. It spans two covenants — the Abrahamic and the Mosaic. The New Testament’s history of the new covenant begins with the death of Jesus about A.D. 30. It ends about 70 years later with the writing of the book of Revelation. The new covenant is now 2000 years old, but the biblical history of the new covenant spans only a small portion of that time.

Why is this significant? Suppose, for example, we had only the history of Israel’s 70 years of Babylonian exile. Though we would have the story of Daniel in the lion’s den and Meshach, Shadrach and Abednego in the fiery furnace, we would have no biblical record of the fall of Jericho, the period of the judges or David’s slaying of Goliath. Different situations in Israel’s history produced different faith experiences.

In isolation, the examples from Daniel might be understood as supporting pacifism, since Daniel and his friends did not fight. The other examples cannot be so understood. To have the first examples alone would give us a very incomplete picture of how God defends his people.

This incomplete picture might lead us to believe that God never commanded Israel to war. Or we might not know of the times that Israel righteously trusted God when they went to war. We would know nothing of how God trained David to fight.

To believe that the experiences and beliefs of God’s people in one limited period are normative for all time is in error. Just because the Ante-Nicene fathers were apparently pacifists, or that the New Testament church never fully faced the issue of military service, is no proof that we must be pacifists. While we appreciate much of what they stood for, not all of their theology and ethics were sound. They did not anticipate the many questions that Christians today must consider. New situations require new thinking.

Unfortunately for us, the New Testament also does not address all the ethical dilemmas that face modern Christians. We must mine Scripture for guidance, while being careful to discern properly the original situation in which a teaching was given. If the contexts are different, we must take care to be certain that the teaching applies in the new situation. It may not.

Hebrews 11 praises the faith of those who lived before there was a Christian church. Their faith at times involved combat. At other times it involved flight and deprivation. Even in Hebrews 11 contexts changed from one story to another. What might have been appropriate for one person of God may not have been for another. What united them was their faith in God. That ethic remains.

Although Hebrews 11 does not address military service and pacifism under the new covenant, by giving us its many examples of faith during times of war, it suggests that we should not automatically think less of those whose faith permits them to fight. In Hebrews 11, those who conquered their enemies through faith are equal morally to those who died as martyrs. In modern parlance, they praised the Lord and passed the ammunition.

To this you were called

Of the pacifist churches, those in the Anabaptist family (e.g., Mennonites, Amish, Brethren) have the longest history of consistent pacifism. Born in persecution and martyrdom, Anabaptist theology has often stressed the suffering of Christ as the pattern for Christian ethics. Jesus’ nonviolent suffering on the cross, his forgiveness of those who tortured and murdered him and his willingness to die for all humanity have been the basis for their understanding of Christian ethics. Christians, they believe, are to live just as he did. That means they cannot participate in carnal warfare.

Related to the above is their belief that this world is so corrupt that Christians should not participate in its affairs. That means that Anabaptists as a whole do not hold government jobs. While they acknowledge that human government has God’s approval, they believe that a Christian has been given a higher calling requiring his or her separation from this world’s institutions. In the paragraphs that follow, we will examine these claims in more detail.

Before doing so, we should perhaps remind ourselves of a point we made earlier in this series. We observed that the purpose of Jesus’ sacrificial suffering was a unique aspect of his ministry. To fulfill his purpose Jesus had to deny the sword. This uniqueness of Jesus’ mission should caution us not to take cross-based ethics too far. Our mission is not Jesus’ mission.

However, although our mission is not Jesus’ mission, Christians should not assume that God does not call us to sacrificial service as well. Jesus told his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him (Matthew 10:38, 16:24). Those who seek to save their lives, Jesus said, would lose them. While those who lost their lives for his sake would find them (16:25). Christians must consider that martyrdom for Jesus may be part of their calling. With that in mind, we turn to 1 Peter. It teaches:

If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. . . . When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:20b–25)

Our Christian calling includes a call to be willing to suffer unjustly and not fight back. Any Christian ethic that does not include this teaching has failed to grasp the fullness of Jesus’ example for us. To grasp how Peter understood this ethic, we need to study 1 Peter 2 in its context.

Peter’s statement on Christian suffering follows his teaching that Christians should have public good deeds so that pagans who see them will glorify God on the day of visitation (verse 12). Peter lists the type of good deeds he has in mind. Christians, he says, are to submit to governmental authorities (verses 13–17). Christian slaves are to submit to their masters, even unjust ones. Such submission might result in an unjust beating (verses 18–21). Slaves are to do this because Jesus himself patterned such behavior. He was the suffering servant.

In chapter 4 Peter expands his advice.

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ. . . . If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed. (4:12–16a)

Unjust suffering for what is good, suffering for being a Christian, is noble. It imitates Jesus. Still, we should keep in mind that Peter never advised that we should seek to suffer. For example, he never taught Christians to become enslaved to unjust masters so that they could then copy the suffering of Jesus.

Peter directed his advice to those who were suffering already, to those who had little opportunity to escape unjust blows. He spoke to Christians caught in oppressive situations with no hope of escape. His was not an explanation of how Christians were to behave in every circumstance.

Notice also that Peter implied that people who behaved criminally should expect to suffer. But Christians, he argues, if they suffer as Christians, have nothing to be ashamed of.

Whether Christians employed by governments can bring suffering, even death, on those behaving as criminals is beyond 1 Peter’s concerns. Peter’s call to Christians to endure suffering as Jesus did springs from the congregational realities with which he was dealing. In Peter’s day many Christian slaves were without any hope of emancipation. In Peter’s day, Christians generally were denied government and military positions. Governmentally sanctioned persecution was becoming an increasing problem. Christians did not seek military or government employment in part because to do so would have required their participation in pagan rites.

1 Peter does not say how Christians may behave in a culture where slavery is abolished, governments protect Christians, paganism is no longer imposed and believers may be employed in governmental and military service. These circumstances, different from those faced by the early church, are our present reality.

It should be apparent that Peter’s advice does not automatically transfer to every modern circumstance. For example, Peter’s advice assumes that Christians are in no position to either liberate slaves, or short of that, to prohibit their abuse and punish their abusers. We should not assume, therefore, that he would give the same advice to those who could defend the oppressed as he would give to those who were abused and could do nothing to change their condition. Properly understood, one cannot use 1 Peter to defend pacifism.

1 John 4:20, if we hate our brother

John is known as the apostle of love. If love requires pacifism, then it seems that the apostle of love would say so. Some believe that he does.

First John tells Christians “to love one another as he [Jesus] commanded us” (1 John 3:23, cp. 3:11). First John defines love not by giving us a series of commands, but by examples both positive and negative. For example, it affirms “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (verses 20–21).

The reader of the earlier articles in this series will recall that we have dealt with most of the key points in this passage already. For example, we learned that in the New Testament a brother is not any human being, but is a member of the household of faith. So when John tells us to love our brothers, he is saying we should love fellow Christians. He is not discussing whether we should love anyone else or how to love anyone else.

Love is also multidirectional. Love for one person may conflict with love for another, or love for the community. One may find it necessary to punish those to whom one owes love. It may even be necessary to defend with deadly force one person you love against the assaults of another person you love. This is an unfortunate but occasionally real example of love in action. In both Testaments, bloodshedding and love are not mutually exclusive. The Bible makes no such dichotomy.

So, all that we can say from John’s writings is that he tells us that Christians should love Christians. Christians should not hate Christians. On this point all Christians would agree.

The Apocalypse

God also inspired the apostle of love to write the most enigmatic of the New Testament books — the symbolic and violent book of Revelation. Bloodletting fills many of its pages. For pacifists, these bloodlettings are the acts of sinful humanity, the acts of Satan or the result of the just judgments of the Lord of life. The church is believed to shed the blood of no one, but through its martyrs has its own blood shed. By the close of the book, God has avenged his people.

That God’s vengeance concludes the book again points out that warfare is not inherently sinful. In the New Testament, God and the Lord Jesus Christ are warriors. They fight to defend their defenseless church.

Revelation 11 particularly intrigues me. I believe it says something important that most commentators miss. It tells the story of God’s two witnesses. It says of them:

If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. These men have the power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying, and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they will.

I grant that this is apocalyptic imagery, so it is debatable how literally we should take this. Are these actual men? Time will tell. They may be. Regardless, they are portrayed as men who do God’s will.

In Revelation God gives the two witnesses unique power and authority. The chapter does not simply say that they will announce God’s judgments. Instead, it explicitly says that God will grant them the power to start killer plagues. When water turns into blood, when plagues of all kinds strike the earth, when it does not rain for three-and-a-half years, people will die, including innocent babies. They will die because these men order it.

Whether these men are apocalyptic symbols or are real-live prophets makes no difference in the validity of their ethical example. Symbolically or literally, they are not pacifists. God and the apostle John have no problem with that. In the new covenant era, it is righteous for the two witnesses to use deadly force.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil

I have waited until this point in my paper to analyze what some may consider to be two of the strongest pacifist passages in the New Testament, Romans 12:17–21 and Romans 13:8–10. These verses come before and after Paul’s discussion of the God-ordained purpose for the military.

There are two basic views of these verses as they relate to Paul’s comments on human government. A Christian pacifist understanding would have these verses contrasting the Christian walk with what God has in mind for human government. There is one standard for the church, another for the state. This is the Anabaptist view. They add that Christians, because they have a different calling, cannot be agents of the state.

The nonpacifist view sees these verses as showing how private Christian citizens and the state should interact. This view says that private citizens should not unnecessarily take the law into their own hands. The state has been ordained to deal with evil persons. If Christians are working for the state, then that becomes their responsibility as well.

We should now examine these verses. In them Paul says:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary;

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17–21)

Keys words in this passage are evil, right, peace, revenge, wrath, enemy and good. Let us think about these words. Christians are not to repay evil for evil. But what is evil? How we define this term will control our understanding of this verse. In this passage, Paul does not explain what he means by evil. He assumes that he and his readers share common ideas of what evil is. (Some things Paul probably considered evil are listed in Romans 1:28–31. See also his comments in 7:21–23, where he tells of his own evil within.)

I understand evil to be actions and attitudes reprehensible to God. I do not believe defending a widow from a vicious murderer, even if it means taking the murderer’s life, is evil. It would be evil, however, if I, in revenge, assaulted the innocent grandmother of the murderer.

I do not read Romans as condemning as evil the defense of the innocent, even if such defense causes harm to the guilty. I believe pacifists who consider Paul’s desire that we not return evil for evil to also forbid every type of deadly force are wrong. Deadly force is not inherently evil.

To say that something is bad does not always imply a negative moral judgment, especially when speaking of things. By contrast, to say that something is evil always implies a strongly negative judgment. For example, we can speak of a bad piece of fruit, like an apple, and simply mean that it has spoiled and is no longer good for eating. The fruit is bad, but the fruit is not evil. We are not making a moral judgment about the apple.

But now let us speak of bad apples. Literally, a bad apple is an apple that has begun to rot. Metaphorically, a bad apple is a person whose character has begun to rot. If such persons are extremely bad, they are evil. To call anyone evil is to make a severe moral judgment about that person.

In some modern teenage slang “bad” means “good.” Those uninformed of this usage may not understand what a teenager means when he or she says something is “bad.” These illustrations show how understanding the context in which a writer uses words enables us to understand the writer’s meanings. Not paying attention to contexts can lead to inaccurate conclusions.

Most people agree that war is bad. Most agree that many wars are evil. Yet, few agree that all who fought against Hitler were evil or that their cause was evil. To say that war is bad is not the same thing as saying war is evil.

To say that some wars are evil is not to say that all wars are evil. To say that one side in a war is evil is not to say that both sides are evil. To say that one soldier who kills is evil is not to say that all soldiers who kill are evil. What interests us is whether Paul considers all forms of bloodshed — including defensive warfare, capital punishment, killing in self-defense or the defense of others — to be evil behavior for Christians. If Paul does characterize all such behavior as evil for Christians, then we can conclude that Paul believes Christians must be pacifists.

Of course, as we have said, some view warfare as evil for Christians but not for non-Christians. Let us consider that possibility. Does Paul argue for a two-tier, two-realm morality: one morality for non-Christians and another for Christians?

As we have seen, Paul commands Christians not to repay anyone “evil for evil.” If one believes that all bloodshed is evil, then one will read this statement as denying any possibility of Christian bloodletting. Yet if one does not believe all bloodletting is evil, then one will not think this is what Paul means. We cannot use this statement by Paul to defend pacifism until we prove that Paul believes Christians can never under any circumstances kill another human. Is this what Paul believes?

Fortunately, Paul’s comments do not end there. He immediately follows with “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody” (verse 17b). If one does what everyone considers right, one will not be repaying evil with evil. Because everyone does not have the same opinion about all types of violent force, Paul’s statement is not too helpful.

To clarify his teaching further Paul says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Obviously Paul understands that living at peace may not depend on us, and, therefore, may not be possible. If the enemy insists that he or she is going to bomb your home, peace no longer exists. Paul’s statement implies that Christians may not always be living at peace. At those times may we use violent force?

Paul understood that mistreated people may try to seek revenge. The old covenant regulated vengeance within Israel. No one could demand more than an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth. By Paul’s day, the rabbis understood that the most practical way to handle such cases was to impose a monetary fine on the guilty party.

The law also imposed death sentences to maintain Israel’s religious purity and to punish murder. In Genesis, God gave all nations authority to take human life. Murderers were to be executed.

Paul does not tell us in Romans 12 what kind of vengeance he has in mind when he says, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath.” However, a few verses later Paul explains that soldiers, those who “bear the sword,” are God’s servants and God’s agents of wrath (13:4). To “leave room for God’s wrath” would, therefore, have to include allowing for the activity of soldiers. God’s wrath is not limited to human activity, but may include it.

Since God has established government to execute his wrath, Paul’s advice seems to mean that Christians should not take the law into their own hands. They are to allow for God’s ordained way of bringing wrath.

How should Christians behave when wronged? Besides trusting God to avenge (verse 19), Christians are to treat their enemies with kindness. A hungry enemy is to be fed. A thirsty enemy is to be given drink. This is to be done with the knowledge that “you will heap burning coals on his head.” We are to conquer evil with good (verse 21).1

We should consider, however, that when the enemy is shooting at you, feeding them is not possible. When the enemy is bombing your city, you cannot give them drink.

Paul envisions a more personal and perhaps communal situation. You know your enemy. You know if they are hungry or thirsty. The situation is calm enough for you to safely give them food and drink.

You cannot apply Paul’s counsel when your enemy is acting violently toward you, your family, your neighbors or your country. It can only happen when your enemy is acting peacefully toward you.

Nor does Paul suggest that because we feed our enemies, we sit back and do nothing to bring them to justice. Suppose someone rapes your wife. Such things do happen. You know who the rapist is. Vengeance is due. Yet you do nothing to apprehend him or that might result in him being punished. Why? Because Paul counsels you to feed him.

That, of course, would be nonsense. Paul says nothing about ignoring crimes, or doing nothing to punish criminals legally. He says simply that we must not seek private vengeance, that we must trust in God’s determination that vengeance will be done, and when possible to “live at peace with everyone.” Then he goes on to say that soldiers are instruments of God’s vengeance.

To take a modern example, Western nations have sought to treat captured prisoners of war humanely. They have to a greater or lesser degree fed them when hungry and given them drink when they were thirsty. Western nations have tried, though not perfectly, to overcome evil with good. American treatment of conquered Japan and Germany is an imperfect example of what Paul is talking about.

That God wants us to do good to an enemy does not mean that God never allows us to respond with violent force to our enemy’s evil doing. Though we are not to return evil for evil, not all violent force is evil. Doing good and responding with violent force are not contradictory behaviors. Our enemies’ actions have some bearing on how we respond. Private vengeance is usually wrong. Vigilantism can rarely be justified. Yet legal governmental wrath on evildoers God has ordained.

To explain himself further, Paul taught that the only debt we should owe anyone is the debt of love (13:8). To love another is to fulfill the law (verses 8b and 10b). Paul seems to have understood that to love our neighbor means we are to love all humankind (verses 8 and 10). “Love does no harm [or wrong, NRSV] to its neighbor” (verse 10). In this passage Paul did not explain exactly what he meant by harm (or wrong). Instead he gave us examples.

Paul’s examples came from the Ten Commandments. He cited them not as law but to illustrate what he meant by harm. The commandments he quoted prohibited things that gentiles widely considered harmful (verse 9). Paul would not limit harm to these examples, but he does not say exactly what he considers harm to be in every case. Christians, he simply says, are to be harmless.

However, just as with love, so it is with harmlessness. Our obligations to be harmless are multidirectional, and therefore can be conflicting. If I know a father is molesting his daughter, is my obligation of harmlessness to him or his daughter? Whatever I do or not do, the potential for harm is there. If I see a drunk beating up his elderly mother, am I to be harmless to her or to her drunken son? If I do nothing, then my inaction causes her additional harm. If I intervene, then my actions may harm him. If a deranged killer is attacking his family, to whom am I expected to be harmless? Either my action or my inaction will probably harm somebody.

This raises an important point. Pacifists often accuse nonpacifists of supporting behavior that is terribly grave in its consequences. To them, pacifism is relatively harmless. Yet in the examples given above, pacifism is not necessarily harmless. Pacifism can have just as grave consequences as the refusal to kill.

Returning to Paul, we can see that his call for Christians to be harmless is possible in many one-to-one situations. But when a third party is involved (either directly or indirectly), our obligations can be conflicting, making total harmlessness impossible. Pacifism itself cannot be harmless to everyone every time. The Holocaust is a mute witness to that truth. Even if we allow for passive resistance or nonlethal force as potential options to deadly defense, would such tactics have stopped Hitler? Harmlessness to the SS would have lead to increasing harm of the Jews and everyone else they hated. Paul’s comments on harmlessness seem only to make sense in his broader command that “if it be possible . . . live at peace with everyone” (12:18). Our conflicting responsibilities to love means that it is not always possible for us to do this.

For he is God’s servant

We can now examine Paul’s understanding of human government. Romans 13:1–7 has bedeviled Christian political theorists for centuries, not because what it says is incomprehensible, but because people’s understanding of how it is to be applied are so varied. If Paul had only written an entire book on the relationships between Christians and human governments it might all be much clearer. Yet he did not. He wrote seven verses. He gave us basic principles, not detailed applications.

In speaking of human government, Paul was not addressing the forms that those governments might take. His was not a treatise on democracy, kingship or any other form of human government. He was simply addressing the purposes that God has given to governments. His argument assumed that governments act responsibly, according to their God-given functions. He was speaking of the ideal, not the real. That governments often stray far from the ideal has created some ethical dilemmas for Christians.

Paul tells Christians in Romans 13:1 to submit to governments because God has ordained them. No authority exists that God has not ordained. Rebellion against such authority is, therefore, rebellion against God. Judgment will come on the rebels, presumably from the governments themselves. That is because “rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong” (verse 3a).

The argument presupposes God’s superior authority over the governments, for he ordained them. This superiority of authority means that Christians have a superiority of obedience. Where God and state conflict, obedience to God comes first.

Government authorities that are fulfilling their God-ordained roles will commend those who do right. They will do this because they are God’s servants to do us good (verse 4a).

Where government authorities are God’s servants, may Christians be this kind of God’s servant? May Christians be governing authorities? May they bear the sword? Paul does not say. We know that he assumes Christians are not government authorities, because he only speaks of Christians as under the authorities. Yet Paul’s argument does not envision all Christian possibilities. The what-if question we just raised is not a part of his letter.

Paul’s argument also does not envision all governmental possibilities either, such as an Adolf Hitler or a Stalin. In Romans 13, governing authorities are God’s servants and they behave as God’s servants. Later in Revelation, as Rome persecuted the church, the Roman government is portrayed as a power that has joined the other side.

Revelation portrays Christian responsibility toward such governments as nonsubmissive. For example, the two witnesses resist with deadly plagues those who seek their harm, until it is God’s time for the two witnesses to be martyred. The “woman” of Revelation 12 flees from Satan rather than submit to death, though some of her children are martyred. In Revelation the righteous die rather than submit to “Babylon’s” demands. Nothing suggests that their deaths are because they are pacifists or conscientious objectors. Socially powerless, they await the return of the Lord of Lords, who will lead the armies of heaven into righteous war.

But in the ideal presentation of Romans 13, government authorities appropriately bear the sword as God’s servants (verse 4). The sword symbolizes their power over human life.

In Paul’s day, the army carried out all police, prison and military functions of the state. The modern distinctions between police and army did not exist. So, whatever Paul wrote about soldiers applies to law-enforcement agents.

Paul taught that soldiers and those who command them are governing authorities. Soldiers are God’s servants. Paul does not claim that God approves of every one of their actions any more than he approves of all our actions. But they are God’s servants. These servants are agents “of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (verse 4). The sword is an instrument of wrath.

As Paul often does, he speaks of generalities without any qualifying statements. Obviously God does not approve every wrathful act of governing authorities. Yet he approves some of their wrathful acts. That is the purpose behind God’s giving the sword to governments. He often brings vengeance through them. God holds them accountable for how and on whom they execute vengeance, but not for vengeance itself. That God gave them a sword means they can kill people, for that is the purpose of a sword. Yet they should kill according to the reason God gave them the sword in the first place: to bring God’s wrath on wrongdoers.

We submit to these authorities because of who ordained them and because we do not wish to have a conscience problem. Because they are God’s servants, and labor continually at their jobs, we pay our taxes. That is how they get paid (verses 5–7).

For us as a church, these verses raise interesting questions. For example, when was the last time you heard a sermon telling Christians to honor the military or police because they were ministers of God? I have never heard a sermon that said the American soldiers, Russian sailors and Japanese airmen were all God’s ministers. Yet that is what the Scriptures teach. Perhaps we would have had a different view of military service and war had we preached these verses.

In all of Paul’s discussion of government authorities, their God-ordained functions, their power over life and our Christian submission to them, Paul never implies that Christians cannot morally perform government functions. Of course, neither does he encourage Christians to find ways of serving God in this manner.

May Christians war? Our answers seem to hinge on whether we believe Christians can be the kinds of servants of God who “do not carry the sword for nothing” and who “bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

Anabaptists generally say that Christians may not serve God in this way, that what is duty to the unbeliever is sin for the believer. They believe that in this matter God has two different rules of conduct, one for Christians one for non-Christians. Most other Christians disagree.


1 At first, Paul’s claim — that giving food and drink to our enemies will result in burning coals heaped on their heads — appears to suggest that we do good to gain vengeance. However, that contradicts a purpose for feeding our enemies — to relieve their physical needs. Thus, many commentators feel “burning coals on their heads” metaphorically refers to a burning conscience. By treating our enemies with kindness we move them to repentance.

Author: Ralph Orr


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