This article is the second of a series on the doctrine of nonresistance, which is based on Jesus’ command to do no violence. More specifically, nonresistance is the view that even when striving for justice, Christians, unlike earthly governments, must only employ methods other than violence.
This doctrine was so named by the Anabaptists, but it is based directly in Scripture and the historic teaching of the church. An examination of the Scriptural teachings on violence will show that the Bible teaches that we should use only nonviolent methods of achieving justice and overcoming evil. This article will demonstrate the following points:
- The New Testament consistently teaches that, notwithstanding the permission for certain violence in the Old Testament, Christians should not do violence in defense or retribution.
- The New Testament does not leave any exceptions where Christians can do violence.
- Concerning the state, the New Testament consistently teaches that governments may use violence as part of carrying out their duties.
These are points 1, 3, and 4 of my overview article, respectively.
Not about government violence
Let me emphasize that by no means should the doctrine of nonresistance be interpreted as against secular violence or Old Testament violence. It is against Christian involvement in violence—but recognizes that the government has a right to employ violence to maintain order, as did Old Testament Israel.
So, of course, this means that Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 cannot be brought up as objections to the nonresistant view; we agree that the government can use violence. It is not an objection to our view to state that the New Testament clearly says that the government may. Nor can examples of Old Testament violence be used against the nonresistant view, since we agree that God permitted violence in the Old Testament, but forbade it under the New Testament.
For an overall discussion of the doctrine of nonresistance, as well as answers to many objections to it, see the other articles in this series.
- The first article gives an overview of violence and Christianity. It defines key terms like “nonresistance” and “violence,” and shows how the Biblical and early Christian evidence fits together. It answers many general objections to the concept of nonresistance.
- The second article discusses what the Bible teaches on violence and shows that Scripture is in full support of nonresistance for Christians.
- The third article looks at evidence from the early church and shows that the consensus of early Christian leaders was against violence for Christians.
- The fourth article discusses the leading Christian worldview which states that violence is permissible in certain circumstances, and shows that worldview to be impoverished and unable to stand up to Scripture or reason.
Direct Teaching Against Violence
This section will discuss several New Testament passages which teach directly against the use of violence.
The most straightforward command on violence is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. . . . I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5:38–48 ESV)
Jesus begins by referencing an Old Testament precept and contrasting it with his own command. Thus, he is explicitly replacing the Old Testament Law on this point. So just because violence was permitted in the Old Testament doesn’t mean that it is permitted in the New Testament.
Second, Jesus condemns both personal violence and civil violence. On the one hand, the examples Jesus gives are violence done against an individual, and his commands prohibit personal retaliation. On the other hand, Jesus forbids taking part in societal correction of wrongs. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” originates in Exodus 21:24 in the context of civil judgments, carried out and sanctioned by society. Thus, neither category of violence can be excepted from his command.
Third, Jesus condemns both defensive and retributive violence. In place of defensive violence, Jesus says “not [to] resist the one who is evil,” and to go so far as to open ourselves to further insult, injury, and loss. And, as noted before, when Jesus overturns “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” he is referencing an example of retribution. Thus, Jesus is forbidding Christians to retaliate or to seek punishment for wrongs done.
When Jesus speaks of defensive violence, he doesn’t say that this applies to only self-defense, to the exclusion of defending others. “Do not resist the one who is evil” of course applies to both types of defense. He does specifically reference examples of personal injury, but he doesn’t give any indications that they are an exhaustive list. Thus, to say that Jesus’ blanket statement doesn’t apply to defense of others would seem like motivated reasoning.
Furthermore, the implications of the second and third points is that using violence to defend others is wrong. If we are not to take part in societal retribution, nor to take part in personal self-defense or retribution, then societal defensive violence also seems to be precluded. This would contradict just war and, by extension, violence to protect others.
Finally, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for persecutors. Surely the simplest reading of this command is that we should not do violence to them. If we are willing to injure or harm them, we are not showing active Christian love to them.
Objections to this passage
One possible objection to my exegesis could arise from verse 42 of this passage: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” If we don’t unilaterally give to everyone who begs, or if we refuse someone’s request, does that mean that we don’t need to unilaterally follow the other commands, either?
The only situation in which we don’t need to follow the literal sense of a command of Jesus is a situation in which he didn’t intend it to be taken unilaterally. In the case of the commands to nonresistance in this passage, the New Testament never softens them. It even reiterates them, as the rest of these passages will show. However, in the case of this statement, the New Testament softens it in other instances, bringing out mitigating principles in 2 Thess 3:10, Matt 7:6, and 2 Cor 9:7. When this principle is reiterated, it is specifically about severe needs (James 2:15–16).
However, if we aren’t sure how literally to take a statement of Jesus, it would certainly be best to err on the literal side of interpreting Jesus’ words than on the opposite side!
Are Jesus’ Commands Only About Personal Insults?
One response to the case for nonresistance is that Jesus wasn’t talking about all physical violence, but instead he was saying that we shouldn’t retaliate against our personal enemies. Many people have noticed that the examples Jesus uses in Matthew 5 are relatively minor offenses, such as hitting someone on the cheek or taking their clothing. They suggest that Jesus is not denying Christians the right to use violence against someone who has the intent to kill.
Note that the Greek word used for slapping in Matthew 5 (rhapizei) is not necessarily just a slap.1“to beat with rods; to strike with the palm of the hand, cuff, clap” Mounce’s Dictionary When a related word is used later in the Gospel, it is equated with a much more forceful word: “And some slapped [rhapizō] him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck [paiō] you?” (Matthew 26:67-68). The word paiō in this case is defined as “to strike, smite, with the fist.”2Mounce’s Dictionary So there’s good reason to believe that Christ’s statement is not merely talking about insults.
Furthermore, the context of this passage is the Mosaic principle “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” If someone damages an eye or knocks out a tooth, that’s not merely an insult. In fact, Exodus 21 also mentions “life for life.” In other words, Jesus is saying that even if we are physically injured, we shouldn’t resist.
In fact, it’s actually not that surprising that Jesus, if he were intending to give the general principle that we shouldn’t do violence, would pick examples that would be most likely to happen to his audience (non-lethal offenses). So it’s just as likely that he chose his examples for that reason rather than because they referenced the only level of violence that he required us to submit to.
Finally, just take a step back from the discussion and honestly consider these questions: How am I loving my neighbors by shooting them? Is defensive violence about loving my enemy or about loving myself?3One of the most ridiculous bits of exegesis that I have ever seen is the claim that Jesus is talking about a backhanded slap, and to turn the other cheek is actually an aggressive move, putting the aggressor in the position of needing to decide whether they will actually become violent. To dismiss this, it’s enough to look at the sentences preceding and following. Any reading of a passage which ignores the immediate context, and uses multiple different interpretations to conveniently find one in point of view, needs no further refutation. I also note that it’s possible to explain each point in Matt 5 with a separate (ad hoc) explanation that allows for violence, but we should prefer the simpler reading that nonresistance gives.
Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:17–21)
By saying “Repay no one evil for evil” and “never avenge yourselves,” Paul is clearly forbidding retribution.
Paul proposes a method of overcoming evil—by doing active good deeds for one’s enemy rather than active harm. This would prohibit the possibility of defensive violence, which uses a different method of overcoming evil.
According to Paul, when we combat violence with violence, we are not actually winning—instead, we’re being overcome by evil. If I respond violently to someone who threatens me, I’m actually allowing him to define my actions. But if I respond by helping my enemy and providing for his needs, I can remain true to the higher laws of the Kingdom of Heaven.
I conclude that this passage is against Christian violence.
1 Peter 3
“Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Pet 3:9).
“For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (1 Pet 3:17).
Like Paul in the passage above, Peter is forbidding retribution and commanding that we bless instead.
Peter says that suffering for doing good is better than suffering for doing evil. If by “doing evil” he in context means doing harm, this would suggest that causing someone harm in order not to suffer is problematic. If that’s what he means, this would deny the possibility of defensive violence.
In sum, it’s an honor to suffer for Jesus’ Kingdom, and there are blessings in store for those who return good for evil. I conclude that this passage is against Christian violence.
My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world. (John 18:36)
Jesus says that the reason he did not use defensive violence was that his kingdom is not of this world. If we are not to defend our kingdom against other nations or our king against his enemies, it’s hard to see how we could use defensive violence for lesser purposes, either.
Peter and the sword
Some have argued that Jesus actually condones defensive violence, citing a passage in Luke 22. I include this argument in this section, because the passage is closely related to other passages that are actually evidence for rather than against nonresistance.
And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword [Greek, machaira] sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfillment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.” (Luke 22:35–38)
Here Jesus says that, though he had sent them out to spread the gospel without any provisions, he now wanted them to take provisions and a “sword,” which can also be translated “knife.” The Greek word is machaira. I see two possible overall interpretations of this passage:
- Jesus wanted them to take the moneybag, knapsack, and machaira along on their missionary journeys. His statement about the Scripture that must be fulfilled is incidental to this command, and he simply means by it that it will soon be time for him to leave them.
- Jesus wanted them to have a machaira along when they went to his arrest, and possibly also the moneybag and knapsack, so that he would be arrested in company with people who seemed to be transgressors.
It is also possible that Jesus intended some form of both. I will look at each of these interpretations and see if either of them suggests that Jesus believed in violence for self-defense.
They had swords—does that mean self-defense?
One thing that is common to both possible interpretations is that the disciples had swords in their possession. One could argue that, because these disciples carried machaira even after years of following Jesus, this must mean that they didn’t interpret Jesus as being nonresistant, and Jesus, knowing they had them, didn’t rebuke them. However, this argument is profoundly unsatisfactory, because it must assume some very specific things, or it fails entirely.
First, it assumes that the machaira of the disciples belonged to them and had been carried by them. But of course, this need not be the case. They were currently guests in what seems to have been a rich person’s house (he had at least one servant and a large upper room); the rich person’s servants may have lent them the machaira when they found that Jesus wanted some.
Or, after all, Jesus suggested to buy machaira; maybe they were bought for the occasion! The story doesn’t tell how much time passed between Jesus’ statement and their possession of the machaira.
Second, this argument assumes that, not only had they been carrying the machaira for some time, but also that these swords or knives had always been intended for defense against people. Again, this is not the only possible interpretation. Remember that the word machaira, though frequently used of swords, could also refer to knives. For example, the word machaira is used in the Septuagint in Genesis 22:10 to translate a Hebrew word for “knife.”
The line between swords and knives is not perfectly clear. In many less developed parts of the world, the most peaceful people carry machetes and other types of long knives. These knives are primarily intended for use on vegetation (such as clearing a path or a camping area), and would have been very useful for Jesus and the disciples, since they traveled quite a bit and didn’t always have shelter (Luke 9:58). Of course, machetes and other knives are also valuable for self-defense against wildlife.
These knives are even used in self-defense against humans—Latin American revolutions have often featured machetes. So it would be perfectly legitimate to translate this word as either “sword” or “knife,” but in either case, the disciples could have had them for excellent reasons that didn’t involve violence against people.
Third, this argument assumes that, not only had the disciples had been carrying the machaira and had intended them for defense against people, but also that this indicates that Jesus must have been okay with violence. However, this inference is by no means certain. It’s quite possible that the disciples, not having the Holy Spirit, had misunderstood Jesus, as they often did. After all, once the apostles had received the Spirit, we have absolutely no evidence that any early Christian missionaries, apostles or otherwise, employed defensive violence.
Thus, this argument trades on three unproven assumptions, and does nothing to overturn the straightforward exegesis of Jesus’ commands in Matthew 5.
Jesus wanted them to take “swords” on missionary journeys
Let’s continue by examining the first possible interpretation of Jesus’ words. If it’s true that Jesus wanted the disciples to take the moneybag, knapsack, and machaira along on their missionary journeys, what might that mean?
Context is the most important way of determining how to translate a word. This interpretation considers the context for this word to be preparation for survival—such as having money and food along.
If the missionaries were just going to travel through cities, food wouldn’t have been necessary; only money. However, if they were going to travel through remote areas, both would be necessary. But in remote areas, a machaira would have been very important as a survival tool. Thus, under this interpretation, there’s no reason to suppose that the machaira were intended as self-defense against people.
Jesus wanted “swords” to be present when he was arrested
Next, let’s examine the other possible interpretation of Jesus’ words. If it’s true that Jesus wanted the disciples to have a machaira along when they went to his arrest, what might that mean?
This interpretation considers the context for this word to be the idea of being “numbered with the transgressors.” Jesus wanted to fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah 53:12, which foretold that Jesus would be numbered with the transgressors.
Does this interpretation suggest that Jesus intended to promote self-defense? No. If these swords were a way to be “numbered with the transgressors,” that is, if anything, a disapproval of the violent use of machaira, rather than an approval of their use as swords.
Furthermore, note what Jesus said a few verses later when one of these machaira, which he supposedly wanted them to carry for self-defense, was actually used in self-defense:
And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:49–51)
Here is what Matthew and John record about this event:
And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matt 26:51–54)
Then Simon Peter, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant and cut off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) So Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:10–11)
In this story, Jesus rebukes Peter for multiple reasons. One is that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Even though Peter was using his machaira in defense of an innocent person, Jesus applies this principle about the violent use of machaira to him. This strongly suggests that defensive violence is inappropriate for Christians. As Jesus said, “No more of this!”
Does Jesus’ principle amount to evidence against violence?
I think the simplest reading of Jesus’ statement “all who take the sword will perish by the sword,” is that we should not use defensive violence. But let me defend this reading against some possible objections.
Might this interpretation contradict my argument that the machaira might have been knives? After all, if machaira could be used to mean “knife,” how do we know that Jesus meant to be referencing defensive violence rather than the other possible uses of a machaira?
First, the reason the machaira was drawn was for defensive violence, so the context makes clear what Jesus is talking about. Second, if we replace the word machaira with an instrument that is used as both a tool and a weapon today, Jesus’ intention is quite clear. Suppose that a group of individuals who are used to roughing it have a gun on hand for its many possible uses, such as hunting or defending against bear attacks. Suppose that they are attacked by people, and one of their number draws a gun to defend them.
Then the leader says to that individual, “Put that gun away! All who draw the gun will die by the gun.” In this example, it is quite clear that the leader is condemning defensive violence rather than the other possible uses of a gun (even though a gun has fewer possible uses than a knife would).
Let’s consider another objection. Tim Stratton uses this text as an argument for defensive violence, pointing out an interesting aspect of the text:
Also, note that Jesus does not tell Peter to drop his sword and never touch it again. No, Jesus tells Peter to put his sword “back into its sheath.” If a Sheriff tells his deputy to holster his firearm, he means put it away but keep it on your person. The Sheriff is not implying that the deputy ought to get rid of his weapon forever. We can infer from this that Jesus condoned Peter’s further carrying of the sword.4From this site.
Of course, this interesting fact can’t be used as an evidence for defensive violence, because of the reasons I gave in the last section—there are just too many assumptions that need to be made, if you want to claim that the machaira had to have been weapons.
But there’s another reason why this doesn’t work. Consider the example I just gave, of a group that packed a gun for multiple purposes, including hunting. If the leader says “put that gun away” instead of “get rid of that gun,” we wouldn’t be surprised—the gun has many other uses too! It certainly wouldn’t be an evidence for defensive violence.
Stratton continues, taking a different tack by pointing out that,
The Greek literally reads “For all those taking a sword will die by a sword.” With this in mind, surely this verse is not to be taken literally! If that were the case, then Jesus was wrong. I am positive there have been at least a couple of Samurais who “lived by the sword,” but who died of old age. . . .
It seems to me that Jesus is essentially telling Peter, “Put your sword away, bro! If you use it now, you will die now!” That certainly seems that it would have been the case. In fact, it seems utterly miraculous that Peter was not killed on the spot! Surely if he would have continued his fight in the garden, the Roman “commandoes” would have terminated him within seconds.
Obviously one cannot argue that, since it’s obvious that not literally all who draw a sword will die by one, Jesus must not have meant his statement at all. Certainly Jesus meant something by that statement. So instead, Stratton suggests that Jesus meant that Peter would die by the sword “now,” if he kept swinging his machaira.
Although it’s not unlikely that Peter’s death would have been the outcome, note that this fails to recognize an important fact about Jesus’ statement—it is a principle, not a statement about this specific situation. While Jesus says “all those,” Stratton says “Peter” and “now,” which would confine Jesus’ statement to the immediate event.
However, when someone states a principle with reference to a specific situation, we know two things. First, because it is a principle, its application cannot just be restricted to that specific situation. It is meant to apply broadly. Second, we know that its application does apply to at least this specific situation, since this situation is used as an example of the principle. So if we can figure out what aspects of the situation are affected by the principle, we can learn how the principle should be applied in other situations.
A possible interpretation that suggests nonresistance
In this case, the principle “all who take the sword will die by the sword,” could be straightforwardly interpreted as meaning something like, “When you use violence, you’re likely to receive violence in return, and you won’t always be able to defend against it.” The principle could be applied in this way, “Peter, violence is worse than useless as a means of defending people.” I think this interpretation and application make a lot of sense.
But even if my interpretation and application are incorrect in this case—they could well be—note that this passage is still not an evidence against nonresistance. The most this could do is keep us from using this incident as an evidence for nonresistance. It would do nothing to support the claims of those who believe nonresistance to be false.
The bigger picture
I think I’ve laid this passage to rest by now. However, all that I’ve said earlier could be inaccurate, and this still wouldn’t be an evidence against nonresistance.
Just step back a moment and consider the bigger picture. We have at least one statement by Jesus that seems like a straightforward condemnation of violence. We also have a statement by Jesus asking to have machaira around. If a straightforward reading of each statement led them to contradict each other, then we would have a problem on our hands.
But there is no contradiction. It is fully possible to have even a dedicated sword (as opposed to a repurposed knife) in one’s possession and yet believe in nonresistance.
If you aren’t convinced of this, consider the following illustration. James is a campaigner who consistently taught that smoking was wrong, and James is on his way to one of the most momentous events of his career. James asks one of his staff to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes.
What should we assume? That James hadn’t really meant his statements about smoking as they had sounded? Unlikely. We would probably assume that James wanted to have the cigarettes present to prove a point. Maybe to hold up the pack of cigarettes as an object lesson, or maybe to read something from the back of the pack.
Then James later stops one of his fans from smoking one of the cigarettes, saying, “All those who live by smoking will die by smoking.” I don’t think we would entertain any doubts as to his position on smoking.
So the fact that Jesus wanted machaira present doesn’t mean that he hadn’t meant his statements about nonresistance as they had sounded. Most likely, he wanted the machaira there to prove a point—and that’s exactly what one of the possible interpretations holds! As I pointed out, Jesus may have intended these machaira in order to fulfill a prophecy. It’s also quite likely that Jesus, knowing the future, wanted these machaira along so that he could prove that he was choosing not to fight back, a point that he made to Pilate in John 18, which we’ve reviewed.
I conclude that the only ambiguity in this passage is an ambiguity introduced by those who have not taken the time to carefully review the text.
Christian methods contrasted with violence
Besides direct commands against violence, the New Testament also indicates the doctrine of nonresistance in other ways. In the New Testament, Christian methods of achieving justice are contrasted with the world’s methods in a way that suggests nonresistance.
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. (Eph 6:12-18)
Christian warfare is contrasted with wrestling against flesh and blood, and the enemies listed in this passage are exclusively entities that represent spiritual powers. This indicates that we will not be fighting individual humans.
The weapons we are told to use are not physical but spiritual—truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the word of God, and prayer. This suggests using methods other than violence, which would only serve “against flesh and blood.”
2 Corinthians 10
For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (2 Cor 10:3–6).
Our warfare is contrasted against “waging war according to the flesh.” This indicates that we do not wage physical warfare.
Our weapons “are not of the flesh” but are the judicious usage of words against spiritual falsehoods. This suggests using methods other than violence.
My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world. (John 18:36)
Jesus says that his servants are not fighting because his kingdom is not “of this world.” The implication is that fighting is a method of this world, and incompatible with Jesus’ kingdom.
Is this just about religious matters?
However, the interpretations I gave are not the only possible ones. We could interpret these passages as being guidance on how we should handle religious matters, but as being silent on how to handle nonreligious matters. In that case, could it be that, as Christians, we should be nonresistant, but when it comes to our job as secular citizens, we may use violence?
I think that this alternate explanation fails for the following reasons:
- As members of the Kingdom of God, we are part of a nation that demands our exclusive loyalties.5For a defense of this, see my article on two kingdom theology. Thus, we don’t have any room left to serve another loyalty with methods antithetical to that of our primary allegiance. A patriotic citizen of a country who is completely dedicated to his country’s mindsets and values will not lay those values aside whenever he acts as a private citizen. Would a newspaper editor who is a true defender of the U.S. Bill of Rights try to censor news, even though he could? We should stay far away from loyalties that have different values from our primary loyalty.
- Why, when we have weapons with “divine power” and are fighting directly with the forces of evil, would we waste time with physical warfare against merely the minions of the evil one? Why not use the most powerful weapons and get straight to the heart of the matter?
- No distinction between a Christian’s religious life and political life is either explicit or implicit in these passages. On the contrary Paul says, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood” and “we are not waging war according to the flesh” without any qualification. One could certainly argue that he didn’t mean these statements to be taken with no qualifications whatsoever, but my point is that the textual evidence leans on the side of nonresistance rather than on the side of permitting violence.
When we study Scripture, we shouldn’t just confine our conclusions to the literal statements of the text. Instead, we should continue and apply the text’s intentions to our own situation.
This section discusses some ways that we can go beyond the literal sense of the text in order to derive some further conclusions about Christianity’s relationship with violence. It also forestalls some objections to the doctrine of nonresistance.
What does it mean that Jesus used small offenses as examples?
As I said in my discussion of Matthew 5, many people have noticed that the examples Jesus uses in Matthew 5 are relatively minor offenses—hitting someone on the cheek, taking their clothing, etc. I pointed out that this observation fails as an objection to nonresistance. However, it’s worth looking at this fact to see what it actually indicates.
I can think of two possible interpretations of this fact. Which seems more appropriate>
- For small offenses, we shouldn’t fight back, but when it comes to large offenses, we should. (Of course, the context contradicts this, but this statement by itself could be interpreted this way.)
- If we shouldn’t even retaliate in small areas, we should be even more careful not to retaliate in large areas.
Of course, the first possible interpretation suggests an inconsistency in the type of response called for by different levels of offenses. Instead of applying one principle, it posits multiple principles.
If we are to posit such an imbalance, it must be explained from Scripture, or we should reject it. However, I can think of no passage in the New Testament that suggests that, at some point, one should resort to violence.
On the other hand, the second possible interpretation seems implicit in Scripture. The small commands inform the large ones, so that a Christian’s entire life is consistent. See for example this statement by Jesus: “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10). It seems more consistent with Scripture that our responses in small areas should be the same as our responses in large areas.
So I think that Jesus’ use of examples that are non-lethal offenses actually makes his statement stronger and emphasizes that we should be nonresistant in every area of our lives.
Denying retribution entails denying defensive violence
The New Testament does teach against defensive violence, as I’ve shown. However, it speaks most directly against retributive violence. However I think that even passages against retribution imply that defensive violence is not permissible.
While retribution is an attempt to repay violence by using violence, defensive violence is an attempt to prevent violence by using violence. In other words, the antagonistic violence has not yet occurred and is only being threatened. The first violence is the defensive violence, which responds to violence that has not yet taken place.
But if we are forbidden to respond to actual violence with violence, even after a wrong has been done, how is it right to respond to possible violence with violence, when no wrong has yet been done? It doesn’t seem possible to suggest that the New Testament allows defensive violence while recognizing that it doesn’t allow retributive violence.
Denying defensive violence entails denying participation in war
Nonresistant Christians recognize that the state has a right to wage war. Even so, we deplore every war, praying that it will end, and do what we can to mitigate the effects of the war. Nonresistant Christians conscientiously object to participating in war.
This makes perfect sense, since it is forbidden for Christians to use defensive violence. That means that we can’t take part in wars of defense. Of course, wars of aggression aren’t justified, even for the state, much less for Christians. This leaves no possible situations in which Christians can take part in war.
Nonresistance in daily life
Before wrapping up with responses to some further objections posed to nonresistance, I should discuss what nonresistance means in our daily lives. True nonresistance is not just about how we respond to physical violence. It should affect how we live every day.
Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. (Rom 12:16-17)
If we want to practice the noble call to nonresistance, we need to start by responding with love to everyone who offends us or annoys us even in the smallest way. This would of course prohibit suing people or pressing charges against our enemies.
This section responds to some further objections made to the doctrine of nonresistance.
Shifting to different passages
One of the most common responses to the doctrine of nonresistance as stated in Matthew 5 is to shift the conversation to different passages. That way, instead of responding to Jesus’ clear words, the opponent of nonresistance can respond to more ambiguous stories or statements.
However, in this section, I’ll show that a careful reading of the go-to passages shows that they do not contradict a straightforward reading of Matthew 5. Any contradictions arise only in the minds of those who would like to leave some room for approved violence. One such passage is Luke 22, where Jesus asks his disciples to bring swords, a passage I have already addressed above. Some others are discussed below.
The Cleansing of the Temple
Many will point to the cleansing of the Temple (there may have been two Temple cleansings in Jesus’ career), when Jesus evicted the money-changers and other merchants. They argue that this is an example of Jesus doing violence, and that we may therefore commit violence. Here are the relevant passages:
And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” (Matt 21:12–13)
And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” (Luke 19:45–46)
And they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. And he was teaching them and saying to them, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.” (Mark 11:15–17)
The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove [ekballō] them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” (John 2:13–16)
Of course it is immediately obvious that none of Jesus’ actions can be classified as “violence” by the definition I’m using. Remember that I’ve defined violence as “any injury done to another person with the intent or willingness to harm that person.” The one possible exception is the statement, found in John, that Jesus made a whip of cords. People often assume that Jesus whipped the people out of the Temple with it.
In reply, one only needs to quip, “If you want to whip people out of your father’s house because they’re defiling it, be my guest—that’s different from killing someone who attacks you.” Besides, Jesus is God and has the right to give and take life—how much more would he have the right to chase a few people around! That doesn’t mean we may kill people. Thus, this argument fails right from the start.
But let’s take a serious look at this incident. Is it possible that Jesus injured someone with his whip? It’s possible, though it seems unlikely that a whip of cords could injure anyone. But is that the only possible way of reading the text? Certainly not. So this passage doesn’t speak to whether or not violence is appropriate; it speaks rather of coercion than violence.
However, there are some interesting things to note about this passage. It’s quite possible that Jesus never whipped any people. First, note the Greek word translated “drove.” While it is quite legitimately translated thus, ekballō has a wide range of meanings, all loosely coming under the heading of “to send out.” For example, it is used of Jesus sending the mourners out of Jairus’s house (Mark 5:40) and of God sending workers to harvest (Luke 10:2). Presumably neither case involved violence.
Cecil John Cadoux astutely points out,
Here therefore it need mean no more than an authoritative dismissal. It is obviously impossible for one man to drive out a crowd by physical force or even by the threat of it. What he can do is to overawe them by his presence and the power of his personality, and expel them by an authoritative command. That apparently is what Jesus did. In any case, no act even remotely comparable to wounding or killing is sanctioned by his example on this occasion.6Cecil John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War, London, 1919, pp. 34-35
In fact, if Jesus had injured people while sending them out of the Temple, how likely is it that the Temple guards would have stood by and let it all happen without intervening? We have no record that they became involved, yet I assume the Temple was not left unprotected.
Why the whip?
However, a careful reading of the passage raises a very instructive question. Why did Jesus tell the pigeon-sellers to take away the pigeons, if he had already driven all the people out with a whip?
Well, for that matter, why the whip at all? The obvious answer is to move the cattle. Being a “whip of cords” strongly suggests this as well. A whip of cords wouldn’t have injured any cattle, but it would have been necessary in order to get the cattle to move out of the Temple. No indication is given of how the whip was used, and it seems just as likely that Jesus would have reserved it for cattle as that he would have used it on people.
It could easily be that while Jesus was applying the whip to the cattle, he ordered the cattle-sellers to leave as well. It’s unsurprising that they would have left in pursuit of their cattle, which would probably have ended up in the city streets or mixed up with other people’s cattle.
Now notice that the passage identifies three categories of people—those who sold animals, the money-changers, and those who sold pigeons specifically. Jesus may have sent the money-changers out when he was sending out the cattle and their sellers, or he may have evicted the money-changers while overturning their tables. But in either case, he then turned to the pigeon-sellers and ordered them to leave. Of course he couldn’t chase out the pigeons, since they would have been in cages or tethered in some way.
Now, which is more likely:
- That Jesus whipped people and cattle out of the temple, injuring people right and left, but without being resisted by any guards. While doing so, he simply left the pigeon-sellers there until he ordered them to pack up and leave as well.
- That Jesus whipped the cattle out of the temple and ordered the flustered owners to get out, using his charisma to get them to listen, then dumped the money-changers’ tables and ordered them out as well, then finished up by ordering the pigeon-sellers to pack up and leave.
I think the answer is pretty clear. But even if it isn’t, there still is no ground for insisting that the only possible interpretation of the whip is that Jesus was injuring people.
Soldiers in the Roman Army
Other go-to passages have to do with the New Testament’s portrayal of Roman soldiers. Since no Roman soldiers were told to leave the army, doesn’t that mean that Jesus endorsed violence? No, for several reasons:
First, John the Baptist didn’t tell solders to be nonresistant.But that’s not surprising—John the Baptist was the last prophet before Jesus. He was still in the Old Testament. It was Jesus who taught the radical new message of enemy love. John the Baptist did not teach Christianity; he heralded its coming. John probably had no concept of nonresistance until Jesus preached it.
However, Jesus and Peter, both in the New Testament, interacted with centurions without (as far as we know) telling them to leave the military. In Acts 10, one centurion, Cornelius, even became a Christian. Yet we’re never told that these soldiers stopped killing people. Does this mean that Jesus and the apostles allowed violence?
I hope you see how tenuous of an argument this is. It’s an argument from silence—they can give no evidence for the idea that these soldiers remained violent, but instead they point out that there is no immediate evidence against that idea. There is no direct implication at all that the converted soldiers continued to do violence.
In fact, as my post about the early Christian view of violence shows, it was barely possible to leave the Roman army in those days. However, there was a possibility for soldiers to take part in all the nonviolent duties that the Roman military carried out. So the early Christians allowed soldiers to remain in the army, as long as they stopped doing or ordering violence. Thus, even if the soldiers that Jesus and Peter talked to didn’t leave the army (though they might have), it doesn’t mean that they continued to do violence.
Their nonviolence is obvious
But just consider this. Why would the New Testament writers need to specify that converted soldiers ceased to do violence? I’ve shown that my main contentions for this post are very strong:
- The New Testament consistently teaches that, notwithstanding the permission for certain violence in the Old Testament, Christians should not do violence in defense or retribution.
- The New Testament does not leave any exceptions where Christians can do violence.
Thus, the nonviolence of any converted soldier may be taken as too obvious to need to be stated. That’s not a silly idea; consider this example: Suppose that I told you that I know of an active Islamic terrorist who came to the U.S. and became a patriotic citizen of the U.S. However, I neglected to say whether or not the man continued to commit terrorist acts on behalf of Islam.
Would you assume that I must believe that it’s possible to be a full U.S. citizen and an active terrorist as well? Of course not. You know that one of the entailments of being a patriotic U.S. citizen is not to commit terrorist acts for Islam. The contentions that I’ve demonstrated in this article show that one of the entailments of being an apostolic Christian is to commit no violence.
Loving Your Neighbor
Some have argued that, if we are to fully obey Jesus’ command to love our neighbor, this entails using defensive violence when our neighbor is being threatened. I do agree that to love our neighbor entails self-sacrificially defending them. But of course, defending one’s neighbor is completely separate from violently defending one’s neighbor. Thus, it does not follow that we may use violence in order to defend them, any more than if follows that we may use sexual sin in order to defend them.
A similar argument is that we should obey the spirit of what Jesus commanded, and that it is therefore totally fine to use violence, if we use it in the spirit of his command. In response, Cecil John Cadoux writes,
Granting that the spirit is the more important side of the matter, we may well ask, If in our Lord’s view the right spirit issues in a ‘letter’ of this kind, how can a ‘letter’ of a diametrically opposite kind be consonant with the same spirit?”7Cecil John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War, London, 1919, p. 24
Before we make an application of Jesus’ general principles, we should use his specific commands to make sure we are interpreting general commands correctly. If our interpretation of general commands contradicts Jesus’ specific commands, it should go without saying that we must give up our interpretation in favor of Jesus’ own interpretation. So if Jesus says that “Do not resist the one who is evil” is a means of obeying his general commands, then we have no choice but to follow his interpretation.
- One type of objection states that the rightness of violence in some cases is so obvious that Jesus can’t have meant his statements literally. A full response to this type of objection can be found in my final article in this series.
- God commanded war in the OT, and he allowed violence then, so obviously God is okay with certain kinds of violence. But we are no longer in the Old Testament, and its practices no longer apply to Christians. In fact, in this situation, Jesus explicitly changed the teaching of the Old Testament on violence, broadening the Old Testament’s provision for peacefulness.
- Scripture teaches that we should obey our earthly government. The government sometimes orders us to join in their warfare, so we should obey them.8Found here. But Scripture also clearly teaches us to obey God rather than man. In no other case are we allowed to cease to obey Christ when the government tells us to. Besides, if we did, we would show that our highest loyalties are to the government rather than to Christ. This directly contradicts the doctrine of the two kingdoms, and even common sense itself.
- Since the government has the right to do violence, they have the right to say who may or may not. So if they allow us to do violence, we may.9Found here This is a non-sequitur. Just because God allows the government to use violence doesn’t mean that there is any circumstance whatsoever in which Christians should do violence.
- “Christians in government can do violence, and in a democracy, the citizens are the government. So they can use violence.” When Jesus tells us not to use violence, we should follow him, no matter whether the government may do violence or not.
- Jesus’ commands here are meant for a future age. But Jesus said in Matthew 28:20 that all his commands apply to the church age. Besides, where do you think you’ll find enemies in the future age when all violence is already defeated?
- Doesn’t Scripture teach that we will make eschatological war?10Rev 19:11-21 Even if we would be commanded to make war against the ungodly at the end of the age, that doesn’t mean that we can disobey Jesus’ clear command today. However, I see no reason from Scripture that we will be doing violence at the end of the age. Having begun by the Spirit, will God conclude with the flesh? The only reference to eschatological war that I can find says that all were killed by the sword of Jesus’ mouth, not by the people. That passage gives no evidence that we will make war in the flesh, and also suggests that the war will be a metaphorical or spiritual one.
- Nonresistance isn’t possible. Jesus’ commands in the Sermon on the Mount are just telling us how we need to be saved by grace. Of course nonresistance is possible; people practice it all the time. Furthermore, Jesus bookends the Sermon on the Mount with these statements: “Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:19) and “And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” (Matt 7:26–27).
- “Jesus regularly used word pictures and stories about self-defense in order to make a broader spiritual point (Lk. 11:21; Mt. 12:29).”11https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/erik-raymond/should-christians-defend-themselves/ Jesus spoke about a dishonest servant, too, in order to make a broader spiritual point (Luke 16). He describes many things he doesn’t agree with.
- “In 2 Corinthians 11:20 Paul chides the Corinthians that if someone (metaphorically) smites them on the face they appear willing to suffer it. Here Paul uses the word δέρω, dero, Strong 1194 which means to ‘flog’ or ‘beat’ or ‘thrash’. It is clear that in this case Paul does not expect people to suffer such treatment.”12https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/90960/can-christians-have-a-right-to-defend-themselves As this writer has admitted, this is merely a metaphor. Furthermore, there are many ways one can respond that aren’t violent.
- “God loves even the people that he kills. Why can’t we?” This is an objection to the argument above that “love your enemies” means that we shouldn’t kill them. This objection has two major problems. First, the surrounding context in Matthew 5 of “love your enemies” is about our response to violence, and the common theme is to respond positively rather than with violence. So, in context, “love your enemies” seems to preclude violence. Second, God’s position with regard to killing is fundamentally different from our own, since God’s perfect justice and knowledge give him the right to cause death. God is able to ensure that the reward after death counterbalances the person’s death; we are not.
- “But Peter took part in killing Ananias and Saphira, and Paul blinded Elymas. That was violence on the part of the apostles.” Peter and Paul were speaking on behalf of the Holy Spirit, who has the right to do such actions. Note that Peter and Paul made no actions that would humanly have harmed these people, nor did they instigate the harm that the Holy Spirit brought. They could not have performed those actions if they had intended to do so; clearly it was not they but God who performed the actions. If God told me to tell someone that they were going to die, I would do that. It is ridiculous to claim that I would thereby be killing that person.
I conclude that there seems to be no biblical case at all for Christian violence. Quite the contrary—there are texts that speak straightforwardly against violence, but no texts that speak straightforwardly for it.
I would encourage anyone who is skeptical of nonresistance to simply compare the case for nonresistance with the case against it. To respond to the clear implications of Jesus’ commands, opponents of nonresistance must resort to texts that can be interpreted ambiguously. Their cause has no straightforward or implied support in the New Testament whatsoever.
- 1“to beat with rods; to strike with the palm of the hand, cuff, clap” Mounce’s Dictionary
- 3One of the most ridiculous bits of exegesis that I have ever seen is the claim that Jesus is talking about a backhanded slap, and to turn the other cheek is actually an aggressive move, putting the aggressor in the position of needing to decide whether they will actually become violent. To dismiss this, it’s enough to look at the sentences preceding and following. Any reading of a passage which ignores the immediate context, and uses multiple different interpretations to conveniently find one in point of view, needs no further refutation. I also note that it’s possible to explain each point in Matt 5 with a separate (ad hoc) explanation that allows for violence, but we should prefer the simpler reading that nonresistance gives.
- 4From this site.
- 5For a defense of this, see my article on two kingdom theology.
- 6Cecil John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War, London, 1919, pp. 34-35
- 7Cecil John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War, London, 1919, p. 24