Biblical Nonresistance

This post is the last of a set of three articles intended to show that the Anabaptist faith is one of the best expressions of the original Christian faith today. A link to the next article in the series can be found at the end of this one. In the two previous articles, I argued first that New Testament teachings are authoritative and also that obedience to Jesus’ commands is necessary. I recommend reading those articles before you read this one, but you shouldn’t need those posts in order to understand this post.

In this post, I will look at one area where the Anabaptists have remained true to the teachings of the apostles, while most churches have not.

What Is Nonresistance?

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7), Jesus gave his followers many instructions for how they should live. I will look at one of his teachings in particular, one that is found in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout the rest of the New Testament, which Roman Catholics and Protestants do not teach as necessary. That is the doctrine which Anabaptist churches have called nonresistance (others have called it “nonviolence”).

Nonresistance is to prefer to die oneself, rather than to kill another person. It is to choose to suffer wrong oneself, rather than to harm another.

Why Be Nonresistant?

This article is about nonresistance, but to fully understand this doctrine, I recommend that you consider Jesus’ main message, the Kingdom of God. That is the kingdom through which we are saved and whose laws we must obey. The Kingdom of God matters, because a kingdom that comes from heaven will have different values than a kingdom that comes from the earth. When Jesus taught his disciples, he taught them those heavenly values, one of which is to renounce violence and force. Jesus said,

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)

The command “Do not resist the one who is evil” is where we get the term nonresistance. And this is a command that Christians must follow. When Jesus told the apostles to teach all their followers “to observe all that I have commanded you,” this was one of those commands (Matt 28:20). In fact, Jesus wrapped up his Sermon on the Mount by saying that everyone who “hears these words of [his] and does them” is like a wise man who built on rock rather than on sand (Matt 7:24–27). 

So when Jesus said, “Do not resist the one who is evil,” his command is binding. If someone attacks or defrauds us, Jesus’ followers must respond with good instead of retaliating. Jesus tells us to love our enemies and our persecutors. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for violence on our part.

Paul reiterated Jesus’ command when he wrote to the Christians in Rome that they should “[r]epay no one evil for evil” and “never avenge [them]selves” (Rom 12:17–19). He says,

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 12:20–21)

In other words, when we combat violence with violence or coercion with coercion, 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.

Peter also confirmed what Jesus and Paul said: “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). He concludes, “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (3:17). It’s an honor to suffer for Jesus’ Kingdom, and there are blessings in store for those who return good for evil.

Jesus didn’t ask us to do what he wasn’t willing to do himself—even when he himself was threatened with death, he did not retaliate, saying to Pilate,

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)

Because Jesus’ Kingdom is from heaven rather than from this world, Jesus and his citizens don’t use the world’s methods for overcoming evil. As Paul said, we should “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). Though God ordains earthly governments and allows them to rule their people through coercion rather than by the laws of his Kingdom, we can have nothing to do with the unholy methods and politics of the world.

Not Just About Physical Violence

True nonresistance is not just about how we respond to physical violence. Even when people insult or revile us, we should bless them (1 Cor 4:12). We should seek each other’s good rather than our own (1 Cor 10:24). Paul tells the Romans:

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 gain the noble love for neighbor through which we respond with love whenever someone attacks us, we need to start by responding with love to everyone who offends or annoys us even in the smallest way.

Our Heavenly Warfare

Now, our Kingdom does go to war, but our warfare takes place in the heavenly realms. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, saying,

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. (Eph 6:12)

And what are the weapons of our warfare? Paul lists them for the Ephesians: “the belt of truth, . . . the breastplate of righteousness, . . . the gospel of peace[,] . . . the shield of faith, . . . the helmet of salvation, and . . . the word of God” and prayer (Eph 6:14–18). To the world, these weapons seem weak, but they are mighty and effective. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that “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” (2 Cor 10:3–4). I wish I could use this space to tell story after story of times when God’s weapons averted powerful evils. Maybe another time.

The weapons of this world are incapable of bringing light or peace. Using “necessary evils” to restrain evil will only result in further evil, but the weapons of heaven will ultimately destroy evil. But we will need to be willing to lose our lives in the process, because our methods do not ensure long life or earthly peace.

The Witness of the Apostolic Church

This is why the apostles’ church taught for centuries that servants of God and his Kingdom must not take up arms or retaliate, whether for personal protection or war. Some early writers wrote

We have learned not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder and rob us. Instead, even to those who strike us on one side of the face, we offer the other side also. (Athenagoras, c. AD 175).

If, then, we are commanded to love our enemies (as I have remarked above), whom have we to hate? If injured, we are forbidden to retaliate, lest we become just as bad ourselves. Who can suffer injury at our hands?  (Tertullian, c. 197).

[Christians] do not attack their assailants in return, for it is not lawful for the innocent to kill even the guilty. (Cyprian, c. 250).

[We] have learned from [Christ’s] teaching and His laws that evil should not be repaid with evil. Rather, it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it. We would rather shed our own blood than to stain our hands and our conscience with that of another. (Arnobius, c. 305).1Arthur Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers. These quotes are from, respectively, vol. 2, p. 129; vol. 3, p. 45; vol. 5, p. 351; vol. 6, p. 415).

This is only scratching the surface. More quotes can be found here,2

• “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”
~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

• “We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.”
~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

• “Murder, considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.”
~ St. Cyprian (200AD – 258AD)

• “None of us offers resistance when he is seized, or avenges himself for your unjust violence, although our people are numerous and plentiful…it is not lawful for us to hate, and so we please God more when we render no requital for injury…we repay your hatred with kindness.”
~ St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (died 258AD)

• “To those who ask us whence we have come or whom we have for a leader, we say that we have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into ploughshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take ‘sword against a nation,’ nor do we learn ‘any more to make war,’ having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of following the ancestral customs in which we were strangers to the covenants.”
~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)

• “You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.”
~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)

• “We have become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”
~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)

• The Christian poor are “an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.”
~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

• “Above all Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings.”
~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

• “We Christians are a peaceful race…for it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.”
~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

• “I do not wish to be a ruler. I do not strive for wealth. I refuse offices connected with military command.”
~ Tatian of Assyria (died around 185AD)

• “It is absolutely forbidden to repay evil with evil.”
~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD

• “The Christian does not hurt even his enemy.”
~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

• “Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.”
~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

• “For what war should we not be fit and eager, even though unequal in numbers, we who are so willing to be slaughtered—if, according to that discipline of ours, it was not more lawful to be slain than to slay?”
~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

• “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”
~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

• “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts.”
~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

• “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?”
~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

• “Learn about the incorruptible King, and know his heroes who never inflict slaughter on the peoples.”
~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

• “The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established… brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator…give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.”
~ Hippolytus (170AD – 236AD)

• Christians “love all people, and are persecuted by all;…they are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and are respectful.”
~ Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (late 2nd Century)

• “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors…It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.”
~ Mercellus the Centurion, spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD.

• “Say to those that hate and curse you, You are our brothers!”
~ Theophilus of Antioch (died around 185AD)

• “For the Gentiles, hearing from our mouth the words of God, are impressed by their beauty and greatness: then, learning that our works are not worthy of the things we say, they turn to railing, saying that it is some deceitful tale. For when they hear from us that God says: ‘No thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you; but thanks will be due to you, if ye love your enemies and those that hate you’—when they hear this, they are impressed by the overplus of goodness: but when they see that we do not love, not only those who hate us, but even those who love us, they laugh at us, and the Name is blasphemed.”
~ The 2nd Epistle of Clement (140-160AD)

• “It is the Christians, O Emperor, who have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God…. They show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies…. This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.”
~ Aristides (written around 137AD)

• “Christians appeal to those who wrong them and make them friendly to themselves; they are eager to do good to their enemies; they are mild and conciliatory.”
~ Aristides of Athens (2nd Century)

• “We Christians cannot endure to see a man being put to death, even justly.”
~ Athenagoras (133AD – 190AD)

• “For when God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but he warns us against the commission of those beings which are esteemed lawful among men….Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all, but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.”
~ Lactantius, instructor of Constantine’s son (240AD – 320AD)

• “If anyone be a soldier or in authority, let him be taught not to oppress or to kill or to rob, or to be angry or to rage and afflict anyone. But let those rations suffice him which are given to him. But if they wish to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service or from the [post of] authority, and if not let them not be received. Let a catechumen or a believer of the people, if he desire to be a soldier, either cease from his intention, or if not let him be rejected. For he hath despised God by his thought, and leaving the things of the Spirit, he hath perfected himself in the flesh and hath treated the faith with contempt.”
~ The Testament of Our Lord (4th or 5th Century AD)

• “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts—for there is no agreement between the divine sacrament and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters—God and Caesar…But how will a Christian engage in war (indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime) without the sword, which the Lord has taken away?”
~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

• “This is the way of life: first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, secondly, thy neighbor as thyself: and all things whatsoever thou wouldest not should happen to thee, do not thou to another. The teaching of these words is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast on behalf of those who persecute you: for what thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you? Do not the Gentiles also do the same? But love ye those who hate you, and ye shall not have an enemy.”
~ The Didache, also known as The Teachings of the 12 Apostles, is an early Christian document written between 80AD – 90AD.

Note that even into the fourth century, there were those who taught nonresistance:

“Hitherto I have served you as a soldier; allow me now to become a soldier to God. Let the man who is to serve you receive your donative. I am a soldier of Christ; it is not permissible for me to fight.”
~ Martin of Tours (315AD – 397AD)

“Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
~ Athanasius of Alexandria (293AD – 373AD)

From this article.
and the early Christians frequently made reference to the Scripture passages I have cited so far as well. So far as I know, there is virtually no disagreement that the early church was unanimously opposed to its members’ doing violence in any form. So much so that those who believe violence to be appropriate for Christians need to try to find reasons why their belief doesn’t apply today. See my section on objections to nonresistance.

The Church Has Joined the World

War is a terrible evil that has destroyed the lives of millions of people. Many societies have praised taking part in war, but many who have actually been on the battlefield have seen what war actually is. One Civil War soldier wrote home after a battle,

In battle, man becomes a sinner and delights in the work of death . . . When I was a baby I was a great admirer of military stories, now their honors seem tarnished with blood and with tears of widows and orphans.3John G. Marsh, 29th Ohio. As quoted at the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum in Winchester, VA.

Wilfred Owen, who died in World War I, wrote the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” repeating a Latin saying, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” He writes that, if one had actually seen the horrors of war,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

This is the way the kingdoms of this world work, but not the Kingdom of God. However, the Roman church, the very church that Paul admonished long ago to overcome evil with good, has departed from the apostolic faith to take part in crusades and countless other wars. The Protestant reformers, such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, also took part in violence and war. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches all have a long history of being state churches, and the resulting mixtures of God’s and the world’s kingdoms always used violence to subjugate their enemies.

Even now that they are no longer state churches, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant churches have encouraged Christians to take up arms and go to war for the sake of their earthly nations. In fact, most wars in the West for the past millennium have consisted of Christians slaughtering fellow Christians who simply lived on the other side of a national border. As I write this article, one of the major branches of the Eastern Orthodox Church is urging Russian Christians to go to war against Ukrainian Christians, most of whom belong to the very same church. By their actions, they demonstrate that the heavenly calling of the Kingdom of God is only secondarily important to them after their earthly loyalties.

Even though the Anabaptists reclaimed this doctrine for the church, not all the early Anabaptists followed the teaching of nonresistance as they should have. Yet the nonresistant Anabaptists gave a pure witness of love for their King—when he commanded them, they loved even their enemies, going to the death rather than to kill those who persecuted them.

Objections

This section will cover some objections that are given against the doctrine of nonresistance. Since most Christians today have received the heritage of a church that compromised itself with the Roman Empire in the A.D. 300s, many different reasons have been offered for why we don’t need to follow what seems to be clear commands by Jesus Christ.

  • 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. As I showed above, Jesus gave us a different way of responding to those who threaten us—we love them and pray for them.
  • Scripture teaches that we should obey our earthly government. The government sometimes orders us to join in their warfare.4Found 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.
  • But those who commit violence against us or against the innocent deserve to die; thus it is not wrong to kill in return. This is the world’s way, but not Jesus’ way, as I have shown in this article. It is the prerogative of the government to punish evildoers, but it is not our prerogative as members of God’s kingdom.
  • Jesus meant his statements to be taken as a general rule, not as a rule for every case. In extreme cases, it makes sense to disregard those statements, because they weren’t meant for extreme cases. Perhaps we could be given some sort of textual evidence for this interpretation? I’m aware of none. Furthermore, Jesus practiced what he preached in the most extreme case—when the life of the Son of God was being threatened.
  • God isn’t nonviolent; he chooses who lives and who dies. Why should we be nonviolent? When God chooses that someone dies, he is not committing violence, because it is his right to choose our span of life—he is our creator. Yet he tells us to be nonviolent, so we must obey him. And when the divine Son of God showed us in this world what the ideal response to violence is, he showed us suffering love on the cross, where he forgave the worst deed the world ever committed.
  • But even Jesus violently drove people out of the temple. But Jesus is God. He has that right. Furthermore, he did not kill anyone. And he was not attacking anyone in order to harm them. If you would like to drive moneychangers out of Temple in Jerusalem with a whip, be my guest. That specific deed is very different from attacking someone in order to harm them.
  • Jesus told his followers to buy or bring swords (Luke 22:36-28). If I were a campaigner who consistently taught that smoking was wrong, and if I were on my way to one of the most momentous faceoffs of my career, and I asked one of my staff to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes, what would you assume? That I hadn’t really meant my statements about smoking as they had sounded? Unlikely. You would probably assume that I wanted to have them 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). Similarly, just the fact that Jesus wanted swords present doesn’t mean that he hadn’t meant his statements about nonresistance as they had sounded. Most likely, he wanted the swords there to prove that he could have fought back but chose not to. When his servant did fight back, he rebuked him (Matt 26:52-54, Luke 22:49-50, John 18:10-11). This hardly seems a strong argument against taking Jesus’ words at face value.
  • What if the Spirit tells me or you to fight back? Shouldn’t we obey that spiritual call? God doesn’t contradict himself. We should test any spirits according to what we already know as having been revealed through the Spirit. And God’s Spirit inspired Scripture, so he has already told us whether we should fight back. We have a spiritual call not to retaliate.
  • Doesn’t Scripture teach that we will make eschatological war?5Rev 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.
  • Jesus told his disciples to carry swords when he went to Gethsemane. But he did not let them use those swords, telling Peter to put his away, and healing the man Peter wounded. Most likely, Jesus wanted to (1) show the Jewish leaders that he could have defended himself, but chose not to, and (2) show his disciples that they were not to use swords.
  • John the Baptist didn’t tell soldiers to leave the army. But John the Baptist was the last prophet before Jesus. It was Jesus who taught the radical new message of enemy love; John the Baptist did not teach Christianity; he heralded its coming. For a further point, see below.
  • The early Christians didn’t tell soldiers to leave the army. The early Christians didn’t require soldiers who became Christians to leave the army. This is probably because you couldn’t voluntarily leave the army and because there were many noncombative jobs in the army. However, note that Christians were not allowed to join the army, and that soldiers needed to commit to nonviolence: “A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.” (Hippolytus)
  • The early Christians didn’t go to war simply because, as soldiers, they would have needed to worship false gods. It wasn’t that they were nonresistant.6This article That’s simply false. Just look at the quotes I offered above. They are predominantly about convictions against violence, and I don’t believe any of them mentions that Christians should avoid the army because pagan worship would be necessary to soldiers.
  • Nonresistant people are just standing by and letting evil happen. On the contrary, we are actively doing good in such a way that it will forever end evil. We put our enemies to shame by blessing them and loving them. Our love is an aggressive force against which few forces can stand for very long. Why do you think the nonresistant early Christians or the nonresistant early Anabaptists were persecuted? Clearly, the state feared them. When you are attacked, do the most powerful thing—love—and don’t dilute it with necessary evils. Our prayers have power with God, and our loving actions throughout life will do far more good than the occasional violent actions of a person of the world.
  • Who will take care of the people who are evil enough not to be stopped by love? After all, some evils just won’t be stopped except by war or violence. When we return good for evil, we do recognize that we will not be able to stop every evil in the short term. However, God has ordained the earthly governments to restrain evildoers for now. The governments can’t ever conquer evil, like we of the Kingdom of God can, but they can at least keep the worst evils from happening. Yet when the government doesn’t stop evil through their rightful authority, and when our love won’t stop evil, we know that God is still there to control evil and bring it to an end. If we follow his prescribed methods, we can trust him to bring about good. If we don’t follow his prescribed methods, can we trust that good will come of our disobedience?
  • Is it okay to stop a violent person by force, if we do not injure him? This is a gray area for me. It seems that it could be the truly loving thing to stop a violent person before they incur guilt by hurting someone else. However, in many cases, it seems that nonresistant love and prayer often stops the violent more effectively. In any case, whatever we do must be done out of love for our enemy, and we can certainly not kill them.

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. Their point is that Jesus doesn’t tell the state not to retaliate, as in going to war or using force. Some even suggest that Jesus was only talking about personal insults, not about putting our lives in danger. There are a few issues with this objection:

  1. Jesus does speak about insults like cheek-slapping, which of course aren’t likely to seriously injure us. However, that’s not the only thing he speaks about. He tells us to pray for those who persecute us (Matt 5:44), and persecution doesn’t stop at insults. In fact, the Old Testament principle that he’s overturning is “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Matt 5:38). If someone damages an eye or knocks out a tooth, that’s not merely an insult.
  2. Jesus does speak about our personal enemies rather than police or national wars. However, Anabaptists believe that nations have a right to punish evildoers and go to war. So it makes perfect sense, in Anabaptism, that Jesus didn’t command the government not to do that. We, however, are a part of the kingdom of God, not of earthly nations. We don’t go to war.
  3. We don’t merely use the Sermon on the Mount as our only support for the doctrine of nonresistance. Other sayings by Jesus and the apostles also tell us to respond peacefully. So a real response to nonresistance must take those passages in account too.
  4. Just take a step back from the discussion and honestly consider these questions: How am I loving my neighbors by shooting them? Is self-defense about loving my enemy or about loving myself?
  5. For the first few hundred years of Christianity, Christians believed as the Anabaptists do on this subject. The witness of the apostolic church is clear, as you can see from the early Christian quotes included with this article.

Protecting the Innocent

One of the most powerful objections to nonresistance is an emotional one. Yes, it is fine for us to risk our own lives through nonresistance. But what if someone attacks an innocent people who can’t defend themselves, like children? Even if we can’t protect ourselves, can’t we at least unselfishly protect others?

I recognize the emotional pull of this. Protecting my wife and children is one of the deepest-seated values I have. However, no matter how noble that desire is, it is not a good reason to commit violence.

First, God has asked us not to fight back. Yet God is good, and he cares for the innocent far more than we do. Surely he can be trusted to bring good out of an evil situation. He himself will bring justice for the oppressed—”Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” he says. It is a terrible thing to have to see the innocent suffer, but

Second, if we take someone’s life, we are acting as their ultimate judge, which we have no right to do. We are taking away their chance to repent and seek God. Yet God loves that violent person and wishes to see him come to repentance. If an innocent person, like a child, dies, that person will be with God. But if a guilty person dies, that person will likely have no chance to repent. And by committing violence ourselves, we are making ourselves guilty of the same thing our enemy is guilty of. Remember, to use violence is to be overcome by evil.

Finally, by resorting to violent means, we are throwing away our chance to make the most use of our spiritual weapons. Instead of doing warfare in the heavenly realms through faith and prayer (as I described above), we are bringing in our impure and worldly methods to try to accomplish good. Yet our enemies are unlikely to be less equipped for physical warfare than we are. If we fight on their turf, they will be most likely to win. Instead, we must fight on our turf, using the power of Christ’s love against the worst that they can do.

This sounds like idealism, but it is not. Nonresistant Christians the world over have won great victories through loving their enemies. Our warfare has freed people from prison, saved them from death, kept children safe from rape, and ended all sorts of violence. Not every time does God choose to save us from torture or death, but we trust his wisdom for every situation. We don’t know what great good he has planned, which will come to fruition in spite of the evil.

By refusing to use the warfare of the world, we are not standing by doing nothing. Instead, we are wielding weapons more powerful than our enemies can know. How can anyone be a Christian and believe that the sword of the flesh is more effective than the sword of the Spirit? Can one who believes in God trust guns rather than prayer? From the way Jesus speaks, it seems that we cannot fully have both. The Anabaptists have chosen prayer.

Summary

The core of Christianity is to love God and our neighbors, and Jesus calls us to love even our enemies. Love works itself out in action—instead of responding with retaliation, anger, or evil speaking, we will bless our enemies. This was the witness of the apostolic Church for centuries, and this is the witness of many Anabaptist Christians today. I conclude that the Anabaptist doctrine of nonresistance is at the heart of true Christianity, and that no church, whatever their history, may change this doctrine.

Conclusion

In this set of three articles, I have argued that the New Testament teachings are authoritative, that obedience to Jesus’ commands is necessary, and that Jesus commands us not to retaliate or to go to war. This provides strong evidence that the Anabaptist view of Christianity is more accurate than the views of nearly all other Christian groups. For further evidence for the claims of Anabaptism and against the claims of other groups, you can check out my other posts on Anabaptist apologetics.

  • 1
    Arthur Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers. These quotes are from, respectively, vol. 2, p. 129; vol. 3, p. 45; vol. 5, p. 351; vol. 6, p. 415).
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    • “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One….The more we are persecuted and martyred, the more do others in ever increasing numbers become believers.”
    ~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

    • “We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.”
    ~ Justin the Martyr (100AD – 165AD)

    • “Murder, considered a crime when people commit it singly, is transformed into a virtue when they do it en masse.”
    ~ St. Cyprian (200AD – 258AD)

    • “None of us offers resistance when he is seized, or avenges himself for your unjust violence, although our people are numerous and plentiful…it is not lawful for us to hate, and so we please God more when we render no requital for injury…we repay your hatred with kindness.”
    ~ St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (died 258AD)

    • “To those who ask us whence we have come or whom we have for a leader, we say that we have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into ploughshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take ‘sword against a nation,’ nor do we learn ‘any more to make war,’ having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of following the ancestral customs in which we were strangers to the covenants.”
    ~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)

    • “You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.”
    ~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)

    • “We have become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”
    ~ Origen (185AD – 254AD)

    • The Christian poor are “an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.”
    ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

    • “Above all Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings.”
    ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

    • “We Christians are a peaceful race…for it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.”
    ~ Clement of Alexandria (150AD – 214AD)

    • “I do not wish to be a ruler. I do not strive for wealth. I refuse offices connected with military command.”
    ~ Tatian of Assyria (died around 185AD)

    • “It is absolutely forbidden to repay evil with evil.”
    ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD

    • “The Christian does not hurt even his enemy.”
    ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

    • “Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.”
    ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

    • “For what war should we not be fit and eager, even though unequal in numbers, we who are so willing to be slaughtered—if, according to that discipline of ours, it was not more lawful to be slain than to slay?”
    ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

    • “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”
    ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

    • “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts.”
    ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

    • “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?”
    ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

    • “Learn about the incorruptible King, and know his heroes who never inflict slaughter on the peoples.”
    ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

    • “The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. The nature and type of each must be established… brothel, sculptors of idols, charioteer, athlete, gladiator…give it up or be rejected. A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.”
    ~ Hippolytus (170AD – 236AD)

    • Christians “love all people, and are persecuted by all;…they are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and are respectful.”
    ~ Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus (late 2nd Century)

    • “I serve Jesus Christ the eternal King. I will no longer serve your emperors…It is not right for a Christian to serve the armies of this world.”
    ~ Mercellus the Centurion, spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298AD.

    • “Say to those that hate and curse you, You are our brothers!”
    ~ Theophilus of Antioch (died around 185AD)

    • “For the Gentiles, hearing from our mouth the words of God, are impressed by their beauty and greatness: then, learning that our works are not worthy of the things we say, they turn to railing, saying that it is some deceitful tale. For when they hear from us that God says: ‘No thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you; but thanks will be due to you, if ye love your enemies and those that hate you’—when they hear this, they are impressed by the overplus of goodness: but when they see that we do not love, not only those who hate us, but even those who love us, they laugh at us, and the Name is blasphemed.”
    ~ The 2nd Epistle of Clement (140-160AD)

    • “It is the Christians, O Emperor, who have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God…. They show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies…. This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.”
    ~ Aristides (written around 137AD)

    • “Christians appeal to those who wrong them and make them friendly to themselves; they are eager to do good to their enemies; they are mild and conciliatory.”
    ~ Aristides of Athens (2nd Century)

    • “We Christians cannot endure to see a man being put to death, even justly.”
    ~ Athenagoras (133AD – 190AD)

    • “For when God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but he warns us against the commission of those beings which are esteemed lawful among men….Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all, but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.”
    ~ Lactantius, instructor of Constantine’s son (240AD – 320AD)

    • “If anyone be a soldier or in authority, let him be taught not to oppress or to kill or to rob, or to be angry or to rage and afflict anyone. But let those rations suffice him which are given to him. But if they wish to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service or from the [post of] authority, and if not let them not be received. Let a catechumen or a believer of the people, if he desire to be a soldier, either cease from his intention, or if not let him be rejected. For he hath despised God by his thought, and leaving the things of the Spirit, he hath perfected himself in the flesh and hath treated the faith with contempt.”
    ~ The Testament of Our Lord (4th or 5th Century AD)

    • “But now inquiry is being made concerning these issues. First, can any believer enlist in the military? Second, can any soldier, even those of the rank and file or lesser grades who neither engage in pagan sacrifices nor capital punishment, be admitted into the church? No on both counts—for there is no agreement between the divine sacrament and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot serve two masters—God and Caesar…But how will a Christian engage in war (indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime) without the sword, which the Lord has taken away?”
    ~ Tertullian (160AD – 220AD)

    • “This is the way of life: first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, secondly, thy neighbor as thyself: and all things whatsoever thou wouldest not should happen to thee, do not thou to another. The teaching of these words is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast on behalf of those who persecute you: for what thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you? Do not the Gentiles also do the same? But love ye those who hate you, and ye shall not have an enemy.”
    ~ The Didache, also known as The Teachings of the 12 Apostles, is an early Christian document written between 80AD – 90AD.

    Note that even into the fourth century, there were those who taught nonresistance:

    “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier; allow me now to become a soldier to God. Let the man who is to serve you receive your donative. I am a soldier of Christ; it is not permissible for me to fight.”
    ~ Martin of Tours (315AD – 397AD)

    “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”
    ~ Athanasius of Alexandria (293AD – 373AD)

    From this article.
  • 3
    John G. Marsh, 29th Ohio. As quoted at the Shenandoah Valley Civil War Museum in Winchester, VA.
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  • 5
    Rev 19:11-21
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