Christian Pacifism’s Achilles Heel: War and Christianity, Part One

The Missing Condemnation of the Sword in New Testament Writings

With the US going into its 18th year of war in Afghanistan and the growing possibilities of a greater conflict with Iran, Russia, China, or all three at once, the question of war confronts us more and more. Where once it was seen as a once-a-generation plague, today it is an ever-present reality. Now, more than ever, we need to gain a proper understanding of the relationship between our Christian faith and the new-normal of war.

If the church is going to be the church, then it must establish its positions based on God’s Word and not mere cultural preference. The question of war touches on justice, humanity, and love, meaning we simply cannot rest on our fallen dispositions to tell us where to go. Whatever logical or pragmatic reasons we may marshal in this debate account for nothing if the Bible does not speak in accord with our preferred positions.

While we may agree on this in principle, securing a consensus on what the Scriptures teach in this matter is a bit more complicated. After all, both sides, Pacifism and Just War alike, appeal to God’s Word for support. How do we find common ground when all parties pull out their own proof-texts?

It’d be nice if a hypothetical Book of Hezekiah or III Peter had a list when war was allowed, or perhaps a place it stated in no uncertain terms that it’s never allowed. Lacking such, we are left to figure from what is said in the Bible what God would say to His church. While this can seem quite intimidating, there is a potential short-cut along this path.

Pacifism is necessarily absolutist. That is, one cannot be a partial-Pacifist. Any exception to a total prohibition on warfare moves the conversation from Pacifism vs. Just War to an in-house debate within the Just War camp. We can have all sorts of discussions whether this war or that military action is justified, but Pacifism, as such, becomes a dead-letter if there is ever a time to kill. Simply put, if there are any times when the use of lethal force is appropriate, then Pacifism falls by a simple process of elimination.

Putting aside the Old Testament for a moment, since many Pacifists object that wars of ancient Israel do not apply to contemporary ethics, are there any places where the New Testament does not condemn war? That is, are there places where the role of soldiers or a government’s use of lethal force is not treated as sinful?

In Luke 3, we see a series of people coming to John the Baptist to ask how they can properly repent. In response, some are told to practice generosity, while tax collectors are commanded to stop taking more than they’re supposed to.

Soldiers also come to ask his counsel. If the Pacifist position is correct, then this would be a perfect place for God to speak into their lives to turn them from their entirely wicked profession. Yet, John only tells them to stop using their power to oppress people and to be content with their pay. I supposed there could be some reading between the lines to see this as a condemnation, but this would hardly make for a solid rebuke of their chosen profession.

Later, in Acts 10, we find the dramatic first inclusion of Westerners into the church with the conversion a Roman soldier named Cornelius, along with his family and friends. This man was already follower of God, but in this passage the Apostle Peter brings him the message of Christ. Once again, this would have been an ideal moment for this warrior to hear that the arrival of Christ had so transformed the situation that, while soldiers were a part of the Old Covenant before Jesus, there was now no longer any place for them. Yet, Peter says none of this.

Later, in the epistles we find both Peter and Paul addressing the place of the state in human society. In contrast to the Pacifist position, not only do the Apostles not condemn the government for using lethal force, they call such a state the minister of God.

In I Peter 3 we are told that as Christians we are to be subject to the state as it is sent by God to punish evil. Peter offers no side-bar to tell us “except when they use force.” Likewise, in Romans 13 Paul specifically states that part of the government’s role in being God’s minister is that it “bears the sword.” You don’t use swords to gently chide someone. Swords kill. If Pacifism is the biblical position, then this passage makes precious little sense.

This isn’t an exhaustive study, and negative arguments aren’t always the most compelling, relying, as they do, on what is not said. But, if John, Peter, and Paul could interact with soldiers and other sword-bearing officers of the state, as they did in these passages, without categorically calling them to repent of war, then we must then ask how Christian Christian-Pacifism really is.

If Pacifism is biblical, then why, among the many times that biblical writers spoke to soldiers or the state’s use of lethal force did no one tell them to stop? If war is sinful at all times, and there is no place for it in Christ’s kingdom, then why did none of the inspired writers feel it necessary to tell anyone about it?

War is dreadful. There is no question about that. But just as the Fall of Adam has brought in disease, and God has raised up doctors to keep it from running amuck, so has the Fall brought in chaos to human society and God has likewise raised up the state as His minister to prevent our more tragic impulses from running the tables. To stand for justice in the face of wickedness by taking up the sword is not contrary to loving my neighbor but its fulfillment.

Next time, we’ll look at the place of war in the Old Testament and its implications for us today.


Timothy D. Padgett, PhD, is the Managing Editor of BreakPoint and the author of Swords and Plowshares: American Evangelicals on War, 1937-1973

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