In Episode 2 of our Kingdom Outpost video series, we discuss common objections to Christian nonviolence. Check out Episode 1: Christian Nonviolence: Why Every Christian Must Oppose War as well!
Hi, I’m Titus and in this video I wanna respond to some common objections to Christian nonviolence.
In our previous video, we demonstrated from the testimony of Jesus, the apostles, and the early church that Christians must reject violence. However, whenever I try to make the audacious claim that when Jesus told us to love our enemies, he probably meant don’t kill them, I get a couple of recurring responses.
The most common passage used to counter my claim is Romans 13, so let’s start there. Now it’s important to remember that Romans 13 follows Romans 12. Shocker, I know. In the original letter there were no chapter divisions, so let’s try to find where Paul begins his flow of thought in Romans 12. Here he echoes the sermon on the mount by saying
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
Never repay evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all people. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all people.
Now the question naturally arises, how will justice be meted out if we are not to execute it? Paul anticipates this objection and goes on to say,
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written: “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.
So what’s our job?
Well, “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. (Romans 12:20-21)
So we are to leave justice in the hands of God, but how will he carry out that justice? The next chapter says that the government is (quote)
“ God’s servant for your good… For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:4)
The Greek word translated “avenger” is the exact same word used in the previous chapter where Christians are commanded not to take revenge. This could be stated as a logical syllogism:
Premise 1: Christians are forbidden to use vengeance
Premise 2: The government uses vengeance in certain offices.
Conclusion: Christians are forbidden to serve in governmental offices that use vengeance.
This explains why in Romans 13 the personal pronouns switch from second to third person. Paul goes from describing what “you”, the Christians is called to do to what “he” , the governing official, is called to do.
There’s a precedent for this in the Old Testament.
In Jeremiah 25, Nebuchadnezzar, a pagan king who worshipped Marduk, is also called God’s servant because he was sovereignly used to punish Judah. Then, a few verses later, God says that he will punish Nebuchadnezzar for his guilt! In Isaiah 10, God calls Assyria “the rod of My anger And the staff in whose hands is My indignation” because he used Assyria to punish wayward Israel. However, a few verses later we read, “I will punish the fruit of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the arrogant pride of his eyes.”
Now if God punished Nebuchadnezzar and Assyria for attacking his people, that obviously means that they were committing actions that were sinful. However, God is able to use even the most evil actions committed by humans for his sovereign purposes, as the cross demonstrates. In the same way, God has used and continues to use the violent, rebellious governments throughout history to restrain the chaos that humans wreak upon his planet. However, it does not logically follow that followers of Jesus should take part in the rebellious violence of these governments. It is simply not true that every societal structure that is part of God’s plan is morally upright. If this were the case, then Pilate should be commended for condemning Jesus, since he also was part of God’s plan and Jesus specifically stated that his authority was from God.
Let’s move on to our next objection: Jesus’ instructions to his disciples to buy a sword. I always find it ironic that this passage is brought up in the conversation, considering what Jesus later told Peter to do with that sword. But let’s look at the passage in Luke 22 more closely. Here Jesus said,
“whoever has no sword is to sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me: ‘And He was counted with wrongdoers’; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.” (Luke 22:36-37)
The first word in verse 37 “For” is the Greek word “gar” which according to Strong’s is a primary particle; assigning a reason used in argument, explanation or intensification. “its sense is shaped by the preceding statement – the “A” statement which precedes the (gár) statement in the “A-B” unit.” Therefore it seems quite reasonable to conclude that in verse 37 we are explicitly given the answer to our question: the reason Jesus told his disciples to buy a sword is so that the Romans would have additional cause to arrest Jesus: or as the text says, “so that he would be counted with wrongdoers”.
Some claim that Jesus was arming his disciples with weapons for self defense in future missions. I think this is highly unlikely, considering we have an entire book detailing those future missions in which the apostles never used self-defense or physical force. In fact, they expressly prohibited it in their epistles. Rather, they acted upon Jesus’ instructions to go out “as sheep among wolves”.
Next objection: Jesus himself used violence when he cleared the temple with a whip. Uh, not so fast. There is no evidence that Jesus’ whip was used on the animals, let alone humans. Jesus most likely cracked his whip to create a stampede of animals, effectively driving both man and beast out of God’s house.
In any case, Jesus has a position and authority that we do not have. Disciples of Jesus are never called to bring out justice through revolt or violent demonstrations. The call is not, “Take up your whip and follow me” or “Take up your sword and follow me”, but to take up your cross, to imitate Jesus in His suffering and laying down of His life for His enemies. This is the consistent positive command of the gospels and the New Testament. The question should not be, “What did Jesus do and can we use that as an excuse for violence”, but rather, “What did Jesus call us to do, and are we doing it?”
What about the times soldiers appeared in the New Testament but were not told to leave their vocations? In the situations involving Jesus and Peter, this is an argument from silence. We are never told what transpired when these men became saved. It was universally understood that Roman soldiers were in positions of oppression, subjugating, persecuting and carrying out injustice on behalf of Rome, and we have the consistent witness of the early church that they were called to lay down their swords.
For an example of the fallacy of an argument from silence, consider Luke 7, which describes a “sinful woman”, which is a euphemism for a sex worker, who anointed Jesus’s feet. Because of her great love, Jesus told her that her sins were forgiven, but it’s not recorded that he instructed her to forsake her vocation. However, we don’t go around telling people that it’s okay to be “prostitutes for Jesus” based on this passage!
A stronger challenge is faced in the situation involving John the Baptist. Here soldiers explicitly asked him what they should do to bring forth the fruits of repentance, and he simply told them to do their job justly and to be content with their wages. However, John the Baptist had no right to amend the Old Testament understanding of violence and retributive justice. Only Jesus could come later and overturn the laws that prescribed “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, which is what He did on the Sermon on the Mount, establishing a new constitution for a new kingdom.
Speaking of the Old Testament, what do we do with all of the blood that God’s people were commanded to shed in the conquest of Canaan? This is an extremely complex topic that I don’t have time to explore in detail here. Suffice it to say that Jesus brought the full revelation of God’s will for his people which included many amendments and even contradictions of the Old Testament laws such as his instructions regarding divorce, oaths, and violence. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus repeatedly used the formula: “You have heard that it was said A, but I say to you B.”
It seems clear that there are no biblical objections to Christian nonviolence that can remain standing under closer scrutiny, but what about the emotional objections? Are we simply supposed to stand by and watch a rapist or murderer attack our family? This question assumes a false binary: either stand by and do nothing, or kill the attacker. There is always a third way that reflects the posture of Jesus, such as putting yourself between the attacker and the victim. We can pray that God’s Spirit will give us the creativity to make the right decision in the moment to protect the victim without ending the life of the perpetrator.
What about Hitler? Surely it was God’s will for the Allies to stop his wicked schemes! Well, it’s important to remember that most of Nazi Germany was Lutheran. In fact the Nazis republished some of Luther’s writings! If a justification for violence had never taken root in the church, the holocaust may never have happened in the first place. Now, I don’t deny that God may have sovereignly used the violence of the Allied Forces to defeat Hitler, but it does not follow that Christians should take part in that violence, as we demonstrated in our examination of Romans 13.
Well that brings us all the way to Revelations, where Jesus has a sword sticking out of his mouth and blood flows as deep as a horse’s bridle. Revelations, as with all prophetic literature, is no easy book to interpret. We don’t have an unambiguous black-and-white narrative of what it means. Even if we were to concede that Jesus will use violence on the wicked and the enemies of God at the end of time, this does not give us license to do so now. We are commanded not to use vengeance precisely because that vengeance is reserved for God alone.
I hope you’ve remained convinced that the way of the cross is the only viable option for followers of Jesus, and that you will never be tempted to try to chisel your cross into a sword.