Question from a pastor: In light of Christ’s command to “turn the other cheek” and to “not resist the evil man”, is it inappropriate for believers to contemplate or exercise physical force in defense of our families against criminal aggressors?
Over the course of more than three decades, I have weighed the biblical testimony concerning this topic and related questions and cannot claim even now to have the final and definitive answer for every situation. I think that our carnal human nature inclines to the adoption of systems of laws and rules which, once learned, require no further exercise of moral judgment or seeking of the mind of God on our part. By contrast, I believe, responsible, Christian conduct is based upon the faithful observance of larger principles—e.g. to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8; cf. Matt.23:23). Individual commands of Scripture teach us how these principles are expressed in various life decisions, but in the absence of specific commands we must proceed upon principle, and the commands that do exist should be interpreted in the light of such principles. It would be more convenient if the teaching of Scripture could be shown seamlessly to advocate either universal resistance of evil or else universal nonresistance. This would simplify many ethical decisions considerably. However, the Scriptures do not present such a clear ethic, either of automatic resistance or of absolute nonresistance.
That evil, in principle, is to be resisted and restrained in some manner is clear enough in Scripture (1 Sam.3:13/James 4:7/1 Peter 5:9/Heb.12:4), though whether this resistance should be waged only through prayer, preaching and an uncompromising example, or by appropriate physical interventions as well, is not as clear to some as it seems to be to others. The positions I present in this article are simply my best tentative attempts to apply these larger principles of Scripture to certain situations about which the Bible gives no direct commandments. I do not expect that every Christian will or must reach precisely the same conclusions, but the times in which we live require that we give diligent consideration to the matter and that some conclusions be sought from Scripture.
I have long espoused pacifism, and wrote a manuscript against Christians’ participation in war over a decade ago. My position did not arise from any contact with Anabaptists (for I had no such contacts in the seventies, when my views were being formed), but from my reading of the New Testament and especially the Sermon on the Mount. My pacifism took the form of total nonresistance in all situations, so that the only time a hostile party ever struck me across the face with his fist, I literally turned the other cheek. Following the spirit of the same nonresistance convictions, when my wife was killed by a careless driver in 1980, I refused to sue the driver in court, though some Christians advised me to do so. I have followed the nonresistance teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, to the best of my understanding, for more than thirty years, without any regrets.
At the same time, I have continued my studies of the Scriptures. By gaining a better familiarity with the whole Bible, and an appreciation for the interrelationship of its parts, my understanding of some of these issues has (as I would assess it) matured. I formerly assumed that Jesus’ command, “Resist not the evil man,” by itself, resolved this complex issue, as if this was the only thing Jesus or the rest of Scripture had to say on the subject. Continued studies in the life and teachings of Christ (my long-time favorite subject) and of the apostles has given me an appreciation for the larger paradigm and the nuanced character of many of the things that Jesus said. Though I have remained what some would label a pacifist with reference to war, my thinking on certain related issues has undergone refinement.
Having associated closely with Anabaptist people in the past ten years, I have come to think that the pacifism of many of them differs from my own. For one thing, many of them (though not all) hold their convictions, not from deep, personal searching and agonizing over Scripture, but rather as a set of second-hand convictions passed along from earlier Anabaptist thinkers, who did the agonizing study and thinking for themselves (and often paid a horrible price for doing so). My pacifism came from my personal, first-hand study of the Scriptures and set me at odds with my religious upbringing and with the convictions of my denomination at the time.
Also, my experience has convinced me that some Anabaptists (not all) wear “nonresistance” and “pacifism” as sort of a badge of distinction, so that having “a witness for peace” seems to be the defining issue with some of them. In my case, my only concern has always been simply to have a witness for Jesus—not for “peace,” per se, nor any other socio-political cause. With me, neither “nonresistance” nor “pacifism” are the non-negotiable issues of the Gospel, but the Lordship of Jesus and the observance of His words are the non-negotiables. If His teachings support universal nonresistance, well and good, let us practice what He taught—but let us not choose nonresistance as our defining issue and then try to shoe-horn everything else in Scripture into that sacrosanct paradigm.
Therefore, I beg your gracious indulgence, as my convictions are sufficiently Anabaptistic to annoy some of our Reformed readers, and yet not sufficiently Anabaptistic to avoid alienating some of our Anabaptist readers. If we are to follow Jesus, we must avoid falling into the trap of discovering some neatly-packaged system of thought within a certain movement, and thereafter defending the tenets of that movement tooth-and-nail against all scriptural evidence to the contrary. It is more comfortable to parrot the views of the group whose acceptance affords us a certain sense of security, but discipleship is a call to hard decisions and there are times when, as A.W. Tozer put it, “the saint must walk alone.”
The points I present below are not necessarily my final conclusions. I believe that I can be corrected from Scripture, and welcome any such correction from readers. The following is a summary of my tentative conclusions based upon my present grasp of the teachings of the Bible. It is not perfect, but it is the best that I can do:
1. Christians are not “under the law” of Moses, but of Christ (1 Cor.9:21). Yet Jesus affirmed the basic moral rectitude of the law (Mark 10:19/Luke 10:25-27), and the same law of Moses is everywhere (in both Testaments) affirmed to present a flawless standard of just and right behavior (Ps.19:7-11/Rom.7:12), which the Christian seeks to live out through the enabling of the Holy Spirit (Rom.2:14f; 8:4). Though some of the statutes and ordinances do not apply to the Christian directly, the follower of Jesus can never deny the innate justice of God’s commandments.
2. There are certain crimes to which the law of Moses attaches the penalty of the death of the perpetrator. These include (but are not limited to): murder, adultery, beastiality, homosexuality, kidnapping, cursing parents, etc. The New Testament affirms the justice of this legislation (Rom.1:32/Acts 25:11).
3. Though, in the law, a close relative of the victim—or even the whole community—conducted the execution, the enforcement of this penalty is assigned in the New Testament to agents of the state, rather than private citizens (Rom.13:1-7/1 Pet.2:13-14).
4. The appropriateness of a Christian's accepting the intervention of law enforcement agents to deliver him from criminal assault seems to have been taken for granted by Paul (Acts 23:15-22). If such legal intervention were to involve the death of the criminal, we would be compelled to regard this as the just exercise of law as ordained by God.
5. In addition to the law enforcement authorities, God’s law (Ex.22:2-3) permits the homeowner’s use of lethal force against a burglar, if the burglar is killed in the act of committing the crime (“while breaking in”), though, if he gets away with the loot (“if the sun has risen on him”) and is later apprehended, he is not to be killed for his theft, but is required to make restitution. This legislation seems to teach one or both of the following: either 1) it gives the homeowner a special jurisdiction as the protector of his home and family, to act in the place of law enforcement officers, and/or 2) it gives the private citizen (the homeowner in this case) the right to act in the place of the law enforcement officer in situations where he sees a crime in progress and no duly appointed magistrate is nearby (as in the case of a “citizen’s arrest”).
6. In the presence of a crime in progress, and in the absence of law enforcement officials, a private citizen acting as such (extending the rights of the “homeowner” to the larger “home” of his community) might be equally justified in the use of the same degree of force that would have been used by the state law enforcement agents in the same situation (no direct Scripture, just a possible inference).
7. As Christians, our principal concern for a wicked man is not that he suffer retribution for his crimes, but that he be brought to repentance and salvation (2 Pet.3:9/1 Tim.2:4/Romans 10:1), but, as neighbors, we have some duty to those who are in need and innocent parties who suffer injustice (Luke 10:29-37).
8. We are to love our neighbors (as well as our enemies) as we love ourselves. This means that we should do to others what we would desire that others do to us (Matt.5:44/7:12). Most of us would appreciate someone coming to our aid, when we are being wrongfully attacked. Even if we looked to God alone for our help, we should not be disappointed if He sent help through the agency of a policeman (this is what God has ordained policemen to do). If I know that I would welcome deliverance from criminal attack in certain cases, I find it hard to see how my mere watching (or ignoring) a crime in progress could be said to be consistent for brotherly love.
9. Jesus taught that love may be exhibited in a choice to absorb injury  rather than to inflict the same upon others (Matt.5:39/Luke 6:27-28). This attitude should be prominent in our minds when in a position to defend ourselves, and where other victims are not a factor. There are truly times when we should be willing to lay down our lives for persons who are not our friends, even as Jesus did (Rom.5:8-10). This understanding was clearer in the minds of early Christians than it is to modern believers. For example, the attitude of the 3rd-century church is well expressed by Origen and Arnobius in the following statements:
“Nowhere does he teach that it is right for his own disciples to offer violence to anyone... If Christians had owed their origins to rebellion, they would not have adopted laws of so exceedingly mild a character. [These laws] do not even allow them on any occasion to resist their persecutors, even when they are called to be slaughtered as sheep.” Origin Against Celsus, book 3, chap.7
“We have learned from his teaching and his laws that evil should not be repaid with evil [Rom.12:17]. That it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it. And that our own blood should be shed rather than to stain our hands and our conscience with that of another.” Arnobius (3rd century apologist) Against the Heathen, book 1, sec.6
10. Every passage in Scripture about doing good to enemies and not resisting the evil man (e.g. Matt.5:38-42) envisages a case where the Christian is alone threatened. There is no specific teaching which forbids the forcible defense of other helpless victims.
11. The defense of helpless victims is right in the sight of God (Prov.24:11) and to refrain from doing what one knows to be good is sin (James 4:17). Of course, it may be questioned whether such defense includes the use of deadly force, or whether one must restrict his intervention to non-lethal measures.
12. Our concern for the soul of a violent attacker, and our assumption that we are more prepared to meet our Maker than is the (obviously unsaved) assailant, might well disincline us to use deadly force in stopping his assault. In such cases, a non-lethal form of resistance may be seen as the loving thing to do on behalf of all parties concerned.
13. Though we might be disposed rather to die than to kill another, self-defense may, in some circumstances, merely be a necessary part of defending others who are under our protection. This somewhat muddies the ethical issue of self-defense in such cases.
14. We might also feel that it is more virtuous to simply "trust the Lord," rather than to fight for our own defense (I can appreciate this), though the moral issues are different where the obligation to defend another is a factor. "Trust in the Lord...AND DO GOOD" is the principle of Scripture (Ps.37:3). The obligation to "do good" for the benefit of another may override our preference to sit immobile, waiting for God to intervene supernaturally.
15. There is a hierarchy of biblical commands (e.g. God prefers mercy over sacrifice, Hos.6:6; and there are "weightier matters of the law", Matt.23:23). Sometimes a higher duty overrules a lesser one (as when the high priest felt obliged to feed the hungry fugitive with bread ordinarily reserved for priests, Matt.12:3-4). Though we are commanded to love our enemies, we are never told to love them more than we love righteous or innocent victims of aggression. It may be that we bear no malice to an aggressor, and would prefer that he had not put us in such a position as to require our intervention, but, in my judgment, our duty to love and defend the helpless (Ps.82:3-4) overrules our ordinary duty to love the aggressor.
16. While universal nonresistance is not necessarily an ethic that serves justice in every situation, neither is a universal ethic of resistance. I do not believe that it is the province of Christians, generally, to punish sinners (Rom.12:17-21), though it may fall to them to deliver an innocent victim from unjust aggression. When forcible resistance can essentially guarantee that such deliverance will be effected, I believe that the Bible justifies such action, and that the neglect of such action may be sinful. For example, if an aggressor entered my home to harm my family, I would feel obliged to resist in any way that was suited to the level of the threat. On the other hand, if an overwhelmingly large gang of thugs (or a government agency!) had my house surrounded, and the best I could hope to do would be to “take out” a few of them before they killed us all, I would not resist. In my opinion, resistance is only a virtue when it can save innocent lives. It is not a virtue in itself. The attitude that says, “We’re all gonna die, but I’m taking as many of ‘em with me as I can,” is a macho ethic for warriors, not for peacemakers. It is hatred in action, not love. The wrath of man may increase the body count, but it does not “work the righteousness of God.”
17. One might wonder why I would not approve of participation in a war of liberation or for some other commendable goal. As I see it, there are many differences between the deterrence of a crime in progress, on the one hand, and a war, on the other. The following considerations place the two situations in ethical disparity:
a. War is a conflict between two complex national entities. Though one of these nations may corporately be more righteous than the other (this would be difficult for participants to ascertain objectively, since they are dependent on their own nation’s propaganda for their information), yet no nation is comprised entirely of righteous people or entirely of wicked people. God is neither a racist nor a nationalist, and judges all parties according to their actual behaviors (Acts 10:34-35/1 Pet.1:17/Matt.16:27), which means that racism and nationalism (or patriotism) cannot be appropriate motivations for the moral decisions of Christians. The ethics of killing another man simply because he is of another nation at war with our own, though he may be a righteous individual—even a Christian brother!—cannot be countenanced by the Christian, in my judgment.
b. The killing of innocent people is evil (2 Kings 21:16/Prov.6:17/Joel 3:19), whatever the pretext (e.g. “national security,” “saving the world for democracy,” “retaliatory” or “preemptive” strikes, obtaining an additional vineyard for the king, etc.). To say that some wrongs must be committed in order to obtain a higher good is pragmatism, not Christianity. The idea of “doing evil that good may come” is a concept “whose damnation is just,” according to Paul (Rom.3:8). Notwithstanding the almost unanimous claims of some Christian ethicists, war is in no way the ethical equivalent to capital punishment. The latter only involves the shedding of guilty blood, but almost every war involves the indiscriminate killing of innocent noncombatants. Any war effort that is conducted in a way that cannot guarantee the immunity of innocent noncombatants cannot be the ethical equivalent of an individual’s resistance of a violent criminal assault, nor of the state’s justified execution of capital criminals. (In an entirely defensive war, the aggressor combatants might justly be categorized as criminal assailants, in which case, perhaps the principles outlined above may apply).
c. A soldier must pledge complete and unconditional obedience to his superiors, who may be men of low morals or poor ethical judgment. While a Christian soldier would sooner be punished by his superiors than submit to an unrighteous command, the Christian has no business making such vague and irresponsible pledges (remember Jephthah). It is better not to take an oath than to take one and not keep it (Eccl.5:5);
d. Jesus said that a man cannot become the slave of two masters (Matt.6:24). Christians are slaves of Christ and should remain free as much as possible from any bondage that would limit their freedom to follow their consciences before God (2 Tim.2:4). This does not preclude one from working for an unsaved employer, since such employment can be abandoned at will. An enlisted man, on the other hand, enters a relation of servitude not unlike that of a man selling himself into slavery. While nothing can be said against the slave who was enslaved against his will, the Scripture encourages slaves to become free if they are given the legal option (1 Cor.7:21). Paul writes to all concerning this, “You were bought at a price [i.e., by Christ]; do not become slaves of men” (1 Cor.7:23);
e. A soldier is a killer by vocation. Can you imagine Rambo as the poster boy for the “WWJD” fad? As Tertullian put it: “Can it be 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 battle, when it does not become him even to sue at law? Shall he apply the chain, the prison, the torture, and the punishment, when he is not [even] the avenger of his own wrongs?” (Tertullian, The Crown , chap. 11). True, a person can fulfill a military commission and retire without ever having personally killed anyone. However, soldiery is by definition a calling to “kill people and break things” upon command. A man unwilling to do these things has no business being a soldier. By contrast, a Christian intervening to stop a crime is not exchanging his vocation as a peacemaker for one as a warrior.
f. The vocational soldier is often obliged to do things that would be regarded as sinful in civilian life (e.g. lying, stealing, blowing-up other people’s homes and factories, wiping-out civilian populations). What makes these actions right for the soldier at war, but wrong for ordinary men at other times? Is it not “the war” itself? “All’s fair in...war.” But does this not place “war” in a position of competition with God as the definer of morals? If God forbids me to kill innocent people, but the war effort obliges me to do so—is there not a conflict of interests here? Are there not thus presented to me two moral arbiters in competition for my loyalty? Cyprian put it aptly: “The whole world is wet with mutual blood. Murder, which is admitted to be a crime when it is committed by an individual, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. Impunity is claimed for the wicked deeds [committed in war], not because they are guiltless, but because the cruelty is perpetuated on a grand scale.” (Cyprian To Donatus, section 6).
g. The Christian is not to alter his ethics in the promotion of some national interest. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil.3:20). The idea of a Christian’s “dual citizenship”—in heaven and in an earthly nation—cannot be found in Scripture. We dwell on this planet as “strangers and pilgrims” (1 Peter 2:11), and relate to our domicile nations as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor.5:20). Ambassadors do not join the armies of the nations to which they have been sent to serve their native country. The interests of the kingdom of God are not promoted by the “sword” (John 18:36/2 Cor.10:4-5/Eph.6:12), but by the “seed” (Matt.13:3ff/Mark 4:26ff/Isa.2:4).
In the final analysis, every Christian must decide within himself, before God, how best to fulfill the constant duty to "do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" in the various circumstances in which we find ourselves. I have no personal criticism of those who reach different conclusions after prayerful searching of the Scriptures. Responses from disagreeing readers are welcome.
Updated on May 16th, 2022