by Todd Wilson


The United States today finds itself at war.  On March 20, 2003 the United States officially began the war with Iraq codenamed “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”  President George W. Bush’s stated objective for the invasion was “to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, to end Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism, and to free the Iraqi people.”[i]  This threefold purpose, coupled with the invasion of the United States by terrorists on September 11, 2001, met this administration’s criteria to justify the invasion of Iraq.  In short, this war is a war on terrorism.

The United States today also finds itself on the brink of other wars.  We know that Iran has nuclear capabilities, though perhaps to a lesser degree than the North Koreans who recently tested a nuclear weapon in clear defiance of United Nations policies.  Both of these nations are perceived as a threat to the United States.  For many, an act of aggression or use of force is justified in protecting our country from the possibility of a nuclear attack by either of these countries.

But how should the Christian respond in these situations?  Is the current war in which we find ourselves “just” according to the Scriptures?  Are acts of aggression, even preventive strikes in Iran and North Korea, biblical?  The purpose of this article is to evaluate the position of the pacifist.  Although there are various stripes of pacifism[ii], pacifists basically hold that participation in any war is never justifiable for the Christian.[iii]  Their belief is founded upon their interpretation of key biblical texts.  These texts and interpretations follow along with a critical response.



Arguments for Pacifism

There are three texts that we will examine that are often used to justify pacifism, one from the teaching of Jesus, one from Paul, and one from the Old Testament.

1. Jesus and nonviolence (Matthew 5:38-48)

Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount serve as the primary biblical prooftext for pacifism.

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…  You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 5:38-39, 43-45)

In this chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives six imperatives set in antithesis (“You have heard that it was said… But I say…”).  These imperatives, along with those that follow in chapters six and seven, give Jesus’ teaching concerning kingdom living.  They are the basis for discipleship for the Christian.  According to the pacifist, imperatives five, “Do not resist evil,” and six, “Love your enemies,” both reveal that Jesus had no place for violence.  Just as Jesus lived nonviolently, so should the believer.  Even in the midst of persecution, the Christian should “turn the other cheek” as Jesus did, who loved and died for his enemies and taught his followers to love their enemies without retaliation.[iv]  The Christian is never to retaliate, but must follow the example of Christ.

This nonviolent example of Christ is further demonstrated by Peter in 1 Peter 2:21, 23:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps… When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

Again we see the principle of “turning the other cheek” that Jesus taught and demonstrated.  “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return.”  The principle is the same for the Christian.  They must never respond or reciprocate with violence or retaliate in vengeance.  They are to follow the example of Christ who upheld this principle of nonviolence at all times.

The next imperative is to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44).  Luke’s account of Jesus’ words are even more stark, “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk. 6:27-28).  Jesus spoke these words and he demonstrated them in his actions towards others.  The pacifist looks at this passage with its imperatives and sees no way that war can ever be justified.  It presents for them, as John Murray points out, a “source of difficulty.”

These passages have been a source of difficulty to many in connection with military warfare.  How can we engage in war if Christ’s ethic is that we should love our enemies, bless them who curse us, do good to them that hate us, and pray for them who despitefully use us?  Is not non-resistance the only ethic for a believer?[v]

According to their interpretation of this entire passage, with its imperatives to “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies,” the pacifist believes that non-resistance is the only ethic for the believer because it was the only ethic for Jesus.  War is never justified.  Scott Rae states the pacifist conclusion as follows:

Because nonresistance is such a significant part of the identity of Christ on the cross, and following Christ in his sacrifice is such a significant part of the Christian’s lifestyle, the pacifist concludes that trusting God and using nonviolent means of resisting evil are the only appropriate responses to evil for the Christian.  Thus, genuinely following Christ and participation in war are mutually exclusive.[vi]

2. Paul and nonviolence (Romans 12:18-21)

A second text that the pacifist turns to is Paul’s teaching on nonretaliation found in Romans 12:18-21:

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.

Undergirding this text is the Christian’s witness to his enemy. Thus, the pacifist believes that the redemptive witness of the believer trumps any action of violence. Clark and Rakestraw note the following:

Because of the courageous testimony of nonviolent Christians over the centuries, many unbelievers have been won to Christ.  Others have at least received a powerful witness to the gospel of peace.  The phenomenal growth of the church in the early Christian centuries, for example, is attributed in part to other-worldliness—including nonviolence—of the followers of Christ…  The early Christians did not enlist in the Roman army, but lived and died in the way of nonretaliation.  And many joined the ranks of Christians due to the powerful witness of self-sacrificing love for one’s enemies.  However, even if none came to Christ through nonviolent witness, the message of God’s love for all people—including his enemies—is still proclaimed through Christian pacifism.[vii]


The heart of this conviction is that the believer is to be at peace with all men, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9).  Scott Rae points out that the pacifist argues that both violence and retaliation are ruled out by this passage, and that the classic case of being overcome with evil would be to take revenge or act violently in response to it.[viii]  This passage is simply Paul’s way of stating what Jesus made abundantly clear in the Sermon on the Mount.  The Christian is to love his enemy, and he does so by going the extra mile, heaping kindness on evil.

3. The sixth commandment – “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13)

A strict adherence to the sixth commandment serves as another basis for the pacifists position.  Man is created in the image of God and therefore all human life is sacred.  No one has a right to take another’s life.  There is a redemptive concern here for the unbeliever in that taking his life robs him of ever knowing the love of Christ.  And for a believer to take the life of another believer is unthinkable.

Not all pacifists are as strict with the sixth commandment.  For instance, some would adhere to capital punishment in the case of a known murderer.  However, they would still be opposed to war on all counts because of the massive, indiscriminate loss of life.[ix]  More will be offered on this in response.


A Critical Response

While one might agree with the spirit of the pacifist argument, we must analyze it according to Scripture.  Our response is two-fold.

First, the glaring weakness in the pacifist position is the overwhelming biblical material in the Old Testament that shows God not only allowed war, but he often mandated it for righteous ends.  No mention is made of the fact that the people of Israel considered God, their God, to be a God of war (Exod. 15:3).  The pacifist downplays the permission of war in the Old Testament.  Their rationale is that Jesus introduced a new way, the way of nonviolence.  But this rationale neglects the truth that the actions of God in the Old Testament regarding warfare were morally good and were his divinely appointed means at times to bring about his righteous vengeance.  Loraine Boettner noted:

There is nothing in the Old Testament that even suggests that it is inconsistent to be one and the same time a soldier and a follower of the Lord God of hosts.  There are some thirty-five or more references throughout the Old Testament where God has commanded the use of armed force in carrying out His divine purposes.  The Scriptures reveal God as a God of war as well as a God of peace.  And to say, as some pacifists do, that war defies the righteousness of God is not only presumptuous but equivalent to saying that God Himself is unrighteous.  For the Bible, the very Book that we as Christians profess to accept as “the only infallible rule of faith and practice,” declares that on certain occasions God not only has permitted war but has commanded it.[x]

The pacifist never addresses any of these occasions in a suitable manner.  They would contest that the New Testament does not speak to war because of the example of Christ.  They are silent on war in the Old Testament because the New Testament is silent on war.  However, this is to suggest too much.  While we do not see war spread out on the pages of the New Testament, it does not mean that the New Testament does not speak to war at all.  Could it be that the New Testament believer accepted war as part and parcel of this fallen world and thus saw no need to add to the Old Testament revelation?  And what about Paul’s classic statement on how the Christian is to live in relation to the state (Rom. 13:1-7) as well as Peter’s (1 Pet. 2:13-14)?

Moreover, it is hard to see how the pacifist can defend his view in light of the fact that believing soldiers in the New Testament era are never admonished to abandon their profession.  Consider the soldiers who approached John the Baptist after repenting and being baptized (Luke 3:14).  They asked John what they should do with their lives after their conversion.  John simply told them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”  Another example is the Roman centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:17-48).  He is not told to cease being a soldier after coming to faith in Christ.

A second criticism has to do with biblical interpretation.  In each of the passages discussed above, it can be argued, on solid hermeneutical grounds, that the pacifist has misinterpreted the author’s intent.

In the Matthew passage, Jesus is seeking to teach His disciples the proper response in certain situations over against the way they had been taught by the self-righteous Pharisees.  The principle of lex talionis (“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) and its purpose was twofold: to curtail further crime and to prevent excessive penalties born out of vengeance and angry retaliation.  The law of lex talionis was abused by the Pharisees just like other parts of the law.  They lived according to the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law.  Therefore, the justice that was to be doled out according to the law was often misapplied or neglected altogether.  As William Hendriksen points out, “The Pharisees appealed to this law to justify personal retribution.  They quoted this commandment in order to defeat its very purpose.”[xi]  He then states that in this context, Jesus’ command, “Do not resist the one who is evil,” means, “Do not resist the evil-doer with measures that arise from an unloving, unforgiving, unrelenting, vindictive disposition.”[xii]  This is much different than the pacifist’ understanding that the believer is to resist any and all violence in any and all circumstances regardless of motive.

Jesus’ next statement is also a rebuke of the Pharisees who had once again added to the law.  The Old Testament is replete with the command to “love your neighbor,” but nowhere in that context do we see the words, “and hate your enemy.”  This was an addition the Pharisees made to the righteous requirement of the law.  So Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” is again in the context of rebuking the Pharisees and redirecting them to the Old Testament.

As it relates to Paul’s passage in Romans, the conclusion of the pacifist is likewise unjustified.  Total passivity in the face of evil is not what Paul intends.  To conclude, as Clark and Rakestraw show some pacifists do, that “the message of God’s love for all people—including his enemies—is still proclaimed through Christian pacifism” is a false conclusion.  Is God showing His love for all people if He does not punish the wicked?  And is war not one of the ways that God established of old in dealing with the wicked?  As Jerram Barrs asks the question, “Is war always the worst alternative?”[xiii]  Should we strive for peace at any price, even at the expense of justice?  It is here that the pacifist goes awry.  God’s love and justice are not mutually exclusive, but compatible.  And God’s love and justice are often meted out in punishment at times, punishment through war.

The final passage that the pacifist uses to build his argument is the sixth commandment.  Unfortunately, they use the older English versions that translate the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”  However, as has been noted by numerous scholars, the correct translation is, “Thou shalt not murder.”  There is a great deal of difference, the difference being intent.  “Murder” is the premeditated taking of another’s life out of anger or vengeance.  To “kill,” on the other hand, is the taking of life, but not necessarily with malicious intent.  There is a difference in motive.  All killing is not murder.  The taking of a life in the midst of war should not be considered murder.  If that is the intent of the soldier, then he has missed the intent of justice being served.  Murder is always wrong.  Killing is not.




 While I tend to disagree with the pacifist interpretation of these Scriptures to build an argument that war is never justifiable for Christians, I do agree with their spirit concerning war.  May we all heed the words of admonition from Clark and Rakestraw, “We can agree, however, on the terribly tragic nature of war and the indispensability of actively waging peace.”[xiv]  War is never pretty.  Lives are lost.  President Bush reminded us of this very truth in his message on March 20, 2003.

Todd Wilson is pastor of Grace Covenant Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. (This article was originally published in the Areopagus Journal Vol. 6 No. 6)




[i] Wikipedia, “2003 invasion of Iraq,” available at

[ii] For a brief description of various pacifist positions, see Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices: An Introduction to Ethics, 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 247.

 [iii] Ibid.

[iv] David C. Clark and Robert V. Rakestraw, Readings in Christian Ethics – Vol. 2: Issues and Applications (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), 492.

[v] John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI:  Eerdman’s, 1999), 178-9.

[vi] Rae, 250.

[vii] Clark and Rakestraw, 492.

[viii] Rae, 250.

[ix] Clark and Rakestraw, 492.

[x] Loraine Boettner, The Christian Attitude Toward War (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985), 17.

[xi] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 310.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] Clark and Rakestraw, 504.

[xiv] Ibid., 494.