This past November in Atlanta, I was attending a panel discussion on just war and pacifism in an age of terror at the Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting this past November. After the warriors and pacifists gave their presentations, I raised this set of questions for the pacifists:

In Acts 23, the apostle Paul wants his nephew to report to the Roman military commander that a Jewish mob is plotting to take the apostle’s life. Why is this notable Christ-follower appealing to Rome for protection, such that he receives an armed military escort of 470 troops to Caesarea to bring him out of harm’s way? Doesn’t it seem that Paul is seeking protection from the government, in accordance with Romans 13:4, where we see the government has a God-given duty to protect innocent civilians by the use, if necessary, “the sword”—an image of lethal force? Doesn’t Paul’s appeal seem inconsistent with Christian pacifism?

Interestingly, the two pacifists on the panel admitted that they had never considered this Acts passage as they developed their positions. Apparently, loving and praying for enemies is not incompatible with seeking government protection.

There is, however, another topic—and set of texts—that I haven’t seen discussed in the just war/pacifism debate. (I recently pointed this out to a fellow Christian who has written extensively in defense of just war.) Many pacifists will appeal to Jesus’ example of laying down his life for us, setting the example for us so that we would lay down our lives for others, turn the other cheek, and the like. “Cruciformity” or “Christoformity” is inherently opposed to the use of force against an enemy; we are called to pray for them, to do good to them, forgive them—not harm them. After all, that’s the Jesus way.

Now, Christian just war advocates will certainly acknowledge and emphasize living according to this example, but they will differentiate between doing good to our personal enemies in Jesus’ name and acting as an official of the state—a police officer or soldier—to protect (lethally, if necessary) innocent civilians. The pacifist, however, will argue that this creates an insurmountable dichotomy. The Christian should make no differentiation between the personal and the official. In Romans 12:20, Paul, echoing Jesus’ teaching, says that believers to love our enemies—in this case, by feeding them and giving them drink—the kind of actions called for in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In the next chapter of Romans, Paul leaves it to the state to bear the sword.

However, Paul indicates that the state has a Godgiven duty to “bear the sword.” Again, this is no metaphor for an officer’s ticket book or maybe even a Roman tax collector’s small dagger; no, terms like “avenger” and “wrath” (13:4; cp. 12:19!) suggest something much stronger. I want to push past this point, though.

It turns out that Paul’s charge to love enemies and not take personal vengeance or wrath (Romans 12:17-21) isn’t original with Jesus’ teachings and example of his self-sacrificial death.

Loving your enemies is an Old Testament concept. Paul is quoting Proverbs 25:21-22 in Romans 12 (If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat…”). But there’s more: the Law of Moses itself commands loving acts toward personal enemies:

“If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey wandering away, you shall surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying helpless under its load, you shall refrain from leaving it to him, you shall surely release it with him” (Ex. 23:4-5).

Notice that in the Law of Moses, God’s people are given (a) commands concerning dealings with personal enemies as well as (b) laws mandating official capital—and lesser—punishments. At times, “the congregation” itself is to be involved in carrying out the punishments—not out of personal vengeance, but by official sanction  (e.g., Lev. 24:14; Num. 15:35).

So in both testaments, we see the Godgiven duty both to love personal enemies and to punish those who harm others in society. (We do appear to have general guidance regarding just wars in the Old Testament as well, not simply unique commands regarding driving out the Canaanites; see Prov. 20:18; 24:6.) Love of God and neighbor sums up both the Old Testament and the teaching of Jesus. In both testaments it is evident that just government punishments and the just use of force in general can, in principle, be carried out by believers in an official capacity as an expression of neighbor-love. In the first place, the just use of force expresses love for the innocent who are in harm’s way (Prov. 24:11-12). Secondly, it expresses love for—not malice toward—the perpetrators themselves in order to prevent them from further damaging their own souls by causing even further harm to others. (On this last point, see Nigel Biggar’s In Defence of War.)

I could elaborate further, but hopefully more discussion on these topics and texts will ensue. I’d love to have your input!


Two further items by way of postscript. First, as I can’t go into more detail on “turning the other cheek” or “not resisting the evil one,” I point the reader to the discussion of just war and pacifism in my coauthored book: An Introduction to Bible Ethics: Walking in the Way of Wisdom (IVP Academic, 2014). Further, be on the lookout later this month for the next issue of the Evangelical Philosophical Society’s journal Philosophia Christi. It is on the engaging topic of “Just War As Deterrence Against Terrorism? Options from Theological Ethics.” It is based on another panel discussion that took place at the American Academy of Religion meeting last November in Atlanta. In addition to my article on this topic, the other contributors are Myles Werntz, Greg Boyd, Scot McKnight, Matthew Flannagan, Keith Pavlischek, and Daryl Charles—an excellent lineup indeed!


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