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My understanding is that early Christians were generally pacifists. Today (at least in the U.S.) Christian pacifists are a bit hard to come by. Many quote Romans 13:1-3 to support Christian involvement in war:

1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.

In light of this verse, and other Biblical or historical evidence, what is the case to be made for Christian pacifism?

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The Biblical pacifist argument is usually founded in the Sermon on the Mount, which is held to prohibit any kind of violence (going beyond the law of Moses):

But I tell you, "Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:39, NIV)

"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48)

The Quaker philosopher Robert Barclay wrote in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1675), ch. 15:

Whoever can reconcile this, "Resist not evil", with "Resist violence by force", again, "Give also thy other cheek", with "Strike again"; also "Love thine enemies", with "Spoil them, make a prey of them, pursue them with fire and the sword", or "Pray for those that persecute you, and those that calumniate you", with "Persecute them by fines, imprisonments and death itself", whoever, I say, can find a means to reconcile these things may be supposed also to have found a way to reconcile God with the Devil, Christ with Antichrist, Light with Darkness, and good with evil. But if this be impossible, as indeed it is impossible, so will also the other be impossible, and men do but deceive both themselves and others, while they boldly adventure to establish such absurd and impossible things.

He also appeals to John 18:36 ("My kingdom is not of this world") and 2 Corinthians 10:4 ("The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world") among other passages from the Bible, as well as from the Church Fathers (like Jerome: "The Church was founded by shedding of blood, and by suffering, and not in doing of hurt. The Church increased by persecutions, and was crowned by martyrdom").

Regarding Paul's words in Romans 13, Barclay argues (in ch. 14) that the state has no authority over matters of Christian conscience. This is justified in that Paul was writing about Nero, who was not Christian, and therefore incapable of being a proper judge of what it is right for Christians to do. If Nero had unlimited authority then "in doing thereof he was not to be blamed; which is enough to justify him in his persecuting of the apostles, and murdering the Christians". If Nero had asked Paul to stop preaching the gospel, and to worship the Roman gods instead, would he really have done so? In fact, Paul was imprisoned and executed instead.

Equally, in the text, Paul was advising Christians what to do when governmental authority is brought to bear against them. He is not giving carte blanche to Christians in government to do whatever they like. Barclay says:

If the magistrate be truly a Christian, or desires to be so, he ought himself in the first place to obey the command of his Master, saying, "Love your enemies," &c., and then he could not command us to kill them: but if he be not a true Christian, then ought we to obey our Lord and King Jesus Christ, to whom he ought also to obey: for in the Kingdom of Christ all ought to submit to his laws, from the highest to the lowest, that is, from the king to the beggar, and from Caesar to the clown.

One argument among pacifists is whether one is obliged to submit to the government's punishment for refusing to take up arms, or whether it is acceptable to, say, flee to another country. Paul's words here are sometimes quoted in support of the former position.

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In light of "Rom 13"...the historical and textual context support the Christian pacifist stand.

Key to Understanding: Historical Context

586 BC Solomon’s Temple destroyed

  • After the Babylonian captivity ended, Judea survived under the succeeding Empires.

323 BC Death of Alexander the Great. Kingdom divided among the generals.

  • Judea comes under the Ptolemies, who also rule Eygpt

198 BC Judea annexed by the Seleucids, under Antiochus III, who rules Syria

  • During this period, Jews under no government edicts to change customs [though many fell under the spell of the Hellenistic spirit of the times]. Antiochus strengthened the High Priesthood, made Torah official law for Jews and exempted Jews from taxes.

  • Judea was still a theocratic/Temple State.

  • Internal strife precipitated a crisis under the next king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes. High Priestly faction, the House of Zaddock, was pro-Ptolemaic.

  • Another artistocratic family, the Tobiads, was pro-Seleucid.

  • Complaints against High Priest Onias III led to removal. Office was sold to his brother, Jason, who received permission from Antiochus “to transform Jerusalem into a Greek polis…” “For the first time in Jewish History, the office of high priest had changed from heritage to a privileged position…” to be bought.

  • Later, Jason refused to surrender that office. Civil war broke out. Besides the political factions, the scribal class, to whom the common people looked, produced the Hassidim who attacked Jews who were Hellenizers.

168 BC Antiochus Intervenes

  • This led to the events described in Maccabees: Desecration of the Temple; the Abomination of Desolation.

  • This then led to Revolt of the Maccabees, joined by the Hassidim

164 BC “On December 25…Temple was purified and rededicated to Yahweh.”

  • Annual observance—Hanukkah, Festival of Lights

  • Judea gains autonomy. Simon, one of the Maccabees, rules from 140-135. Holds Offices of High Priest [first of the Hasmonean Dynasty], Ethnarch, military and civil Governor.

  • Intervening Years till reign of Herod.

  • Battles continue between factions and enemies.

63 BC Pompey Captures Jerusalem.

  • Antipater, father of Herod, honored by Julius Caesar.

40 BC After Rome’s Civil War, under Octavian Caesar, Antony and Roman Senate confer title on Herod: “King of the Jews”

4 BC Death of Herod The Great

  • Revolts put down
  • Kingdom divided among sons
  • Archelaus rules over Judea…strife continues

    • Jewish delegation to Rome: complaints about Archelaus’ rule; asks for Roman rule

AD 6 Archelaus’ rule ends. Judea Becomes Roman Province.

  • Change in government calls for census—taken for purpose of taxation. To devout Jews, this was a symbol of subjugation to Rome, foreign, pagan power

  • Judas the Galilean [Acts 5:37], with Zadock the Pharisee, leads Revolt

  • Judas recruits his band around Sepphoris, the capitol [a short distance from Nazareth]

  • Three Roman Legions under Varus, crush revolt.

  • 2000 Jews Crucified [Josephus, Ant.17:295]

  • [From this period until the outbreak of the final Jewish War in AD 66, Zealots and assassins would continue to foment rebellion and violent outbreaks. Josephus, The Jewish War, is great background reading for understanding NT times.]

c. AD 29 “Barrabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection.” [Mark 15]

AD 46-48 Insurrections: Two Sons of Judas the Galilean executed by Rome

c.AD 49 Edict of Claudius

  • Jews expelled from Rome for disturbances [Acts 18:2]

AD 54 Claudius Dies

  • Jews begin return to Rome

AD 57 Paul Writes Letter to Romans

AD 66 Jewish War begins. Temple Destroyed in 70

  • New Testament Had NO Chapter numbers for over 1000 years

Read IN CONTEXT: Rom 12-13

121I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect…

14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. 18If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay,"says the Lord. 20On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

131Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. 6This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. 7Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.


Just want to note that now, Christian Pacifism: Fruit of the Narrow Way [originally pub. Friends United Press] is in E-Book format for Kindle, Nook, and PC. With the 'Look Inside" feature, you can read the table of contents and the first chapter, here.

It interacts with key passages in the Old and New Testaments, as well as early Church history.

Re: Historical evidence for Christian Pacifism, see the classic by C. John Cadoux, The Early Christian Attitude to War. Free, online. Search or available here

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I made an effort to reformat your post to be more readable. You might want to review my reformatting to ensure I preserved your intended paragraph separations, etc. –  Flimzy Oct 14 '11 at 4:45
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