Recent News has been dominated by stories of war. War in Israel. War in Ukraine. War in Syria. Currently there is a movement led by the Islamic State to establish a new Caliphate in Iraq, and thousands of Christians have been murdered or exiled in the process. In light of this news, a reader asked:
How can so many Dispensationalists support Israel when they are killing so many Palestinians? How is Jesus’ command to “Turn the other cheek” compatible with supporting war? We shouldn’t support Israel, or war, or killing. Christians should be pacifists, just like Jesus was.
Put differently, how is it possible to reconcile Christian love with wielding the sword? Let me attempt an answer.
Violence and Christian Love
There’s no question that God approved the use of the sword in the OT.
For example, God punished Adam and Eve with death and exile, and threatened them with sword wielding angels, to prevent them from eating from the tree of life (Gen 3:24). After the flood, God told Noah that the death penalty was still valid (Gen 9:5-6). And Abraham—who was justified by faith just as we are—used the sword to rescue his nephew Lot (Genesis 14).
The OT’s approval of the sword is even more evident in the Mosaic Law which was full of God-ordained death penalties for capital crimes (e.g., Exod 31:14; Lev 20:10-16; 21:9; Deut 13:1-11; 22:25). And remember, the law is not against love. Instead, love sums up the law (Matt 22:37-40).
As the Hebrews entered the Promised Land, God commanded Joshua and the Israelites to kill the Canaanites (Deut 20:16-18).
After Israel was established, not only did God command war (Exod 17:16), but many of its most godly heroes were military men. The humanistic slogan, “Make love, not war,” is flatly contradicted by David who praises the God of love for teaching his hands to make war (Pss 18:34; 144:1).
In sum, when we consider the OT evidence, it is essential to realize that throughout this period, God was the same Triune God of love that we worship today. God’s loving character does not change. If God saw no conflict between His love and His calls to wield the sword, then neither should we. If we do, then we should question whether our concept of love is Biblical.
Peter and Paul Said that Government Was Good
Has God’s will changed in the NT? Many Christian pacifists accept that violence was justified in theocratic Israel, but claim that Jesus has given us a new ethic of love that is incompatible with political violence.
I’m not convinced.
We already saw that God allowed the use of violence before Israel was established, during her establishment, and after her exile. Israel isn’t the issue. On the contrary, it seems that in the NT God expands His approval of the use of the sword to include all civil government, whether Jewish or Gentile. We can see this taught explicitly by both Peter and Paul.
Peter tells us: “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good” (1 Pet 2:13-14). According to Peter, Christians ought to submit to the political authorities, because they have the God-given vocation to punish evildoers.
Paul made the same point in Romans 13:
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil (Rom 13:1-4)
Note carefully what Paul says. Government is “from God” and “appointed” by Him. God does not simply permit government as a necessary evil, He actively ordains it as part of His benevolent providence. Indeed, it is “God’s minister” meant “for good.”
And what is the good that government is appointed to do? As Paul explains, they are to bear “the sword,” act as an avenger, and execute “wrath on him who practices evil.”
The fact that it is good to use the sword against evildoers is a point that many pacifists do not recognize. For example, Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder wrote: “The divine mandate of the state consists in using evil means to keep evil from getting out of hand.”1 For Yoder, all violence is evil. Even punishing evil-doers means using “evil means.” But Peter and Paul did not share that opinion. By contrast, they believed the lawful use of the sword is a God-ordained good. In fact, when faced with his own death, Paul supported the government’s authority to kill criminals: “if I am an offender, or have committed anything deserving of death, I do not object to dying” (Acts 25:11). Modern pacifists, however, often object to the death penalty in principle.
No wonder, then, that Paul so often called attention to soldierly virtues for living the Christian life. For example, he counselled Timothy: “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Tim 2:3-4; cf. 1 Cor 9:7; Eph 6:11-2; Phil 2:25; Phlm 1:2). The comparison between being a Christian and being a soldier would have been unthinkable if Paul actually thought it was a wicked vocation.
The NT writers seemingly go out of their way to emphasize that many soldiers and government leaders believed in Christ, such as the centurion overseeing the crucifixion (Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47), Cornelius (Acts 10), and the proconsul Sergius Paulus (Acts 13:12). No soldier or politician is ever told to leave their vocation because it is incompatible with faith in Christ or love of neighbor.
John the Baptist Approved
Paul and Peter explicitly tell us that God has ordained government to use the sword, but the NT also contains implicit approval as well.
For example, when John the Baptist called people to bear fruit worthy of repentance, some soldiers asked him what they should do. He told them: “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:7-14). If John were a pacifist, or if he thought that believers should not serve in pagan armies, he would have told these soldiers to leave the military. Instead, John forbade them from abusing their vocation. Being an honest soldier was a fruit worthy of repentance.
A Gentile Soldier Had the Greatest Faith
Pacifists believe that being a soldier is absolutely contrary to Jesus’ moral teaching. But if that were true, Jesus could not have said this about a centurion: “I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!” (Luke 7:9). How could a centurion have the greatest faith Jesus had ever encountered, if his vocation was wicked and against Jesus’ commands of love?
The Love in War
That raises the hardest question of all: how do we reconcile the use of the sword with the Christian command to love?
The answer isn’t immediately obvious. I’m sure many would agree with Martin Luther’s knee-jerk response: “when I think of a soldier fulfilling his office by punishing the wicked, killing the wicked, and creating so much misery, it seems an un-Christian work completely contrary to Christian love.”2
What could be more unloving then killing an enemy? Aren’t we commanded to love them, not kill them?
War seems to have very little to do with love until you think about the evils it can prevent. Luther went on to say this: “When I think of how [war] protects the good and keeps and preserves wife and child, house and farm, property, and honor and peace, then I see how precious and godly this work is…”3
That’s the key.
In order to see how using the sword can be an act of love, we must look at how it fits into a larger picture. War is terrible, but the evils war prevents are even worse. That’s why Luther said God authorized the use of the sword:
…we must, in thinking about a soldier’s office, not concentrate on the killing, burning, striking, hitting, seizing, etc. This is what children with their limited and restricted vision see when they regard a doctor as a sawbones who amputates, but do not see that he does this only to save the whole body. So, too, we must look at the office of the soldier, or the sword, with the eyes of an adult and see why this office slays and acts so cruelly. Then it will prove itself to be an office which, in itself, is godly and as needful and useful to the world as eating and drinking or any other work.4
Earlier, I quoted John Howard Yoder writing that the sword is an “evil means.” Yoder’s assumption was that all violence is morally equivalent. But the Bible does not take that view at all. Executing a murderer is not itself murder, but justice. Killing an aggressor in defense of a neighbor is not evil, it is good.
The Christian’s Two Roles
Then how should we understand Jesus’ commands that seem to condone pacifism, such as the commands to turn the other cheek (Luke 6:29) and to love our enemies (Matt 5:44)?
These commands need to be understood in light of the difference between acting in our own interest, and acting in the interest of a neighbor.
When our own interests are in view, then Jesus’ commands apply. Some people have called this a “martyr ethic.” When we are persecuted for the faith, we should turn the other cheek, not take vengeance (Rom 12:19), and otherwise love our enemies. An example of this would be David who suffered at the hands of Saul, even though he had both the motive and opportunity to retaliate. As Luther said, “In what concerns you and yours, you govern yourself by the gospel and suffer injustice towards yourself as a true Christian.”5 We do it as a testimony to our faith in Christ.
However, when it comes to our neighbors, love requires their protection. We can’t simply stand by and allow our neighbors to be violated. Jesus commanded us to turn the other cheek. But if we come across a woman or child who is being raped, it would be a moral obscenity to think that the proper application of Jesus’ teaching is to stand by and do nothing. In those cases, Christian love demands that we act to stop the injustice, and to protect our neighbors. That is why, immediately after telling the Roman Christians to bless their persecutors, feed their enemies, and overcome evil with good, Paul explained how God ordained the sword for our good, in order to punish and overcome evil (Rom 12:14-21; 13:4).
In sum, in our private lives, we can defend ourselves, but we cannot take revenge or become vigilantes. Using the sword is the government’s job, not ours. As private citizens in private vocations, we seek to love our neighbors, even our enemies. But Christians who serve as policemen or soldiers have the God-appointed duty to use the sword for the public good. Christian love is equally expressed, albeit differently, in both types of vocations.
The Forty Martyrs of Sebaste illustrate this two-perspective approach. According to legend, they were a group of Roman soldiers. When the Emperor Licinus began persecuting Christians, instead of fighting back (as they easily could have) they accepted martyrdom. As soldiers, their vocation was to use the sword to protect their neighbors, but as Christians, they refused to use the sword to defend themselves, and chose instead to suffer for their faith. They were sentenced to be frozen to death in AD 320.
Abusing Our Vocations
Although the Bible authorizes the political use of the sword, there are limits to what the government is supposed to do. As John the Baptist suggested, soldiers can abuse their vocations (by stealing from the people). So can governments in general.
The government’s divine vocation is to protect the innocent and be a terror to evildoers. However, it’s entirely possible for it to overstep its bounds and become a terror to the good. In which case, the Christian is called to civil disobedience.
To be clear, Paul tells us that the Christian is not allowed to rebel: “Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves” (Rom 13:2, NIV). Christians are not allowed to raise up arms against their own governments.
For example, when Moses confronted Pharaoh about releasing the Hebrew slaves, he did not lead the Hebrews in a violent rebellion, even though there were more than enough slaves to make that possible.
Or after God rejected Saul, and chose David to be king in his place (1 Sam 16:1-13), David did not lead a rebellion against Saul or try to assassinate him.
Or when Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were required to worship idols, they did not incite a rebellion against the Babylonians, even though they had the political power to do so (Daniel 3, 6, 11).
Instead, they all practiced civil disobedience. They made a public profession of their faith in defiance of the authorities, and were willing to become martyrs, but not revolutionaries.
Similarly, when the government forbade the apostles from preaching the gospel, they did not take up arms against the Romans, but they did openly defy the authorities and continued to preach, saying they “ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Christians are not allowed to violently rebel against God-ordained authority, even when that authority is being unjust. That includes Christians in vocations that wield the sword. Such Christians may be faced with hard choices and may have to be civilly disobedient too.
For instance, if a Christian soldier was given the order to murder innocent civilians, to steal, or to worship idols, he would have to refuse, and risk losing his job or worse.
Someone will ask: if Christians can’t rebel against tyrants, then who will bring them to justice?
Even though Paul forbids us from violent rebellion, God has other means of punishing the people and nations who abuse their divine vocations. This usually involves using one nation to attack and destroy another, such as when the Lord used the Babylonians and later the Romans to take rebellious Israel into exile.
Israel and Hamas
Coming to the second question: why do most Dispensationalists support Israel over Hamas (or over Iran, or ISIS, or Syria)?
Every government has the responsibility of protecting its citizens against threats to their persons and property. That is true for both Israel and Hamas. So which one of those governments is fulfilling its God-given vocation?
I suspect that most Dispensationalists support Israel (in part) because they believe it is defending its citizens against Hamas’s unjust attacks. They would agree with Benjamin Netanyahu’s judgment that, “If the Arabs were to put down their arms there would be no more war. If Israel were to put down its arms there would be no more Israel.”
1. John Howard Yoder, Discipleship as Political Responsibility (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003), 18.
2. Martin Luther, “Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved,” in Selected Writings of Martin Luther 1523-1526, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 436-37.
5. Martin Luther, “Temporal Authority: To What Extend It Should Be Obeyed,” in Selected Writings of Martin Luther 1520-1523, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 286.