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Pacifism and Just War: The Epistles

June 3, 2013
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While much of the debate around pacifism centers on the gospels (somewhat unusually for a Protestant theological debate but quite correctly), there is also relevant material in the Epistles. Some of this evidence falls into categories we have already examined and is of lesser weight – for instance Paul’s comment in Philippians 1:13 may indicate that members of the Praetorian guard have become Christians which adds to our evidence about how early Christians dealt with military service. However, this comment is not straightforward and we have already examined more detailed evidence in regard to this issue. Other pieces of evidence are much better and still others are in a middle ground.

One of the easiest issues to address is Paul’s consistent usage of military metaphors. Ephesians 6:10-17, the “whole armor of God” passage, seems to be generally well-known, as does the reference in Hebrews 4:12 to God’s word being a double-edged sword. Less well-known are Paul’s references to Christian workers as soldiers. He bestows the title of soldier on Epaphroditus in Philippians 2:25 and on Archippus in Philemon 1:2 and uses comparisons between Christians and soldiers to underline the need to suffer for Christ and to avoid getting involved in other non-Christian work to the detriment of one’s evangelistic calling (2 Timothy 2:3-4) and to stress that evangelists should receive support from their communities (1 Corinthians 9:7). Some pacifists do find this troubling. Shouldn’t Paul find the military so distasteful as to avoid ever comparing Christians to soldiers? Maybe. But it’s also possible that Paul intends to take the physical violence of soldiering and compare it to the Christian’s spiritual struggle in a way that makes it clear that the physical struggle is a mistaken parody of the correct thing. After all, Paul says that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood” but against spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:12) and he advises us that our manner and weapons of war are different than those of the world (2 Corinthians 10:3-4). A pacifist can easily claim that these verses ban physical warfare in preference for the real fight against evil but a just war theorist can equally well claim that Paul intends only to prevent Christians from believing that an all-out revolt against Rome is what God desires. Instead, he focuses on the spiritual conflict and leaves the issue of whether any Christians should fight in any physical wars alone.

One passage that lends some slight support to the view that Paul sees the Christian struggle as a spiritual one but also sees a role for physical violence is Romans 13:4. I’ve already written a whole article on Romans 13 so here I will only deal with the immediate issue: Paul does claim that rulers have “the sword” for a reason and that they function as God’s agents when they punish evil. Now, the context of this statement is one in which the focus appears to be on the crimes of individuals and not warfare. However, one could generalize that if the state has the power to put criminals to death then the state has the power to sentence enemy soldiers to death in warfare. There are several places where this generalization extends Paul’s statement in ways that may not be appropriate and it seems easiest to grasp the limits of this argument by charting out these extensions.

First, Paul says “rulers” but many modern governments lack a clear ruler and so we tend to translate “ruler” to “state”. I see no good reason why we shouldn’t, but it is a change. Second, “the sword” is a pretty metaphorical item. Even in Paul’s own day the sword was but one of many methods of killing someone in legal punishment and in warfare. We tend to assume that if Paul means to condone capital punishment here he means to condone it when it comes about through methods other than swords (which seems quite reasonable). However, once we leave actual swords behind are we even left with actual killings? If the sword is a symbol of punishment does it have to symbolize punishment by death? Does a state wield the sword as God’s agent of wrath when it puts a murderer in prison for life? Most people would probably say that it does in which case it is possible that the state wields a sword but should ideally do so non-lethally. Finally, even if Paul means to claim that the state should put criminals to death for certain crimes (which I’m not sure he does) warfare is not execution. Warfare inevitably involves more collateral damage and warfare inevitably involves killing people who are in roughly the same moral position as your own soldiers: people who have been called on by their country to fight for their country’s goals. So while Romans 13 may allow for a world in which all Christians fight a spiritual war against evil but some Christians also fight a physical war against enemies of the state it is not at all clear that it requires this situation.

The Epistles also give witness to a theme found in the gospels: that violence is a moral corruption. 1 Timothy 3:3 and Titus 1:7 both list criteria for church leaders and state that the leader must not be violent. At the beginning of 1 Timothy (1:13) Paul states that he was once a violent man as evidence that he was not a good person. Now, these statements may mean simply that a church leader should not be known for violence (as opposed to prohibiting violent defense of others by said leader) and that Paul’s violence against Christians was wrong but the next set of verses seems to say that all violent responses to evil are wrong. In Romans 12:17 Paul says clearly not to repay anyone evil for evil and 1 Peter 3:9 repeats the same idea. This would appear to prohibit many forms of defensive violence although possibly not violence that actually prevents an evildoer from doing evil. (i.e., while it might prevent you from shooting someone who just shot your friend it might allow you to shoot someone who had just missed your friend and was aiming a second shot.) However, the longer context of Romans 12:17 (a context that runs from verse 17 to 21) seems to clamp down on this by saying that you need to do what is good to your enemies because it is for God to judge and avenge. Indeed, the last verse of this statement says to “overcome evil with good”. While some might argue that overcoming evil with violence is good, it makes no sense to tell people to overcome evil with good if any act of overcoming evil is good. Instead, there must be specific acts of overcoming evil that are also evil and I believe that it makes most sense in context (and in Greek) to believe that Paul means “do not overcome evil with things that, if done to you, would be evil”.

So, where does this leave us? Confused, probably (or maybe angry that I haven’t clearly supported one side or the other). Don’t worry. I will present my final synthesis in the next article.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 3, 2013 9:09 pm

    I find it interesting that of all the battle dress that Paul mentions, only one is actually a weapon (the “sword” of truth). The rest are a shield, breastplate, belt, helmet, and sandals, i.e., defensive/strengthening articles. The entire context of Ephesians is that of unity and standing firm. It’s about one’s general stance or posture. So I tend to get frustrated with those who twist this into permission (or worse, a command) to trample people with the Christian faith, essentially “taking no prisoners.”

    • Eric permalink
      June 3, 2013 9:31 pm

      I think (but I am not sure) that Paul is listing either standard items for a Roman footsoldier or maybe even the items one would be issued upon enlistment. However, this doesn’t change what you’re saying.

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