Pacifism: A Thought Experiment

pacifismReflect back on the first few posts where we learned that Lipscomb and Yoder point out that the Bible says governments will be placed under Jesus’ feet, arguing that in a sense all governments — good and bad — are the enemy of Jesus. Consider, for example —

(Col 2:15)  And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

(Eph 6:12)  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

The government sure seems like an enemy of Jesus!

On the other hand, the authorities are also God’s creation —

(Col 1:16)  For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.

And then, in Romans 13, Paul tells us to obey the government — God’s enemy! This is a truly paradoxical attitude toward the powers and authorities. Why would God make an enemy for himself and then tell his children to obey his enemy?

Now, imagine that the Christian church were finally victorious, having converted every living soul on earth. Assuming that Jesus didn’t immediately return (I’m not inviting posts on millennialism of any kind), would we still need government?

Would we need government to protect us from evil if everyone were truly converted? Even if conversion means the end of sin (and it doesn’t), how would the roads be paved? Wouldn’t we still need a place to record deeds? Wouldn’t we need a law-making body to determine the correct side of the road to drive on? Government would surely be much smaller, but it wouldn’t entirely go away, would it?

And that assumes that the Christians get along — which has never happened. It didn’t happen in Paul’s time, and it’s not happening now. How would we settle disputes between Christians? I would hope the church would (per 1 Cor 6), but it would still need some sort of judicial machinery to pull it off, even if that machinery is entirely within the church.

And although an all-Christian world would surely make things much more pleasant, we have to remember that in Medieval Europe, nearly everyone was either a Christian or a Jew. And at times they stayed very busy killing each other (and it wasn’t the Jews making war). As the old bumper sticker says, we aren’t perfect, just forgiven. And until we’re perfect, we need some system of governance. (Which is why elders are often called on to settle disputes within their churches. Just imagine your home congregation the size of the United States – and tell me you wouldn’t need some sort of government!)

I suppose that the elders of each church could prove some level of governance, but how would they create national standards for street signs? How would they punish speeders? Who would set the speed limit in Tuscaloosa if there are 400 congregations each with its own eldership?

Imagine that, before we convert the world, we converted every soul in the United States. Would we still need the federal government? Or could we shut down the government and let the elders of their churches run the country? Oh, let’s do be serious! Converting every soul in the country won’t make anyone perfect and sure won’t make elderships instantly capable of governing the nation. We struggle to handle even our own churches.

That being the case, I think the reason we see the scriptures being so ambivalent toward government is that (a) government — as imperfect as it is — is a temporary neccessity due to our fallen, sinful state and (b) when Jesus returns, the government won’t make it into the new heavens and new earth because it will no longer be needed. But government will be with us until Jesus returns to rule us all — even if every soul were to be converted before then.

Now, some argue that we should obey the government as commanded, but we shouldn’t participate in government. This was Lipscomb’s position, and many share that view today. But what about a country that is 100% Christian? It wasn’t that long ago that most European nations were all Christian, other than a handful of Jews and gypsies. Should they have given the reins of government over to the non-believers? What about countries such as Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella where non-Christians had been expelled? Who would run the government if not the Christians? Should they have brought non-Christians from the Muslim lands nearby?

You see, Lipscomb, being very sectarian in this thinking, figured the ones in government would be good Methodists and Baptists. But imagine a world where 95% of the country is Christian — all of whom refuse to vote or serve the government — and so the unbelieving atheists among us run the government. How would that be righteous and good?

And this raises a serious issue, as many argue that the government has the power of the sword, as Paul said.

(Rom 13:4)  For 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.

If a Christian is barred from exercising God’s wrath, as Paul had just said —

(Rom 12:19)  Do 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.

— and if the government is God’s “agent of wrath,” how can a Christian serve in government?

And it’s important to realize that all branches of government carry the power of the sword, not just the military. The police, FBI, and such are the obvious examples, but the government is sometimes willing to use lethal force just to serve a search warrant. Ask the Branch Davidians. Or to collect taxes on whiskey, as in the Whiskey Rebellion. Most people are sensible enough to voluntarily comply when the government issues an order, but if push comes to serve, the government will use whatever means are necessary to impose its will.

So how can a Christian participate in government? But then, in a nation that is almost entirely Christian, how can the government not be made up of Christians? Who else will run it? It’s easy to imagine Christians staying out of government when you have a sectarian view of the world and imagine that the government will be made up of good Baptists and Methodists who aren’t really Christians at all. But to a non-sectarian, it’s really hard to imagine a government utterly without Christian involvement.

And who would want to live in a country run by atheists? That’s been tried a few times in the last 100 years, and the results were none too pleasant.

That doesn’t at all mean that Christians should run for office to impose Christianity on an unwilling public. That’s not what God created government for. It does mean that if we refuse to participate, we’ll risk visiting great evil on others as well as ourselves (Think of all the governments in recent history run by avowed atheists. How did that work out?)

If God wants us to be ruled by Babylon, Rome, or atheists, it’ll happen. Does that mean he wants us to refuse all participation in government so that his people everywhere are ruled by unbelievers?

Now, we have to also notice that Peter converted a Roman centurion (Acts 10), Philip converted the eunuch who was over the Ethiopian treasury (Acts 8), and Paul converted a Roman proconsul (think “member of cabinet”) (Acts 13:7-12) and a jailer (Acts 16:23-36). Nothing is said of the centurion, eunuch, or proconsul leaving their positions due to their conversion, and the jailer certainly remained in his position after his conversion (Acts 16:36).

On the other hand, there were consequences. As John the Baptist taught,

(Luke 3:9-14)  The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

…12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.”

John was speaking of the kingdom that was about to come. He told tax collectors (who worked for Rome in civilian service) and soldiers (employed by Rome in police and military service) to do their jobs righteously. They weren’t told to quit their jobs.

It’s tempting to wonder why John, Peter, and Paul didn’t demand more radical action. The Roman government was capable of great brutality and certainly was far removed from Christianity. But they did what they did, and the New Testament writers saw no reason to offer excuses.

I don’t suggest that these examples provide a complete theology, but a complete theology must deal fairly with these examples. Each of these officials was in a position where disobedience to his orders might mean death to someone. That is the essential nature of government — not that government wishes to kill its citizens, but that any government will use whatever force is necessary to see that its laws are obeyed. Some governments use more force than is necessary. All use enough force — or they soon fall.

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About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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20 Responses to Pacifism: A Thought Experiment

  1. Terry says:

    You make good points, Jay. A soldier, politician, civil servant, public school teacher, mail carrier, police officer, or firefighter does not need to feel guilty for serving the public. It can be done in a way that honors God and helps people.

  2. David Himes says:

    Jay,
    I appreciate the complexity of this discussion. I grew up and live in the Washington, DC, area, where military folks are extremely pervasive. In fact, currently worship with a three star general. A four-star recently left the congregation, due to reassignment. A close friend just got his first star in the Navy.

    Among Air Force Generals, I'm told there are 8-10 members of the churches of Christ — two of whom are four-stars.

    Our congregation has a role in "certifying" Church of Christ chaplains for all branches of the military.

    Would a pacifist even condone a chaplain's service in the military?

    Thank goodness, we are ultimately judged by God for our hearts, and not by the opinions of other people who can only see the outside.

  3. Brian Westley says:

    "And who would want to live in a country run by atheists? That’s been tried a few times in the last 100 years, and the results were none too pleasant."

    What was wrong with France under François Mitterand, or Australia under Bob Hawke, or Sweden under Olof Palme?

  4. Jay Guin says:

    Brian,

    There's a difference between the head of state being atheistic and the government being atheistic top to bottom.

  5. Guy says:

    Jay,

    i want to spend more time thinking about the post before i say anymore, but i do want to comment now:

    what does *my personal preference* regarding whether a government is atheistic have to do with what Christ expects me to do regarding government participation?

    –Guy

  6. Jerry Starling says:

    Jay,
    This is a thought provoking series!

    In considering a nation of Christians (or that is predominantly Christian), have you thought of 1 Tim. 1:9?

    Knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person…. – (NKJV)

    Law here does not have the article, though in v. 8 the article is present. Hence, v. 9 is not speaking of any particular law, but of law in general. Some people have no self-control, so control must be imposed on them by law to have a stable society.

    I'm not sure how this would fit into your argument, but I do think it may have a place. Can you elucidate?

  7. Jay Guin says:

    Jerry,

    If you take "law" in context, I think it's pretty clearly Torah that Paul is speaking of —

    (1 Tim 1:6-11) Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm. 8 We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. 9 We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers–and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine 11 that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

    I would love to think that an all-Christian society would have no need for the government. Certainly the need would be greatly reduced. But it wouldn't be eliminated.

  8. Dan Smith says:

    Jay,
    Tnanks for this series.

    As our preacher said a few weeks ago, if there was NO sin in the world, government would not be necessary. Since all Christians are sinners, a totally Christian state would STILL ned government to punish sin.

    Dan

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Guy,

    Consider the governments that have had atheism as official government policy — the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution was officially atheistic and banned Christianity — and it filled the streets of Paris with blood.

    20th Century communist regimes were officially atheistic — and killed 10s of millions, many of whom were Christians — and imposed untold suffering on far more people.

    Nazi Germany was officially atheistic. And it came to power in a democracy, in large part due to the weakness of the Christian church. (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich tells the story.)

    Imagine a vote in the Weimar Republic that preceded the Third Reich. The question is whether to vote for the Nationalist Socialist (Nazi) Party. The Christians refuse to vote and so the Nazis come to power. How would that fulfill "love your neighbor"?

    Of course, what really happened is far worse. Many Christians actually voted Hitler into office, but this hardly means that it's even better for the machinery of government to be in the hands of God haters.

    We don't always have a choice about who governs us. In most of history, the people have had next to say on the subject.

    But today many Christians do have a say so. And I can't see the goodness in letting wickedness take control while we fail to exercise what control we do have.

    Consider —-

    (Rom 13:3-4) 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 he will commend you. 4 For 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.

    This describes government as it ought to be. Yoder says government is only "God's servant" when it acts this way.

    It is not descriptive of Nazi Germany. Why would Christians, if they were to be given some say so in the matter, refuse to vote and so allow evil to prevail? Why turn the power of the sword over to God haters?

    Rather, to me, the mistake the Christian church (not all, but most) made in the Weimar Republic was to refuse to courageously stand against the rise of Hitler, instead allowing themselves to be co-opted.

    And all they had to do to prevent Hitler and WWII was vote against Hitler in sufficient numbers.

  10. Guy says:

    Jay,

    i still don't see it. i take that back, i see the intiutions the thought experiment is meant to stir, and i see how it does it. But what i don't see is that the conclusion you draw is where the Bible tells us to go.

    First, God has used wicked, evil governmentments to achieve His purposes several times in biblical history. If i witnessed such an event first-person (say the Babylonian captivity), wouldn't it appear to me that government was wicked and i needed to rise up and stop it somehow? Yet unbeknownst to me, God had sent that wicked-appearing government to achieve some end of His.

    Second, where does scripture show that attempting to make systematic changes to government is a means of "loving your neighbor"? Jesus said it was like coming to the aid of someone on the side of the road traumatized by violence. Paul said "loving your neighbor" was fulfilled by not murdering, not committing adultery, not stealing, etc. i just don't see where Christians took it upon themselves to target the structures and functions of government as part of their work. i don't see where they saw "loving your neighbor" as implying this as part of their job.

    i know voting is an option available to us that wasn't available to them. But that hardly means that we can do something about government and they couldn't. Early Christians still could've lobbied rulers and officials to make different laws, or tried to arrange circumstances such that different people got put in places of governmental authority. Maybe they would've been killed for such things, but they already were being killed for the other work they engaged in, so it wouldn't have been anything new.

    Jesus challenged the power structures of His day. But i don't see where He did so by means of government participation or rearranging. Rather, Jesus' personal behavior rebelled against the social status quo–He refused to adhere to many sacrosanct cultural customs. The apostles didn't attempt to change laws, they simply broke them if and when those laws countermanded their Christian mission.

    Bottom line is that i don't see where this suggested government participation has an analogue in first century Christian faith and practice. To me that means i either better have a circumstance which is so culturally distinct from theirs that it warrants my diverging pattern of behavior, or it means that the suggestion just isn't a good one. i don't see that our situation is so different from theirs that we need to interact with government differently than they did. But i do fear that if we become lobbyists, we likely set ourselves up to ask the government to do our (the church's) job for us.

    –Guy

  11. Anonymous says:

    Guy, what is your opinion on this part of Jay's post.

    "Now, we have to also notice that Peter converted a Roman centurion (Acts 10), Philip converted the eunuch who was over the Ethiopian treasury (Acts 8), and Paul converted a Roman proconsul (think “member of cabinet”) (Acts 13:7-12) and a jailer (Acts 16:23-36). Nothing is said of the centurion, eunuch, or proconsul leaving their positions due to their conversion, and the jailer certainly remained in his position after his conversion (Acts 16:36).

    (Luke 3:9-14) The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

    …12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

    13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

    14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

    He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely–be content with your pay.”

    John was speaking of the kingdom that was about to come. He told tax collectors (who worked for Rome in civilian service) and soldiers (employed by Rome in police and military service) to do their jobs righteously. They weren’t told to quit their jobs."

  12. Guy says:

    Anon,

    Regarding John the Baptist — i don't know how far reaching his message was meant to be. He was preparing the way for Christ. Who exactly his message applied to outside a limited period of history is not clear to me. Nevertheless, he was speaking and preaching in a time prior to the New Covenant. A time when i've already admitted i think things were different.

    Regarding civil servants being converted — converting civil servants is still quite different than lobbying them to Christianize their respective agencies and branches of government. Whether those people could continue serving in their posts or not, i don't know. It doesn't say.

    (1) i wonder if revelation wasn't progressive in nature. Peter went several years before the truth regarding Gentile-inclusion was revealed to him. i'm not sure that some of these related issues might not have worked similarly.

    (2) i don't think any person serving in any government capacity must immediately leave their position upon converting. (2a) People aren't expected to fix their entire life over night upon conversion. (2b) i don't think every government position a person could serve in demands of them that they perform actions incompatible with their discipleship. Some individuals manage to serve as police officers their entire lives without having to pull their trigger even once. Further, some people agree to military service but only in a non-combatant role.

    i'm not saying this neatly dismisses all those cases Jay raises. i'm just saying i don't see how they force a pacifist out of his position.

    –Guy

  13. Anonymous says:

    How were things different, is their still not issues of protecting people today as it was when John was preaching to them about the kingdom? Was John wrong to tell soldiers to remain in their positions, was God doing evil when He guided men to battle in wars?

  14. Guy says:

    Anon,

    i have said repeatedly on multiple posts now that i don't think God did anything evil when commanding battles, nor that war participation is wrong in all times in all places in all circumstances. i don't know what else to say to make that clear but to repeat it again.

    –Guy

  15. Terry says:

    Guy,
    You asked about Scriptures showing us that we can love our neighbors by being involved in influencing the government's policies.

    When Joseph became involved in the economic policies of Egypt, he prevented the economic ruin of a region. Countless lives were saved, including those of his family.

    When Daniel had an opportunity to advise the king of Babylon, he told him, "Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed" (Daniel 4:27). He showed concern for people who faced oppression, and he tried to persuade the leader of the government to change his attitude toward them.

    When Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai uncovered Haman's plot to commit racial genocide, they became involved in changing the king's policy, bringing a criminal to justice, and ensuring that the Jewish minority had the right to self-defense.

    In each case, believers expressed love for others in pursuing good and just public policies. And in each case, they were involved in governments that did not necessarily consider God and his standards to be a priority.

    I would not argue that everyone needs to be involved in making government policies, but I would argue that they are allowed to do so (and that they can do it as an expression of love for their neighbors).

  16. Brian Westley says:

    "There’s a difference between the head of state being atheistic and the government being atheistic top to bottom."

    Then perhaps you shouldn't have libelled ALL ATHEISTS by writing "And who would want to live in a country run by atheists? That’s been tried a few times in the last 100 years, and the results were none too pleasant."

    France under Mitterand was a country "run by" an atheist
    Sweden under Palma was a country "run by" an atheist.
    Australia under Hawke was a country "run by" an atheist.

    But you didn't bother to distinguish between a country "run by" an atheist and any others; instead, you decided to slur ALL atheists by your statement.

  17. Pingback: Pacifism: A Reply to Guy « One In Jesus.info

  18. Jay Guin says:

    Terry,

    Thanks for those examples. I wouldn't have thought of them on my own, and they are very helpful because they show God's people working in governments entirely outside of the Kingdom to make things better. They werent' trying to Judaize their governments, but they did work to make the government better.

    You can add Ezra and Nehemiah, who were officials of the Persian government and worked within the Persian government to re-establish Israel and the temple.

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