Pacifism: John Howard Yoder, Part 1

pacifismThe late John Howard Yoder’s seminal The Politics of Jesus has had a dramatic impact on evangelical thought since its publication in 1972. I’ve read it twice and plan on reading it again. It’s that deep and that important.

Yoder is perhaps the most important voice for pacifism of his generation, and even though he’s not yet persuaded me to agree with his views on pacifism (but I’m re-thinking everything, as I promised), he’s persuaded me on a number of other points. He’s an important writer that all Christians of a scholarly bent should read.

Yoder sets forth his case for pacifism in chapter 10, dealing with Rom 13. This only makes sense, as those who object to pacifism routinely build their arguments from Rom 13.

The “authorities”

Yoder. like Lipscomb, argues that the New Testament treats civil government as the province of Satan. In Rom 13, Paul refers to the government as the “governing authorities” (v. 1). “Authorities” translates exousia, also found in —

(1 Cor 15:24)  Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.

(Eph 1:20-21)  which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

(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.

(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.

(Col 2:10)  and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority.

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

(Titus 3:1)  Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good,

And so we see this interesting paradox: sometimes Paul speaks of the authorities as the enemies of God and at other times he tells us to obey them! Interesting …

Chapter 12

Yoder points out that the passage in chapter 13 dealing with the government is a natural continuation of the discussion in chapter 12 that continues beyond this section. Paul spends chapter 12 speaking of how the Christian community is to live together in love, empowered by the Spirit.

(Rom 12:2)  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

“Be transformed” is passive and refers to the work of the Spirit in the Christian, as discussed in chapter 8 and in the next few verses.

(Rom 12:18-21)  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 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. 20 On 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.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Paul explains that vengeance is prohibited to Christians. Rather, Christians must respond to their enemies with love. God will handle the vengeance that evildoers deserve.

(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.

One means that God uses to exercise his wrath is the civil government, which he has authorized to punish evil men.

Moreover, the Old Testament teaches that God gives pagan governments power to bring his will into being.

(Isa 10:6)  I send him [the king of Assyria] against a godless nation [the northern tribes of Israel], I dispatch him against a people who anger me, to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets.

(Jer 25:9)  I will summon all the peoples of the north and my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon,” declares the LORD, “and I will bring them against this land [Judea, that is, the southern tribes] and its inhabitants and against all the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin.

The wrath of God can be exercised by pagan nations who are utterly immoral. It’s God’s providence that makes the results holy, but it does not make these kings or their armies holy.

Christian subordination

Yoder criticizes the positivistic view of government — that whatever government is in power is in power due to God’s will and therefore the government’s will is God’s will. The obvious counter-example is Hitler, and the argument against it is that Paul does not approve of the policies of the Roman government by saying it’s “of God.”

He also criticizes the normative view, which is that Paul is approving good government in the abstract but not approving the particular government of Rome. He is not saying that good government is of God and therefore good.

Yoder questions both our wisdom to make that judgment — which government is perfect? — and notes that this is simply not what Paul says in Rom 13. In historical context, Paul was writing shortly before the Jews in Judea were to rebel against Rome and suffer a horrific defeat. He did not want the Jews and God fearers in Rome to so sympathize with them that they participate in the rebellion. Paul was speaking of rebelling against Rome — the very pagan government then in power.

Yoder argues that Paul is merely noting that God “orders” the powers. 13:1 says that God has “established” the governments in the NIV, but the Greek is better translated “ordered.” The word is sometimes translated “assigned.”

The sergeant does not produce the soldiers he drills; the librarian does not create nor approve of the book she or he catalogs and shelves. Likewise, God does not take the responsibility for the existence of the rebellious “powers that be” or for their shape or identity; they already are.

God never created government. Rather, government has been around as long as there has been society. But God’s providential hands moves governments — even wicked ones — to work his will, but their evil is still evil.


Yoder argues that because the Christians had no voice in the Roman government, Paul isn’t telling them to participate in military or police service. After all, subject peoples generally weren’t required to fight in the military (which was also the police). Rather, military service was performed by citizens or as a hereditary position. Slaves and Jews would never have been asked to fight.

(Of course, Yoder fails to recognize that some Christians were indeed citizens — Paul — and soldiers — the Philippian jailer, Cornelius.)

Bearing the sword

Yoder argues that Paul’s reference to “bearing the sword” is speaking of the police, not the army or even the death penalty. The Romans crucified criminals that suffered the death penalty — they weren’t killed by the sword. Rather, the sword was symbolic of judicial authority. Indeed, at this time (the Pax Romana), there were no wars going on, only skirmishes to protect the border — so Paul had the police, not the military, in mind.

Yoder then distinguishes the military from the police. Although the police use violence at times, their goal is not the death, but the arrest, of the criminals, whereas the military often works to kill, not arrest, the enemy. And the innocent are much less likely to be harmed in a police operation, whereas warfare always harms the innocent.

“The authorities are ministers of God”

The NIV translates verse 6 —

(Rom 13:6)  This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing.

The KJV is more precise —

(Rom 13:6)  For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

“This very thing” is a reference to v. 4, speaking of the government’s role to punish the wrongdoer and reward those who do good. On grammatical grounds, Yoder argues that translation should be —

(Rom 13:6)  For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, [when] attending continually upon this very thing.

— taking the final clause as an adverbial modifier. (I’ll let the Greek grammarians sort this out). Thus, Paul isn’t saying Rome is good, but that it’s good when it does these things.

Thus, Yoder translates —

(Rom 13:7)  Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect [phobos = fear], then respect; if honor, then honor.

— noting that “everyone” translates pas, that is, all. Thus, you owe to each only what you owe. You owe Caesar taxes, as Jesus taught, but you only owe fear to God.


V. 1, Yoder argues, commands hupotasso — subordination, not obedience. If a Christian is drafted, he does not have to obey by going to war, but he must submit to the punishment that a refusal to serve entails. And this put Yoder squarely in Lipscomb’s camp.

Yoder argues that a willingness to suffer punishment at the hands of the government for being like Jesus is the essence of Christianity.


Yoder is a far better advocate than most, largely because he goes to the trouble to understand Christianity as more than obedience to rules. Thus, we are fortunate to have an argument that goes deeper than “thou shalt not kill” and “love thy enemies.” And this means he offers a doctrinal framework rather than merely preferring his interpretation of certain verses. It’s nice to get beyond the proof texting that both sides can be so guilty of and consider the issue in light of some of the truly big issues.

And it’s challenging to consider the views of someone who see suffering for Jesus as an entirely acceptable alternative — a view that most modern Christians aren’t willing to seriously consider.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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3 Responses to Pacifism: John Howard Yoder, Part 1

  1. Guy says:


    Have you read any J Denny Weaver? He's a Mennonite theologian who's written quite extensively on this topic.


  2. Tim Archer says:

    I guess you know that Lee Camp's Mere Discipleship was an attempt to write Yoder's views in a more popular form.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  3. Nick Gill says:

    Roman citizens were exempt from crucifixion, and were executed by the sword — thus the traditions of the deaths of Peter (crucified upside down) and Paul (beheaded).

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