Pacifism: Police and Defensive War, Part 1

pacifismJohn Howard Yoder argues that Christian pacifism should reject service in the military but not the police. After all, until Jesus returns, it’s obvious that life would be pretty awful for everyone if there were no police. The difference between the police and the military, he argues, is that the police don’t have the taking of life as a goal and are subject to strict oversight, with their actions being under guidelines reviewable by the courts. And that’s not an entirely unfair distinction. But it’s not entirely accurate either.

First, let’s begin with a little political science history. Why do we have government at all? By and large, government began back when humans began to plant fields. The invention of agriculture led to stationary villages and farms – and abundant food and other goods that could be easily stolen.

When some kings (of cities) raided Sodom and Gomorrah to take their possessions, it was not a war of conquest but of greed. It’s easier to steal than to work. And Abraham raised an army to get the goods back.

As we see in Judges in the story of Gideon, it was common for neighboring tribes short on food to raid their neighbors at harvest time, letting someone else do all the work and then stealing the grain.

Weather doesn’t always cooperate, and food supplies can be short. And birthrates may be higher than the local lands can support. Or the raiders may just prefer theft to work. It has its advantages!

God therefore appointed judges to defend Israel against the aggression of its neighbors by raising armies to fight wars.

Also, village life can also result in internal disputes, with neighbors disagreeing on their boundaries, or who owns what sheep, or who broke what promise.

Therefore, in Judges we see God appointing Deborah to decide disputes among the Israelites, and we see Gideon, Deborah, and others called by God to lead the people in war to defend against invaders.

Therefore, earliest governments appear to have had a judicial function and a military/defense function. We don’t see much need for police, as these matters were likely handled by village elders and the people themselves – call it “self-help” justice.

Later on, the Israelites asked for a king (1 Sam 8). The neighboring countries were growing more powerful, Israel was gaining wealth and population, and the people were looking for greater security.

God told Samuel that he was not happy about appointing a king, but he did so. And while it would be easy to take God’s displeasure as an indictment of all government, we can’t forget that God chose to consider the throne of David as the prototype for the Messiah – who sits on David’s throne! If kings are inherently wrong, why would Jesus be a king? Why sit him on the throne of David? Why not overthrow the throne instead? And, of course, the judges were a form of government. Under the judges, Israel had an early form of the judiciary and secretary of defense.

It was under Saul that Israel finally defeated the Amalekites as God had commanded, and under David that the Promsed Land was fully placed in Israelite hands. It was under Solomon that God allowed his temple to be built. God obviously blessed all these efforts despite their being led by kings. Indeed, God appointed the first three kings himself.

Anyway, it seems likely that the military is older than the police, and in the case of Israel, God-created. Even if we dismiss the wars of conquest God commissioned as for a limited, special purpose – to establish control of the Promised Land – the wars of the judges (and later the kings) to defend the borders were designed to protect the property and lives of God’s people.

I’m using Biblical examples, but government evolved along these lines throughout the world. People gathered into villages to take advantage of agriculture. This led to raids by neighbors, which led to the need for defensive forces, which led to the need for some sort of leadership. Judges were needed to settle disputes. And as villages grew into cities, the leadership became less ad hoc and more formal — with Israelite cities, and many others, being led by “elders,” older men respected for their wisdom. Think “city council.”

Now, if a raiding party steals this year’s wheat harvest, a family or clan dies. There were no banks and no government loans. Either protect the wheat or watch your children starve – not to mention that the village craftsmen and others relying on the farmer’s harvest would die as well. It was just that simple.

Now, Israel had no standing army until the time of the kings. Judges raised armies as they were needed, and when God gave them victory, the soldiers went back to farming and tending sheep.

Nonetheless, these defensive actions were wars. The goal was not to conquer or to kill but to protect land, property, food, and lives. However, it was often the case that killing was necessary to prevail.

Having a standing army actually could have a deterrent effect, making such wars unnecessary – but also creating the temptation to use the army for less noble purposes.

Now, to consider these matters from a gospel perspective, we should note that defensive wars can’t be justified solely as being defensive. They have to be justified within the context of “love your enemy” – but not to the exclusion of loving your own family and village.

Therefore, if a neighboring clan needs food, the Christian clan would share what they have, even sacrificially, but I don’t think that they’re called to starve their own children for the sake of others. I think they get to stay alive. But they don’t get to live in prosperity while their neighbors starve due to a drought.

It’s different, of course, when the neighbors are hungry due to being lazy or preferring raiding to farming. Paul said if he won’t work, don’t let him eat – that is, don’t be an enabler — and that is sound advice, consistent with the gospel, at both the individual and national levels.

Far more difficult is when a nation is starving because of corruption or foolish decisions by its leaders. Do you allow the people to starve when it’s not their fault? And the international consensus today is that you don’t – which I think is right. You try to negotiate whatever relief you can for the people as a condition to international charity, but ultimately, you feed the hungry.

On the other hand, what if a neighbor invades solely out of greed — so they can live at ease on the backs of a conquered people? Does the gospel compel us to resist or to enable the sins of the evil doer? It’s not an easy question, is it?

Do we let the evil man eat our food for which he did not work? Do we act as enablers, encouraging theft as a way of life — for an entire nation?

Of course, defense will mean war and the death of people  — perhaps good people, perhaps Christians — on both sides. How can death be better than submitting to conquest? Isn’t life the highest of all values?

Actually, I think not. First, the Bible nowhere says that staying alive or keeping others alive is the highest of all values. And while there are certainly times when I should be willing to die for my principles, does that mean that I should let others die for my principles?

It’s been true throughout history that people have willingly given their lives not to be subjugated to evil rulers, for political freedom, or for other principles. To many people, life is not at all the highest value. And for Christians, the highest value is not life, but faith expressing itself through love (Gal 5:6).

Next, we need to consider Abraham once again. He raised an army to force the return of the goods stolen from Sodom and Gomorrah – but no one stole from Abraham. They had taken Lot and his family captive, but they took none of Abraham’s possessions (Gen 14). His participation in the war was not, strictly speaking, defensive. Rather, his was an act of compassion.

And Abraham did not content himself with rescuing Lot and his family. Abraham regained all the goods stolen and returned them to their owners, other than a portion given to God.

Consider a case today where an aggressive, wicked king seeks to conquer a neighboring territory solely out of greed. May the invaded nation raise an army to defend itself? I think the answer is clearly yes. This is at the very heart of why God gave us government.

May that king seek allies? If not, the strongest king will always win over his weakest neighbors. How is that good? Indeed, helping the innocent weak defend themselves against the wicked strong seems like a very loving thing to me. And once the willingness of the strong to defend the weak has been made clear, others are much less likely to attack the weak. Alliances can and do prevent war – but only if you’re not bluffing. You have to mean it.

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.
This entry was posted in Pacifism, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Pacifism: Police and Defensive War, Part 1

  1. Richard says:

    Thanks for the insights. This calls for a re-reading of Joshua and Judges.

  2. Tim Archer says:

    Some very interesting thoughts. A few comments:

    (1) I still believe that the defensive wars of the times of the judges had to do with the Promised Land. The inheritance. If we are willing to settle for a physical inheritance, we can follow that model. If we prefer the city that God is building for us, the defense of that kingdom is done in a different way. (as Jesus pointed out to Peter)

    (2) The human monarchy never worked. Even a man like David brought great suffering on the people. That's why Jesus came as king, replacing all earthly kings. Only he could rule justly.

    (3) The principle of Christians possibly killing one another in war needs to be looked at seriously. When our loyalty to an earthly kingdom can cause us to do harm to a brother in Christ, we need to question that loyalty. The very thought of brother bearing arms against brother in the name of an earthly kingdom should make us shudder.

    (4) We must keep in mind that Lot was part of Abraham's family. Abraham did not set out to defend just anyone. He didn't try to solve every injustice in the world. He considered Lot to be his responsibility. The Ammonites and Moabites were to be respected by Israel because they were descendants of Lot, part of the family.

    (5) Once again, I have to ask: why is none of this taught in the New Testament? Why were the Christians not told to stand up to the Romans? Why did they allow their possessions to be taken? (Hebrews 10:34) Why did they submit to imprisonment and death? Why is the lesson of Revelation one of enduring persecution rather than one of rising up and conquering the persecutors? Shouldn't the story in Acts 12 be one of the intrepid Christians who storm the prison by night and free Peter? Rather, we see a group of people willing to pray and trust in God to do what is best. Such an attitude is scorned and laughed at today. People point to the disciples being told to obtain swords, yet fail to notice that the only time they used those swords, they received a rebuke.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  3. Anonymous says:

    The Hebrew Scriptures many times shows us that David looked to God before he went to war. Peter thought only of fighting with his own strength. People who try to fight battles on their own, not looking to God to lead them are living by the sword.

    Jesus knew his arrest and crucifixion had to happen. He also knew He could call down more the twelve legions of angels (Matthew 26:53). Jesus was capable of saving Himself and He reminded Peter of that. Jesus came to die on the cross and no one was to stop that from happening.

  4. Guy says:

    What Tim said.


  5. Tim,
    Maybe it’s semantics or just a different point of view. Through out this discussion you have stressed that the wars of the OT have been for the keeping of the promise; a fact that I agree with. But a key factor that I believe is being left out is that they were also meant to purify the land. The driving force behind the “kill all” orders was the people occupying the land at the time the promise was given were steeped in idolatry. Yet in Gen.15.16, God tells Abram that the “sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” God was willing to let people that were not his chosen ones live in that bountiful land for 400 years until their sin reached the point of no return. Once that line had been crossed God’s Israel was to come in and slaughter every living thing so as to remove the pollution. God’s main purpose was to remove the gods from man’s eyes so they could see the real God. And Israel realized this (though they lost sight of it several times) as evidenced in the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The inferences we could draw from this are many, but the one thing I think we should draw from this is that God has a line that must not be crossed or violence may be visited upon those that do. A man that willfully takes an innocent persons life for no other reason but his own pleasure and gain has placed an idol in front of his eyes. He has placed himself up as his own God. As evidenced through the wars of the OT, God uses other men to remove that idol even if it walks and talks in human form.

    And concerning your closing statements, the martyrs were visited with violence for what reason – because they placed God in His rightful place; as King of their hearts. Paul, Peter, and Stephen were not attacked and killed because who they were but because of whom they followed and who they preached as Savior. Those that stoned Stephen and Paul were not attacking them, but were attacking God. It just so happened that Paul and Stephen were within stone throwing range. When we are attacked for placing God on the throne of our hearts, then maybe we should be more willing to die. But when evil strikes just for the reason of being evil maybe we should stand and fight. This is how I interpret Jesus instruction to “buy a sword”: use it if someone senselessly wishes to take your life or the life of another. But if they seek it because I sit on the throne of your heart, “put your sword pack in its place.” That is a cause worth dying for without a fight but with a load and clear statement: The LORD MY GOD, the LORD is one!

    In love,
    Steve Valentine

  6. Anonymous says:

    Amen, Steve!!

  7. Tim Archer says:


    I very much agree with you that one aspect of the wars in the O.T. was cleansing. Cleansing what? Every inch of this earth? Or the land that God had given to his people as an inheritance? The cleansing is tied to the Promise, tied to the inheritance. God's people were not sent to other nations to cleanse them; they cleansed the land of Canaan, turning it into the land of Israel.

    The cleansing of the Promised Land is an awful thing if it is nothing more than a military tactic. If we see it in a spiritual light, as preparation for us and our claiming God's spiritual kingdom, it takes on a whole new light. As they entered the Promised Land conquering and cleansing with physical weapons, we fight a war of purification of our spiritual inheritance, but the weapons we use are as spiritual as the inheritance is.

    The other is interesting speculation (about martyrdom), but without any evidence in the N.T. that I can think of (please provide any I'm overlooking), it's nothing more than that. Maybe Paul fought off the bandits in 2 Cor. 11:26 with a sword, but there's nothing to indicate that. Or am I missing something in the New Testament writings?

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  8. Tim Archer says:

    Sorry, missed something. I suggest looking again at Acts 12. Herod's actions against James and Peter were not religiously motivated. Most of Rome's persecution against the church wasn't religiously motivated; it was a political question, because the worship of the emperor unified the empire. It was their pledge of allegiance. Christians refused to pledge allegiance to Caesar, refused to say Caesar is Lord.

  9. Guy says:

    How can you always know the motivation behind a murderer's actions in order to determine whether you should fight back or not? What if the killer has dual motivations? What if the agressor hates you for a variety of reasons only one of which is your religious orientation?

    Does Christ only care about how He is represented when unbelievers are aware of who the believers are? Or should i always act as though i'm representing Christ even if (to my knowledge) no one notices? Do other people have to be aware that i'm doing things in the name of Christ in order for my actions to truly be done in the name of Christ? What actions am i permitted to take not in the name of Christ?

    In the Sermon on the Mount, i don't gather that the Roman Soldiers imposing their equipment loads on bystanders cared about those bystanders' theological commitments. Yet Jesus said take the load and go the second mile.


  10. Anonymous says:

    How can you always know the motivation behind a murderer’s actions in order to determine whether you should fight back or not? What if the killer has dual motivations? What if the agressor hates you for a variety of reasons only one of which is your religious orientation?

    We don't always know for sure and sometimes it's obvious, we can pray for God to lead us in whatever we do.

  11. Tim,
    Let's look at 2 Cor. 11 then.

    As far as the bandits being met with Paul’s sword, you are right it would take speculation to come to the conclusion that Paul would defend himself with violence in that specific circumstance. But back up a few verses and it becomes clearer that Paul was not against meeting violence with at least the same amount of aggression, if not a little more in order to prevail in the situation. And here is how I came to this conclusion.

    Paul in verse 19 &20 has this to say, “19You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! 20In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or pushes himself forward or slaps you in the face.” Because the Corinthian’s think themselves so wise they have been duped by apostolic pretenders and done so “gladly.” Meaning they put up no resistance to this invasion of their congregation. And this was no peaceful invasion. Note verse 20: enslaves, exploits, pushes, and slaps (in the face) – all are words of physical aggression. First, Katadouloi (enslaving) is used not in the sense as the Judaizers of Galatians 2.4 who sought to enslave the church to Mosaic Law, but in the sense that the intruders were treating them like slaves. The verb used for “exploiting” is katesthio which is commonly used for when an animal catches its pray, it means “to eat up” or “devour.” Also “pushes themselves forward” implies a physical moving of someone else to improve ones standing (noted this can also be done through the ideology of one thinking he is better than someone else so they dismiss the one and push their personal standing ahead of others). And finally, slaps (in the face). The Greek word dero, used for slaps, means to “flay” or “skin”. A very physical connotation is given to this slapping, thus giving the idea that the intruder was slapping them so violently that skin was coming off their face. We see this often in boxing matches, so much force can be produced by the human body that when a fist or hand meets the flesh of another it rips or tears away. Paul has just place the Corinthian church take over in the very physical realm of violence, and yet the Corinthian congregants did nothing to stop this take over.

    Now Paul implies how he would have reacted to that very same situation had he been there. I believe he is still using sarcasm when he says “we were too weak for that”, meaning that he was below the Corinthian congregants (Cc). The Cc saw themselves as so wise that they were smart for letting the intruders do this to them and Paul is saying he would not have been as wise as the Cc because he would not have put up with this violent attack. It may very well be speculation on my part, but it is clearly implied that Paul would not leave out the use of violence to rid the church of these strong-arm preachers (much like Christ used a whip to clean the church out once before).

    In love,
    Steve Valentine

  12. Anonymous says:

    Some keep saying it was only a land issue when they battled wars, when that clearly is not the only issue being. Wars were not only about land but were also to protect people from harm.

  13. Tim Archer says:


    I believe that when Paul said, "We were too weak for that," he was referring to what the aggressors had done, not what the Corinthian congregants had done. Paul is saying that he would not use aggression (whether it was literal or not).

    That's my understanding of the passage. Study it some more and see what you think.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  14. Tim,
    Will do. Thank you.

    In love,
    Steve Valentine

  15. Guy,
    You are right; I do not have the ability to “know” the motivations of another man “always.” Let’s revisit the martyrs again. Act 6 and 7 are a detailed account of Stephen’s death. At the start of it all we are told about those who could not stand up to the wisdom or the Spirit which Stephen possessed. Yet they continue on their course of action to carry out violence toward him. They produced false witnesses and made false accusations. Stephen is given the opportunity to address the Sanhedrin going point by point through the history of Israel, but at some point Stephen senses that he has lost the audience totally and they will not be persuaded so he cuts to the chase in his final statements – Israel has rejected and killed “the Righteous One”, Christ. At this they gnashed their teeth at Stephen and it was certain he would die at their hands. Their motivation was clear – they did not want to hear the truth.

    I believe full well that in most (not all) situations of violence it is easy to discern, “know”, the motivation/intentions of ones heart. Their actions and words portray them very clearly. A man walks up, reveals the action of a handgun from within his pocket and says, “Give me your money or I’ll kill you”; puts it in plain English what his motivation is. A man that breaks into my house after dark and goes straight for me (not to be used out of context but, “how can anyone enter a strong man's house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house.” Matt 12.29) is going after the strong man so that he can have his way with anything and anyone in my house; again plain “English” as to what his intentions are. Back to Jay’s sniper scenario, a man that holds a gun to the heads of children is giving strong indicators as to what his motivations are.

    All actions should be done in a manner as if you were doing them for God. I’ve more than likely just stepped into it with that statement 🙂 but here goes. Remember our discussion on the condition of the heart? I will not rehash all that here but it all applies here. Will everyone know that Christ is the motivation for everything I do? No. But they will see that I am different. I am reluctant to share this story but believe it goes a long way in explaining my stance. To preface it, know this, I am not boasting in myself but in the power of Christ to work even in me. As you are aware my mission in Iraq was security, more specifically security for personnel doing humanitarian projects; infrastructure, potable water systems, landfill management, city parks, and schools for the Greater Baghdad area. During these missions I was in full contact with three Iraqi interpreters. When time and occasion would permit I would discuss our beliefs on a surface level with one interpreter in particular (We will call him Bob for OPSEC purposes – to my knowledge he is the only one still living). Almost daily he got to watch me react to circumstances and interact with people (yet all the while he thought I was Roman Catholic, don’t know where he got that other than that was the only type of “Christian” he had been exposed to). One pivotal day Bob finally asked me what made me so different from all the other soldiers. To this I had only one answer – Jesus Christ. Even though I had to carry out the same tasks and duties of other soldiers and he saw me in some hairy situations he knew there was something different about me. We had yet to really discuss who Jesus really was but apparently my beliefs made me look different from everyone around me because of my actions. I am happy to say that our discussions did get deeper and he happily accepted a Bible (NIV) written in Arabic (which he asked for) so that he could study the Word on his own. To my knowledge though he never accepted Jesus as his Savior, but further discussions indicated he was seriously considering doing so.

    Our actions, whether in aggression or in peace, can demonstrate Christ to others. Our actions demonstrate to the world that we are no longer conformed to this world but are being transformed, and it all starts with the condition of our heart. And that transformation can be evidenced even in violent times.

    In love,

  16. Jay Guin says:


    Was the cleansing of the Promised Land a foreshadowing of the cleansing of the earth God will accomplish at the Judgment? In both cases, only God's Chosen People will remain alive — and the new heavens and new earth are often spoken of as a return to the Promised Land.

    Just thinking out loud …

  17. Pingback: Pacifism: In Answer to Tim’s and Guy’s Questions « One In

Comments are closed.