The Biblical and Apostolic Foundation of Pacifism

Quite consistently in my life the issue of Christian pacifism has been a subject of interest. Even well before I became a Christian, I held to a deeply pacifist morality. I distinctly remember one conversation at a family gathering when I expressed disagreement with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. My brother (an enthusiastic Charismatic Christian at the time) said something that stuck with me; he called me “the family Democrat”. To him at the time, pacifism was not a Gospel or Biblical issue. Pacifism was entirely partisan (despite Democrats engaging in just as much violence as Republicans).

For many people, this continues to be the case. Regularly with my work in the church and wider community, the issue of Christian morality comes up, and this inevitably leads to a discussion about pacifism. As I observed with my brother many years ago, pacifism is often understood as a somehow disconnected from Christian values. For many, there is simple ignorance about the teachings of peace found in the Gospel, and for many others, they are aware of such teachings, but find them unrealistic, and do not believe that they are relevant for post-New Testament Christians. 

In this article, I am not going to write very much. Rather, I want to provide something of a small catalog (not an exhaustive list) of teachings on the issue of pacifism. Most importantly, of course, is the New Testament. The Bible should be our primary standard, and it should be read through the lens of Jesus Christ. Of course, the New Testament teachings on this matter need to be given some prominence. In addition, however, I am providing some sources from the early church fathers (who were the disciples of the disciples). These serve to show that not only is pacifism an Evangelical and Biblical value, but it is also a teaching throughout the Body of Christ for all ages (including the early Pentecostal/Charismatic movement).

The Biblical commandment to make peace starts with the Biblical commandment to love. Simply put, love is the summary of the Scriptures:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength’ [Deut. 6:4,5]. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ [Lev. 19:18]. There is no commandment greater than these.’

— Mark 12:28-31; cf. Matthew 22:34-40, Luke 10:25-28

Jesus is not the only person in the New Testament to teach this. The Apostle Paul says, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself'” (Galatians 5:14). James says, “If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right” (James 2:8). Additionally, John says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8).

Love is the fulfillment of the Scriptures. The whole counsel of God states this. Jesus also takes it a step further. We don’t just love our neighbors or our brothers. As Christians, we love our enemies:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’ [Lev. 19:18]. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

— Matthew 5:43-48; cf. Luke 6:27-36

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” [Deut. 32:35], says the Lord. 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” [Prov. 25:21,22].

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

— Romans 12:14-21

I could go on. There are numerous passages of Scripture that repeat the theme that Christians are called to love and peace. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

When we go out from Scripture, and we look at the early leaders of the church, we see the same teachings expressed over and over again:

There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways. The way of life, then, is this: First, you shall love God who made you; second, love your neighbor as yourself, and do not do to another what you would not want done to you. And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you. For what reward is there for loving those who love you? Do not the Gentiles do the same? But love those who hate you, and you shall not have an enemy.

— The Didache, chapter 1

The Lord dwells in people that love peace; for to Him peace is dear; but from the contentious and they that are given up to wickedness He keeps afar off.

— The Shepherd of Hermas, chapter 32

For the heavenly Father desires rather the repentance than the punishment of the sinner. And of our love to all, He taught thus: If you love them that love you, what new thing are you doing? For even fornicators do this. But I say unto you, Pray for your enemies, and love them that hate you, and bless them that curse you, and pray for them that despitefully use you…

[W]e who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ.

— Justin Martyr, First Apology, chapters 15 and 39

[Christians] have the commands of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself graven upon their hearts; and they observe them, looking forward to the resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come. . . . [Christians] love their neighbours; they judge justly, and they never do to others what they would not wish to happen to themselves; they appeal to those who injure them, and try to win them as friends; they are eager to do good to their enemies; they are gentle and easy to be entreated; they abstain from all unlawful conversation and from all impurity; they despise not the widow, nor oppress the orphan; and he that has, gives ungrudgingly for the maintenance of him who has not. . . . If they see a stranger, they take him under their roof, and rejoice over him as over a very brother; for they call themselves brethren not after the flesh but after the spirit.

— Aristides, Apology, chapter 15

[Jesus] commanded [His disciples] not only not to hate men, but also to love their enemies; and enjoined them not only not to swear falsely, but not even to swear at all; and not only not to speak evil of their neighbours, but not even to style any one Raca and fool; [declaring] that otherwise they were in danger of hell-fire; and not only not to strike, but even, when themselves struck, to present the other cheek [to those that maltreated them]; and not only not to refuse to give up the property of others, but even if their own were taken away, not to demand it back again from those that took it; and not only not to injure their neighbours, nor to do them any evil, but also, when themselves wickedly dealt with, to be long-suffering, and to show kindness towards those [that injured them], and to pray for them, that by means of repentance they might be saved…

— Irenaeus, Against Heresies (Book II, Chapter 32)

Above all, Christians are not allowed to correct with violence the delinquencies of sins.

— Maximus, Sermon 55

Anan enemy must be aided, that he may not continue an enemy. For by help good feeling is compacted, and enmity dissolved.

— Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata (book 2, chapter 19)

A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.

— Hippolytus of Rome, Apostolic Tradition, chapter 16

There are many more examples that could be given from the ancient church. The message is clear — Christians are called to peacemaking, to love. To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to love, to serve all God’s people, even our enemies, even those who harm us. Pacifism is God’s will for us, and Christians in particular should be advocating for it. It is by our love that the world will know that we are Christ’s disciples (John 13:34-35).

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Pentecostals & Charismatics for Peace & Justice is a multicultural, gender inclusive, and ecumenical organization that promotes peace, justice, and reconciliation work among Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world. If you like what we do, please join our Facebook forum, and sign up for our newsletter!

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