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On the Believer’s Use of Forcible Resistance

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Question from a pastor: In light of Christ’s command to “turn the other cheek” and to “not resist the evil man,” is it inappropriate for believers to contemplate or exercise physical force in defense of our families against criminal aggressors?

Over the course of more than three decades, I have weighed the biblical testimony concerning this topic and related questions and cannot claim even now to have the final and definitive answer for every situation. I think that our carnal human nature inclines to the adoption of systems of laws and rules which, once learned, require no further exercise of moral judgment or seeking of the mind of God on our part. By contrast, I believe, responsible, Christian conduct is based upon the faithful observance of larger principles—e.g. to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8; cf. Matt.23:23). Individual commands of Scripture teach us how these principles are expressed in various life decisions, but in the absence of specific commands we must proceed upon principle, and the commands that do exist should be interpreted in the light of such principles. It would be more convenient if the teaching of Scripture could be shown seamlessly to advocate either universal resistance of evil or else universal nonresistance. This would simplify many ethical decisions considerably. However, the Scriptures do not present such a clear ethic­, either of automatic resistance ­­or of absolute nonresistance.

That evil, in principle, is to be resisted and restrained in some manner is clear enough in Scripture (1 Sam.3:13James 4:71 Peter 5:9/Heb.12:4), though whether this resistance should be waged only through prayer, preaching and an uncompromising example, or by appropriate physical interventions as well, is not as clear to some as it seems to be to others. The positions I present in this article are simply my best tentative attempts to apply these larger principles of Scripture to certain situations about which the Bible gives no direct commandments. I do not expect that every Christian will or must reach precisely the same conclusions, but the times in which we live require that we give diligent consideration to the matter and that some conclusions be sought from Scripture.

I have long espoused pacifism, and wrote a manuscript against Christians’ participation in war over a decade ago. My position did not arise from any contact with Anabaptists (for I had no such contacts in the seventies, when my views were being formed), but from my reading of the New Testament and especially the Sermon on the Mount. My pacifism took the form of total nonresistance in all situations, so that the only time a hostile party ever struck me across the face with his fist, I literally turned the other cheek. Following the spirit of the same nonresistance convictions, when my wife was killed by a careless driver in 1980, I refused to sue the driver in court, though some Christians advised me to do so. I have followed the nonresistance teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, to the best of my understanding, for more than thirty years, without any regrets.

At the same time, I have continued my studies of the Scriptures. By gaining a better familiarity with the whole Bible, and an appreciation for the interrelationship of its parts, my understanding of some of these issues has (as I would assess it) matured. I formerly assumed that Jesus’ command, “Resist not the evil man,” by itself, resolved this complex issue, as if this was the only thing Jesus or the rest of Scripture had to say on the subject. Continued studies in the life and teachings of Christ (my long-time favorite subject) and of the apostles has given me an appreciation for the larger paradigm and the nuanced character of many of the things that Jesus said. Though I have remained what some would label a pacifist with reference to war, my thinking on certain related issues has undergone refinement.

Having associated closely with Anabaptist people in the past ten years, I have come to think that the pacifism of many of them differs from my own. For one thing, many of them (though not all) hold their convictions, not from deep, personal searching and agonizing over Scripture, but rather as a set of second-hand convictions passed along from earlier Anabaptist thinkers, who did the agonizing study and thinking for themselves (and often paid a horrible price for doing so). My pacifism came from my personal, first-hand study of the Scriptures and set me at odds with my religious upbringing and with the convictions of my denomination at the time.

Also, my experience has convinced me that some Anabaptists (not all) wear “nonresistance” and “pacifism” as sort of a badge of distinction, so that having “a witness for peace” seems to be the defining issue with some of them. In my case, my only concern has always been simply to have a witness for Jesus—not for “peace,” per se, nor any other socio-political cause. With me, neither “nonresistance” nor “pacifism” are the non-negotiable issues of the Gospel, but the Lordship of Jesus and the observance of His words are the non-negotiables. If His teachings support universal nonresistance, well and good, let us practice what He taught—but let us not choose nonresistance as our defining issue and then try to shoe-horn everything else in Scripture into that sacrosanct paradigm.

Therefore, I beg your gracious indulgence, as my convictions are sufficiently Anabaptistic to annoy some of our Reformed readers, and yet not sufficiently Anabaptistic to avoid alienating some of our Anabaptist readers. If we are to follow Jesus, we must avoid falling into the trap of discovering some neatly-packaged system of thought within a certain movement, and thereafter defending the tenets of that movement tooth-and-nail against all scriptural evidence to the contrary. It is more comfortable to parrot the views of the group whose acceptance affords us a certain sense of security, but discipleship is a call to hard decisions and there are times when, as A.W. Tozer put it, “the saint must walk alone.”

The points I present below are not necessarily my final conclusions. I believe that I can be corrected from Scripture, and welcome any such correction from readers. The following is a summary of my tentative conclusions based upon my present grasp of the teachings of the Bible. It is not perfect, but it is the best that I can do:

In the final analysis, every Christian must decide within himself, before God, how best to fulfill the constant duty to "do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God" in the various circumstances in which we find ourselves. I have no personal criticism of those who reach different conclusions after prayerful searching of the Scriptures. Responses from disagreeing readers are welcome.

[1] It is possible that it is not injury but only an insult that Jesus pictures in His statement about a man striking you on the right cheek. However, the early Christians seemed to have extended this nonresistance to include cases of actual violence against themselves (James 5:6 in the Greek or any good translation, i.e. any other than the NIV).

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