Our goal in this series has been to uncover what the Bible teaches about violence and nonresistance. We’ve surveyed the Old and New Testaments to see how its teachings unfold. Now, we’ll take one last look at how proponents of nonresistance support their position, and analyze their arguments in light of the Scriptures we’ve discussed already.
The Sermon on the Mount
There are basically three distinct passages used to support the doctrine of nonresistance. Their essence may be repeated in other places, but the arguments reduce to the Sermon on the Mount, Peter in Gethsemane, and the “swords-to-plowshares” prophecy in Isaiah.
Dean Taylor argues that the Sermon on the Mount represents a “radical change” from the Old Testament. He portrays Jesus as discarding the Mosaic Law “as if it were already centuries expired,” replacing it with his own “daring manifesto.”
This is probably one of the best arguments that nonresistance has on its side. Some liberal theologians have tried to harmonize their view with the Old Testament by making all the violence and warfare out to be man’s fault, at odds with God’s desires, but a straightforward reading of the Bible easily debunks this hypothesis.
Dean’s argument acknowledges the violence of the Old Testament, and rather than trying to explain it away, suggests that it has been replaced by a new ethic. We believe the argument is flawed, but it nonetheless represents the best of the Biblical arguments on the subject.
If you’ve been reading through our series, you’ll likely recall our discussion of the Sermon on the Mount a few posts back. Dean’s argument hinges upon the premise that the laws Jesus was discarding were the Mosaic Laws that God had handed down on Mount Sinai. As we’ve seen, though, this is not the case – Jesus was repudiating the Pharisees’ “laws,” not God’s. He came, not to destroy God’s Law, but to fulfill it. Dean’s argument thus fails to accomplish what is claimed.
Peter in Gethsemane
The second key passage is found in Matthew 26:51–54. When Jesus is arrested in Gethsemane, Peter tries to take a stand and fend off the soldiers. Jesus stops him, and though He had the power to resist if He wanted to, He chooses to surrender Himself to the soldiers instead. The particular phrase that turns this passage into an argument for nonresistance is this: “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
Dean Taylor quotes Tertullian, an early church father, as saying “…the Lord afterward, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” This was a “significant change” from “the way they did it in the Old Testament.”
But as we discussed in the post above, it’s not at all clear that this was what Christ had in mind. When we take into account the fact that Christ’s “changes” to the Old Testament are not nearly as extensive as Dean alleged they were, there is little evidence to suggest that this one verse represents a wholesale rejection of the Old Testament’s teachings on violence.
Swords into Plowshares
The third and final key passage is found in Isaiah 2. Isaiah prophesies that a day will come when the nations will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks. They would live in peace.
Some believed that this prophecy found its fulfillment in the Church today, in a people who do not learn war any more. This passage was quoted “time and time again,” Dean says, by early Christians, who believed that Christ had fulfilled this prophecy.
But as we’ve discussed before, this prophesied end of violence will appear when Christ returns – when He judges all the nations personally. Isaiah is referring to the Second Coming, not the First. Further prophecies in Revelations (to pick one example) confirm that Christ has not yet come in power to rule over all nations once and for all.
This series hasn’t quite turned out the way I expected when I started. As I look back over it, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it.
If I were to write it again, I’d like to balance the discussion of violence with the Christian perspective of peace. I’m not satisfied with the somewhat lopsided nature of the presentation I’ve given.
I’d also like to engage the historical arguments for nonresistance. Sadly, I don’t have enough detailed knowledge of church history to be able to front much of a discussion at the moment.
Perhaps, Lord willing, we’ll revisit this topic again down the road.
In the mean time, how did you feel the series went? Did it leave you with any pressing questions?
Look over the other posts in this series at our Series Index.
- Dean Taylor, “A Change of Allegiance” (2008) ↩