Nonresistance is a principle taught in the Scriptures. The word “nonresistance” is coined from the words of our Lord, when He said, “But I say unto you, that ye resist not evil, but whosoever smites thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” From the very origin of the Anabaptist Movement, nonresistance was one of the chief pillars of its doctrinal belief. The historian, Robert Proud, says that the Anabaptists “hold it not becoming those who follow Christ, to bear arms or fight, because they say their true Master has forbidden his disciples to resist evil.”
Nonresistance is really a result of the doctrine of grace. Certainly those who have become recipients of God’s grace in their own lives, should show the same grace toward their fellow men. God displayed His grace toward us while we were yet sinners. He loved us when we were enemies, and just so we are to love our enemies, and to display grace toward those who persecute us.
The principle of nonresistance must be practiced in times of peace as well as in times of war. The Christian must be careful not to take revenge. The Scriptures teach against retaliation with the tongue, and against suing at the law. The early Christians were commended because they took joyfully “the spoiling of their goods” (Hebrews 10:34). They refused to resist evil; they didn’t fight back; they knew that they had a heritage in Heaven that the spoilers couldn’t touch.
1. Principles of the Doctrine
Every teaching has some basic principles upon which it is built. We want to name three principles that underlie the doctrine of nonresistance.
(1) The kingdom of Christ is not of this world. There are two kingdoms of men in the world; those who have been regenerated by faith in Jesus Christ, and those who are unregenerate. Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world; if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight” (John 18:36). Christ’s kingdom is made up of those who have experienced the saving grace of God in their lives. His kingdom is not supported by armies and maintained by taxes. Rather, it is a kingdom composed of persons who voluntarily believe in Jesus Christ, and seek to become like Him in their daily character and conduct. One who is a member of Christ’s kingdom is instructed to bless his persecutors, and to pray for evildoers, and to love his enemies. And if you love a man, you are not going to put a bullet through him, nor ram a bayonet into his body, nor drop bombs on him. The standards of Christ’s kingdom are different from the standards of the kingdoms of this world. One who claims to submit to Christ’s kingship, will find that the army, the navy and the air force are not for him.
Because Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, the early Christians refused to participate in military service. Tertullian says of the legions of the Roman army, “Not a Christian could be found among them.” In the early days of Christianity, the Church said, “If they wish to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service, or not be received.” The historian, C. J. Cadoux says that no Christian after his conversion “ever thought of enlisting in the army, until nearly two hundred years after Christ.” The early Christians recognized that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, and that His standards are much higher than the standards of the world-kingdoms—and therefore nonresistance was believed and practiced by the entire church.
(2) The spirit of Christ is not of this world. Jesus came into a Samaritan village one day and the Bible says that the folks there didn’t receive Him. When James and John saw this, they wanted to call fire down from heaven to consume these people. But this was all contrary to the spirit of Christ, and it must have sorely grieved Him. Luke 9:55 says, “But (Jesus) turned and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of, for the Son of Man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” Taking the lives of human beings is contrary to the spirit of Christ.
General Leslie McNair (in a New York Times article) described the attitudes and the spirit promoted in the armed services. He says, “Our soldiers must have a fighting spirit; if you call that hating enemies, then we must hate with every fiber of our being. We must lust for battle; we must scheme and plan night and day to kill; we must hit harder and harder; we must become tougher and tougher; the avowed purpose of the army is to make killers out of every soldier.” Can you reconcile such an attitude with the teachings and the spirit of Jesus?
One young man who had been in the army during World War II, tells how one of his buddies in training was kind of softhearted. When they were training, they were to drive their bayonets into the stomachs of a dummy victim. This fellow was kind of slow and timid about the whole thing, and finally the officer lost his patience, swore at the young fellow, and ordered him to get up in front of that dummy and “cut out his guts.” He reminded him that this was war, and not a Sunday School picnic, and that every man in the camp was there to learn how to kill Germans.
It’s impossible to have the spirit of Christ within, and at the same time bear arms. The carnal sword and the spirit of Jesus do not point in the same direction.
(3) The methods of Christ are not of this world. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:3-4, “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds.” Jesus endured much reviling and persecution when He was here on earth, and yet never once did He use carnal weapons for defense. And the same thing can be said for true Christians down through the centuries. They have won their battles by using the breastplate of righteousness, and the shield of faith, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.
The Christian doesn’t use carnal weapons, but this does not mean that he is helpless in the face of evil and unrighteousness. Take the weapon of prayer for example. When (during the persecutions of the early Church) Peter was cast into prison, the Bible says, “Prayer was made without ceasing, of the Church, unto God for him.” The people prayed. Here the power of prayer was pitted against the power of the armed might of the Roman Empire—and those who prayed won the battle! The iron gate opened, and Peter was set free. More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.
Another powerful weapon used by the believer, is the practice of deeds of kindness. Jesus says, “Do good unto them that hate you.” Paul puts it this way: “If your enemy hunger, feed him.” We have a beautiful illustration of the victory of kindness over evil in 2 Kings 6. The Syrian army had been delivered into the hands of Israel through the intervention of the prophet Elisha. And when the king of Israel saw that the enemy had been delivered into his hand, he said to Elisha, “Shall I smite them?” And he said again, a second time, “Shall I smite them?” This may have been the most natural course of action, but Elisha said, “Thou shalt not smite them, (but) set bread and water before them that they may eat and drink, and go to their master.” Elisha said, “Feed them and let them go.” Show them kindness, he said. And that’s what the king of Israel did. And you know, there’s an interesting postscript to this story: 2 Kings 6:23 says, “So the bands of Syria came no more into the land of Israel.”
The Christian’s weapons are spiritual. He conquers with the power of the Cross. Menno Simons used to say, “Our fortress is Christ, our sword is the Word of God, our victory is faith in the Almighty. We let swords of iron and steel to those who consider human blood equal to swine’s blood.” The Christian has spiritual weapons.
These have been principles upon which the doctrine of nonresistance is based. The kingdom of Christ, the spirit of Christ and the methods of Christ are not of this world.
2. Problems of the Doctrine
Most every doctrine carries with it some related matters that seem to be problems. We want to look primarily at the problem of Israel’s practice in Old Testament days. The Old Testament frequently tells about the wars of Israel, and many of these wars were authorized and commanded by God. It’s hard for the Christian to reconcile this with the command to “resist not evil” in the New Testament. Jesus said the Scriptures cannot be broken, and they do not contradict themselves, and so the problem seems to be very real.
There are at least three things we must remember here:
(1) Israel was a nation of this world, while the Church is a spiritual nation not of this world. Israel was a nation just like any other nation, except that God had chosen her for a special purpose. The Israelites lived in a particular location on earth; they had boundaries to their possessions; they maintained a government, with a capital city, a throne, a king, and a royal family. And to maintain this nation in the land, God permitted the use of force. But the Church is not such a nation. The Church is a people called out of darkness into the light of the Gospel, from every land and every nation. There’s no particular geographical location; there are no boundaries to maintain; there’s no capital city; there’s no regal throne. Israel was a nation; the Church is not such a nation.
(2) Israel was not a regenerated people, while the Church is composed of those who are regenerate. Romans 8:3,4 says, “For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh; that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” Israel could not perform the righteousness of the law, for she walked after the flesh. But Christians have been regenerated, and thus are equipped for a new kind of life, and they are called upon to follow a much higher standard than the Old Testament law.
(3) Israel operated under the dispensation of law, while the Church is living during the dispensation of grace. Jesus says, “Ye have heard that it was said, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil, but if any man shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” This is an extension that Christ Himself made. He participated in giving the Old Testament law, and certainly He has the right to broaden it. Someone says, “But God never changes, and if God doesn’t change, then He can’t approve war in the Old Testament, and condemn it in the New Testament.” But this is a faulty argument. It’s true that God’s character never changes, but His methods do change from time to time, from age to age, from dispensation to dispensation. The relationship between the Old and New Testaments is a study that requires more space than we will take here, but remember that the truths of the Old Testament receive a new and deeper significance in the New Testament, in light of Calvary and Pentecost. The New Testament is the Christian’s final authority for faith and conduct. If we are to have a true understanding of the will of God, we must always accept the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament.
Some folks have a problem accepting the doctrine of nonresistance, however, because of a few statements Jesus made, as recorded in the New Testament.
Jesus said, for example, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth; I came not to send peace, but a sword.” But here the context clearly shows that the word “sword” is a figurative word, which indicates the division and persecution and misunderstanding that will arise in families and communities when there are those members of the family or community who follow Jesus. The parallel reference in Luke 12:51 says, “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you nay, but rather division; for from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided; three against two, and two against three.” Sometimes Christians will find even members of their own families turning against them.
In another place, Jesus says “He that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip. And he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.” (Luke 22:36). Jesus spoke these words just before He went into the Garden to pray. And just a little later, when the crowd had gathered to take Jesus, Peter used the sword. He smote the high priest’s servant, and cut off his ear. But Jesus rebuked him for using the sword, and then He said to him, “All that take the sword shall perish by it.” And then Jesus graciously restored the servant’s ear. Whatever else Jesus meant by the words, “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one,” He certainly did not mean that the disciples were free to injure others with the sword. A dagger such as the disciples carried was often used to cut wood and to slay animals for food.
There are other problems associated with the doctrine of nonresistance, but the basic principles upon which the doctrine is built, are clear. Each one of the problems that sometimes is associated with the doctrine, is really only a seeming contradiction.
3. Protections For the Doctrine
There are always some who try and make a teaching mean something that it was never intended to mean. For the purpose of safeguarding the doctrine of nonresistance, several things should be pointed out.
(1) War is permitted for civil government. Jesus said, “If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.” Jesus recognized that the very nature of the kingdoms of this world, demands that they be defended with armed might. The hardness and greed of unconverted human hearts, sometimes seem to understand nothing but the language of force. The sons of God can live a life of love for their enemies, but the sons of men are living under the rule of Satan, and are governed by the law of force. Paul says of the state official (in Romans 13), “He beareth not the sword in vain; for he is a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” The masses of this world will not allow God’s Word to control their lives, and therefore they must be held in control by the sword. The state has the authority to punish; it has the right to carry the sword; if there had been no civil authority, only anarchy and chaos would exist, because of the wickedness of human hearts. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament recognize the authority of the state to maintain order by the use of force. And because we recognize this permission in the Scriptures (for governments to use the sword), we cannot (according to modern use of the term) be called “pacifists.” Pacifism covers many types of opposition to warfare. It is Satan’s counterfeit for the doctrine of nonresistance. True Christians have never advocated the doctrines of present day pacifism. The pacifist aims to establish a better world by eliminating war; he attempts to bring peace and harmony among the unregenerate nations of earth by working through political influence; his primary mistake lay in the fact that he believes in the innate goodness of man. One pacifist group told John F. Kennedy, “We believe there is a divine power in man, that can save the world from war and destruction.” But this contradicts the teaching of our Lord when he says. “For from within, out of the heart of man, proceed murders and wickedness” (Mark 7:20).
The peace-emphasis promoted by most leaders within the churches of America today, is not the doctrine of nonresistance taught in the Bible. Nonresistance describes the faith and life of those who accept the Scriptures as the revealed will of God, and who cannot participate in warfare because their Lord forbids it. He teaches the law of love. Pacifism, on the other hand, is something different. Roland Bainton says that modern pacifism (as promoted by most civil and religious leaders today), is not based so much on Christian principles, as it is on a mere desire for survival. Many of our leaders object to war, not because of loyalty to Christ and the Scriptures, but because they have a fear of death and destruction in this awful atomic age.
(2) Wars will continue until the end. The Bible does not teach that a time will come during this age, when wars will cease. Daniel 9:26 says literally, “Even unto the time of the end, wars and desolations are determined.” Jesus, when describing the closing days of this age, says there shall be “wars and rumors of wars”. In the closing days of this age, the armies of the world, under the leadership of the Antichrist, will march against Jerusalem for one final burst of rage against God and His people, and there they shall utterly perish (Joel 3:9-12). The Bible teaches that the nations of the world will be universally armed (not disarmed), as we approach the close of this age.
Our early Anabaptist forefathers were not optimistic about the prospects of peace for this age. Harold S. Bender says that they “saw the whole of history (from the fall of the first Adam, down to the Second Coming of Christ), as a great battle between God and His enemies. There was no humanistic vision of getting rid of war in history.” The Christian does not expect that economic justice and political cooperation are going to be ushered in by efforts of unrighteous men. Our hope for changing the world lies in the coming of Christ, who will “judge among the nations,” and usher in a kingdom of peace. In the meantime, the Christian obeys his government, pays his taxes, and respects governmental leaders. And only if the government expressly commands us to do that which God has forbidden, only then do we follow the example of Peter and John, when they said, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
War is a terrible thing. One of the survivors of the atomic blast at Hiroshima describes what she saw. She says, “All the houses were demolished; the crumbled walls stretched for many, many miles; people rushed out from the center of impact; their bodies were burned; their skin was hanging down like rags; their faces were swollen to twice their normal size; people were crying aloud with pain.” She says, “I saw someone walking, dragging something along. To my surprise it was his own intestines. His stomach was ripped open, and he was dragging it along as he walked without knowing what he was doing.” She continues, “My oldest daughter had only two slight wounds, but a month after the bombing, she died from radiation.” A soldier who witnessed the air raids in Germany says he saw people coming out of their shelters—insane, wandering about, running away, not knowing where to go. Thousands were killed. Still others died of disease and cold and starvation.” No one can ever measure the suffering and misery and heartaches that have resulted from war. And on the Judgment Day, God will hardly look down upon the soldier’s bloody hands, and say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
To serve as a conscientious objector to war may bring ridicule from friends, but one who practices nonresistance in life, can stand before God with clean hands, unstained by human blood. And always remember that “a conscience void of offense before God and man,” is a greater reward than any human decoration ever offered for bravery on the battlefield. Be grateful to God if your government has provided for alternative service of a constructive nature.