In this post, we’ll dig into the issue that’s been lingering in the back of many of your minds, I’m sure, and one which has come up here and there in the comments thus far: What about the Old Testament? Surely the Old Testament’s clear allowance, and in many cases command, of violence would suggest that Christians are also allowed to use violence. After all, we don’t want to say that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New, right?
Of course not. But the issue of the Old Testament is much more complex than that. Here’s a few things to consider.
First, the nation of Israel was a theocracy, and this relates to their command to wage wars, act violently, etc. In other words, Israel was a nation of God’s people under God’s law with God as their president, so to speak. If you wanted to “get saved” and join God’s covenant, you had to pack your bags and move to Israel (in most cases). Church and state were one. Since wars and violence are part of the fabric of a broken society, Israel as a nation would be partakers in this societal structure, but it was never the ideal (as we’ll show in our third point).
But today, God’s people are not a theocracy; we are a global community scattered among the nations. The myth that America is, or ever was, a Christian nation has been so thoroughly disproved that I won’t even get into it. Needless to say, we as the church give our allegiance to Jesus and our citizenship is in heaven—whether you’re reading this blog in Andorra, Angola, or even in America. In short, while the nation of Israel fought wars and acted with violence in the Old Testament, this does not in itself carry over as part of the mission of the church. The church is never commanded or even allowed (explicitly) to act violently, but to “love our enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” “never repay evil for evil,” “overcome evil with good,” and to “never avenge yourself” (Matt 5 and Rom 12). So the difference between Israel as a theocracy and the church as a dispersed group among many nations necessitates that we view national warfare differently.
Second, most of the wars in the Old Testament were explicitly connected to the land promise. The conquest of Canaan (Josh 6-12), wars against the Philistines (1 Sam 4), and the slaughter of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:1-3) were all tethered to the ongoing struggle to settle in, and maintain control over, the land of Israel. The point being: the land promise was unique to Israel’s relationship to God under the Old Covenant and is not carried over into the Church’s mission; hence, one of the many reason why violence and warfare has no place in the mission of the church. Our covenant relationship with Israel’s God is not wedded to a strip of real estate in the middle east.
Third, and most importantly, the Old Testament (the entire Bible, really) is a dynamic unfolding story that progresses, and the progression culminates in Jesus—the goal of the Law and the Prophets (Luke 24:44; Rom 10:4; cf. Matt 5:17-19). Now, throughout Israel’s history, there were times when God commanded violence. The conquest of the Canaanites and the command to annihilate the Amalekites (1 Sam 15) immediately come to mind. So war and violence is part and parcel with Israel’s existence. However, war and violence are never really viewed as the ultimate goal. Peace is. The whole direction of the Old Testament, especially seen in the prophets (Isaiah 2:4; 11:1-6; Mic 4:2), is that there will come a time when God would bring healing, restoration, and the cessation of violence by means of his suffering Servant. As Isaiah and Micah both creatively proclaim: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Mic 4:3; cf. Isa 2:4). Instruments of war will be turned into tools for agriculturally productivity; as God’s redemptive purposes unfold, we move from war to peace. This is such a consistent theme in the prophets that I hardly feel the need to belabor the point: God’s promised messianic kingdom will inaugurate a time of peace, healing, restoration, and the cessation of war. As Myron Augsburger writes:
“While the Bible is one unit, and one great covenant of grace, it is also an unfolding revelation in which God is continually saying more and more about himself. All through the Old Testament, God had something more to say about himself until he said it better in Jesus Christ. This means that the incarnation is final, the full disclosure of God” (Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 61-62).
Violence was allowed and even commanded in the Old Testament, as was polygamy, divorce, slavery, stoning of children, and killing people for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. But this was not the goal of redemptive history; rather, it was part of God’s dynamic (not static) story of salvation, which climaxes in Jesus who bore a plowshare and not a sword. Jesus inaugurated that promised period of peace and healing, and therefore violence is allowed in the Old Testament but not in the New.
One more passage needs to be dealt with and that’s Genesis 9:5-6:
“5 And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. 6 “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
Here we have a pre-Old Covenant command where a death-penalty-like law is instituted. If you kill, then you shall be killed. The punishment, in other words, should fit the crime, and the Old Covenant Law is replete with similar “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” commands (Exod 21:24; Lev 24:19-22). In its own context, I would say that Gen 9:6 supports capital punishment: if somebody kills another person, he too should be killed. The question, however, is: Is this ideal? (It certainly moves away from the Edenic way of life.) Does this still apply for Christians today? Should we seek to retaliate life for life?
I say yes and no, but mostly no. Jesus clearly overturned the law of retaliation in Matt 5:38, when he said: “you have heard that it was said, ‘and eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you do not resist the one who is evil.” Don’t retaliate, Jesus says, and Paul says the same thing in Romans 12. So I think that we must read Gen 9 through the lens of the cross and in light of Jesus’ (and Paul’s) own ethical teaching, which prohibits retaliation.
So where does my “yes” come in? As most of you know, Rom 13:4 does say that God uses the government to “bear the sword” to punish evildoers, and (as Colby pointed out yesterday) this is one of God’s ways of avenging evil. (Interestingly, however, as my good friend Andrew Rillera has pointed out, the cross and not the dagger-like “sword” referred to in Rom 13 was Rome’s means of capital punishment.) But God’s vengeance of evil through the government is instead of the church’s own vengeance of evil (note the connection between Rom 12:17-19 and 13:4). Vengeance by Christians is everywhere prohibited and nowhere allowed in the New Testament. That’s God’s business, not ours.
Okay, I know that was a brief treatment of a very difficult issue. There’s going to be a lot of “what abouts” and “ya buts” that I couldn’t cover, and I’ll do my best to wrestle with your comments and concerns. But I’m really eager to get to the issue that most people race to whenever pacifism is discussed: what about the person breaking into your home to kill your family? Do pacifists believe that there’s never a place to use violence on an individual level? Stay tuned…