Nonresistance: A Biblical Theology of Violence (Part 6)

First post: Nonresistance: A Personal Background
Previous post: Nonresistance: A Biblical Theology of Violence (Part 5)

This post represents the last installment in the Biblical Theology segment of our study on nonresistance. We’ll finish up the New Testament here, then begin systematically defining what our survey has uncovered.

Persecution

There may seem to be one last holdout for nonresistance – their champions, as it were, the Christians persecuted and put to death through the ages. The Anabaptists in particular have one hero they march out regularly.

Dirk Willems, an Anabaptist in the Netherlands, was imprisoned in the 1500s for his beliefs. He managed to escape, but was noticed and pursued by a guard. During the chase, Dirk successfully crossed a frozen river. The guard, being somewhat heavier, was not so lucky and broke through the thin ice. On seeing his plight, Dirk returned to pull the man out and save his life, and was recaptured and eventually executed as a result.

There are other examples in church history; Fox’s Book of Martyrs lists hundreds of Christians who gave their lives for the sake of the Gospel. And there are many scriptures which tell Christians how to respond to persecution; none of them suggest that violence might be appropriate. So is persecution a situation where violence is forbidden?

To answer that question, we’ll have to consider three different kinds of persecution. There is “non-violent persecution,” where Christians are persecuted by being called names, slandered, or boycotted for their beliefs; there is “vigilante persecution,” where an individual takes it upon himself to kill Christians for their beliefs; and there is “state-sanctioned persecution,” where the government organizes or supports either violent or non-violent persecution.

In the first case, of non-violent persecution, violence in response seems completely unwarranted. Scripture gives numerous clear, specific teachings that we ought not to avenge ourselves, but that we ought to bless those who slander us (see, for example, 1 Peter 3). “Do not return evil for evil” is taught in both the New and Old Testaments.

There are no specific Scriptures which address the case of individuals trying to execute Christians. This second type of case is exceptionally rare, usually reserved for lone nuts or extremists. And as with the first case, barring evidence to the contrary, there’s no reason to think that the Bible’s teachings on personal self-defense in this manner have been changed. It’s appropriate to use legal means to protect one’s life or the life of others.

The third case is historically very common. It can be seen dozens of time in the Bible, from the Jewish government executing Stephen, to the Roman government imprisoning Paul, and even the death of Jesus Himself. The book of Revelations is full of examples. So what does the Bible teach us to do here? Here are a few observations.

Note, first, that this doesn’t fall under the purview of ordinary self-defense, since it is the state rather than an individual that is killing Christians. Violence on a personal level doesn’t stop the aggression. (The question of an organized uprising is, for the moment, outside the scope of this discussion.)

Instead, Jesus tells his disciples that when they are persecuted in one city, they should flee to another; in the book of Revelations, He calls for patience and endurance. When a hostile government rises up to persecute the Church, we ought to rejoice that He has called us to share in His suffering (1 Peter 3). When we have legal recourse, we can again use that, as Paul did (Acts 22). These are all appropriate responses to state-sanctioned persecution.

The State

Thus far, we have established much of what the New Testament does not say on the subject of violence and government. What, then, does it have to say?

There are a few passages that speak to the issue. By and large, the New Testament seems content with the Old Testament’s coverage, but there is one area in particular that has changed – the Christian’s relation to his government.

In the Old Testament, as far as the children of God were concerned, there was one government: theocratic Israel. They were from time to time taken captive by one nation or another, but their normative state was an independent nation, subject only to God’s special laws and regulations.

In the New Testament, the children of God are no longer one nation but many. Rather than flying a single theocratic flag, Christians are spread throughout the nations, often as subjects of a heathen ruler. The New Testament reflects this change when it gives us new guidelines for living in a political kingdom that is not God’s.

Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; but render unto God the things that are God’s.
Matthew 22:21

Romans 13 tells us to be subject to the ruling authorities, and to render to them their due – taxes, revenue, honor, and respect. The Church is no longer a political nation; it is people from every nation. As such, we have the responsibility to be good citizens in whatever nation we reside.

Their authority is given to them by God, so as long as they are acting within that authority, we are bound to obey them. If they command us to disobey God, of course, they are overstepping their authority, and in those cases we ought to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). In most cases governments will promote righteousness and punish wickedness, as they should. When they don’t, and they begin to punish the righteous, we ought to rejoice in sharing Christ’s suffering, as discussed above.

This concludes our survey of the Bible’s development of its teachings on violence and government; in the next post, we’ll work on laying out a concise summary of the Bible’s teachings. After that we’ll take a post or two to address some objections that arise, and then wrap up the series.

Next post: Nonresistance: Conclusions (Part 1)

How would you summarize what we’ve seen in the past six posts? Leave a comment!

3 thoughts on “Nonresistance: A Biblical Theology of Violence (Part 6)

  1. Thank you for this series, Jon! An aspect of the topic I don’t think you touch on is when a Christian – simply in the capacity as a citizen of the state, NOT as a Christian – is assaulted (including his family, or other helpless persons) during times of lawlessness when officers of the state are not present to help. I don’t mean vigilante activities, just protection.

    1. That’s a good point, Steve, and thanks for bringing that up. I’ll address this more specifically in the next post, but I believe that the Bible gives us the principles that 1) we ought to protect human life; and 2) that necessary violence in defense of human life is permitted. There is a “case law” for burglary which illustrates these principles in Exodus 22:2-3.

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