Problems with Nonresistance

Oct 07, 2013

This post was originally posted in December of 2009 on an old blog of mine. It’s being reprinted here (with some updates, below).

I went through three different books on nonresistance, making a list of the verses they used to support the doctrine–Dean Taylor’s “A Change Of Allegiance”, Stephen Russell’s “Overcoming Evil God’s Way”, and David Bercot’s “The Kingdom That Turned The World Upside Down” (which wasn’t solely on nonresistance but touched on the issue in several places). There were a total of 6 passages given to support their definition of nonresistance: Isaiah 2:3-4, Matthew 5:38-42, Matthew 5:43-48, Matthew 26:51-54, Romans 12:9-21, and Romans 13:8-10.

…and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and 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.
Isaiah 2:3-4 (ESV)

This verse was used by some early apologists (Irenaeus, for one) to support nonresistance. They believed that the nonresistant church was the fulfillment of these passages–“they shall beat their swords into plowshares”, etc.

Granted, this was during the Pax Romana, so the “nation shall not lift up sword against nation” part seemed applicable. Nonetheless, as events shortly demonstrated, this passage is not referring to the state of events now, but that after Christ’s return. Therefore, it doesn’t provide a rule of life for us now, any more than the passage about “no more tears”.

“You have heard that it was said, ’An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you,Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
Matthew 5:38-42 (ESV)

At first glance this passage appears to be referring to the famous “lex talionis” of the Old Testament–found in Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21. But is it?

The lex talionis, in the Old Testament, applied to legal situations–criminal acts. But if this is what Jesus was referring to, why don’t his counterexamples refer to crimes? Rather, each one refers to an interpersonal offense–not a breach of the law.

Coupling this observation with the realization that some of the Pharisees had twisted the lex talionis to apply to interpersonal situations–like Jesus described–I think it makes the most sense to conclude that this Pharisaic misinterpretation, rather than the Old Testament itself, is what Jesus was referring to.

“You have heard that it was said, ’You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Matthew 5:43-48 (ESV)

Again, the contention here is that Jesus is referring to the Old Testament, and making some sort of change. The first half of the quotation is indeed found in the Old Testament–Leviticus 19:18. “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”

But the second half–“and hate your enemy”–isn’t in the Old Testament. So where did it come from? Again, a Pharisaic “gloss”. The Old Testament does teach that we should love our enemies–not hate them. Proverbs 25:21-22 says “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.”

Furthermore, Jesus appeals to God’s gracious dealing with his enemies to make his case. Since we know that God is eternal and unchanging, and this command is based on God’s eternal and unchanging character, we can conclude, can we not, that this command is eternal and unchanging as well? Meaning, it applies not only in the New Testament, but in the Old? I think we can.

And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”
Matthew 26:51-54

This is another of the passages used by the early church fathers(specifically, Tertullian) to support nonresistance–“The Lord… in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” But is there warrant to extend this situation to all instances of bearing the sword? Let’s look at the reasons Jesus gives for ordering Peter to stand down.

Jesus’ first reason is “For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” This could be taken as a condemnation of all who bear the sword, but I think there’s a more likely explanation. There is one other place where a similar construction can be found–Revelations 13:10 reads “He who leads into captivity shall go into captivity; he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints.”

In this context, the phrase is being used to reassure the persecuted saints that those who come against them (he who kills with the sword) will be punished (killed with the sword). This meaning certainly seems to fit the passage in Matthew as well.

His second reason is that he could easily summon overwhelming force to rescue him, if he wanted to; he has no need of Peter’s well-meaning but, against such a force, futile assistance.

Finally, Jesus explains that his arrest is necessary to fulfill the prophecies in Scripture. So, Peter’s assault, if by chance he were to be successful, would thwart God’s plan, and thus must not be carried out.

Therefore, I don’t think this passage provides support for nonresistance either.

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written,”Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, ”if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:9-21

Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
Romans 13:8-10

Once again, these passages are nothing that wasn’t taught in the Old Testament; in fact, Paul even cites the Old Testament–“Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” from Deuteronomy 32:35; “If your enemy is hungry,” etc., from Proverbs, as I cited earlier. I don’t see anything here that’s “new”, that hasn’t been emphasized in the Old Testament–certainly nothing about refraining from bearing the sword.

In conclusion, then, I don’t think the Anabaptist position of nonresistance is Scriptural. But let’s not be hasty and react to the opposite end of the pendulum–let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water, so to speak. Let’s go through and see what the Bible really does say about loving our neighbors–and our enemies. For it certainly does say we are to love them, even if not in the exact way the Anabaptists taught.

Update 2013-10-07: Since this post was written in late 2009, I’ve developed stronger conclusions about nonresistance. I do believe that nonresistance is unbiblical.