Pacifism through the lens of Romans 12 and 13

A couple of years ago I preached through Romans 12 and 13. This has greatly shaped by view of pacifism. Specifically, it brings into focus three interlocking and essential questions about Christians and the pursuit of non-violence. (1) Should I, as a Christian, pursue non-violence? (2) Is God non-violent? (3) Should I desire my government to be non-violent?

My conclusion (hint: my answers are Yes, No, Maybe) does not answer all of the questions, especially the toughest ones. I hope, instead, that it provides a helpful lens by which to view the question of pacifism and, hopefully, resolve some tensions for those on either side of the question. It’s either a common ground on which both sides could agree or a position that gets me in trouble with everybody. What could go wrong, right?

Should I pursue non-violence?

Romans 12 begins one of Paul’s greatest sermons on Christian living. Therefore (because of God’s grace in granting us salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus) here is how we should live. Our duty begins with offering ourselves fully to God in worship (12:1-2) and concludes with the great Christian ethic of love (12:9-21; 13:8-10), including love for our brothers (12:10) and love for our enemies (12:17-21).

In the question of non-violence, Romans 12:17-21 is instructive. We are to meet persecution with blessing and evil with good. Vengeance is forbidden. We are to aim, as far as we are possible, to live at peace with everyone. In taking a posture of peace we avoid being overcome by evil. Instead, we overcome evil with good.

Paul’s arguments here match those of Jesus on the Mount. Here, Jesus calls us to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Again, this is a rejection of vengeance and retribution and a call to non-violence.

The call to Christians in dealing with persecution is always a call to patient endurance. And, we have Jesus as our primary example. He endured the violence of evil men even to death on the cross. Though he could have destroyed his enemies he did not. In all of this he is our prime example of love for our enemies, not just a love for those who physically participated in his crucifixion, but for us who were his enemies in our own sin.

And so, I conclude, from Romans 12, the Sermon on the Mount, and the example of Christ, that I should pursue non-violence. I should love my enemies. I should renounce vengeance. I should aim for peace as far as I am able. I should endure persecution, if I face it, in the same way as Christ.

Is God non-violent?

That is, however, by no means the end of the discussion. God often gets dragged into the question, as well he should. After all, we are called to by holy as he is holy. We are called to be like Christ. Or are we?

It’s not quite that simple.

Notice in Romans 12 why Christians are called to abandon revenge. “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ’It is mine to avenge; I will repay’ says the Lord” (12:19). Christians are instructed to not take revenge precisely because God will avenge. It is his right and, dare I say, obligation, and not ours. How is this possible? How can something be morally right for God and wrong for us? The answer is this: God is the only one in a position to carry out perfect justice. He is our Creator. He knows all. He is entirely fair. We are the creation. Our knowledge is limited. At best our sense of fairness only approximates his.

I believe it is impossible to construe God as a pacifist. The arguments against a pacifist God are many and varied. We see, among other things, God’s dealings in the Old Testament with the nation of Israel. He saved them out of Egypt through plagues. He granted them the Promised Land through war. He sustained their faltering nation through military conquest. When the people sinned, he exiled them from the land by calling out foreign armies.

God’s laws in the Old Testament permitted the capital punishment and established the pattern for proportionate retributive justice.

The prophetic hope, the hope of God coming to reign with justice, is a hope for both salvation and for judgment. God’s salvation of his people sits alongside the judgment of his enemies.

When Jesus came and inaugurated his Kingdom we see a decided shift, but not a reversal. As seen before, the ethics of the Kingdom, outlined in the Sermon on the Mount, demand that followers of Jesus themselves give up the right to enact retributive justice but the concept of retributive justice doesn’t go away, it simply moves to the person of God.

That justice is, in fact, met on the cross. Stunningly, the cross is both the greatest argument violence and also evidence that God himself is not a pacifist. His mercy on us is won through the violent and willing death of Jesus. Truly, this is a profound mystery. On the cross mercy meets judgment and together they bring us all the offer of peace and salvation.

Finally, although I am by no means an authority on Revelation. At a minimum we see the judgment of God, and Christ, on full display. By this point in history justice has failed for the early Christians and they are the recipients of intense persecution. This is a scenario which plays out throughout the world and will only intensify as the end nears. God’s people in the end times do not strike back with violence but they do call out for God’s justice, and that justice means judgment for their oppressors. The songs of praise in Revelation give thanks to God both for his salvation in Christ and for his judgment on the earth (Revelation 11:18, 16:4-7).

Even if you adopt a symbolic view of Revelation (really it’s not a question of symbolic or not, but on what is symbolic) the overall theme of God’s judgment clearly comes through. And, it is difficult to construe God’s judgment in non-violent terms.

And so, I conclude from Romans 12, the cross, the Old Testament, and Revelation that one of the main reasons why I should reject personal vengeance, is because I can trust God who will bring about perfect justice – a justice that includes retributive justice.

Should the government be strictly non-violent?

Romans 12:9-21 and Romans 13:1-7 are closely linked. Paul’s instructions in Romans 13 give Christians yet another reason to avoid vengeance. It also convinced me not to be a strict pacifist.

Christians can “repay evil with good” both because God will ultimately bring about his perfect justice in the end and because he has provided a means, albeit limited and subject to failure, to bring about some semblance of (retributive) justice on earth in the intervening time: the civil government.

According to Romans 13 the governing authorities (by which I take to mean civil authorities, in the case of Paul, the Roman government) are granted authority by God himself (13:1). Therefore, Christians are commanded to submit to that authority (13:2-3, 5). This is an authority established for the purpose of doing good, which includes “bearing the sword” and being “agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (12:4).

No doubt, this presents an ideal picture of the purpose of civil government. Real governments are seriously flawed. This is not doubt true for us – but it was even more true for Paul. At that time the government was complicit in some persecution of Christians, a trend which would only worsen over time (see Revelation). And yet, while Paul presents an ideal, his call is very concrete. Honor your governing authorities, even fallen ones, even ones who themselves might be your enemies.

What is interesting to me, though, is that in the picture of the ideal we see a civil government specifically tasked with bringing about God’s wrath – the exact thing we as believers were told not to do and something that was supposed to be left to God (12:9). I’m aware this position opens me up to the charge of moral relativism. Am I saying that something could be right for one person and wrong for another? Yes, in fact I am, and the reason is one of authority. Those in civil government have been tasked with both the authority and the responsibility to bring about justice. I have not. If I try kill the person who murdered a member of my family, it is vengeance. If the civil government, approximating the justice of God, working through fair means, “bears the sword” and commits him to the death penalty, there’s a chance that proper justice is being served.

I conclude then, from Romans 13, that while it is inappropriate for me to seek violence, it is appropriate for the “governing authorities” to seek justice – which may mean the violent punishment of wrongdoers.

Conclusion

Much more could be said. I have left many questions unanswered. In a subsequent post I would like to address the question of the Kingdom of God and my position on non-violence which I alluded to before. However, the basic framework can be summed up in this way.

I should seek non-violence because God will ultimate bring about perfect justice and he has provided a means for us fallen creatures to experience approximate justice in the meantime, namely, the civil government.

Update: I have another post which answers some questions which Q3 of this post raises. 

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2 thoughts on “Pacifism through the lens of Romans 12 and 13

    1. stevenkopp Post author

      Well said. Thanks for passing along the link. The historical contexts makes the commands of the text – (1) The command to love our enemies and (2) the command to honor governing authorities – startling to say the least. Surely the way of Christ is the way of the cross and the church the community of the cross. What a distinctive ethic we have!
      I’m still not quite a pacifist, though. Rom 13 does not justify violence for the Church, I agree, but it does leave room for God working in civil authorities for justice – even when Rome was doing such a poor job.

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