War and Vengeance in the Epistles and Revelation - Part 1


Ralph Orr

No pacifists were among the Old Testament righteous. In the law, loving neighbor did not exclude all possibility of killing neighbor. Neighbors who committed certain crimes were put to death. Warfare itself was at times an expression of faith and love for God. The idea that love, faith and war are inherently in conflict and mutually exclude one another is not an Old Testament idea. The Mosaic blessings for obedience to God did not bring freedom from war, but victory in war. In the Old Testament, God is the great warrior who trains, leads and fights alongside his human servants. In the Old Testament, within certain bounds, God has given to humans the authority to take human life.

Having established this, in the second article we asked, Does the New Testament teach a pacifist ethic that is by its nature radically different from the Old Testament’s approach to war? and, Has God rescinded from humans their limited authority to take human life?

To answer these questions our second article explored the Gospels. We found that the Gospels uphold some soldiers as honorable examples for Christians of faith and love. Jesus never called soldiers to leave their profession. Jesus never renounced the Old Testament perspective that in some circumstances love and killing may go together.

Though Jesus taught the turning of a cheek when struck once, he never discussed self-defense when confronted with a murderer. Though he never used deadly force, he never renounced deadly force in the defense of the poor, the weak or the widow. He never spoke against one nation coming to the defense of its citizens or the citizens of another nation. The strident antiwar rhetoric of many pacifists was not a part of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus never equated all ways of taking human life with murder. Even he could command armies, and would fully set up his kingdom with violent deadly force. His self-sacrificing and forgiving spirit did not eliminate all cases of either his or someone else’s use of deadly force.1

Jesus limited his ethical illustrations to person-to-person situations. His examples of how to love even our enemies did not deal with life-threatening situations, such as attempted murder or invasion. They dealt with less violent situations that one might face within a community. They said nothing about three-party or group conflicts. Jesus said nothing about a state’s responsibility to protect its citizens or maintain public order. Jesus’ examples never directly addressed the broader issues of military and police force.

The dichotomy that some Christian pacifists make between love and all forms of deadly force, including warfare, is unknown in Jesus’ ethic. The looked-for radical departure from the Old Testament’s view of war is not in the Gospels.

Beyond the Gospels

These observations remain critical for modern Christian ethics. Yet by themselves they are not complete. The New Testament witness does not end with the Gospels.

Acts tells us of the theological and evangelistic development of the newborn faith. The Epistles and Revelation give us insights into the ethical life of the church. In them Paul, Peter, James, Jude and John (and perhaps others) deal directly with the internal affairs of the church and with Christian morality. They discuss administrative, doctrinal, personal, and most important for our discussion, ethical matters.

As each year brought the believers further in time from the cross, they were asking new questions. Of concern to many was how this new way of life was to be lived in a fallen world.

As a group, the earliest Christians never had a problem with military service. Being Jews, they were exempt from service in the Roman army. Not until the mid a.d. 60s did Romans make distinctions between Jews and Christians, at which time Christians would have lost their Jewish exemption. For all practical purposes, however, the situation did not change. Christians, by virtue of being considered traitorous atheists, could not have been Roman soldiers. Nor would they have wanted to, as the Roman army generally imposed a culture of paganism on its soldiers.

So, by a.d. 65 many issues we face today over military service were not yet active concerns of the church. During these early years the church did not need the apostles to write specifically about military service or pacifism. Although a rare soldier such as Cornelius came into the church, the apostles did not feel it necessary to address whether Christians might serve in a military or police force or whether in the performance of their duties they could take human life. The church was more concerned about proclaiming the risen Lord than figuring out all the details of Christian ethics for all time thereafter.

Remember, most of the Epistles were written before a.d. 65. That is perhaps the major reason they do not directly discuss most aspects of military service and war. There was no need.

Still, is it not true that the ethics of the Epistles lay a foundation for Christian pacifism? For example, is this not what the acts of the sinful nature in Galatians 5 and the love verses of 1 Corinthians 13 imply? Are these not pacifist passages? Do these not radically depart from Old Testament attitudes toward war?

We shall now examine these and other allegedly pacifist verses found in the Epistles. In doing so we will ask, Do the Epistles support absolute pacifism?

The acts of the sinful nature versus the fruit of the Spirit

In Galatians, Paul lists the acts of the sinful nature and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. He says that the acts of the sinful nature are obvious. Those that relate to warfare and bloodletting include "hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy." Paul tells us that "those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God" (Galatians 5:19–21). All these acts of the sinful nature can lead to deadly violence. In war, people on all sides have these behaviors or inward desires.

In contrast, Paul says that "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (verses 22–23). We should have these. It does not seem possible for one who fights to have them. One will not win hand-to-hand combat through joy, peace, kindness and gentleness. So, these verses might seem to rule out for Christians any use of force, but especially deadly force, that society would otherwise expect to be the appropriate reaction to injustice, criminal activity, civil disorder or unjust assaults on another.

Yet, does Paul intend these verses to encompass all acts of the sinful nature and all the fruit of the Holy Spirit? Do these two lists fully explain Christian ethics? A closer examination shows they do not.

Notice that Paul does not mention here all acts of the sinful nature. For example, he says nothing about sloth or lying. Galatians 5:19–21 is not a comprehensive sin list.

Nor does he list all of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. For example, how do we fit Samson into this list, who when the Holy Spirit fell on him slew a thousand men (Judges 15:14–19)? How do we fit into this list David’s statement in Psalm 44 that it was God who fought alongside Israel to give them their victories? If the fruit of the Spirit automatically rules out all forms of warfare, how then do we understand God himself, the Mighty One? Revelation shows us that even in the New Testament, God condones some forms of war (Revelation 19:11–15). It seems that the fruit of the Spirit would have to include this side of God as well. Yet, the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5 says nothing of this. So the list is incomplete.

Examining the acts of the sinful nature more closely, we notice several other interesting points. While we would agree that "sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft" are universally sinful and therefore always to be avoided, can we say the same about several other acts that Paul lists? What about hatred? Is hatred to be universally avoided? Are we not to hate sin? Romans 12:9 says we are to hate what is evil. Revelation 2:6 says we are to hate the work of the Nicolaitanes. How should this observation affect our understanding of Galatians 5?

Notice also discord. Are there not some things with which we are to be in discord? Are we not to be in discord with Satan and the ways of this world? Should we not be in discord with false teachers and false prophets? Discord by itself is neither good nor bad. We could say the same of dissensions and factions.

Then there is jealousy. One of God’s names is Jealous. Jealousy characterizes him (Exodus 34:14). So some kinds of jealousy must be godly, while others are sinful acts of the flesh.

So what are we to make of these two lists? Are they fixed codes of conduct that cover every situation? Can we use them as an unshakable foundation for Christian pacifism? It does not seem so, for some of the things listed are absolutes while others are situational.

To understand how to apply these two lists, we should pay attention to two important facts. The first is the original setting of these lists — their context. The second is their literary genre — that they are characteristic of a specific literary form common in Paul’s day.

As to the first point, these two lists are part of a letter to the churches in Galatia. These churches were torn by dissent originating with Judaizing troublemakers. False teachers from Jerusalem urged gentile believers to obey the law and become circumcised.

Paul’s response is bluntly corrective. Shortly before he introduces his list of sinful acts of the flesh, Paul angrily writes, "As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!" (Galatians 5:12). Considering the issues involved — the gospel of eternal salvation against an imposition of circumcision — Paul’s tone is not surprising. His purpose was to silence the heretics and restore the spiritual unity of the Galatian believers in Christ.

Paul follows his harsh words with verses 13–16a: "You, my brothers, were called to be free. Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, live by the Spirit."

The Galatian heretics were not treating their fellow members with love. They were teaching others not to treat them with love. This had to stop. Having dealt with the heresy, Paul next addressed Christian morality. Christians are to love one another.

It is in that context, of Christians loving Christians, that we should understand Paul’s vice and virtue lists of Galatians 5. Read his words carefully. He is not addressing how believers should behave toward violent unbelievers (or for that matter, toward believers who become violent). He is not addressing how believers should behave when confronted with warfare. Paul is not telling them how they are to respond to the beating and attempted murder of a neighbor. Nor is he discussing the attempted rape of a daughter or other forms of severe violence in or out of the church. He is not writing an entire ethic that covers every situation that a Christian might face. He is simply telling Christians that they ought to get along, that they ought to love one another, that they ought to bear one another’s burdens (6:2). The whole passage specifically addresses how believers are to behave toward each other. The Holy Spirit should govern those relationships. Among themselves, Christians should be peaceful. Loving neighbor sums up the law.

People who do not treat each other properly, who relate to one another through the flesh and not the Spirit, will not inherit the kingdom of God. Believers should not provoke or envy one another (5:26).

The second fact we need to consider is that the literary genres of Galatians 5:19-23a are the genres of vice and virtue lists. Such lists of general moral principles (either negative or positive) were common in the Jewish and the Hellenistic worlds. They were never intended as comprehensive discussions of acceptable or unacceptable behaviors. As general lists, they gave their readers a general understanding of what others expected of them. Complex ethical issues required more detailed, more nuanced discussions.2

To apply Paul’s lists in Galatians 5 to the complex issues of military service, war, capital punishment and defense ignores both the general nature of such lists and the church context that they were specifically addressing. Civil, national and personal defense are not Paul’s concerns in Galatians 5. Internal church affairs are. We should not assume more for these passages than what Paul originally intended.

Some pacifists argue that the very nature of warfare is such that one cannot carry it out without sin. Those who look to the Bible as the ultimate standard should immediately recognize the speciousness of such an argument. God wars in both Testaments.

In the Old Testament God ordered others to war. As we have noted, the blessings for obedience to God’s Mosaic covenant did not include freedom from war, but victory in war. In the New Testament, God continues to be portrayed as a God who wars. Those familiar with the apocalyptic portions of the New Testament know this. The Bible never portrays all warfare as inherently sinful.

I would agree, however, that sin always accompanies human war. The nature of humans is such that no activity — not even preaching the gospel — is free from sin. We taint all the good we do with sin. The motivations of the best of actions are at some level a mixture of good and bad, a mixture of sin and righteousness. To expect Christian behavior to be otherwise is unrealistic. To refuse to participate in an activity simply because some sin will be present makes no sense.

If that were to be our guiding principle, then we would accomplish nothing. No weak person would be protected. No criminal would be punished. All for fear of sin. The taint of sin is no excuse for inaction. We must base Christian ethics on something greater.

Where an action is permissible, but the motivations behind the actions are tainted, a Christian should repent of the tainted motivations. However, he or she may still perform the action.

Before moving on, we should make a few additional observations about the fruit of love. As we have discussed in previous installments and will discuss further, the responsibility to love is multidirectional. Sometimes this creates conflicts. I must love the believers and my enemy. I must love my neighbor and my community. Yet at times my enemy is at the throat of my brother or sister, or my neighbor is undermining my community. To resolve conflicts between those I must love requires that I recognize a hierarchy of responsibility. That is true even within the church.

My love responsibility to my community may require that I severely deal with my neighbor, even if he or she is a professed Christian. Harsh actions do not rule out the presence of love. Just because I may need at times to act swiftly does not rule out patience. Just because I may occasionally mourn, be in conflict and be angry, does not rule out the presence of joy, peace and gentleness. Humans, like God, can be a mixture of all these simultaneously. Yet pacifists often speak as if it must be one way or the other. This is simply not so.

In summary, Galatians 5:19–24 is not an all-encompassing Christian ethic. Much is left out. Complex ethical issues surrounding war, military service, self-defense and the defense of others are not its concerns. Its vice and virtue lists address how the Galatian church is generally to worship God and treat fellow Christians. Some behaviors unacceptable between believers, such as strife and dissensions, should be present under other circumstances. Jesus dissented and was at strife with Satan.

Because these verses do not address how a Christian may respond to those who would murderously disturb civil order and peace, no valid reason exists to interpret these verses as pacifist.

We do not wage war as the world does


Another passage popular with Christian pacifists is 2 Corinthians 10:3, "For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does." Surely this verse advocates pacifism, doesn’t it?

Again, we need to carefully examine the passage’s context. When Paul says, "we do not wage war," to whom is he referring? Some pacifists assume that Paul is referring to Christians in general, that as a whole Christians do not wage war. Is their assumption correct?

The proper interpretation of the passage hinges on understanding to whom Paul referred when he said we. Careful study of 2 Corinthians shows that Paul consistently referred to himself and his traveling companions as us and we. He did not use us or we to refer to the Corinthians or for Christians in general. The Corinthians he called you.

For example, in 10:11 "we" refers to Paul and his party who are absent from Corinth. We does not refer to the Corinthians themselves. In 10:8, Paul says that the Lord gave "us" (his party) authority to build up "you" (the Corinthian members). In the next verse (10:9) Paul writes that he did not want to frighten "you" (the Corinthians) with his letters. While in 10:16 "we" (Paul’s party) hoped to preach the gospel in regions beyond "you" (Corinth). And so forth throughout the book. (Notice especially 8:16–9:5).

The importance of these observations for understanding 2 Corinthians 10:3 is this: When Paul says: "Though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of this world," he is speaking of himself and those with him. He is not speaking of Christians in general. It is Paul who does not wage war as the world does. It is Paul who does not use worldly weapons but spiritual weapons.

(That all Christians wage spiritual warfare is without question. What is at issue is whether 2 Corinthians 10:3 refers to that struggle. The context of the passage argues that it does not).

Why are Paul’s weapons not of this world? Paul’s calling was to be an apostle, not a soldier. He was called to do battle on a spiritual level beyond that of the typical member, not on a physical level. To explain his calling, Paul used the weaponry of war as a positive metaphor for his preaching of the gospel. "The weapons we fight with," he wrote, "are not the weapons of the world."

Nonetheless, Paul’s weapons have "divine power to demolish strongholds" (10:4). What kind of strongholds? "We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience" (verses 5–6).

In this passage Paul uses military weaponry, conquest, the taking of prisoners and the punishment of evil as positive metaphors for preaching the gospel and defending the faith. If war were inherently sinful, is this not a strange analogy? Can we imagine him using adultery or theft as metaphors for his work? I do not think we can, because in Paul’s writings they are always sinful. Yet in 2 Corinthians, warfare is a fit analogy for preaching the gospel.

Why does Paul mention this spiritual warfare? Paul had struggled with many difficulties in the Corinthian church. His letters were corrective. He knew that some would oppose him. Paul wrote: "Some say, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing’" (verse 10). Paul warned that "such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present" (verse 11).

In other words, Paul uses the metaphor of warfare to warn his opponents that he has divine power to conquer all false doctrine and mischief. He has power to punish the disobedient.

To repeat, Paul compares his struggles against doctrinal error to warfare. That is the warfare Paul fought. It was his calling. He was not called to be a soldier. This passage addresses Paul’s circumstances not all possibilities.

Thus, a careful examination of 2 Corinthians 10:3 shows that it is not a pacifist passage. It is Paul’s description of his apostolic calling and struggles within the church. Yet his positive uses of warfare metaphors suggest that Paul was not as condemnatory of warfare as most pacifists are. If anything, the passage leans away from pacifism, not toward it.

If I have not love


One cannot complete a thorough study on whether Christians may war without prayerfully considering the "love chapter" — 1 Corinthians 13.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.... Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Because of the way many think of love, they conclude that love must be pacifist. For how could one bomb, or shoot or burn an enemy in love? At first glance, 1 Corinthians 13 seems to support this view. "Love is kind." "It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered."

Yet let us not forget that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), yet he also burns and kills. The lake of fire awaits sinners. These must be understood in light of his loving justice.

As we have mentioned before, when one examines specific cases, defining love and how to practice it becomes problematic. Love is multidirectional. Life gives us conflicting responsibilities. These may require decisions on whom to love and whom not to love, or at least how to love and whom to place first in our love obligations.

For example, Jesus says that I am to love both my enemies and my neighbors. What do I do when my enemies attack my neighbors? To whom are my duties of love owed?

In such situations, it is not possible to be kind and patient with both. If I do nothing, then I am not being kind to the victims. If I intervene in some meaningful way, then I may not be able to be kind or patient with the attackers. If I understand where my priorities should lie, I will know whom to treat kindly in such circumstances and whom not to. I will know how to fulfill my love responsibilities. Kindness must be shown to the victim by stopping the attack. Later, once everything is settled down, I may show some kindness to the attacker.

In the New International Version, 1 Corinthians 13:7 says, "love always protects." If this translation is correct, then our understanding of our love responsibilities takes on a significant meaning. If love "always protects," then surely it protects the innocent from the guilty, the weak from the strong, the poor from the rich, the powerless from the mighty. That is the thrust of many words in the Prophets.

To put it into other words, Does love always protect Hitler’s SS? Then how does it always protect the Jews? Does love always protect the child molester? Then how does it always protect the child? Does love always protect a murderer? Then how does it always protect the murderer’s potential victims? It seems that protecting everyone simultaneously is impossible. We must make distinctions. I believe love always protects the innocent, the poor, the widow, the downtrodden, the righteous, the stranger and everyone else before it ever protects a rapist, murderer, sadist or despot.

If love always protects, then when we use deadly force against murderous criminals and murderous nations to protect the innocent we may be doing so in love.

Let me illustrate this with a story I heard as a sermon illustration at one of our meetings in Spokane, Washington. I have no reason to doubt the story, for it would have been well known by some church members in the audience. Those who know the details of this story will forgive me if I get some details wrong. The thrust of the story was as follows.

In Montana a lady had an extremely violent husband. They lived on a plot of land isolated from their neighbors. The woman’s elderly father lived in a building next to her and her husband. The husband frequently beat her. He would often fly into a horrendous rage. One day the husband went completely out of control. He threatened to kill his wife and her elderly father. The husband poured gasoline around the base of both houses. He owned guns, and everyone was absolutely terrified that he was going to carry out his threats. No one had seen him in such a rage before. In desperation, the woman, to protect her elderly father, took her husband’s pistol and stood between her father and her husband. She pointed the pistol at him and insisted that he was not going to kill anyone. In his rage he charged them. She fired. The bullet killed him instantly. The realization of what she had done totally devastated her. She was convinced that she was a murderer. Yet was she? If love always protects, and she fired not out of malice but out of fear and concern for what would happen to innocent human beings, did she murder? Love, Paul says, always protects.

Or is this what Paul says? Almost all English translations say nothing about love always protecting. Most English translations say that love "bears all things." Does love bear all things, or does love always protect? The margins of some translations suggest that either translation is possible.

The Greek verb under question is stégo.

This verb comes from a stem meaning "to cover," "to conceal." It is a rare term but persists in both prose and common speech. Its basic meaning is "to keep covered," but this gives it such senses as "to protect," "to ward off," "to hold back," "to resist," "to support." It can also mean "to keep secret," "to keep silent," "to keep confidence." (George W. Bromiley,Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990], 1073)

As one can see, several senses of stégo could be considered as types of protecting. But this is not enough to establish that "protect" was what Paul meant. While the NIV says "Love always protects," many translators would disagree. Because translators disagree significantly as to Paul’s intended meaning for the verb in 1 Corinthians 13:7, we should not build our ethic around any one of their opinions.

On the other hand, could we say that the opposite is true? Does love never protect? That claim would be absurd. Viewed from that light, then, one attribute of love is that it does protect, whatever Paul intended to say in 1 Corinthians. The issues, of course, are who to protect, when to protect and how ferocious and deadly can such protection become? When confronted with a murderous enemy, may love use deadly force to protect?

It seems to me that one could be patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, humble, polite, not self-seeking, slow to anger and have all the other attributes of love listed in 1 Corinthians 13 and still on occasion use deadly force. God does. The use of deadly force does not automatically exclude the attributes of love.

Let us review the love attributes found in 1 Corinthians 13 from another perspective. We will use the same illustration that we used earlier, when discussing the attribute of protection. This time we will discuss the attributes of kindness and patience.

Would love always be kind to and patient with Hitler’s SS? Then how would it have always been kind to and patient with the Jews, the Gypsies and other SS victims? Is love always kind and patient with the child molester? Then how is it always kind and patient with the child? Is love always kind and patient with a murderer? Then how is it always kind and patient to the murderer’s potential victims? It seems that being kind and patient with everyone simultaneously is impossible. We must make distinctions.

I believe love is always kind and patient where God finds it is wise and morally appropriate to be kind and patient. To always be kind and patient with a child molester, a sadist or a power-hungry despot would be to turn one’s back on the cries of those they oppress and abuse. It would be to turn our backs while people rape, murder, torture, burn and destroy. Such an ethic I find morally reprehensible. Surely it is not a stretch to suggest that Paul did not intend his words to be an all-encompassing ethic that defines Christian behavior in every situation. He did not discuss every situation.

As in so many of these allegedly pacifist passages, Paul is not addressing in 1 Corinthians 13 the broader issues of justice, social stability and the defense of the innocent, the poor, the widow, the downtrodden, the righteous, the stranger and everyone else who is legally, if not morally, innocent. He is not discussing how to defend the helpless, punish the guilty or protect society from the murderous. He is simply giving the Corinthians general guidelines on how to conduct their affairs. They needed to hear this because they were not doing it, as a reading of 1 Corinthians should make clear.

The letter’s concerns are not the broader issues of how to maintain a civil and just society, or how to respond to marauding bandits or invading armies. Paul is writing about local church turmoil and how to put it to an end. You put it to an end with love.

Paul makes no claim that his general description of love should apply to how Christians always respond to the evil in this world. It is how they should live toward each other. Left unanswered is the question, What do we do if we, our families or the neighbors next door are confronted with evil? Paul does not say. His subject was not pacifism.

James asks, From whence come wars and fightings among you?


The apostle James asked rhetorically, "From whence come wars and fightings among you?" (James 4:1, KJV). He answered:

Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not, because ye ask not. Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God?

Never a clearer statement on war’s origins has been given. Lust leads to war. Have we now found a pacifist scripture? James lays the blame for war on uncontrolled lust. With that we can all heartily agree. What James does not discuss is how a Christian, when confronted by a lust-driven war, may respond to that assault. James never suggests that Christians, when confronted with an outbreak of such horror, must never ferociously protect him or herself or others. That would be reading something into the text that is simply not there.

To suggest that this origin of war —lust — is also the reason people defend themselves when attacked is not logical. Such arguments do not distinguish between the criminal and the victim, between the criminal and the duly constituted authorities who exist to protect us from the criminal. Therefore, to consider James’s comments on the origin of war as a cry for pacifism is not logical. Hitler and Churchill were not moral equivalents. One started war out of lust. The other defended Europe from that lust.

The wisdom that comes from heaven



But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness. (James 3:17–18)

These verses place the church on the side of peace. Not only should Christians be on the side of peace, they are to promote peace. Christians are to love peace. They are to be peacemakers. They are to sow in peace to raise a harvest of righteousness.

However, just as we have observed earlier, these verses do not address how we are to respond in every case to those who sow war and violence. Being a peacemaker and loving peace is not the same thing as being a pacifist. James does not call on Christians to totally renounce deadly force or warfare. Though as James says, peacemaking is part of heavenly wisdom, the Bible also teaches that God, in his heavenly wisdom, uses and will use violent deadly force. Therefore, one cannot indiscriminately claim that one who uses such force has rejected heavenly wisdom. A more nuanced understanding of each situation is required before passing judgment.

We said at the start of this paper that we would be looking to see if the Epistles call Christians to radically depart from the Old Testament’s attitude toward warfare. We asked if the Epistles ended humanity’s God-given authority to take human life under certain circumstances. We could also ask if a different ethic is required for Christians in this regard than is required of the world. While Christians are called to a higher calling, nothing in James calls on us to become total and absolute pacifists. Peacemakers, not pacifists, are what we are called to be. James does not help the pacifist cause.



1 This paper makes the ethical distinction between violence and force common to discussions of this subject.

Richard A. Horsley in Jesus and the Spiral of Violence (1993) begins chapter two by discussing the evolving understanding of force and violence in philosophical, theological and political circles. He asks: "What differentiates ‘violence’ from ‘force’?" Horsley answers: "Some might hold that ‘force is exercised by the established government in maintaining public order and national defense, whereas ‘violence’ is the proper label of physical violation of public order and security. But what of the government of a totalitarian dictatorship? In that case its use of ‘force’ is ‘illegitimate.’ Hence it should be preferable to have the legitimacy of force as a principal criterion: ‘force’ is legitimate, but ‘violence’ is illegitimate. The term ‘violence’ is thus not only descriptive but also evaluative or normative. . . . Thus a legitimate government would be using force to restrain and eliminate criminal abuse and harm to its citizenry. And similarly, citizens would be using force and not violence in acting to overthrow an illegitimate government that had been using violence and not force against its subjects."

In a slight modification of the above, this paper uses the phrase violent force to emphasize the kind of force warriors use in battle and citizens often use when defending against a murderer. Force maintains the concept that such action is is legitimate while its potential fierceness is suggested by violent.

2 For those interested in a more detailed treatment of vice and virtue lists I recommend Literary Forms in the New Testament: A Handbook by James L. Bailey and Lyle D. Vander Broek (Westminster/John Knox, 1992). They write, "Many of the N.T. lists do appear to have been shaped relative to the situation at hand. In Gal. 5:19–23, for instance, several of the listed vices (enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy) and virtues (love, joy, peace, patience, etc.) speak directly to the problems the church is experiencing" (page 67).

Ralph Orr

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