April 29, 2021

Are Christians Called to Be Pacifists According to Matthew 5:38-42?

Nathan W. Bingham & W. Robert Godfrey
Are Christians Called to Be Pacifists According to Matthew 5:38-42?

When Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek as someone mistreats us, is He teaching Christians to become pacifists? Today, W. Robert Godfrey helps us understand Matthew 5:39 in light of the rest of the Bible.


NATHAN W. BINGHAM: Calling in from California is the chairman of Ligonier Ministries, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey. Dr. Godfrey, are Christians called to be pacificists?

DR. W. ROBERT GODFREY: Well, that's another great question. And it's understandable how a reference would be made to Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount, in that regard, where Jesus certainly does seem to call a Christian to a passive and nonviolent response when a Christian is being mistreated. And the question is, Exactly what is Jesus asking us to do? And what does that word of Jesus mean for the individual Christian, and then more broadly, for a Christian community or Christian society?

We notice when we look at this section of the Sermon on the Mount, that Jesus is focusing on the individual Christian. "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" (v. 39). So this is obviously very much an individual ethic at this point. I can't turn someone else's cheek; I can only turn my own cheek. So Jesus is talking one-on-one to Christians here. And what He's saying in the broad sense is, we are not to resist injustice. We are to try to love our enemy. We are to pray for those who despitefully use us, to use other passages of Scripture. So there is a sense in which Christians individually are to try to return good for evil by not resisting evil in strong ways.

When Martin Luther reflected on this and reflected on those who, in his day, read it in a pacifist way, Martin Luther said, "This is what the individual Christian is called to, but it is not even what the individual Christian is called to with reference to others." So Luther said the call to love my neighbor may mean that I have to intervene to protect my neighbor. I can turn my cheek, but I don't have a right to turn my neighbor's cheek. I may give away my tunic, but I don't have a right to give away my neighbor's tunic. And therefore, the call to love the neighbor means that I have to be willing in a variety of ways to protect the neighbor.

And Luther went on to say"and Calvin and Reformed leaders would have said the same"one of the ways in which we love our neighbor and look for the protection of our neighbor is through the institution of the civil government. God has instituted civil government to protect the weak against the strong, to protect the good against the wicked. And that as Paul says in Romans 13, "The civil magistrate does not bear the sword in vain" (v. 4). It is right that violence at times be used to protect the weak from violence.

Some pacifists, of course, then have said, "Well, that's why Christians can't serve in the government." But there's really nothing in the Scripture that suggests that Christians can't serve in the government or even can't serve in armies. When John the Baptist was asked by a soldier what he needed to do to be saved, John didn't say he has to leave the army. So, I think pacifists have taken a Scripture that maybe many of us don't take seriously enough, but then have applied it beyond the individual in social ways that I think violate other teachings of Scripture. So, pacifists are, I think, very well-meaning, but I think they're wrong in the way they interpret the Scripture.