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Saint Augustine
The Problem of Universal Ethics for Christian Pacifism - The Historical View
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The Problem of Universal Ethics for Christian Pacifism
The Historical View
Contemporary Views of Pacifists
The Link Between Pacifism and Denial of Univeral Christian Ethics
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The Historical View

Throughout the history of the church, Christian pacifism has been regularly associated with also denying the universality of Christian ethics. This connection is so prevalent that, until just recently, there have been no exceptions, making one suspect that one requires the other with Christian pacifism necessitating denial of universal applicability. But while this connection remains strong, the universal relevance of Christian ethics is no longer denied by all Christian pacifists. Dale Brown, representing the views of the Brethren in Christ, explains that "in Christian peace movements of the last century, differences have emerged between those who espouse nonresistance and nonviolent resistance."3 In this statement, Brown uses nonresistance "to denote the pacifism of both primitive Christians and peaceful movements of the Radical Reformation of the sixteenth century" and nonviolent resistance to indicate a new sort of Christian pacifism that has emerged only recently.4 The first refers to traditional Christian pacifism which has characteristically denied the universality of Christian ethics, and the second refers to the new sort of nontraditional Christian pacifism that now seeks to apply pacifism universally. In what follows, I will first document the close connection linking historic Christian pacifism with denying the universality of Christian ethics. Then I will examine what drives this connection, and will close with comments on what is at stake when Christian pacifists break with tradition by trying to universalize their pacifist ethic.

Tertullian (155-240 AD), writing at the transition between the 2nd and 3rd centuries, was the first theologian known to espouse Christian pacifism. He strongly denied that any Christian can "make a profession of the sword,"5 argued that Jesus "in disarming Peter unbelted every (Christian) soldier,"6 and responded to "whether warfare is proper at all for Christians" by saying "I banish from us the military life."7 But, while Tertullian thought it was sin for Christians to be soldiers, he also claimed that Christian prayers "for the complete stability of the empire, and for Roman interests in general" were responsible for assuring "Roman's duration."8 These prayers included petitioning God for victory in battle because Tertullian explained that Christians prayed "for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies (and) . . . what-ever, as man or Caesar, an emperor would wish."9 Tertullian quite openly asserted that Christians prayed that others would succeed in doing what for Christians would be sin, and in this way revealed he believed that Christians live in a different moral order than the rest of the world.

In the generation following Tertullian, Origen (185-254 AD) was still more adamant about Christians living by standards of a moral order that does not pertain to others. He claimed that Jesus "nowhere teaches that it is right for his own disciples to offer violence to anyone, however wicked," and so no Christian may ever kill "any individual whatsoever."10 But then Origen goes on to claim that "none fight better for the king than we (Christians) do . . . by offering our prayers to God" for success of Roman soldiers warring against their enemies. Origen explains that "while others are engaged in battle" Christians "engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure, and wrestling in prayers to God on behalf of those who are fighting in a righteous cause."11 Thus Origen too claims that Christians live by moral standards that do not apply outside the Christian community.

The Anabaptist Hutterites, in the 16th century, made a clear and very radical disjunction separating Christian ethics from what God applies to the rest of the world. For the Hutterites, "the worldly power of the sword is abolished in the house of Christ but (is) retained in the world."12 They held that "God has two kinds of servants on earth" each operating by different moral standards,13 and that while "Christians may not wage war, administer worldly law or use force and the sword," God appoints non-Christian rulers who are expected to use force in maintaining civil justice and security.14 They clearly denied the universal relevance of Christian ethics saying:

We neither wish nor intend, however, to remove the governing authority of this world or to disobey it in what is good and just. There has to be government for the people in the world just as much as there has to be daily bread and the schoolmaster's rod for children. The masses refuse to be ruled by God's Word. They have to be ruled by the sword so that scoundrels and worldlings, who are not controlled by Christian morals, are compelled to abide by the grim morality of the world, in fear of the gallows. If they were not bridled and kept within bounds, no one would be safe from his neighbor, and the earth would be drenched with blood. Government, therefore, is God-ordained, and we rightly respect its officials because of their position.15

The Anabaptist Swiss Brethren proclaimed the same thing in The Schleitheim Confession published in 1542. In that confession they asserted, "the sword is ordained of God outside the perfection of Christ" and is "ordained to be used by magistrates of the world."16 But while ordained by God for non-Christian magistrates, the Brethren believed that Christians may not "employ the sword against the wicked for the defense and protection of the good," and for this reason Christians could not serve as soldiers or magistrates. They believed in two distinctly different orders of morality, both ordained by God but applicable depending on whether one was a Christian or not. For the Brethren, "the government magistracy is according to the flesh, but the Christian's is according to the Spirit; their houses and dwelling remain in this world, but the Christiaan's are in heaven; the . . . worldly are armed with steel and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God, with truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation and the Word of God."17 The 17th century Quaker divine Robert Barclay (1648-1690) also denied that Christians may ever resist evil with force, but then he also argued it was not wrong for others. After categorically affirming that "it is not lawful for Christians to resist evil, or to war or fight in any case,"18 Barclay goes on to say:

As to what relates to the present magistrates . . . they are far from the perfection of the Christian religion . . . . (And) while they are in that condition, we shall not say, that war, undertaken upon a just occasion, is altogether unlawful to them . . . . (those) not yet fitted for this form of Christianity . . . cannot be undefending themselves until they have attained that perfection.19


John Howard Yoder (1927-1997), writing as a Mennonite and arguably the best known Christian pacifist of the 20th century, also denied the relevance of Christian ethics for nonbelievers. But Yoder developed the idea of coexisting and equally valid moral orders--one for Christians and one for others--to a far greater extent than expressed ever before. Yoder held that "the present historical period is characterized by the coexistence of two ages or aeons,"20 each operating on the basis of a different ethical system though each is of God. He claimed:

In the present period of history we have two separate anticipations of the kingdom, both of them valid foretastes of the final triumph but in different ways. The church points forward as the social manifestation of the ultimately triumphant redemptive work of God; the world, however, even though still rebellious, is brought into subjection to the kingdom of Christ or the kingdom of the Son. The kingdom of the Son is thus to be distinguished . . . from the kingdom of God.21

Yoder believes that non-Christians bearing political authority in the present world "are in spite of themselves agents of the divine economy, being used whether in rebellion or submission as agents of God's purpose." While not comprised of Christians, Yoder claims "the statte's judiciary and police machinery, has the ultimate purpose of preserving the fabric of the human community as the context within which the church's work can be carried on."22 According to Yoder, what pertains to Christians is the "order of redemption" and what pertains to everyone else is an "order of providence." He believes that Christ by the order of providence reigns "over man's disobedience, through ''powers' including the state (wielding the power of the sword)," and he does this "side by side with the 'order or redemption' where Christ rules in and through the obedience of His disciples."23 Thus Yoder claims:

The time between the ascension of Christ and the defeat of the last enemy, when the kingdom of the Son will give place to the consummated kingdom of the Father, is thus characterized by the way in which the reign of Christ (ruling through the state wielding the sword) channels violence, turning it against itself, so as to preserve as much as possible of the order which is the pre-condition of (ideal) human society (in the coming kingdom of God) and thereby also a vehicle of the work of the church. The state being, in its judicial and police functions (wielding the sword), the major incarnation of this channeled evil.24

But while Yoder's idea of Christ reigning over unbelievers by an order of providence that employs human government wielding the power of the sword to restrain evil, he does not think Christians have any role in serving God that way. Thus Yoder denounces "any involvement in the apparatus of government" as being "reprehensible for a professing Christian." Christians do not live by the ethic God applies to non-Christians under "the kingdom of the Son" but must live by an entirely different ethic pertaining to the church and the coming “kingdom of God" (the Father); and if any Christian gets this confused he is an "erring brother" in need of confrontation and correction by the church.25 He maintains that we must "distinguish between the ethics of discipleship which is laid upon every Christian believer . . . , and an ethic of justice within the limits of relative prudence and self-preservation, which is all one can ask of the larger society."26

For Yoder, "the most significant axiom" of the pacifist-Mennonite approach to how Christians relate to the state, whether government or military service, is "recognition that Christian ethics is for Christians" and not for others.27 Trying to apply Christian ethics to others makes no sense because "the spiritual resources for making such redeemed behavior a real possibility are lacking" outside the Christian community.28 God gives one ethic by which non-Christian rulers restrain the wickedness of other non-Christians and another ethic for Christians living by the standards of a new and different world to come. And so, for now, Yoder says:

the fundamental (ethical) duality with which the Christian speaking to the environing society must reckon is not the difference between church and state as social institutions, nor between interpersonal relations on the face-to-face level and large group relations or between legalism and "playing by ear," . . . but the difference between faith and unbelief as the presuppositions of his ethical message . . . . Outside the circle of faith, the presupposition cannot be the commitment of the individual spoken to and challenged, but only Christ's objective claim on him.29

Last Updated on Thursday, 08 December 2011 10:12