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May 7, 2004
Doctrine of Nonresistance
I have come to the conclusion that the Bible teaches nonresistance on the part of Christians. It is unfortunate that the term nonresistance has been given to this doctrine. This gives the impression of something altogether negative and passive. The name comes from the words of Matthew 5:39, “That ye resist not evil”. Contrary to what the name suggests, the practice is very positive and active. Seven elements are involved in the concept of nonresistance.
- Nonresistance is one aspect of the biblical teaching on separation from the world. One of the first things a saved person is commanded to do is to separate himself from the practices of this world. Paul admonishes him to “be not conformed to this world” [Rom. 12:2]. This covers all practices of life that make up the pattern of this present evil age and that would conceal the new nature within. Inasmuch as true Christians are “not of this world” [John 17:16], but have been chosen by Christ out of the world [John 15:19], it is the divine purpose to keep them from the evil in the world [John 17:15]. One of those evils is the exercise of physical force to accomplish the purposes of life. This includes the use of force in times of peace and also in times of war.
- It becomes clear from the basic injunction on separation that there is a definite separation of church and state according to the divine Word. Christ declared to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” [John 18:36]. Paul explained that all those who name the name of Christ and experience the miracle of regeneration have been translated into the kingdom of Jesus Christ [Col. 1:13; John 3:3, 5]. They are no longer of this world even as Christ is not of this world [John 17:16]. They now have citizenship in heaven [Phil. 3:20], and it is their responsibility to live like pilgrims and strangers in the world [Heb. 11:8-16]. Their conduct should be conditioned by the pattern of the kingdom of the heavens.
- Since the church and state belong to separate kingdoms or spheres of operation, the methods for defense and offense should also be different. Christ was patently clear on this point in addressing Pilate. “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” [John 18:36]. This means that believers are not free to employ physical force as a method of warfare. They cannot “war after the flesh: For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal” [2 Cor. 10:3-4]. But this is not to deprecate the weapons available to the Christian, for they are “mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds” [2 Cor. 10:4].
- On the basis of the foregoing points, it follows that physical violence is forbidden to believers as a method of accomplishing a purpose. A careful examination of Matthew 5:38-48 leads to the conclusion that physical violence is not Christian. In the light of the fact that the believer is urged to follow the example of Christ this conclusion is made even more emphatic [1 John 2:6]. We are exhorted “to walk, even as he walked,” and to “follow in his steps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross” [1 Peter 2:21-24].
- Where physical violence is forbidden for any purpose, it is made only too clear that believers have no right to use physical violence in the propagation of the Christian faith. This does not mean that believers are without power for accomplishing the task that has been committed to them. For the gospel itself is the power of God unto salvation [Rom. 1:16]. As an added encouragement believers are instructed that “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” [Acts 1:8]. And this power provides the weapons of our warfare that are “mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds” [2 Cor. 10:4]. Whenever the church has turned aside from this equipment and used physical force to enlarge her borders nothing but reproach and ruin has resulted.
- What has been true in using force to extend the church has also been true when the church joined the nations of the world in the exercise of force. This situation has produced an incongruity that has aroused criticism even from unbelievers. If believers belong to the kingdom of Christ, then they do not belong to the kingdom of the world. And if it is wrong for believers to employ physical force to advance spiritual interests, then it is also wrong for believers to join the world in the use of physical force to achieve temporal interests. The words of Christ come with tremendous power at this point: “If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting…but as it is, my kingdom is not from here” [John 18:36].
- Lest we draw an incorrect conclusion, let me say that even though believers are forbidden the use of physical force to accomplish a temporal end, they are still obligated to exercise spiritual means to do good and to bring blessing to others. Jesus left no doubt in the minds of his disciples both by example [1 Peter 2:21-24], exhortation [Mt. 5:38-48] and apostolic instruction, that believers are responsible to display good and stand against evil by spiritual means [Rom. 12:17-21; 13:8]. While it is not easy to resist evil by spiritual means, Christians are left with no other alternative [James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:9; Eph. 6:10-13].
Up to this point the explicit teaching of Scripture on the doctrine of nonresistance has been set forth. But certain underlying principles run through all the passages dealing with this subject. It is necessary to call these to our attention.
The doctrine of nonresistance is biblical and is clearly taught in the Word of God. This was the practice of the early church up until A.D. 174. From that point on the changing circumstances of the church and human traditions began to invade the thinking of believers. Except for isolated instances the church gradually drew away from the original position as set forth in the New Testament. This situation continued through the Reformation and up until the pietistic movement in central Europe and England. With the Bible in the hands of more people, the doctrine of nonresistance was recovered and has been practiced by segments of the Christian church up to the present.
There are four passages in the New Testament that treat nonresistance specifically. Matthew 5:38-48 provides the basis for the name given to this doctrine. This passage was given to limit the extent of retaliation in the exercise of justice. It is so much a part of the old nature to repay a wrong with more than one has suffered, that in the Old Testament and repeated in the New Testament, requital is limited. In fact, in place of revenge, the believer is to impart good. This is Christlike and Christian. A passage in Luke 6:27-36 parallels the one in Matthew except that it gives a larger emphasis on the positive side of communicating good to the enemy. Paul touches on this subject in his letter to the Romans: “Avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath…Owe no man anything, but to love one another” [Rom. 12:19-21; 13:8]. To support his instruction on this point, Peter cites the example of Christ [1 Peter 2:18-24].
On the basis of these Scriptures, four observations can be made.
- Spiritual principles for guiding the believer are set forth in these Scriptures. Strict retaliation was provided for and permitted under the Old Testament Law [Ex. 21:23-25]. This is repeated in the Sermon on the Mount. But even this was not the highest and best method of justice. If the highest measure of good was to come to everyone, it must be recognized that underlying the Old Testament Law there was the second great commandment: “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself” [Lev. 19:18; Mt. 22:39]. Jesus emphasized this in his teaching. Under grace the whole motive of social relations is changed. The Author of the law has come and, seeing how men have misunderstood and misused the law, he now declares: “But I say unto you, Resist not him that is evil” [Mt. 5:39]. That which was implicit in the Old Testament Law is now made explicit in Jesus’ teaching. Vengeance belongs to the Lord [Rom. 12:19], and believers are exhorted to love their enemies.
- In every one of these Scriptures the subject and emphasis is on the personal conduct of individual believers. The very nature of each exhortation is such that only individual believers could be meant to respond to the teaching. These commands are not delivered to groups, congregations, governments or nations. Any careful examination of the language makes this a necessary conclusion. The “whosoever” and “if any man” individualizes the command.
- In every one of these Scriptures some aspect of the exercise of physical force is considered. Resistance against spiritual evil is not in view here, though it is certainly discussed at length in many other places in the New Testament. In every case where spiritual evil is the subject of discussion believers are called upon to resist it, and to do so in a spiritual way [Eph. 6:10-13; James 4:7; 1 Peter 5:9]. Overcoming physical evil with spiritual good is the thrust of these passages.
- Moreover, these Scriptures set forth spiritual ideals which will be universally realized when the kingdom of God is established on earth. Today Christ is calling out a spiritual aristocracy who will someday experience the kingdom in its physical reality. But inasmuch as they are now subjects of that kingdom, they should display the spiritual characteristics that will someday be universally realized [Mt. 5:3; Luke 6:20]. Possessing a “blessed” or born-again nature constitutes the right to enter that kingdom. And if this nature is present, then it ought to exhibit the characteristics now.
The doctrine of nonresistance harmonizes with the entire teaching of the New Testament. Nonresistance is part of a perfect, systematic, logical system which commends itself to the thinking Christian.
This doctrine harmonizes with the life and ministry of Christ while on earth. His name was called Jesus because he would save his people from their sins [Mt. 1:21]. At his coming there was good news for all people [Luke 2:10-11]. He came to seek and save the lost [Luke 19:10]. He came to save and not to destroy [Luke 9:54-56]. He went about doing good and healing [Acts 10:38]. When he was reviled he did not respond in kind, but “bore our sins in his own body on the cross” [1 Peter 2:24]. These passages demonstrated that the whole life and ministry of Christ was one of nonresistance. Believers are exhorted to follow his example and to walk as he walked.
Only upon two occasions does Christ seem to follow a course inconsistent with his regular pattern of life. These relate to the cleansing of the temple. But it has not been proven that on these occasions he used physical force on men. He did on the beasts, but there is no indication that men were the objects of physical force. Even if they were, however, Jesus was merely exercising the sovereign authority of his messianic office and giving people a glimpse of the vengeance that will be inflicted when he returns to execute divine wrath.
This doctrine harmonizes with the divine program of eschatology set forth in the Bible. During the day of man, God is permitting people to go their way, but offering them his grace and love. But at Christ’s coming the Lord will take full charge of events. The saved will be raptured into the presence of Christ [1 Thes. 4:13-18]. Vengeance will be meted out on the wicked [Rom. 12:19; 1 Thes. 4:6; Heb. 10:30; 2 Thes. 1:5-9; James 5:7-9]. This recompense upon the wicked will be effected at the coming of Christ in glory [Rev. 19:11-21]. Because vengeance is yet to come, believers are to be patient unto the coming of the Lord [James 5:7-9]. It is therefore necessary for believers to practice nonresistance as they look for the return of Christ and the execution of vengeance.
The doctrine of nonresistance rests upon certain important principles.
- The Spirit of Christ is not of this world, and therefore those who possess that Spirit cannot use worldly methods. James and John requested the privilege of calling down fire on the enemies of the Lord in Samaria, as Elijah did, “But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, You know not what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” [Luke 9:55-56]. One of the first fruits of the Spirit is peace, and those who possess that Spirit should be peacemakers [Gal. 5:22; Mt. 5:9]. It would therefore be impossible for men who possess the Spirit to take up arms in hostility.
- The purpose of Christ is not of this world, for he did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them. If Christians promote that purpose they cannot possibly take human life. Taking life is destroying that which people hold most precious, and it eliminates the opportunity for hearing the Word of Christ and being eternally saved from both physical and spiritual ruin.
- The methods of Christ are not of this world, for he does not use worldly weapons in his warfare. “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds” [2 Cor. 10:3-4]. Probably no one has ever yet endured more reviling and persecution than Christ. And yet never once did he resort to carnal weapons for defense.
- The protection of Christ is not of this world, but is heavenly and eternal. Divine care operates within the sphere of and control of the sovereign will of God. Even though Christ was in the hands of hostile men, he could encourage his disciples by saying, “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 would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” [Mt. 26:53-54]. Christ came to fulfill the will of God and at this point it meant that he must die.
In the case of others it was the will of God to protect them by various means. He rescued Peter from prison by angelic intervention; later Peter and John were saved by public sentiment; and still later they were delivered by the reasoning of a great Jewish teacher. The twelfth chapter of Acts recounts how God allowed James to suffer martyrdom, but Peter was saved from death by the prayers of the saints.
Those who practice nonresistance are in the center of God’s perfect will. The outcome rests with Christ. Some may have to pay with their lives for the privilege and determination to follow the commands of Christ. Others may be rescued from mortal danger by various means under the control of God. But in either case the obedient servant will bear a vigorous and lasting testimony to the grace of god.