The New Testament and Violence
1 September 2010
This is the final article in a three-part series I had started way back in May. It began with part one — Christianity and Violence — and continued with part two — Yeshua and Violence.
It is also an "unofficial part eight" of the seven-part series which reviews pastor Gregory Boyd's book The Myth of a Christian Nation, because I am quoting a passage from that book in this article. Both the three-part series and the seven-part series deal with the same basic subject: Christianity and violence.
As we read through the entire New Testament, we find that virtually ALL of the violence mentioned therein is committed AGAINST Yeshua (Jesus) and His followers. There is NOT ONE recorded instance where followers of Yeshua acted violently in accordance with God's will. There were a couple of instances in which Yeshua's disciples acted violently or wanted to act violently, but Yeshua rebuked them either before or after the incident.
One incident is when James and John wanted to call down fire, like Elijah had done in the Old Testament, when a certain village rejected Yeshua (see Luke 9:52-56). The other incident was when Yeshua was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, and one of His followers attacked with his sword (see Matthew 26:50-53; Mark 14:46-47; Luke 22:49-51; John 18:4-11). I cover this in more depth in the first article in this series (Christianity and Violence), in which I also wrote:
There are nearly 8,000 verses in the entire New Testament. Go ahead and read through the entire thing very carefully — can you find even ONE verse that commands or encourages Christians to act violently towards another human being? If so, please e-mail me and let me know — I would really like to see it.
Still, there are a few important passages in the New Testament regarding violence that we need to take a closer look at, starting with the often-quoted Romans 13:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1-7)
In The Myth of a Christian Nation Pastor Boyd has a lot to say about this passage, of which I can quote only a small portion here:
Since Paul in this passage grants that the authority of government ultimately comes from God and that God uses it to punish wrongdoers, it seems permissible for Christians to participate in this violent activity, many argue, at least when the Christian is sure it is "just." Unfortunately, this argument is strained in several ways.
First, while Paul encourages Christians to be SUBJECT TO whatever sword-wielding authorities they find themselves under, nothing in this passage suggests the Christians should PARTICIPATE IN the government's sword-wielding activity. Second, as John Yoder [in The Politics of Jesus ] has noted, Romans 13 must be read as a continuation of Romans 12, in which Paul tells disciples to (among other things) "bless those who persecute you" (verse 14); "do not repay anyone evil for evil" (verse 17); and especially, "never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says Yahweh'" (verse 19). Leaving vengeance to God, we are to instead feed our enemies when they are hungry and give them water when they are thirsty (verse 20). Instead of being "overcome by evil," we are to "overcome evil with good" (verse 21).
In the next several verses, Paul specifies that sword-wielding authorities are one means by which God executes vengeance (13:4). Since this is the very same vengeance disciples were just FORBIDDEN to exercise (12:19, ekdikeo) it seems to follow, as Yoder argues, that the "vengeance" that is recognized as being within providential control when exercised by government is the same "vengeance" that Christians are told NOT to exercise. In other words, we may acknowledge that in certain circumstances authorities carry out a good function in wielding the sword against wrongdoers, but that doesn't mean people who are committed to following Jesus should PARTICIPATE in it. Rather, it seems we are to leave such matters to God who uses sword-wielding authorities to carry out His will in society.
So, in summary, we see that in Romans 13 the New Testament allows the use of violence to punish wrongdoers and keep the peace. But, as has been explained by Pastor Boyd, this allowance seems to be limited to kingdom-of-the-world governments, and is NOT permitted for Kingdom-of-God citizens. As Pastor Boyd concludes:
To belong to this Kingdom is to crucify the fleshly desire to live out of self-interest and tribal interest, and to thus crucify the fallen impulse to protect these interests through violence. To belong to this revolutionary Kingdom is to purge your heart of "all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice" (Ephesians 4:31) — however "justified" and understandable these sentiments might be.
It is better to serve than to be served and better to die than to kill.... To refuse to kill for patriotic reasons is to show "we actually take our identity in Christ more seriously than our identity with the empire, the nation-state, or the ethnic terror cell whence we come," as Lee Camp says [in Mere Discipleship]. So, while I respect the sincerity and courage of Christians who may disagree and feel it their duty to defend their country with violence, I honestly see no way to condone a Christian's decision to kill on behalf of any country — or for any other reason.
Regarding the next New Testament passage we will take a look at, in Christianity and Violence I wrote:
Some Islamic apologists take the words of a parable spoken by Yeshua as an example of Him encouraging violence in His followers. The last sentence of the parable says: "But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them — bring them here and kill them in front of me" (Luke 19:27). There are a couple of problems with this Islamic interpretation:
  1. The text specifically says Yeshua was telling a parable (verse 11). The definition of a parable is "a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson." Parables are not to be taken literally, as though each sentence were an explicit instruction. The whole meaning of the parable is to be taken as instructive, not individual bits of it.
  2. It also says in the same verse 11 that the reason Yeshua told the parable in the first place was because the people thought that the Kingdom of God was going to appear at once, and He wanted to correct that misconception. So it's not a parable about killing your enemies, but about the long delay before God's Kingdom will be finally established on the earth in the Last Days, and how we are to make good use of the abilities and resources He gives us until His return.
You can make a case that the "man of noble birth [who] went to a distant country to have himself appointed king" could be Yeshua Himself. The only examples in the entire New Testament of Yeshua or His followers acting violently can be found in the book of Revelation, when Yeshua comes back to the earth as King to execute violent judgment upon the rebellious of the earth who refuse to follow Him.
Personally, I do believe that this parable of Yeshua could very well be autobiographical, because it fits in with the teaching of the rest of the Bible. Here are some of the aspects of the parable that correlate with Yeshua's life: When Yeshua came to earth the first time 2,000 years ago, He came as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world. When He comes the second time at the end of the age, He will show Himself as the Lion of the tribe of Judah, who executes vengeance on the rebellious of the earth. He will become established as King of the whole world, with His throne in Jerusalem. The book of Revelation gives us glimpses of that glorious time to come:
Ten kings... will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because He is Lord of lords and King of kings — and with Him will be His called, chosen and faithful followers. (Revelation 17:12-14)
There before me was a white horse, whose Rider is called Faithful and True. With justice He judges and makes war.... The armies of heaven were following Him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of His mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. "He will rule them with an iron scepter" [see Psalm 2]. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.... Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the Rider on the horse and His army. But the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet... The rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the Rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh. (Revelation 19:11,14,15,19,20a,21)
I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Yeshua and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Messiah a thousand years. (Revelation 20:4)
This, my friends, is the final end of your Islamic future! The return of the King! When Yeshua is finally established as King of the whole earth, it will be the end of violence:
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. (Revelation 21:4)
"Behold, I [Yeshua] am coming soon! My reward is with Me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done. (Revelation 22:12)
What an awesome, glorious day that will be! I hope I'll see you there....