This essay continues the Christian Theology and Public Policy Course by John Cobin, author of the books Bible and Government and Christian Theology of Public Policy.
Some things are worth fighting for and at times struggling for peace forms a part of our civic duty.
Christians may justly fight, when prudent, either by rhetoric and diplomacy or by political power and arms—especially when their purpose is to quell the evil intrusions of the interventionist state. In order to establish sanctuary in a fallen world, Christians may thus forcibly oppose tyrants or other criminals who attempt to undermine fundamental rights through destroying life and property.
In chapters 7–9 of A Christian Manifesto (1982), Dr. Francis A. Schaeffer argues that there is a point at which a Christian must take up arms against the state. He maintains that resisting tyrants is ultimately part of a Christian’s civic duty. Following the feisty preacher John Knox and Samuel Rutherford in Lex Rex, Schaeffer says that prior to violent action, a Christian must take certain steps as his civic duty: (a) petition elected officials, (b) utilize the courts to establish precedent that favor Christian values, and (c) flee when persecuted (if possible). He notes that the actions of the American Founders were justified because they followed this prescription, having petitioned the Crown and finding nowhere to flee (or perhaps having no need to flee given that the Crown was already so remote from them), observing that the Crown had lost its legitimacy when it became a lawbreaker. Thus, not doing one’s civic duty by forcefully resisting the King would have been sin. For a Christian to do nothing in the face of collectivist or interventionist tyranny is to permit injustice and violence in society—clearly a sinful action for those who are commanded to “pursue peace” (2 Timothy 2:22; Hebrews 12:14; 1 Peter 3:11). (1)
How can Schaeffer’s doctrine of civil disobedience be reconciled with biblical teaching? After all, Jesus clearly says: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). The apparent contradiction is resolved once the redemptive purpose of Christ’s earthly ministry is taken into consideration. When Jesus walked on the earth, neither He nor His disciples defended themselves, realizing that His “time is not yet come” (Luke 4:30; 9:51; John 7:6; 8:59). Jesus meant that although He came to die for His people it was not yet the right time for Him to die according to the Father’s predetermined plan (Acts 2:23). After His redemptive purpose had been accomplished, however, the dissemination of the Gospel of peace began through Christian transformational action bounded by different criteria. Jesus had wrought peace with God for His people. Now His people were to promulgate peace by engaging their culture.
On the one hand, the people of this world often do not know what makes for true peace (Luke 19:42). (2) There is a peace that the world gives, often granted through state “magistrates” and rulers like Felix (Acts 16:36; Acts 24:2). But this peace is fleeting, as the Apostle Paul warns: “For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). When God judges the nations and the kingdoms of this world, He will “take peace from the earth” so “that people should kill one another” (Revelation 6:4). (3) So not only is the “peace” of earthly states characteristically fleeting, but also God Himself will remove any earthly peace established by states when He comes in judgment. Thus, man-produced peace is vain.
On the other hand, Jesus Christ brings another message to His people: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Peace is part of the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22) and peacemakers are blessed, being called “sons of God” (Matthew 5:9). “Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18). Christians are to bring peace both spiritually by the Gospel and socially by engaging their culture, although the Bible teaches that the peace they convey does not always “remain” where they go (Matthew 10:13; Luke 10:5-6). (4) One of the greatest benefits of Christ’s advent was that it brought the way of peace to men (Luke 1:79; 2:14) through the Gospel, both “with God”—“in believing” (Romans 5:1; 15:13) and “always in every way”—as Christians live their lives (2 Thessalonians 3:16). And therefore Christians are called to be at peace with one another, providing a good testimony to those who do not believe (Mark 9:50; 2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:13). (5)
The invasion of the kingdom of God into the world has not come by force of arms but by the suffering Servant who casts out Satan and makes peace between God and men. If Christ wanted to conquer the Romans militarily He could have done so (cf. Matthew 26:53). But that was not God’s plan. Nevertheless, since the resurrection and ascension, the Gospel is spreading and the dominion mandate (Genesis 1:26-27) is being implemented by peacemaking Christians who are called to transform their culture. And defending themselves against predators so that men may live in peace becomes part of their civic duty.
(1) 2 Timothy 2:22: “Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” Hebrews 12:14: “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” 1 Peter 3:11: “Let him turn away from evil and do good; Let him seek peace and pursue it.”
(2) Luke 19:42: “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.”
(3) The result of the Lamb opening the second seal was: “Another horse, fiery red, went out. And it was granted to the one who sat on it to take peace from the earth, and that people should kill one another; and there was given to him a great sword” (Revelation 6:4).
(4) Matthew 10:13: “If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.” Luke 10:5-6: “But whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest on it; if not, it will return to you.”
(5) Mark 9:50: “Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another.” 2 Corinthians 13:11: “Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:13: “Be at peace among yourselves.”
Originally published in The Times Examiner on November 9, 2005.