Two months ago, I wrote an e-teaching that examined what I’ve termed “absolute nonresistance,” that is, the idea that in all cases and situations, Christians must never resist any evil person, to the degree of never defending themselves, or others, from those who would harm them, never taking another person to court, never serving in any branch of government or law enforcement, and never going to war. Contrasted with that is what might be called “everyday nonresistance,” the idea that Jesus expects His followers to “turn the other cheek” when suffering the minor offenses of everyday life.
Some of the good folks who subscribe to absolute nonresistance are persuaded that in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus called His followers to a higher standard than what was expected of those under the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses clearly allowed for self-defense, defense of others, lawsuits, and wars, whereas Jesus, they point out, always expected His followers to “turn the other cheek.”
So, in last month’s e-teaching, we began considering the basic premise that Jesus introduced moral standards for His followers that were superior to what God expected of those under the Law of Moses. That premise is usually based on Jesus’ six “You have heard…but I say to you” statements in His Sermon on the Mount. Last month we considered three of those statements, and it was clear that none introduced a moral or ethical standard beyond what was already stipulated in the Mosaic Law. In each case, Jesus simply exposed and corrected the false teaching of the scribes and Pharisees, while at the same time affirming what was taught in the Mosaic Law.
Incidentally, within Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, there is other evidence affirming that He was primarily correcting the false teaching and practices of Israel’s leaders. I won’t take the space to discuss the references here, but you can read Matthew 5:20; 6:1-2, 16; 7:15-23, 28-29.
This month, I want to first consider the remaining three of Jesus’ “You have heard…but I say to you” statements. Then I intend to show how the idea of absolute nonresistance is incompatible with other words of Jesus. Finally, I want to discuss how we can determine when Jesus does and does not expect us to resist evil people.
4.) OK to Lie Under the Mosaic Law?
Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your statement be, “Yes, yes” or “No, no”; and anything beyond these is of evil (Matt. 5:33-37).
If you’ve ever read Jesus’ lengthy denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees recorded in Matthew 23, you know they had concocted an elaborate set of rules regarding swearing oaths that effectually legalized lying:
Woe to you, blind guides, who say, “Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple is obligated.” You fools and blind men! Which is more important, the gold or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, “Whoever swears by the altar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering on it, he is obligated.” You blind men, which is more important, the offering, or the altar that sanctifies the offering? Therefore, whoever swears by the altar, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And whoever swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And whoever swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it (Matt. 23:16-22).
So it is undeniable that the scribes and Pharisees taught that one was required to keep his word only if he swore by the temple gold or the offering on the altar, but one was not required to keep his word if he swore by the temple itself, or the altar itself. It reminds me of children who are convinced that they are exempt from any requirement to tell the truth if they’ve got their fingers crossed behind their backs.
Jesus was not, of course, condemning or forbidding making vows or promises. Jesus obviously affirmed making vows or promises when He told His followers, “Let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no.'” Those are words of promises. Marriage begins with promises. So does salvation. Many good things in human experience begin with promises. We all know that God makes promises.
Rather, Jesus was condemning the practice of the scribes and Pharisees, who apparently were such liars that the only way they could hope to convince anyone that they were telling the truth was to add a swearing oath like, “I swear by the temple gold that I’ll do what I’m promising!” Worse, they had even invented ways to swear with such oaths and still lawfully, in their own minds, lie!
Of course most of us know that anyone who has to resort to swearing oaths is admitting he is a liar who generally can’t be trusted. People who always tell the truth have no need to resort to swearing oaths.
But back to our primary question regarding the belief that Jesus was raising the bar for His followers above the moral standard of the Mosaic Law. Was that the case this time? Was it acceptable in God’s eyes to be a liar under the Law of Moses? Was it acceptable in God’s eyes prior to the Sermon on the Mount to make a vow, swearing by the temple or the temple altar, and have no intention whatsoever of keeping your vow? Here are a few verses from the Law of Moses that should help us answer those questions:
You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the name of your God; I am the Lord (Lev. 19:12).
If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth (Num. 30:2).
You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, what you have promised (Deut. 23:23).
Clearly, once again, Jesus was not raising the moral bar for His followers to some standard above the Mosaic Law. Neither was He forbidding making vows, pledges or promises to God or man (Paul, for example, made and kept a vow in Acts 18:18). Rather, He was, once again, correcting the false teaching, and in this case the deceitful practices, of the scribes and Pharisees. Please allow me to paraphrase Matthew 23:33-37:
You have also heard in the synagogues from your teachers, the scribes and Pharisees, that your ancestors were told, “You shall not make false vows, but shall fulfill your vows to the Lord.” Had your synagogue teachers only told you that, there would be nothing for Me to correct. But as you know, the scribes and Pharisees have added their own rules and traditions that have nullified God’s clear commandments about keeping promises. The scribes and Pharisees are such consistent liars that, when they make promises, no one believes them, so they have to swear by something to convince others that this time they can be trusted. Worse, they’ve invented elaborate rules that at times exempt them from keeping their promises even when they do swear by something else!
That is not the example I want you to follow. As is clearly revealed in your consciences and in the Law of Moses, God wants you to always be truth tellers. So I’m reminding you once again what you all know in your hearts. When you make a promise, you don’t need to swear by anything or say anything beyond “yes” and “no.” If you do, it shows something evil is going on.
#5 OK to Divorce Under the Mosaic Law?
The fifth of Jesus’ six “You have heard…but I say” statements is another one that makes it ever so clear that, once again, Jesus was correcting the false teaching of the scribes and Pharisees. It begins with Him citing a quotation that is not found anywhere in the Law of Moses:
And it was said, “Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce”; but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery (Matt. 5:31-32).
There is nothing in the Law of Moses that resembles the words, “Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” Jesus was not quoting from the Law of Moses. So who was He quoting?
He was quoting the scribes and Pharisees, who had twisted Deuteronomy 24:1, turning a commandment that forbade twice-divorced or divorced-then-widowed women from remarrying their original husbands—and which mentions “divorce certificates” in passing—into a commandment to give your wife a divorce certificate when you divorced her for any cause at all. (For additional proof of this, see Matthew 19:7 and Mark 10:4).
The large majority of the scribes and Pharisees believed that they could divorce their wives for any cause at all, as revealed by their once questioning Jesus about that very thing (see Matt. 19:3-9). Historical Jewish writings reveal that most Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day believed that a wife’s “indecency,” mentioned by Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1 as a reason a husband might divorce his wife, was just about anything that might displease him, from her not cooking a meal to his satisfaction to her being less attractive than some other woman. According to the popular teaching of the time, the husband’s only obligation to his wife, if he divorced her, was to give her a certificate of divorce. That is what Jesus was referencing when He said, “And it was said, ‘Whoever sends his wife away, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'”
So clearly, Jesus was not accurately quoting or even paraphrasing the Mosaic Law so that He could then raise the Law’s moral standard for His followers. Under the Old Covenant, God did not give men the right to divorce for any reason as long as they gave their spouses a certificate. Under the Old Covenant, God declared, “I hate divorce” (Mal. 2:16). God has been opposed to divorce from the time of Adam, as is so clearly revealed by Jesus’ later words to some questioning Pharisees:
Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate (Matt. 19:4-6).
God’s view of divorce has remained consistent from the time of humanity’s creation—as we would expect, since He is God.
But here’s an important question: Although it is clear that God has always been opposed to divorce since Adam and Eve, has there ever been a legitimate reason for divorce in God’s eyes?
The answer is obviously, yes.
As we just read in Matthew 5:31-32, Jesus unquestionably permitted divorce for the cause of “unchastity” (Greek: porneia) that is, sexual sin prior to or during marriage. If Jesus permitted divorce for a cause that was previously not a legitimate cause, then it can only be said that Jesus lowered the moral standard. Thus it is safe to conclude that God must have allowed divorce for the cause of unchastity since the time of Adam and Eve.
And it would also seem safe to conclude that the discovery of sexual sin committed prior to or during marriage must have been the “indecency” that the Mosaic Law mentioned could be reason for a man to divorce his wife. (That conclusion is also supported by Numbers 5:11-31 and Deuteronomy 22:13-21, passages that both underscore the serious offense of adultery and its potential destructiveness to marriage.)
But what about Jesus’ words found later in Matthew’s Gospel: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives” (19:8)? Aren’t those words a lamentation that Moses apparently lowered the bar and an indication that Jesus was raising the bar to where it had been prior to Moses?
At first glance that might seem to be the case. But let’s take a closer look.
First, some point out that Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives,” which they interpret to mean, “It was Moses, not God, who permitted you to divorce your wives.” But did Jesus mean that Moses permitted something that God would have preferred he forbade? Are there parts of the Law of Moses that are not divinely inspired?
No. At other times Jesus referred to words found in the Law of Moses that were unquestionably from the mouth of God by saying, “Moses said,” or “Moses commanded.” In no case was Jesus trying to communicate that Moses was speaking independently of God. For example, Mark recorded Jesus as once saying, “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother'” (Mark 7:10; see also Matt. 8:4). In that case, Moses’ words were obviously God’s words.
And thus, when Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives,” it was the same as if He had said, “God, in the Law of Moses, permitted you to divorce your wives.” If Jesus was lamenting, He was lamenting that God had lowered the bar! (Which would be equivalent to lamenting that He Himself had lowered the bar.)
Let’s probe a little further with another question: Why did God permit men under the Mosaic Law to divorce their wives? Jesus gave the answer: “Because of the hardness of your hearts.”
But don’t read that, “Because of the hardness of your hearts God permitted you to divorce your wives for any cause at all.” No, because of the hardness of their hearts, God permitted them to divorce their wives for the cause of sexual immorality. Soft-hearted husbands don’t need such a concession, as they, imitating God, forgive the pre- and post-wedding promiscuity of wives who repent. (Of course, adulterous wives who are unrepentant and continue in adultery are in a different category, as such wives are not interested in being forgiven by, or reconciled to, their husbands.)
Jesus Continues His Concession
Here is what is important to see: Jesus made the identical concession regarding divorce as God did in the Law of Moses, because Jesus said, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity….” So Jesus was neither raising nor lowering the Mosaic moral law concerning legitimate grounds for divorce. He was making the same concession as found in the Law of Moses, which shouldn’t surprise us, since He was the author of the Law of Moses. Jesus permits divorce for adultery.
Most importantly, note that immediately after Jesus revealed why the Mosaic Law contained a concession for divorce, He quickly reminded His audience, “but from the beginning it has not been this way” (Matt. 19:8). That is, from the time long before the Mosaic Law was given, from the time of the first marriage, divorce was never God’s intention. All marriages are supposed to last until death of one of the covenant partners.
Of course, it was also God’s intention from the beginning that all spouses be sexually faithful to each other, but sadly, such is not always the case. So God has made a concession for divorce in those cases. Unrepentant sexual immorality justifies divorce in God’s eyes—prior to the Mosaic Law, during the Mosaic Law, and under the Law of Christ. However, repentance of sexual immorality calls for forgiveness, and it always has. Softhearted husbands won’t, upon discovery of sexual immorality, divorce wives who repent.
A few years ago, the wife of a dear Christian friend of mine had an affair. In light of her sin, no one would have found fault with him if he would have divorced her. I wouldn’t have. I was amazed and blessed, however, at his mercy as he tried to lead her to repentance and restore their broken marriage. Sadly, she could not be persuaded, and she ultimately divorced him to marry her lover, who also divorced his wife to marry her. My friend, although admitting times of anger at his wife, found within himself the love of Christ for both her and her illicit lover—whom he even once visited in the hospital and endeavored to lead to Christ! To say my friend is “softhearted” is an understatement. He did not need to take advantage of the concession that both the Mosaic Law and Jesus (who gave the Mosaic Law) made for offended husbands.
Naturally, if the Law of Moses allowed a man to divorce his wife over adultery, it permitted him in such cases to remarry, which is exactly what Jesus permitted. He said, “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). So a man who remarries commits adultery only if he divorced his wife for some reason other than unchastity. If he divorces legitimately (for adultery), he is not guilty of committing adultery if he remarries.
Jesus’ similar declarations in the Sermon on the Mount about remarriage (“Everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” [Matt. 5:32]), were also not a new standard that superseded the previous standard in the Mosaic Law. Jesus was only drawing an obvious parallel between illegitimate divorce/remarriage and adultery that has been true since the time of Adam and Eve.
Think about it: Jewish leaders in Jesus’ day were divorcing for illegitimate reasons and remarrying. And Jesus was simply pointing out what is obvious to any thinking person, that such a practice is no different than adultery. In both adultery and illegitimate divorce/remarriage, people who made marriage covenants have sex with other people. Jesus wasn’t altering the Mosaic Law or raising the moral bar at all. And He was once again correcting the false teaching and practices of the scribes and Pharisees.
All the Other Questions…
Of course, much of the debate on this topic within Christendom involves what is lawful after divorce or after divorce/remarriage. That is beyond the scope of this e-teaching. But let me at least say that, if you are a true Christian married to a true Christian, you have no divorce option—unless your spouse commits adultery. Even then, God wants you to work towards reconciliation predicated upon repentance. (I know there are other questions that could be asked and addressed, but again, they are all beyond the scope of this teaching.)
Incidentally, if a true Christian does commit adultery, his or her conscience would be screaming before, during and after, which would certainly lend itself to the hope of repentance. And if there is no repentance in such cases, that is a sure sign that the one guilty of adultery is not a heaven-bound believer in the Lord Jesus (see 1 Cor. 6:9-10).
In summary, allow me to paraphrase Matthew 5:31-32:
You’ve heard your teachers, the scribes and Pharisees, teach that a man can divorce his wife for any cause, and that Moses taught that when a man does divorce his wife, he only needs to give her a divorce certificate. That, however, is an outrageous twisting of what is actually taught in the the Law of Moses, of which, by the way, I’m the author. God never intended, from the time of Adam and Eve, that any marriage end in divorce. The Law of Moses only permitted divorce in cases of adultery, and I’m affirming that same standard to My followers. But please don’t be so hardhearted that, if your spouse does commit adultery, you don’t work for reconciliation predicated upon repentance.
And your teachers, the scribes and Pharisees, who are so frequently divorcing and remarrying while at the same time condemning adultery and wanting to stone adulterers, are incredible hypocrites, as what they are doing is no different than adultery. They, just like adulterers, are having sexual relations outside their covenant of marriage. Worse, by their divorces they are multiplying what also amounts to adultery, as their divorced spouses remarry. So don’t fool yourselves as those hypocrites are fooling themselves. Marriage is a lifetime covenant. That is why you promise, “Till death do us part.”
Five down, now just one to go. And may I point out that, in all of the first five examples of Jesus’ “You have heard…but I say to you” statements, He did not raise the moral standard above what was expected under the Law of Moses. Rather, He simply affirmed the original, untwisted standards of the Law of Moses.
#6 OK to Seek Personal Revenge Under the Mosaic Law?
You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone wants to sue you, and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. And whoever shall force you to go one mile, go with him two (Matt. 5:38-41).
In my e-teaching two months ago, I did a thorough job of showing how Jesus’ words about nonresistance, just like all of His other “You have heard…but I say” statements, were not an accurate portrayal of what the Mosaic Law taught followed by a raising of the moral bar. Rather, they were an obvious portrayal of the false teaching of the scribes and Pharisees and a correction of that. If you haven’t read that e-teaching, you can by clicking here.
By way of quick review, there are no instructions in the Law of Moses for the people of Israel to seek revenge by exacting “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Those words are only found in the Law’s instructions to Israel’s judges, requiring them to administrate justice. The people of Israel were forbidden to take their own revenge, which is one reason why God gave them a means to seek justice through a court system. So Jesus was not contrasting God’s law with His own reversal of God’s law (which would have, by the way, proven to everyone that He was not sent by God). We can only conclude that the scribes and Pharisees were twisting God’s word exclusively given to Israel’s judges, using their twisting as an excuse for taking personal revenge for petty offenses. Jesus wants His followers to do better, as was already revealed in the Law of Moses.
Now please allow me to follow up on that e-teaching from two months ago.
A Few Revealing Questions
If Jesus was actually advocating absolute nonresistance in His words about turning the other cheek, we would have to wonder why He contradicted Himself by what He said at other times.
For example, when Jesus gave instructions regarding church discipline in Matthew 18, why did He outline steps that begin with confrontation and that might lead to a relationship severance and excommunication? Jesus’ instructions do not harmonize with “turning the other cheek” as interpreted by those who subscribe to absolute nonresistance. So either Jesus was confused, giving contradictory commandments, or His words regarding nonresistance have a specific application that does not include when a fellow believer sins against another believer. Thus it is safe to conclude that Jesus’ words about nonresistance do not have universal application to every situation.
Paul reiterated this same concept when he lamented that the Corinthian believers were suing each other in secular courts before unbelievers, bringing reproach to Jesus’ church. He asked, “Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren…?” (1 Cor. 6:5). Had Paul believed in absolute nonresistance, he would never have posed such a question, but rather would have told those who had been wronged to “turn the other cheek,” that is, simply accept the offense and offer a welcome opportunity for additional harm to be done.
Here’s another revealing question: Why did Jesus instruct His followers to flee when they were persecuted? Doesn’t He always want us to “turn the other cheek” in any and every encounter with evil people? If so, then we shouldn’t flee when we’re persecuted. Rather, we should willingly accept any abuse our antagonists wish. And beyond that, if we are going to obey Jesus, we should offer our persecutors a welcome opportunity to do us more harm than they intended, “offering them the other cheek,” because that is what Jesus said to do. Fleeing persecution is contrary to remaining to accept abuse and welcoming more abuse. You can’t do both. This again shows that Jesus’ words about nonresistance do not have universal application to every situation.
In regard to persecution, why did Paul, when arrested in Jerusalem, appeal to his Roman citizenship to prevent being flogged? If he had “turned the other cheek,” he would have kept quiet about his Roman citizenship and requested double the lashes. But he did something to attempt to prevent the harm that was about to be inflicted upon him. Not only did he not encourage a second slap; he did something to prevent a first slap! Paul did not believe in absolute nonresistance.
Another question: Of whom was Jesus speaking when He said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13)? How does one literally lay down his life for his friends unless he is trying to resist some evil perpetrated against his friends?
These questions all reveal how unwise it is to interpret Jesus’ words regarding “turning the other cheek” without attempting to harmonize them with the rest of scripture in order to arrive at a balanced understanding of what God expects.
Those who adhere to absolute nonresistance often qualify Jesus’ commandment to not resist evil people, saying that it is OK to resist evil people verbally (as so many New Testament characters did), but not physically. Jesus, however, made no such qualification. Yet they correct folks like me who also make qualifications that are based on biblical truth, reminding me that “We should not add anything to Jesus’ plain teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.” I disagree. We should add everything else that Jesus said to His plain teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Never forget: Textual isolation breeds false interpretation!
Along these lines, one author who advocates absolute nonresistance claims that Jesus spoke out against evil, but He never used physical force against it. I wondered if that author ever read this incident mentioned in three of the Gospels:
And He made a scourge of cords, and drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen; and He poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables (John 2:15).
In order to make Jesus’ words about nonresistance fit their theology and logic, adherents of absolute nonresistance must read Matthew 5:38-39 as if it said this:
You know that under the Law of Moses, God instructed all Israelites to always get their own revenge, making sure that they personally poked out the eye of anyone who poked out one of their eyes and making sure that they personally knocked out the tooth any anyone who knocked out one of their teeth. But now I am completely reversing God’s fundamental moral rule. I am abolishing part of the Law that I declared just seconds ago that I would not abolish. From now on, I expect that you will not resist any evil person under any circumstances. If anyone pokes out one of your eyes, give him the welcome opportunity to poke out your other eye. If anyone punches you and knocks out one of your teeth, invite him to punch you again until another tooth falls out. If anyone wants to rape your wife, give him your daughter to rape also.
But that is not at all what Jesus said!
Questions About the Fundamental Premise
There are also more questions that reveal the fundamental flaws of the premise that Jesus introduced a radically higher moral standard to what was found in the Mosaic Law.
If, in His Sermon in the Mount, Jesus introduced a radically higher moral standard that the world had never before heard, then we must believe that one could love God with all his heart, mind, soul and strength and love his neighbor as himself—keeping the two greatest commandments that summarized the moral standard God expected under the Old Covenant—and still not live up to the alleged “higher ethic.” Those who adhere to absolute nonresistance must admit that keeping the two greatest commandments is simply not enough.
Moreover, if we take Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount seriously so that we actually believe that the standards of holiness He outlines are truly required of us to escape hell and inherit eternal life (as He makes so clear), and if the Sermon on the Mount does in fact introduce a much higher ethic than what is found in the Law of Moses, then it must be true that Jesus has made it more difficult for those who lived after His Sermon than those who lived before it to inherit eternal life. That makes God unjust. We should question any interpretation of Scripture that impugns one of God’s fundamental attributes.
Here’s another difficult question for those who hold to absolute nonresistance: Where in the New Testament epistles is it taught by Paul, Peter, James, Jude or John that Jesus gave His followers a superior ethic that surpasses the ethic of the Mosaic Law?
The reason that question is so difficult to answer is because such a teaching can’t be found anywhere in the epistles. And that should not surprise us, as Jesus declared that the two greatest commandments are commandments found in the Law of Moses.
The second greatest commandment is quoted by New Testament authors as if they believed it was relevant and binding upon their New Covenant readers. Of that commandment, Paul wrote:
For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal. 5:14).
The second greatest commandment sums up the entire moral teaching of the Law of Moses. Are we to believe that it would be possible to differentiate between a person who loves his neighbor as himself and one who follows Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount?
If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well (Jas. 2:8).
James unquestionably believed one could “do well” as a follower of Christ if he loved his neighbor as himself, that is, kept an Old Covenant law! Where is James’ reference to a higher law or ethic under the New Covenant that supersedes the ethic of the Old Covenant?
Here is another difficult question for those who hold to absolute nonresistance: The Old Covenant law required believers to love their neighbors as themselves, but that same law allowed them to strike a thief who broke into their house. Do those two things contradict each other? Was God confused when He gave Israel the Law of Moses?
No, under the Old Covenant, loving one’s neighbor as oneself clearly did not preclude resisting a thief. So does that same commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself, still the second greatest commandment under the New Covenant, somehow now prohibit resisting a thief? Has that commandment intrinsically changed? How could it?
Moreover, if someone breaks into my house, does the commandment to love my neighbor as myself have any bearing on what I should do in regard to defending my family? If I love my wife and children, will I not defend them? I would do my best, because I love them, to defend them against a fire, flood, tornado, wild animal or a poisonous spider. How could it be said that I love them as God has commanded me if I do nothing to resist an evil person who intends to harm them?
In such a case, the one who adheres to absolute nonresistance must decide which of Jesus’ commandments to obey, either His alleged commandment to do nothing (“Do not resist an evil person”), or His commandment that undeniably requires some action (“Love your neighbor as yourself”). He finds himself in a quandary: Do I love the thief or do I love my family?
But those who know that God’s commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself allows for the striking of a thief have no such quandary.
Finally, most of us know that Jesus expects His followers to love Him even more than we love our loved ones (see Matt. 10:37, Luke 14:26). Strangely, however, those who subscribe to absolute nonresistance give to thieves what Jesus alone deserves—a greater love than what they show to their own families!
When Should We Resist or Not Resist?
So what does Jesus require of us in regard to nonresistance? It is not that complicated. We only need to read what Jesus said:
But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two (Matt. 5:39-41).
Jesus listed three examples that each illustrate the kind of nonresistance He expects. Note that all are relatively small offenses: a cheek slap, a small claim in court, a forced one-mile walk. All entail minor, temporary suffering, and once completed, life goes on the same. The only difference is that one’s cheeks have been made red for a few minutes, one owns one less coat, or one has benefitted from some good exercise. Those are the kinds of offenses that Jesus does not want us to resist.
Another means to determine if our circumstance calls for nonresistance is to simply ask, Is it reasonable to actively seek a doubling of the offense? Because that is what Jesus instructed: turn the other cheek, give a second article of clothing, and go the second mile. Again, take note that Jesus did not say, “Whoever pokes out your eye, give him your other eye to poke out, and whoever knocks out one of your teeth, encourage him to knock out another one of your teeth.” That would be a little unreasonable, don’t you think?
I’ve noticed that those who hold to absolute nonresistance generally ignore the second part of Jesus’ instructions. When presented with “What if” situations, such as, “What if someone broke into your house intending to murder your family,” they can’t explain how they would offer a welcome opportunity for the intruder to do more harm than he intended—as Jesus commanded.
Moreover, while claiming that they would not resist, they admit that they would call the police, or stand between the intruder and their family, or rebuke him in the name of Jesus, all of which are forms of resistance, as they are trying to prevent the harm intended, in spite of the fact that Jesus commanded us to offer our antagonists a welcome opportunity to do more harm than they intended. This, too, shows the flaw in absolute nonresistance.
Another way to determine if our circumstance calls for nonresistance is to ask: By not resisting, will I be violating the second greatest commandment, namely, to love my neighbor as myself? Clearly, love dictates that I resist evil people in order to protect others from harm. I’m so glad that God’s angels haven’t embraced absolute nonresistance! I’m so glad God hasn’t either! His protection is an indication of His love.
Under certain circumstances, love dictates that I resist evil people to protect myself from harm. A cheek slap, a tiny lawsuit, or a forced 2-mile walk won’t make my wife a widow or my children orphans. But in situations that would, loving my family demands that I resist personal harm.
Can Christians serve in government? In law enforcement?
Finally, since Jesus told His followers not to resist evil people, is it wrong for Christians to serve in vocations that require the resistance of evil people?
Obviously, any job that requires one to transgress God’s commandments is incompatible with following Christ. So, if a government job requires me to offer incense to Caesar and declare that he is God, I can’t work for that government.
That being said, Paul wrote:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for rulers are servants of God, devoting themselves to this very thing (Rom. 13:1-6).
If governmental authorities are “servants of God,” obviously, serving in government or law enforcement is not intrinsically incompatible with following Christ (who said “The greatest among you shall be your servant”). I wish every person in government was a follower of Jesus. Some day, when Jesus rules the earth, that will be the case.
Jesus’ words about nonresistance have no greater application to government workers and law enforcement officers than they do to anyone else. When Christian government workers and law enforcement officials encounter minor personal offenses, they should turn the other cheek. Their God-given responsibility, however, includes resisting evil people for the sake of law and order. Thank God for them.
Incidentally, Joseph and Daniel seemed to do fairly well working in secular governments, and I seem to recall that God had something to do with their promotions.
It is good and right to obey Jesus’ commandments and teach others the same. Jesus warned, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 7:21). Jesus also said, “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19).
Let us not, however, make the “narrow way” so narrow that only a few narrow-minded people can squeeze through. Let’s not be guilty of “weighing men down with burdens hard to bear” (Luke 11:46), encumbering Jesus’ disciples with more than His easy yoke (see Matt. 11:30). And let’s “be diligent to present ourselves approved to God as workmen who do not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2Tim. 2:15).
As always, I appreciate your feedback and read all of it. — David