I never imagined that I would be writing, for the third consecutive month, about biblical nonresistance. But I have stirred up some discussion among sincere people with my previous two e-teachings on the subject.
I love my Christian pacifist friends, but a few have recently “un-friended” me on Facebook. When I see how some of them struggle with “turning the other cheek” in regard to a minor doctrinal disagreement, I have to wonder how well they would do if they faced much more challenging situations in which they claim they would not resist. In their case, the popular proverb of Jesus’ day has application: “Physician, heal yourself!” (Luke 4:23).
One criticism leveled at me revolved around my imaginary story of a lone gunman entering a church in which all the apostles and their families were present. I was accused of inventing a far-fetched scenario that unfairly lent itself to my argument against absolute pacifism.
My imaginary story, however, was not all that far-fetched. Gunmen do sometimes enter churches (and synagogues) and start shooting worshippers. It happened last month in my city of Pittsburgh, leaving 11 people dead and 4 wounded.
Absolute pacifists would have us believe that, had any of us been present at that massacre in Pittsburgh, Jesus would have required us to make no attempt to preserve anyone’s life since He commanded us to “not resist an evildoer.” Worse, it is the lack of this kind of “holiness” that allegedly prevents the world from being won to Jesus, because they don’t see any difference between our behavior and theirs.
I do plead guilty to creating my example to show the absurdity of absolute pacifism. If one’s convictions don’t make sense when applied to all possible situations, one needs to adjust one’s convictions. If one has to violate the most basic moral rule of loving one’s neighbor as oneself in order to “obey” one of Jesus’ alleged other commandments, one’s interpretation of that other commandment needs to be adjusted. Which is why I’m advocating for biblical pacifism rather than absolute pacifism.
And I could have used other scenarios to make the same point. For example, should Christians not resist an evildoer who is attempting to abduct their child or rape their wife? Is that what Jesus had in mind with His words about nonresistance in the Sermon on the Mount? (If you read last month’s e-teaching you know that my answer is “Absolutely not!”)
In any case, I’m still stunned that some of my pacifist friends remained unshakable, claiming that the apostles would not have done anything to resist the gunman, and all out of “obedience to Christ.” I’m still scratching my head on how anyone could think that Jesus, who (1) gave His life to save us (setting an example for us), (2) who said, “No greater love has any man than this, than he lay down his life for his friends,” and (3) who commanded us to love one another, would want us to do nothing to stop someone from murdering children and fellow followers of Christ. To me, it is an example of how reading the Bible with tunnel vision can skew one’s theology. Laying down one’s life, or risking laying down one’s life, for the sake of others, is a praiseworthy act of love, not an evil act of disobedience.
Some of my detractors offered arguments that were based on, what I feel, is faulty logic. For example, it was suggested that Jesus’ alleged requirement to do nothing to stop the gunman made sense because it would be better that all the apostles and their families die than the gunman, as they would have all gone to heaven, whereas if the gunman had died, he would have gone to hell. Thus, by not risking doing something that might kill the gunman, he would gain a future opportunity to repent and be saved. That way, in the end, both he and all the apostles and their families would all be saved.
But that argument works only if the gunman one day becomes saved. What if he is never saved? What good came out of trading his life for the lives of all the apostles?
Neither does that argument take into consideration the multitudes of people who would have been saved had all the apostles continued their ministries. If the validity of one’s theology of nonresistance is based on the salvation of people, and the alternatives are either the apostles dying or the gunman dying, the gunman’s death results in one person going to hell. If all the apostles die, multitudes would never hear the gospel, and thus multitudes of people might go to hell who would otherwise have gone to heaven.
In any case, in last month’s e-teaching, I attempted to take Jesus’ words about nonresistance at face value, in their entirety, and within their biblical context, to prove that they do not have unlimited application. Rather, they apply to cases of personal, relatively minor offenses, of such that one’s obedience to Jesus’ full commandment to offer evildoers the opportunity to do twice the harm intended does not result in one doing evil himself. That is biblical pacifism.
To further explore the subject of biblical pacifism, this month I’d like to briefly look at five instances where the apostle Paul did not “turn the other cheek” when he was persecuted. All five cases illustrate that Paul did not believe that Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about nonresistance had unlimited application, or that Jesus was advocating absolute pacifism.
The first instance of Paul not turning the other cheek occurred early in his Christian life, when he was being threatened with death in Damascus:
But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ. And when many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, but their plot became known to Saul. And they were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; but his disciples took him by night, and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket (Acts 9:22-25).
It is indisputable that Saul/Paul resisted evildoers. He worked against their plan, but in a way that was passive, godly and considerate, not violent. His way reduced the risk of himself and his enemies being harmed, and he subsequently escaped their plot to murder him. He was guided by love, but he certainly did not “turn the other cheek” and “go the second mile,” giving his enemies the opportunity to do twice the harm they intended. Clearly, Paul did not believe Jesus’ words about nonresistance required him to stay in Damascus and offer his enemies another disciple to murder along with him!
In fact, Paul, as a very young believer, perhaps unwittingly obeyed Jesus’ specific instructions regarding what His followers should do when their lives are at risk because of persecution. Jesus told the Twelve: “But whenever they persecute you in this city, flee to the next” (Matt. 10:23). The implication of Jesus’ instructions is that the persecution is life-threatening and more than just verbal abuse, as verbal abuse does not require that one flee (unless one is being verbally threatened with death).
Verbal persecution, a minor offense, should be responded to by “blessing those who curse you.” That is a form of loving one’s enemies and turning the other cheek. One could “turn the other cheek” by kindly saying to one’s persecutor, “I certainly don’t feel that way about you. In fact, let me tell you something good that I see in you.”
It is from Jesus’ own instructions to the Twelve to flee life-threatening persecution that we have proof that His words about nonresistance in the Sermon on the Mount do not have universal application, otherwise Jesus contradicted Himself. To flee is not to “turn the other cheek.” One can’t flee from his persecutors and at the same time “turn the other cheek,” “give also one’s coat,” and “walk the second mile” with his persecutors.
A second instance of Paul not “turning the other cheek” was when he and Silas were locked up in a prison in Philippi. They had already been beaten with rods, suffering “many blows” (Acts 16:23) for the crime of casting out a demon. But while Paul and Silas were singing praises to God at midnight, “suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened” (Acts 16:26).
The result was the salvation of the jailer and his household. Amazingly, after a good meal at the jailer’s house (where their wounds were also washed), Paul and Silas returned to the prison. Perhaps they were motivated by love for their new brother in Christ—the jailer—who would have faced dire consequences if Paul and Silas had escaped.
The next morning, when the same city magistrates who had ordered their beating and imprisonment sent orders for their release, Paul resisted, saying, “They have beaten us in public without trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they sending us away secretly? No indeed! But let them come themselves and bring us out” (Acts 16:38).
When the magistrates heard of Paul’s resistance, Scripture says they “were afraid when they heard that they were Romans, and they came and appealed to them, and when they had brought them out, they kept begging them to leave the city” (Acts 16:38-39).
So not only did Paul not “turn the other cheek,” giving the magistrates the welcome opportunity to do twice the harm intended, but he made them squirm in public and regret their mistreatment of him. He forced them to humble themselves and to beg that he and Silas depart from their city. So again, Paul did not “turn the other cheek” on either point.
Personally, I don’t believe Paul was being motivated by revenge or retaliation, as that would have been sin, and he certainly knew that. Rather, I believe he was motivated by love, but not what is often passed off as love in some Christian circles, a pseudo-love that always avoids confrontation and accountability under the guise of “mercy.” To acquiesce to evil is to enable it.
Paul sought what was best for the city magistrates. And the best thing for them was not that they would get away with breaking the law by denying Roman citizens their rights. Rather, the best thing for them was that they would be held accountable for their crime and learn a good lesson. That was also the best thing for all the Roman citizens of Philippi.
In any case, Paul indisputably did not “turn the other cheek” and “walk the second mile,” and the only possible reason was because he did not believe that what Jesus said about those things had application to his circumstance.
Yet another instance of Paul not “turning the other cheek” was when he was detained in Jerusalem and about to be whipped by a Roman soldier. Right before the intended scourging, Paul asked the overseeing Roman centurion, “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman and uncondemned?” (Acts 22:25).
In this case, Paul certainly did not offer the offender the opportunity to do twice the harm intended. In fact, he succeeded at persuading the potential offender to do him no harm at all. (One wonders if Paul did not also unsuccessfully employ the same strategy before he and Silas were about to be beaten with rods in Philippi.)
And not long after that self-deliverance, Paul found himself on trial before the chief priests and Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. As soon as he was given the opportunity to speak, he declared before them: “Brethren, I have lived my life with a perfectly good conscience before God up to this day” (Acts 23:2).
At that comment, Ananias the high priest commanded those standing beside Paul to strike him on the mouth, as Ananias was apparently already convinced Paul was guilty of “teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (Acts 21:21). Thus, in his thinking, Paul’s claim to a clear conscience had to have been a lie from a mouth that deserved to be struck.
Paul did not waste a second responding to Ananias, saying, “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Do you sit to try me according to the Law, and in violation of the Law order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:3). It was a sharp rebuke, a warning, and an expose’ of the utter hypocrisy of Ananias who—while trying Paul for violating the Mosaic Law—publicly violated the Mosaic Law (as the Law prescribed due process; see John 7:51).
Anyone who says that Paul was “turning the other cheek” is only fooling himself. “Turning the other cheek” requires (1) non-retaliation (in any form, including verbal), and (2) giving the offender an opportunity to do twice the harm intended. And to reduce “turning the other cheek” to merely non-retaliation, thus dismissing Jesus’ requirement to give the offender the opportunity to do twice the harm intended, is to ignore 1/2 of a commandment of Christ, not to mention to make a mockery of the very phrases, “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile.”
On both of those counts, in this instance before the Sanhedrin, Paul did not “turn the other cheek.” He did seemingly retaliate verbally, and he did not give the high priest an invitation to order him to be struck again. In fact, his words would have had the exact opposite effect on Ananias, discouraging him from commanding Paul to be struck again.
Perhaps, as some claim, Paul “got in the flesh,” and disobeyed Christ’s command to “turn the other cheek.” He was, after all, only human.
Another possibility, however, is that Paul experienced the kind of inspired defense Jesus promised His disciples when they were brought before courts—a display of wisdom that their opponents would not be able to refute (Luke 21:15). Take note that Paul instantly nailed Ananias with words that suddenly put Ananias on trial. Everyone present knew that Paul’s accusation was 100% accurate. (I doubt if many of us, using our own brains, would have come up with a retort as quickly as Paul.)
But what about Paul’s apology? Does that not prove that Paul knew he had reacted “in the flesh”? When bystanders said, “Do you revile God’s high priest?”, Paul replied, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest, as it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”
But are we really to believe that Paul, a former Pharisee himself who previously took orders from the Sanhedrin, didn’t recognize that the man who ordered him to be struck—the man who was wearing the fancy clothes and sitting in the seat of prominence presiding over the proceedings—was the high priest? That seems highly unlikely.
When Paul said, “I was not aware, brethren, that he was high priest,” it could very well have been a tongue-in-cheek way of saying, “I was not aware that a person who publicly violates the Law while trying someone according to the Law could possibly be God’s high priest.” It was, perhaps, another Holy Spirit-inspired barb. And Paul never did actually apologize, if we are honest with the text. (And when you read how Paul next played the Jewish factions and turned his trial into complete pandemonium, the plausibility that his claim of not recognizing Ananias as the high priest was tongue-in-cheek seems to increase even more.)
Finally, why do we assume that someone is “in the flesh” when they act just like Jesus? Jesus, who only spoke the words that the Father gave him to speak (John 12:49-50; 14:10) sometimes called the scribes and Pharisees very derogatory names, including “whitewashed tombs” (Matt. 23:27). If Jesus had said to Ananias what Paul said to Ananias, we’d have no trouble with it, as it would not have been out of the ordinary for Him. And surely, no one would accuse Jesus of “being in the flesh” when He called people snakes and wolves and dogs. (Come to think of it, it doesn’t seem as if Jesus always “turned the other cheek” either…)
If Paul was, in fact, not reacting in the flesh, but in the Spirit, then why didn’t the Spirit inspire him to “turn the other cheek”? Unless the Holy Spirit works in contradiction to Jesus’ commandments, it could only be because Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek had no application to Paul’s circumstance that day.
The Fifth Time Paul Did Not Turn the Other Cheek
Just one day after Paul’s circus-like trial in Jerusalem, more than 40 Jews formed a conspiracy, binding themselves under an oath to neither eat nor drink until they had killed him. They went to the chief priests, requesting that they notify the Roman commander who was protecting Paul to bring him to them for further investigation, with the intention of ambushing them on their way.
Thankfully, Paul’s nephew somehow learned of the plot, and he gained entrance to the Roman barracks. When he informed Paul of the plot, Paul called a centurion and instructed him to take his nephew to the commander, who subsequently organized a small army of 270 soldiers to safely escort Paul to Caesarea that same night, a journey of 75 miles.
Paul resisted the plot of the Jews. He worked to thwart their plans. That is resistance. And he certainly didn’t “turn the other cheek” or “walk the second mile”! He didn’t give those 40 murderous Jews any opportunity to do twice the harm they intended. And the reason is because Paul knew that Jesus’ words about nonresistance had no application to his situation.
Moreover, he cooperated with the resistance mustered by the Roman commander. He knew full well, as did the Roman commander, that at least 40 oath-bound Jewish men might attack the military escort, and thus soldiers and assailants might die or be wounded. Yet he fully cooperated with a plan he knew could result in violence and bloodshed, all to preserve his own life.
Had Paul adopted the logic of some Christian pacifists, he would have said, “Jesus taught us that we should not resist evildoers. So please escort me tomorrow with just a single unarmed soldier to the Sanhedrin and I will trust God, that if He wants me to live, I will live, and if He wants me to die, I will die. If I die, it is much better than risking the lives of 270 Roman soldiers and 40 Jews who likely don’t know the Lord. Because if I die, I will go to heaven. But if any of them die, they will go to hell…”
On a related note, some Christian pacifists oddly believe it’s OK for non-Christians to serve as police and in the military because they aren’t under the Law of Christ; thus they have no obligation to “not resist evildoers.” Therefore, what is morally wrong for one group of people on earth is not morally wrong for another group. (These same folks often teach that those who become Christians as police or soldiers are obligated to quit their jobs, because what was not previously morally wrong for them has become morally wrong.)
Moreover, because it is OK for non-Christians to serve as police and soldiers, it is OK for Christians to utilize the services of the police or military to resist evildoers for them, just as long as they (the Christians) don’t do any resisting themselves! So Christians can hire others to do what is wrong for them to do!
So you can see the same kind of blinding hypocrisy creeping into the lives of some Christian pacifists that can be similarly observed in the lives of some Orthodox Jews, who won’t flip on a light switch on the Sabbath, but who will hire a Gentile to do it for them! Life as a legalist can get very confusing and complicated.
But I just can’t see Paul being so confused, or him ever believing that what is morally wrong for one group is morally OK for another group. If his military entourage was attacked on the way to Caesarea, and Paul found himself standing among 270 dead Romans and 39 dead Jews, I can’t imagine him saying to the final Jew coming towards him with a sword, “Although I’ve just witnessed with a clear conscience 309 people fight to the death over me, and although I sure hoped that the Romans would repel the Jews at any cost, it would go against my personal convictions to resist you!”
Violence is Always the Last Resort of Love
I’ve asked Christian pacifists to explain why God allegedly raised His moral requirements, particularly in regard to nonresistance, from old to new covenants, and none have ever been able to provide an answer. God always does, of course, have reasons for His commandments, and His commandments are always a reflection of His own unchanging moral nature.
Scripture tells us, for example (in the Old Testament, incidentally): “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov. 15:1). Although not a direct commandment, no one would argue that the wisdom being promoted in that proverb should not be practiced. It would be quite safe to say that God prefers that we answer gently rather than harshly. And why? Simply because He loves us, and He wants us to live in harmony with each other. When we answer an opponent gently rather than harshly, we are more apt to win him, whereas a harsh answer can cement an opponent’s hatred.
And this is the reason the New Testament teaches turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and giving also one’s coat. This is the reason the Old Testament teaches feeding your hungry enemy, giving a drink to your thirsty enemy, and assisting your enemy when his donkey has collapsed under its load. Mercy-shaming is a time-honored biblical technique to promote harmonious relationships and turn enemies into friends.
If mercy-shaming doesn’t work to mend a relationship, then there are other gentle techniques in our arsenal of love. For example, Jesus affirmed private confrontation. If that doesn’t work, then semi-private confrontation. After that, semi-public confrontation, with each step increasing the degree of persuasion, and all with the clear goal of reconciliation (Matt. 18:15-17). And even if someone sins against us 490 times, if they repent, we should forgive them every time, even as we are tempted to doubt their sincerity (Matt. 18:22).
All of these means of interaction reflect God’s desire for human beings to live harmoniously, which is, of course, best for us.
Sadly, however, there can come a time when love doesn’t win. And when that occurs, Jesus said we can, with a clear conscience, give up trying.
There is a time when we can treat those who can’t be won “as Gentiles and tax-collectors” (Matt. 18:17). There is a time to not “give what is holy to dogs” and not “cast your pearls before the swine,” because if you do, they “they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces” (Matt. 7:6). Those are all Jesus’ words.
There is a time to “shake the dust off your feet” (Mark 6:11) and “leave the dead to bury the dead” (Luke 9:60). There is a time when God says, “Don’t pray for those people anymore” (Jer. 7:16, 11:14, 14:11; I John 5:16), or when sin has become unpardonable (Matt. 12:31). There is a time when the Person who is Perfect Love, who has turned His other cheek a million times, descends in wrath.
And so you can understand at least one reason why, in none of the five cases that we looked at in the ministry of Paul, did he “turn the other cheek” and “go the extra mile.” There was, for example, no hope of winning over the Jews who were waiting at the gates of Damascus to murder him. Yet Paul still took the best path of love. He secretly fled. He saved the Jews from having his blood on their hands. He saved himself from being killed so that he could fulfill his ministry (a ministry that is still benefitting people today). He didn’t organize a militia to fight his enemies.
The same was true when 40 Jews in Jerusalem bound themselves under an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed him. There was no possibility that mercy-shaming, turning the other cheek, or private confrontation would bring about reconciliation.
So what does love do in such a situation? Paul could have requested the Roman commander to set a trap to annihilate those 40 murderous Jews. But rather, he demonstrated love for his enemies, and he cooperated with the commander who helped him escape without any violence.
However, no one can rightly say that violence was not a possible outcome, and Paul was obviously willing to face that outcome should there have been no other alternative.
Again, for God’s people, violence should always be the last resort. But tragically, sometimes we come to the last resort. And in order to protect the innocent (and to obey the second greatest commandment) violence towards evildoers is the only option. No less than John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church and Sermon-on-the-Mount lover, believed this, stating that one has the right to kill one’s enemy “in the case of absolute necessity for self-defense.”
When someone is in the act of attempting to abduct your child or rape your wife, for example, Jesus’ words about nonresistance, mercy-shaming, private confrontation and so on have no application. Neither does the proverb about a soft answer turning away wrath. The only option is the threat of physical violence or violence itself, either by police (if they are near enough), or yourself. All motivated by love.
And the motive of the evildoer makes no difference. I don’t need to first ask a rapist if he wants to rape my wife because she is a Christian to determine if I should defend her!
And when some point to ancient or modern Christians who didn’t resist murderous mobs, take note that non-Christians offer the same kind of nonresistance when they are unarmed and realize that any resistance would be utterly futile.
May I also add that acts of self-preservation don’t have to be selfish. I can protect myself from death because I know my wife and children need me and I love them.
In the case when Paul was on trial before the Sanhedrin, he surely recognized that he was in the presence of evil, hypocritical, religious leaders who were bent on his death. There was no hope of reconciliation. There was no hope that gentle words, mercy-shaming, turning the other cheek, or private confrontation would turn them around. There was only a slim hope that a quick, cutting rebuke, inspired and anointed by the Holy Spirit, that publicly exposed their hypocrisy, might help them see themselves as God saw them. And so God gave it a try (through Paul). Sadly, it had no effect.
Passivity has its place, but not in every place. Paul knew that. In fact, he once corrected the Corinthians for being overly-passive: “For you tolerate it if anyone enslaves you, anyone devours you, anyone takes advantage of you, anyone exalts himself, anyone hits you in the face” (2 Cor. 11:20).
As I’ve said a million times it seems: The source of all erroneous doctrine is the disregard of context. Nothing is more dangerous than a zealot with one Bible verse. For example, I’ve seen photos of Christians standing in public places, holding signs that say things like, “Jesus said ‘Love your enemies’…even ISIS.” They are trying to persuade us that our country should not be bombing terrorists, but rather, we should be “loving” terrorists. They read a verse in the Bible and think they found something that all the rest of us lesser Christians are willfully ignoring!
Remember, the Bible isn’t just one verse! — David