At the beginning of the new year, people claiming to be Christians made the news for participating in an event that turned violent. This is not the first time in history that Christianity has been associated with violence.
Some have argued that all religions, if taken seriously, will eventually lead to violence. But, in the case of Christianity, is this really true?
The Peace-Promoting Teachings of Jesus and the Apostles
He commanded his followers to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39) and said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). He expanded the sixth commandment (“you shall not murder”) to include even inner anger as a violation of God’s law (Matthew 5:22).
Jesus went to the cross and laid down his own life in the most selfless act of love. As the Son of God, he had the authority to enact judgment on his persecutors, but instead, he prayed, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34).
The Apostle Peter taught that all Christians are to follow in the example of Christ, who did not retaliate,
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps…When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:21-23).
The Apostle Paul taught, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil…. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:17-18) and “love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10).
James taught, “The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:17-18).
If Jesus and the apostles taught and modeled such lives of peace and self-sacrifice, why do people claim that Christianity is violent?
Violence in Church History
For the first several hundred years of church history, Christians were often persecuted and spent time in prisons for preaching the gospel. Following the example of Christ, they did not retaliate but prayed for and witnessed to their persecutors. Many of them were eventually martyred.
In the fourth century, a shift took place when Constantine converted to Christianity. For the first time, a professing Christian was in a position of great political power.
Whether or not Constantine was a true Christian is a subject of debate. There are also debates about whether or not Christianity becomes corrupted whenever it is mingled with politics.
What we do see in the historical record is that Constantine engaged in unbiblical holy wars, reportedly based on a vision he had of a cross in the sky with an inscription saying, “In this sign you will win.”
This was the first time in history that Christianity was mingled with the state and violence was carried out in the name of Christ. Ever since that time, many wars have been waged by people who claim to be Christians.
In many people’s minds, the worst example of holy wars occurred during the Crusades. Even though they began as a defensive response to centuries of Muslim aggression, the Crusaders disobeyed the teachings of Jesus and used violence to gain political power and earthly possessions.
Peter wrote that suffering is to be expected as part of the Christian life and he urged that those who suffer should “commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good” (1 Peter 4:19).
God often uses persecution to purify the church and spread the gospel. Nowhere in Scripture are Christians taught to take up arms to fight for the things of this world.
Differing Views on War and Self-Defense
Ever since the fourth century and what some scholars refer to as “the Constantinian shift,” there have been different perspectives within Christianity on whether or not it is ever right for Christians to be involved in wars or self-defense.
Citing the example and teachings of Jesus, many Christians believe in non-resistance and pacifism, which many define as two separate views. Foundational to both views is the concept that Christ’s kingdom is separate from the kingdoms of this world.
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) and Paul taught that Christians are citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20). Proponents of these views believe that followers of Jesus should obey his teachings on non-resistance at all times, including times of war.
Christian pacifists take a more active role in trying to stop wars from happening. Whereas the non-resistance view believes that the government has the authority to engage in wars, pacifists are often at odds with the government as they advocate for peacekeeping.
Critics of pacifism argue that there are times when evil must be stopped by violent means in order to save lives.
A third view, the just war theory, argues that there are times when the use of force is justified. Participating in military combat is considered acceptable for Christians because God has established governments and Christians are commanded to submit to them (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14).
They believe Jesus’ teachings on non-resistance apply in personal relationships but should be interpreted differently by states who have a duty to defend their citizens.
Critics of this theory believe it relies on worldly philosophy and scriptures taken out of context and argue that many wars have been fought that did not meet the criteria.
There are ethical debates about when the use of violence might be appropriate to save lives, such as in a mass shooter situation or a cruel dictator like Hitler.
This article cannot address all the complexities of this topic. However, Christians should be aware of some of the main scriptures that have historically been used out of context to justify violence.
Does the Bible Ever Permit Christians to use Violence?
Many Old Testament passages have been used to justify violence, such as the texts where God commanded his people to conquer the Canaanites.
However, the Old Testament is a historical record of how God was working through the nation of Israel and these passages are not prescriptive for Christians today.
Whereas God had established an earthly kingdom in the Old Testament, Christians are now part of a spiritual kingdom that will someday become an earthly kingdom again when Jesus comes to rule and reign.
Until his return, Jesus and the apostles taught Christians to follow Christ’s example by denying themselves and sacrificially laying down their lives for the sake of others.
There is mainly one New Testament passage that has been used as a proof text to justify violence since the fourth century. This is the account of Jesus making a whip and using it to drive everyone out of the temple (John 2:14-15).
While there are strong arguments within this text and the grammar that excludes the possibility that Jesus used the whip on humans, even if Jesus was enacting judgment on humans in this passage, he had the authority to do that because he is God.
Christians, on the other hand, are commanded, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
There are different interpretations regarding the prophetic meaning of Jesus’ actions in this event, but all of them seem to be unique to Jesus in his role as the Messiah. This does not seem to be an example for Christians to imitate.
Another text that is often referenced is where Jesus instructed the disciples to buy swords (Luke 22:36-37). In the fuller context, it’s clear that Jesus never intended for them to use the swords and when one of them did, he rebuked him and said, “All who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
Why Does This Matter?
God has called Christians to proclaim and demonstrate to the world his love and forgiveness. 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 says, “We preach Christ crucified… [for] the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
As the gospel has spread around the world, there are many testimonies of people turning from warfare to peace. However, there are also examples where professing Christians engaged in unjust violence and oppressed people.
Every Christian still struggles with the sin nature. Jesus said there will be people who will appear in many ways to be Christians, but they are not (Matthew 7:21-23).
For this reason, there will always be people who claim the religion of Christianity, but who selfishly act out in violence toward others.
But this is not what Christ taught. If Christians are truly following Christ, they will pursue a life of peace, love, and self-sacrifice — not violence.
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Jessica Miller is the pastor’s wife and outreach director at Bean Blossom Community Church in Indiana, where she loves serving the Lord together with her husband, Jeff. Prior to marriage, her perspective on life was radically altered while living as a single woman in the Middle East. She is passionate about growing in her relationship with the Lord and pointing others to the truth. Her degrees are in biblical studies and counseling and she carries a special passion for cross-cultural ministries. She enjoys learning, traveling, and creating. She tweets and blogs from time to time.