Can Christians Bear the Sword?

Can Christians Bear the Sword?

Luther Versus Lipscomb

The principal difficulty in the question of whether Christians are permitted to be employed by the government hinges on the government’s role as the administrator of force. Is it consistent with Jesus’ teachings to work as part of an organization predicated on the threat of violence? On this question we may oppose the answers of Luther and Lipscomb.

David Lipscomb was an American reformer living in the 19th and early 20th century. According to his book Civil Government, the very definition of government as the bearer of the sword made its service inconsistent with the Christian mission. As the necessity for civil government lies in sin, so it cannot be served without sinning. He quotes Isaiah 10:

Ho Assyria, the rod of mine anger, the staff in their hand is mine indignation! I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. Howbeit he meaneth not so, neither doth his heart think so; but it is in his heart to destroy, and cut off nations not a few. . . . Wherefore it shall come to pass, then when the Lord hath performed his whole work upon Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, I will punish the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria, and the glory of his high looks.

The bearer of the sword is the bearer of the judgement of God, but unintentionally; and in doing so merits judgement on himself. He is a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction (Rom. 9:22). Indeed Satan himself is such a bearer of God’s judgement.

Against this view is Martin Luther, the German reformer of several centuries earlier. The prevailing wisdom of his time was that the Sermon on the Mount contained “counsels of perfection” – optional for lay Christians, but a worthy goal for the spiritual. The command to turn the other cheek, therefore, could be ignored at minimal peril by those who bore the sword of government.

In his book On Secular Authority, Luther first argues against the idea that there are two tiers of Christians. Every Christian is responsible for every command, hence the truly desperate state of the sinner. There is no special merit (and indeed there is demerit) in a life of pure monastic contemplation: the Christian life must be lived in the various occupations that Christians perform.

He then argues against the idea that to bear the sword is incompatible with the Beatitudes, noting in the first place that John the Baptist does not advise the tax collectors and soldiers to renounce their jobs, but to execute them honestly and justly (Luke 3:12-14). Do not avenge yourselves, Paul says (Rom. 12:17). It is morally different, Luther argues, to avenge crimes disinterestedly for the sake of peace, than to avenge injuries to one’s self for the sake of a vendetta.

Luther and Lipscomb both agree that the Church has no need of civil government, and that civil government is necessary for the maintenance of peace outside the Church. The difference is in Luther’s idea of calling, against Lipscomb’s separatism. For Luther it would be absurd to keep the holiest people out of a socially necessary institution, where for Lipscomb that necessity is one for the Church to escape from. Luther conceives of the Church in the world, Lipscomb out of the world.

It is important to note that neither solution posits a different morality for actions done under the sanction of a government. Neither Luther nor Lipscomb believe in a “magic dust” that government sprinkles on violent actions to make them morally legitimate, though Luther is perhaps the one who will be accused of this. He reads the Beatitudes not as a categorical rejection of violence, but as a categorical rejection of self-service. If we grant, as Luther believed, that in a fallen world organized violence (i.e. government) is necessary to prevent violent chaos, then to bear the sword justly is a calling to provide for one’s people (cf. 1 Tim. 5:8). For Luther, conceiving of the sword as a service for the maintenance of peace is what sanctifies it as a calling. It is no contradiction to sanction violence in one context and not another. That scripture does not rule out legal violence in principle can be seen in the fact that the civil laws of ancient Israel included recourse to the death penalty.

One does not, of course, have to grant that organized violence is socially necessary. Such a person would indeed be prohibited, as per Lipscomb, from assuming public office. But notice the causality is reversed: the conviction that public office is a sin does not lead to anarchism; rather, anarchism based on an empirical proposition leads to the conviction that public office is a sin. Such a dictate of conscience must be founded in a prior political ideology. It will not do to cry “taxation is theft, conscription is slavery” as if nonviolence were the core proposition of Christian ethics.

11 Comments

  • 1

    bethyada

    Aug 26, 2012 at 3:03 | Reply

    I favour Luther, though I believe he is incorrect about optional for lay Christians, but a worthy goal for the spiritual (if indeed that is what he meant).

    It is false to see civil government as intrinsically evil because the need is related to the Fall of man. The incarnation was not evil, though it was necessitated by the fact of man’s fallen nature.

    Nevertheless, Luther is correct in his claim that Beatitudes are a categorical rejection of self-service. These are for ALL Christians, but they do not reflect the law of the land, nor do they speak against forceful action. Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, mean that we do not fight for our own rights, something we can learn from the life of David. But to fight for others is both legitimate and virtuous. Thus a soldier can both reject self preserving behaviour as an individual and pursue other preserving behaviour in his civil duties.

    • 2

      Cameron Harwick

      Aug 26, 2012 at 13:27

      Luther wasn’t arguing for their optionality; that’s what he was arguing against. The Sophists, he called those who were arguing so. I do tend to agree with your interpretation though.

  • 3

    ELeeMacFall

    Aug 26, 2012 at 13:06 | Reply

    In regards to the last sentence: “It will not do to cry “taxation is theft, conscription is slavery” as if nonviolence were the core proposition of Christian ethics.”

    How is it possible to adhere to the commandment to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” – which IS the core of Christian ethics – whilst using violence against one’s neighbor?

    • 4

      Cameron Harwick

      Aug 26, 2012 at 13:27

      “If we grant, as Luther believed, that in a fallen world organized violence (i.e. government) is necessary to prevent violent chaos…” I would definitely recommend reading through On Secular Authority; love is very much a part of his justification. He was perhaps too pessimistic about the prospects of peaceful cooperation without a strong sword-bearer, but his argument will justify exactly as much sword-bearing as one thinks is necessary for peace. For him, it justified much. For me, looking back on the liberal age, considerably less. For you, perhaps, none at all.

    • 5

      ELeeMacFall

      Aug 26, 2012 at 13:58

      Nothing in scripture suggests that force can ever be a part of love, other than the willing submission to it for the sake of peace. I believe that Luther’s position was pure presumption out of the *presupposition* that organized violence is necessary.

      I should clarify that I’m not exactly a pacifist. I think there are times in which defensive force can conceivably be permitted. However, I’d need a better reason than “sometimes you have to kill someone in the name of the law in order to properly love your neighbor”.

    • 6

      thrica

      Aug 26, 2012 at 14:17

      “Nothing in scripture suggests that force can ever be a part of love…”

      Luther would point to Like 3:12-14 (that it is not incompatible) and 1 Timothy 5:8 (that it is at times required, if you believe it necessary). If it is in one’s power, one loves one’s neighbor by protecting him from violent forces of disorder.

      Where then, I would ask, is it suggested that force cannot ever be a part of love?

      “Luther’s position was pure presumption out of the *presupposition* that organized violence is necessary.”

      That’s exactly my point. What you believe about the morality of government has to come from your presuppositions about whether it is necessary or not. It can’t go the other way.

    • 7

      ELeeMacFall

      Aug 26, 2012 at 14:58

      “Where then, I would ask, is it suggested that force cannot ever be a part of love?”

      “Love your neighbor as yourself” – You cannot love your neighbor whilst bearing a sword against him. It is impossible. The moment you raise your hand against someone, you cease to love him.

      “Do unto others as you would have done unto you” – Nobody wants to be coerced. It is impossible, because as soon as one desires it, it ceases to be coercion. To coerce another is to fail to live up to the Golden Rule.

      “Blessed are the peacemakers”. If violence begets violence, then it is impossible to achieve peace through force.

      “Do not repay evil for evil”. The Greek word used for “evil” – kakos – refers to violence and destruction; not “sin”. Jesus makes no exceptions for when the original violence was committed against a third party.

      “Love even your enemies”. Does a person fall outside of both the categories of “neighbor” and “enemy” when a legal justification can be found for using force against them?

    • 8

      thrica

      Aug 26, 2012 at 17:08

      “If violence begets violence…”
      There’s your own presupposition. Perhaps valid, but you have to introduce it to scripture from outside, and justify it on its own merits. The text by itself does not suggest it.

      In order to claim “You cannot love your neighbor whilst bearing a sword against him,” you have to show why Luther’s interpretation is wrong. When one’s neighborly duties are in conflict, is it more loving to be a neighbor to the criminal, or to his victim? That is the question Luther would ask.

      In addition, your enemy is different from your neighbor’s enemy. Luther was strongly against the exercise of force, even legal force, against one’s own enemies as a bearer of the sword. Its only justification is general peace; love for one’s neighbor by restraining overt violence.

    • 9

      ELeeMacFall

      Aug 27, 2012 at 13:03

      “There’s your own presupposition. Perhaps valid, but you have to introduce it to scripture from outside, and justify it on its own merits. The text by itself does not suggest it.”

      It does not explicitly say it, but Jesus does suggest it in Matthew 26:52. And all Jesus was doing there was rephrasing the the principle that he had already voiced: you reap what you sow. You cannot expect to reap peace if you sow violence. In order to stop a cycle of violence, someone has to follow Christ’s example and hold grace as being more important than “justice”, and it had better be a Christian, since Christians claim to be followers of Christ.

      “When one’s neighborly duties are in conflict, is it more loving to be a neighbor to the criminal, or to his victim? That is the question Luther would ask.”

      And that is a fair question, and the sole reason that I am not a pacifist. I would consider myself to have a duty to protect those who have not chosen to submit themselves to criminal violence.

      However – and here is where I disagree with Luther – that idea does not mean that one’s duty to love the aggressor is cancelled. The duty to love both remains. Although it seems to me that the duty to the potential victim should be primary, one would not only be responsible to prevent harm to the potential victim, but also to keep the aggressor from following through on something that he will certainly come to regret, as the vast majority of criminals who survive to old age do, and as everyone would in the next life. And the means must match that end. Namely, he should be alive at the end of the struggle.

      That means that if the act can be prevented without the threat of force, it should be. Failing that, by threat without action; and failing that, by restraint. Only if restraint fails should violence be considered, and even then, the violence should be aimed at stopping the act; not at harming the aggressor.

      Consequently I do not believe that anyone should EVER deliberately take another’s life. If the aggressor dies at the hand of the defender, but not by the *intent* of the defender, then I think that the defender would be justified. But then, I’m not the judge.

      That is the only way that I can see such a “conflict in neighborly duties” reconciled in such a way that the duty to EACH is upheld.

      “In addition, your enemy is different from your neighbor’s enemy. ”

      There I also disagree with Luther. If you side with your neighbor and attack his enemy, you are still acting in a self-interested way: that is, in accordance with your valuation of your neighbor’s interests over that of his enemy. Denial of self-service, to me, doesn’t mean you don’t pursue your values. Rather, it means you change your values to include the well-being of others, instead of living at their expense or neglect.

      The virtue of using force in response to aggression, then, does not escape question because it is on the behalf of a third party.

      Those are the two places in which I disagree with Luther’s principles. I think you and I would probably both disagree with his application of them to the nation-state. I at least see the government as we know it as a breaker of the peace in itself; an institution wholly incapable of bearing the sword in a manner consistent with God’s law.

    • 10

      thrica

      Aug 27, 2012 at 15:31

      I would agree that those verses suggest restraint wherever possible for self-defenders and government agents. Nevertheless, morally at least, appropriate restraint has to be judged by conscience, not ex ante. I would also ask, is it acceptable to use force on the criminal after the fact to bring restitution to the victim?

      It is true that all acts are self-interested in some way or another. Nevertheless, there is still a distinction between self-service and self-sacrifice, even if both are done self-interestedly. So, acting on a grudge held on behalf of someone else would still be self-serving, whereas punishing an act done against one’s self, if one expects others to be victimized too, could be done selflessly (though still self-interestedly). The sword is not sanctified simply by acting in the interests of a third party; rather, it is by the result one expects to follow for one’s neighbors – peace. Whether that expectation is warranted, then, is not a moral but an intellectual question (on which I would agree that most extant states are indeed breakers of the peace).

    • 11

      ELeeMacFall

      Aug 27, 2012 at 19:23

      “Nevertheless, morally at least, appropriate restraint has to be judged by conscience, not ex ante.”

      I would say that there is an ex-ante prohibition against using more force than is necessary, but of course only the individual involved can determine what is necessary.

      “I would also ask, is it acceptable to use force on the criminal after the fact to bring restitution to the victim?”

      Acceptable in what sense? I believe that people have a legal right to restitution (according to natural law), but our duty to love often demands that we forgo the exercise of our rights.

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