Doesn’t Violence in the Old Testament Mean that Pacifism isn’t Biblical?

A common objection to Christian non-violence is often articulated as follows:

A unified view of Scripture demands we accept justified violence based on the Old Testament. It takes unnecessarily complex hermeneutics to wiggle out of the fact that God both commands war (the invasion of Canaan) and instituted laws for self defense and capital punishment in the Mosaic Law.

A close look reveals this isn’t true.

On the national front, we have in the Old Testament a defined nation-state (Israel) that is being directly used by God to punish surrounding people groups and nations. This is holy war (commanded by God) and is restricted to Israel. All other nations that go to war are basically condemned, even as God says he will use them for his purposes to accomplish justice and teach other nations. In the NT, however, Jesus reveals to us through the Apostle Paul that God’s chosen people is no longer a single nation-state, but rather a gathering people across national/ethnic boundaries whose fight is not against flesh and blood (cf. Eph. 6:12; Gal. 3:38). The battle lines and purposes have been redrawn.

This is a fairly straightforward understanding of Old Covenant/New Covenant. There is continuity (a chosen people) but a tweak toward perfection (no longer defined by human politics, ruled not by humans but by Jesus at the head via the Holy Spirit, etc). The church stands as a light to the nations by no longer waging holy war, rather living as ministers of the reconciliation (cf 2 Cor 5:18) that Jesus brought between God and man, peaceful ambassadors for Christ if you will.

On the individual level, we see Jesus recasting the OT law in the Sermon on the Mount (cf Matt. 5:38-42). “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” is the refrain. His teaching on retaliation is not confined only to being persecuted for being his follower–it is a perfection of a concept (“an eye for an eye”) that is a “rule of life.” The examples that Jesus gives of getting slapped, giving up one’s tunic, and going the extra mile are likewise not things that happen as a result of special persecution, but were daily events for Jews and others living in Roman-occupied land. Given the relation of this to the Mosaic Law, his previous statements on the blessedness of peacemakers, and his subsequent comments on loving your enemies (which for 1st century Jews meant real, dangerous enemies, not just those that weren’t nice to them), it’s tough to see these statements as anything but broadly applicable.

This isn’t writing off the Old Testament, it’s seeing the Old Covenant as fulfilled in Christ, and Christ as a clearer revelation of God’s will and character.

Next up: Why non-violent Jesus asked his disciples to buy swords in Luke 22:36.