The Principle of Nonresistance


The Principle of Nonresistance


The Christian Church in general has in all ages of its history recognized the fact that our Lord taught the principle of nonresistance, and yet, excepting the earliest Christian centuries, the great majority of Christian professors have always found a way to circumvent the practical requirements of this principle. The Roman Catholic Church has always held that Christ taught nonresistance, not however as a commandment but as an advice; hence, according to the doctrine of this church, those engaging in war do not transgress a divine command and do not become guilty of sin. Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, defended a peculiar view on this question, a view which is even today held by many Protestant theologians. He taught that a Christian is to be strictly nonresistant and that no one can as a Christian have a part in violence and bloodshed, be it in self-defense or in war. No one can do so as a Christian. But a Christian, he says, is also a “world person,” or a citizen, and as such he is under duty to use violence in the service of the government, as a magistrate, officer, or soldier. when in such capacity he acts contrary to the precept and example of Christ, it is not a sin to him but is his duty. He does this as a citizen, not as a Christian. Luther divided the Christian into two personalities, the duty of the one being the opposite to that of the other.[1] The fact will bear repetition that he in theory defended the principle of strict nonresistance of the Christian. He also emphatically agreed with the Mennonites in the opinion that civil government using force would not be necessary if all men were true Christians.[2]

Nonresistance Pre-Eminently a New Testament Doctrine

Many fundamental Christians, outside the so-called peace churches, believe that the Old Testament commands, except the ceremonial law, are binding for the Christian Church, the same as the Scriptures of the Old Testament. In plain fact, however, there are many portions of the Mosaic law, besides those containing the ceremonial law, that are not binding in the New Covenant. It is noteworthy that Herbert Booth, the author of the book, “The Saint and the Sword,” which is the most thoroughgoing defense of the principle of nonresistance from the Bible viewpoint, is not a member of one of the so-called peace churches.

Our Lord, after quoting literally from the Old Testament law: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Ex. 21:24; Lev. 24:20; Deut. 19:21), goes on to say: ‘But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil. . . . Love your enemies,” etc. (Matt. 5:38-48). On such points as war, the oath, and divorce, Christ’s teaching is at variance with the Old Testament law. He is pre-eminently the Lord and Lawgiver, as well as the Saviour of men. In the light of His teaching, the law of the Old Covenant is not faultless. Heb. 8:7. War, being contrary to His teaching, is sin.

It has been supposed by various writers that Jesus in the words, “I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34), spoke of the material sword and declared Himself against the principle of nonresistance. The supposition, however, that He came into the world to send the material sword is simply contrary to fact. He did not come for any such purpose. That He should have made a statement to that effect is unthinkable and impossible. If the purpose of His coming had been to send the carnal sword, Christianity would necessarily be a “religion of the sword,” somewhat of the order of Mohammedanism, possibly. The parallel reference in Luke (12:51) has “division” (separation) instead of “sword,” and this is undoubtedly the meaning, as the context in both Matthew and Luke clearly indicates. The conflict which resulted from Christ’s coming into the world is not one that is to be decided by the carnal sword. “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal” (II Cor. 10:4). The conflict with evil is of a spiritual nature, as fully described in Eph. 6:10-18. The sword to be used by the Christian is “the sword of the Spirit.”

As an argument against nonresistance, the passage in Luke 22:36 has also been quoted, “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.” Opinions may differ as to our Lord’s intended purpose in uttering these words. The question which concerns us here is, whether He intended to say that the disciples should make practical use of the material sword. As we may directly see, this was by no means the case. Yet the disciples may have understood Him so. Just a few moments later, when the multitude came on the scene to arrest Jesus, one of the disciples asked, “Lord, shall we smite with the sword?” Peter, without waiting for a reply, drew the sword and injured the high priest’s servant, Malchus. Christ, then, while healing the injury Peter had done, addressed him with the solemn words, “Put up . . . thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”

Peter, as well as the rest of the disciples, evidently took these words of Christ to heart. Apparently none of them ever transgressed again by using the sword for self-defense. Peter, in his first epistle, points out with emphasis that Christ gave us the example of meekness and nonresistance, and that upon His followers devolves the solemn duty to “follow his steps.” I Pet. 2:20-23.

Evidently the context of the passage under consideration (Luke 22:36) must be taken into account to understand the meaning of these words. Verse 38 reads, “And they said, Lord, behold, here are two swords. And he said unto them, It is enough.” Do not the words of Jesus, “It is enough,” indicate that the two swords were not to be used by the disciples against their antagonists? Or was it Jesus’ thought, as some have supposed, that, since He was about to return to the Father, the disciples needed the material sword for self-defense? Did Jesus mean to indicate that they should use the sword against the persecuting governments? Would they not have proved themselves transgressors by becoming insurrectionists against constituted authority? Or was it His thought that they should use the material sword in defense against their neighbors who would antagonize them? Would not the disciples, by taking in such a way the civil law into their own hands, have become guilty of glaring transgression?

Again, could it be supposed that Jesus meant to say that the disciples should have swords ready to be used against the multitude armed “with swords and staves” which was just then drawing near to take Him? Was it His thought that the disciples should engage in an armed struggle with the multitude? Would in this case two swords have been enough for the eleven disciples? Would eleven disciples, even if they all had swords, have been enough to defend themselves with the sword against the multitude? Would not the disciples, by making Gethsemane the scene of carnal struggle and bloodshed, have made our Lord the head of a band of wrongdoers, if He had permitted it? Think of the defeat which His cause would have suffered, had the disciples made such use of the carnal sword. Such is the absurdity of the opinion that they were to use the two swords for self-defense and that Jesus here taught against peace and nonresistance.

Clearly, Jesus’ words, “It is enough,” could not have meant that the two swords were “enough” for self-defense, or were to be used for such a purpose. But they were enough to give occasion for an impressive object lesson to the disciples concerning the use of the sword: “Put up . . . thy sword.” Besides, the two swords may have had some symbolic significance as is the opinion of various commentators.

It is of interest to note that in recent decades various prominent theological writers in this country and Europe have admitted that war is sin, that it is indeed the most appalling outbreak and manifestation of sin in the world. And yet they do not disapprove of military service. It is a distinctive principle of Mennonitism that there never can be an excuse for sin.

If participation in warfare were consistent with Christian principles, war could not be so great an evil as it is generally recognized to be. Without question anything one may do that is consistent with true Christianity cannot be an evil. As already stated, the causes of war are ever present among the nations of the world. It is not within the power of the Christian Church to change the nature of the world and to remove the causes of war. The practical and highly important question is, What is the Christian to do in case of war, when he is bidden to have a part in it? It is an easy way out to say, as some do, that the Sermon on the Mount was not intended for this age. Any one reading this sermon carefully must realize that Christ asked His hearers to make it the rule of their lives. And the plain fact remains that war is absolutely and intrinsically contrary to Christian principles. It is the very opposite of what Jesus taught concerning practical Christian duty. If He had never preached the Sermon on the Mount, this would not change the fact of the anti-Christian character of war. The unsophisticated Christian conscience revolts against participation in war.

To say that war is consistent with Christian principles means that the Christian Church of the first three centuries misunderstood Christ’s teaching. It is an established historical fact that the early church did not permit participation in war.

Nonresistance of the Early Christians and in Pre-Reformation Times

Until about two generations ago the Mennonite people were a unit in the belief that the Scriptures of the New Testament teach the principle of nonresistance, and that the early Christians accepted and defended this principle. We notice with regret that, with the growth of militarism in certain European countries, the opinion has been advanced, even among Mennonite people, that the church of the first centuries failed to take a decided position against war. This opinion is based principally on the writings of the late Professor Adolf von Harnack of the University of Berlin, Germany. Since this question does not fall under the scope of the present treatise, it must suffice to call attention to the standard work on this subject, namely, the book, “The Early Christian Attitude to War,” by Professor C. John Cadoux of Oxford, published in 1919.[3]

It is of particular interest to notice that in a review of this book[4] Professor Harnack stated that it is thoroughly reliable; in fact, he uses the expression that the book is “the last word on this subject.” This admission by Professor Harnack is the more remarkable since, as already intimated, he had previously held the contrary opinion. In his book, “Militia Christi,” published in 1905, he had attempted to show that the early Christians’ attitude in this regard was one of comparative in-difference. The book of Cadoux furnishes conclusive evidence that the Christian Church of the first centuries took a decided position as regards the principle of nonresistance, taking substantially the same attitude toward violence and war as did the early Waldenses, the Mennonites, and other nonresistant Christians. Participation in war as well as suing at law was forbidden.

The Waldenses have just been mentioned as a nonresistant sect. Their history dates back a number of centuries before the time of Martin Luther and Menno Simons. The question has been raised, How is it to be explained that the modern Waldenses (in Italy and America) do not object to military service, while in medieval times the Waldenses held the principle of nonresistance? The answer is that during the Reformation period the Waldenses yielded to influences of one of the leading Protestant churches which defended the rightfulness of a union of church and state and of war. In 1532, after the Waldenses had been in touch with theologians of the Reformed Church for a number of years, they held a synod at Angrogna in Northern Italy in the presence of William Farel and other theologians from Geneva. With the exception of a small minority they repudiated those doctrines and principles in which they differed from the Reformed Church including the rejection of the oath and military service, and accepted the doctrine of predestination.[5] They became a branch of the Reformed Church.

The Peace Testimony of Peter Chelchitzki

Peter Chelchitzki, a farmer of Chelchitz in Bohemia, was born about 1395. Little is known of his life and his religious connections. He was probably connected with one of the Hussite groups, the followers of John Huss who was burned at the stake at Constance, Germany, in 1415. That Chelchitzki was a consistent defender of the principle of nonresistance is evident from a number of his extant books. The following quotations will serve as evidence that about a century before the rise of the Mennonite Church there were, even outside of the Waldensian Church, those who maintained a strong and consistent testimony against violence and war. Chelchitzki says:

Worldly rulers have contentions for the sake of material wealth and worldly honor. Let some one threaten their sovereignty, and at once they engage in war. They seize the men and bring them together like a herd and drive them into the conflict where those on the one side kill and rob those on the other. . . And the worst is that they undertake to compel Christians to engage in such conflicts, for on both sides there may be a few who cannot with a good, clear conscience kill and rob others. Yea, brother goes against brother to harm him, when according to the Christian faith he should be ready to die for him. Compelled by self-seeking authorities he goes out to kill and rob his brother, and does not have the conviction and the love to follow the Lord unto death rather than become guilty of such evil deeds.

The one party is praying for their armies and the other party for theirs that they may he victorious. Each party prays for victory against the other. And both are named Christians though each one is wishing well only to his own party. The Christians on both sides engage wrongfully in the bloody strife and pray that they may be victorious over the other side. Whom, now, will God hear? Since on both sides there are Christians, they combat unlawfully with each other and theirs is not a prayer of faith. God does not hear them. The faith of these Christians is as if tom to shreds and their prayer is powerless since it is aimed at shedding the blood of brethren. And if those with whom they are engaged in such conflict are not brothers, they may be enemies and God has commanded to pray for such and to do them good.

The whole rabble of these divided multitudes are called Christians and together they pray: Our Father which art in heaven. They approach God in this way while each party has in mind the destruction of the other. They think they are serving God by shedding others’ blood. And on both sides they say: Forgive us as we forgive. And every party seeks to increase its military force and never thinks of forgiving the other so long as they can hope to overcome them. Therefore their prayers are blasphemies against God.[6]

The Original Position of the Earliest Protestant Leaders on the Principle of Nonresistance

It is interesting to notice that both Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli (the founder of the Reformed Church), in the earliest period of their labors as reformers, were advocates of the principle of nonresistance. This was the period before they consented to the compromise of a union of the church with the state, or in other words to the establishment of all-inclusive state churches.

Luther, in the year 1520, wrote to his opponent, Dr. Johann Eck: “You say that I would give room to the peace-breakers and murderers, because I have taught that a Christian should abstain from violence and should not fight to recover his belongings of which he was robbed. Why do you not rebuke Christ who has taught this?” Again, in his booklet, “Why the Pope’s Books Have Been Burned,” written in the same year, Luther gives many reasons for committing these books to the flames. His twenty-fourth reason is, “Because the pope teaches that it is right for a Christian to meet violence by violence, contrary to Christ’s teaching who says, ‘Whoever will take thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.'”

Ulrich Zwingli also, in the first period of his reformatory labors, taught the principle of nonresistance. One of the editors of Zwingli’s Complete Works, Professor Walter Koehler of Heidelberg University, concedes that Zwingli was in that period a pacifist. Zwingli wrote in 1522: “Considered from the Christian point of view it is by no means right to have a part in war. According to Christ’s teaching we should pray for those who despitefully use us and persecute us, and if an aggressor smite us on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Again, in one of his largest books, published in 1523, Zwingli says: “Christ commands that we should not go to law nor engage in carnal strife, but if one take away our coat, let him have our cloke also, and He has taught this by His own example as well. He also forbids all oaths.” How radical was the change in Zwingli’s attitude toward war in a later period. He personally took part in war, and died on the bafflefield of Kappel in 1531.

Johannes Oekolampad, the Zwinglian reformer of Basel, who, like Zwingli, in a later period renounced pacifism, wrote in 1524:

How can a Christian approve of lawsuits and war? The approval of war among Christians is a doctrine of devils. Christians abhor hatred and war. Or show me a war that is waged in love! .. . What shall we say about those whose lifework consists of shedding blood? We are bidden to give our life for the brethren, and to consider even our enemies as brothers. But we go to war and wound and kill those whom we have never known, yea, who may have done us some good service. How is it that there are so many who make less of taking the life of a man than of killing a goose!


1. Luther in his Sermons on Matthew, Chapters 5-7, Weimar Edition of Luther’s Complete Works, vol. 32, pp. 299-555; J. Koestlin, Luthers Theologie, Stuttgart, 1901, vol.2, p. 326; J. Koestlin, Die Glaubensartikel der Augsburgischen Confession erlaeutert, Halle a. S., 1891, p. 80. Koestlin-Kawerau, Martin Luther, Berlin, 1903, p. 116; J. Horsch, Die biblisehe Lehre von der Wehrlosigkeit, Scottdale Pa., 1920, pp. 25-30.

2. Dr. Martin Luthers Saemtliche Werke, Erlangen Edition vol. 22, pp. 66-70; H. Boelimer, Luther im Lichte der neueren Forschung, Leipzig and Berlin, 1918, p. 245; P. Wemle, Der Evangelische Glaube nach den Hauptschriften der Reformatoren, Bd. 1, Luther, Tuebingen, 1918, pp. 124-37.

3. Published by Headly Bros., London.

4. Published in Theologisehe Literaturzeitung, Leipzig, 1921, No. 11/12, col. 126.

5. E. Staehelin, Oekolampads Beziehungen zu den Romanen, Basel,1917, pp. 26, 32; J. C. Fuesslin, Beytraege zur Kirchen-Geschichte des Schweitzerlandes, Zuerich, 1741-53, Vierter Teil, pp. 406ff.; F. Bender, Geschichte der Waldenser, Ulm, 1850, p. 135.

6. C. Vogl, Peter Cheltschizki, em Prophet an der Wende der Zeiten, Zuerich und Leipzig, 1926, pp. 92-94.

This Web page came from The Principle of Nonresistance as held by the Mennonite Church by John Horsch, First Printing, 1927, from Fourth Printing 1941. It is a shorten version, omitting much later Mennonite history.

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