Police Officer: My theology totally lines up with your theology, except in one area: namely, your pacifism. I am a police officer, and it frankly seems obvious to me that there are times when it is proper, if not godly, to use whatever level of force is necessary to stop an aggressor from harming loved ones or other innocent people. Not only this, but the apostle Paul explicitly teaches that God uses the sword (or gun) of government to exact vengeance on sinners and to keep sin in check (Rom. 13:1-7). Every other aspect of your theology makes so much sense except this one! So can you please explain to me why you don’t believe this is a viable and even noble role for a disciple of Jesus to play?
Greg: Thanks so much for your honest question. I readily grant that it seems obvious that a person should use whatever force is necessary to defend loved ones or other innocent people from aggressors. And I don’t deny that the role of a police officer is a noble one that requires great courage. Indeed, I am thankful for those who accept this role. And, finally, I don’t for a moment deny that God uses the sword of government to exact vengeance and to keep sin in check.
But to acknowledge that the role of a police officer makes sense, is noble, and is used by God is not to say that this is a role a disciple of Jesus should assume. When Jesus and Paul talk about loving, blessing and serving enemies, and when they talk about never resisting force with force (Matt. 5:39-45; Luke 6:27-36; Rom. 12:14-21), they never make any qualifications. In fact, I would argue that these teachings rule out the possibility of there being any qualifications, for we are to love like the rain falls and the sun shines. We are to love indiscriminately. Moreover, in his first-century Jewish context, when Jesus speaks of “enemies,” the first group his audience would think of would be the Romans who ruled over Jews by threatening terror. These were the very worst kind of “enemies” we could imagine. So if Jesus’ teaching encompasses this kind of “enemy,” I submit that it encompasses every kind of “enemy.”
Along these same lines, while the use of force makes sense within the fallen kingdoms of this fallen world, followers of Jesus are called to put on display a radically different alternative kingdom — the “kingdom of God.” We are to be a visible sign to the world of what it looks like when God reigns over the lives of people and a sign of what the world will look like when God establishes his kingdom throughout the world. We are to be the “first fruits” of the coming “harvest.” And since there will be no violence once God’s kingdom is established in the world, I believe we are to refrain from all violence now.
This is also why Christians are called “a royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5, 9). While other Israelites in the Old Testament were allowed to use the sword, those who served as God’s priests could not. In this way these priests bore witness to the truth that, while God will stoop to bring as much good out of violence as he can, his ideal will is nonviolence. On this note, it’s interesting that just before Paul taught that God uses sword-wielding governments to “exact vengeance” (ekdikos) (Rom. 13:4), he told Christians to “never exact vengeance” (ekdikeō), but to instead leave all vengeance to God (Rom. 12) — who, we find out, uses government for this purpose. As I see it, this means disciples of Jesus are forbidden to engage in the exacting of vengeance that God uses sword-wielding governments to carry out. This role makes sense and can even be noble, but this doesn’t make it appropriate for kingdom people.
This is how I see it. I simply find no alternative interpretation of Scripture plausible. But I want you to know that I don’t for a second judge you if you end up seeing it differently. I rather applaud your willingness to honestly wrestle with this question. We each have to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).
Continue to be honest with God, yourself and others as you process this issue, and God will guide you in the path you should take.
Bless you and keep you safe as you strive to keep others safe.
Greg Boyd is senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn. This blog originally appeared on his website, ReKnew.org.