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Christian pacifism

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Several Christian groups have historically espoused pacifism. To the Christian groups which do not (which is most of them), the obvious snarky question to ask is "what part of Thou Shalt Not Kill don't you understand"?


Pacifism appears to have been a core belief of the church for the first three centuries, lasting until the official toleration of Christianity by the Roman Empire under Constantine after 312 CE. Soon, Augustine of Hippo formulated "just war" theory, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church emerged, and military service was an allowed and even expected duty for Christians. Pacifism was kept alive on an underground basis by persecuted sects like the Waldenses during the Middle Ages.

The revival of pacifism as a Christian belief is most closely associated with the Anabaptist and Quaker traditions at the radically low-church end of the Protestant Reformation. Today it tends to be associated with two very different ends of the Christian spectrum: strict, fundamentalist Restorationist sects on the one hand; and the most theologically liberal, freethinking tendencies on the other. Examples of the former might include the Jehovah's Witnesses, Christadelphians, Armstrongism, and older separatist groups like the Amish. Examples of the latter are the Quakers, Christian mystics like Thomas Merton, and followers of various theorists of Christian anarchism like Leo Tolstoy or Dorothy Day. However there is also a tradition of Christian pacifism within the broad middle of mainline Protestantism, evangelical Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism alike. Some fundamentalist evangelists such as D.L. Moody and more recently Leonard Ravenhill appear to have held this view, as did the famous British pastor Charles Spurgeon.[1] So did, initially, the influential theologian of 20th century mainline Protestantism, Reinhold Neibuhr, although he later renounced that position during and because of World War II.

Modern American evangelicalism, especially the religious right, tends to view pacifist views within Christianity with a great deal of disdain and condescension, citing the warfare of the Old Testament as proof that God sanctions violence, and cherry picking bits from the New Testament in support of this like Romans 13. Most of these militant Christians also call themselves anti-abortion.


Contrary to popular stereotype of Christian pacifism as a strict turn-the-other-cheek philosophy, it can be interpreted several ways. It can mean individual use of minimal force in self-defense is okay, but participation in any organized use of force such as warfare, or any initiatory force is wrong. For others, however, the admonition of Jesus to "turn the other cheek" is taken quite literally, as is Paul's admonition to "resist not evil", or in other words, to put up no resistance at all. Adherents to this latter view extend their practice well beyond mere non-participation in warfare to such things as not going to court, engaging in lawsuits, serving on juries or working in law enforcement (based on "judge not, lest you be judged"), talking back, using strong language, reckless driving, or trolling Internet forums.

Some adherents draw a distinction between "nonresistance" and "pacifism". Nonresistance is the stricter position and those adherents prefer that term. To them, pacifism merely means refusal to join the military or use violence, while nonresistance encompasses the whole package of not putting up any resistance to evil at all. To the latter, even joining an antiwar protest, voting, or engaging in non-violent resistance is immoral because they are forms of resistance. This distinction tends to be most common among conservative (old order) Mennonites and Amish.

In reality there is a great deal of belief within Christianity that is not strictly pacifist, much less "nonresistant", that still would come out in opposition to most or all wars or to Christians being in the military. This is the case even among some who adhere to some form of just war theory, and is often on other grounds such as enlisting in the military constituting "yoking up" with unbelievers, nationalism and patriotism being forms of idolatry, or the fact that the military does not allow for selective objection to particular wars based on just war theory and so even an adherent of just war theory could be putting themselves in a situation of being ordered into an unjust war. There is a strong "peace and social justice" tendency within both the Catholic and mainline Protestant traditions that is rooted more in a very narrow interpretation of just war theory than in strict pacifism. To further blur matters, there is a tendency among some involved in various protest movements (anti-war, anti-racism, environmentalist, anti-globalization, etc.) to view non-violence as their favored tactic, but because they believe it to be the most effective, not necessarily as a moral imperative.


These groups have an official position of pacifism. In reality this may vary by local congregation. One may find different Mennonite and Brethren congregations, for example, in which the church's history of pacifism is acknowledged but no longer actively preached today, is left up to the individual choice of members, or is not mentioned at all; while in other cases it is very much a core part of the church's preaching and activities.

  • Society of Friends (Quakers), which originated among the many schisms of seventeenth-century English Puritanism.
  • Mennonites, followers of the teachings of Menno Simons, originating in the Netherlands from the Anabaptist tradition (whence also came the Baptists, who are generally not pacifist). Except for their pacifist stance, the Mennonites are very much like most evangelical Christians in their beliefs and place a great deal of emphasis on being born again. There are several different denominations of Mennonites, ranging from the rather liberal and mainline Mennonite Church USA to some rather cranky fundamentalist groups (e.g. the Church of God In Christ, Mennonite) embracing a near-Amish emphasis on shunning, beards, and head coverings.
  • The Amish, a much more conservative group, also from the Anabaptist tradition. They are named for Jacob Amman who led them to split from the Mennonites over issues of nonconformity to the world and shunning of nonbelievers. So conservative, in fact, they also reject most modern technology and live without electricity. Basically, they stick to their own communities, live off the land, and shun any involvement in worldly affairs, whether it be war, politics, the Internet, or driving a car. They are renowned as excellent farmers and make some great furniture.
  • Church of the Brethren. Several groups use the Brethren name. Some like the Plymouth Brethren (an unrelated sect originating in Scotland) and the Evangelical United Brethren (part of whom later merged with the United Methodists) do not have any pacifist background. The pacifist Brethren groups have their roots in a revivalist movement originating in Schwarzenau, Germany who were persecuted by the official state Lutheran church and wound up embracing both Pietist teachings (related to the Holiness movement) and Anabaptist teachings. Examples:
  • Church of the Brethren. Simultaneously a Pietist/Holiness and an Anabaptist church. The official church leadership is quite liberal but individual congregations may be rather conservative and evangelical.
  • The Brethren Church - a splinter from the Church of the Brethren who emphasize the Pietist aspects more than the Anabaptist ones.
  • Brethren in Christ - originally the River Brethren, a movement originating among Pennsylvania Mennonites who also adopted Wesleyan holiness theology.
  • Grace Brethren - a splinter from The Brethren Church who appear to represent a somewhat Calvinist evolution of Brethren theology. Although they acknowledge their Anabaptist influence, statements of peace are notably absent from their website and they may really belong in the Cop-Outs section below.
  • Those following the teachings of Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer who embraced an anarchist Christianity and rejected all organized religion and government.
  • Sojourners magazine — a sort of fusion of evangelical, born-again Christianity and the liberal peace and justice movement. Founder and publisher Jim Wallis is a longtime leader in the "evangelical left".
  • The Catholic Worker movement of Dorothy Day, influenced by Distributism, anarchism, and the radical labor movement.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses — the JW's have long opposed participation in warfare or other worldly political affairs on the grounds of this constituting idolatry. They are often considered not a legitimate example of Christian pacifism, but this appears to be more based on dislike of the Watchtower's non-trinitarian theology by other Christians who consider it heresy. They are quite firm in their opposition to Christians using violence, joining the military, going to court, serving on juries, working in law enforcement, saluting flags, singing national anthems, etc.

Not necessarily Christian pacifists[edit]

  • Roman Catholic Church[2] and other adherents to "just war" theory. Just war theory can be interpreted many ways; for some it leads to opposition to most wars, but is not pacifism. The chief problem here is just war theory is entirely subjective. Anyone can declare any war just or unjust according to Christian teachings simply by declaring it so. (And evangelical Protestants seem to have done just that, adopting Catholic just war theory wholesale and then using it as an excuse to declare Bush's Iraq War "just"; see Chuck Colson for more). On the plus side, there is a significant 'peace and justice' tendency within the Catholic Church who take just war theory seriously and apply it very narrowly. On the minus side, the Catholic Church has a long history of, well, stuff like the Crusades.
  • Community of Christ — this is the former Reorganized Latter Day Saints, which broke off from Mormonism and stayed in Missouri about the time Brigham Young took the Mormons to Utah. Not traditionally pacifist, they have been lately talking about peace, peace, peace more than any other issue. At best their pacifism is a recent innovation and rather shallow and undeveloped; at worst, it is a specious public relations stunt aimed at distancing themselves from their Mormon roots. This may turn out to be an unfair characterization. We'll see.
  • There is a significant evangelical left who are not purely pacifist but sometimes come pretty darn close (examples: Tony Campolo and Ron Sider, of the Red-Letter Christians movement; and Chicago's Jesus People USA) On the right, there is also the stray fundamentalist here and there who comes out strongly anti-military and anti-war but again not strictly 100% pacifist, Laurence Vance (a King James Only Baptist) being the most prominent right now.
  • Seventh-day Adventism has an official position that it is okay for Christians to be in the military, but only in a non-combatant role such as medics or chaplains.
  • Unitarian Univeralists believe war is "generally bad," but congregants may follow their conscience in participating, or not.[3]


  • Pentecostals — the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee), which are the two largest Pentecostal denominations, both had pacifism written into their official statements of belief up until World War II… at which point they did a complete u-turn. Today, both denominations, and most other Pentecostals, are full of the worst sort of pro-war cheerleaders and nuke-the-Middle-East fanatics. (The exception seems to be the snake handlers, who are the only Pentecostal group to hold on to the old time religion and still practice pacifism — but hey, when you're handling venomous serpents, you don't need to go to war to get your adrenaline fix!)
  • Mormonism — they switched positions under pressure even earlier than the Pentecostals did, sometime in the mid 1800s. Today they make a big deal out of the fact that a "Mormon Brigade" made up of part of Brigham Young's pilgrimage to Utah fought in the Mexican War, and fail to mention that they originally had a position of refraining from participation in warfare. A few tiny Mormon splinter groups (such as the Church of Christ (Temple Lot)) maintain a pacifist stance[4] but don't expect anything like that out of Salt Lake City in this lifetime.
  • Jesus Freaks or the Jesus Movement of the 1970s was originally made up of young people who had been part of the hippie counterculture, and had at least a tacit opposition to the Vietnam War. The trajectory this movement took toward becoming the core constituency of today's religious right is bizarre and could (and should) have an entire book written about it.
  • The Worldwide Church of God, formerly led by Herbert W. Armstrong, was pacifist under Armstrong's watch, but dropped that position like a hot rock (along with most of the rest of Armstrong's doctrines) after his death.
  • The Restoration movement had an early Christian pacifist (and individualist anarchist) leader in David Lipscomb, whose teachings on those matters appear to have not carried over at all into the modern movement at all, even though he was a central leader in the early Campbell movement and has a Bible college named after him.

See also[edit]


  2. Just War Theory, Catholic Teaching Concerning a Just War
  4. Basic Beliefs, Church of Christ. "We are opposed to war. Men are not justified in taking up arms against their fellows except as a last resort in defense of their lives and to preserve their liberty."