Christian Attitudes to War: A Peace Church Perspective

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Matthew 5:9


During the first three centuries the Christian church followed the teachings and example of Jesus and was resolutely pacifist. Yoder notes that this position was understood in terms of a fundamental polarity between church and world and between Jesus as Lord and Caesar as Lord:

• Jesus is Lord – our loyalty is to Jesus and we know that his teachings reject the use of violence and force.

• Caesar is not Lord – we do not give our loyalty to Caesar when he demands that we worship him. This is idolatry.

• The Kingdom of God – our loyalty is to the kingdom of God and we know that this is a kingdom of peace.

• The Roman Empire – we do not give our loyalty to the Empire when it demands that we kill for it. This is idolatry.

Such an understanding can clearly be seen in the writings of prominent early Christian leaders. For example:

We, who were formerly slayers of one another, not only do not make war upon our enemies, but, for the sake of neither lying nor deceiving those who examine us, gladly die confessing Christ.” - Justin Martyr, 100 - 165 A.D.

The divine banner and the human banner do not go together, nor the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil. Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: for the Lord has abolished the sword.” - Tertullian, 160-225 A.D.

During our consideration of the Constantinian shift we saw that the moral absolutism of the early church began to weaken over time as Christians suffered less persecution and began to enjoy the stability and security of Pax Romana. This involved a softening of the church-world distinction and a gradual incorporation of the church into the world.


In addition to pacifism, in his book Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution, Yoder outlines three other positions on war adopted by Christians from after Constantine:

Blank Cheque (Raison d’Etat) – The state (or the ruler) has the right to determine the rules and to take whatever steps are necessary to protect itself and pursue its interests. This is a position that can be traced from Aristotle through Constantine and Machiavelli to the actions of modern nation states.

Holy War – God is a warrior and may require his people to fight and kill for a holy cause. This position can be seen in the Hebrew Scriptures in the form of Joshua, in Constantine’s apologist Eusebius, in the crusades and in the language of modern leaders who assert that God guided them into war or that God is on their side.

Just War – War may be waged legitimately where certain prescribed criteria are met, making it ‘justifiable’. This position is based on the thought of the Roman political philosopher and lawyer Cicero and has been developed through history by many other Christian thinkers including Ambrose, Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suarez.

Pacifism – War is always wrong. Christian pacifism is based on the life and teachings of Jesus and has been represented by a number of individuals and movements throughout history such as Martin, Waldo, Francis of Assisi, Petr Chelčický, the Anabaptists and the Quakers.


Yoder took the just war tradition seriously and engaged with it throughout his life. Just war criteria have never been definitively agreed, however, they tend to include the following points:

The decision to go to war

• War may be waged only by a legitimate authority.
• War may be fought only for a just cause.
• War may only be fought with right intention in terms of goal/ends.
• War may only be fought with right intention in terms of motivation/attitude.
• War aims must be defined so the enemy can always sue for peace.
• War may only be fought if there is reasonable probability of success.
• A war is illegitimate unless all criteria apply with due form and process.

How war is fought

• A war may be fought only with the use of just means.
• The means used in a war must be proportionate.
• Legitimate and illegitimate targets must be clearly defined.
• There must be respect for the dignity of humans as rational and social beings.

Yoder points out that each one of these points is significantly open to interpretation. This means in practice that just war criteria can effectively provide a ‘blank cheque’ because the state or ruler is able to define the terms. Yoder makes four other key points about the just war tradition:

• That it seeks to justify war in terms other than those found in the Bible and in particular in the teachings of Jesus.

• That it was an attempt to extend into the realm of war the logic of limited violence associated with police authority.

• That, nevertheless, it is a genuine attempt to exert a restraining influence on human violence.

• That, if the criteria is defined properly, the just war tradition has more in common with pacifism than it has with either blank cheque or holy war (e.g. very few if any examples of modern warfare would be regarded as justifiable).


Much of Yoder’s engagement with the just war tradition was focussed on ‘Christian Realism’ and in particular the thought of its most prominent advocate Reinhold Niebuhr. Christian Realism developed in response to the emergence of fascism and the experience of the Second World War and argued that the existence of great evil within the world made the pacifist position irresponsibile. It made the distinction, referred to in our discussion on the Constantinian shift, between an ethics that is appropriate for individuals and what needs to be done in a sinful world, the implication being that pacifism simply allows evil to triumph.

Yoder offered a number of key points in response to the Christian Realism of Niebuhr and others:

• Western civilisation above love – The realist position places the responsibility for defending western civilisation above the Christian ethic of love and ignores the centrality of the church in God’s plan for salvation.

• The nation above God – The realist position requires the Christian to be prepared to kill for a nation or an ideology and so sets the value of that nation or ideology above our obedience to God. This is idolatry.

• Our interests over others – The realist position presupposes that the interests of one particular people or nation are sufficiently worthy to contemplate the destruction of another people or nation for the sake of those interests. This too is idolatry.

• Calculating rights and merits – The realist position is always based on a calculation of rights and merits (e.g. I prefer the lives of those nearest me to those of foreigners). This is conditional, qualified, natural love rather than the unconditional love of God revealed in Christ.

• Denying the Resurrection and the Spirit – The realist position is based on an ethics of ‘lesser evil’ which involves a systematic pessimism about the ability of humans to practice the unconditional love of God. This is a denial of the resurrection and the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.

• Denying the unity of the church – The realist position which requires Christians to take sides in war is a denial of the unity of the body of Christ since it may involve a Christian killing other Christians.


At the heart of Yoder’s defence of Christian Pacifism is an argument about Christ; who he was and what he reveals to us about the nature of God. We know that Yoder’s peace church theology rests on his assertion that the life and teachings of Jesus are normative for Christian social ethics. When dealing with the issue of war and non-violence, Yoder raises the stakes by arguing that If Christ was not who the church has always confessed him to be then the argument for Christian pacifism collapses. This represents a stark challenge to mainstream Christianity.

Yoder’s case is based on four main arguments; that the God revealed in Christ is a peacemaker, that the possibility of peace is directly linked to what Christ has achieved, that our ability to live peacefully is a gift of the Holy Spirit and that God’s shalom is built into the grain of the universe.

1. The God revealed in Christ is a Peacemaker
In the life and teachings of Christ we can see a God who is a peacemaker and a reconciler (see 2 Corinthians 5:19). Therefore Christian pacifists love their enemies because God does so and commands his followers to do so:

• This is how God works – Christian pacifism is linked to the cross of Christ as the way God acts in a sinful world.

• Rejecting the violent option - Jesus is presented by the Gospel writers as consistently renouncing the ‘justifiable’ insurrection of the Zealots.

• Rejecting Coercion - The pacifism of Jesus includes a rejection of the option to impose one’s will on another (a compulsion of purpose that leads the strong to violate the dignity of others).

• Resisting the temptation of evil - Christ’s way of defeating evil involved resisting the temptation to use evil. This is the kind of faithfulness that is willing to accept defeat and death rather than complicity with evil.

• This is how we must work too - The Christian must see the world and its wars from the viewpoint of the cross. If God’s strategy for dealing with his enemies was to love them and give himself for them it must be ours as well.

• A Continuation of Christ’s work - The peacemaking work of the Christian is a continuation of the work of Christ (since the church is the body of Christ in the world).

2. What Christ has achieved
Christian pacifism is also rooted in the church’s understand of what Christ achieved through his life, his ministry and his death. How does this affect our attitude to war?

• Suffering love determines history - As seen in Christ’s death and resurrection, it is suffering love and not brute power that determines the meaning of history.

• Christus Victor - We renounce war because the defenceless death of the Messiah has been revealed as the victory of faith that overcomes the world.

• We are all children of Abraham - After Jesus there is no-one in any nation who is not a potential child of Abraham. How can our brothers or sisters be our enemies?

• There are no outsiders - We learn to reject violence because nationalism is always ethnic and therefore exclusivist and in the biblical definition of human dignity there are no outsiders.

• Christ died for all - Since all humans are created in God’s image and since Christ died for all, no-one can be my enemy.

3. Transformed by the Holy Spirit

• Called to be God’s shalom - The unity of the church is a gift of God’s Holy Spirit which enables Christians to embody God’s shalom in the world.

• Disarmed by God - The Christian has been born anew and disarmed by God. The spring from which enmity and strife flow has been clogged.

• Transformation is possible - Oppression and violence are the constructions of a fallen humanity and not an inherent part of the universe or of God’s will. With the empowerment of the Holy Spirit humans can become what God intended.

4. God’s shalom – in the grain of the universe

• Non-violence is in the grain - Jesus’ stance of nonviolent suffering love goes with the grain of the universe so nothing else can ultimately succeed in creating just and peaceful world.

• Faith in God’s Promises - For the Christian, pacifism reflects faith in God’s promises. An ultimate divine certainty lets this position make sense even if it looks like foolishness to the world.

• God’s intention for creation - Shalom is God’s intention and vision for creation. Since this includes physical well being, right relationships and moral integrity, there can be no true peace without Justice.

• Peace mean fellowship with God - One cannot worship God without being reconciled to other people since fellowship with other people mirrors and is a means of our fellowship with God.


Yoder recognises that the Christian pacifist position is scandalous to the world because it denies all of the following:

• That one’s own family or compatriots are more to be loved than the enemy.
• That the life of the aggressor is worth less than that of the attacked.
• That killing the aggressor prevents evil and is an expression of love.
• That letting evil happen is as blameworthy as committing it.

Hence, Christians have to accept that their witness to the peace and justice of God’s shalom will bring them into conflict with the world around them. This is not an easy path to follow. Peace has to be actively waged and it is a long and arduous project.


  1. I think Yoder's thesis - and your support for it - relies on too many sharp distinctions – between war and peace, the sacred and the secular, civilisation and love, our interests and others. In fact, life isn’t like that, as is recognised in Augustine's political theology, which can be derived from the frontispiece to Edmund Harvey's 1921 Swarthmore Lecture. Essentially, Augustine portrays believers as living in an intermediate state. The church is in exile in the city of the world. It is in the world yet not of the world. It shares in the fallen character of the world and therefore includes the pure and the impure, saints and sinners. Only at the last day will this tension finally be resolved, so the question is, what happens in the meantime?

    The ‘scandalous conclusions’ of Yoder’s Christian Pacifism just misrepresent the messy reality. In particular, they don’t allow for, or even envisage as a possibility, long-term progress through the quiet process of peace-building. It’s odd that progress was a staple Quaker term a hundred years ago, not only before but also after the First World War, but has now almost disappeared from Quaker discourse. For example, the Foundations of a True Social Order of 1918 looked forward, with great vision, to the establishment of international institutions like the United Nations, while Harvey’s Swarthmore Lecture looks forward to moral growth of mankind, or the growth of the Kingdom of God, to use his theist language.

    I don’t feel drawn to Yoder’s excursions to the far fringes of radical theology, not least because he was exposed after his death as a sex pest, thus bearing out what Augustine said about the imperfect nature of the church. Rather, I pay attention to Friends like Edmund Harvey, whose political achievements and generous spirit have been neglected.

    1. Dear Mark,

      Thank you for your reflection. I think you are right to caution against a very hard dualism in these matters. Clearly reality is more complex. You are also right to question Yoder's credibility in light of his sexual abusive behaviour. However, I would say that what he conveys in his writings reflects the generally accepted position of the historic peaces churches (Anabaptist and Quaker). His importance rests on his success in getting other Christians (particularly evangelicals in North America) to take this position seriously. In many ways, his personal behaviour is condemned by his own theology. I plan to publish a blog post later today prompted by discussions taking place in my current webinar series on nonviolent understandings of atonement and taking note of your comments.

      Shalom, Stuart.


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