I Am Not a Pacifist but a Christian Non-resister

Anabaptist Dirk Willems rescues his pursuer an...

Anabaptist Dirk Willems rescues his pursuer and is subsequently burned at the stake in 1569.

This post is a contribution to The New Pacifism: Cases For & Against Nonviolent Ethics hosted by Political Jesus.

What I am propositioning is nothing new but it is not popular. Since things, that lack popularity or is trendy generally is brushed aside or overlooked which is somewhat ironic since the position I am advocating is the original Anabaptist stance. Their view was not pacifism but non-resistance or more appropriately Christian non-resistance. Many fail to recognize the difference between it and pacifism but there are some distinctions nonetheless.


We will begin by defining pacifism, it is contracted from the Latin terms pax and facere, which denotes ‘peace’, and ‘to make’.  Thus, pacifism means to be a “peacemaker” and to be frank that is what the Lord instructed his disciples to become (Matthew 5:9). However, there is more to pacifism than just being defined in a fashion that coincides with something the Lord stated in his famous sermon.

Pacifists generally see peace in a static fashion, peace is a cessation of war but the biblical concept of peace is dynamic in meaning. To the ancient Hebrews the word for peace is the term שָׁלוֹם. Transliterated it is shalom; it has the lexical significance of “completeness”, “soundness” (as in mental or physical), “welfare”, “contentment” and “peace”. It denotes a full-orbed state; it “is iridescent in meaning, connoting well-being. Shalom may denote (material) prosperity….ethical relations among humans…or eschatological (messianic) hope that brings peace among nations”[1] This sort of thinking appears to be absent in present-day pacifism.

It is also wise to take note that there are many varieties of pacifism, for instance, there are:

•             Absolute Pacifism

•             Contingent Pacifism

•             Secular Pacifism

•             Maximal Pacifism

•             Minimal Pacifism

•             Universal Pacifism

•             Particular Pacifism

•             Skeptical Pacifism

•             Prima Facie Pacifism

•             Transformational Pacifism

•             Consequentialist Pacifism

•             Deontological Pacifism

However, while there are various nuances to the movement contemporary pacifists demonstrate certain qualities. Pacifists seek peace among bodies (nations and ‘races’ or ethnic group) in doing so they blur the lines between the ekklesia and state will work with political agencies to achieve a goal. Inspiration for their actions is by and large for humanitarian purposes.

Christian Nonresistance 

To the Anabaptists nonresistance is codified in the words found at Matthew 5:38-44:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

Here Jesus was correcting a false interpretation of the Law but also laying down a principle for all to follow.[2] He was not advocating for an individual to present his or her literal ‘other cheek’ to someone if slapped to be struck again. What he was encouraging was that we should not retaliate physically when force is exercised against us. We should not allow ourselves to be provoked into something that could lead to more dire consequences. Physical violence should be avoided at all cost and to return physical force with force just leads to more violence. The Apostles Paul and Peter stress a more detailed emphasis of the principle in their writings (Romans 12:17-21; 1 Peter 3:9).

There is a means to resist evil without returning it with physical resistance but in its place, it should be returned with prayer and love in order to win over the individual. Added to love and prayer is knowledge, sympathy and reason. The motivating factor behind all this is principled love also known as ‘agape’ love. Conrad Grebel the co-founder of the Swiss Brethren and held to be the “Father of Anabaptists” wrote:

“The gospel and its adherents are not to be protected by the sword, nor [should] they [protect] themselves… True believing Christians are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter. They must be baptised in anguish and tribulation, persecution, suffering and death, tried in fire, and must reach the fatherland of eternal rest not by slaying the physical but the spiritual. They use neither worldly sword nor war, since killing has ceased with them entirely.”[3]

Christian non-resistance does not view matters from a purely secular or ‘worldly’ perspective, it is more grounded in Christian principles. It does not return negative actions with negative reactions. It does not return force with force (Proverbs 24:29). Not saying most pacifists return physical violence with physical violence but they do reply just as forcefully in nonphysical means. The idea is not to approach a matter in a fashion to incite a violent physical reaction. While it is easy to speak of Christian non-resistance it also helpful to look at two examples of how this is practiced. Those instances are found in martyrdoms of Stephen of the Acts of the Apostles fame and in the life of a 16th century Anabaptist by the name of Dirk Willems.

Stephen (Acts 7)

In the Acts of the Apostles, we see the account of how Stephen whom the scriptures speak of him as being someone that was “full of grace and power” (AA 6:8). However, some in opposition to Christianity from “the Synagogue of the Freedmen” came to disrupt his witness however “they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Vss. 9-10). Because of this they “they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God”, this eventually led to the religious authorities took him away. While in their presence ““This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us” (Vss. 11-15).

After being questioned by the religious ruling body whether the accusations were true or not Stephen presented a magnificent defense of his faith where it culminates in a climatic point namely that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands” (Vss. 48-50). In response, the account says in verses 54-59:

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep.

Dirk Willems (Anabaptist):

“Dirk was caught, tried and convicted as an Anabaptist in those later years of harsh Spanish rule under the Duke of Alva in The Netherlands. He escaped from a residential palace turned into a prison by letting himself out of a window with a rope made of knotted rags, dropping onto the ice that covered the castle moat.

Seeing him escape, a palace guard pursued him as he fled. Dirk crossed the thin ice of a pond, the “Hondegat,” safely. His own weight had been reduced by short prison rations, but the heavier pursuer broke through.

Hearing the guard’s cries for help, Dirk turned back and rescued him. The less-than-grateful guard then seized Dirk and led him back to captivity. This time the authorities threw him into a more secure prison, a small, heavily barred room at the top of a very tall church tower, above the bell, where he was probably locked into the wooden leg stocks that remain in place today. Soon he was led out to be burned to death.”

Dirk Willems was executed on May 16, 1569; the more detailed accounts explain that the wind blew to a degree where his death was slow and agonizing. His ordeal was finally put to an end when someone took pity on him and quickly ended his life. As cruel as his death was what we want to focus on is his initial arrest.

The only thing Willems was guilty of was being rebatized, holding conventicles and rebatizing others, the official document that records his ‘crimes’ and sentence states:

he was rebatized at the age of fifteen, eighteen or twenty years…at his house, at divers hours, harbored and admitted secret conventicles and prohibited doctrines, and that he also permitted several persons to be rebaptized in his aforesaid house; all of which is contrary to our holy Christian faith, and to the decrees of his royal majesty, and ought not to be tolerated, but severely punished, for an example to others; therefore, we the aforesaid judges, having, with mature deliberation of council, examined and considered all that was to be considered in this matter, have condemned and do condemn by these presents in the name; and in the behalf, of his royal majesty, as Count of Holland, the aforesaid Dirk Willems, prisoner, persisting obstinately in his opinion, that he shall be executed with fire, until death ensues; and declare all his property confiscated, for the benefit of his royal majesty.[4]

Both of these accounts exhibit Christian non-resistance in action. They are superb models to be emulated. Both Stephen and Dirk Willems could have attempted to fight against their attackers even though their enemies’ intentions were obvious to all. They could have fought for their freedom and in the case of Dirk Willems he could have let his pursuer perish in the icy pond but he instead showed love towards his persecutor. A Christian is to demonstrate compliance with the desires of God even at the cost of undergoing martyrdom.

Both Pacifists and Christian non-resisters possess a disdain for war and many pacifists reject physical violent retaliation when it is brought against them. Yet as mentioned earlier numerous pacifists will react with nonviolent force.  Pacifists will employ the Empire’s political arena; or promote picketing, sit-ins or encourage individuals to vote in political elections for a certain party and various other things of this nature in order to force those in opposition to yield to their demands. Christian non-resistance requires that its practitioners stay away from such things. While there may be some things that pacifists strive against such as inequality and various other social ills and they must be admired for feeling disdain for these problems. Christian non-resisters understand that peace has to begin with God and the individual this in turn will compel the person to seek peace with others. The ‘Two Kingdoms’ as the Anabaptists called it must exist in a state of disconnection.

Along with this every so often, pacifists will alienate those they are supposed to be trying to win with their agendas.  Instead of spending time and energy in the political arena, or supporting social programs, non-resisters direct their resources towards investing in the lives of others personally. Obeying God supersedes one’s own self-interests or agendas. Biblical non-resistance is the best cure for social ills or justice issues. It recognizes one’s neighbors as existing as image bearing creations of God. Many times others will not readily recognize this but when they become citizens of the Kingdom of God their desire to obey through being informed by the scriptures and transformed by the Holy Spirit their worldview dramatically changes.

Stephen Russell affirms much of what has been stated in Overcoming Evil God’s Way: The Biblical and Historical Case for Nonresistance. He opens with pacifism and talks to the problems inherent in the position. To him:

this word could be a very adequate description of the teaching I wish to elaborate. But there is one problem—the way the word has come to be used in our culture. It does not mean the approach to life that Jesus calls His disciple to follow. Instead it is used in a very general sense for any and all opposition to war. But in general usage it almost never means the absolute rejection of war as a way to solve our problems. Rather it is commonly used to mean a rejection of war as the primary or initial means to obtain political or national goals. Most people who advocate pacifism, or use that term to describe their position, are willing at some point to use force, at least for their own defense.[5]

In Russell’s estimation, non-resistance is “the traditional term used by Anabaptists for their understanding of Christ’s teaching concerning love of neighbor, patience in relationships, and peace.”[6] He further explicates that in “German, the mother tongue of most early Anabaptists, the teaching was called Wehrlosigkeit, or defenselessness. It indicated the unwillingness of the peaceful Anabaptists to carry weapons or to defend themselves. To distinguish themselves from other Christians, they called themselves die wehrlosen Christen, of defenseless Christians.”[7] Contrasting this with pacifism:

biblical nonresistance is the true attempt to “make peace.” It attempts to make peace, or perhaps better, it attempts to offer peace in place of the natural response that man makes when thwarted or attacked. It does not have a backup position that allows it to support violent action or warfare in cases when all else fails to bring peace…Nor does it allow taking of human life to defend another human life in cases where that life is being threatened. It is not peace itself that is being honored, but the image of God in the other human being, as well as the commandments of Jesus. It is not earthly peace that is being sought as it was the highest possible good.[8]

Overall pacifists seem at times to have a naïve idea that peace can be achieved entirely on the efforts of humans. They may interject Jesus’ name or speak of the Kingdom but their methods reveal where they are ideologically speaking.  The reality is that evil and sin will be present until this age ends and the Kingdom is fully realized.


[1]  Donald E. Gowan, The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 354.

[2] Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible regarding Matthew 5:38. He writes, “An eye for an eye – Our Lord refers here to the law of retaliation mentioned See Exodus 21:24…which obliged the offender to suffer the same injury he had committed. The Greeks and Romans had the same law. So strictly was it attended to at Athens, that if a man put out the eye of another who had but one, the offender was condemned to lose both his eyes, as the loss of one would not be an equivalent misfortune. It seems that the Jews had made this law (the execution of which belonged to the civil magistrate) a ground for authorizing private resentments, and all the excesses committed by a vindictive spirit. Revenge was often carried to the utmost extremity, and more evil returned than what had been received. This is often the case among those who are called Christians.”

[3] Conrad Grebel and Leland Harder, The Sources of Swiss Anabaptism: The Grebel Letters and Related Documents (Scottdale, Pa. [u.a.]: Herald Pr, 1985), 290.

[4] Thieleman J. van Braght and I. Daniel Rupp, The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs’ Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians: Who Suffered and Were Put to Death for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, from the Time of Christ Until the Year A.D. 1660 (Near Lampeter Square, Lancaster Co., Pa: David Miller, 1837), 659-60.

[5] Stephen Russell, Overcoming Evil God’s Way: The Biblical and Historical Case for Nonresistance (Guys Mills, Pennsylvania: Faithbuilders Resource Group, 2008), 4-5.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 6-7.


3 thoughts on “I Am Not a Pacifist but a Christian Non-resister

  1. I do prefer “Christian non-resistance” as a more biblical term. “Pacifism” was only coined a little over a century ago. But it is still a useful term if one defines how it is being used. Mennonite scholars have accepted and used the term well. http://peacetheology.net/pacifism/christian-pacifism-in-brief/

    And, just as non-resistance, if undefined, might be Ghandian, so we need to be clear when we are speaking as Christians on pacifism.

    And, of course, many Christians who have spoken against warfare have used neither term, e.g. http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

    • Thanks for the information, when I was preparing this I was trying to trace it from a historical perspective and it appears that Christian or biblical non-resistance was the position of the early Anabaptists and the historical perspective of the Mennonites. That’s not saying that Mennonites here and there never used pacifism but according to some sources they have officially employed nonresistance.

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