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What Did Jesus Teach About Violence and Turning the Other Cheek?

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This is a guest post by Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy. They are the authors of War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective.

Nonviolence and the Sermon on the Mount

Does Jesus’s teaching in the sermon on the Mount to “turn the other cheek” and not resist evil require pacifism on the part of Christians?

Since most religious pacifists ground their convictions in a purported nonviolent “love ethic” of Jesus that is understood to be the teaching of Matthew 5:38–42, it is imperative that the meaning of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount be assessed.

Matthew 5:38–42 is one of six case illustrations of Jesus’s teaching on the law (Matthew 5:17). With the other five, it is Jesus’s affirmation of the ethical requirements of Old Testament law—requirements that are enduring. And in similar fashion, it begins with the formula that Jesus has already used four times in this body of teaching—“You have heard that it was said, . . . But I tell you . . .”

While some students of the biblical text interpret these particular words as referring to Mosaic law, such a reading does not fit the context. To introduce his teaching, Jesus has just reiterated that the law as revealed in the old covenant, continually reaffirmed by the prophets, is not to be set aside (Matthew 5:17); it is binding.

Jesus cannot be contradicting himself. What the context does require, however, is that contemporary notions— indeed, contemporary distortions of the law—need adjustment. One such illustration of contemporary error concerns retaliation.

Jesus and the Lex Talionis

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not setting aside the idea of restitution itself, nor the “law of the tooth” (the lex talionis) as a standard of public justice.

Rather, Jesus is challenging his listeners to consider their attitudes so that they respond properly to personal injustice or insult. That insult (personal injury) rather than assault (public injury) is at issue here is suggested by the mention of the right cheek being struck. And it is clarified by the further illustration, “If someone wants to . . . take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40). Handling insults and matters of clothing (a basic human need) are not the realm of statecraft and public policy.

In truth, all four illustrations of nonretaliation—turning the other cheek, offering the shirt off your back, carrying someone’s baggage an extra mile, and lending to the one asking—correspond to the private domain. These are issues of personal inconvenience or abuse, not matters of public policy; they bespeak insult and not assault.

Personal Injury, Not State Policy

Thus, Jesus’s injunction not to resist evil (Matthew 5:39), contextually, must be located in the realm of personal injury, not state policy. Matthew 5–7 is not a statement on the nature and jurisdiction of the state or the governing authorities; rather, it concerns issues of personal discipleship. Its affinities are most closely with Romans 12:17–21, not Romans 13:1–7.

In the sphere of the personal and private, justice does not call for retribution. In the sphere of the public, where the magistrate is commissioned to protect and defend the common good, justice demands retribution. This is the unambiguous teaching of the New Testament and not the supposed “compromised” thinking of imperialism or Constantinianism, so called.

Help from C. S. Lewis

In his fascinating essay “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” C. S. Lewis considers Jesus’s injunction regarding “turning the other cheek,” which he believes cannot be intended to rule out protecting others. “Does anyone suppose,” he asks, “that our Lord’s hearers understood him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim?” (1)

If Jesus is calling for absolute nonviolence based on Matthew 5:38–39, then we would be under obligation to turn the cheek of a third party. Lewis prefers to accept the plain reading of this text.

Jesus’s audience consisted of “private people in a disarmed nation,” and “war was not what they would have been thinking of” by any stretch of the imagination. (2) Lewis’s understanding proceeds on a plain reading of the text.

Called to Resist Evil

In the end, the Christian is called to resist evil when and where it is possible, as saints past and present always have understood. And the apostle Paul states in no uncertain terms that the magistrate exists precisely for this divinely instituted function:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:3-4)

Even when Jesus forbids the sword as a means to advance the kingdom of God, the New Testament does not teach an absolute or principled pacifism. Nor does it forbid the Christian from “bearing the sword”— or serving as a magistrate, for that matter—in the service of society and the greater good of the community.


(1) “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, rev. ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 86.
(2) Ibid., 50.

This post was adapted from War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just-War Perspective (excerpt) by J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy.

J. Daryl Charles (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is director of the Bryan Institute for Critical Thought and Practice and author of ten books.

Timothy Demy (PhD, Salve Regina University), is an associate professor of military ethics at the U. S. Naval War College and a retired U. S. Navy commander.

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  1. There are some good observations in this article. However, the issue is more complex than what a brief article can fully address. I wonder, have the authors read Preston Sprinkle’s book on the topic? I am quite certain it addresses the arguments raised here, coming to very different conclusions.

    Comment by Dwight Gingrich — May 16, 2014 @ 8:39 pm

  2. This topic is one I have in the last year or so have become increasingly interested in. Because you are speaking about pacifism, I am curious your thoughts on how Calvin and his followers justified the persecution and killing of the Anabaptist brothers ? Which followed Christ more closely in their way of life? JM.

    Comment by j.morris — May 17, 2014 @ 6:38 am

  3. Dwight makes an excellent point. This is a complex issue, that cannot be addressed in the manner Crossway has proposed. But, hey, that’s the manner Christians of today like to think in this internet world. Just give me a short article that addresses an interesting topic. Or, better yet, just give me a top ten list of why turn the other cheek doesn’t prevent me from joining the army. We are becoming a lazy and ignorant people, when one of the leading Bible publishers prints this type of stuff.

    Comment by Andy — May 17, 2014 @ 8:18 am

  4. You may want to watch this recent Just War debate which includes J Daryl Charles and 3 other men. It took place March 28, 2014 in historic Faneuil Hall in downtown Boston. Although it is lengthy, it is a great debate.


    Comment by Rich — May 17, 2014 @ 10:17 am

  5. “That insult (personal injury) rather than assault (public injury) is at issue here is suggested by the mention of the right cheek being struck.” While I don’t dismiss this statement out of hand, the article provides insufficient reason for me to accept it. Further, it gives no workable definition that distinguishes between the two in any practical way.

    Comment by Ed Groover — May 17, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

  6. We are to” hate evil.”

    We should, in love, stand up for those who cannot protect themselves.

    How loving would it have been if millions upon millions of Christians did not hate evil and stand up to it during WWII?

    What kind of a horrific world would it have been had not Christians used deadly force to stop evil?

    Comment by Steve Martin — May 17, 2014 @ 1:40 pm

  7. “What kind of a horrific world would it have been had not Christians used deadly force to stop evil?”

    Really? How could a Believer, in light of Christian history, ask such a question?

    The fact is, many atrocities (The Crusades, the Inquisitions, the Reformation persecutions and various wars)have been committed in the name of Christ through a “just war doctrine”. If Christians were mandated to build militaries, the glaring problem with such a notion is the total lack of Christian militaries existing between the death of the Savior and Constantine!!! One could fairly and easily ask, “How many horrific acts of death and violence would never have happened if it wasn’t for Christianity?” Here is the rub. Once Christianity figured out a loophole in Christ’s words through a “just war doctrine”, Christianity will/has always find/found a way to justify any and all wars they are involved in. Seriously, name one war Christians agree where our involvement in was unjust? Also, World War 2 was not fought on the basis of defending the oppress or on the behalf of the Church. It was fought for nearly every reason but for those two. If humanitarianism was the justification, we were guilty for entering the war far too late! The Jews were crying out long before we got involved and it wasn’t until our home front was affected did we begin to care. As a matter of fact, there were those in the US who claimed at the time that Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was a fulfillment of Bible prophecy! Yeah, I am personally not a historical or a theological revisionist.

    Comment by Nick Kane — May 17, 2014 @ 3:19 pm

  8. If Christians had refused to fight at all in the most modern wars, those wars likely wouldn’t have been fought and fewer people killed, right?

    Comment by Rog — May 17, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

  9. The last section “Called to Resist Evil” exposes a fatal flaw of the view presented. It affirms that Christians are called to resist evil by showing that Paul thinks the governing powers exist to punish evil. I don’t think we would argue that actions of the Roman government met our modern “just war” criteria, yet they bear the sword anyway. This text is not a defense of war or even of capital punishment, but an exhortation to submit to the governing authorities. Far from arguing for a Christian’s involvement in government sanctioned violence, this text actually, if anything, articulates a clear distinction between the Christians and the state. The Christian must submit to the state, even if the state is evil. The state, on the other hand, is a servant of God to judge evil but it does not do so voluntarily. The state is a tool as Assyria was a tool. This does not mean that God is commanding state violence nor permitting Christians to participate. It should be noted that the Roman soldiers who killed Jesus on behalf of the state were those who needed forgiveness for their actions.

    Comment by Mark — May 17, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

  10. The Preston Sprinkle book I mentioned earlier can be found here:

    It is a very readable book, yet one that deals very closely with the biblical evidence. Sprinkle engaged with some important scholars while writing the book. For example, he writes, “Since the topic of warfare and violence is furiously debated, I wanted to go out of my way to have my view critiqued before I published it. Therefore, during the writing process, I had dozens of scholars, pastors, professionals, and laypeople read parts (or all) of this manuscript…Many other biblical scholars and historians too precious time to read through chunks of this book. Thanks to Benjamin Foreman, Ron Sider, Peter Liethart, Joey Dodson, Scott Duvall, Paul Larson, Andrew Pitts, George Kalantzis, Ben Reynolds, Jason Hood, Joel Willitts, and Richard Hess. Special thanks to Temper [sic] Longman for carefully reading through the Old Testament chapters and walking me through his improvements… Many thanks also to Scot McKnight, who… read the New Testament section and offered many helpful comments.”

    It is also gaining much attention. Less than a year old, it has 4.6 stars on Amazon, with 49 reviews. (By comparision, Charles and Demy’s 2010 book has only 2 Amazon reviews.) I think it deserves a fair and careful hearing. God bless!

    Comment by Dwight Gingrich — May 17, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

  11. “In the end, the Christian is called to resist evil when and where it is possible, as saints past and present always have understood.”

    Can this claim be made for the church in the first 2 centuries? Definitely true post-Constantine. Church history does not support this claim. Besides, is the status quo, majority view always right? I think it is time this issue is given fair consideration in Reformed circles.


    Comment by Mike — May 18, 2014 @ 1:10 am

  12. I’m not talking about the “inquisition”. Sure, Christians are sinners and have engaged in some terrible behavior.

    But they have engaged in great behavior as well. They have stood up to evil.

    Had they not done so in WWII, the world would have succumbed to the Nazis and the Japanese imperialists.

    Would you let a gunman kill all the kids in a school if you could stop him/her?

    If you could shoot them and stop the killing of many innocent lives?

    I certainly would.

    Maybe that’s why Jesus had the disciples go out and buy swords.

    Comment by Steve Martin — May 18, 2014 @ 9:59 am

  13. Steve Martin,

    Jesus clarified why he had the disciples go out and buy swords, and it certainly was not so the disciples could “stop the killing of many innocent lives.” Rather, we read this: “And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’” (Luke 22:36b-37 ESV). Somehow I don’t think this passage provides good support for Christians using the sword–unless we want to be “transgressors.”

    This becomes even clearer in the Garden, for when Peter tried to use one of these swords, Jesus immediately rebuked him for doing so: “And when those who were around him saw what would follow, they said, ‘Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.” (Luke 22:49-51 ESV).

    Preston Sprinkle addresses many of the kinds of situations that you raise (WWII, stopping a gunman) in his book that I recommended. You can buy a used copy for $1.75 plus shipping on Amazon. I think you’ll find it very helpful. Blessings!

    Comment by Dwight Gingrich — May 18, 2014 @ 5:16 pm

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