Christian Nonviolence -- Heresy?
Or The Peace Plan Of God?
by Gary G. Kohls, M.D.
(November 2007)

The nonviolent love of enemies was the revolutionary ethic first taught by Jesus 2000 years ago. "Love your enemies" was the most quoted phrase from the writings of the Fathers of the Church during Christianity's first 200 years. Christian pacifism was the norm, and the refusal to harm another child of God meant that Christians didn't join Rome's military. Christian martyrdom during the first three centuries was regarded as an act of social responsibility. Being a Christian was risky business because for much of the first three centuies it was a capital crime to profess the faith!

And yet, modern Christianity - Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox - espouses an ethic of justified violence, expressly contradicting the clear teachings of Jesus. This should alarm modern-day Christians, and make us curious as to how such a drastic reversal came about.

The first "just war theory" in ancient history was articulated by the Roman pagan Cicero. St. Ambrose borrowed from Cicero in his writings on the matter. Then, later in the 4th century, St. Augustine, who was Ambrose's student, wrote the first Christian Just War Theory that most Christian churches use to this day to justify the participation of their members in war. The acceptance of such participation in killing has become so normal in western cultures that Christians have essentially forgotten that the act of killing for one's nation used to be regarded as sinful. And the church has maintained its silence on the matter since the 4th century.

Throughout the 1700 years since the Emperor Constantine co-opted Christianity by making it the state religion, theologians have been busily modifying the original radical teachings of Jesus, allowing the church to guiltlessly send its sons and daughters off to war, allowing the destruction of their souls in "kill or be killed" battlefields.

Most Protestant denominations have relied on the 16th century reformation leaders for many of their doctrinal statements. Among those doctrines is the Augsburg Confession, a statement of faith written at the request of another infamous Emperor, Charles V, who had called a meeting of the princes and the representatives of various cities in the empire mainly to settle religious differences so that a war against the threatening Turks could be waged from a united front.

Philip Melancthon wrote the Augsburg Confession, Martin Luther blessed it, and seven princes and two free city representatives signed it. The 16th Article of the Confession deals with civil government and, for pacifist Christians, contains wording that rankles. It states:

"...that Christians may, without sin, serve as princes and judges, render decisions and pass sentence according to imperial and other existing laws, punish evildoers with the sword, engage in just wars, serve as soldiers, etc."

Later in the same article, it says that "Christians are obliged to be subject to civil authority and obey its commands and laws in all that can be done without sin." The final sentence then makes a statement that confuses the meaning of all of the above by saying: "But when commands of the civil authority cannot be obeyed without sin, we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).

So is the beheading of those accused of capital crimes by Christians allowed or not (i.e., can a follower of Jesus be an executioner/murderer for the state or not? Is the killing of the enemies of the state in wartime allowed for the Christian or not? Is Article 16 heresy? or is it not?

At this point, one needs to ask what is heresy and what is the Peace Plan of God that are referred to in this essay's title above?

Heresy is defined in Webster's as: 1) A religious or doctrinal belief contrary to those of an established body or authority. 2) Any similar unorthodox or controversial belief. 3) Adherence to such beliefs. A heretic is 1) One who maintains a heresy, esp. a religious heresy. 2) One whose views are unorthodox and controversial.

The spirit of Article 16, obedience to secular authorities, rather than a loving God, certainly appears to virtual dogma for many Christians, and it has been for centuries. But it is a stumbling block for those believers who know that nonviolence and therefore disobedience to the gods of wealth and war was the foundation of original Christianity. And for much of the last thousand years, the original form of Christian pacifism and conscientious objection to war and killing -  has often been punished as treason by secular governments and as heresy by church bodies.

That Jesus taught and lived a life of nonviolence is no longer debatable. He was a pacifist, an aggressive nonviolent resister of evil and a defender of the poor and under-privileged. He commanded his followers to love their enemies, return good for evil, turn the other cheek and "love as I have loved," meaning mercifully, forgivingly and sacrificially. Jesus taught an ethic of unconditional love of friend and enemy, forbade vengeance if the follower was violated and taught his disciples to be willing to suffer rather that retaliate. Jesus taught his followers to love even if love was not reciprocated. This if the Peace Plan of God, as revealed by Jesus. So how could it be heresy?

The pastors of my Lutheran childhood, at the time of their ordination, were required to pledge their allegiance to the contents of the Book of Concord by placing their signatures in the book, within which is the Augsburg Confession. During a Lutheran ordination service that I once attended no mention was made about what Jesus said on the subject of violence or whether or not his ethical teachings should take precedence over what was written by in that book.

Clearly, on the issue of justified violence, Christianity has a serious problem, both for Sermon on the Mount Christians and for Just War Christians, for the mutual exclusivity of those two stances requires the rejection of one and the acceptance of the other. One view obviously serves man, money, fear, and a deity of cruelty and the other serves the God of love. Which side is which is clear. Only one can be heresy in the eyes of a loving God.

Martin Luther is best known for his statement of rock solid faith, uttered when he was asked to recant of his heresy: "Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me." His courage, however, was not applied universally when he dealt with other matters later in his career. You see, Martin Luther didn't understand Christian nonviolence. He was a product of 1200 years of Constantinian Christianity, so how could he be blamed? He was supported by the rich, privileged, pro-violence, propertied princes, whose wealth had been amassed on the suffering backs of generations of peasant-slaves. Luther knew that he had to ignore the "love your enemies" commandment in order to survive politically, and so he did. He had to ignore Christ's clear prohibitions against homicide and violence if it was going to survive economically, and so he did. He was unequivocally anti-Semitic at the peak of his power, even urging the burning of Jewish synagogues. Luther supported the killing of oppressed peasants during the Peasant's War of 1525, who were simply rising up because they wanted liberation from their centuries of suffering.

Luther was a Constantinian Christian, not a Sermon on the Mount Christian, and there is not much evidence that he had any spiritual struggles with his pro-violence theology. But none of us can throw the first stone. We would probably also have been blinded by the violent times of Luther?s era.

But the dilemma for the modern church in dealing with violence should be clearer than it was for Luther, for he did not have the advantages of modern-day Jesus scholarship, which proves without a doubt that Jesus meant it when he commanded his followers to love their enemies. The questions for modern-day Christianity must include these: Will it profess obedience to God or man; to the Sermon on the Mount or Article 16; to pacifism or the just war tradition? If the church chooses the former choices, then it has to recant of its 1700 year-old commitment to the homicidal violence of the Just War tradition. If it chooses the latter, then the world, and the church, is doomed to continue its deadly downward spiral to chaos and violence

So what about the title question: does Christian nonviolence represent heresy or the Peace Plan of God? Unhappily, it must be admitted that the answer is BOTH! There is a solution to the dilemma if the church chooses to be faithful to the gospel. But it has to plan new strategies that revolve around the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, and those strategies must be implemented in the seminary, preached from the pulpit and taught in the Sunday Schools.

As an important first step, the church, by prayer, study and deliberation, must aggressively reacquaint itself with the Sermon on the Mount. Then it would be helpful if the church would  reconcile itself with the departed or silenced "heretics" - the prophets, the peacemakers and others who may be estranged from the church. Then it must fashion a new inclusive, loving and welcoming relationship with all the children of God, friend or enemy, churched or not, same denomination or not, same religion or not, same skin color or not, same nationality or not, same economic class or not, same gender or not, same sexual orientation or not -- heretic or not.

And then it must strive to unite, nurture and convert by example the entire community of friends, neighbors and enemies by implementing the Peace Plan of God as revealed by Jesus, with these essential precepts:

  • 1) refusing to cast the first stone,
  • 2) turning enemies into friends,
  • 3) returning good for evil,
  • 4) refusing eye-for-eye retaliation,
  • 5) doing unto others as you would have them do unto you,
  • 6) being endlessly forgiving (70 X 7), and
  • 7) loving as Jesus  loved -- unconditionally, mercifully, sacrificially, forgivingly and nonviolently.
  • And by living the Christ-like life minute-to-minute according to the Peace Plan, the church and the followers will automatically find the previously elusive way to attain the Peaceable Kingdom of the Lamb here on earth, which Jesus has assured us is already within us.

    And there will be no burnings at the stake, for the heretics are us.

    Gary G. Kohls, MD, Duluth, MN, for
    Every Church A Peace Church   (

    See also History of War and Anti-War