The use of force in historical Christianity, either by the Church itself or those believers who have acted on behalf of the State, has become more than simply a theological debate. It has also become a point of contention in apologetics as the history of violence by the Church has given atheists and academics grounds for questioning the legitimacy of Christianity. For instance, Sam Harris argues, “A glance at history…reveals that ideas which divide one group of human beings from another, only to unite them in slaughter, generally have their roots in religion.” Painting with such a broad brush is unfair in many respects, yet he is not alone. Professor John Moses notes, “It has been observed that monotheistic religions, with their claim to absolute truth, encourage their adherents to use force to impose their faith…violence therefore, is built into the religious system.” As much as Christians might protest such a statement, Church history admittedly includes the use of inquisitions, the promotion of crusades, and substantial military or social violence from one group of believers against another. While some actions could be justified, many other actions were indefensible. How is it possible that the very Church, which often expects to reign with Christ over the earth (Rev. 20:4), and believes itself to be destined to judge not only the world, but angels as well (I Cor. 6:2-3), could have brought so much suffering and violence to the Middle Ages? The answer deserves a closer look at the sources of both the violence and the reforms in church history. There are more factors at play than can be examined in this short essay, yet one surprising feature stands out with Christianity that flies in the face of modern assumptions. The source of reform in the Church, including the rejection of violence and a more limited scope of the use of force by civil authorities, came from the more fundamentalist side of Christianity. Harris decries those who “believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book,” and blames such beliefs for most of the violence in the world. The argument made here takes an opposite position with respect to Christianity. As this analysis indicates, it was the movements within Christianity to take the Bible more literally, and view the Bible as authoritative, which have in fact been a prime influence toward peace, and have inexorably led away from conflict and toward greater unity. The evidence for this can be seen from the Protestant Reformation to the present.
The Difference-Making Protestant Perspective
Of course, the very idea that placing a high authority on Scripture would lead society in the direction of peace, does not seem to match well with some portions of history or current cultural dogma. It is not without evidence that Harris and others would accuse Bible-believing Christians of being dangerous. Harris calls religious moderation “nothing more than an unwillingness to fully submit to God’s law.” Anyone who does fully submit to God’s law, from his point of view, moves into the realm of religious extremism and violence. This assumption, which sounds true to modern culture, nevertheless struggles to stand up under scrutiny.
There is no doubt, of course, that the Roman Catholic Church and other denominations in the Middle Ages, including Protestants, used coercion, force, and violence. Historian James Wylie wrote about the formation of the Catholic League, noting “the leading object of the League was the restoration of the Popish faith over Germany, and the extirpation of Protestantism. This was to be accomplished by force of arms.” Besides the formation of a military force against the Protestants, the Church eventually began to enforce its authority through inquisitions. Wylie again writes that Inquisitors would “search for heretics in towns, houses, cellars, and other lurking-places…Once discovered, a summary but dreadful ordeal conducted them to the stake.” Protestants and reformers have also been guilty historically of employing violence for their own means. Some like Ulrich Zwingli and Thomas Muntzer openly advocated for military actions. At least some of the Catholic-led Crusades are often held up as evidence of Christian aggression, along with the Protestant-led Salem Witch trials, or other episodes in church history. One scholar notes that during the Middle Ages, “Western peoples came to look upon groups that professed another faith as enemies of the kingdom of God who should be destroyed or converted.” The same author observes “Only one group of Reformers, the Anabaptists, practiced nonresistance.”
Significant theological changes arose with the Reformation movement, however, and those changes began to impact how the Church, and even society, viewed the use of force. What is even more notable is that these changes did not come from a movement away from the Bible, but a greater adherence to it. By this is meant a movement toward the teachings of the Bible as a whole, specifically viewing both the Old and New Testaments, as the Reformers did, as the revealed word of God. Not only did this result in interpreting the Scriptures in the light of the New Testament teachings of Christ, it more importantly meant giving authority to the Scriptures over and above the authority of any person or church.
This was a major characteristic of the Reformation. Prior to the Reformation, not only was the Church itself intertwined with government, something which continued with Protestants as well, but to follow Christ meant specifically to follow the Church. Salvation was attained by performing good works and especially the sacraments. As Millard Erickson writes, “In the historic Catholic view, the sacraments are effective ex opera operato (‘from the work done’) …It indicates that the conferral of grace depends on the act itself.” He summarizes this description by saying, “What all of this amounts to is that salvation is dependent on the church.” As a result, when it came to the Crusades, the Roman Catholic Church presented fighting in the campaign as another work that could earn the blessing and forgiveness of God. One historian notes, “By constructing an ideal of Christian holy war—in which acts of sanctified violence would actually help to cleanse a warrior’s soul of sin—the papacy was opening up a new path to salvation.” The papacy could do this because the Church was viewed as the highest authority. Wylie records that before he was burned at the stake, Jerome was rebuked for referring to the Scriptures. According to Wylie, a Cardinal scornfully mocked Jerome, saying, “The Holy Writings! Is everything to be judged by them? Who can understand them till the Church has interpreted them?”
The exchange highlights the contrast. What drove the Reformation was giving authority back to the Scriptures instead of the Church. Thus, when Martin Luther forcefully argued the case for his ninety-five theses to Sylvester Prierias, he tells Prierias, “You cite no Scripture.” Luther historian Roland Bainton observed, “The radicalism of (Luther’s) tract lies not in its invective but in its affirmation that the pope might err and a council might err and that only Scripture is the final authority.” Indeed, appeal to Scripture became a defining characteristic of Protestantism and has remained so.
That appeal to Scripture made salvation by faith a more personal message than salvation by obeying the Church. The works that were done, were works done for God, and involved more than regular sacraments. Modern-day pastor John MacArthur put it this way, “Salvation by faith does not eliminate works per se. It does away with works that are the result of human effort alone (Eph. 2:8). It abolishes any attempt to merit God’s favor by our works.”
Thus, for Protestants especially, pleasing God daily by how one lived, became paramount. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed war as a pacifist in Germany, when the Anabaptists practiced nonresistance, when St. Augustine proposed the idea of a “Just War,” or even when the American Revolutionaries took arms against England, regardless of whether or not these people were correct in their interpretation, they nevertheless made their decisions on the basis of Scripture in an effort to do what was right in the eyes of God. They did not make their decisions based on a church edict or promise of forgiveness for the act of taking up arms. A greater adherence to Scripture, meant a greater personal concern for living life according to the will of God. A Protestant did not believe salvation could be earned by fighting in a crusade or simply by being a member of the Church.
The Tension for Protestants Between Following Christ and the Use of Force
Once free to use the Bible to guide one’s actions, theological debates and struggles over the use of force immediately ensued. A modern theologian argues, “Jesus clearly explained that the cause of God was not to be advanced through the use of physical force (John 18:36), and He criticized Peter for violently defending Him at His arrest (Matt. 26:52-54).” It is also true, however, that Jesus did not condemn the soldiers he met (Matt. 8:5-10), and He himself used force to drive money-changers from the temple (John 2:15). Thus, there have been, and continue to be, differing views on how to balance force and toleration.
A particularly extreme case, the early Protestant Thomas Muntzer believed it would be necessary to “slaughter the ungodly” and erect a theocracy. Less radical was Zwingli who looked upon the Catholic League armies and was convinced, “the gospel could be saved in Switzerland and the confederation conserved only if the Catholic League with Austria were countered by an evangelical league…ready if need be to use the sword.” Zwingli’s actions especially were intertwined with his political and military involvement, and according to one scholar he did not limit his views to defensive wars. “Zwingli’s intentions were unmistakable,” he writes, “He sought to force the Catholic opponents to accept the evangelical faith and to couple the Word of God with the military might of Zurich.”
Other Protestants, however, vehemently opposed using force to propagate Christianity. The emphasis by the Reformation on salvation by faith led to an emphasis on preaching the Scripture instead of demanding loyalty to a church. When Zwingli was killed on the battlefield, Bainton writes that “Luther considered his death a judgment upon him because as a minister he wielded the sword.” When it came to government, however, many including Luther saw a need for force, within appropriate boundaries. For instance, a key passage in Romans says:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience (Romans 13:1-5, NIV).
The indication in this Scripture that government is to “bear the sword” and to punish those who do wrong seemed to prescribe appropriate boundaries for civil authorities, and as much as Christians were involved in government, these boundaries came into play. That Paul describes authorities, who in his day were hostile to Christianity, as established by God, led Luther and others to reject rebellion. Luther condemned a Peasant Revolt, writing “If the peasant is in open rebellion, then he is outside the law of God.” Yet as an example of the difficulty in wrestling with this issue, one could observe that Luther himself rebelled against authority by standing up against the Catholic Church. Even Paul, who wrote the above statement, ran afoul of the law for preaching the gospel.
The question of disobedience, including under what circumstances and in what way, preoccupied the American colonists prior to the Revolution as well. In fact, they worked diligently to conduct their protests, and eventual decision to declare independence, in a way they felt did not violate this passage of Scripture. The historian David Barton writes, “Reformation leaders turned to the Bible and found much guidance on the subject of civil disobedience and resistance to tyrannical civil authority.” There are indeed many instances in Scripture of resistance to authority, perhaps summed up by Peter and John with a single statement they uttered to the Sanhedrin: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges!” (Acts 4:19). In like manner, according to Barton the Founding Fathers believed “that the institution government” was not to be opposed but only tyranny. Thus, they acted in what they viewed as a defensive posture, and with a colonial government in place so that they were not rejecting government itself. These issues concerned them, and they looked to the Bible for guidance.
Protestants, Revolutionaries, and even modern government officials have also hearkened back to Augustine’s idea of a “Just War.” For Augustine that required “proclamation by a ‘legitimate authority’…a ‘just cause’…and prosecution with ‘right intention’, that is, with the least possible violence.” Of course, despite Christians best efforts, however, it is difficult to know for sure whether a war is just, and mistakes have certainly been made. There continues be debate over the justice, or lack thereof, regarding the Crusades. Although the call to war for the first Crusade was made on the basis of atrocities against Christians and the danger of Muslim aggression, Thomas Asbridge writes that Pope Urban II’s “accusations bore little or no relation to the reality…but it is impossible to gauge whether the pope believed his own propaganda or entered into a conscious campaign of manipulation and distortion.”
Whether Asbridge is correct or not, the point is that Bible-believing Protestants did not commonly launch into Crusades or revolutions with blood-thirsty zeal to expand the faith. Instead, they began to even wrestle with how to use force in government, and with only a few exceptions, were theologically disposed to use preaching to expand the faith, instead of using the sword. Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides a thought-provoking example. A scholar notes Bonhoeffer’s stance as a Christian pacifist, quoting him as saying, “Every form of war service, unless it be Good Samaritan service, and every preparation for war, is forbidden for the Christian.” Yet, even Bonhoeffer may have had second-thoughts as he watched the rise of Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. Although some argue he was unaware, the pacifist Christian minister did get involved with an organization that attempted to assassinate Hitler. The vast majority of people would applaud him, but for Protestants who gave the Scripture authority over every church and government, the question was about pleasing God first. Thus, they wrestled with what to do. They looked to the Scriptures for guidance.
The Protestant Trajectory in History
It made a difference although for centuries, and certainly during the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation as battles raged between Christians during the Thirty Years’ War, it could be argued that God refused to answer the prayer of His Son. Christ had prayed for future believers, asking that, “all of them may be one”(John 17:21), and that Christians would experience “complete unity” (17:23). For much of the Middle Ages and in the years that followed, there was little that could be characterized by unity. Christians were guilty of inventing ways to reconcile wars and violence with Scripture. Prior to the Reformation, Arthur Ripstein notes that “Augustine defended punitive wars” and later “Suarez defended the Spanish conquest of the Americas on the ground that the indigenous inhabitants were likely to resist settlers and missionaries.” Deep divisions also separated Protestant denominations. Those divisions were reinforced by governments that tended to officially recognize a particular church denomination, which was then promoted over the others. Douglas Sweeney writes,
“The Protestant world was broken apart, and its state churches were not the only signs of division. Its theologians developed competing Protestant confessions, or doctrinal statements…They fought theological battles with their fellow Protestant leaders. They encouraged the laity to think of themselves primarily as Calvinists or Arminians, as Lutherans or Anabaptists, rather than those who shared in the words of St. Paul, ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism.’”
If the story were to stop here, the argument that the efforts to return to the Bible did not cause more peace, but in fact, more division. In some respects, the accusation was true. Just as changes from monarchies to more democratic governments handed over responsibility to millions of citizens, thus resulting in an increase of political discussion and disagreement from person to person, in like manner the increase in Bibles and literacy, coupled with the view that the Bible held more authority than any church, gave each person an opportunity to form their own spiritual opinions. A multitude of groups sprang up, including Puritans and Pietists who encouraged the study of the Scriptures, yet often found themselves with doctrinal divisions.
The divisions, and the proliferation of the Bible, weakened any sort of centrally-powerful church, however. Indeed, it can be argued that the sheer number of churches, and various Christian groups, weakened the ability of any church to use force. In general, preaching replaced armies, and doctrinal disputes, while argued passionately, did not usually result in someone being burned at the stake or arrested by Inquisitors. The arrival of the Great Awakening demonstrated a reliance upon preaching the word instead of advancing Christianity by force, and it was clearly more unifying in nature. Timothy George noted, “The awakenings were international, transatlantic movements of ecclesial and spiritual renewal embracing Pietism in Germany, Methodism in Great Britain and revivalism in the American colonies.” It wasn’t unity for the mere sake of unity, but it became a unity of purpose, of working together worldwide. George writes, “The awakenings spawned a host of interdenominational ministries, including orphanages, Bible societies…and above all, an evangelical missionary movement of global proportions.” Today, the very group of Christians that emphasizes the authority of Scripture, often goes by the ecumenical label “Evangelical” which encompasses Christians from various denominations all over the world. While the prayer of Christ may not have been answered for centuries, the trajectory of many Protestants has indeed moved closer to unity.
In many respects, this analysis is subjective, and there are many theological and historical details that lie outside the scope of an essay of this size. However, while admitting that Christianity of all types has struggled to coexist peacefully with others, it becomes undeniable that something has changed in Christianity since the Middle Ages. The most obvious change is the Reformation Movement which emphasized Scriptural authority over the authority of the Church, and emphasized personal faith over seeking salvation by obedience to the Church and the sacraments. As a result, salvation could not be forced upon anyone since it required faith, and the highest official in any church, could be opposed on biblical grounds since Scripture held the authority. While the ramifications of these changes took centuries to work through Protestant, Bible-believing Christians, history has demonstrated a notable difference. It has been the Christians who have gone back to the Bible that then began to wrestle the most with the use of force in society, and who have ultimately experienced a greater unity of purpose and fellowship. The effect has since spilled over into all of Christendom so that today, the Catholic Church is a strong voice for peace. In doctrine, most would agree with Erickson who writes, “The church is to show concern and take action wherever it sees need, hurt, or wrong.” The point here is one of the most crucial factors that has led to this attitude, has been a return to seeing the Bible as the authority. One could then argue the Bible isn’t a danger, and never has been. The Christians who returned to the Bible have reformed Christianity. They have limited the use of force in society, eliminated it in the Church, and encouraged greater unity.
Asbridge, Thomas. The Crusades, The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2010.
Bainton, Roland H. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1978.
Barton, David. “The American Revolution: Was it an Act of Biblical Rebellion?” WallBuilders.com. May 5, 2009. Accessed Dec. 15, 2016. http://www.wallbuilders.com/LIBissuesArticles.asp?id=24548.
Clouse, Robert G. “War” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Second Edition. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001.
Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Third Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.
George, Timothy F. “Why I Am an Evangelical and a Baptist,” in Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity. Edited by Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson. Wheaton,, IL: Crossway, 2013.
Gordon, Bruce. “Huldrych Zwingli,” The Expository Times. Vol 126, 4 (Dec. 12, 2014): 157-168. Accessed Dec. 16, 2016. DOI: 10.1177/0014524614560493.
Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.
MacArthur, John. The Gospel According to Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988.
Moses, John A. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Repudiation of Protestant German War Theology” Journal of Religious History. 30 (2006): 354. Accessed 12/15/16, DOI:10.1111/j.1467-9809.2006.00498.x.
Ripstein, Arther. “Just War, Regular War, and Perpetual Peace,” Kant-Studien. 107, no. 1. (March 2016): 179-195. Humanities International Complete, EBSCOhost. Accessed December 16, 2016. DOI:10.1515/kant-2016-0009
Sweeney, Douglas A. The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.
Wylie, James A. “The Thirty Years’ War,” in The History of Protestantism: A Complete History of the Christian Church. Book Twenty-one. Harrington, DE: Delmarva Publications, Inc., 2013.